Commonalities between Facing a Pandemic and Facing Retirement.

Why am I training if I can’t race? Runners across the country have been asking this question all year. Now, with snow near or already here, and organizations struggling to figure out how to host races amidst a growing pandemic, it’s the skier’s turns to contemplate.

Does competition shape who you are as an athlete? Even those who might have said “no” a year ago might think about it differently now. A year without races and competitions to train for has highlighted for many the role these events play in defining an athlete. It certainly has highlighted the role an external event has on motivation. It has left some grappling with the sticky question: are you still an athlete if you have nothing to train for?

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this reckoning has fallen into the laps of many athletes who might not have had to face it otherwise. But there is one group that is guaranteed to face the role of competition in athletic identity: elite athletes. Those who at some point in their lives have held serious aspirations of national or world standings.

One of the trickiest decisions for high level athletes is determining when it’s time to “retire,”and what their identity will be afterward. For some, retirement means a permanent end to competition, or a commitment to only recreational competition. Maybe this comes after achieving a capstone goal, or because another life goal is beckoning. For others, the line is not drawn in bold. Maybe a culminating goal was not achieved, or maybe a serious commitment to performance remains a top life priority indefinitely.

I am among the latter: an athlete who doesn’t feel (or want to be) retired, but who doesn’t have a clear athletic identity or direction. I think this state of being has a lot in common with athletes who, as their races have been cancelled all year, have been forced to question exactly what they are pursuing in sport, and why.

I haven’t officially entered a race in almost two years. In fact, I was so thoroughly inactive for 9 months I think “sedentary” is a more accurate term. Throughout that time, it felt bizarre to identify as an athlete, much less a “serious” athlete. The image of a “serious” athlete is one who focuses everything on their training and performance, two things that were totally inaccessible to me.

When Covid hit, suddenly even “serious” athletes couldn’t access races. I heard from athletes all over the country feeling for the first time that their sport was so arbitrary it was nearly pointless. What’s the purpose in dedicating so much time and energy to training for races that will never happen? (I offered an answer to this question in a running newsletter in Mary of 2020.)

Formerly professional athletes who have now retired may recall the sense others have now that they are adrift without their usual pursuits of training for a race and then racing that race. (The fear of this aimlessness, or the ensuing identity crisis, sometimes keeps athletes in their sport for no clear reason besides.) Far from lamenting this, I think we’re lucky to have this reason to examine why we do our sports.

Beyond prompting us all the face challenging questions about our athletic identities, the disruption to the season that Covid has caused has another silver lining. Emphasis within the ski world is on local, low-impact races. That feels more like how ski racing should be.

Being a self-funded, mostly self-supported athlete, I can say firsthand how insane it is to race in a system where an athlete doesn’t stand a chance unless they can can fund a winter of full-time travel, a new fleet of the fastest skis every year, and all the support and coaching required to produce good results. This year, the national circuit (Super Tours) has been cancelled. Even within New England, the regional circuits are different than usual, with Vermont offering a new, Vermont-only race series, in which all races will be one-day affairs. Cost will be much more within reach for many, and the carbon footprint of competing will decrease significantly; something that seems important in a sport that can’t exist without snow.

I wish it hadn’t taken a pandemic to prompt these, (what I assume will be temporary,) changes. But since it did, I aspire to see all the bright sides available. My heart is with all the athletes whose Athletic Identity Crises have been prompted by the pandemic; I know how hard that is. But I know it’s better that we, as a collective and as individuals, face those hard questions. All we can all do is keep asking ourselves why we do what we do, and hopefully, why we love what we do.

One of the reasons I love what I do is the exhilaration of creating something, of building something. I work every day to create a stronger body. OTS has not changed that. So, what does my winter look like? Check back next week as I discuss the current state of my health, and whether I plan to race this winter.

Has the pandemic changed or challenged how you see yourself as an athlete? And if you are a skier, are you planning to race this winter? Comment below and let me know! If you are facing your own Athletic Identity Crisis, know you are not alone, and feel free to drop me a line if you want to chat about it.

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