A National Level Throttling: Taking my Licks
Cyclocross Nationals. Friday, December 10th, 2010. T-Minus two hours to the Womens 30-34 race.
A yellow school bus pulls up to the race venue and unloads a swarm of gradeschool kids – friends of a junior racer, released from their daily obligations and unleashed on the course to make crazy cheering magic for their buddy.
They are rabid.
I am watching the juniors float over the course (really, the fast ones? They float. It’s like they’re eating helium for breakfast or some shit.) when the mob overtakes me, screaming.
“He’s coming!! He’s coming!!
We’re pressed against the snow fence, leaning hard to get a glimpse of this kid coming around a turn. Thirty or more little bodies vibrating. When he turns the corner, a roar. Then they’re off, moving in a herd toward the next vantage point.
They are a roving, miniature stampede of awesomeness.
Across from me, two boys are waiting for their brother to come through. We wait a long time. The kid is DFL. Most of the other spectators have moved on to see their little racers on other sections of the course.
We can hear him coming before we see him because, just a few turns away, his mom is cheering. He looks scared and determined and unfazed.
The brothers chime in and it’s just the three of them, yelling as loud as they can for this kid in wireframe glasses, struggling off the back.
Keep going as hard as you can no matter what! Whatever happens, keep going! You can do this! You can do it!
I look down at my arm and realize I have goosebumps.
The goosebumps aren’t a good sign – they mean I’m emotional. Two seconds later the little brother is running alongside the slow kid in glasses, telling him how awesome he is. How proud of him he is.
I can’t take it. My eyes well up and I make Kanye swear louder in my headphones so I can keep the angry edge rolling.
The truth is I see too much of myself in the slow kid. And I want someone to love me that much today.
As bike racers we sometimes confuse approval of our successes for love. I remember the first time I got anywhere near the front of a race – the way people reacted differently as I came around course. More intense. More earnest. More approving. It felt good. I wanted to feel that way all the time.
It can get confusing. You have to sort that shit out and remember that you are not your results. You are a human being who happens to pedal – amazing at so many other things, important for so many other reasons.
(Tip for spectators: If you have a loved one or friend in a race, cheer for them with the same intensity no matter where they are on the course. Don’t say, “You’re almost done! Hang in there.” Cheer for them as if they’re winning. Because they fucking are. Dig?)
Bike racing can fuck you up, man. Don’t let it.
Stay in control. It’s ok, you’re ok.
That’s what I keep telling myself, but the fact that the slow kid and the school bus swarm made me cry has me worried.
I’m worked up.
It’s fucking Nationals. I’m about start the biggest race I’ve ever been in with the fastest field I’ve ever seen. I’m in big-kid world now. No more Baby B Local Scene bullshit. These ladies are legit. They’ve flown in from all over the country to have a run at this. Most of them are A’s. This is the real deal.
Get excited. Relax. Remember that the work is done. Turn your crazy head off. Drink a fucking Red Bull. Get on your bike and ride it.
I have a bike in the pit. I have bulletproof Giro Candela gloves on my hands but I can’t figure out the leg layers. I pull off my wool knee-warmers at the last second.
There’s a call-up procedure and I’m in the back on the inside. Two-minute warning and we scream like warriors. I shout, “SERENA!!!!” and hope she hears me from where she is on the front line. I don’t know what she wants from today but, whatever it is, I want it for her too. I want everything for all of us.
Breath comes in small clouds and it gets quiet. Then all hell breaks loose.
There’s a shoulder coming into my body no less than 15 pedal strokes after the gun. She’s trying to make a lane where there is none and she sure as fuck can’t have mine. I stay relaxed and put a little weight into her to keep us both upright. A little bumping ends up to be the least of our concerns.
Off to the right, brakes and screeching. Before I know it, there are three bodies crashing down in front of me. I manage to snake my way between arms and wheels and bikes and make it out without hitting the deck. I’m the last person to make the escape. Gapped off the front group for the delay, but off ahead of the ten or twelve who are tangled up on the pavement behind me. No man’s land.
I feel lucky. I’m a little rattled.
Settle in. Calm down. Be smooth.
Coming off a curb, I hear the tell-tale sound of my front wheel rattling. The skewer is open. Are you fucking kidding me?
If I stop now, the whole race will ride away and I’m already deep in the numbers. I can’t afford it. I can’t do it. I keep riding. Gingerly, and with a little apprehension. My first lap is my slowest which is probably the opposite of how you’d like this shit to work.
My quads are heavy slabs of frozen meat. My feet go numb after the first deep icy puddle. The soaking grass is velcro, wheel-sucking death from hell and so you pedal hard and go nowhere.
This isn’t my best day on the bike.
You’re not supposed to tell yourself stuff like that during a race so I turn it off and focus on getting the legs going (a futile effort) and picking better lines. I pit the bike, scream SKEWER! over my shoulder to Sal as I take the new one, and head back into the mud.
I am holding down the bottom quarter of the field and yelling at my boyfriend who is a self-sacrificing volunteer pit wrench.
In my defense, it’s sort of impossible to have a polite conversation in the middle of a ‘cross race.
That man is a goddam saint.
Don’t think about that. Think about riding better, Swift.
Better could mean a million things at this point – cleaner, faster, smoother. In my mind I’m doing almost nothing right but I keep turning the pedals over because I’m here and this is it.
This was the point. Jump in over my head and get a taste for what it’s going to feel like if I want to get faster. You know what it feels like?
It feels like ragged breath and bad legs and fucking hell.
I stand up on the pavement straightaway and grimace into the headwind. In the photo, this will look like a smile. Don’t be fooled.
In the back bog, I get a load of mud in my eye and find myself temporarily blinded. Slow down through the turns until I can see. Rub the grit out without losing the contact. This is the risk of running without glasses but so far I haven’t found a pair that I can tolerate.
When I finally regain a little bit of vision, I’m gapped off the two girls I’d been exchanging blows with and the ones behind me are gaining ground.
Marcel Russenberger appears on the side of the course as I come around a bend. In 1985, Marcel took 5th at Cyclocross Worlds. He also successfully completed three Tours de France.
The sight of him lifts my spirits a little. “Go, Heidi! Gooooo! Yes, Heidi! Go!” He is cheering for me like I am winning this race. Let’s get this on record: I fucking love that man.
All around the course are other voices and cheering, the sound of my name. There are moments when it is the only thing that keeps me pedaling.
I pass through the finish line and see 2 to go. It’s like a sucker punch.
The race goes on forever. Really.
It’s over. It’s over and I’m not last. It’s over and I can’t stop coughing. It’s over and I’m delirious and nauseated and freezing cold.
The finish line area is littered with supportive friends that I can’t find the breath to talk to. A girl from my battle group shakes my hand and says Good Race.
I sit down on the curb and go into saliva management mode. There are photogs everywhere. Don’t vomit, Swift. Don’t vomit.
The National Champion who just won this race finished seven minutes ago. She’s long gone. I’m 31 of 40. That feels about as good as it sounds. I’m fucking shattered and I’m thirty-fucking-first.
There’s a time to take your licks. Everyone gets handled now and then.
It’s a kick in the teeth to get so annihilated, but at the end of the day you have to find a way to gauge your efforts for yourself. Could I have gone harder? Maybe. Could I have been smoother? Definitely. I didn’t have the fight in me the way I do sometimes, but I raced my guts out.
The field was fast. I wasn’t my best and I wish I would have been.
You do the work. You show up and go for it. Sometimes it works out and sometimes you get a ticket to the all-you-can-eat humility buffet.
Eat up, baby – because there’s motivation in those memories.