BY: RIDGE COACH BEN PARSONS
Every spring I tell myself to take a couple weeks of downtime after an arduous winter of working, training, traveling, and racing (Skimo). Then, reality sets in. I go for my first group ride with the fast dads of Flathead Valley and I get dropped. My jaw drops while my chest heaves as I scramble to stay on the wheel at the back of the pack while the giant invisible dragon behind the peleton gives chase with his jaws open, threatening to swallow me whole and spit me out the back some 3 miles down the road. “How can this happen, I’m in the shape of my life?” is the annually recurring question in March when my Skimo season winds down and the cycling season takes the fore. One more time I’m humbled. One more time I spin home with feeling of dejection, inadequacy, and frustration. I contemplate whether I’m up for the long uphill battle to shed my Skimo shackles and shave my legs in an attempt to uncover the spinning legs that have carried me to multiple highs of accomplishment on the knobbies.
Do I really want to put in all those hours in a cold, wet, windy spring on the same old roads? Do I want to set my timer to 5 minute length intervals and repeat them over and over while listening to hard beats to conjure the desire and drive to dig deep? Do I want to spend half my summer traveling and organizing my schedule around a series of events that require going around in circles really fast?
Of course I do! How else could I make a perfectly good summer fly by leaving me questioning where all the time went and how I failed at meeting all the other objectives I had set for the season? Where else am I going to find the feelings that come with setting exorbitantly difficult goals and actually achieving them? Or maybe not, but trying to find the lessons to be learned from the failure.
This year’s Butte 100 was a fine example of the spectrum of rewards and disappointment we experience in competing at elite levels, or any level for that matter. And the takeaway doesn’t just apply to racing, it applies to life. Which brings up another reason why I’m not ready to give up on the balancing act of being a full time firefighter/paramedic, husband, and competitor. Training, competing, creating a mobile community, it all enhances life. It mimics other parts of life, the edges blur.
In a frantic lead-up to the Butte 100 (a 100 mile mountain bike race that lasts around 10 hours and climbs 16,000 vertical feet- more than any other 100 mile race in the country), I was failing at to feel confident and prepared. I yanked out the journals and did a side by side comparison to my preparation last year, only to find out that I had pedaled nearly the same exact number of hours, miles, vertical feet. Groundhog year! Who knew? It kind of eased my nerves, but I also knew that this year in a bid to excel at shorter, more intense cross-country mountain bike races, I had to shuck some of my spirit questing all day rides.
Six a.m. rolled around race day morning, and it no longer mattered. The only thing that mattered was to try and keep the rubber side down, and keep pedaling until I crossed the finish line some 100 miles later. The next ten hours served up almost as much undulating of emotion as a roller coaster. Four hours of stoke, comaraderie, and joy riding with the leader and dropping the rest of the pack. Forty minutes of retracing the first 8 miles of the first half of the race, loosing all the gained ground and coming through the halfway point 27 minutes down on the new leader.
Then three really long hours of wanting to quit more than ever, aching neck pains, and wooden legs that begged to unclip and stretch out on the dirt in a starfish pattern. Twenty minute talk with myself and the Big Man asking whether it’s okay to quit (just couldn’t shake the negative thoughts and frustration from taking a 40 minute detour) only to come to the realization that my pregnant wife had been driving all over hill and dale to support me at each aide station AND if she could race, she would never quit. And finally one last hour of regaining the killer instinct and motivation to dig super deep in an attempt to chase back to a podium position. There on the final pedal strokes of the last climb before plunging to the finish line I saw third place, and I went for it. And it felt awesome.
The feelings of success are always fleeting, especially when mixed with a much more significant time of feeling trampled under foot. But the lesson will remain. In the darkest moments of the race, I asked myself how bad I really wanted it (it being to finish, to podium, to not give up). The answer from within was a resounding “Heck yes I want it!” But then the realization of how I was going to get “it” meant I was going to have to work super hard, and shed all the disbelief and negative thoughts.
Hard work always pays off. And even if it wouldn’t have led to squeeking into that third place, I still would’ve relished in winning the battle over negativity and persisting to reach the goal of finishing.
So, as another season continues to wind down and the days shorten, the tables turn. Do I want to race another season of Skimo? Do I want to run up and down mountains in an effort to punish my legs into being able to charge hard straight up a hill and rip back down over crusty bumps on skinny skis? Do I want to set the interval timer to buzzer me into oblivion under cloudy cool skies through pea soup visiblity? Hmmm… Gonna have to think about that one 😉