This weekend saw the last of the MTBA National Series race at our ‘local’ track, Toowoomba (not actually being local, but 90mins drive is close enough). I haven’t pursued the national series for a while; I jaunted to the You Yangs last year but that was it since the year prior. This is quite a different story from the pre-kids affairs of a few years ago when we would try and get to as many of them as possible, leading up to national champs. We also had time to worry about calories, our own HR data (now I only worry about others’!), pre-race low-residue diets and other frivolous first-world athlete problems.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you are doing with your life, but right now, as I have said a few times, I am very much a part-time athlete. I am happily a part-time athlete, and know the pro life is not one I would be interested in living, even if I had the legs or the lung capacity. The interesting thing is the effect these changes in my life has had on my racing and attitude towards it.

Having the younger AB’s unifocal approach to mountain bike racing (with the exception of the pesky full time uni and part time work) means that I would put a lot of pressure and expectation on myself to do well. We know how my nerves manifest: it’s not pretty, it can get very negative and used to be able to sink an otherwise seaworthy ship into a pile of self depreciating anxiety and self doubt. I would be lying if I said this doesn’t still happen to an extent, but in the flurry of life whizzing by the ability to race is a luxury and it’s now approached with the attitude of ‘far out I have just finished four days at work totalling 47hrs, I am a complete wreck, nothing is planned, now I am heading out to race cross-country, WTF? Oh well, better make it count!’.

The anxiety is in the getting to the race amidst the cacophony of a screaming preschooler, sorting out bedding, clothing and said preschooler, bikes, helmets, food, bottles and a husband who is probably also grumpy due to the forementioned list.

Back in the pre-kid days, the racing anxiety was intensified when I was amidst a group of women racing and the pointy elbows were out. There were some unorthodox ghetto lines being taken and general unpleasant raucousness in a bid for a better position. If this was the ‘mongrel’ that needed to be unleashed to race well, I didn’t think I had it in me. While I am known for my forthrightness, being unpleasant and unfairly haranguing riders was strongly in my ‘you’re being a dick’ box and not something I wanted to undertake.

There are many sports science studies on motivation and growth mindset, and having read through many of these in a bid to assist other athletes I have garnered many a nugget of gold. One theory is that due to less financial incentives for women’s sport (boo!), women tend to be more intrinsically motivated, to be able to dig deep from a place deep inside to pursue a goal for themselves rather than for riches and glory, of which there is little. While I am sure this motivation isn’t universally X-chomosome linked, I have witnessed such a broad spectrum of racing behaviour, it makes me wonder if this different expression is due to their differing motivations. Perhaps one is intrinsically motivated and understanding that the process of racing begets growth, another motivated by external factors and ‘win at all costs’ attitudes?

I was pleasantly surprised when I witnessed none of this variety of ‘mongrel’ behaviour on the race track this weekend. Sure, rubbing is racing but it was respectful and without harassment. The course was such that a slight variation in climbing speed was quite pronounced, meaning there was no hiding if one rider was faster than another. It was also rough and brutal, meaning that if a rider was struggling it was quite evident.

I also realised that every one of the riders out there was trying to release a mongrel; it just wasn’t as conspicuous as when one is pushed into a bush or chopped. Furthermore, I came to the realisation that when I started racing, the mongrel didn’t exist as I was too focussed on just getting to the end in one piece. As I got stronger he was a puppy learning the ropes and now he’s a huge hairy dog. With big teeth, oh yeah he’s scary looking. But my mongrel isn’t there specifically to maul the competition, he’s not there to focus on trying to achieve a podium, he’s at his most driven and powerful when I have set goals unrelated to finish positions or glory and more focussed on the things I can control in races.

Rivalry doesn’t have to be synonymous with mean-spiritedness. On track rivals, off track mates.

My mongrel embraces the hurt and aims to ride smoothly and consistently. The mongrel can tell when the start is too hot and backs it off 1% to make it to the end feeling strong, even better when you can overtake a few riders that went with it and cooked themselves. My mongrel is well mannered, asks to pass and does so without running people off the track (my mongrel would not do very well at a world cup by the sounds of it, but that’s ok it’s not really on my to-do list!). My mongrel can still make poor decisions (like not using good passing opportunities or taking a slower line accidentally) and can lose focus if my mind wanders, but he is a good dog who is always learning.

The mongrel is a result of years of racing experiences; a kaliedoscope of pain tolerance, gritty determination, and old girl strength (this weekend I was referred to as an old girl, what will happen once I turn 30? Super old girl? Alas, I digress…). This doesn’t mean I don’t feel threatened, get nervous or negative prior to racing, but I now know my mongrel is at his strongest when I am riding happy and positive. The mongrel has allowed me to ride much better than my training time and commitment to athleticism would predict.

My mongrel is a work in progress, but my goodness he has served me well so far this year. I implore you to do some soul searching and find your own mongrel, after all ain’t a mongrel a mountain bike racer’s best friend?