I’m not sure why I signed up for Charm City Cross. I knew it was a UCI race*, but I’d raced DCCX last year, which was also a UCI race, and that wasn’t too bad. I mean, it was hard, but I survived. I was even riding a borrowed bike that didn’t have ‘cross tires and was able to ride most of the course. Maybe because I had regretted not riding it last year. Or maybe I was ready for a new challenge.
Whatever it was that possessed me to sign up for Charm City, I felt sick to my stomach as soon as I did it. It has a long sand section and I knew that would suck (and I’ve never ridden in sand). It was a LONG course – over 2 miles! That’s a long lap. There was no beginner category, so I’d have to race with women who were faster and more experienced than me. Plus, it had a flyover, which terrified me – mainly I was terrified that it would be too steep and I wouldn’t be able to make it over without falling down.
The race was harder than I ever imagined. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say I spent 50% of the race off my bike, walking my bike. I can’t even say I was jogging or running with my bike – I was straight up walking! Not to mention the times I just stopped moving altogether, and tried to get a bit of breath back, tried to recover a bit of strength back in my legs. I felt like I was always climbing. And the stairs were….oh those stairs! The way the pros bound up them, I never would have guessed they were actually stairs for GIANTS! The rise came up to the middle of my shin and I felt like I needed a boost up each “stair”.
There were points, especially when I was stopped, where I thought of walking off the course. It would be so easy to duck under the tape and be done with it all. But.. for some reason I didn’t. I don’t know if it was because I don’t like quitting (because I’ve been known to quit things before). Maybe it was because I don’t like leaving things half finished. Or maybe I knew suffering to the end makes a better story. The only thing I can clearly remember thinking in those moments was how much I wanted to cross the finish line as the lap counter read “0”. So, after a moment, I got moving again.
But that flyover. The older I get, the more fear I have. I can only imagine the worst case scenario in any risky situation. The loop of the worst that could happen plays in my head and I can only think of that. It happened when I spent a Christmas in Colorado with my family – I wasn’t able to master skiing because I could only think of all the ways I could crash. It happened when I hiked in Iceland – I was barely able to get over a log placed over a river because I could only imagine falling into the cold, fast river.
And it happened when I went canyoneering in Moab – I was hysterical mess as I rapelled down, unable to think of anything but they ways I could fall.
The same thing happened as I thought of this flyover. I could only think of all the ways I could crash trying to get up or down the thing. Then I started thinking about how an ill-timed wipe out from me could take out other racers who had the misfortune of being around me.
For some reason, I became determined to master this fear more than any fear before it. My race wasn’t until 10, and I was only planning on pre-riding after the first race of the day at 8:30. But when I got there at 6:30am, I realized the only way I was going to conquer this fear was to ride the damn thing as many times as I could. As I got to the top of the little rise before the flyover, I pedaled my bike as hard and fast as I could. And I got over the top!! What elation. First try! What was I so scared about? I went over a 2nd time – success again! But…as I went down the descent, I discovered I hadn’t tightened my stem enough, so my handlebars went one way as my tire went another and down I crashed into the ramp. I was feeling awful and anxious and scared as I went to fix and tighten my stem.
Still feeling anxious and emotional, I went back to the flyover. And I made it! Feeling good! So I went back to try again. However, the worst was still to come. This time, I wasn’t able to make it to the top before I lost my momentum and I tipped over. I slammed hard down onto my knee, impaled the side of my boob on my handlebar, then slide down the astroturf covered ramp on my knee. I wasn’t able to get any purchase to stand up, as everything was slick with rain, and I just kept sliding on my knee (which, because of the astroturf, was giving me rug burn). It was awful. When I finally clawed my way to the top, I sat there, looking at the descent, felt terrified and wondered how the HELL was I going to be able to do this during the race?? I wanted to quit so bad. Say I was done to avoid having to face this fear. But then I realized I couldn’t stay at the top of flyover forever, and, shockingly, I was feeling a burning desire to not let this stupid obstacle best me. Plus, those $35 I had paid to enter the race are apparently a really good cheering squad, because I thought, “I won’t let you down, $35! I’m going to get this!!” And I got down off the flyover.
Normally this would be where I’d give up, where the fear loop would go on overdrive and I’d say “forget it!!” The two falls I had taken really shook me up. My worst fears were coming true. But something weird was happening in my brain. Instead of latching onto worst case scenarios, my brain focused on the things I needed to do to make my attempt successful. I was thinking of the skills I needed to do well, instead of the bad things that *might* happen. Maybe because the worst had already happened. Plus I realized if something bad was going to happen, it would happen so fast I’d barely realize it, so there was no point in fixating on it. Or perhaps because I had already accepted dropping out wasn’t an option.
During the race, I had one successful flyover and one flyover where I lost my momentum right as my front wheel got on the top platform, but was able to catch myself on the railing. That trick got my calf gouged with my front chain ring teeth.
In the end, I was dead last on the course (the person who finished in front of me in my race was a full 10 minutes faster to the line!) and the pre-ride for the next races had already started before I finished. This meant I had a gaggle of men caught up behind me as I trudged through the rest of the course, as the rules state you can’t pass anyone still racing. I was a little embarrassed and wanted to apologize for holding them up, but then thought “Fuck it! I refuse to apologize – I have just as much right to finish this damn race as those who finished first.”
Will I do this race again? Probably not. It’s tremendously hard, I don’t have the power or gearing to avoid getting off my bike, and I don’t like walking my bike. I hated every minute of racing, and I never say I enjoyed myself while racing. However, whenever I finish a race, I feel pride for not giving up. And I felt extra proud after this race, as this was the first time I’ve stared a fear in the face and conquered it. I don’t race because racing is fun – the second the whistle blows I can’t wait for the race to finish. I race because I love being part of the community, because I feel pride after every race for not giving up, because each race is a different challenge.
By the end of the race, I realized this new way of thinking could help me with overcoming other fears – focusing on what I needed to do to make something a success instead of latching onto the worst case scenarios. And what a major brain shift! As I got older, I lost that fearlessness I had when I was younger, that pushed me to try new things which seemed dangerous. Now I feel like I have a way to get that back, a way to trick my brain into acting fearless, even when I’m not.
*A UCI race is a race sanctioned by the Union Cycliste Internationale, the international cycling ruling body. Because pros who race on UCI courses can get points, they are typically harder than a non-UCI course.
If you’re interested, pictures from the race are up on Flickr!