I am a klutz. This has been a central truth of my life since I turned 12 and sprouted up to almost six feet tall. Yes, I was the world’s most awkward middle schooler, we don’t need to go there. Things have improved somewhat in the past few years, but I still have a long way to go. My dad says that he hit peak coordination at age 35, so, you know, I’m not holding my breath.
I follow some really cool cats on instagram (you know who you are) who are always posting pictures of themselves doing yoga on mountain tops and other beautiful places. Sometimes they even do headstands. I want to be them. But then I try to do a tree pose on a mountain top and it looks like this, because, unfortunately, I’m basically a tree, as is, and we all know that tree pose is a ridiculous concept because TREES DON’T DO YOGA.
I pretty routinely walk into walls and stub my toes and break plates for no apparent reason other than that I forget I am carrying them. I’m basically a mess. I also race enduro mountain bikes, which, for all intents and purposes, is kind of a sport for coordinated people. I imagine this is a surprise for some people — not necessarily that I became a serious athlete, but that I did so in a sport that requires skill, fast-twitch muscles, body-space awareness, etc., because, for most of my life, my talents so obviously lay elsewhere.
For example, I have always been really good at continuing slowly in a straight line for an extended period of time. I discovered this in middle school, when, right around the peak of my awkwardness, I joined the track team. After brief and tumultuous careers with hurdles and pole vault (read: one track meet), I settled on long-distance events and everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. Here was something that Syd could do relatively well, and with pretty limited risk of hurting herself or others. Phew.
And, as it turned out, I was pretty good at running in circles. I even had just enough body-space awareness to survive cross-country running races without twisting my ankles, which was pretty much all that was required for me to become a long-distance running star in rural Ohio. I wasn’t spectacular, but I was good enough that people said I had promise. People said I could run in college, or that I should try half-marathons, or full marathons or maybe even ultras. It was pretty clear — where I was concerned, the longer the better. If it was a race of attrition, it was all mine. If it came down to a sprint, I was doomed.
Here I am at a track meet in high school and if it looks like my eyes are closed, it’s probably because they were. (Which explains A LOT actually.)
For the 10 years following my first ever track meet, I stuck to “straight-line” sports. Swimming, cycling, running. I dabbled in triathlons and road cycling and started racing cross-country mountain bikes in college. As far as the mountain biking went, the less technical, the better. And, naturally, the longer the better.
And then, last year, 11 years after I first tripped over a hurdle and nearly speared myself on the pole vault, I started racing enduro.
Here is a brief one sentence explanation of enduro for those who still aren’t clear on what it is (which, by the way, is almost everyone and includes people who race it, so don’t feel bad): enduro is a series of timed downhill stages over the course of a day (or two or three or five days, depending on the race), in which racers pedal to the start and then race down the hill, traversing technical rocky sections and going off jumps and drops and generally just trying to go very, very fast.
Put another way, everything I’m bad at. Then add in the fact that the average enduro stage is under 15 minutes, and according to basically everyone, I should be totally, utterly hopeless. But the funny thing is that I’m not (at least not totally).
I have a feeling I know why that might be — I did my first enduro race because it looked fun. Not because I thought I would be good at it. With the exception of one just-for-fun water polo class in college (in which I may or may not have gotten a concussion), it was the first time I had embarked on an athletic endeavor without thinking, oh hey, maybe I’ll be good at this, maybe this will be my thing. The very first time. How messed up is that?
My high school coaches weren’t wrong about me — my natural talent probably does lie in long-distance events. I was the one who was wrong when I took “natural talent” to be a dictum of what I should be doing. I was wrong when I thought I had to be immediately talented at something for it to be “my thing.”
It would be a lie to say that my first season racing pro enduro was all fun and games. I basically cried myself through my first three races. Old habits die hard — and so do old expectations. Somewhere along the line I had trained myself to expect immediate success. Don’t worry, I know this is stupid, but sometimes it can be hard to be logical in the face of what your brain is telling you, over and over again, is failure. Somewhere around the middle of the season, I had a mental breakthrough. I started to be able to see my own improvements –even though I was still lagging behind my competitors — and I stopped being afraid of failing. Because, frankly, being last while doing something you love is hardly the worst thing that can happen to a person. (Hint: not doing the thing you love because you’re afraid of being last is WAY WORSE.)
I can say completely honestly that I have almost no natural talent for racing enduro. I can’t sprint to save my life (at least not yet, that’s this winter’s project), I require a two-hour warm up to not feel like crap, and sometimes I forget what I’m doing and fall over at 0.5mph and impale my face on my handlebar. Then I have to go to the hospital and get seven stitches in my chin and explain to every single person I see that, no, nope, wasn’t doing anything epic at all.
**warning: slightly graphic picture of the gaping hole in my face #sorrymom***
However, I can also say, completely honestly, that having no natural talent for enduro is the best thing that has ever happened to me, athletically speaking. While being naturally talented at something can be great, more often than not it is just a gigantic and completely unhelpful mind-fuck. I’m starting to realize that it’s lot more satisfying to be really bad at something and then get okay at it, as opposed to being really good at something and just staying good at it.
Here’s the thing…natural talent is pretty irrelevant when compared to a lot of other factors — grit, drive, determination, and most importantly, loving what you’re doing. It’s one of those “asking the wrong questions” kind of scenarios. Instead of trying to find the thing I was “great” at, I should have been looking for the thing that I loved enough to become great at (or not, in which case, no biggie, cause I love doing it anyway).
I love racing enduro. I love riding my bike fast. I love letting off the brakes on a slippery, rocky section and realizing just how fast I really can go. I love how, after hours and hours of practice, I have done things this year that six months ago I thought I could never do. I also love how everything I have accomplished this year is directly related to how hard I have worked for it. The victories were small, yes, but they were also huge because they were all mine.
I didn’t exactly trample my competition this season. I hardly had that break-out-stellar-prodigy-superstar season that I always expected I would have if I ever managed to find that thing that I was made to do. More accurately, I held onto the rear-end of the pro women’s field by the very tips of my fingernails. I scrabbled. I crashed. And yeah, I lost. Pretty frequently. But a lot of important things happened — I learned a lot. I had fun. I was actually disappointed for the race season to be over. And I think maybe, against all odds, I found my thing.