As published in Triathlete Magazine
I remember the first day I ever rode a mountain bike. I had just bought my first road bike. I was planning to try doing a triathlon and had acquired road shoes and pedals to match my blue road rocket. As I was embarking on my new adventure in road cycling I met a trials rider. Trials is the kind of mountain biking where you don’t really pedal, you hop instead, bouncing from one obstacle to another. Obviously, he was a much, much better rider than I was. Anyways, he thought it would be fun to take a complete beginner, not yet a triathlete or cyclist, out mountain biking for the afternoon. So we borrowed his roommate’s bike, which happened to be all of one size too large and possibly two sizes, installed my fancy new ROAD pedals and headed to the most technical trails in Victoria. I am sure he chose the trails that he thought were easy but they seemed death-defying to me. It was the most frightening, frustrating and painful experience of my life and I would never advise riding off road on road pedals unless you are highly skilled. I was covered in dirt, blood, tears and bruises. I was also hooked for life.
I bought myself a mountain bike the next day complete with mountain bike pedals and embarked on a career in mountain bike racing starting that weekend. Yes, I am that person who will go to the ends of the earth to conquer that which has beaten me in the past. Over time the amount of blood and tears I would shed per ride decreased but it really took more than a year to become a reasonably proficient rider. Then it only took two years to earn a spot on the national cycling team…
Mel back when she started… in a cupcake outfit with gnarly scabby mess on my elbow
Although I have steadily improved since that first day of riding it certainly has not all been an exponential improvement. I think I spent four years of my mountain bike career making only incremental and frustratingly small improvements. In fact, I am a better technical mountain biker now as a triathlete than I ever was when I was racing the World Cup for mountain bike. It is because I finally made it a priority over other training and then it just suddenly clicked. I think sometimes we hang on to old training methods, coaches or environments thinking that they had been right only to discover later that they were not helping you to get better overall. It is hard to gain perspective when you are fully immersed in what you are doing.
When I decided to move from cycling to triathlon I was forced to change training methods drastically. Since then, both my technical ability and my cycling-specific ability have taken a leap. It was easier for me to take a good hard look at what I was doing as a cyclist when it was weighed against where I needed to go as a swimmer and a runner. I have truly benefitted from looking at my training in a new light and overall I am a much more complete athlete because of it.
This past winter I was riding one of my favorite training partners, Erinne Willock, a Beijing Olympian and member of Team Webcor , who I have trained with throughout my cycling and triathlon careers. I told her one day that I was thinking of trying a half Ironman in the coming season. I almost fell off my bike laughing when she said “Why on earth would you ever want to time trial for 90km?” I could see it from her point of view. Whenever we did time trials in road races they were all out, horribly painful efforts that thankfully only lasted from 10 to 40 km. Time trials were for specialists who trained on TT bikes and while I was a pure cyclist, at that point I never had one. In long distance triathlon you are not riding that hard for 90 km. I tried my first half Ironman this past season and sure enough, the position on the bike killed me but the effort did not. In my opinion, it is less hard than an XTERRA but certainly some practice in time trial position is required for me to get closer to the result I would like. Experience does change your perspective and time is required to gain experience. However, don’t even get me started on 180km because right now I am with Erinne on that one.
Perspective isn’t always looking back. Sometimes you need to focus on the present. I always look for ways to be better while appreciating improvement allows me to create a program that reflects the athlete I have become. Knowing the athlete you are right now is taking a good hard look at the present. It takes years of development to truly realize your ultimate potential. You might as well enjoy every year for what it is – a stepping stone on the path to your best ability as an athlete. You may look back at the end of this year and decide that this was your best season ever. You will never know until it is over but while it is happening make sure you enjoy the ride. Since we get so caught up in our new levels, new goals, new races and new best times sometimes we forget to appreciate the present. We always look to the future and where we want to go. I am not saying it isn’t important to have goals in the future that help to guide us; I just think it is important to live in the moment while pursuing challenging goals in the future.
In addition, appreciating where you have come from also allows you to fully embrace and support the people you connect with in this sport. I love fielding questions at XTERRA races from those just getting started in the sport. Their passion and enthusiasm always reminds me of why I love it so much. At home in Victoria, I train with the National Triathlon Center as part of the development group. These athletes are so young, some can’t even drive yet and here we are all training together. They are all hope, energy and enthusiasm and it inspires everyone to do their best. Those of us with experience and some level of success have a responsibility to promote and encourage the next generation’s quest for excellence in our sport. As a senior athlete training with the junior athletes my job is to help them weather the ups and downs of a training cycle. As a coach with my own athletes I try to help people challenge themselves enough while being patient with their development. All of it comes back to perspective, which comes from experience, which requires time. The term “overnight sensation” is silly. An overnight sensation is not a success that is born overnight; it is awareness that occurs overnight. That person has had years of grooming of their given talents that are then finally displayed to an audience that appreciates them. All the hours of training and preparation are forgotten or overlooked when that athlete steps into the limelight.
It can take years of racing and training to realize your full potential. Just wait a few more sleeps for your turn and while you’re waiting, don’t be afraid to look back at where you came from. Those trails I crashed a million times riding for the first time way back when are my playground, mastered by years of practice and determination, thanks to my goals in triathlon. Who knew back then where that first ride would lead?