Learning the art of losing

Standing in the shadow of the starting line, ankle-deep in a lake the color of iced coffee, my husband throws me a final fist-bump. It's the signal we use during our daily shift change, when one finishes a workout and the other begins, the passing of a phantom baton. The biggest race of our lives is here -- the ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships -- and we're members of Team USA.

Our race nanny brings over our 4-year-old son, who delivers a good-luck kiss. Austin thinks our red, white and blue team uniforms are almost as cool as Captain America's. We think he's wrong -- they're way cooler. With our last names emblazoned on our chests and rumps, just above the letters USA, we had might as well have capes.

We're not pros. We're parents. With full-time jobs, and a dog, and a yard and professional colleagues who shake their heads and bless our hearts when they hear how we've spent our weekends. Eddie is an insurance agent. I'm an editor with an office job. We work hard, we train hard and we try our best to do it without neglecting our kid.

"How do you feel?" asks my husband, Fast Eddie, whose nickname is not ironic.

He puts his race-number-stamped arm around my shoulders, still dripping from the pre-swim, and we squint through our goggles at the forest of restless limbs around us. Some 316 athletes from 17 countries have come to race on this clear, sunny day in middle Alabama, where the Appalachian foothills are studded with lakes and blessed with world-class cycling spots.

"It's weird," I reply. "I'm not nervous. I'm excited. For the first time in my life, I feel totally prepared."

We've trained harder and smarter than we've ever trained -- seven days a week, with a coach, for months. We've eaten the right things at all the right times. We're hydrated. Rested. Mentally prepared. And on top of all that, we have home-court advantage: This race course winds through our training grounds, the trails where we run and ride every week, 16 miles from our home. Every rock, root and switchback turn is drilled into muscle memory. As far as athletic opportunities go, this is a miracle dipped in karma and deep-fried in good luck.

Eddie nods. He feels it, too. The race gods are smiling upon us. We know better than to jinx it by voicing the words, but at this moment, we feel the same thing in our guts: This race is ours to lose.

***

For the amateur athlete, this moment ranks on the Awesome Scale somewhere north of "graduation" and shy of "first childbirth." Having the worlds play out in your own backyard, in a year you're able to qualify, well, that is the stuff of lottery dreams. Last year this event was held in Spain. Next year: The Netherlands. This year: Pelham, Ala., just south of Birmingham, a football town with an Xterra secret: The pros of off-road triathlon call it "perhaps the best course in the nation."

Eddie and I lucked into good athlete genes, but we've never been world-class material. In what seems like a past life, I was a national champion water-skier, but in 14 years of serious training, I never made the U.S. team. Eddie competed in two Eco-Challenges -- multisport adventure races that run on longer than a Faulkner sentence, affording in five or six days of straight racing a few measly hours of sleep in a puppy pile of teammates. Simply finishing was a victory. When we met, in our younger, childless years, our dates involved summits, finish lines and/or stitches. Triathlons were our version of brunch.

Courtesy of Mary Lou Davis

Wearing the red, white and blue of Team USA made Kim Cross and Eddie Freyer feel invincible.

Then we married. Had a kid. And life changed, as it does. But we never relinquished our inner athletes. That first excruciatingly sleepless year, we claimed to be "sleep-deprivation training for adventure races." After Austin turned 1, we qualified for, and completed, the 24-hour USARA Adventure Race Nationals. Training hard for something -- anything -- is so deeply ingrained in our DNA that we can't imagine life without it.

This spring, when we qualified for Team USA, we decided to go all-out. We hired a coach. Committed to a daily training plan. Gave up frivolous things like date nights, lunch hours and beer. (Well, mostly.) The money we might have spent on clothes, restaurants or trips to the beach we saved for things like heart-rate monitors. Fancy bikes with lightweight components. Custom-blended sports drink mix with our own electrolyte secret recipes. And an ever-rising food bill.

We talked to our coach every day about what we ate, how we slept and how our workouts went. He knew our resting heart rates, whether we pooped and, if we were sniffling, the color of the snot. He was our therapist, nutritionist, cheerleader, health care adviser and occasional marriage referee. He'd scream drill-sergeant screams through interval workouts that sent our heart rates zigzagging like a seismograph. He knew us each well enough to yell different things.

The plight of the amateur athlete is a curious one. We don't race for money, fame or sponsors. In the winningest season we could fathom, we could recoup just a fraction of what we invest. We kill ourselves to be the cream of the crap, the best of the rest. We have nothing to gain but the chance to stand on the podium for a brief, inconsequential moment, celebrated by a crowd in which the athletes outnumber the fans. Few of us have a shot at winning. Most of us are racing ourselves.

"I wish I could go back in time and race my 20-year-old self," said Eddie, faster and fitter and slimmer (if less hirsute) at 40 than he was at half his age. "I'd kick my younger ass."

It's not about vanity, ego or pride. We don't do it for Monday morning war stories, medals to hang in the Man Cave or the way our calves look after weeks of hill repeats. (Though these certainly are pleasant side effects.) It's not even about the way a finisher's medal feels against our pounding hearts.

It's about everything leading up to that. And sometimes the agony just after. It's about the lifestyle that makes us feel so damn alive, and the example it sets for our son. I have learned all my best life lessons through sports: How to suffer. What to sacrifice. When to compromise. Why teamwork matters. That falling is an art. And that sometimes, what you learn from losing can be even sweeter than winning.

Some secrets are found only in the pain cave.

***

Eddie's wave is 30 minutes into the swim as I take my place at the starting line. Usually I choose to start mid-pack, off to the side and out of the fray. But today I am brimming with mojo, so I elbow my way up front. Even on an off-day, my swim is pretty strong. Today -- I can feel it -- I'm gonna crush it. I'm grinning as I wait for the starting gun.

BANG!

Courtesy of Mary Lou Davis

Kim Cross heard eight dreaded words when she finished her swim: “You can make it up on the bike!”

This is the part that many triathletes dread, these first five minutes of underwater chaos, when your heart rate spikes with adrenaline and you're choking down soggy gulps of air in a tangle of thrashing limbs. You're swimming blind through a froth of bubbles and mud. You feel bodies all around you, clawing your feet, knocking at your ribs, kicking inches from your face. Sometimes your goggles get kicked off your face.

I love it.

I often go out too fast on the swim, at the risk of blowing up, having to do the backstroke to catch my breath. I play a song in my head to help me find my rhythm, breathing every third stroke. The pack stretches and thins. I throttle back to a pace I know I can sustain for a mile. I am in the zone.

Suddenly, something white flashes in the dark water below. My heart jolts, and I'm breathless. Then I recognize it: a remnant of the old slalom course anchored across this lake. Seventeen years ago, when I was 9, I entered my first water-ski tournament here, carving an arc of spray around this very spot. I take this as a very good omen, like Mother Nature is ringing a cowbell.

Nearing the end of the mile-long swim, I'm feeling strong. It's hard to tell where you are in the pack, but my gut says I'm where I should be, in roughly the top third. I emerge from the water, rip off my goggles and cap, and jog toward the transition area feeling like a ringer. Then I see my coach's eyes.

"It's OK! It's OK!" he yells with a half-hearted clap. "You can make it up on the bike!"

***

When most people hear about what we do, they shake their heads and mutter something like, "I wish I had the time." I have learned to bite my tongue. What I want to say is, "You do have the time. You just choose to spend it on other things."

I call them the hidden hours, those chunks of time when sensible people are drooling on their pillows, heckling a Kardashian or otherwise squandering good training time. I squandered these hours once, too, until parenthood robbed me of the option.

The best ones begin at 4:30 a.m., when I can carve out a four-hour block of time without cheating my family. I can bike, run, dress, gossip with the girls in the locker room, grab coffee at the Piggly Wiggly and finish checking email at my desk before most folks finish their Wheaties.

Courtesy of Kim Cross

The wonders of nature -- like mushrooms and rocks -- took priority for Austin and Kim during training sessions/adventures.

After work -- tag! -- Eddie gets his turn. I solo it through dinner, bath time and a dramatic bedtime reading of "Skippyjon Jones." By the time Eddie gets home from his after-work ride, I'm snoring softly on Austin's floor with a children's book splayed across my chest.

Eddie and I never train together. That would cost us precious time with our kid. Our dreams should not come at his expense. So instead of pawning him off on a sitter, we tag-team. On weekdays, we have fleeting conversations through driver's-side windows, passing each other coming and going. Weekends find us rendezvousing at trailheads, in YMCA parking lots and the neighborhood pool, where we switch gears from stroke drills to cannonballs.

Lest our kid grow up feeling like a relay baton, we don't pass him off -- we involve him. As a baby, he came to track workouts in the baby jogger. We'd alternate 400-meter intervals with recovery play in the triple-jump sand pit. When he was a toddler, he would nap in the bike trailer as I towed him up a 3-mile hill.

When Austin was 2, Santa brought him a balance bike -- no pedals, Flintstones-style brakes -- the modern answer to training wheels. At 3, he declared, "I'm a single-speeder!" at a local kids race. Just before his fourth birthday, he transitioned to a pedal bike. It took him two minutes.

By now a veteran on the pedal bike, Austin sets the pace of family runs at the city park, on the wooded state park trails or in the neighborhood. When he's with us, training never trumps fun. We stop to look at mushrooms, poke critters with sticks and fill our pockets with heart-shaped rocks.

We often let him lead, so he can learn what that means. Sometimes he leads us out of our comfort zone. When he set his heart on riding Rattlesnake Ridge, a rocky, somewhat hilly 4-mile trail, I suggested we do the Family Trail. He begged. He negotiated. He melted down. I gave in, with two conditions: No whining, and Mommy is not a bike sherpa. The going was hike-a-bike slow at times, but the kid powered through whine-free.

As parents and athletes, we believe that most of the time, our worst obstacles are the ones we create -- sometimes in our own heads. That anyone can pull off a seemingly impossible dream by setting the right priorities. Eddie's Man Cave, where I am permitted to train, is decorated with quotes. This one sums up our outlook best.

Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.

***

The first few miles of the mountain-bike course are always exquisitely painful. My legs scream, my heart aches and my lungs burn. It hurts, but I ride like a girl on fire because I have some serious catching up to do.

I'm way behind. The transition area never lies. The evidence: Empty bike racks. Lots of them.

Never before have we trained so hard for a race. Never before have we done everything right. And never before have we failed so helplessly.
-

"That's OK, this is worlds," I tell my sinking heart. "You're up against the best of the best." I remind myself that biking is my best event, my chance to make up precious minutes in a 2- to-3-hour race. But here's the multisport dilemma: Do I hammer, only to bonk on the run? Or should I hold back and miss the opportunity?

Either way, I need to push harder than ever because my run, in technical racing argot, "sucks." And I will not be happy with my race results unless I leave it all on the trail. It's time to make a mantra of my dad's best advice: "Tough luck, cream puff. Suck it up!"

At least I know precisely where each throttling uphill will end because the downhills are etched into memory. But when I reach the spot where the pain should go, it doesn't.

My legs feel leaden. My heart pounds in my ears, thrumming at the level I usually feel in the sprint to the finish. My body feels empty, devoid of the power I have earned the right to count on. It's like one of those nightmares where you're trying to run, but the air feels like molasses. I want to push harder. I am willing to suffer. But today, there's just nothing there.

Elsewhere on the course, Eddie is feeling the same thing. Our bodies are failing us. It is a new, unfamiliar kind of agony. Never before have we trained so hard for a race. Never before have we done everything right. And never before have we failed so helplessly.

Around mile 20, I'm no longer racing. I'm surviving. And dreading the run. If I'm already this faded on the bike, the run is going to be torture. If I'm lucky, I can simply hold my position and avoid the shame of walking.

My only goal at this point? To finish -- and not be dead last.

***

One of the things we most want to impart upon Austin is that being a champion is not just about winning. That's not always easy for a kid who inherited a double dose of fire in the belly.

"I want to WIN," he declared on the way to his very first soccer game. "I want you to teach me how to win."

"Whoa, let's worry about learning to play soccer first," I said. "Do you even understand the rules?"

"Yes," he said. "Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose, but that's OK if you try your best and have fun."

Courtesy Kim Cross

Austin demonstrated his parents’ drive to succeed on more than one occasion.

Having spent most of my childhood surrounded by overbearing stage moms (my mother was not one), I am sensitive about the "Toddlers & Tiaras" phenomenon. When I was 13, my friend's parents pushed her so hard to win that it drove her to anorexia. "My body was the only thing I felt I could control," she told me many years later.

I would be lying if I said we didn't want Austin to love our sports and maybe even excel at them. But we also don't want to star in an episode of "Toddlers and Time Trials." So we made a pact: Our "support" should never exceed his desire. And if his passion is interpretive dance, or playing the didgeridoo or curling, we'll respect that choice.

I suspect we don't need to worry about curling.

One day in the weeks leading up to worlds, our training plan called for an hourlong session on the bike trainer. We survive this otherwise boring endeavor via videos that cue sprints and recovery -- like a spinning instructor, only with clips of foreign race coverage. They are named, aptly, "The Sufferfest."

Austin put down his crayons and begged to join us. I tried to talk him out of it, but reason is no match for the negotiating powers of a 4-year-old. So Eddie dug an old half-broken bike trainer out of storage, propped Austin's tiny pedal bike upon it (his wheel didn't even touch the resistance bar) and handed him a gym towel and a big-boy water bottle.

We figured the kid would last five minutes -- seven, max -- before getting bored and going back to coloring. I'll be darned if he didn't pedal as fast as his little legs could spin for the entire hourlong "Sufferfest." At one point, he stripped off his shirt and draped the towel over his shoulders. In the gym mirror, we spotted the same ferocity we see on his mug in a kids race, which is the highlight of every cyclocross Sunday.

Austin looks forward to his races with Chuck E. Cheese gusto. They are typically little more than a lap around the parking lot, but the yelling and the hooting and the clanging cowbells -- I am talking about the adults here -- make it seem like so much more. Every kid gets a medal at the finish line. They all believe they've won.

Austin is starting to figure out that, technically, a race has only one winner. He has won the "little ones" division outright a few times, but he has also lost, which he finds very upsetting. Once, he got dropped by a 2-year-old ringer on a Stryder, and he wailed all the way to the finish line.

How do you teach a kid that it's not about winning when all he sees, week after week, is his parents gunning for the podium? When the Man Cave is dripping with medals? As one painfully honest friend once said, "Must be tough to be y'all's kid."

Which is why I am now a soccer mom.

Austin's team did not just lose their first game. They got creamed. I lost track after the first few dozen goals. Our team scored twice, and that's including the other team's own-goal.

On the way home from the game, Austin asked, "Did we win?"

"Yes," I said. "We all won."

***

Within my first 1,000 yards of the 6-mile run, it's official: I'm having the worst race of my life.

Approaching high noon, the sun is broiling the exposed trail and turning the woods into a greenhouse. Sweat is stinging my eyes. My shoes feel like concrete. Every time I try to take a swig of sports drink, my stomach gurgles menacingly. Did I mention I'm cramping?

Any podium dreams delusions have evaporated like spit on hot asphalt. I have to shift some things around in my head to get my psyche on board with the new goal: Don't quit.

I think of my son at the finish line, waiting. Proud of his mama. How could I let that boy down?
-

This run is not just an uphill battle, it's a death march. As I plod through bonksville, racers zip past me as if I'm standing still. Where are they all coming from? I get passed again and again, each "On your left!" another little nail in my pride.

Then the passing stops, and I'm all alone. I have reason to believe I'm dead last or close to it. My final shred of self-respecting oomph fades away, and my slog grinds down to a humiliating walk. There's a lump in my throat. It's humble pie. And boy, does it burn going down.

For the first time ever, I think about quitting. I have little to gain, and not much left to lose. I'm walking the line between DNF and DFL. DNF is what they print on the results sheets by the names of those who did not finish. DFL means "dead effing last." Is there really much difference between the two?

Actually, there is. And then I think of my son at the finish line, waiting. Proud of his mama. How could I let that boy down?

Like a mirage, a racer appears ahead of me on the trail. It's a man, and he's plodding even slower than me. It appears that I might actually pass him. My last little bit of barracuda bubbles up, and I launch my slow-mo attack, reeling him in stride by stride.

As I get close enough to read his jersey -- he's from Costa Rica -- I notice this dude is old. I look at his left calf, where all racers have a mandatory age stamp, so you know if you're passing an age-group competitor. When I see the number, I laugh out loud.

It says: 100.

"You're my hero!" I holler as I fall in step. He beams, and I give him a spontaneous race-funky hug. We lumber a few awkward strides together, and here, with my arm around a sweaty stranger, I realize why I am not going to quit.

Cheesy as it sounds, I love the lyrics of a certain song by Miley Cyrus.

Ain't about how fast I get there / ain't about what's waiting on the other side …

It's the climb.

Courtesy of Mary Lou Davis

Kim Cross found the finish line later than she had hoped, but that didn’t matter to Austin, who was waiting with a water bottle and a kiss.

***

Crossing the finish line is almost an afterthought. The details of it bleed together in my memory, like ink on wet paper. I remember a salty kiss from my husband. Austin pouring ice-cold bottled water on my head. The numb disbelief that it's over. Really over.

I can't remember the last time I cried over a race, but after checking the leaderboard for the fifth time -- yep, still dead last in my age group -- I can no longer swallow the sobs. My eyes become rivers of shame. Eddie is disappointed too -- he finished 18th, somewhere midpack -- but not devastated. Spousal attempts at consolation only backfire. So he lets me be.

I wish I could hide. I don't want my son to see me this way. I need to show him good sportsmanship, teach him what it means to be a gracious loser. Then I realize that maybe he needs to see this, up close, the gory details of breaking and failing and falling apart -- then picking yourself back up.

While I am last in my age group, I am not the official race DFL. I will later learn that the man I hugged isn't really 100 years old. (The only guy in the "75 and up" age group, he sweet-talked a race official into stamping the inside joke on his calf.)

Eddie and I will later learn why our race fell apart. Our kryptonite is a factor we couldn't control: a touch of the flu.

But none of that matters. When I think back upon this race, I will remember, with great pride, what it took to get here. That Eddie and I figured out how to balance careers, parenthood and seven-days-a-week training is no consolation prize. It's a victory.

And in the agony of losing, I learn to carry my head high anyway. Terra Castro, a pro triathlete on the LUNA team, told me something this year that I think about nearly every day.

"I can have more of an impact on people by losing -- and being OK with that -- than I can by winning."

***

Two weeks after worlds, Austin entered the biggest kids race of the year. He couldn't stop talking about it. Two mornings before, we found him asleep in his bike jersey -- he had put it on under his pajama top -- and his tiny cycling gloves. And, of course, no pants.

On race day, he rode up to the starting line, joining a motley peloton of kids big and small, riding everything from Striders to full-size road frames with the saddles shoved way down. Wide-eyed and uncharacteristically nervous, he looked so tiny, hub-to-hub with the big-kid bikes, their wheels as high as his helmet. He tugged my arm with his little hand, and I knelt on the asphalt, feeling his whisper hot and sweet in my ear.

"Mommy, I'm scared. What if I don't win?"

I grasped his shoulders, looked him square in the eye.

"Austin," I said, "It's not about winning. It's about riding your bike and having fun." He nodded solemnly. I stepped to the sideline, gave him a thumbs-up as we braced for the starting gun. But as the racers took off, he froze. Then he bailed, scooting over to me and burying his face in my knees, wailing. "I wanna raaaaaace!" he sobbed, realizing he had missed his chance, begging for a redo. "I wanna raaaaaaace!"

Eddie and I looked at each other, mortified. Were we Those Parents? Had we inadvertently made him feel pressure to win? I knelt down and wrapped my arms around Austin. Eddie wiped the tears away. I could see the kid beating himself up, like the time he accidentally let go of his Batman balloon and watched it disappear into the blue forever.

"Buddy, the race is over," Eddie said gently. "You chose not to race, and that's OK."

Sobs gave way to sniffles. He blinked through tears.

"Austin, do you remember the really big race that Mommy and Daddy just did?"

He nodded.

"We didn't win. We tried our best, and we lost. Mommy came in very last place." I paused to let that sink in. "Are you still proud of me?" He nodded.

A few days later, Austin raided his stash of tiny plastic trophies -- every kid gets one at the BamaCross finish line -- and selected a matching pair of two-inch silver cups. He presented one to Eddie, one to me.

"Even though you didn't win," he said, "I want you to have this. 'Cause I'm still proud of you."



***

An award-winning writer, Kim Cross is a "cafeteria decathlete" who has competed in 10 sports, most of them laughably obscure.

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