The Vulnerability of Racing

We fear most the things we love most.

Do you ever feel that way?

Sometimes it seems better not to try, because we don’t want to risk failing at something we really care about. It feels easier to leave what could have been open and hypothetically possible, instead of proving it impossible. I think this is why many of us don’t take that leap: quitting the job we hate to start our own business, telling our crush we like them, or yes, toeing the start line at less than peak form.

U.S. Nationals, 2018

Yes, it has been challenging for me to enter races this year, knowing my body isn’t capable of what it once was, but not knowing exactly how bad it’s going to be. Sometimes I feel like I’d rather not know, so I can go on convincing myself it’s not that bad.

I wrote in December that the abnormality of ski racing in a pandemic would, I hoped, allow me slip back onto the results sheets relatively unnoticed. Knowing other people were less likely to notice my name would soften the blow of being farther down that list than I wanted to be.

But going unnoticed by others doesn’t soften the blow, because I know how far off I am from the performance I would have striven for if I were healthy.

I already knew that other people whose opinions I value don’t form their opinion of me based on race results. I already decided (long ago) that I ski race for me, and I really mean it; it’s not just a thing I say because it sounds good. So that leaves me caring very deeply and intrinsically. I can’t comfort myself by remembering that nobody else cares if I ski fast or not. I care.

So at this 2021 mid-season report, I am torn between reasons to be very happy and reasons to be, yes, bummed. Ski racing this year has been fun and exciting for three main reasons:

1) I didn’t know if anyone would be allowed to race due to Covid. We are.

2) I wasn’t sure if my body would be able to handle it. It (sort of) can.

3) I didn’t know if it would feel good, both physically and emotionally. It does, on both counts.

I’m proud of the patience and resilience I have cultivated while dealing with my fickle health for the past three years, but on the other hand, I am sick of dealing with it. I’m happy that I do have training days and races in which I actually feel really good, but I’m bummed that I still don’t move very fast on those days. Furthermore, exertion still tends to send me into week long periods of exhaustion, and that takes a lot of the pleasure out of it, and makes me fearful that the next crash is just around the corner.

My body has felt incredibly fragile for three years, making only tiny improvements and demanding error-free care.

To put it bluntly, my recovery has not gone well. In 2018 we thought I needed 6 months of rest, and that I would be able to get back to normal after that. Now I wonder if it is possible to get back to normal at all.

Race performance aside, I want to get back to being able to train hard and exert myself just for fun. I want to be able to not hydrate or foam roll or sleep absolutely perfectly without it sending me into a spiral of illness and exhaustion.

All of this is very psychologically demanding. One of my coping mechanisms has been to lie to myself a little bit: it’s not that bad, you’re fitter than you realize, you’re on your way to normal again.

But showing up to a race puts all that on the line: after this, I won’t be able to pretend I’m healthier/fitter/faster/stronger than I am.

By racing, I’m giving away my psychological protection, the voice that says, it’s not that bad, you’re making progress, you’ll be strong again soon.

But I’m still doing it. Here in Vermont, adults have only been allowed to gather for races since January 16, and I have raced every weekend it’s available to me, which has been three times: two skate and a classic. Each race has gone approximately the same:

I feel pretty good during the effort, I think it’s so fun to be racing again, I deny that I’m hoping for any particular result, but then I’m still a bit bummed when I see my time.

I recovered well after the first race, but crashed hard after the second. I spent a whole week feeling drained and a little sick: a typical energy crash for me. That’s a pretty tall price to pay. But it’s a price I’ve been paying regularly ever since I returned to exercise.

I can’t say that racing has made my life psychologically easier. It’s hard to face certain truths. The way I see it, I can either race and know where I’m at, or I can not race and not know. I don’t enjoy wondering; I’d rather know. So I’m racing.

The craziest thing is, I still love it. If I can get out of my head for a minute and not worry about my health or my future, (which I find myself able to do a surprising amount,) I’m really happy to be out there! This year, the only thing I can control is my mentality on the race course, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to waste a minute of a race feeling badly for myself. (I do permit that wasted time after the race, for limited periods.)

This year it’s very important to me that when I’m racing, I’m skiing every piece of the course in a way I’ll be proud of in review,

no matter what fears and frustrations may surface. That means skiing all the way over the top of the hill before dropping into a tuck. It means V2’ing when I should be V2’ing, not giving into the V1. And if you’re not a skier and you don’t know what those things mean, it also means pushing hard the whole race, and believing in my own capability.

My advice is this: if you love something enough to be a little scared of it, you should try it. You owe it to yourself. These are the experiences that shape us. Don’t you want your formative experiences to be of doing something you care a whole, heckin’ lot about?

Check out the updated race calendar here

If you liked this post, you can find similar ideas about loving ski racing, facing fears, and speed bumps along the way in the following posts:

…or for a real deep cut, check out this blog post from wayyy back in the day. Years later, and I’m still exploring a lot of the same themes, it would seem.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s