For those of you who know me, you know something’s up. The race season is underway, and I’m not racing. Rumor (probably) has it that I’m sick or something, but I’m not. The most honest answer I can give you is that I woke up one day and everything I thought I knew about myself had changed. No— that’s not exactly true. Let’s try this again.
REVISION: I woke up one morning this winter and realized that I have been a person who has hidden behind running shoes, swim goggles and skin suits for about ten years. I woke up that morning and I did something I haven’t done for myself for as long as I can remember. I decided that I am OK— just as I am—without all of those things.
That’s not to say I don’t train. I love to ride my bike. Rich will shake his head, but I love the indoor CompuTrainer classes with their endless data and numbers. I love Orange Theory classes. I love slow, solitary runs. It’s not the physical part of athletics I’m done with; rather, its the way I allowed it to shape my understanding of myself, and how I perceived my worth in the world. I am revising my relationship with sport.
I can’t even tell you how many times I have come home crying because my average watts weren’t “enough.” After races, sitting down and running through my data, only to find that I came up short in one way or another, and not just in the line-up on the podium.
To be a 220 watt FTP rider was to be a certain kind of person. To be a 250 watt FTP rider (4.1 X x kilo) suggested that I was somehow more moral, more hardworking and more worthy of friendship and love.
It was the same with every sport: to be a 3:15 marathoner was pretty good—and earned my place among the rest of humanity. To be 2:54 marathoner—that moved me up a class, and maybe I deserved a career one day. When I ran a 2:47—sixty seconds from the Olympic qualifying standard that year— that day (and only that day) I thought I deserved the kind of life I’d always dreamed about.
But, then a funny thing happened: I woke up the next morning and that feeling of acceptance— of self-love— vanished. I was already in search of another number to define what kind of athlete—and person— I am.
I have a suspicion this numerical self-valuing began when I moved to the bay area to pursue a Master’s in Fine Art in Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California. That was a big sacrifice for me: now that I’ve had years to run the numbers, the graduate program cost me around $25 a day—including weekends and holidays— for a little over two years when I had no income to speak of.
That was a lot of pressure for a person who had little (no) financial resources. It was a lot for a person who’d never moved so far away from home— who did it based on my own sense that this was what was best for me professionally—a lot for a person who had never believed in herself in any real way. That last reason mattered the most. I kept tabs on my every failure, adding them up.
To run a 5-minute mile deducted the money I was leeching into debt (somehow). To say that I had value in this unmonetized way softened my lack of publications, my growing debt; to frame it my mindset, then: it was OK I couldn’t afford toilet paper because I’d have sponsors to cover that expense for me. If—and only if—I ran fast enough, the rest of what I had or didn’t have wouldn’t matter.
And here I am, years later: not a great athlete, but I’m a middle aged person in good health. I can run ONE sub-six minute mile on a good day (not remarkable in and of itself, but compared to the majority of Americans with desk jobs like mine, I think I’m doing all right.) I ride my bike five days a week, and cross train for three to four other days. I take online writing classes to keep my skills sharp. I send out my work for publication every so often (even though I receive mostly rejections.) I take care of nine chickens, and have a vegetable garden every year because I like feeling a solid connection to the earth and all living things. I make a point to call my parents every week, and to listen to the news even though it mostly makes me sad for children who have to grow up in this world.
By all of this, I mean to say that mediocre me turned out OK. Not great, but not destitute. I have started to feel grateful for that.
My darkest days, though, weren’t in graduate school. They happened years later when I finally landed my first salaried “career” in an office environment that can be described as nothing short of toxic. I was in shock this year when, during a required human resources training put on by the college where I work now, I watched a video on micro-aggressions. The training brought on so much deja vu, I wondered if they had based the entire thing off my experiences at this other job. If you don’t know (like I didn’t) what micro-aggressions are, here is a short list of those I experienced. You should probably also google it, because there are, sad to say, a lot more:
When everyone speaks over you in meetings, and then they ask why you never have anything useful to contribute.
When someone continually asks for your “help”; you end up (writing) the whole thing, and they take credit for the final product. (I discovered this years later when another employee approached me, telling me how another young employee had such incredible writing skills. I had no idea how to say “that’s because she didn’t write any of that. I did.”)
When they muck up your name , degrees and professional affiliations to make you feel less of a person than you are.
When you’re constantly asked questions about whether or not you’re pregnant.
When your identity as an athlete is used to leverage your commitment to the organization and you feel as though you’re holding onto your job by a tenuous and very thin string . In other words: you better be grateful we put up with you, because no other organization would.
During my years there, several men who were or had been athletes made a point to attack me— to remind me of how unintelligent, unqualified, slow, short or stout I am. I bring all of this up because I began to believe that the only remarkable thing about me was my ability to ride a bike. No one valued my intellectual contributions, no one valued my writing. The only way I could speak— rebel, I now realize— was to do it on the bike.
That’s what I mean when I say to be a 220 watt rider was one thing; to be a 250 watt one was another. The numbers filled for whatever worth was leeched out of me at the office. “You’re incapable of managing anybody,” I was told one day. I puked while riding a time trial up Kingsbury that night.
What’s the most sad about all of this, I guess, is that no one cared that I was so miserable—no one cared about me—even though I came close to calling a few of those people my friends. So, too: no one cared that I set a 3-minute PR in that time trial up Kingsbury. When I came to work the next day, the CEO told me I’d never race in the Tour of California because I’m not and will never be thin enough.
And here is the “so what”, the “why this matters: I woke up one morning recently and the myth of the rugged individual, the starving artist, the underdog—all of that faded. The numbers faded, too: the idea that I need this to be worthy. I’m not a number. I’m not a time or a weight or a skill or any commodifiable thing. I’m a person—I’m a human being— that’s all. I’m me.
Without my masks, this is what you see: I am a person who loves breakfast. I love the smell of coffee and the way the warmth of it radiates through a mug into my hands. I love watching the sun rise on a quiet, morning run. I love chickens—my chickens most of all—but all chickens. The way they communicate and move and play. Their feathers and colors and calls. I love the wind on my face when I’m on the bike.
I love herbs—especially the ones I grow in my garden. I love homemade soup. I love soft, oversized sweaters that drape over my hands. I love the sound of windchimes. I love watching the rustling of leaves in trees, dancing with the wind. I love the smell of a book and the weight of it in my hand. I love finding a phrase that speaks to me so much, and I underline it in pen and then I write it my journal and I read it at least five times before moving on. I love the smell of lilacs.
I love long hair. (I keep trying to grow mine.) I love music even though I can’t create it. I love it so much, it is akin to getting drunk. Octaves make my soul soar. (yeah, I know, but it’s true.) I love sipping on wine in the twilight when Rich is here and we occupy this world that is only ours. I love vacuuming— I call it “mowing the lawn inside.” I love candles. I love light. I love moonlight. I love sleep.
I love Rich. I love falling in love. Being in love. Loving a child. Loving a dog. Loving cats. Loving chickens. Loving life, as it is.
I dream of adventure. I dream of home. I am, like you, this braided, complicated person. And so, if you want me to be honest, I can’t be just an athlete anymore. That is just too limiting. That is one of many thoughts and pursuits— one among many. Just as we all are.