In school, I was always a mediocre student and rarely a teacher’s favorite. Despite this, I still secretly wanted more challenges intellectually and longed to please my teachers and fellow students. That’s why, in my seventh grade English class I decided to try and read Leo Tolstoy’s classic Anna Karenina. My teacher mentioned one day that it would be an achievement to read such a masterpiece of literature at our age. Naturally, being an individual who likes a challenge, I picked up the book that afternoon. During the silent reading period the following day, I confidently pulled out the book and began to read. The teacher immediately pulled me aside, told me that it was above my level, that I should put the book under my desk and silently wait for the reading time to conclude. The monsters, humiliation and fear began to claw at my young ego. I suddenly dreaded the opinions of my fellow students. I wish I would have confronted that teacher and asked her to let me try, but this belittling experience resulted in a negative belief about myself that haunted me for years. I believe that my intellectual potential, at that time at least, suffered due to humiliation and fear.
What does this story have to do with mountain bike racing? Simply this, we can let so many emotions and fears hold us back from success. We can tear ourselves down over little stupid mistakes or mishaps and the consequence is that we will not grow in the sport, we will not meet our athletic potential. We can turn our failures and fears into monsters. The Whiskey 50 in Prescott, AZ and the Grand Junction Off Road, taught me to face many fears and to step up to my negative emotions with grace and acceptance.
I’m at the start line of the Whiskey 50 surrounded by women who are FAR more experienced than me. National and World champions, even two Olympians are there toeing the same line. I am a ball of nerves who understands that she is over her head. As the race started, I can’t get over some of the negative emotions welling up inside me. I don’t feel well, my stomach hurts, and I just can’t stop thinking about how embarrassing it will feel to finish so far behind the top girls. Like the 13 year old girl who is afraid to stand up for herself, I let the negativity win, fall behind my pace, and finish at the bottom of the pack. My fear of failure and competing against the top professionals became a giant monster that I alone needed to conquer.
“Come on, Ashley, you’ve got this. Just drop the seat, look where you want to go and roll it.” I’m standing at the edge of what mountain bikers call the “Waterfall Drop” at the Lunch Loop trails in Grand Junction, Colorado, and I’m afraid. My friend Doug, and my husband Ben are sitting, as patiently as possible since I’ve walked up to the drop five times only to shy away, at the bottom of this behemoth. I tell myself that if I ever want to earn my right to race professionally, then I have to start riding these more technical trails. I know it’s over my skill level, but I’ll never get the skills unless I step out of my comfort zone, buck up, and make an attempt at these trails. And, here I am again. Standing at the edge of the drop, I am that little seventh grade girl crippled by fear and negative emotions. I’m being beaten by the giant monster of fear that I created. A Suddenly, I realize this, and see the younger version of myself. Just like then, I’m now worried about what other people will think if I don’t perform well. I’m held back by my fears and emotions, and I realize it. I make a conscious decision; not anymore. I walk my bike back, clip in my pedals, drop my seat and take the drop. It’s time to face my fears.
Race day arrived and I’m at the start line of the Grand Junction Off Road. Once again, the best in the business of women’s mountain bike racing have lined up beside me. I’m feeling more relaxed because I’m ready to give this technically demanding course my best. I learned from the Whiskey 50 that I have to be nicer to myself. I have to accept where I’m at while putting my all into this race.
I push too hard at the beginning of the race trying to pass other ladies who were walking sections I knew I could ride. It takes a lot of effort to pass other cyclists on the trail, and if you’re not smart about it, you can blow up too quickly. I should have had a strategy to put myself in a better position at the start, but I did not beat myself up over this. I acknowledged my mistake, took a few deep breath, thanked the gods for my Scott Spark Bike with the remote lock out feature enabling me to climb the steep hill more efficiently, and pedaled onward.
And then, I knew where I was, the famous Waterfall Drop. Eager to show off my skills, excitement grew inside me. But, no one was there to see. I laughed at myself and my ego as I casually took the drop with style. I was feeling comfortable on the descents and I passed one of my competitors. Soon, I was close to another girl. Jumping for the chance to pass her, a smile grew large on my face. We were close to a section with another technical drop that spectators could see from the road. I noticed she was dismounting from her bike to walk the obstacle. I smiled with glee because I knew I could ride this one. In fact, I never flinched at this section. I started screaming “I’m riding through!” and started down the trail. There were several volunteers and about ten cars along the road. Everyone was watching. My excitement got the best of me and I rolled my front tire down the wrong line. As my bike flew from underneath me, I tumbled behind with laughter. Quickly, I stood up, thanked the volunteers who were also laughing at me, and jumped back on my bike. Once again, I was that little girl, except this time I had grace for my mistake. I went on to pass my next opponent easily. I finished the race number 18 out of 28 elite women (only 24 finished), and I am happy with my efforts and result. I faced the monsters that I alone created.
I will continue to grow in this sport. I will get better with time, and I am so thankful to the Amy D Foundation for giving me an opportunity to get out there and test my limits at these elite races. It really is a blessing to me. Up next, the Iron Horse in Durango! I’m racing both the road and the mountain bike, and I’m excited for another learning experience.
Also, I went on to read Anna Karenina. Twice. Both times for my own personal joy. It really is a masterpiece of literature.
Technical notes on equipment I used for both the Grand Junction and the Whiskey 50 races:
Bike: Scott Spark RC 900 World Cup. I love this bike. As mentioned, the remote lock out feature is a real plus. The full suspension was a great choice for the technical trails in Grand Junction.
Clothing : Pearl Izumi clothes and shoes. I love my Pearl Izumi clothing. They make great gear for all types of weather and cycling disciplines. The jersey and bibs that I wore during these races were especially comfortable. Light and breathable, the jersey/bib combo enabled me to stay cool throughout the race.
Helmet: I choose to wear a road helmet during most of my races. The Lazer Z1 is cool, light and visible. I was thankful for the air vents during the hot Grand Junction race.
Wheels: Stan's Notubes Crest Wheels. If you ride off road and you're still using tubes, you're doing it wrong!
Tires: Maxxis Aspen tires. These are PERFECT for XC racing, especially in courses that might have sandy conditions. This tire choice was perfect for both the Grand Junction and the Whiskey 50.
Hydration: I actually used a hydration pack for the Grand Junction Off Road. Osprey makes some light weight options, and I was happy to have one. I like to put some type of electrolyte mix into the pack, and have a bottle of plain water on the bike.