Imperfect preparation: Embracing the challenge of a mid-season setback
“Now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”
— John Steinbeck, East of Eden
Perfection is a tricky concept. I know inherently that it’s unachievable, yet again and again I find myself chasing that perfect preparation. For the last few years, I have taken much of my confidence from rolling up to the start line knowing I’ve gone the extra mile, finished that last interval and left no stone unturned. But in bike racing as in life, things often don’t go to plan.
Two days into altitude camp at Lake Tahoe, California, it was safe to say perfection was out the window. My knee started bothering me just a few days before I left for my trip and after seeing my physical therapist, we thought we’d gotten the problem worked out. “Wow, dodged a bullet on that one!” I said as I loaded my car with everything I’d need for a three-week “fight camp” to prepare for the next few rounds of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup.
I would be alone at elevation where I could live a life of complete focus and discipline. I loved being up in Tahoe — riding all day, doing yoga and strength workouts, and spending the afternoons stand-up paddle boarding and swimming in the lake. I excitedly imagined the weeks of challenging training and I was confident I would emerge stronger mentally and physically than I’d ever been. Motivation was at an all-time high and I arrived eager to get out on my bike.
After only a few rides up at altitude, however, the pain in my knee reared its ugly head. I guess I hadn’t dodged that bullet after all. The following day, I could barely raise my leg, and riding for more than 15 minutes was incredibly painful. The next few days were packed with physical therapy, rest, ice, compression, stretching, massage — truly anything and everything that might help. I was given advice to rest and let the inflammation calm down. I popped Advil every few hours, went on an anti-inflammatory diet, slept as much as I could, and treated my PT exercises and stretching like a full-time job.
I made the tough decision to sit out a race I had been looking forward to in Carson City, and tried to cling to the last shreds of my now impossible training plan. After almost a week of complete rest, I slowly tried to get back to riding. Every morning, I woke up hopeful I could be back on the bike, and every afternoon found myself in tears when I made it only a few minutes from the house.
I put my energy into cross training — swimming, stand-up paddle boarding, spending time in the gym. This gave my mind something to focus on for a few days, but I soon realized things were not improving. At this point, my camp was more than half over and it felt more like a yoga and meditation retreat than preparation for World Cups that were only a few weeks away. My coach began to bring up the idea of skipping Val di Sole and Andorra and focusing on nationals. I was devastated and at a complete loss of what to do. I felt like my body was betraying me when I needed it most.
I made a new plan to travel down from elevation to see a physical therapist at home, and then to contact Red Bull, who helped arrange for an amazing guru bodyworker to come up to camp and treat me. If this didn’t work, the next step was canceling flights and refocusing my season.
Miraculously, we isolated the problem — misalignment in my hips likely caused by a crash earlier in the season and exacerbated by worn-out cleats on my road bike. After a few sessions, I tentatively got back on the bike with no pain. Day by day, I increased my ride time and retrained my brain to let my knee track properly and without pain. I had never been so happy to be on my bike.
The first week back, I did double days every day, riding in the morning and evening to keep my volume up without taxing my knee on extremely long rides. Every time I rode, I held my breath waiting for the pain to kick in, but slowly I regained confidence and started extending my ride time with no problems. Less than a week before I was set to leave for Val di Sole, I did my first intervals in over a month. Success! We are still in this, I thought.
I got in a few more incredibly hard workouts done up at altitude, maybe pushing harder than I ever have. As I was just starting to find my training rhythm, it was time to pack up and head to Europe. I had never felt so unprepared or uncertain heading into such a big race. I cried as I nervously shoved everything into my suitcase and my mom helped me rummage around for adaptors and travel-size toothpaste. I needed every bit of help and support from my family, my boyfriend, my coaches, and my team to make it onto that plane.
After I boarded my flight, some of my fear dissipated. I was here, I made it. I tried to reframe the race in my mind. Just a few weeks ago, I was sitting on the couch with ice on my knee with no idea when I’d be able to ride again. Now, I was on my way to one of the most beautiful places in the world with an opportunity to do what I do best.
When I arrived in Val di Sole, I slid into my familiar pre-World Cup routines. I took it one day and one step at a time, dialing in my equipment, dialing in my line choices, and getting in one last hard training ride. By the time that race day rolled around, I was feeling grateful more than anything just to have made it this far. I knew my fitness was not where I would have liked, but I also knew I was rested and all I could do was go out and give my best. In some ways, it was a completely pressure-free opportunity to test my legs and know that, no matter the result, I could only build from here.
The short track gave me the perfect chance for an opener and to shake out some of my nerves. I certainly didn’t feel my most powerful, but I had a very solid race and secured a second-row start.
On the day of the cross-country event, I woke up feeling an odd sense of calm. With fewer matches to burn, I knew I had to race smart and be a bit more conservative. I had to trust where I was at and make the most of my freshness and fitness. I gave myself a new mantra: race smart, finish with heart.
From the start, I was focused and composed. Even on the start lap, I backed off slightly, racing completely within myself and tempering my pace. Race smart.
I stayed in the chase group for much of the race, the leaders disappearing from view just ahead of me. My focus stayed on pacing myself. I ate every lap, drank water in every feed zone and tried to maximize recovery on every descent. In the last two laps, the battle intensified for the last few spots in the top 10. On the last lap, we were all together and I fought with all I had for the last section of singletrack. I entered the trail in eighth, just behind a German rider I had been battling with. In past races, this is where I might settle in and accept the top 10, but not this day. I stayed glued to her wheel on the descent and as we rounded the last corner, I sprinted with all I had and threw my bike over the line, taking the sprint for seventh by just a few inches. Finish with heart, I thought proudly.
More than a result, Val di Sole was a big mental victory for me. I learned a lot about the power of just showing up and putting yourself out there, even when things seem uncertain and challenging. Rolling up to a start line is an act of courage and vulnerability, feelings I hadn’t confronted so acutely at a race in a long time. It was a challenging journey getting to that start line, but it helped me realize that at the end of the day, all you can do is give your best with what you have on that day, in that moment.
In many ways, this knee injury came at the worst time and challenged me physically and mentally. In other ways, it gave me the deep rest and renewed love for the sport that I really needed.
Already, the lessons I have learned from overcoming a small setback are making me a better bike racer. When I lined up to race at Val di Sole, I let go of expectations and, with them, limitations. I have no idea how this time off the bike will impact the rest of my season, or what it means for my fitness moving forward. It certainly hasn’t been perfect, but I believe it can still be good. After all, it is not in perfection, but in those moments of messy uncertainty that you leave room for a little bit of magic and grace.
About the author
Kate Courtney is a professional cross-country mountain-bike racer for the Specialized Factory Team and is the 2017 and 2018 U.S. national XC champion. In 2017, she won the U23 World Cup overall title, and took a silver medal at the U23 world championship. In 2018, her first season racing elite XC World Cups, she’s had three top-10 finishes in three starts: tenth in Albstadt, ninth at Nove Mesto, and seventh at Val di Sole. Off the bike, she’s a self-described “huge nerd” with a degree in human biology from Stanford University. She’s a fan of any and all outdoor adventures, but is mostly in it for the snack breaks. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter.