Butcher Paper: Participation Trophy

Better to start and finish last than to never start at all

Photo: Ryan Creary

I’m definitely not a racer.

When I followed through on a random urge to compete in three bike events in one week, I was as surprised as anyone else.

My training regimen for racing is the same as my general life strategy: When in doubt, rely solely on stubbornness and masochistic tendencies to cross the finish line. In lieu of a heart-rate monitor, my aerobic ‘training zone’ is measured by the partially digested breakfast vurped up into the back of my throat. I like to start in the ‘just a titch too much chorizo’ zone, then kick up the pace until the ‘I’m never drinking margaritas again’ stage, and finish with a recovery cooldown involving high tones of artificially flavored energy gels.

I may not be a racer, but I am competitive as hell. Put me in the same room as a foosball table and you can watch my lust for winning and penchant for obscene smack talk escape with the voracity of an alien skedaddling through John Hurt’s rib cage.

My love for riding spans so many genres that I can’t seem to focus in on any particular niche. I’m on one bike or another almost every day of the week, but rarely the same bike two days in a row. Flitting from one genre to the next keeps my soul content, but also cements my status as a Jane-of-all-trades and master of none.

And maybe that’s the dirty little secret I’ve been hiding from myself. I don’t race because I don’t want to lose. I enjoy the freedom of riding whichever bike tickles my fancy too much to commit to any particular steed.

The bike’s unique ability to shapeshift into myriad experiences is why my garage is lined with an assortment of two-wheeled wonders, each Lego’d together to fit a specific style of riding. Bike people get it. Non-bike people give me ‘the look’ when I explain that my commuter is vastly different from my ice-cream getter and the half-assembled gravel grinder in the corner.

My love of all the bikes is what got me into this racing mess in the first place. It started when I signed up to ride in an observed bike trials competition, then saw a women’s-only-cross-country race was happening the next day. A handful of days later, I’d head to Vail to finally discover what this whole enduro thing I’ve been making fun of was all about.

Three disciplines. Three competitions. Three opportunities to finish, quit, get hurt, be humbled and see how I stack up.

At the trials comp, I strapped my shin guards on and sized up my beginner class peers, both of whom still required parents to get into R-rated movies. Riding in a competition where you’re penalized for every dab is new for me, and my lack of experience showed. I won a handful of sections but lost most, eventually walking away with a third place ribbon and a zillion cactus tines embedded in my hands.

At my age, the chances of moving up to pro are about the same as me suddenly deciding that I love running. I may never be at that level, but there’s an odd comfort in knowing they started off where I am. After all, we’re all walking the line between our desires to win and the realities of failure.

Collapsing into bed well after midnight with an alarm set for 5 a.m. made me want to bail out of my XC race the next day. But this wasn’t just any race—it was the Yeti Beti Bike Bash, a women’s-only race I’d heard about for years. It’s no surprise that mountain biking is a bit of a sausage party, and while I do enjoy a nice meat fest, the opportunity to race with more than 400 women wasn’t something I was about to pass up.

As I rolled up in a sleep-deprived fog, a voice shouted over the bullhorn: “First time racers, ages 70 and over, you’re starting in two minutes!”

Was I really watching an entire heat dedicated to women whose AARP cards were old enough to drink? For a variety of reasons, women’s race fields are often thin enough that finishing last can still get you a podium spot. I’ve heard folks point out the silver lining that small fields increase the chances for winning, but the women at the line know the truth. We’d easily trade podium odds to leave in a frenzy of race numbers all vying for that top spot.

Over the morning, hundreds of women funneled into filled-out heats, whether it was pro, expert, singlespeed or ‘new mom.’ As I competed against 25 other sport class women over 40, I was downright giddy to finish mid-pack amid the largest group of women I’d ever raced against—women just like me and nothing like me.

Later in the day, when it came time for the final ceremony marking the culmination of 23 pro women battling it out, there was a slight problem. The pros were nowhere to be found.

They were busy chatting up dozens of the youngest racers who eagerly asked questions straddling bikes that were still small enough to fit into their parents’ trunks. Watching girls go from outliers to just another rider surrounded by a sea of women put a bigger smile on my face than a medal ever could.

A few days later, my start line nervousness was back as I discovered that enduros are like downhill races run by that buddy who somehow persuades you to go cross-country riding between runs. The timed downhills were broken up by 25 miles of climbing that accrued nearly 4,000 feet in elevation. It turns out that my summer of big rides paid off as I spent the day climbing and chatting with new friends while never once tasting any remnants of breakfast. A third place medal in a field of three may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but after a week of getting out of my comfort zone, it’s my reminder that finishing last is better than being too afraid to start.


Sound off in the comments below!

Join the conversation