When I finished college a year and a half ago, I sat down and made a list of resolutions for my first year of “adult” life. One of them was “fail at things.” Okay, fine, I think I worded it more like “try new things and don’t be afraid of failure” because, let’s admit it, I had never really failed at anything before and I didn’t actually think it would happen to me. I was kind of a perfectionist, at least academically and athletically speaking, and I tended to do only do the things that I thought I could do reasonably well in. I’m pretty sure I never received worse than a B- on anything in the academic world, and that was in a Medieval History class I took while studying abroad in Argentina and it was entirely in Spanish and I assure you it was utterly impossible. I suppose I could have actively sought out things to fail at (like, calculus or chess or anything involving projectiles), but I didn’t. I played it pretty safe. I ran a half marathon. I majored in history. I didn’t do failure. Until last summer when I started racing mountain bikes and failing at things like it was my job. I cased jumps and went over the bars into rock gardens and split my face open with my handlebars and routinely finished races in last place (and, often, in tears).
There was an adjustment period here, in which I interpreted each failure as a sign that I was, to put it succinctly, the most incapable human being ever to walk the earth. I felt anyone in the entire world, given the proper equipment and maybe half an hour of instruction, would be able to ride a mountain bike better than me. I was just that inept. Or at least that’s how it seemed. Eventually I came to the realization (right around the time that I wrote this blog post) that my expectations were utterly ridiculous. I was expecting to be good (or at least, competent) at specific aspects of riding a bike that I hadn’t spent any time doing. I wanted to succeed without failing. But life doesn’t work like that, and the things that are really worth anything don’t come without effort. Sometimes you have to fail and then fail again. And again. And a-fucking-gain. As someone said to me recently — “It’s only bike racing, but my god, it can break you.”
And this weekend, it almost broke me. In the interest of full disclosure, I failed Whistler. I flunked the shit out of Whistler. If this were school, I would have gotten an F minus minus minus. In fact, I would probably be demoted a grade. It was really that bad. I crashed hard about two minutes into the first run and never really got it together after that. I hit trees. I buried my handlebars six inches into British Columbia’s finest loam. I fell over while walking my bike. I OTB-ed like a boss directly under the finish line of the third stage, in front of everyone, and then I cried like a baby. It was really quite pathetic on all sorts of levels — mental, emotional, physical, vegetable, mineral, etc.
I would love to say that I embraced this new failure with enthusiasm, but alas, I wasn’t a very good sport about it until the next day, when I had time to reflect and realize that it wasn’t all bad. Okay, it was mainly bad, but I did manage to finish the race, despite barely being able to bend one of my knees and generally feeling like I had been run over by a freight train and/or mauled by a polar bear with a steroid habit. And somehow my last two stages were my best, which goes to show that I was able to turn it around, at least somewhat, and race decently despite the frustration and the pain and the exhaustion. I’m pretty proud that I finished, more proud than an outside observer probably thinks I deserve to be, because I’m the only one who was privy to my inner monologue so I’m the only one who realizes how close I was to giving up. I used to feel ashamed for considering dropping out of a race, but now I realize that I should be stoked that I can listen to all those negative thoughts and defeatist emotions and kindly tell them to go jump in a lake because I’m finishing the damn race no matter how much it sucks.
This isn’t to say I’m not disappointed that I failed Whistler. I am, in spades. But I think, this time at least, I’m disappointed for the right reasons. I’m disappointed that I didn’t ride to the best of my abilities. I’m disappointed that I crashed on things I really shouldn’t have crashed on. I’m annoyed that I messed up features that were no big deal in practice. I’m frustrated that I lost my head and got panicky and overwhelmed. I’m disappointed that, apparently, I have to re-learn the lessons I thought I learned in Rotorua, you know the ones about how it’s not helpful to break down and sob in the middle of your race stages. And I’m mega-bummed that I smashed my knee to smithereens and still can’t really bend it two days later. That sucks. All of that sucks the big one.
Here’s the thing, though — I sucked this weekend, plain and simple, and I’m willing to admit it (on the internet, no less). But that doesn’t mean I suck. That little “-ed” makes all the difference. On Sunday I may have ridden like a toddler recently deprived of training wheels, but that’s not me. That’s not how I ride. I’m actually pretty freaking good at riding a bike most of the time. I may suck at racing my bike, but if I learned how to hit drops and ride rock gardens and slide down steep beds of wet roots, I can learn how to stay focused for fifteen minutes at a time and race my damn bike without falling apart. I can learn that. Life is just one big conglomeration of lots of little skills, and sometimes you have to fail spectacularly to realize which ones you don’t have.
I failed at racing in Whistler. I’m disappointed and frustrated and sore and my bruises are such that I could be mistaken for being part Dalmatian. I sucked, but I don’t suck. I broke, but I’m not broken. I’m still here.
So, bring on the next one.