I was entering my second year of a collegiate athletic scholarship when I had the identity crisis that many athletes will face in the course of their athletic career: I didn’t want to be an athlete anymore.
I had been a competitive runner for most of my life at that point. In high school, I ran as hard as I could every single day – to the dismay and futile pleadings of my coach – hoping that I could earn an athletic scholarship to attend school out of state. And I did. I became one of Florida’s most decorated high school runners. But I was hard on myself. I didn’t take failure lightly. I was in the sport to win and my identity was closely knit to my athletic success.
I earned a scholarship to run, but it didn’t take long before I was injured, and it wasn’t much longer after that that I found myself not wanting to run anymore at all. It took me a long time to admit to myself that I had failed to give myself the space I needed to develop a true love for the sport of running, without the pressure of winning. Running offered me so many beautiful things, but I could only see them when I was running well. I grew to resent the sport as a whole when it didn’t return the results I trained for.
I made it through three more years of college without quitting or getting kicked off the team. I tried in vain for three years to repair my relationship with the sport, trying to remember why I had started in the first place, and trying to find happiness in the sport. What I should have been thinking about was running on trails, the simplicity of slipping on a pair of shoes and heading out the door, and how great water tasted after a hot summer interval session. I should have been thinking about spending day after day running with my best friends on the dirt roads in northern Florida where I grew up and being in those friends’ weddings. I should have been thinking about the sunlight that glinted off the mist and dew shrouding our early morning race courses. And I should have been thinking about the hours my coaches took out of their lives to make us the best runners we could be.
But instead, with every run, I stressed about the pace not being high enough, not being thin enough, needing to beat my teammates, and just being completely exhausted. And then even when I was running well in college, I found a way to prioritize partying or school over running.
My struggles with running uncovered a number of issues I faced with self-confidence, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and anxiety. These same issues made me a good athlete. They pushed me to constantly strive for improvement. But without taking time to manage them they also broke me down until they were no longer controllable.
When I graduated from undergrad, I took nine months off from any sort of organized training or activity, hoping to understand more about myself without sports. It was the first time since childhood that I wasn’t an athlete. That being said, it didn’t take long for me to gravitate back towards working out, but this time, I was on a bike instead of my feet.
I found cycling, local group rides, amateur cyclocross racing, and a supportive community of cyclists who rode every day not to race fast, but because they liked bikes and each other’s company. I rode my bike when I felt like it. I rode my road bike some days and my cross bike on other days. I rode with friends to coffee shops and I rode by myself with and without music. I rode when there was snow on the ground, and I rode my commuter bike to my graduate school classes. Every now and then I rode the stationary bike at the gym down the street because I felt like exerting myself.
Because I was in graduate school, I was able to compete at collegiate cyclocross nationals in Hartford in 2017. I placed second, with minimal training. The secret? I was enjoying myself. I went to Hartford with no expectation but left with the excitement of a new discovery: perhaps I could both enjoy a sport for its essence and race well.
Formerly I had thought that to be a real athlete, one must be absolutely disciplined. Of course, every athlete is different and looks for something different from their sport, but I had tried the perfectionism approach and, for me, it was not sustainable. Fast-forward two years from the day I quit running, and I am a professional cyclist in two disciplines. I fully attribute my success in cycling to my desire to enjoy and not put too much pressure on myself.
Nowadays, I treat my body well. I train as my coach prescribes and sleep eight hours a night. But if I’m really dreading riding one day, I’ll modify my workout. If I can’t handle the cars one day, I’ll go ride on the trails, even if it’s road season. If I’m tired, I sleep in instead of doing that core session. There’s a balance to find between pushing through discomfort and dreading every workout. I’ve experienced the latter, and at one time even considered that experience of sport normal.
I hope to one day rediscover an enjoyment of running. But for now, I can appreciate my lessons from running and use them to better approaching cycling. It takes a lot of mental work to find a healthy relationship with sport. Understanding the moments when you need physical and mental breaks is as important as understanding that you can push through more pain than you could imagine.
One mental element that I have employed increasingly over this past year is meditation. And one particular element of mediation that I like to focus on is appreciation. The meditation practice asks you to ask yourself: “who or what do you most appreciate?” The goal isn’t to stress yourself out or to answer with things you think are most worthy of appreciation. The goal of the exercise is to answer honestly and use appreciation to help you overcome anxiety, frustration, and other emotions that you want to experience less strongly.
Each day, I like to remember how much I appreciate riding my bike. I appreciate the feeling of the tires rolling along. I appreciate the feeling of returning home from a hard day in the saddle. I appreciate that I have the opportunity to make goals and that I have the opportunity to try to reach them. I appreciate that I am on teams of supportive men and women. I appreciate that every day I have a reason to be outside. I wouldn’t expect my younger self to understand the complexities of appreciation, but I sorely wish that I had been more thankful for my ability to compete as a runner.
Mindfulness is another meditation technique that has helped my physical game as much as my mental game. When my mind or my body is feeling a particular way about anything – anticipation for a particular workout, an interaction with someone at the grocery store – mindfulness helps me to better analyze the situation. If I’m nervous for a workout I might be able to narrow that nervousness down to feeling a little fatigued, analyze why I am fatigued, and better prepare with more sleep or by finding an accommodating route to do the workout on. My ability to be more mindful and less stubborn allows me to be more flexible and relaxed at all times, not just in sport.
My approach to sport now necessitates finding the balance that works best for me. Not the one that works best for that other lady. The cool thing about cycling is that everyone has their own coach who helps them find their best strategy. Almost every single day, I’m excited to ride my bike and push myself to see how I can improve. And with a healthy base of appreciation for my sport, I hope to maintain the desire to ride for the rest of my life, even when my racing career ends.