My calves protested as I attempted the last climb.
The mountain bike felt heavier than it ever had. My thighs burned like logs in a fire and felt just as ravaged.
“You’re almost there, Britt, you’re almost there, and you can have a beer when you get there.” That was my mantra in an attempt to motivate myself through the last few miles.
Too bad it wasn’t f*cking working.
It was the fourth of July in the mountains of Breckenridge, Colorado. I was competing in the Firecracker 50. It’s a mountain bike race consisting of two 25 mile laps. Eight thousand feet of total climbing. The town itself sits at 9,600 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains. The air is thin, and everything is physically more demanding than it should be. This would not be easy.
I started training for the Firecracker 50 four months prior. I became familiar with soreness in places I didn’t know muscles existed. I was addicted to Icy Hot, and I bribed my friends into signing up for CrossFit classes with me. I turned into the person who made green smoothies for breakfast and followed personal trainers on Instagram while I price shopped for protein powder.
Despite all my efforts, I was still nervous. I was new to the sport, and to sports themselves. I was overweight until two years prior when I moved to Colorado after an unhealthy relationship. Even after losing the weight, “athlete” was not a word I would have used to describe myself. I was more of a “band nerd,” complete with heavy eyeliner and Converse All-Stars.
Was I actually going to be able to do this? I spent each of the days leading up to the race trying to think of creative, believable reasons to justify canceling. I briefly considered “accidentally” breaking my bike, or a bone—any excuse not to compete.
Those same negative thoughts started to creep into my head the morning of the race. I rode my hand-me-down bike through the crowds of shiny carbon fiber frames and spandex, feeling self-conscious about my amateur appearance.
As I took my place at the starting line, my body forgot how to operate. My ears were ringing, and my tongue dried up. The reality of what was about to happen suddenly smacked me in the face. Who the hell did I think I was?
In that moment of panic, surrounded by people, I made eye contact with a few biking friends through the sea of helmets. I was not the only average Jane out there. I reminded myself that I was here to accomplish my own goal, not compare myself to anyone else.
Seconds later, I took off with hundreds of riders in a burst of collective energy. I passed people quickly, warming up in time for the first significant trailhead. I started to think I had a home-field advantage on these trails. I lived here; my lungs were accustomed to the lack of oxygen and extreme elevation.
Maybe I could do this!
The first half was challenging but comfortable. I started to feel confident, cocky even. This could maybe be fun, I thought.
But, that’s the thing about single-track mountain biking trails; they teach us how tough we are. My ego was crushed faster than my lead.
I soon found myself at the mercy of the dirt and rocks. This was a physical effort I had never known before, and I was not processing it as gracefully as my daydreams had predicted. There was sweat in my eyes; I was convinced that I was going to die, right there, in the middle the Firecracker 50. I thought about the news headlines they would write about me: “Self-Proclaimed ‘Band Nerd’ Dies From Thirst and Beer Deprivation in Mountain Biking Race.”
It seemed like it was never going to end. The single-track line of trees was a maze of exposed roots I felt I would never find my way out of. Each uphill climb reminded me of my weaknesses as dirt flew everywhere. I took small, deliberate sips of water to flush the grit out of my teeth. My conscious mind became dull to everything except for my own protesting body. The sound of my ragged breathing kept pace with every rotation of tires. My pulse pounded in my ears, and I kept catching whiffs of my armpits. The miles taunted me.
After three hours, I stopped checking my pace. It was only making me sad.
Instead, I watched the sweat drip from my face onto my army green bike frame as I continued fighting through the trees.
The sun beat down on my exposed neck as I rolled up to the final aid station before the finish line.
The attendant seemed surprised to see me, or maybe it was because I looked like such hell. I was afraid to ask where the other riders were in comparison. With as much tact as he could muster, he admitted that I was one of the last, and may even be the last rider on the course.
I looked at him blankly with my mouth open.
After some awkward silence, he timidly offered to throw my bike in his truck and drive me down to the finish line, “If I wanted.”
I hated him for offering. The devil’s advocate in me salivated at the idea of giving up. It would be so easy. His truck was right there. I could almost feel the air conditioning on my sunburned face. I started thinking about how good it would feel to get home and shower. With a beer. A shower-beer!
After some intense internal deliberation, I squared my shoulders, thanked him for his offer, and told him I wasn’t a quitter.
I got back on my bike and clicked it down to a more comfortable gear as I tried to process the situation. I mean, I knew I was slow, but I didn’t honestly think I would finish last.
Tears came down as I tried to keep my legs moving up another set of vertical boulders. I couldn’t help but think about all the burpees and lactic acid I had endured over the last few months, only to end up in last place.
My demons showed up in full force, telling me, “I told you; once a fat girl, always a fat girl.” It took me 12 months of hard work to lose not only the physical weight but also my emotional weight. Believing that I could lose the weight is what made the difference. All the diets in the world couldn’t do that for me. Yet here I was, still a loser, still not up for the task.
I felt like that fat, helpless girl all over again.
As my internal dialogue continued to mock me, I abruptly slammed on my brakes and looked around. I really was in last place.
It was silent, something I would ordinarily find serene, but not right now. I was actively living the expression: getting left in the dust.
I swallowed the lump in my throat, attempting to stomach the emotions causing my nausea. My lungs filled with air that gave way to a visceral scream, shattering the quiet canopy of the forest. Suddenly, some movement on the trail distracted me from my mental breakdown. It was a little mountain sparrow, ruffling its feathers in annoyance at my noisy human outburst.
“Sorry,” I said out loud with a shrug. We observed each other for a moment. I considered my options as she stared at me with her little bird eyes. I could do this, I admitted, and I owed it to myself to keep going. I couldn’t sit around and talk to a bird all day anyway.
I wasn’t going to let this defeat me. I had to believe I could finish just like I believed I could change my life and lose that weight.
Then, I realized I knew where I was. There was only one more climb. I got on my bike, keeping my head down until I finally felt the ground flatten out beneath me.
As the trees broke open and gave way to the last stretch of terrain, I looked up. My moment of triumph was here, and I was ready for the applause.
The park below was all but empty. I had taken so long that the event was basically over. The announcers were packing up their microphones and speakers. The fanfare was long gone. There were a few people left in the parking lot, clearly having finished the race hours ago. I wanted to die.
Then someone screamed my name.
My friends were waiting for me at the finish line. They had stayed for over an hour to cheer me on. I barely got off my bike before I was rewarded with hugs and a cold beer.
My fatigue gave way to more tears (happy ones this time). I had done it, even if I was in last place. I didn’t care. My body was strong, but my mind had been stronger.
I eventually found out that I was not last. I was relieved until I was told that I was second to last.
Win, lose, or draw, I proved to myself that it’s not about where we come from. It’s about where we want to get to. I learned this lesson the hard way by suffering through a mountain bike race.
We don’t have to go to that extreme, and I wouldn’t suggest it either. What matters is that we make it to the finish line. Even if it’s an empty finish line, it’s still our finish line.
The people who matter will be there, waiting as long as it takes, with a cold beer in hand.