I bet if you gathered all of my friends and offered them 100 words to describe me, less than 2% would pull the world "competitive" out in reference to me. I mean, sure, I have my moments. But I'm not built around competition. I don't need to be number one. But every now and again it comes out, every now and again I have visions of finishing on top of a podium.
Enter Pedal Pine Springs. This is a yearly mountain bike race that happens at the camp our youth group most frequently calls home. It's a great race! I love riding, I love the people that put it on, so there's really no reason not to race it. Well, race is a strong word. Twice now I have finished third in my category, by virtue of the fact that there were only three men in my category. I've never come in anything but last place, usually crossing the finish line in a humbled mass of blood sweat and tears.
This year, I didn't think I could go. My good friends Ben and Christina were getting married the day of the race. But it turned out, their wedding was much latter in the day than I thought, so about a week before the race I registered and got going. I felt like I was in the best shape I had been in for this race. In the two weeks that led up to it, I had done 190 miles of road riding. My legs were ready. If I ever stood a chance of actually competing, this was my year.
I looked at the registrations, and discovered that there were 11 people in my category. I set two quick goals: 1) 8th place or better and 2) to shave some time off of last year's effort. Last year I had finished the race in 49:19, good enough for 3rd place of 3. This year, I wanted to beat somebody of my own accord, but more importantly I wanted to beat myself. I needed to do better than I had the year before.
Of course, it rained the entire race. It was a muddy mess out on the course. I decided (wisely) to take a warm up lap before the race to see how the course was, pick a few lines, and warm up my legs and lungs. Right off the bat, my warm up lap scared me. I was huffing and puffing up climbs, once again put in my place as not a mountain biker. I sat down on a bench after I got back and started to wonder if my goals were achievable. I sat on that bench for a while until the race started. At the line, I had extremely low expectations. I turned into my usual self when I have low expectations, I was joking with all the other riders at the line. There was a 9 year old girl who would be sharing the course with us (albeit in a different category) and I started wondering what would happen to my ego when I was lapped by her and her noticeably pink children's bike. Suddenly at the line my goals were altered. 1) Don't fall over and get hurt before the wedding and 2) try not to come in last place.
The gun went off and I found my way into the middle of the pack. Something amazing happened. The first climb turned out to be far easier on me the second time around than it had been on the first. I passed a few folks up that first monster hill, and settled in to what I thought would have been my strength, a quick descent. Against my assumptions of my riding ability, the whole rest of the day I was passing people on climbs and getting passed on descents. I blame a little bit of that on my skittishness in the slick, and a lot of that on my being a general woosie on a mountain bike. But after a while, I just settled into enjoying the descents. I was, after all, in the woods on a mountain bike, and there's no better place to be.
That whole lap I was playing leap frog with a couple of people, but staying basically where I started in the middle of the pack. When I came around the first lap, my good friend Ed told my I was sitting in 7th place overall. Wait...what? I was supposed to be suffering and nowhere near my goals. All of a sudden a new instinct kicked in. Go. Don't slow down. Don't give up ground. Don't give in. Just ride. I managed to fight off another familiar instinct, that of the need to kill it right away when I have a lead only to be left wanting at the end. A few more leap frogs with folks back and forth, and coming around the last climb of the race I thought I was in 9th place with one person to pass. I could see him at the top of the hill. This was my chance. I stood up out of the saddle and started to pump up the hill, only to find my back wheel slip out from under me in the wet grass. I didn't fall, but it stalled any progress I was making and allowed 8th place to get away from me. I crossed the line in 9th, and felt extremely good about it. One place off the goal I set for myself wasn't bad.
I had to get back for the wedding, so I didn't stay to hear the results/watch the podium (which, is a crime and totally regrettable by the way. I think if someone's gonna win, the rest of us should celebrate that. So those that won, I apologize for my absence!) I came home thinking I was in 9th place and shaving a few minutes off my previous time, which was awesome for me as the course was .5 miles longer this year. I was feeling good.
Then I checked in with the results on Facebook a few days later. It turns out that either Ed or (more likely) I can't count when I'm riding a bike, as I was not in 9th place, but 8th. I hit my goal. I was elated! But beating other people wasn't my goal, which is why what followed caused me to dance around in my library carrel at the seminary. I finished in 38:49, almost 11 minutes faster than the year before. That's unbelievable to me!
So what's the point of all this, other than shamelessly bragging on the internet? The first is a personal victory for me. I've never been the most in shape guy, and clearly clearly clearly this year I've done a much better job getting in shape for cycling. A minute or two is fluky, but when you're shaving double digits off your time, something went right. My hope is that through the rest of cycling season and off season I am able to keep up with it, as I'm pretty well convinced my kids shouldn't have a fat dad. They deserve better than that.
Another point is to wonder what our lives were like if we spent more time pushing ourselves. I wanted so badly to do better in this race, and clearly I had. It came not that morning, but through weeks of training and gearing up for the ride. It came through pushing hard. It came from (more than a couple of times) pushing myself to my absolute breaking point. I've had lows for sure this cycling season, and they all existed in the service of this high.
But lastly, do you know when I rode the best? When I took a deep breath and reminded myself that even with rain drops and huge hills and racers that were drastically faster than me passing me left and right, I love mountain biking. I love being outside. I love the game. I have come to realize that the only way I'm going to get in shape ever is to stick with this activity that I love. Give me two wheels and a chain and I'll make it happen. So for those of us who continue to struggle with health and weight issues, get out there and do something that you enjoy! For example, as I sit here and write this down at the seminary, I see a car with a bike on it and a beautiful day. Time to hit the trails.