On the way to a friend’s house this past week, the friendly banter in the car was about some people’s music taste, or lack thereof. The back and forth had the silly trappings of long term familiarity, so our bud Kyle was once again the butt of the jokes. As his lovely fiancée and I rejoiced at tooling on him – always an endless source of material – the conversation took an interesting turn.
A successful racer herself, she needs good beats to psyche her up while placating the jitters on the way to races, which I understand to a certain degree. While it is true Kyle’s music predilection borders on the immorally bland, she was complaining he doesn’t quite enjoy the beats as much as she does. Rather, when not torturing passengers with bad music, NPR is his choice for a system-soothing, pre-competition drive.
Folks like him and I have been doing this for a long time. Through the years, we have condensed the production into a quick-step routine of in-and-out, special forces-style. Get up, eat, race (suffer), go home. Ok, in Kyle’s case, get up-eat-race-socialize-take-forever-to-clean-up and then go home (or Hospital). But I do empathize with the pre race shakes. When I was a teenager, I used to get so nervous before the events that I thought I was gonna dehydrate with so many pee stops. I wouldn’t sleep the night prior, could barely eat breakfast, obsessed that the toe strap lengths were cut just right, that I had an extra kit just in case, or that the óleo elétrico didn’t spill in my backpack. It became a pathology that ate my entrails, kept my heart rate inordinately high, yet I really loved it and thought nothing came even close to a racing environment experience. But even then, the nervousness would subside, demoted to a last row start at the back of my mind, and just stay there, recoiled, poised to torment at a moment’s notice. We raced in the junior category, and it would be clear who had been doing it for a while and who had not. The commissaire would do the spiel at the start line, and immediately the boys would initiate the weekly social catch up: how’s it going; is your sister here?; wasn’t aware it was gonna be 7 laps instead of 9; have they repaved that nasty section at the bottom of the hill?; only to be screamed at by the commissaire to pay attention, then actually get going. The race-ready boys were still yakking as they tightened their toe straps, while the nervous kids would fiddle and fuss and spend half of the first lap fishing for their pedals in the clumsiest of ways.
Nevertheless, I do get nervous. Say, when the wife uses that tone and suggests “we need to discuss this”, I get nervous. Or when Embro James calls me at some odd hour, I know there’ll be some hairy issue that will require my substantial resources to calm him down. With age we learn some tricks to defuse or redirect anxiety; it’s not like the problems get any smaller, actually it’s the contrary. The issues are numerous, and we have a better notion of which battle to fight first, with the understanding that undue distress burns matches we cannot afford to dispense. One learns to harness and channel the disquieting creature, disguising the smearing magma under a sublime mien, only to summon its destructive powers from the back row, erupting at the right moment. Think of a canon-shot instead of a fire brigade of bb guns. Turning anxiety into rocket fuel is a skill that comes with experience.
I remember a few years back at a road race in western Massachusetts; I loped down to the stalls area, a quick tinkle before suiting up. The pungent smell of camphor and toilet fodder offended my senses, until the familiar sight of a friendly local pro distracted me. I stopped to shake hands and made a passing comment about the environment.
“It’s a good thing”, he said. “It’s the smell of bike racing.”
Redolence aside, to me it smelled like paralyzing fear, something gladiators went through prior to throwing themselves out past the coliseum cages. But we’re not wrestling lions or dodging a mace-swinging marauder, ferchryssakes. It’s just a bike race, what’s the big deal? Everything and nothing.
Working towards a good result involves all sorts of efforts; some riders are just good at it, others may have had to overcome injury, time off from the sport, and myriad other intangibles that in his or her head may warrant nervous anticipation. The sport is process and production heavy. Refining it just so requires plain, painful work, so the expectation of good accomplishment hinges on a lot of personal investment. But the performance anxiety has the unfortunate side effect of clouding judgment; it puts blinds on the larger panorama, reducing insight for big picture appreciation. Belly butterflies are welcome, crippling fear is not. Part of being a half-decent athlete involves thinking on one’s cleats, better yet, reacting on one’s cleats. At the same time, it all goes away quickly: the whole whirlwind of emotions ends when one crosses the line; then, so much at stake is all gone, vanished within seconds. The catharsis, fueled by the rush of adrenaline, rewards the stressed athlete with a deeper acknowledgment that nervous energy goes nowhere. After all, the only way to beat the beast is to face it repetitively.
However, the mere thought of being in the car with Kyle and his music gives me enough jitters to send me straight to the port-a-potty. If you hitch a ride with him, bring your own iPod or NASCAR-approved earplugs.