This is all Melissa's fault.
When I started racing bikes in 2007, I won 8 races and found the podium a handful of other times. I seemingly stormed through the Category system set in place by USA Cycling and earned a Category 2 promotion. So stoked was I to be invited onto a local elite team that, in my sophomore season of racing, I forgot to bring with me the form and focus that earned me all that freshman success.
For sure, the story is more complex than not progressing in fitness, but at the heart of my slump of that year was my inability or ineptitude to continue doing the hard work and keeping the fire in my belly stoked.
Intent: an important word not for athletes, but for everyone. What was my intent that year? I didn't have any. I did not intend to do anything.
In the winter of 2007, my cycling goals for 2008 seemed to be already achieved when I received a shiny new team kit and spent all of my money on a team bike. Surely, I would look the part of an elite cyclist!
At first, I was blind to the lessons my sinking results provided. The whole of 2008 was a blur, including a fantastic string of DNF's in July at Criteriums, a discipline that was allegedly my forte. And so the season progressed with my head hung low to match my morale, until the worst possible thing happened: I won a race at the end of the year.
Why was this bad? Because I immediately relieved myself of the pressure that was building from my lackluster season. I chalked the win to 'finally finding my legs' or 'needing more time to get used to the heat.' The win fed every single stupid excuse I had given myself.
2009 was essentially more of the same. My morale didn't slump so low as my personal expectations had since readjusted after my difficult transition to Cat 1-2 racing, but there were sill many lessons that I had not yet learned. It took a force outside of bike racing (although not far from it) for me to experience the Newtonian 'apple on the head' moment.
That force was my then-girlfriend Melissa, preparing with her Army buddy, [also] Melissa, for a Marathon. The Melissas had plenty of 5k and some 10k running experience, and wanted to scratch 26.2 from their bucket list. With their perpetual enthusiasm and a training guide for new Marathon runners that was probably ripped out of a copy of Runner's World, they began meeting up a few times a week to train together.
I didn't hear much about the runs; I barely realized that Melissa was in the middle of a marathon training block. She would come home from a run and we'd have brunch, and I was never the wiser as to what was going on. One morning the girls returned home on a HOT day and were slamming cold water from the fridge. "How far did you guys go today" I asked. "Today was 20" said Melissa. TWENTY? How did that happen? Since when could she run twenty miles? The thought slipped out in speech and the girls divulged their little 'complete a marathon in 3 months' worksheet. Listening to their build-up in mileage, it all seemed so...reasonable and achievable. It was all about making slow progress in a consistent manner.
Later that year, the apple crashed down on my head. Melissa and I were on vacation in Kona, HI during Ironman week. That trip is worth a book on its own, but the short story is that I was absolutely blown away watching the amateurs compete. It wasn't just about the speed at which even the 'slow' ones were going, but knowing and understanding how much work and sacrifice went in to placing them in this event at the Big Island. Perhaps more impressive than competing in the event was seeing all of these people out and about the day after, accompanying their families and travel partners on touristy-stuff while they are probably still feeling like they are in a body bag from the prior day's race.
If these people can make an Ironman World Championship happen for themself, perhaps I can make some improvements in my cycling thing.
My 2010 season was good. Not bad. Not great. Blue-collar, head low, soft-spoken, solid. 2011 saw a Renaissance of my 2007 self as I helped make a 4 man team a force to be reckoned with in a region containing teams of 14 in local Category 1-2 races. I was happy with things in races that were NOT results, and I was learning lessons each week about racing, training, and listening to my body. The floodgates did eventually open. I had a stormer of a weekend at Wilmington, DE, tearing up a crit to leadout my teammate DJ Brew for a convincing win, and going on to win the 80 mile road race the following day out of a breakaway with my training partner Pete Warner. A few weeks later, I hooked another win at Altoona against some of the biggest talent in the east including Reid Beloni.
As I pack my bags for the Nature Valley Grand Prix, 2012 continues forward from where 2011 left off. I can't help but think that this long road of lesson learning all started with something really really simple. In 2007, I wanted to make sure I didn't start my racing career as pack-fill. In 2008, I didn't want anything. Ever since Melissa showed me how simple hard work is, I knew I could prove myself, and I desired to make it so. I had all of the intent in the world to make it down this road, and I intend to see how far this road goes.