Lee taking the barriers in Boulder. Photo courtesy of Lee Waldman

Lee, pre-injury, taking the barriers in Boulder. Photo courtesy of Lee Waldman

by Lee Waldman

Got a text a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t recognize the area code and the number attached to it so I did was every inquiring  critical thinker would do in that situation. I texted back, “Who is this?” Soon after, the text-er identified herself as 70+ many time National Champion Julie Lockhart. She and I had spoken when she was in Boulder for Nationals. Even though I couldn’t race, I was able to give her some tips about the course that, according to her, proved to be helpful.

Since then we’ve become friends.  We’ve never actually met in person. But  when we talk, our  conversation is always rich and rambling. Her text the came after she read my last column. It seems that she “needed to talk.”  My rambling on about 30-plus years challenges  struck a chord with her.  How, she asked, was I able to  maintain the desire, focus, motivation and discipline to come back not once, but multiple times?

It was a compelling question; one that I couldn’t readily answer. We talked for quite a long time and since then, I’ve mucked  around, searching for the answer to her question. How have I been able to keep myself from just packing it in and saying, “Well, it was fun racing ’cross, but I’m done!”

The first time I seriously hurt myself was racing a criterium at the Copper Mountain Ski Area. A “less than attentive” rider exited the pit, wanting to be where I was on the course. His pedal and my front wheel ended up occupying the same space. Needless to say, the bike stopped, my face and teeth absorbing the impact. The face recovered, the teeth were history.  It was a nasty enough accident that I actually had two friends quit racing afterward. I was younger then, and the idea of quitting never entered my mind to the extreme dismay of wife and my middle school daughter, who loudly questioned my sanity. As soon as I was able, I was back on the bike. I raced ’cross that season, not well, but I forced myself to “get back on the horse.” To say I was skittish would be an understatement. I was nervous, probably a hazard to other riders, but I just couldn’t imagine life without bike racing. Eventually I became comfortable on the bike again.

That was almost 20 years ago. Looking back, in light of my most recent injury—a ruptured hamstring tendon—I’m not sure why I kept racing. Something deep in my psyche is fulfilled when the whistle blows and all the hours and training miles are put to the test. That’s really what it is, that regular testing of my mind and  body that can never, ever be replicated in any other sort of riding. The only time that I don’t have the option to dial it down is when I’m racing.

Which brings me back to the real answer to my Julie’s question. How do I keep coming back? It’s that ever-loving test.  It’s the need to prove myself, partially to others, partially to myself. And because I need to “pass” the test, I give myself no other option except to come back.

It’s more complicated than that though. If I just sat myself down after every potentially career-ending accident and simply said I was going to come back, it might work. It might not. I had to set a goal for myself. Something that was specific, that I could gauge, that I knew I could attain, that was reasonable, and that I could reach in a short enough time period to keep myself from getting discouraged.

At the same time, I needed to understand that the road back is long, that there are no shortcuts, and that patience is indeed a virtue. It meant becoming comfortable with feeling weak and tired. If I was the kind of person who expected and needed immediate results, I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this column, because I would certainly have quit long ago.  But I’m not. I have endless patience and an equal amount of stubbornness.

So how do I keep coming back? I don’t give myself the option. There’s too much about cyclocross that I still love, too many goals that I haven’t accomplished yet, too much joy I get from the pain and the challenge. There really isn’t a black and white answer and no set of guidelines for how to recover from a devastating set back. There’s no recipe. What there is, for me at least, is an unwavering commitment never to give in or to give up. Quitting, even in the context of a long and slow rehabilitation is simply not an option. It’s not that I’m afraid of failure, I’m afraid of giving in.

Each of us who has a challenge set before us, whether it’s a coach who thinks we’re not committed, to a family that would love to see us quit, to an injury that could/should be career ending, has to make a decision. No matter what that decision is, if it’s a thoughtful one, it’s the correct one. Many people would have retired from racing had they been faced with the number of challenges I’ve had. Lost teeth, walking pneumonia, broken collarbone, separated shoulder, broken elbow, numerous broken ribs, and most recently, that ruptured hamstring tendon. I don’t know why I keep coming back. I feel like the Everlast Bunny sometimes, just pounding away at my particular drum with that silly smile on my face. I simply don’t see another option. Perhaps one day I will and that will be the day that I give up my racing license and ride my bike for fun. For now, the suffering and the challenge still feels like fun. So, as soon as the snow clears I’ll be out on the road.  As soon as the trails dry out a bit, I’ll be on the mountain bike.  As soon as August gets here, I’ll be at a ’cross camp striving to hone the skills that will keep me a bit safer and healthier this season. Maybe it’s Peter Pan-ish, but I won’t grow up. I’ll just ride my bike.

You should do the same.  Go ride.

(P.S. Julie, did I answer your question?)