When the 100-Day Forecast Calls for Rain: Re-Orienting Goals as an Amateur Athlete
2020 has been a tough year for everyone – plans changed, events cancelled, jobs lost, vacations indefinitely postponed, and the list goes on. For me, personally, not much has changed in the grand scheme of things.
As a school counselor, my job is now completely virtual, which has been an adjustment, but not necessarily in bad ways. I have had to re-orient the way I interact with my students and parents and colleagues, and the interpersonal piece of my job that I love is gone, but I also have gained more flexible hours, which means if the temperamental April weather in the Pacific Northwest has a one hour window of sunny respite, that’s the hour I can take a break to go for a run.
As a partner, the changes caused by COVID19 have brought more positives than negatives, as we now get to spend much more time together. Our daily routine now includes things like evenings of Netflix, cooking together, regular dog walks, and virtual board games with friends. It’s not a bad gig and the forecast calls for more of the same, which I’m not complaining about in the least.
As a dog owner, Bryn is living her best life with me at home more of the day. Every day is sunshine for her. Enough said.
As an amateur athlete, however, the storm clouds gather. I have been slowly building my own athletic resume for the past few years and, as many other amateur athletes, had big plans for 2020.
The Demon Inside All Amateur Athletes
Amateur athletes aren’t in their chosen sport(s) for the money. We aren’t gifted with the 1% body type or physical prowess needed to go pro. We’re in it because we’re passionate about sport. We’re intrigued by our physical limits and, for many, we’re driven to find where that limit ends.
Many amateur athletes also use sport as a way to thwart off some of the daily demons they’re afflicted with, whether it’s mental illness, addictive personalities, or even just bad habits. Exercise, competition, training, and goal setting are a helpful distraction from these tendencies.
Identity vs. Role Confusion in the Adult Athlete
Throughout my life exercise has been part of who I am. It was defined by soccer throughout middle and high school, and slowly transferred to biking and running in my adult years.
As an adult, I’ve had a major race or event goal every summer for the last 5 years, and they have progressed in intensity every year. It is these goals that provide structure and routine in my life: get up early to exercise before work, go to work, get in your main workout immediately after work, sleep, do it all again.
But without the goal, what is their to ‘train’ for? In the midst of COVID19, many amateur athletes have lost their race goal, and my guess is that it has affected their daily routine, their nutrition (why eat well if you’re not doing it for a race?), their sleep, and likely their identity. And without their demon suppressant (i.e. competition, training, and goals), are other amateur athletes succumbing to their other demons? I hope not.
2020 Goals Deferred
My biggest race of the year was going to be the Tour Divide Race in June, a 2,700 mile gravel race from Banff, CA, to Antelope Wells, NM. My training plan started in mid-January, but I had been training since December and coming off the coat-tails of an excellent 4 month trail marathon training circuit that had culminated in my best running training circuit yet – a 1st place finish.
Naturally, I was all-confidence as I re-oriented my goals from running to biking, and the conditioning from my running event translated well as I quickly saw my muscle-memory on the bike translate to performance on the bike. I was really excited for the benchmark races in April and May that would test my fitness, along with a few personal 24-hour goals I was going to try and accomplish with a couple of my Northwest Competitive Adventure team mates.
Once March rolled around, word of this Corona virus started to become more common place, but initially it seemed more like a joke than a serious threat.
Within the span of one week, however, the seriousness of the virus became clear. The NBA cancelled its season, many other major sports associations did the same, gyms and restaurants shut down, and I was let out of school a day early for Spring Break. By late March, COVID19 was in the 5-day, 10-day, and 100-day forecast, with no end in sight.
It was late March when I realized my 2020 Tour Divide Race wasn’t going to happen. With state parks shutting down, travel highly discouraged, and social pressures to #stayhome tangible (and necessary), multi-day training sessions were no longer possible and even though there is no official statement from the race as there is no official Race Director, it would simply be socially irresponsible to attempt a race that goes through so many small town that are ill-equipped to deal with such a dangerous virus. The dream of the Tour Divide will have to wait.
Wandering in the Wilderness
And that’s how the amateur athlete diaspora began. I think that for most athletes, the internal dialog doesn’t follow any sort of linear pattern but includes the following ingredients:
- A feeling of emptiness and loss: All of the physical and mental work, the sweat, the highs, the lows, the sacrifices, and the emotional investment lose their meaning
- A feeling of pettiness and selfishness: The realization that these feelings are rooted in personal improvement to satisfy petty compartments of self-worth. Meanwhile, people are DYING, losing their jobs, and unable to satisfy basic needs. What exactly have you lost again?
- The development of coping strategies: Healthy strategies like finding joy in exercising towards the unknown and without goals, finding gratitude and passion in life outside of sport… or drinking excessively, eating crap, and losing all motivation to exercise. These strategies are also not linear or an either/or option.
Finding Balance in the Storm
April was a cruel month for me, and I found myself bouncing around and between these three facets of my own personal athletic diaspora. I had lost all motivation to ride my bike, had no goals to help motivate healthy living, and was in a simultaneous state of self-pity and self-loathing for the selfish implications that go along with my feelings of loss.
While I’m not in the confident headspace that I was before COVID19, I have found a healthier living and thinking space in the last couple weeks. With no Tour Divide, the bike had to be put away for a while – I just couldn’t do it – but I am currently back in the world of running. I found a virtual 12-hour race that I’m excited about at the end of May, and also have my first 100k race tentatively scheduled for July 25th – the Wy’East Howl – a 62-mile run in the Mount Hood Wilderness.
I also have a tentative bikepacking race – The Big Lonely – I’ll do post-100k in October, and having it on the calendar has helped settle my mind around the potential of the 100k getting cancelled. If it is cancelled, it just means I can start ‘training’ on the bike earlier.
I also have gotten to a mental space where it’s ok if the 100k race is cancelled. Finding a balance between acknowledging the connection between athletics and well-being while also acknowledging the importance of social distancing for the greater good is an ongoing battle of conflict resolution in my head, but it’s one that is trending towards reconciliation, whereas two weeks ago it was trending towards stormy thinking and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Settling into the Eye of the Storm
All this being said, for the amateur athlete, a core part of their identity has been completely uprooted, and acknowledging this is fundamental in starting the path towards healing and acceptance. I’m not there yet. I still have days of self-pity. I still have days of self-disgust at my own selfishness. But I at least can acknowledge that a core part of me has been uprooted and that it’s ok to feel sad and a bit resentful, even if that resentment is directed towards an unfeeling and uncaring disease.
For the time being, I’m weathering the storm and I hope other athletes are finding their own ways to suppress the demons, find gratitude, and weather their storms as well.
I enjoyed your write up. I too am an amateur athlete or at least amateur! I did the TD last year. I turned 50 last year and I wanted my kids to see you can be who ever you want to be. I wanted to be an ultra distance cyclist. With every long ride that passed I would ask my family am I an ultra distance cyclist and each time they would answer no! I cycled to the south of France. Lands end to johnogrotes. Around Iceland. They would answer no! Then with my photo proving I got to Antelope Wells I phoned and asked again am I an ultra distance cyclist now? They reply with a backdrop of laughter NO!
The result is that like every other adventure cyclist tangled up in the blues of lockdown. I ponder on the future and hope we all come out of this better and the society we build is better than the one we had. Less greed more time. Now I may or may not be an athlete. I may or may not be an ultra distance cyclist in the eyes of some but I sure as hell am enjoying the ride.
I was smiling through your entire comment, Steven. Thanks for sharing. I agree with you that it’s easy to forget how much joy is in the journey sometimes. I tend to get so goal-focused that I forget how much I love cycling and running simply for the sake of getting outside. And whether you get your family to see you as an ultra-distance cyclist or not, I’m glad you’re enjoying the ride! Cheers, my friend.