On Winning: A Reflection — and a Preface

It’s official: this is the longest I’ve ever gone without writing on my blog. I last shared an update back in March, right after I got injured and before my season even started, and I cannot believe I let an entire season go by without managing to get a single thing written. 

As much as this bums me out — because, frankly, I just really miss writing — I am reminding myself that I’m doing the best I can with the time and energy I have available these days, and I simply have to be okay with that. I’d like to elaborate more on this in a future blog post and I plan to do so, but first I want to share some reflection about the season that is now behind me, and some thoughts as I look ahead. 

At this particular moment, though, I need to preface all of that by honing in on one topic in specific: winning. I want to give some real thought and attention to to the subject of winning right now, because it’s a subject I was faced with a lot this year (in hindsight, too much), and because I’ve realized that I really don’t want to talk about it again for a while. So let’s talk about it now. Let’s dissect this topic, exhaust it, and then move on and be done with it. At least for a bit.

It was late last summer that I first started to really explore and open myself up to the idea of winning at the pro level, and to really allow myself to want it; to go after it and truly believe that it could happen. I wrote a post about this very topic, in which I wrote: 

“So here I am, saying it out loud: I want to win an Xterra Major. I don’t want to keep that idea to myself anymore. I want to embrace that dream, nourish it, and bring it to light. I want to stoke that fire.”

It’s so interesting for me to go back and look at that post now. I still feel inspired by it. It still makes me smile from the inside out. But after a full year of going ‘all-in’ on chasing that dream, my perspective has shifted a bit.

FOCUSED. But in the best direction…?

This season, the dream of winning only became more and more realistic as I found myself solidly at the pointy end of the field after a strong return from my injury, even lining up as a true frontrunner multiple times. And so, it seemed, the idea of winning had evolved from a dream, to a goal… to an expectation. That is absolutely not to say I expected to win any time I lined up, because that was certainly not the case — as I know far too well at this point just how hard it is to actually make it happen, whether you’re a frontrunner or not. But I did honestly expect that at some point during my nine races on the Xterra Pan-Am Pro Tour this season, I would finally win a race. That I would have my moment where it all came together, and I would seize my opportunity. I’d been knocking on the door for years now, and I felt more poised than ever to finally open it.

In fact, I had it in my sights to try to win the whole dang series this year. After moving from 5th to 3rd to 2nd place overall in the Pan-Am Tour over the past three consecutive seasons, it just seemed like the right “next step” to shoot for the overall title as I looked to continue my progression. 

Spoiler alert: It didn’t happen. And I never did win a race.

I finished up 2nd overall in the series again this season, for the second year in a row. And, with remarkable consistency, I finished 2nd place four times  — in some cases by mere seconds. I made the podium in seven races (all but two during the season), and I’ve stood on every step of it somewhere along the way — except for one. After my fifth season of racing as a pro, with 19 podium finishes under my belt at Xterra Major races, I still have yet to win a single one. It is the one major goal that continues to elude me.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have a whole lot to be proud of. In fact, by all accounts it was my best season of racing yet, as [most importantly] I consistently turned in my best performances on a personal level, and in turn I achieved my best-ever results. To finish up 2nd overall in the series again is absolutely something worth celebrating, and I want to make it clear that I am freaking STOKED about that achievement, especially knowing just how much went in to making it happen. All in all, I am thrilled with this year’s racing season, particularly coming off an injury right at the kick-off. I have a lot to be grateful for. 

Earning my 3rd of 4 second-place finishes of the season at Xterra Mexico, after a great race.

But as I look back on my year, I can see it was still plagued by a frustration that in hindsight I wish I’d done a better job to mitigate.

I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but somewhere along the way this year, my perspective got a little skewed, and achieving that goal of winning a race came to be more important to me than I ever expected, or even fully realized. I can see now that I let it drive and define my season in too many ways.

It’s completely understandable. I just wanted to prove to myself so bad that I could do it; that I could finally make this dream come to life after all these years of observing it from afar, and then finally allowing myself to dare to chase it.  

Ultimately, I don’t think it was nearly so much about the win itself as that it came to represent a target I just could not seem to hit, no matter how hard I tried. It was like I had all the pieces to the puzzle, but just couldn’t quite figure out how to make that final one fit. Like a piece of fruit on a tree that was right there, dangling in front of me all season long, growing riper and more delicious by the minute. But every time I reached out to grab it, my fingertips would just skim the bottom, and I could never actually get ahold of it. 

As I worked harder and harder, I found myself with more “great chances” to win throughout the season, but each time I came up just short in the end. I started to feel this weight on my shoulders, and on some level, I felt like I was failing. I thought to myself: Maybe I truly don’t know how to win. Maybe I’m just not capable. Maybe I don’t know how to really “show up.”

Of course, the more elusive that win became as it continued to slip away from me, the more deeply I wanted it — and the harder I tried to chase it. But the more I focused on it, the more elusive it felt. It was like this evil Catch-22.

People were so supportive in my efforts, and in every finish. They cheered me on from all corners of the globe, and sent notes of encouragement. Things like:

  • “It’s your turn, Kara, today is your day!”
  • “You’re going to win this one, I can feel it.”
  • “We believe in you. You can do it!”

I appreciated every last one, and I repeated similar mantras to myself. And I believed them fiercely, each time coming to the start line optimistic, open-minded and confident that “today could finally be the day.”

Ready and excited for another opportunity ahead!

But, as I’ve said time and time again: You can do all the right things. You can be totally ready. You can truly “deserve” to win. And it can still not work out. Something may derail you on the day. Or you may do absolutely everything you planned to, but someone else still ends up doing it better — as was the case for me most of the time this year.

As the season started winding down and my opportunities began to dwindle, it was like I could feel the dream slipping away, and I felt this sense of urgency to grab ahold of it before it was gone.  I tried so hard to focus on other objectives as I normally do, but deep down the desire to ‘seal the deal’ was so strong that it pushed a lot of those more productive thoughts out of the way, and I continued to see each race predominantly as a new chance to finally get the taste of victory I’d been craving, rather than a new experience to embrace and a new opportunity to test myself and my progress.

I distinctly remember this moment after I came back from Mexico when it really dawned on me that perhaps I’d allowed myself to get so caught up in this dream that I had lost sight of the bigger picture.

I had a great race in Mexico.  It was a day when I felt like I’d brought my best to the table, but even more so it was a day when I’d been able to push to continue to get more from myself than I thought possible — perhaps more than any other race this season. I was told I was almost six minutes down from the lead about halfway through the bike, but rather than let that massive gap deter me, I just fought harder. By the second run lap I had pulled to within four minutes, and while I knew that was likely still an insurmountable gap with the limited distance left in the race, I continued to grind away. I put my head down and kept chasing, refusing to stop believing that I may still be able to pull it off. I was in so much pain, but I just didn’t care. I absolutely turned myself inside out as I kept on pushing for more. When I crossed the finish line, I knew beyond any shadow of a doubt that I’d given everything I had that day, plus a little more that I somehow found out there on the trail. I felt SO proud of myself for this effort.

When you know you put it all on the line, and you can’t ask for anything more. THIS is what should define a good performance.

But I still didn’t win the race. I finished just over 2 minutes down. As well as I had performed, someone had still done it just a little bit better.

When I got back to work two days later, my coworkers were asking me about the race, and congratulating me on my 2nd place finish and how close I’d once again come to the win, and I said something to the effect of: “Yep, another 2nd place! Five years later, and still waiting for that win!”

I was surprised by my own reaction. I thought to myself, “How dare you have the audacity to be anything but completely thrilled after that performance!” And immediately brought myself back to earth by remembering how proud I’d felt of the way I had dug in when things really got tough out there on the run; the way I’d kept fighting until the bitter end, and how valuable that was for me.

I have a lot of memories like this from my season. So many great moments where I really got the best from myself, exceeded my own expectations and saw my work pay off through tremendous progress and some personal best performances. And yet still there remained this small undercurrent of disappointment, over that one silly goal that continued to hang over my head all season long.

So now, I am changing the narrative. I am taking a step back to look at things through the proper lens — because I never should have allowed something as ultimately unimportant (yep, I said it!) as “winning” to cloud my vision in the first place.

When I look back on my season, I don’t want it to be defined by the disappointment of something I couldn’t achieve, but rather a celebration of all the things I did accomplish. Because, again, there is a lot to be proud of, and a lot worth celebrating. Earning four second-place finishes on the year is a career best for me, and to once again finish up 2nd overall in the series is a huge achievement, and one that was very hard-earned. I am proud of these results — but even more so of everything that went into attaining them. 

Running down a dream — and giving it everything I’ve got.

It’s so easy to get fixated on the numbers, but really they are such a small and truly insignificant representation of the much bigger story that lies beneath them. 

So yes, I want to celebrate my 2nd place Pan-Am Pro Tour finish, and each of the results throughout the year that made it possible. But above all, I want to celebrate another successful season of continued growth, progress, learning and experience, and all the memories made through the process. I want to celebrate all the little things I did along the way that really came to define my success so much more accurately than any number ever could. All the times I fought tooth-and-nail until the last possible second as I did in Mexico, refusing to give up even when I knew a win was almost certainly out of reach. All the times I fell and got right back up. All the ways in which I never stopped believing in myself. Because these are the things that are truly worth celebrating. 

My coach has always said that it is so important to be able to evaluate your results and performance independently. What that means is this: set the number aside, whether it’s 1st, 5th, 20th or 36th. (In a true and honest evolution of yourself, place should be irrelevant.) Look at your performance on the basis of your own personal process. Did you do what you set out to do? Did you get the best from yourself? Did you make a mistake that you want to fix next time? Are you happy with the effort you put in? 

If you can honestly look at your own performance on a given day and say it was a good one, then you have to learn how to be happy with that, no matter where it slots you on the result sheet. If you can’t, then it’s going to be a long and frustrating career of racing for all the wrong reasons. 

Every one of those races where I finished ‘second-best’ this year was a damn good race. Sure, one person had been better than me, but in each case I’d performed to the best of my abilities. I had maximized my potential. I couldn’t ask for anything more from myself. To be disappointed with one of these “damn good” races at the end of the day simply because someone else had done it just a little bit better is just completely unproductive. [And demonstrates why results-based goals are generally pretty misguided, because you can’t control what anyone does besides yourself.]

 But there were certainly plenty of times this year when I felt a pang of disappointment on one of those days, for precisely that reason.

That is the downside of ambition. When you’re always striving for more, it can be tough to stay present and to recognize the value of your achievement in the moment.

Major RESPECT for the women like Fabiola (2018 Pan-Am Tour Champ and 4x race winner this year!) who are setting the standard, pushing me to get the most from myself each and every time out, and helping me become a better racer.

As I shift gears and begin to look ahead to a new season in 2019, I am resetting, and entering the year with a fresh perspective. In doing that, I’ve decided to put “winning” back on the shelf. It can remain there, shining and beckoning me to come and grab it, but I want to focus my attention back in on all those other rungs of the ladder that must be fully committed to before you can ever reach the top. I am proud of myself for having the courage to really believe and lean into the dream of winning this past year, but I am ready to bring other more important, more meaningful, and more productive (at least for me!) objectives back to the forefront.

To be clear, I still think it’s okay to want to win, and that it’s a very worthy benchmark to aspire to. (And yes, I absolutely still do want to win!). I think it’s great to keep aiming higher and striving for more. But I also think it’s important to be able to recognize, appreciate and celebrate each achievement as it comes, and not get so caught up in the ambition that you forget to acknowledge the progression, or lose sight of the value of how far you’ve already come.

Re-shifting the concept of winning to the back burner does not mean that I’m giving up. It doesn’t mean I won’t keep on pushing to be better. It just means that I am refusing to define myself and my level of success by a number. It means that I am taking a closer look at what actually defines a great performance for me, and choosing to evaluate that by parameters which cannot be affected by anyone but myself. It means I’ve realized just how important it is for me to ensure that I’m striving for the right things to help me maximize my own potential, and that my energy is far better spent honing in on objectives that are personal to me than on the notion of winning — or finishing up in any particular place, for that matter.  

Spreading my wings as I head into a new year, and setting my sights on some refreshed objectives. Excited for what lies ahead!

Moving forward into the new year, my main priority will be to stay true to myself and my own process, goals and expectations. I am excited to re-emphasize goals that revolve around my own progression, and to evaluate my results independently. I am committed to turning the bulk of my attention not to whatever may elude me next year, but to what I’m fortunate enough to be able to achieve. I want to continue to celebrate my ‘good days’ and learn as much as I can from the ‘bad ones.’ I want to be a constant student of the sport, and embrace all the ways it pushes me to grow, including every last tough blow that only forces me to plant myself more firmly.  

When I first began to talk about “winning” last year, I also wrote this in my blog post:

 “Learning how to think about winning at the pro level has been quite a process, and one that has steadily evolved alongside my racing.”

That process is one that is still evolving, and I am still learning how I really want to think about and approach the idea of winning — and still, indeed, learning how to win. After coming closer than ever on multiple occasions this season, I only have a deeper appreciation for just how hard it actually is to make a win happen, and tremendous respect and admiration for all those who’ve been able to do it. While I truly am knocking louder on the door than ever before, I still can’t guarantee that it will ever open. But rather than stand there and fixate on it, I’m choosing to set off to find the key — or, perhaps something else entirely — and discovering everything I can along the way. That is where I want to expend my energy.

Maybe I won’t ever really know how to win. Or maybe I’m still figuring it out. One thing I know for sure is that I’m excited to focus on some other objectives for a while, stoke a different kind of fire, and see what comes from it. I’ve learned a whole lot this past year through the process of chasing down a BIG dream in pursuit of my first Xterra Major title, and even more through coming up short. I’ve found more value than I could have imagined in all of those near-misses, and have a renewed sense of pride in the achievement of finishing up “second-best.”

Proud and honored to stand on this box and earn a silver medal!


2 Comments Add yours

  1. You SO KNOW HOW TO WIN! That’s why you know it’s obtainable. Look at all the amateur wins you’ve had as well as the small pro ones. You WILL do it- maybe when you least expect it. And you have so many people believing in you!!!

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