“Do you know how cyclocross works?” she asked, as she gave me a tour of the course.
“Yes,” I lied. She saw right through me, smiled, and continued, “Depending on the time for the first lap, they’ll post a sign that says how many more laps you’ll be doing.”
“Sounds good!” I said with a smile. I had just registered for my first cyclocross race, and I had no idea what I was doing. As I walked to the bathroom I Googled, “How does cyclocross work?”
According to the internet, cyclocross races should be as close to an hour as possible. As the first 2 laps are completed, the official calculates how many additional laps are necessary to get close to that hour. In the case of this particular Cat 3/4/5 race, the organizers had chosen a 40-minute goal for these intermediate and beginner racers.
The race was Sunday, December 2nd, and until the previous Thursday, I’d never considered racing cyclocross before. My wife Katie and I were visiting her sister in Champaign, Illinois, and she suggested visiting a local race over the weekend.
Within 24 hours, I had emailed the event organizer, a local bike shop named Neutral Cycle, and confirmed that I could rent a bike for the race. They didn’t have any ‘cross bikes, and between a road bike and a hardtail, the mountain bike was the best option.
On Saturday I picked up a Felt Dispatch hardtail mountain bike, rode it back to my in-laws, and began tinkering with the setup. 10 minutes later, I was ready to go.
The race itself was an incredible experience. There were 23 competitors in the Category 3/4/5 race, the course was clearly laid out, there were pockets of friends and family cheering for everyone who rode by. At the end of my first lap, the woman who helped me register was cheering, “Let’s go, Rental! Pass him!” I was slogging through the mud on a rental bike, a nervous rookie in my first race ever, and I truly felt welcome.
50 yards from the finish line in Weaver Park, I realized that the race was over. Before that, I thought I had one lap left. Whoops. I got off my bike dripping sweat, freezing cold, and absolutely elated. Oh, and very, very dirty.
A pizza truck was there, and I scoffed down a BBQ chicken pizza while watching the next race go off. The results came in, and I was surprised to find myself in 14th place. Not bad, Rental, not bad!
When I got back to my in-laws house, I hosed down the bike to clean off the crud, then took the hose to as much of myself as possible in the 39˚ weather. After a very long, very hot shower, it was time for a sandwich, a nap, and contemplation.
Are there more cyclocross races in my future? Maybe. I’m open to any activities that fit within my 2019 goals without requiring specific training.
For me, that’s the beauty of developing a healthy level of general fitness – it provides freedom to engage in new or challenging activities. Physical capacity can be a limiting factor when we’re trying new things, but with greater general capacity, the easier it is to develop specific abilities when trying something new.
In some ways, cyclocross wasn’t actually new for me. I’ve been riding a mountain bike for almost five years and a road bike for almost two. Cyclocross basically combines aspects of both, making for a cold, wet, and muddy morning outside. While I hadn’t planned or prepared for it, this race was exactly what I needed this year.
In December of 2017, my fitness goals for 2018 included racing three enduro mountain bike races. I didn’t quite get the timing figured out, and Katie gently reminded me in August that focusing on a race season the same year you get married and take on more responsibility at work probably isn’t the best planning. As usual, she’s right.
While on our honeymoon in October, I put a plan in place that allows laid out 2019 into 3 distinctly different blocks with different goals spread out over the course of the year. When we returned from our honeymoon, on November 5th, I jumped headfirst into that training. Then a month later, I surprised myself by signing up for this totally random race.
I don’t consider myself someone who tries random things, but this race felt right. The emotional stakes were pretty low considering I’ve never even considered ‘cross before, and other than my general fitness, I wasn’t “in shape” for this, but that probably doesn’t matter. In the biggest sense of the human experience, our fitness training probably isn’t the most important aspect of how we prepare for things. Here’s my wager:
It’s a lack of mental, not physical, preparation that limits us the most.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for serious fitness – it’s literally my job to be an expert at outlining plans to prepare the human body for physical challenges. That being said, I don’t think the human body has nearly as many limits as the human being.
Our brains have developed to protect us from harm, and if you’re reading this, my guess is that your brain spends more time protecting you from emotional harm than physical harm. We no longer run from sabertooth tigers, but we are running from our fear of failure. Just like our ancestors created strategies to avoid being in places where they expected predators to be, our modern brains create strategies to avoid situations in which we can fail.
Masquerading as logic and wisdom, I’ve often heard the sentiment of, “Oh, I haven’t trained for that.” To be fair, I’ve used that phrase myself. How often it was used for physical reasons versus mental ones? Unclear. What is clear to me, is that there’s more space in my decision-making process to sit with discomfort before I rationalize my thought processes.
We have to strive for participation before we focus on performance.
Is there something that you’re interested in, but have yet to try? Maybe it’s because there isn’t a ‘bite-sized’ version of the activity, or you don’t feel that you’re prepared for it. I’m here to tell you a little secret – you don’t have to be prepared for it. You just have to do it.
Sure, that sounds like a cliche Nike slogan, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. Just do it.
I’m not advocating for irresponsible participation in physical activity – Couch-to-Marathon programs are a bit ridiculous to me. And, provided you’ve been consistent with your general health and fitness, I’m increasingly interested in taking that ability outside of the gym and exploring the world around you.
For some, that means more recreational activities such as softball and soccer, while for others it’s hiking or bird watching. Maybe you’re interested in something as big as a triathlon, or something as small as walking more to work. What’s calling you? Heed that call.