The bench is where I belonged this weekend. Maybe not this particular bench, considering that it is out in the cold, but a different bench, a metaphorical bench, a bench where you sit and are not subbed into the day’s athletic competition.
I took this picture on Thursday. I had been sick, and still had a head cold. On Wednesday, I had walked around on my skis for twenty minutes, enjoying the small amount of snow we had on the trails and imagining that I would be better soon. But on Thursday, I wasn’t better. In fact, I was worse. For my “workout”, I went for a nice walk to the end of the road. If your workout for the day is a walk, you know you’re in trouble.
By Friday I was feeling a little better, and on Saturday, I was ready to race – I thought. But even then, I was hedging my bets. “Oh, I’ll just race the sprint qualifier, and sit out the heats so that I can make sure to be healthy for Sunday’s race,” I told myself (and my friends). Sprinting isn’t what I’m good at, but Sunday’s mass start classic race seemed to be designed exactly for me.
And as I was cooling down from the qualifier – which went mediocre-ly – I thought to myself, “well, now I’ve skied more than I have in the last four days combined! That can’t be good.” But I was excited, too. I hadn’t skied particularly well in the qualifier but I felt that if I just got in the heats, I would ski better, and perhaps I could do pretty well.
So, I decided to ski the heats.
What was I thinking!?
My quarterfinal itself didn’t go too badly. I got off to a great start – which is shocking, really, because I’m not the quickest skier. I spent most of the race sitting in third. The pace felt slow and even easy until the last 200 meters or so. All of a sudden I got very, very tired. The finish line was right there! But I didn’t have any gas left in the tank (had I had any to start with?). The girl who had been behind me in fourth sprinted by me like I was standing still. I ended up 18th on the day, not my best Eastern Cup result for sure but not a complete disaster given the circumstances.
The race had been special in a way, because as I said, I’m not the quickest skier. I’m pretty bad at sprinting. But I had been really engaged in the race, and I think that tactically I had skied very well. With 400 meters to go, I was right where I needed to be – in contact with the leaders and a ways ahead of the fourth-place skier. If I’d had a bit more in me, I could have fought for a place in the semifinals. It was really good practice, and exciting for me to be excited about sprinting.
But it came at a cost. I went home immediately after my heat was over, took a hot shower, and crawled into bed for a nap. When I woke up, I felt like absolute crap and was coughing and coughing and coughing.
I immediately realized I had made a big mistake.
Falling asleep that night was terrible. My throat hurt, my nose was running, and I was still coughing even though I had been doing my best to combat and alleviate all these symptoms. I was sure I was going to wake up in the morning feeling worse than ever – and that’s not a thought that helps you fall asleep, let me tell you.
But I woke up feeling okay. Sure, I was coughing up nice yellow stuff, but I felt okay. Having not learned anything the day before, I jumped in the van with my race suit on.
“If you feel bad at all, you shouldn’t race,” my coach told me when we got to Jericho.
“But I want to race! Mass starts are so fun! And I want to do a mass start before the one at Nationals. I need the practice. I’m just going to see how it goes….”
“Okay,” she said, shaking her head. “But if you feel bad at all, drop out. Even if you are in the top three, if you feel bad, drop out. We need only high quality workouts right now.”
So, off I went, testing my skis, warming up, chatting with all my ski racing friends who I hadn’t seen in a year. I love racing! Why would I give this up if I didn’t have to?
I was seeded 20th in the mass start, so was stuck in the third row. As soon as the gun went off, I was fighting to move up in the pack. I had made up a few spots in the first couple hundred meters when I came around a downhill corner and of course there was a girl sprawled in the middle of the trail. I chose to take the outside route around her and came perilously close to going over the side of the trail into a ditch. But I didn’t! That really got my adrenaline going and for the next kilometer I was on fire, working my way up into the top eight or ten, where the pace was slow and we were all skiing comfortably, albeit all over each other’s skis.
Then we got to a hill.
Adrenaline can only get you so far. As I said, the pace was slow, but when we got to this hill, I could barely move. It was like my legs were part of someone else’s body, not my own. I was working really hard to go very slowly, and it felt terrible. Really, really terrible. I remembered that I was really tired. So I decided to drop out, just like Pepa had said.
Now, once you decide to drop out, there are some logistics to figure out. This hasn’t happened to me very often – this was only the second race I had quit in my entire life – but you can’t just stop skiing. I mean, you can, but then you’re out in the middle of the course in the middle of a race. No, it’s much better to ski to somewhere close to the stadium and then drop out, so that you’re not stuck out there.
I was contemplating where to drop out when I came around a downhill corner and, since I wasn’t paying attention, of course I crashed. Complete yard sale. So I decided that would be a nice place to drop out, actually.
My race was over. I think I had made it two kilometers.
Even if you know it’s the right thing to do, dropping out doesn’t feel good. I was able to joke about it a bit, telling people that I had won the race because I “finished first”. But after using that line a couple of times, it didn’t seem funny. I was sad, frustrated, upset. Why was I sick? I always get sick and it makes me feel like everything I have done for the last nine months has been pointless. I’m ruining all my hard work and preparation. It’s a pretty depressing situation, really.
So now I’m at home, sitting on my bum and drinking tea. I’m hoping I’ll get better, but if the past is a guide, it’s going to take me a while. Which is bad, bad news indeed.
Kids: don’t race when you’re sick. Or even when you’ve been sick, or think you might be getting sick, or feel funny at all. It’s dumb. Don’t do it. Stay on the bench.