In 2005, I was having a very good year racing on the road. My training seemed to finally come together, and I found myself in several breaks in 40-plus events. I wasn’t winning, but I was consistently placing top 5 against some very good company.
But as the season points added up, I could feel the pressure get to my head. I started missing the key breaks, missing out on points. The expectations I placed on myself caused so much inner turmoil that I freaked out on the bike, my legs and good form turning to concrete.
By the time Wisconsin’s Superweek came around in July, I knew I had to take a significant step to lighten the mood: so as a 41-year-old man, I dyed my hair orange.
It still didn’t work. I had a few days of decent racing, but it was mostly a very frustrating experience. Then, and during the following season, I realized I wasn’t having any fun racing my bike. Racing had become a battle against myself, a battle I was losing.
When I started racing cyclocross five years ago, I thought it was the answer. I was having a great time riding my bike in the mud and grass, falling over and laughing.
I was having a great time until I started to win in the 4s in 2008. By the time the state championships rolled around that year, I managed to build up enough pressure in my head that I had my worst race of the season, psyching myself completely out of the event.
I don’t think even orange hair would have helped.
And in 2010, one year after the crash, when I should have been glad to just ride my bike around in the mud, the same self-critical pressure returned. As soon as I finished well in the first races of the year, the siren of expectations dashed the “fun quotient” against the rocks. Races that I came in feeling physically strong after good training weeks were the races I finished poorly in, all because I expected to challenge for the win.
I expected results even though I hadn’t been able to train most of the year because I was still rehabbing my thigh and knee. I expected results even though I still run awkwardly up hills and over barriers.
And I had these unreasonable expectations even though I was just 20-some months away from a life-threatening accident where one of my legs was shattered.
Clearly there is an issue here for me!
As well-trained athletes, we expect so much of our bodies and our minds. We expect to bounce back after crashes and hard rides. We expect that if we put the training time in, we should get results. And sometimes we end up measuring ourselves by our results, and if those results don’t come, we are somehow lesser people.
And that is the point of this year of training. I will train my mind and heart to enjoy what I can do that day, to view whatever result I get as a success. Given my long history of beating myself up for failing to meet my impossibly high expectations, it is a challenging task.
My coach, who you will meet as Coach Crusty, wrote it down for future reference: “Warloski will work on staying positive all year.” I am getting some help and doing a lot of work to make this mental and emotional shift.
Whenever I have peaked for certain events throughout my cycling career, I have done poorly. So there will be no peaking to my training this year. I will race some road events, some mountain bike events, some time trials throughout the spring and summer. Each of those races will be good training and good days to be on the bike.
And by the fall, when the real season starts, when we again get to ride in mud and grass like kids, I will simply be able to ride faster than I could in the summer.
I am not going to peak for nationals, even though nationals are just down the road in Madison. Sure, I want to do well, but it is just another race. I will prepare as best I can. But at nationals, it will be just a good day (although cold) to race.
Today, at the gym, I was tired. I could not lift as much as usual. So I had a chance to practice choosing my attitude: I lifted what I could today. I kept telling myself, it was a good day to lift.
And tomorrow, I get to ride my bike in the basement and watch movies. Even in the basement, it is a good day to ride.
And I won’t need orange hair to ride anywhere.
Paul Warloski races cyclocross for the my wife inc cyclocross team in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is 47 and a middle school English teacher. He was nearly killed in a 2009 crash when a large pick-up truck broadsided him on a training ride. In this column, he is documenting a year learning how to be positive and content regardless of results as well as physical training. He maintains an irregular blog at http://warloski.blogspot.com/ and his race reports, along with reports from the rest of the mwi crew, can be found at http://mwicrossteam.blogspot.com/