Look Up

I'll admit to having some trouble figuring out what to write for this post.

Actually, it's been tough all year. Here's the thing: Carolyn and I are fine, but a lot has been happening around us with work and people we care for. Some of it's good, some worrying, some painful. Most of it is still evolving. And it's all important, much more important than race reports or amusing stories involving the heating elements in our oven.  They fill our conversations in the evening and my head as I drive to races. But I can't really write about any of it. So much of it is still happening and it belongs to other people we love. Trying to weave those stories into my own narrative at best reads like color commentary at a football game. At worst if comes off cheap and selfish. So emotionally, there's this hole and this weight and this sadness that things won't be the same as they were and I'm stuck with a blog and nothing I feel good writing about.

I told you it comes off selfish.

But it's racing season, so last Saturday at about 6 in the morning I packed up my bike and my worries, left Carolyn asleep and headed over the mountains to Bend for the Cascade Chainbreaker. Last year that race killed me. It was 90 degrees, dusty, and chaotic. I started the race underfed and finished dehydrated - a miserable experience. The truth is I didn't even want to do it. I didn't enjoy it last year. On reflection, I didn't really like most of Mudslinger this year, I really didn't like Echo Red to Red last March, and Fat 55 totally slaughtered me. I began to wonder why I should keep doing this - which is not a good head space to be in driving to a race - but what's the point if I'm not even decent pack-fill? Since I moved to Cat II I'm not just punching above my weight, I'm getting slower.

I signed up for Chainbreaker largely out of habit but could have easily been talked out of it.

This year, the drive over to Bend looked like this:
Oh dear

Because of course, it's Oregon. The ODOT website said "Carry Traction Devices" not "Traction Devices Required" on the pass so I really didn't have an excuse. At least overheating wasn't going to be an issue.

Driving over the pass, trying not to hypnotize myself watching the snow hit the window, I thought about all of the change, all of the weight that we carry and the greater weight we see our friends and loved ones carry.

I thought about how much I wanted to fix things and how much I wanted to take some weight from the people around me who seem so bent over both physically and emotionally.

And I felt helpless because I can't. We can't. We can't make our parents younger. We can't make sickness go away. We can't make people feel better. We talk. We listen. We make ourselves as available as we can, living as far as we do from everyone. It's not enough.  Sometimes it's the hardest thing in the world knowing you have to step back and let things be.

By the time the starting gun went off for my wave, sending about 18 50 - 59 year old racers up the dirt road, I can't say I had found peace with any of this. A small contingent of Sappo Hill riders pulled in behind me. It felt good to see some familiar faces and they're always happy to see me. I wished I could pull myself out of my funk. I left the snow at Santiam Pass but Bend was cold and cloudy and that seemed to suit my mood.

At a certain point in a mountain bike race, you need to decide if you are going to wallow in self pity shortly followed by wrapping yourself around a tree, or apply yourself to the fact that you are doing something hard, you are going to suffer and you need to pay attention. I was really on the fence about which way I wanted to go on that when I topped the hill after a couple miles and turned on to old double-track. Immediately my tires washed out in sand and my concentration snapped back to the business of keeping upright. 

I suppose at that point I decided to suck it up and do the race.

The trail looped back past the start to "the stadium" - an open field bordered by an old flume. The course looped around over obstacles and gave spectators a good show. Their was quite a bit of traffic here as racers slowed in bottlenecks. A rider went down ahead of me trying to get over a log. After I finished I found out one of my teammates crashed near here and broke his collarbone.

Exiting the stadium the pack thinned and I settled in to the first lap. Looking down at my front tire,  I was struck by how much of the year I'd spent staring at the rocks and mud disappearing underneath it and I thought about how our body language reflects our mood. Staring at your front wheel is a rookie mistake. You can't see what's coming and it's too late to correct for what you do see. It was a great life metaphor though I certainly wasn't thinking that at the time. What I was thinking was that I wasn't feeling bad right then. My legs were cramping, I was coughing up dirt. I was trying to gnaw hunks off the fist-sized gummy bear that my energy chews had welded themselves into thanks to the heater in the truck. I was, by most measures a mess, but I was a mess in the moment. All that worry I brought with me to the starting line was gone. Trying not to break your neck has that effect.

And as I felt better I started to ride better.  I looked up. I looked ahead past the rocks and branches I was rolling over. I saw the ride ahead of me. I saw other racers.  The clouds had thinned and clear, high desert blue sky broke through as I slipped through the trees. I felt, for a while, that mental stillness I experienced the last 10 miles of the Capital Forest 50. I felt fast again. It had turned into a beautiful day.
Always great to see Tom Keller at the finish!

I wish I could tell you this actually made me faster, provided some mental spinach that gave me the strength to get back in the game and claw my way to the podium. I did overtake one guy and a woman sidelined with shifting problems. In the end, I came in second to last in my category which is where I've finished my last four races.

I know what you're thinking. It's always been a different guy behind me. If it was the same one, I'd be his biggest fan.

And I wish I could tell you that this relieved my worries and everything is easier to live with and I took this peace home and was somehow able to give it to Carolyn so she'd feel better too. It did make me feel better for a bit, and maybe seeing me happy made Carolyn feel a little better about things. 

The hard truth is, much of what we've been worrying about will not go away any time soon and some of it will not end well. With the softening of time, most of it will just be.. different - colored by the longing for things that have past and gratitude for the good things in the present.

I've been thinking about my front wheel and the trail going under it though. What I've ridden over adds to my experience and it may inform what I think about what's coming, but it's gone now. And what I'm riding over? Maybe I should have planned better, shifted sooner, leaned into the corner farther, but it's too late to do anything about that, and staring at it just makes the outcome worse. It's what's ahead that matters.  It may be challenging but it may also be beautiful and as I think about that, it does make me feel just a little bit better.

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