I know that there is no mathematical proof that everything happens for a reason, but if I strive to make meaning, I can reimagine the low moments of my life as gifts that took a long time to unwrap and comprehend.
Three and a half years ago one cleat of a junior track racer came unclipped as he stood up to sprint in front of me. His spine and my carbon wheel broke in the next moment. I flipped over my handlebars, throwing my bike through the air and breaking my helmet as I landed. People asked me if I was okay as I walked away from the crash. I responded, “I don’t know yet. It will take time to understand what happened to my body.” At the time, I meant that I needed my endorphins to fade so I could feel pain again. I had no premonition that I’d still feel this day in my body three years later.
I had no idea that slowly taking away the sport that defined me would help me find my voice and leave me in a better place.
My bicycle wasn’t taken away from me all at once. Two days after the accident I was riding again, apparently unscathed. I wasn’t. Although I could ride, whenever I pushed myself the right side of my body felt as if it was tearing itself apart instead of becoming stronger. Training didn’t make me faster anymore. It just made half of me hurt.
I couldn’t ride away from my problems by taking myself to a place where all I felt was exhaustion, hunger and endorphins. I still defined myself by my success on the bike, and came up short when I compared myself to teammates who were going pro and setting records. I didn’t look injured; I thought my failure must have been an issue of not having the personal strength to work towards a goal.
After three years of yoga, expensive bike fits, physical therapy and doctors, I gave up on my troubled relationship with my bike on the side of the road halfway through a ride. On mile 45 of a ride I watched my friends pedal away and didn’t even try to keep up because I knew the strain would leave half of me hurting. What struck me was not that I was slow, but that I couldn’t even attempt to do my best without making myself worse. I recalled my first long bike ride six years earlier. With no preparation or spandex, I borrowed my father’s ill-fitting bike to see how far I could go. After 45 miles it started raining, and I raced home exhausted and high on endorphins. The realization that after 30,000 miles on the bike, I was worse than the day I started, was what I needed to give up my failing relationship. I told my friends to come back and get me with the car when they finished, and I sat in a park and cried as if I’d lost a lover.
When Mara Abbott broke up with her bicycle after riding high on world-wide success and then falling apart emotionally and physically, the time away allowed her to finally decide that a career in cycling was worth it even though she wasn’t sure how she would achieve her goals of saving the world. She cut straight to painful truth and shared how she starved her body until she couldn’t race because she couldn’t tell the truth in words about her commitment to bike racing. Giving it up allowed her to embrace her true love for the bike.
My four months away from the bike, coupled with the reflective frenzy triggered by my friend’s death, allowed me to realize that I defined myself as a cyclist because it was too painful to define myself as a teacher. My first year my classes were out of control and my second year the administration thought I was insubordinate. At my new school, I was told teaching was an art form that I had no innate skill in, and that they were considering not renewing my contract at the end of my third year.
In my life of straight A’s, good health, and success in extracurricular activities, I’d never had to love myself, just as I was, in that moment. There was always a new honor, or perfect score to allow me to define myself by how I measured up against others. When I attended Teach for America events and heard about all the success that was possible for every teacher who worked relentlessly and maintained a sense of possibility, and thought about my own classroom, I wondered if something was wrong with me. I thought “Do I just not care enough about these students to work hard?” even as I described myself as a “crumpled, shriveled, heap” on my blog as a result of the effort I put into teaching.
As I failed at living up to my TFA-defined teaching dreams, cycling was where I could still define myself by comparing myself to others. Hard work and suffering led to quick success. If I could ride 100 miles in a day I wasn’t worthless. And beyond my need to see some success in life, there was something innately beautiful about being on the bike in Red Rocks.
I truly hope Mara achieves her dream of loving herself, finding her voice, and tearing it up on the mountains around the world. Being fast isn’t my dream any more. I’ve worked hard to stop asking myself “Why don’t I care about beating everyone and getting faster on the bike? What is wrong with me?” I’ve filled the space left in my life with dozens of books, dreaming seriously about writing my teaching memoir, and exploring the canyons of Arizona. I found the beauty of yoga and practice loving myself and the moment. Cycling pulled me through a bad time and is an amazing sport to many, but like many relationships started in a time of desperation, it ended up not being healthy for me. Bikes are amazing-the misery I brought into the relationship was not.
After many years, I’m thankful that the junior’s pedal unclipped so that I would not be so caught up in a chasing a sport that no longer served me that I would ride away from finding myself.