Showing Up is Half the Battle 

For my English final I had to write a story about my life. I chose to write about my race at league finals. Here is my story…

The stress of the final mile weighed in on me as we sped along. There had been no break away, no guarantee of a top three finish. Lungs searing and legs arduously turning the cranks, I was desperately trying not to fall off the back of the peloton. All I needed was one final push to the top of the sandy fireroad. “Passing on the left!” my competitor hollered, and our train of top three racers snaked its way past a rider from the previous race still finishing up. “Woah!” I had been sideswiped by the slower rider we were passing. My front tire struggled for traction as I frantically tried to avoid two evils: the D1 rider on my left and a tree on my right. I careened down the trail. Back throbbing, hands and knees stinging, and stomach contracting with disappointment, I looked at the new top two riders, zipping up the road ahead of me. I had been hit twice while trying to pass the same person, the second time catapulting over my handlebars and colliding with a painful thud on the dirt.

With less than a mile left, I straightened out my crooked bars and set out after the kids who had whizzed by me while I was fighting to get up. Head down I crossed the finish line disheveled. Thoughts were flying through my head about how things might have turned out differently if I had only not crashed at the fourth SoCal high school mountain bike race which I needed to win at this point in the five race series.

I hobbled into urgent care two days later. The pain in my back had not diminished after the adrenaline of race day had dissipated. I sat in the sterile smelling doctor’s office while they called for an x-ray of my lower back. A fracture in my spine had to be ruled out before I could proceed with treatment. After thirty minutes of playing Super Unicycle in the silent and tense waiting room the doctor bustled in. Everything was clear. Phew! I had, however, severely strained my lower back muscles. My back was spasming uncontrollably, causing my lumbar spine to be almost straight when normally it should have a prominent curve. My season was over.

I had gone from leading the Socal series to walking hunched over clutching my back. I had fallen from the pinnacle of my athletic performance to rock bottom. My drive had left me. It wasn’t about losing a race or even losing the leader’s jersey. It was all of my work flushed down the drain. All of the hours monotonously spent on the stationary bike and relentlessly pushing myself to the limits on the trail had been for nothing. I couldn’t even finish the series.

I briefly paused on the single square doormat before entering the Julian Fitness Center. Physical therapy was the next step to healing. As I laid on my back and Dr. Kramer put me through a variety of excruciating exercises, I contemplated how things might have turned out differently. Would I have broken the other two guys on the last climb? Would it have come down to a sprint finish? Would I still be wearing the leader jersey? I left physical therapy despondent. Recovery in two weeks seemed unfathomable. Mentally I had already given up on racing in league finals in two weeks. My parents kept encouraging me to ¨keep an open mind,¨ but I had already made up mine.

The next two weeks slogged by. Every other day I would go to physical therapy and I would get put through a set of exercises that I would have scoffed at less than a month ago but now struggled to complete. On the days I didn’t have therapy I would try to keep up my cardio fitness by riding the recumbent bike. Out of the window I could see my team ride by, going out for their daily ride. The thought of them out on the trail while I sat tediously riding indoors made these ¨training” sessions even harder to handle.

The hotel room had been booked and all the travel plans had been set in motion which made not going to the race out of the picture. The days leading up to the race were full of apprehension. Not only had I not ridden my bike for half a month but I also had the mental block of crashing again. I was plagued by scenes of hurtling down the trail, something going wrong and once again sailing over the bars. I packed haphazardly. Walking out of the door I had forgotten to pack my gloves, glasses, CO2 inflator and Garmin. Without my parents’ vigilance I would have been woefully unprepared if I decided to race.

My plan of attack was to completely forget about the race. On the four hour drive to Tehachapi I tried to distract myself by blasting music through my Beats, studying AP flashcards, and napping. Despite my efforts, when we arrived at the incredibly windy venue, I had thoroughly psyched myself out.

The pre-ride was bleak. It seemed as if the course were the exact opposite of what I was hoping for. The wind raged non-stop, the climbs were short and punchy, and the descents were so rutted and rocky that I bounced all over the place on my hardtail bike. When the pain in my back set in it was hard to distinguish if it was physical or mental. After one six mile lap I was done. I hoped tomorrow would be different.

I consoled myself with music while we checked into the hotel, unpacked the car, wheeled the bikes into the room and flopped on the bed. A while later, our small team converged in the hotel lobby before heading to dinner. We walked down the street to a pasta place to carb load but left soon after realizing it was standing room only and we couldn’t get a table for a few hours. Over 2000 people had assembled for the 5th bike race of the season. The Lays, Rich, Chad and Elisara’s then switched restaurants. Dinner did not go according to plan. We waited a long time to be seated and an even longer time to eat. When we finally arrived back at the hotel room it was well past when I should have been asleep. Going to bed past eleven o’clock is not ideal before the most important race of the season.

“Ugh..I’m exhausted” are not good words to utter the morning of race day. I hurriedly pack my gear and once again drowned out my thoughts through my earbuds and hid behind the dark tint of my glasses. I sat reticently at breakfast that morning as I picked through my eggs and sipped at my electrolyte drink. Blurrily, I watched my teammate Ryan push himself to the limits as I waited for my race. I carelessly got ready, forgetting my heart rate monitor and energy shot blocks. After a halfhearted warm up I slouched into a chair under our shade structure. I was on the verge of calling off the race. My back pain seemed to have doubled rendering me demoralized. My team and family encouragement was constant. After countless words of support and brisk pep talks, I gagged down my GU and rolled off to staging.

I coasted into the start chute second because I no longer wore the leader jersey I had possessed all season. Brief small talk was made between me and my competitors as we sat jittery on the front line. These boys were my friends. I had come know them during the season, and we had developed a camaraderie when we weren’t trying, as they say in the sport, “to rip each others legs off.” We all waited with heart beating tumultuously.

My coach has told me multiple times that “The B.S. stops when the green flag drops.” There was no green flag, only the tense moments before “GO” crackled out of the starter’s megaphone, followed by the clicks of pedals engaging with shoes, the scraping of tires on sandy soil and the uproar of the crowd. There were no friends, just rivals.

As a field of 100, we careened down the start chute and up the valley in an all out sprint. It suddenly hit me that there was no glaring target on my back. It had been transferred to the new leader. With no reason to lead, I sat comfortably on the back of the peloton sucking the wheel of the person in front. Close to the top I took the lead rounding the final and treacherous switchback. I was quickly passed by another rider, and we worked together to make a small break on the first downhill fireroad. As we both funneled into the single track the rider in front of me bobbled. He had washed out on his front tire and barely saved himself from tumbling down the side of the trail causing traffic.

Seizing the opportunity, I jumped in front and immediately started working. A switch had been flipped. No longer was I competing for the 25 bonus point given to riders who finished every course, I was racing. The back of my jersey says, “Dig Deep.” It’s hard to describe the turning point that took place in those brief seconds. At last I had the clarity of mind to pull upon all of my strengths: my competitive nature, athletic ability, the support of family and friends, and mental toughness. I was all in. I knew I could open up a sizable distance between me and second place because of the pileup behind me. The thrill of being in the lead again carried me up the next two climbs and through the finish of my first lap. I heard the announcer say I had opened up a one minute gap as I sped by the timing booth.

The final lap is exponentially harder than the first. My initial adrenaline had worn off, and I struggled up the first climb on the backside of the course. It was quiet. No spectators had hiked out that far to watch. The only noise was my labored breath and grinding of my smallest gears. Rounding the first switchback I realized I wasn’t as alone as I had previously believed. Sam Ferris, currently wearing the leader jersey, had closed the gap and was not far behind. Within moments he was catching my draft as we carved our way down the twisting single track. The pain set in. My back throbbed, and every sinew of my legs and lungs cried for mercy. My dad’s voice echoed in my head, “Anything can happen.” The last three miles were brutal as we battled it out like gladiators fighting to the death.

The stress of the final mile weighed in on me as I took the lead and barreled into the last portion of the race. We were still together as we sped toward the final single track leading into the finish. Up ahead someone was stopped. Sam went left; I to the right. Our shoulders collided as we both entered the single track. I barely slipped into the lead and flew toward the finish, with Sam directly on my rear wheel. Dirt flew as I rounded the corner into the downhill sprint, eyes locked on the black timing strip. With everything left in me I turned the pedals.

A bike length. Less than a second. It came down to a miniscule amount of time between first and second. I stood on the podium proudly wearing the leader jersey indefinitely after taking the win that day. With a first place finish in the fifth and final race, I had secured the overall title for the SoCal series in my category, Sophomore D2. It was the cliché story of beating all the odds and coming out on top but to me it holds much deeper meaning. The race serves as a roadmap to my life. As in life, we all face setbacks, disappointments, and challenges that we must push through. This experience has taught me the importance of showing up, focusing on the task at hand and putting my whole heart into everything I do. I will aspire to these goals and never settle for less in sports, education, relationships, career and God’s purpose for my life.

4 thoughts on “Showing Up is Half the Battle 

  1. Ethan, You are an amazing writer! Thanks you for sharing your story. Your journey this year in mountain biking will be an inspiration to all who read your blog. I love you so much! Nana


  2. Ethan! I thoroughly enjoyed the story you wrote for your English final! It gripped my attention from the get-go. First off, I’m certain you earned an A+. Secondly, you are an outstanding writer… have you considered submitting this to a cycle magazine? It’s a great read that would be an encouragement to other competitors. Great job! Congrats on your amazing accomplishments too!


  3. Great essay, Ethan! Beautifully said, and beautifully learned. I nearly had tears in my eyes at the end because of the valuable things you learned and shared. Your Aunt Gina is proud of you, Ethan.


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