What the Heck Was My WHY? Thinking Back on My Fitness & Athletic Journey
I was at the NICA Coaches Conference a couple weeks ago and one of the most interesting speakers there spent a ton of time really prodding the people in the audience to think about our WHY’s for why we ride, why we coach, why we care about getting more kids on bikes. And it got me thinking… How did I go from faking a fainting spell to get out of gym class and utter loathing for sports to … well, where I am today?
If you want to be really specific about it, my athletic background started way before I was born. My dad was a triathlete before it was cool, and my earliest memories involved him and my mom being outside. He stopped racing for the most part after I was born, but as a kid, I remember using his bike (on the trainer in our laundry room) as a climbing gym, and knowing he did triathlon is absolutely what shifted me into endurance sport when I finally did start developing athletic tendencies.
We talk a lot about our current status as athletes on the Consummate Athlete Podcast, and I talk about it on here, and when I’m doing talks/clinics/etc. The thing that seems to surprise most people, from guests on the show to women at bike talks, is that I wasn’t an athletic kid. Quite the opposite, actually. Dad never quite converted me to that endurance sport life as a kid. No riding, no running, unless it was playing outside with my friends.
This was me:
Lucky for me, I’m from a family with a lot of natural muscle. This was not lucky when I was 14 and had wider shoulders and ribs than most of my Mary-Kate and Ashley-thin friends, but given what I was eating back then plus my lack of activity, I have to admit I was pretty blessed in that department. But when you have legit biceps by the sixth grade and can arm wrestle the guys, you don’t feel lucky, you feel like the Hulk.
The funniest thing is that looking over pictures from the last 10 years, I thought I was going to have a really dramatic timeline to unfold, photographically. But the truth is, whether I was training 25 hours per week or 5 hours per week, my body hasn’t changed super drastically—and there are reasons for that that I’ve started to understand, around diet, inflammation, overtraining, all that fun stuff. As I was looking through the photos, what I did remember was a lot of invisible health stuff going on, and I remembered the wildly divergent feelings about how I looked.
So what’s my why? I couldn’t really figure it out at first other than “I like mountain biking and running and being outside a lot.” But as my mom and I flipped through old photo albums when I was home for Father’s Day, I started to see the story emerge.
0-14: Absolutely nothing. I didn’t play group sports, didn’t run, didn’t really ride my bike unless I was hanging with my neighbor, but that was short jaunts to the park nearby. I hated gym class with a passion, and once pretended to vomit to skip running the mile. (The pull-ups, unsurprisingly, I was always able to do.) My diet—don’t even laugh—was pretty standard American, but heavy on the junk food because I was pretty hungry most of the time. I drank A LOT of Mountain Dew, and embarrassingly, this is a vice that plagued me until I was 27, and still occasionally haunts me, especially during heavy training blocks.
Funny enough, though, my dad got me bike shorts for my second birthday… There is a very good chance that somewhere in my subconscious, this stuck around and got me into talking about the importance of proper cycling kit.
15-18: Around 15, I started turning into a grumpy punk kid who had no time or inclination to do anything sporty. By the end of high school, I was a vegetarian, but still crushing Mountain Dew and cinnamon buns. When you’re just vegetarian, not vegan, it is SO easy to eat a crappy diet.
18-19: I hit college and dug out my old mountain bike to get to class and fit in with the cool kids. This didn’t entirely work, but it did serve to show me just how out of shape I was. Between that, a crap diet and unlimited junk food from the dining hall, a full time class schedule + a full time job at a magazine in the city for freshman year, I was in the worst shape that I’ve ever been in. Case in point, this great shot of me with one of my early cycling friends (CX-ers reading this may really love this throwback since we both stuck around the cycling scene!)—
19: At 19, I got annoyed at how out of shape I was feeling, and when I stopped working full time in t he city because the magazine closed, I had more time to be a normal student and so I got sort of into triathlon and started doing a … varied routine to train. A lot of stationary bike riding at the gym, random lifting, a UFC class, power yoga, jumping in the pool for some laps, and the occasional attempt at running a mile. That one took a while… But weight training was going pretty well, and I built up muscle in a hurry.
20-23: Then came Rutgers Cycling. This is actually where I firmly believe the WHY came in for cycling. Until these guys, I had a few really great friends, but I was in a punk scene that was comprised of some pretty crappy people for the most part. Or, at least, young people who really didn’t care much about the people around them. But on my first ride with Rutgers Cycling in January, I showed up in leggings and a sweatshirt for a 35 degree ride. By mid-way, I was bonked and freezing, and the guys on the team pulled over, and one gave me a gel, the other swapped gloves with me so I had warm ones and he had my crappy knit ones, and the other guy took off his shoecovers and gave them to me. I’d never had people outside of my super close couple of friends do anything like that for me, and these guys didn’t know me, I had probably ruined their ride, to be honest. That kind of ‘you’re on the team now’ altruism sucked me in. Cyclocross followed, naturally, and our RUCX crew ended up with these matching tattoos and a deep love of the sport for the community that it brings together.
Side note: The one guy in this pic moved to Wisconsin, and at this NICA conference I was just at, a guy from the WI chapter was immediately like, “You know Mark?! He’s the Mama Bear for our team now!” and I couldn’t help but laugh—10 years later, Mark is still providing support and a ‘why’ for riders.
23: And then there were Ironman #goalz. For some reason, I loved triathlon, and I was pretty good. But when you race triathlon, you always get asked if you’ve done an Ironman, and if you haven’t, no matter how good you are, you somehow feel like you’re not as good. So, naturally, I needed to do one. It was, as I’ve written before, kind of a $hitshow. I won’t get into it, I’ll just say that the training led to pretty severe overtraining and insane cramping issues. It wasn’t helped by my vegan diet—not that a vegan diet is a bad thing, but I was still on the Mountain Dew bandwagon and my balanced meal included a pizza where french fries were the substitute for cheese. You laugh, but I’m serious.
I survived it, but man, I was wrecked. So I went to cyclocross practice the next day.
24-26: There was more racing after that, but slowly, I stopped racing as much because I was so burned out, so overtrained, and so overwhelmed with my first job at Cyclocross Magazine that racing and training went by the wayside, trading one stressor for another. I kept racing, but the intensity I had been training at started to calm down. I was done with school and not living in New Brunswick anymore, so the rides with the RUCX team were a thing of the past. I was still riding a lot, and ended up in Easthampton, Massachusetts, in one of the hotbeds for bike racing. Started mountain biking occasionally, racing ‘cross more, riding road a lot. It was OK, but I was definitely in a weird holding pattern of ‘will I or won’t I’ really go for it with racing. The answer started to be a lot more obvious: I was great at writing about cycling, but while I was OK at racing, I didn’t have the mental ability to push hard enough consistently enough to make it as a pro. That didn’t stop me from racing, but it did make me care more about work. (Which explains why my first book came out in 2012, around this time.)
26-30: So I was in this weird space and moment in my athletic life. By the time I left Western MA, I started running more again and was loving it, and that was keeping me in pretty race-ready shape. And not long after that, I met this guy and expanded my immediate family to me, Colleen, mom, dad, and now, my husband Peter. Who happened to be a racer and a coach, so suddenly, there was more motivation than ever to be back outside and training regularly. It’s a lot easier to be motivated when the person in your house is getting out on the bike on the daily.
30: After swearing 7 years before to never ever ever do another Ironman, we signed up for Ironman. This time, I wasn’t overtraining, I was eating a much healthier diet, and I had a great training partner. It went a lot better. Like, a few hours better. And it felt healthier, and happier. I wasn’t pissed or sad about missed workouts or freaking out about mileage. I was steadier as a person. And, to be honest, I had also gotten seven more years of endurance training under my belt, so even with probably a 50% reduction in training hours, the years of endurance made it easier to do better on minimal training.
30-31: We’re still tackling ridiculous races, but I’m getting even better at actually enjoying the process again. That whole “figuring out if this was a pro thing or a lifestyle thing” had really been a monkey on my back, and still rears its ugly head when a race or workout goes well. It’s tempting to think about the glories of that pro racer life… But I’ve also seen that side and I know what goes into it and what it really looks like, and I don’t think it’s what I want for myself anymore. I want to keep racing, do better and better, and see where I can take it, but there’s no specific lifestyle dream I’m chasing. Picking races I want to do because they’re challenging and sound fun, like this 50KM in August, versus something I know I’d do well in just for the sake of doing well. And that means a lot more #happinesswatts these days.
Now… Who doesn’t love a full circle? I figured I’d end right where I started—the same trail, hanging out with my dad 29 years later (to the day!). So when it comes to tracing my WHY, I think it ends up coming right back to family, friends, community… I may be a solo runner/cyclist at heart, but I wouldn’t be doing ANY of this without my amazing crew of humans.
Let me know in the comments… do you ever think about what your original WHY was? Has it changed?
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