Sunday, May 10, 2015

Racing: Nothing Will Ever Feel As Good

The recent PB poll here (and the associated comments) on the site got me thinking: why do I love racing? Why is hurtling my bike down a treacherous trail while the clock is ticking away so much fun?

The gears are still grinding away trying to complete the answer, but these are some of the conclusions that have surfaced from my internal inquiry. 

I love going fast, yes. And is this going to sound selfish? Absolutely. But having an entire track that has been roped, walked, and cleared off, one that's basically reserved for me and me only for a moment of time, is, in one short word... Priceless. I have an almost-guarantee that the track is mine to do with what I will while the world pauses for just a moment. No one will be stopped in the middle of the trail, no one will be pedaling up it, I'm allowed to go as fast (nay, encouraged) as I can physically afford, and the chance that it's a trail I'll enjoy is extremely high. It's the ultimate chance for freedom. It's the one minute in time that I get a hall pass from the universe to actually fulfill my hell-on-wheels personal fantasy. 

Photos by Exposed Imagery during the Reaper Madness Downhill ProGRT Round 1 Race at Bootleg Canyon.

Second is the progression factor. Let's be honest for a second: I am not immortally perfect at riding a bicycle. I am not a robot and I don't know everything. I haven't conquered everything, which means there's ALWAYS room for improvement, which I've recently discovered an addiction to. Racing drives improvement and progression. In fact, showing up to a race and being absolutely terrified of a course is, all at once, the best and worst feeling in the world. In that second, I'm keenly aware that I am lacking. Right then, I lack so much. I can feel the weight of my inadequacy crushing down upon my shoulders. My ego takes a blow and the fear seeps through my soul. 

But the fighter in me is exhilarated by all of this strong stimuli. 

At this moment of realization that I'm totally in over my head, the hopeful little light inside of me questions the possibilities of the situation. A glimmer of hope ignites. I begin questioning my fear, and those feelings of dreadful inadequacy. It's part of a race course, so it must be at least SOMEWHAT feasible. Someone, somewhere has done it. Or they've at least THOUGHT about doing it. And in that split second of hope, in that momentary reflection, joy is born, because this is another learning opportunity. It's another notch in my bike skills belt, another chance to improve. In fact, it's forced progression. Because what's the alternative to not learning that feature or section? Not racing? Walking it? Yeah, right. I don't think so. And so there I am, simultaneously scared out of my mind and excited and thrilled and hopeful and worried. A giant stew of raw, human emotion.

And so I commit to that progression. I always do. Sometimes it HAPPENS. I step up, conquer that shit and move on, like a bike-mounted Bonaparte sweeping across Europe (yes, I did compare myself mountain biking to a French military legend. That just happened.) and emerging victoriously, glowing with pride and spewing gleeful epithets. At other times, coaxing is required, from myself or the occasional race buddy. One of us will usually be able to talk my brain into thinking that scaling and riding or dropping this terrible obstacle is a great idea. On the rare occasion (such as my vey first ProGRT national circuit race), it has been during my race run when a feature is required riding to avoid a DQ and it's more of a do-or-die situation where my body says, "hang on, kids!" while my brain is screaming "we're all gonna diiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiie!!!!!!"

Racing the Pro Women s DH at Sea Otter.

No matter what the situation is, that forced progression inevitably happens. And it is always an adventure, especially as the things that truly scare me seem to be rapidly growing in size and risk level. There is always room for another skill, better maneuvering.

But that improvement comes because of the human capacity for adaptation. Our bodies and minds are BUILT to adapt. That is how our DNA and species survive. Evolve or die. And it's not always a huge feature or one blatantly obvious trick spot, either. The more frequent demand is the adaptation to hostile conditions, like twelve inches of mud or loose volcanic shale slabs the size of turkey platters. At home, we slowly and gradually adapt to the moon dust and the fallen logs and the usual debris during a regular, old-fashioned ride with our boys (or girls), but a race track evolves rapidly over a weekend of abuse. The trail that we walk Wednesday night in the beautiful twilight Alpenglow is a much different beast come Sunday morning. It has usually grown into a different trail entirely as rock gardens suddenly appear, trees seem to pop out of the ground and slick mud puddles dot the landscape like daisies in a mountain meadow. And we have no choice but to ride it. 

There is no other trail or another option. This is the course, dammit, and we'll race it. 

And so we are, by nature of the sport, forced into a skills evolution for physical survival. We learn specific course markings and visually seek out those rare features that won't move -- massive boulders the size of tanks and tree stumps that signal our turn initiation; these objects become our safe havens of consistency in a world turned upside down.The rules of this game constantly change, and our minds and bodies follow because it's not about the competition anymore; it's about survival. In this setting, at this moment, our minds and adrenal glands and endocrine systems are crying in loud alarmist tones 'adapt or die! Adapt or die' and the emergency exit lights in our flight systems illuminate while oxygen masks drop from our proverbial hormonal ceilings and the pilot speaks calmly into the intercom of our brains. The other racers and athletes no longer exist, because we're too busy focusing on not wrecking this plane. 

Photo Ralph Lederer Photography

Now. Imagine all of the above, but sped up like a video in an editing studio and condensed into one weekend. We're on a time crunch, and in that crunch we must show up, face the fear, explore the possibilities, embrace the challenges, master the newness, ride on hope, adapt to changing conditions, endure the inevitable 'emergencies', evolve some more and then RACE the actual competitive run! It's a highly concentrated experience with stimulus overload on a time table that exceeds the standardized rate. It's a goddamned drug. 

It's a state of altered reality that comes with a happy ending. Every single time. It's like heroin for the life junkie. 

Because during all of the above insanity that is racing, we also have one more thing going on, but externally: new friends. People. A strong community of riders and individuals who are all dealing with the same. Exact. Feelings. We know each other, even though we might not. We can sympathize and commiserate and delight in those same experiences because we feel similarly. And so we bond. Some groups catch onto the competitor vibe, while others latch onto the 'we're just here for the beer' motto. But we all know what that finish line feels like, and what that progress feels like, and the pressure of that warp-speed hourglass experience is, and we bond. We build friendships and relationships and occasionally? Even romances. Some of these connections last for a few days through the weekend while others will extend beyond that and onto new seasons and into multiple years, then lifetimes. And these are the threads of a race weekend. These are the very ties that bind us together into the same crazy cloth. 

This is racing. And there's no better feeling in the world.

Race antics in the lift line.