The Uncertainty of COVID-19 as seen through the eyes of a professional bike racer and coach Beth Ann Orton

When Anne asked me to write about my experience with the COVID19 pandemic as an athlete, including the race cancellations and uncertainty that have accompanied it, I knew it may be difficult. If you ask me how I feel about training and racing tomorrow, you’ll get a different answer than if you ask me today. And that’s okay. Like everyone else, I’m slowly settling into the unknown, and developing an acceptance of our new normal.

But what does that mean, new normal? 2020 was slated to be my last season racing on the road. Now that my “last season” is likely completely cancelled, I’m also learning to be comfortable with the notion that the things I intended to do after my last season?…Well, those things may not be possible either! So what is “new normal”, and how the heck do I/we get there?

Firstly, I’m settling in to the notion that we might race this year, at some point, in the future. In the completely non-specific future. In the likely completely non-specific distant future. Like, fall. Or, we might not. Like many racers, it’s been difficult to balance my desire to train for what might be, and my sometimes urgent desire to move on and find new goals.

Although my priorities have been quickly redesigned with respect to COVID19, I do feel the loss of racing. I spent a week at team camp with InstaFund LaPrima just before large numbers of COVID cases struck the west coast. Then, instead of training for the Joe Martin Stage Race, I worked two weeks straight helping redesign our clinic patient care model and navigate the unknown in our little corner of healthcare (I’m a PA in a small vascular medicine clinic).When I sit with the notion of missing my last season, and time with my team, I sometimes feel guilty. Although my husband and I have experienced difficulties during the early stages of COVID19, we are by and large, extremely lucky. Still, as a friend told me, we all deserve time to sit with our losses.  It’s okay to give this gift to ourselves. It’s okay to feel disappointed, and it’s okay to miss bike racing.

Instead of looking away, I’m trying to process my disappointment, and feelings of loss.  Those emotions extend far beyond bike racing.  This is not a normal time in our lives, and there is no normal reaction. There is no handbook for “How to be and Feel During a Pandemic”. Maybe we can write that later. But for now, all we can be is here. For ourselves, and for each other. Bike racing, or no bike racing.

My motivation to train waxes and wanes day to day. It’s difficult to train for a moving target. So for now, I’m just riding to feel good. For myself, and for most athletes, I think the biggest danger comes in over training during this time. It’s easy to charge ahead and use extra time to train harder than ever before (Zwift harder than ever before!), but it’s important to listen to our bodies, listen to external stressors, and use our energy wisely. The best fitness often comes from exercising  patience, and this time is no different. I’m doing my best to remember that.

Rearrangement of priorities is okay. The unknown is okay. Although cycling and bike racing are high on the list of things that bring me joy, my priorities have been swiftly rearranged during the past four weeks. I can sit with that. I can let go of my race calendar, and I can move on to new goals, maybe even an entirely new life phase. Reluctantly at first, and then with happiness. My experience won’t be the same as other athletes. Disappointment exists on a scale, and we will all embody this time in our lives differently.

So what is my new normal as an athlete? I’m not sure yet. I have a training calendar, because it makes me feel good. Sometimes I do the workouts, sometimes I don’t.  I’m spending lots of time at home. I’m still working, and that makes me feel good. I’m improving the garden and spending time with people I love.. I’m finding new goals (any ideas?!).  In a strange way, this time is deeply satisfying. When I step back, and see life prospectively, I know we can remember this time with some joy. There will be sorrow, and uncertainty, but there will also be joy, and bikes will play a large role in finding it.

For now, my new normal is learning to embrace the unknown. So here’s to us all, stepping through the unknown together. Let’s do it with grace, and acceptance, and a new capacity for empathy. Bikes will be there, and racing will be there, when we’re done wading through this together.

*photo credit Drew Coleman