Thursday, July 27, 2017

Mud, Sweat and 'Why The Hell Am I Here?!': Lucky Number 13

I've never been a wet rider. 

Living in Utah doesn't provide much opportunity for it without doing some serious damage to trails and with the influx of new riders, flow trails and 'trail improvement' (aka sanitization) around the state, finding a wet trail that's both rideable in the rain and has any technical difficulty beyond chunky rocks is a little like the holy grail: still missing... Much like my wet-riding skills.

I've had a few chances to hone them over the last ten years but have generally approached it with caution, denial or a frank "fuck that shit". Begrudgingly, I've been forced out of my comfort zone enough that my basic understanding of water + roots + mud + rocks + gravity = less pain, but even after a few wet trips to Whistler (one including watching Katie Holden dislocate shoulders after tumbling down a waterfall while riding and shooting for Deep Summer during a storm), it's still something I'm uncomfortable with. Seriously uncomfortable, if 'uncomfortable' means 'everything inside of me screams violently and shrivels into a tiny ball while bleeding from the eyes'.

It's an understatement to say I dislike the mud. 

After all, I'm a desert rat, born and bred. Give me blown out moon dust and sandy landings and I'll hand you a podium finish and the best photos you've ever asked for. I'll toss you dirt-filled teeth in the middle of a grin and laugh with lungs full of dried earth. But if you add water, I'm out. It's always been that way. Who wouldn't, though? I broke a shoulder in the rain at Windham in 2013 during my first bid for UCI points as a new pro. I destroyed both hands in 2014 at Beech in a mud- and water-filled waste of a weekend that ended up costing me my trips to Mont Ste Anne and Crankworx that year as well as a rebreak at Windham, again in the rain.

Getting the picture yet? 


And yet... Last Wednesday, after flying to West Virginia to drive through a summer monsoon the day before, I found myself staring up at a dark sky and cursing everything inside of me and anything within a 2,000-mile radius. It was going to fucking rain. It was National Champs week and instead of the rare and dusty conditions I had raced in during the 2014 ProGRT, we were going to have a mud bog. On a death track. In the middle of nowhere. It was going to... Nope. It was raining.

I laughed. Because, really, what else is there to do at that point? You have a bad history of rain racing, you suck at east coast riding, you can't help but die every time you spend tons of money to come ride your bike and... Now it's raining. Great. Pile it on, right? So I went to see Mark.

Now, I could tell you stories about Mark that would make you think he's Jesus, but I'll just say that Mark Wallace is the real deal. He understands racer mentality on a level that few mechanics will ever even glimpse and he deals with our neuroses with grace, compassion and solutions. There are few mechanics I'd ever listen to in any situation, but Mark will be the first person I call when my life/house/career/racing burns to the ground. He's simply that good. We argued for a few minutes about mud tires, he told me I'd have already missed the boat except that he saved my lackadaisical ass by pulling a couple out for me and we moved forward. 

Because that's what Mark does. He moves us forward. 

Forward was where I needed to go -- after a brutal crash in practice in what were relatively 'dry' conditions, I needed to put one foot in front of the other and just do the damn thing. National champs is not the place to get stuck in a bad headspace of minutiae; national champs at Snowshoe in the rain is an even worse place to do it. So forward I went, practicing the sections I could and literally walking everything else because body-sledding down the face of a mountain isn't my preferred choice of transit. Weird, right? I know. We were on rain delay on and off on Friday, but a course change announcement Thursday night had us all chomping at the bit to check out the new section, get some rubber on dirt and start working out the kinks.  

Now, we've discussed how I'm not a wet rider, but I can honestly say that the first day or so of dry practice was likely my salvation for the week -- even one or two days of mostly-dry track enabled me to simply focus on doing my job without the double distraction of weather. I've been racing for five years but only recently have discovered that the solution to my brain freeze/fear instinct isn't, in fact, getting towed into an obstacle. It's sacking up and having the courage to tackle it alone that leaves me in the best mindset. The first day of practice, I miraculously sent both road gaps (!) and despite a massive speed miscalculation, survived unscathed. After a rolling course walk on the first run, I just committed and doubled down in what was one of the best moves of my experience at Nat Champs. I tell you all of this not to boast but rather to describe the intimate details of what (I suspect) goes on in the head of a pro racer faced with fresh or unfamiliar stuff. I'll be real with you for a hot second: I wasn't truly hitting legitimate gaps before last fall other than on-and-off flirtation stuff where I'd get broken off. I seriously wasn't. I've always gotten hurt on gaps and the related nonsense and they terrified the hell out of me; these jumps were no different. But training somewhere that tests every limit one has tends to force growth; hunger for reward turns normal humans into forces of nature. After the letdown at the ProGRT in June, I was hungry. I still am. And training in Angel Fire has built me into a better, more capable rider. I guess we could say that I built on the confidence and the hunger and the rage and the supportive, loving compassion from those watching it all unfold. But something inside kind of snapped open on Thursday and said 'enough is enough, bitch'. "Just do the damn thing". And although the video footage shows me overshooting the second gap while cursing my way through massive amounts of panic and fear, 'do the damn thing', I did.

Like I said: I really believe that was the building block for the rest of my week. Rolling into unfamiliar territory and decisively throwing down creates momentum for anyone faced with a challenge. Humans are geared to build on success and chase reward -- as I struggled through the rest of my week, I began realizing a few seriously valuable lessons. When we focus on the small details of a task, when we break a course down into little tasks to do each day, the big job of "LEARN THE COURSE" suddenly becomes a series of boxes to tick off. Instead of an overwhelmingly intimidating course, I gave myself one challenge a day to beat. First day were the road gaps. Second day was the rock shelf drop and the off-camber triangle rock jump. Third day was simply staying up (and keeping my pants on!) during qualifiers and come race day, all of the little bits of work I'd put in over the week started pulling themselves together.  

You know the saying "focus on the little stuff and the big stuff will take care of itself"? Yeah. I suck at that. I'm great at big-picture thinking but thanks to my ferret brain and desire to achieve, I often skip over the smaller details that ensure success. But last week, having a mechanic who happens to be the king of detail-oriented attention and emotional support and being able to prioritize and sort through my mental shitstorm was imperative. I'm not sure I'd have been able to get through any of it without the help of other riders, too -- I shared a condo with Jaquie Thomas and Kim Godfrey, and the hilarity was an appropriate offset for a situation I've always taken far too seriously. 

I guess what I'm saying is that I did everything different this time around.

It's hard to say "yeah, I'm an idiot", but... Yeah. I can be an idiot. And instead of putting up mental blocks for myself like 'I'm not a wet rider' and 'I can't jump for shit', I just need to do the damn thing. Not only was my physical and skills preparation key, but untethering myself from the weight of expectation was simply liberating. And it sounds crazy, but focusing on one problem and one task to solve at a time mitigated the whole trainwreck that I often am and the morning of the race, I simply let go. I had put the work in, I'd done my job and when I dropped out of the gate, I think I knew that. I knew I had support from the best people on the planet, I knew there was a crew of rad chicks waiting at the bottom and I knew that whatever happened, it happened. I'd deal with it.

That's why I race -- to know things about myself. To find new things about myself. And I might not be wearing the stars-and-bars this week (because you know I'd rock that shit everywhere), but it all still feels triumphant to me. For the kid who can't ride wet and won't jump for shit, I'm okay with how it ended up and I'm proud of the lessons I learned and was able to share with fellow racers. I had a moment with another racer at the top of the course during a practice session near the end of the weekend, and they asked me about my line through a certain rock garden close to the bottom. Having just barely nailed that line, my response was the fresh candidness of a new discovery: don't look at the line. Don't look at the obstacle. Don't focus on that rock, on where you're at. Focus on where you're going. Look past the rock that keeps stopping you. Look past it and into the road, into your next line, into the tree section. 

As the words came out of my mouth, I was a little shocked to hear them. It rocked me back on my heels to vocalize what my subconscious had been doing for me all week and to realize that the tools were all there but that I simply hadn't been using them correctly. My lack of attention to detail had been a hindrance, until it wasn't. I learned that I'm able to gaze past the shit that would hitch me up and stare down the barrel into my next line. And I found out that while I tell all my coaching kids to "chin up, eyes forward, elbows out" I sometimes forget the logic of that statement. "You can't ride/ski what you can't see", I'll shout. But it's about seeing the details, handling them and then moving on to the stuff we can control. We gotta let it slide sometimes, put a foot down here, build up speed where we can, work that technical corner smarter and occasionally, just hang on for dear fucking life while we keep ourselves upright. 

National Champs taught me a lot about racing in the rain, but I think it taught me more about myself. And that's why we race. 


** I'd be hugely remiss if I didn't mention the people responsible for getting me rolling, getting me out there, keeping me sane, hugging me at the bottom, making me laugh, making me crazy and holding my hair. So. In no particular order of things, please acknowledge that the following people made last week possible in every literal sense of the word and instead of congratulating me, thank them. Thank them for supporting me, believing in me (even when the smart option is to not), trusting me, pushing me, hugging me, drinking with me and preventing me from going on a homicidal rage. Ian Supple, for the bike. Without you, I'd never have ridden in the first place. There's a special place in my heart for folks who are just as crazily optimistic as I am and who can imagine these wild dreams alongside me. Clay Kimsey, for keeping me rolling, setting me up and not murdering me over my ongoing shop tab and complaints about how everything 'feels so off'. Rob Johnson, for getting me out there, getting me back and being a goddamn fucking champ when it comes to putting these dreams to work and literally handing me opportunity. I can't really begin to describe how much I owe you for this one. Steves: both of you. Twitter, us, the world. I won't name you, but you know what you did. Mark Wallce - for wrenching on both my bike and my brain and for letting me sob into your shop shirt afterwards without actually laughing at the trainwreck of emotions that I am. Thanks for always being so fucking gung-ho. You're listening and empathy skills are bested only by your attention to detail and I'm insanely lucky to have met you, to know you and to love you to death. Ashton and Amir: goddamn, you two are hilarious. This is our third (?) nationals race at which you've both made my sides hurt and if I weren't so damn happy, I'd probably be seriously upset. Ashton... I might wanna punch you, but I love you, soooo. Fuck off. Jaquie and Kim: Team FastTits for LIFE. Y'all were my salvation this week. I was a fuckin' head case, I am a wreck and you two are the most fabulous friends any bitch could ever have, particularly when she's blackout drunk before the sun goes down. The photos, the hugs, the hangovers and the killer riding (and really bad advice) will continue to remind me that this is why we race. Perhaps calling retirement was a smidge premature. ;) To Park City Bike Demos and Andre: thanks for letting me train, giving me leeway and believing in me enough to care. Thank you for being amazing. To Tyler and Amanda at SDG: GODDAMN. Sponsors who have my back can change a weekend and when everything feels upside down, being on 'my' shit meant everything to me. Thank you for continuously supporting me and my shenanigans and having my back when I burn the world down. To everyone at Angel Fire (yes, you too): you've given me a home, a training ground, a place of solace and an outlet. You've seen me at my best, my worst and everything in between and still continue to give the world the best goddamn trails this side of the Canadian border. Thank you. To my Big Fish: you're a pain in my ass, but the anchor in my life. You've given me the incredible joy that is mountain biking and the power to chase these crazy dreams. Xo. To my little brother who, even after all this time, still reminds me that the tough lessons are the ones that stick. You keep me humble, you keep me smart, and when the shit hits the fan, you're the first one there to make a joke about how I'm covered in feces. We might make our own families with the friends we choose, but you're both to me and I'm a better person because of you.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I don't know how much I have to say it or how often i should, but there's nothing that was possible this last  week without all of you in every role you play and beyond -- the world is lucky to have you all in it, and I'm the luckiest one of all to have such an amazing combo team of badasses in my life. 

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