I've been invited to run a relay race this summer with the semi-caveat that I find at least one other runner to complete the team. Since I spend most of my waking hours at work during the week, I asked my co-workers (who run) if they wanted to join a group of semi-crazies to run 178 miles nonstop-- to not-shower, to sit in a van with strangers-- and all for the goal of running 178 miles nonstop, and feeling good about doing that. So, it's an odd question to bring up in a professional environment, to say the least.
The graphic designer is a young, recent college grad who's signed up for her first half-marathon. She was enthusiastic to join, and I have a feeling, she will probably run better than I will (the bones in my feet, for whatever reason, tend to break easily these days.) My boss (who also runs regularly) surprised me, and made me think about identity, and what it means to be "an athlete."
She told me that she had a medical condition which prevents her from exceeding a certain heart rate. Maybe I'm making something of nothing, but the statement got me thinking about the ways identity is made: by doing, by believing and by projecting. Are we athletes by training? Or, is an athlete a person who believes they are? Are great finishes the definition of an athlete? Or is it a combination of past, present and future?
It's a question I'm not sure I'm entirely qualified to answer, but one worth exploring.
When I was a runner, I believed I was an athlete because I ran. Every day. I ran no matter the weather conditions, temperature, conditions-- I ran. Maniacally. I ran in the snow. I ran when it was cold, and I'd slip and crack hips/knees/shoulders/elbows/wrists on the black-ice asphalt. I ran myself out of toenails. I ran 60, then 70, 80 and 90 miles a week. I would have run more, if my body would have taken it.
My miles defined me. There was nothing valuable about me, if I didn't run that day (I thought.) In a way, it's a blessing my body broke-- I was forced to discover that a person is a multi-faceted being, with intellectual, spiritual, artistic and social pursuits which have nothing to do with running per se. We exist in the world as many things, not just one, and they all have value.
But, it's hard to go from a lifestyle in which you bookend your day with the open road with nothing at all. In those many months, I wondered: if I am an athlete, how is that identity formed? Is it in the memory of all the training I did? Or, my desire to do it, again? Or, is identity premised only on the here and now, and when an injury occurs, you've got to "earn" your way back again?
I'm not sure, even now, I know the answer to those questions. The more time I spend in a bike saddle suggests that the word "spirit" is not an entirely inaccurate one; and that there are some deep-seeded traits about a person that don't change even as our bodies age and we grow old, and find ways to adapt to what time does to a body. It's the desire to try, even in the face of probable failure. It's the constant curiosity of wanting to know "what if...?" It is the desire to improve one's self, no matter what.
It's etched into some deep tissue, I think, to be an athlete. And yet, I don't think it's that simple.
There's a lot I don't like about competing, and after all these years (and all these races), I can finally envision a life without the races. Every thing I truly love about cycling (and running, these days) has very little to do with racing. It has more to do with the things I am able to see and feel and smell- the vistas, the mountaintops, the sunrises and sunsets, the blooming things, the little details of beauty sprinkled into the wild world we don't often experience from cars.
What I dislike is all that is artificial: the way that "winners" are a medicine cabinet of supplements (best case scenario) and, worse, are doping. The pressure to perform is tangible, even in my silly "Master's level" cycling: and I don't think I, quite, have the "edge" anymore to compete in the same way I did, once. But, when a local cyclist was convicted of illegal substance use (a cyclist who made a point to tell me how much of athlete I wasn't)-- there seems to be something "broken" with how we define "athlete" versus "not."
I understand the general weariness with athletics (I can't tell you how hard it is to publish anything related to a sport these days. No one wants to read about your race. Literally.) But, there are those amazing moments--like an epiphany-- in which something about yourself (some character trait, or some truth about the way you see the world) happens, and that's valuable. You're riding and suddenly, this incredible sunrise happens, and you understand something about the inter-dependence and importance of all things, about your place in the world. That's a valuable insight, and one that I believe endurance sports uniquely offers.
This diminishes when races become some measure of "athlete-ness" and whatever personal discovery or accomplishment "doesn't matter." Or, when the person who wins the race in which you found this incredible discovery (epiphany), is doping/cheating, what does that mean that you placed where you did, experienced what you did? The measure isn't solid, or even real. Everyone wants to win in some respect: what if the person who literally win isn't physiologically on the same playing field? What does "winning" mean, then? Or, what does second place" mean?
It's a headache. An athlete who has specific health concerns has asked me if her medications would flag her for doping. She's not trying to win by taking these supplements: she's trying to feel normal. She wants to compete, and her concerns are valid ones; technically, yes, she's doping. Is she doping to win? No.
So, who is an athlete?
Is a person who's unable to train/race an athlete? Is an athlete hindered by physical limitations still an athlete? Or, is someone found guilty of illegal supplementation still an athlete?
Is identity founded in the doing, in the results or is it something else?
So many people have told me that my greatest fault is that I have a full time job, and a life-- those keep me from being an "athlete." My life requires me to work 8-5; my professional life suits me in non-athletic clothes, keeps me in a cubicle. When I'm home, I have to care for two cats, five chickens and a sizable garden, not to mention the other "stuff" like laundry and general cleaning. Does my "normal life" make me not an athlete?
Maybe it's time to change my perspective: does my "normal life" afford glimpses of an athletic one?
On April 8th, the New York Times published an article about a female triathlete who's been cutting Ironman courses to win. The article-- an interesting read-- states that:
The idea has been on my mind lately, as I work-to-train, or train-before-work. It's a Tuesday night in April around 6:00 at night. It's windy, and the sun has gone behind the Sierra, so the time trial course is cast in shadow. I'm not feeling my greatest, but tonight's the first race in a series called the "Twilight Race" organized by the Reno Wheelmen. Even though I train mostly for the long stuff, the adventurous side of me is curious about what it's like to do cycling-specific events. Maybe? (I wonder, in the odd moments between projects at work or before falling asleep) maybe I might find out I can do this kind of racing, too.
I get nervous before the time trial. On the drive to Washoe Valley, I almost make myself believe I have food poisoning, even though I know I don't. I tell myself I "don't feel right on the bike" when I ride my warm up, even though I know that I feel the same way I always do. Sure, there's a varying crosswind, and the hills are harder than I'd like them to be-- it's everything I have trained for despite my responsibilities at a new job and as a ghost writer; and, I know from the many miles and double centuries I've ridden.
The race crowd is as varied as it can be-- there are new recruits to the sport, professional male riders, and everyone in between. Rich has brought his nine-year old daughter, and they will ride the tandem for the 8-mile course. They will start 30 seconds in front of me, and so I hope to keep them in view as a goal to work toward. Rich told me before the race that he thought I would catch him on the first hill. I hope he's right, but I have a feeling that catching him will never be "on the first hill."
The adrenaline surge as I the timer beeps and I start my race is enough for me to clear the first little rise and to enter the long, straight stretch across the windy valley. It seems that I am making time on my tandem-rabbit in front of me, but then a gust of wind comes, and I slow. The wind shifts, and I accelerate again. This continues until we reach the turn onto Franktown Road, and the first hill on the course.
I've worked so hard that my ability to push the pace up the hill is really not possible. It's also a direct headwind, so I do what I'm able: which is basically maintaining my speed and a lot of heavy breathing. Rich's daughter hears me behind her, and (as she later tells me) "I started pushing really hard" so that I wouldn't catch them. We crest the first hill, and I nearly do catch the tandem, but as the descent starts, they pull away again.
The time trial is varying levels of discomfort, and although I know I put in a solid effort, it is not the best one out there. I shouldn't feel disappointed, and really, I don't for very long. There is so much sadness in the world: riding one's bike should be a source of joy. These days, I glimpse life stories--circumstances that kids are born into--which makes the "anguish" of not taking first place in a local time trial seem downright silly.
We laugh on the way back to the car about the wind, about various parts of our bodies which are sore.
Maybe this race-- or, really, any race-- isn't worth an intense examination of who or what makes an athlete. An athlete resides within the rules of whatever sport in which a person chooses to compete; and within those guidelines, there are early mornings and mountaintops, there are hard efforts and easy days. But then, as I am coming to realize, there is the life behind the athlete. And that life provides the metaphors and stories upon which the athlete thrives.
Why cut the course, when you learn so much about yourself by completing the entire thing? Or, why rob yourself of the experience-- which is always fleeting anyway-- that isn't afforded to everyone, but is (truly) a gift?