We've all been told, the journey is the reward. But, when our chef, Lentine Alexis' Absa Cape Epic team was told they couldn't continue the race, they were reminded that the journey is also the goal, even when there is a finish line.
I’ll never forget those last minutes I spent on the race course at Absa Cape Epic; watching the officials clip the numbers from our bikes, feeling the heaving sobs pour from my body and that of my teammate as we embraced mixed feelings of defeat and relief. We’d spent the day skating through deep sand, rolling over fields of ball-bearing-sized gravel and hopping boulders in a riverbed that wound through Stellenbosch, in the Western Cape. We’d ripped through dust, and climbed through vineyards into the burning sun, and even though we’d made it 65 miles to the finish line, we’d made it just 15 seconds too late and missed our UCI cutoff. For a few moments, I allowed myself to fall into the space in my being that I had reserved for the tremendous accomplishment of finishing this grueling 8-day stage race; but now, just four days in, that space within me threatened to remain empty. Tears streaming down our faces as we were forced to abandon the race; any bystander would quickly equate that we had failed to achieve our grand goal on this trip. At first glance, our goal in South Africa was to complete a 700km course charted across and 15,000m over a majestic mountain landscape. But the truth is that the journey is always the goal, even if we don't recognize it, and the journey we started, by arriving in Africa, was much further than that charted course. And, by failing to complete the race we were on track to succeed even more poignantly than we ever could have imagined.
The invitation to race Cape Epic came in a time when my teammate and I were both struggling with loss, different types of heartbreak. This once in a lifetime opportunity offered us the opportunity to remind ourselves that we could overcome challenge, but it was also an opportunity to inspire other women to do the same. We went to South Africa to heal our hearts, and to a make statement about what women can overcome in the world with bikes as a tool.
And so we began training. Through the winter, my alarm went off in the dark and early hours and I’d pull myself from bed, first disoriented and disgruntled, and then acutely aware that I was rising to ride in the frigid cold for good reason; I was learning to be comfortable in absolute discomfort. Pushing my psyche into the darkness then coaxing it back into the light was the best way to practice for this beast of a race. I spent hours in the gym, preparing for my body to be jostled and jolted by terrain. I rode my bike through the snow and over the ice, learning to skate on wheels over uncertain surfaces. I embraced the frostbite on my feet and welcomed the exhaustion, knowing I was forging the kind of athlete that would coast through the challenge that South Africa would pose. I practiced telling myself there was nothing I couldn’t do.
By the time I arrived on the starting line of Cape Epic, I was stronger than ever. I was stoic. My body and brain were ready. I knew that the 8-days of racing ahead would push me to my limits. I had done all I could to prepare, and felt calm and ready to accept any challenge the race threw my way. What I wasn’t was willing to accept was defeat. And so, I arrived at the starting line each day convinced that we had the fate of our success in our hands; determined to meet each shred of dis-ease with the arsenal of physical and emotional tools I’d spent months and years cultivating. But, in all my training, I’d forgot a critical piece of preparing myself to be unflappable.
I'd created a durable shell around my being so that I could move through the desert unphased, but I'd completely forgotten that without softness, we can’t know sturdiness. I hadn’t allowed myself to feel any of the emotions associated with what we were accomplishing with each little step, but if I had, perhaps then I would have seen that our measure of success at Cape Epic was only in part about the physical finish line. In order to inspire myself, I was going to have to feel my soul healing; swapping out pain for joy. To inspire others, I was going to have to embrace the little achievements in our day-to-day; just by waking up each morning -sore, and exhausted- and arriving at the starting line, we were conquering something huge. Inspiring others was about admitting my fears when a section of single-track felt beyond my technical abilities, when I thought my brain was going to melt in the South African heat, when my partner crashed and I didn’t know if she could go on, or if we could go on together. Making a statement about what women can achieve with bikes as a tool was just as much about riding as it was about being graceful in our lives; about embracing defeat, walking away from difficult moments humbly, and discussing - openly - moments of frustration, of difficulty. With bikes as a tool, women are more capable of facing their fears, being empowered in the world, and being present in building their own life’s journey. And so, of course our challenge on the Cape Epic course was about riding difficult terrain in harsh conditions fast and gracefully. But it was also about facing our own fears, being empowered when we felt powerless, being present and owning our journey, wherever it took us out there. It was about developing our character; all of the glimmer, grit and gold.
Learning to be unflappable means learning not just how to ride strong, how to be tough, but also how to walk, ride and speak more gracefully. It’s difficult to stare adversity in the face if we can’t recognize it, and so taking a moment to be brave and admit to our apprehension is valuable. By remembering that the journey is always the goal (even when there IS finish line,) and embracing the idea that that “failing gracefully" is still success allows us the opportunity to be even more victorious when challenge greets us again.