Overheard at the start of a race last week:
“I just can’t wait for this to be over.”
It was an individual-start race, classic technique. For me, it was a casual race, warming up for the real season, but for many junior athletes it was the first really important race of the season: the region’s first Junior-National Championship Qualifier. Throughout the winter, high-school athletes will vie for a spot on the team for the Championships in March.
The speaker was the athlete lined up right in front of me as we awaited our start. She looked to be maybe 16 or 17, the better part of a decade younger than me. In the moment I heard her say that, I could have been 16 again myself: Standing on start lines wishing I was anywhere else, making myself sick with nerves, wondering why I put myself through this, and counting down the days until the end of the season, but never quitting. Why didn’t I quit? Why don’t we all quit sports that make us think like this? Surely it can’t be making us happy?
It’s natural to get nervous before a race. The nerves are two-part: There’s the pressure to do well, whether self-imposed or from others, or likely both. Then there’s the fact that ski racing just plain hurts. I used to fear the pain I would be in as I covered the race course. I still do sometimes.
In an ideal world, those nerves would just be part of the game. Everybody gets nervous, we exchange jitters on the start line, and then we get out there and do what we do. But for many athletes, the nerves become almost incapacitating, and consequently race day becomes no fun.
My heart went out to the younger version of myself standing in front of me; waiting on the start line is always the hardest part. No warm-up or ski-prep to distract us. Mere minutes away from the object of our weeks, years, or even decades of dedicated preparation… and she was wishing it was already over.
I slid my skis back and forth in the tracks as I waited, in part to keep the snow from sticking to my kick wax, in part as an expression of my own nerves. As I did so, she turned around to face me.
“You psyched?” she asked.
I could feel myself grinning. I couldn’t stop, and I wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. This is my 15th year of ski racing, and if I’m very very fortunate it will be my second in which I go to the start line of most races feeling happy. “Yup! Stoked,” I told her.
“I can tell,” she said. “You’ve got that look.”
That look. I’ve got that look. When I was in high school, my dad and I often traveled on the weekends, seeking races with big-time competition; kids that could kick my butt, make me faster. Everyone was always there with their teams, while I was one half of a two-person team. Everyone knew everyone; they’d been to training camps or Junior Nationals together, they went to the same private school, their siblings were on the same college team… I was alone. Everyone had jackets and pants to match their race suit. I did not. I represented no team, nobody knew who I was. I was nothing more than a name that occasionally appeared high on the results list.
I was intimidated by everyone.
But none more so than the ones that had the look.
It was obvious; I could spot one a mile off. And so could my dad. “See that girl over there?” he’d say. “That’s a girl that means business. That’s a girl that’s here to win.”
I watched these girls silently throughout my years as a junior racer, and then I was on a college team with a couple of them. I studied, trying to pinpoint what it was. They had an intensity about them, yes, but most of us did. You don’t get to this point of competition without that. They were confident; they knew their capability and had years of results to prove it. They were focused, difficult to distract.
I was intense, focused, and sort of confident. But there was something else missing for me beyond that final piece of my confidence. In hindsight it is so clear that seeking the missing piece more determinedly actually pushed me farther away from it.
Younger Carly moved closer to the start line. She didn’t know I had overheard her saying she just wished this was over with, or that I could feel her dread as if it were my own. I had a chance to set a new precedent, to practice a mindset I’ve been cultivating ever since I took a year off from ski racing to deal with my Athletic Identity Crisis. “We’re all here to have fun, right?” I said to her.
“Yeah,” she said. “It’s great to see someone so obviously having fun.”
It’s great to be having fun, I wanted to tell her. But how could I explain? How could I explain the pain and complexity of the process that led me to where I am now? How could I tell her that I love this sport in part because I quit it, and then came back?
Why don’t we all quit a sport that makes us wish away the best season of the year? The love/hate relationship is strong. I’ve known many skiers who love the sport, but can’t seem to find the same love for racing. I’ve known just as many who don’t really love the sport, but think they can make themselves love it eventually. And I’ve known a handful of brave athletes who said, I don’t love this, I’m getting out.
Loving skiing and racing wasn’t a given for me. I’ve always loved athletics, and I would even say I’ve always loved competition, but choosing to focus my entire athletic identity around ski racing put a lot of pressure on my relationship to my sport. It made it harder to love.
In my case, the old adage seems to be true: You never miss your water ’til your well runs dry. During my skiing “gap year”, I missed the sport terribly. If I wanted to get out on my Nordic skis, I had to hitchhike down one canyon and up another just to get to the nearest trails. I had nowhere to wax my skis. I wasn’t around anyone who cared about Nordic skiing in the slightest. Never before had it been so hard just to ski.
The following year I raced again, but I trained alone. I set my own training plan, traveled alone, and waxed my own skis. For the first time ever, I was entirely self-funded. It was hard.
But never in my racing career had I been happier. As I stood on each start line, I knew just how badly I wanted to be there, because I had proven it to myself. I’d done it for myself and by myself, and making that commitment of my own accord had raised the stakes. When I stand on a start line now, the primary thought in my head is, I’m so stoked to be here.
That’s the final piece. That’s what I saw in the faces of my fiercest competitors during my days as a junior racer and then as a collegiate athlete. The skiers who are going to leave absolutely everything out on the course are the ones who want to, and that is a feeling that cannot be forced. Everyone who finds it comes by it in their own way, and my way was through my Athletic Identity Crisis.
But I couldn’t think of a way to say all this succinctly, so I said nothing further as we waited for our start. I cheered for my 16 year old self as she left the start gate, and I grinned widely at the announcer as he told the crowd my name in anticipation of my start. Beep, beep, beep.
I’ve heard that countdown hundreds of times. I will hear it over a dozen more this season. I will rub shoulders with hundreds of athletes, and I want every one of them to experience feeling like I did as I started my race last weekend. The primary reason to do this sport is because it’s fun. We just forget that part sometimes. Fun can be a fragile thing, easily lost amid trying competition, success, and disappointment.
I remember the early days, when winning was fun. When testing myself against a competitor was fun. When trying to best my personal records was fun. And I remember what it felt like when the fun part was lost from that equation, and skiing simply became about winning for the sake of winning, competing for the sake of competing, constantly making myself better because I had to.
I’m now racing at a level where wins will be few and far between and personal improvement happens in tiny, tiny increments. But I am happy. So happy.
If this is a message that resonates with you, or you know an athlete who might enjoy reading this, please share. Contact me if you want to talk the thoughts I share on this blog, join my email list for more stories from the intersection of athletics and travel, and leave a comment below. You can also find me on Instagram and Facebook.
Help me spread the message. These are big ideas, not easy to convey on the start line of a race. In those cases, I spread the message in another way. If you happen to see me racing this winter, you might spot it:
I have The Look.