On Becoming and Unbecoming an Athlete -The Toast

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metrocatsElis Bradshaw last wrote for The Toast about accidentally taking boudoir photos with her mom.

Some lucky women are born athletes. I have a friend who runs like a gazelle and transforms into a porpoise when she goes swimming. I am not one of those women, not by a long shot. 

I spent the first twenty years of my life with my nose planted in a book and my body planted on a chair. In seventh grade I tried to branch out by joining my school’s volleyball team (no tryouts required). I think I played in one game during the whole season, badly. The next year I went back to the Spelling Bee team.

It never occurred to me that I might want to be an athlete until college, when I started dating a major bicycle enthusiast. A few months into our courtship, he borrowed a friend’s bike and took me out for a ride. It was awful. I was uncomfortable, terrible at it, and finished the ride in tears, so mortified by my performance that I insisted on riding again and again and again, until I felt like I’d redeemed myself from my less-than-stellar first try. 

My primary motivation to ride was to reach some undefined ability that would be “good enough” and absolve me of my humiliating introduction to the sport, but at some point I began to enjoy riding for its own sake: conquering new hills, going downhill faster and faster, riding increasingly long distances. After two years I still didn’t feel like a good enough cyclist to forgive myself for not being a prodigy, so I decided to increase the pressure. I entered a race. 

My first race went about as well as that initial ride. All thirty competitors in my race passed me during the neutral roll-out (neutral! We weren’t even racing yet!), then the motorcycle referee, then the car that followed the race in case any rider got a flat tire, until I was alone on the road before the race officially began. I cried with shame all the way home, and true-to-form I decided I would keep racing until I made up for the embarassment.

pandaIn a few years I managed to claw my way up to the professional level on hard work and a steadfast refusal to take no for an answer. (Interestingly, I found that most of the time it was my own voice telling me no. No, you don’t have enough time to train as much as you need to. No, you’re not lean enough to make it over that hill with the group. No, you aren’t good enough yet; be better.) I raced against current and former national champions and Olympians. Sometimes I made them wear a set of fake panda bear ears for a running gag I had on my blog. Somewhere along the line I realized that I’d become something I never expected to be: an athlete. 

Bike racing took over my life well before I knew what was happening. Once I started racing, ten hours a week on the bike was an easy week; a long one was closer to twenty. Meanwhile I was working forty hours a week, reading everything I could find about how to maximize my training, and doing as little as possible when I was off the bike, “to save my legs.” I timed my meals to replenish my muscle glycogen without putting on new muscle and reducing my power-to-weight ratio; it’s a gravity-based sport, after all. I declined invitations to social events that conflicted with my training (most of them did) and skipped out on my family after my grandfather’s funeral for a race. I had never expected to become an athlete, but once I saw myself that way it became the cornerstone of my identity. I couldn’t imagine myself not being one. 

Unfortunately, I had to do more than imagine it. In 2011, after nearly a decade of racing, my heart gave out. This is not a figure of speech: I developed a condition that made my heart rate shoot up to 300 beats a minute whenever I rode my bike, even lightly around the block. The accompanying dizziness first made it unsafe for me to race, and then to ride at all. In the space of a few weeks, the identity that I’d spent years building was gone. Where I’d been a bike racer, an athlete, a person with purpose, suddenly I wasn’t, and I wasn’t very sure of who I was without those things.

I’d frequently pretend to brush off the significance of the sport in my life—oh, it’s not a big deal, it’s just a thing I do—but without it I was lost. I had hours to fill that I’d previously used for training; years of declined invitations meant I’d lost touch with most of my non-racing friends, and many of my racer friends couldn’t really spare time for me off of the bike. (A few of them did, and they are the friends I will keep forever.) Most importantly, I didn’t know my own value anymore. Without competitors, I could only try to beat myself. I was still desperate to redeem myself, but my body had betrayed and abandoned me so I had no way to get there. 

It took a year to adjust to life without a training plan and a race calendar. One full year to understand that I didn’t have to earn things that gave me joy, through a good result or a long ride, and to stop punishing myself for the things I couldn’t do anymore. It took another year before I could trust my body again and consider a new kind of physical activity. Cycling was out of the question; my bike was too heavy with disappointment. 

I spent some time bumming around from one “try our facility!” special offer to another, which is where I took a Muay Thai class and felt a spark. It was similar to the way I’d felt about bike racing when I was doing well, but I didn’t have to win to feel good about it. Without the external pressure I was quick to fall in love and relish the quick gains you only get when you’re starting from rock bottom.

I’ve spent the last year learning how to be an athlete again, with much more awareness about the process than I had the first time. And I’ve realized that when I was training twenty hours a week and pouring resources into equipment, coaching, and race entry fees, arguably the most fit I will be in my life, I was rarely happy about it. I was too busy comparing myself everyone else to celebrate the goals I achieved. Physically I was going through all the right motions, but my driving force was not love of sport, it was a nagging sense of inadequacy and the fear that I would never be good enough to redeem my rocky start. Not even winning was enough, because I measured my success by all the women who hadn’t raced that day, absent competitors who could have beaten me. 

It is impossible to feel good about your development or achievements when you’re looking so far outside of yourself. And while I’m glad I raced for so long, because it was often fun, I met some wonderful people, and I learned a lot, I can’t say that I miss it.

Like bike racing, Muay Thai has not come easy to me, but this time that’s okay. It hasn’t made the major off-the-couch changes to my body that cycling did, but it has made drastic changes to my mind. It is making me into the athlete I thought I was for all those years, one whose strength is rooted inside and measured by my own improvement instead of another person’s results. I still have bad days, and they’re just as frustrating as they were before, but because my point of reference is my own previous performance the disappointment doesn’t linger. When I have an off day, I’m all but guaranteed to be better next time.

Since I started practicing Muay Thai, I’ve taken my bike on a few tentative rides, and it doesn’t taunt me anymore with the goals I didn’t reach. It just glides along the road, not quite as fast as it used to, but not so slow either. Not that it matters anymore how fast I go. Good day, bad day, win, or lose: I feel like an athlete again, this time for good.


Elis Bradshaw owns more workout pants than real pants. She lives in Oakland, California, and sometimes writes stories on Cowbird.

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