Ego is a bitch. It is the petulant, undisciplined child inside all of us screaming defiantly at the world, “MINE!” It sometimes sets unreasonable expectations and calls us terrible names when we fail. My ego is no different.
A long time ago in a peloton far, far away I used to be a road bicycle racer. I entered the sport a little later than most serious athletes, my first race was on my 29th birthday in April of 1999. It was a short race of appx 30miles, 2 laps around a course with 2 large climbs. I broke away early, in what would become my signature move, and finished the race well ahead of the pack. By the time the pack reached the finish I was sitting in the grass eating a bagel watching the sprint for second place.
This, of course, was long before I ever had the ability to look inward at my wounds. I was still a traumatised child in the body of an adult seeking love and external validation. As you might imagine, this result in my first race would become a challenge for that damaged ego.
My second race was quite different; a bigger pack, a longer and more strategically technical course, and me thinking it would be a walk in the park. Cycling is brutal on the body and the psyche and this was my first real taste. At that point in my life I had only two emotional states I could be in; either I was the best or I was the worst. Finishing mid-field in that race body-slammed my ego to the floor.
The rest of my cycling career was similar. I won several state time trial championships, placed well in pro-am stage races, and climbed the ranks to USCF category 2, something many of my racing partners dreamed of. There were plenty of races I didn’t win as well. Some I had to drop out of, usually as a result of some form of ego…I would go too hard, too soon trying to establish dominance and when others were strong enough to keep up they wore me out.
Each time I was either a winner or a complete loser, usually the latter. I was entirely unforgiving of myself.
Cycling ended abruptly when life intervened and I had to get a job and a career. I haven’t raced since. This, too, was seen as failure.
But ego doesn’t let go easily. It missed that feeling of power and success that comes from crossing the finish line and raising both hands to the sky, all eyes on you…”you’re a winner,” it whispers.
Years went on, then more. I tried dozens of times to get back on the bike for fun or fitness. Each time I would try, feel slow and miserable, and give up within a week or two.
My ego did not consider that I hadn’t trained in months, sometimes years, and that fitness needs to be slowly built. No, my ego berated me for not being able to put out the same high wattages for hours that I had when I was training up to 60hrs a week. It called me fat and slow with the voice of my father and shame and defeat quickly drove me off the bike again.
On Monday this week I cycled into work. My company has a very progressive policy towards cyclists; we have a dedicated, secure bike storage area, lockers, and showers. I could think of no reason why I should not be taking advantage of this. At nearly 50 years old, fitness is becoming even more a necessary part of my health maintenance. And there is the thought that I am going to hunt responsibly and ethically this fall I need to be fit enough to go into the woods and be able to carry out a large deer on my own.
And perhaps most importantly of all- when the inevitable zombie apocalypse comes rule #1 is cardio.
The ride to work is fairly easy and flat for most of the route. But the last 2 miles getting home is all uphill. I’m still a little heavier than I like, even after losing perhaps (I didn’t weigh myself) 50lbs and 2.5 pant sizes over the last several months due to switching to a ketonic diet, and going uphill sucks when you’re not in shape. Cycling uphill is all about power to weight ratios and mine are skewed heavily (pun intended) towards the weight end of the equation right now. Add to the fact that I’m carrying work clothes, a laptop, and other items in my messenger back and it’s a fair bit of mass I’m pushing up along the Earth’s gravity well.
Since racing ended every time I got on the bike my ego would goad me, despite the realities of my physical fitness, to go balls-to-the-wall, full effort, almost like I was trying to destroy the possibility of any enjoyment or feeling of success.
But not Monday, this was different. Yes, it hurt. I was moving so much air in and out of my lungs it felt like I was creating my own breeze, bending bushes and trees back and forth. I was slow, extremely slow…but I was ok with that.
This time, my ego was silent.
Three weeks ago I had my first solo MDMA session in quite some time. The overarching theme of that session was letting go of self-judgement. The medicine helped me step back from my life and see it more objectively, to see more clearly than ever that the voice of my inner critic was a liar. I looked at myself like I would another person and I felt nothing but compassion in that moment.
I’ve ridden to work since then. It still hurts and I’m getting passed on the hill by other cyclists on heavier bikes, some wearing jeans and work boots instead of lycra and proper cycling shoes, but the internal insults just aren’t there; there is only forgiveness and self-love.
My ego now talks about how good it feels to be out and active. It encourages me to keep at it, that my fitness will get better as time goes on. This time it feels sustainable.
I’ve given up the illusion that I’ll ever race again, it’s a time investment I have no interest in making, and for the first time in nearly 20 years that’s entirely ok. I’m finally at peace with my athletic past.