On Coming in Last, and Living to Tell the Tale

A couple weeks ago I decided to enter myself into the Crested Butte 40 on a whim. I’d never ridden 40 miles up to that point and I knew it would be a long 40 on some of Colorado’s “best” (read: tough) singletrack. There was no sport race, just Open Women’s meaning I’d be racing with the pros. But, I love CB and I approached it with the same blind, relentless optimism that’s often gotten me in over my head in the past… basically, “Why not?” and “What’s the worst that could happen?”

My coworker Bryan who races pro would also be competing – he had pretty much convinced me do it – and my good friend Kelsey would kindly accompany me for the weekend. As Bryan put it, “You should do this race. You’ll either come out of it feeling okay, or it’ll be a kick in the ass to train harder.”

Reviewing race reports and course profiles, a part of me was wise enough to know it was more likely to be the latter than the former. But it turns out, I had no idea.

***

Having never done 40 miles in my life, I roughly pegged my goal time on a couple 30+ mile rides I’d done in Nederland recently on some pretty respectable high-altitude, legit singletrack (“real mountain biking”) to be something around 5 to 5.5 hours, max. Bryan had advised me to remember that for me this would be a ride not a race, that to finish would be an accomplishment, and that I should settle in as soon as possible. Of course as soon as the gun went off I promptly went ahead and did absolutely the opposite, hanging in there with the lead group for about 10 minutes with my lactic acid eating the crap out of my legs before I remembered that some of these girls are pros and I should stop trying to be a hero and settle in.

I don’t know if that effort was enough to burn me out but the first brutal climb had me off the bike already and truth be told? It was pretty much all downhill from there (but only in the figurative sense – there’d be 4500′ more to climb). Without getting into the details, mostly because I can’t really remember them all, I found myself obviously straggling way behind everyone else in a depressingly quick amount of time. The first few hours are a blur of struggling through technical wooded trails and walking my bike WAY too much including over stuff I could swear I’d usually be able to ride. By the time I hit Deer Creek (a 5-mile, 2k’ climb at mile 20) I was in no man’s land and had pretty much completely fallen apart. I went into some dark places in my mind, wondering how long it might take me to finish 40 miles if I had to walk the entire climb. I wondered what the hell I was doing out here. I wondered if I had any business being on a bike.

Then I hit that point where I had to concede that 5 hours would not happen…then 5.5…then 6. I thought about Kelsey and possibly even Bryan waiting at the finish line and I felt so embarrassed already, knowing they would be there for so long waiting, long after most riders had come in. God, how long would I be out here, only to come in last place?

I don’t know what was worse, the physical exhaustion or the humiliation of coming in last in front of people I knew. I thought about quitting, but at that point I was already out there in the backcountry and I was going to ride back anyway. The rain came in and the wind howled as I started up Gothic Road. I crawled on, the Garmin ticking down miles slowly…7 miles to go. 5 miles to go.

The final couple miles of the race descend down Mt. Crested Butte – the race organizers were merciful and these were flowy blues where I could pick up some speed at last. As I wound my way down the final stretch I was all alone and I knew the rest of the riders had come in literally hours before me. I looked down at the finish line and I saw two familiar figures standing there, clapping their hands and cheering. For a moment that same humiliation washed over me when I realized that Bryan was still there probably HOURS after he’d finished, but when I saw his and Kelsey’s smiling faces, and heard them yell my name I was 10x more moved and grateful than I could ever be embarrassed. They had waited so long, at any empty finish line, to be there when I crossed. After the race the 3 of us sat in the parking lot and shared a 6-pack of Dale’s, and talked and laughed until the parking lot was long empty. Having them there made me feel like there was still very much worth celebrating.

***

Okay, so in the end, I actually wasn’t dead last – I passed one girl in the final miles on the downhill. Still, I got my ass handed to me, came in nearly 2 hours after the winner, completely fell apart and was totally humbled.

I think that before this race, coupled with my big blow-up at my first Short Track race, I had been very afraid of failing miserably. I knew everyone said they’d come in last before, but I was still afraid of it. This fear was beginning to paralyze me – manifesting itself in a hesitation to race and to even go hard. Training became lackadaisical. Chalk it up to my overachieving nature – you’d almost rather not try than throw yourself in the fire and find out you don’t have what it takes.

But a week and a half ago I jumped into the fire – and melted down spectacularly. And when I dusted myself off I realized that coming in last wasn’t the big, bad scary monster I thought it would be. When all was said and done, nothing had really changed and no one who mattered gave a crap. What kept me going that day was the constant reminder that being successful in sports or in anything else, is not about never failing. If you’re pushing yourself, from time to time you will inevitably fall short. But what makes the difference between greatness and mediocrity in the long run is how you bounce back from failure – your perseverance through setbacks. I came back Monday morning re-motivated to train harder and with more focus.

In short, this is what I learned from Crested Butte. That some days you come in last in the bike race, but you’re still far ahead in the race of life. Because there is one more thing you found out you were strong enough to finish. And because of the people who waited patiently for you on the other side – with cold beers, and warm smiles.

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