Midnight in my Heart

Winter Training

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It is midnight in my heart.  The streets are dark and the shops have all closed long ago.  I am alone and I can taste salt in my mouth. Salt from my own sweat.  The taste of copper pennies are on my tongue.  I am on the corner of two streets: Vomit or Pass Out.  Neither one is an option that suits me.  I am in the middle of a functional threshold test.

I want to be still.  I want to stop.  I see my number and it is dropping.  The point is to increase the number.  The point is to get a high number, but my legs are heavy.  It is the sixteenth minute.  The sixteenth minute is the hanging hour.  It is the time when hope dies.  When hope is taken out back and shot in the head.  This is brutal writing, but it’s how I felt.

The functional threshold test is a twenty minute test on the trainer to see how much energy, or watts you can put out.  Twenty minutes seems like nothing, but in the test, time is greedy and bloats.  It seems to consume more seconds than sixty.  It is the dinner guest who stays too long–the one who eats the last piece of warm bread, who stays well past dessert, requesting a glass of wine and then belches, eyes drooping.  Time in the functional threshold is a slow form of torture.

So, I do the test.  I get my score.  It is a low score.  You are not surprised.  I am not surprised, but for a glittering moment, I thought that I wouldn’t have to work for it.  That I just might be naturally good.  In this sport, I am never naturally good, but that’s why I’m in a love affair with hard work.  So, I think, “I’m going to improve that score.”  I text some of my Nickel City teammates.  They text back encouragement.  One of them says, “Don’t put a frowning face!” (referring to me texting my score with a 😦 face) They reference that I am doing better than anyone on the couch.  They say I’m trying.  They say I had way too high of expectations for my initial number.  They are right.

Take a speeding train to later in the week when I am at Campus Wheelworks’ back room and I am sweating on my bike with my teammates and some others next to me.  I am more than glowing with sweat: I am melting butter.  I am doing fast feet and one leg spins and I am watching my teammates legs next to me.  She’s flying.  She’s all energy and she’s talking some of the time.  Talking.  It’s insane.  She’s joking with me.  I am having fun.  Fun.  Training and having fun.   We are laughing and we are training and I feel strong.  I can feel it in my muscles that I am improving.  I can feel it in the molecules of my body that I am getting better.  I am pushing harder than I’ve ever pushed: reaching deep inside to the beautiful dark abysss of Emily Dickinson hope and Mia Hamm inspiration.  It is an abyss that I draw from every day of my life because to live without hope is not a meaningful existence for me.
And this is what it means.  This darkness and this lightness is what it means to do a sport.  It means tear and repair.  It means suffering and reward.  It means good days and bad days.  It means looking over and seeing that you are surrounded by a room full of women–on my team or on their own teams and we are all working toward something.  We come here on a cold and snowy night to train in this back garage.  We do this because this is what it means to be a woman cyclist.  It means to care about your body in a way where you must push it harder.  It means coming to something and sweating.  We are not on bloody stair masters.  We are not jazzercising.  We are cyclists who are training to compete with each other.  At the end of the day, we all want the same thing: we want that smooth, sweet, brie and wine, cocoa and raspberries taste of victory.  We come here because we are training for something bigger than ourselves.  We come here for collective and individual victory.  We are united in our adoration for this race of legs, heart, gut, mind, wheels.  We are riding so hard we’re nearly flying.

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Belong.

Winter Training

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I belong to a nation of roads to be ridden.

I belong to a tribe of wild-hearted women.

I belong to the motion of legs moving.

I belong to the sound of my breath in the morning, panting in the gym.

I belong to the deep pull, the cycle through, the calm rotation through ten and up past six.

I belong to around and around and around.

I belong to my heart beating.

I belong to the sweat dripping.

I belong to the seven a.m. alarm and up and out, bike in hand.

I belong to peanut butter and bananas.

I belong to quenching not only thirst, but a desire to satiate dreams.

I belong to equality.

I belong to openness of ideas.

I belong to improvement.

I belong to failure as a way to victory.

Most weeks, I train three times a week and next week, I’ll start at four.  I get up.  I make a coffee, yogurt, granola.  I put on my bike clothes and I drive to the training facility.  I sit on a bike and for an hour or an hour and a half, I spin my legs, over and over and over again.  Why do I do this?  Why do I insist on this monotony of motion?

Because I belong in this sport.

The other night, I sat at a table with my team.  Glasses of wine, pens and paper, and calendars were out in front of us.  We were having our first team meeting of the 2015 season.  As I was sitting there, I realized how much I belong here.  The funny thing is it is not because of talent.  It is not because of innate skill.  It is because of my own belief in myself and my desire to work hard.  Each of these women is a powerhouse of force.  We laugh.  We joke.  We talk some rot about beating other teams (with the affection that comes with competition of course).  We want to do well.  We want to compete.

This past season I did not do well in terms of skill and ability.  I lost most races.  There was a moment in the fall when I thought that I would stop all this.  Why do this?  I’m a writer, not a racer.  However, after talking with a teammate and having some internal reflection on a train to Montreal, I realized how much I need this sport in my life.  I thought about how much I wanted to work in this training facility this winter.  How much I want to race at Larkin Crits in the summer.  How much I wanted to do the Buffalo Omnium again.  It is not because of glory.  I won’t come in first for a long time, if ever, but maybe I’m already winning something else.  Maybe I’ve won the spot to belong.

So, I go to the training facility and I work my heart out.  I sweat and I feel tired and I push and push and go deep inside and pull out strength and effort.  I pull out fast feet and strong legs and cruel minutes ticking by.  I train.  This is my victory.   I have already improved my watts and my miles per hour.  This is my victory.  I have already improved my endurance.  I was training next to my teammate and she looked at me and said, “You’re going to be strong this season.”  I won’t keep up with the top pack, I know, but I’m trying for the middle this season.  I’m trying to be a competitor.  I want to do well in the second race that will happen in some of these races (the race will sort out–the top cyclists will take off in their own race and then the other cyclists will fight for the “second” race).

I can feel it in my bones.  I can feel it on the soles of my feet, in my legs, my calves, the irises of my eyes: I am getting stronger.

I belong to the self that sees possibility in all things.  I belong to the notion that if one wants to try and work hard, she can do well.  I belong to hope.  I belong to effort.  I belong.

Enter a New State of Mind

Winter Training

“When you go through the door of pain, you enter another state of mind.”–Marina Abramovic (from the film, “The Artist is Present”)IMG_0410

I have gone through the doors of pain.  I have pushed through a season of sadness, of hurt, of being dropped, of disappointment, of defeat after defeat after defeat and I have arrived to another state of mind.  I have entered into the room of hope, of power, of muscles moving, of legs remembering, of me this moment now, transcending all of the before.

This is what winter training is for me.  I am a new person.  This often happens in my life, where I arrive again, but I feel it here with bicycling.

I have found a winter training facility that I love and I go there and I practice.  I don’t just practice cadence and going at least 90; I practice my breath; I practice calmness; I practice strength.  My muscles are beginning to remember what it means to go fast, to dig deep into the well that is inside me and to pull from it the essence of myself: optimism.

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I know I can do this.  I can train hard.  When I am on that bike at the training facility, I am not only in that room, I am in those moments.  I am kinetic energy.  I am there happening.  My mind is clear and focused.  I see the television and I see the bike riders in France and I am there occupying my body.  I have trained three times this week and I hope to continue at least this much throughout these cold winter months.

This morning I trained at my teammate’s house and I got to be around my team; I felt energized and inspired.  I felt ready.  We are all in this together at all levels.  I didn’t know if I would be invited back on the team again this year, but I was, amazingly.

IMG_0412I realize on the bike that I am creating my story and I am the narrator of my story.  This is a story of getting up at 7 am on a Sunday to go ride on a trainer in a basement and sweat through my hat and my shirt and my pants and to feel the muscles in my body burn.  This is the story of connection: of mind to muscle.  This is me on a bike.  This is me redefining thirty.  This is me one pedal stroke at a time.  This is me training for something bigger than myself.  This is a story of triumph.

Failing can be Winning

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For my art class, I had to make a postcard from my current self to my future self.  I chose to write to myself in March of next year.  This is when I will begin racing again and when I will get my custom bike from Nickel City Cycles, my team.  I am naming this bike “Athena” and for my art project, I used a photocopy of an owl I have from Athena’s temple in Greece.  The funny thing is that when I wrote the date on the postcard I actually wrote March of last year, so without consciously being away of it, I was sending this postcard to my past self.  I realized I am already the future self I intended to be.

This blog is supposed to be about failing.  Well, that’s the thing.  It’s supposed to be about failing, but I’ve come to realize: it’s not about failing at all.  It’s about winning.  It’s about succeeding.  It’s about doing what I can do and pushing myself out of my moments of comfort.  It’s about being the person I want to be.  It’s about biking, but it’s about so much more than biking.

Since I have started this biking blog, I have lost over and over again.  I have never set foot on a podium.

But.

Since, I have won a fiction award, I have gotten into a fiction and poetry MFA program and I have gotten to write for a professional cyclist’s website.  This, to me, is not failing.

Since I have started this biking blog, I have been hit by a car but continued to bike.  I have joined Nickel City Cycles.  I have competed in road, criterium and circuit races.  Since starting this blog, I have gone mountain biking.  I have ridden at night in the dark.  I have climbed hills at cyclofemme.  I have biked from Amherst to Wilson, NY by myself.  This, to me, is not failing.

I am writing to you to tell you to risk something.  I’m writing to you to tell you to try something that you think you’re going to fail.   I’m writing to tell you that you will fail.  In so many ways, you will fail but there will come a time, when you will realize, you have gotten something so tremendously wonderful out of this experience and this will nearly make you want to cry and in this way, you will know, that there is very little you cannot do in this world.

I don’t know what I think of the blog as a form of art.  I think in some ways it is kind of strange, but in other ways, it is so perfect.  It is me writing to you and you writing to me.  In the course of this journey, people have actually started following this blog.  I have gotten all sorts of comments from people.  From a professional cyclist in France to a woman whose son has Autism to many people who seemed to be interested in motivation and hope.   I have also received numerous comments from my own community here in Buffalo, New York.  These comments are, quite honestly, what have kept me going.

My friend the other day told me, “You haven’t written for a post in a while.”  This seems to be the biggest motivation of all: someone is actually reading what I am writing.  They actually seem to want to read more of it.

My next step in the next few months will be to chronicle my winter training ups and downs.  There was a moment in this last month which I thought I might stop this project, but I have decided to keep going.  I need this in my life.  I need to document this experience.

As a writer, I mostly write alone and send out my work and then wait for the rejection letter.  This, it seems, is part of a creative lifestyle.  This blog to me has immediate response and encouragement.  It is completely different than all other writing in my life.

So, to anyone reading this now, thank you.   Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read these thoughts.  When I hear from you, I feel that the world is a little closer, a little more comfortable.  There is order.

Thank you for reading.  I am so excited to continue to write this journey.

This Land of Strange

Buffalo, Cyclocross, Race report

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In this land of strange, the gifts are small.

This land.  This land.  This woman clipped into her bike.  This woman falling into the mud.  The unclipping of the chain.  All is lost.  All is lost.

I am a thousand dreams at the starting line.  I am picking my lines.  I am clear eyes and clear thoughts.  I am in my first cyclocross race of the year and my heart is beating strong.  My legs feel good.  My stomach, heart, mind: full.

And then the count down and we are off and I am there.  I am so there.  You should have seen it.  You really should have seen it.

I’m up the hill and I’m picking a line and I can feel how powerful I am.  I am not anything but power at this moment, out here, in this strange land of trails and tape and sport and beer.

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And, I am up past my teammate.  I am past her.  She is the line I was planning to follow.  I was going to catch her the whole time, but now I am past her and it’s so odd to be ahead.  And I am following the lead woman, maybe one or two behind, but I am there.  And, I keep thinking, “Maintain this.  Maintain this.”

But, I do not maintain.  My breath gets the better of me.  I feel it, like a child on the verge of a tantrum, it will gut me of my poise.  I hear it heavy in my throat and I am in the forest of the race and I’m also in the forest of my thoughts.   Smell the wood.  Smell this day.  The spirit and vigor of racing has left me, “This is just too hard.  This is just too hard.”

And I am passed by my teammate and I feel it: a tidal wave that pulls at my feet.  The women start to pass me and I am up and around and down and over, hop, over, hop, over the barriers and then down, left and up and back through the forest around.  Then I am up the curve and there it is.  There it really is.

I have fallen.

I am in the mud and my chain is off.

And the chain of my mind, the gentle click, click, clicking of my thoughts has released as well.

My cycling heroine tells me to keep your head above water.  She says, “You must redefine winning.  You must leave this race with your legs trembling and if they are trembling, then you have won.”

Carry on, you legs.  You have a foolish, no good captain, but carry on your work.  My dentist friend from the cycling community slips my chain back on and I am dazed, but so happy he has helped me.  He has crossed under the tape to do this.  I am back in the race, but I can feel the wind of these women passing me.  They are cheering for me and I am smiling at them, trying to, but I don’t feel like smiling.  I feel like keeling over.  My fitness level is stronger, but not strong enough.  I was in it for the first lap, but now my breath has been taken.  I am a stranger in this strange land.  I am racing against myself now.  I pick someone and think: she just passed you and now you must pass her.

And, I do, but I can feel that my place has slipped quite considerably and I fall twice more.  I feel it on my hip in the ground.  It is soft though and is not any real pain.  It is what I expect when I ride my bike in the middle of a field at 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning with this wild lot of cyclists in this wild plot of land.

I hear my name being called from the sidelines.  A man dressed as a beer can tries to hand me a beer, but I don’t want it.  I can’t risk it and I don’t want it.  I don’t even realize until later who he is: one of the owners of Nickel City Cycles, the team for which I race.

I have no idea how many laps this race will be, I think, “Six more?”  Then I see the lap counter and it delightfully, smiles “Two.”  I am happy.  I can do it.

I gain some momentum, but someone calls out, “Your bike is broken.”  I can feel it.  A spoke maybe.  The derailleur.  Something.  Don’t give in to defeat.  “You’re finishing this race.  Do not DNF.  Do not do it.”  Keep on.  Keep on.

If I shift this way, it is alright.  If I shift that way, it is not.  Shift this way, then.

Half a lap left and I am third to last.  I started third to first and I have sunk like a quarter in a pond.

Push you goddamn legs.

And, I do.  I push and I push and I hear my heavy breath and feel my sinking heart and once again propel myself one rotation after another.

This is what it is.  This is what it means.  One must always push on.  In third place or in third to last, it is about the carrying on.  Even if your gift is small, a tiny morsel, crumb of a thing: you finished and you didn’t finish last.  It is a small gift, but it is something. This is what it means to be human.  This is what it means to be in a bike race.  We finish the race.  We receive the small gift.  We bow our heads, say our thanks.  We have carried through.
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