Keep Saying Yes: My Nové Město mantra and lessons from a tough day on the bike

Kate Courtney reflects on how she stays motivated in the face of adversity.

Photo: Bartek Wolinski

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Mountain biking is about saying yes.

I read these words sitting in a small hotel room in the Czech Republic, the screen of my laptop shining brightly in the dark room as rain poured down outside. I had spent the last hour reading through the applications and letters of recommendation for the Sparkle On Scholarship, an academic and athletic scholarship that would soon be awarded to four graduating high school seniors. Each story was unique and inspiring, but all of them contained a passion and a love of the bike that transcended results or racing aspirations. It was the source of joy on the good days and solace on the bad ones. A place for community, for adventure, and for rising to meet challenges with strength and tenacity. It was both an escape from the world and an invitation to experience it fully. It was about saying yes to all of it.

Sitting there, days before I would line up for the second mountain bike World Cup of the season, the words struck me. The familiar mix of excitement and apprehension had already begun to settle over me as I looked toward. this next big opportunity. As before any big race, I tried to calm my mind by focusing on my preparation. I could take confidence from my training, from the way I had shown up each and every day in training, and from the belief of those around me who had been willing to lend their hands and hearts to help me prepare. I felt ready.

Courtney on the muddy track in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic. Photo: Bartek Wolinski

Yet at the same time, the moments before a big race also force me to confront the uncertainty of competition. When you really think about it, the sport of mountain biking requires a special kind of crazy optimism. It is an endurance sport, meaning that consistent hard work is a basic prerequisite. Hours, weeks, months, and ultimately years  are poured into marginal gains that accumulate slowly into improved fitness. But fitness is only one aspect — there is technical skill, tactical prowess, physical strength, mental strength, and equipment choice. Every aspect of preparation must be calculated and executed with complete commitment and confidence. Then it all must come together in just the right way on race day. The work will never give you a guarantee of success, but it does give you a chance. And that chance is enough to keep us going.

On Sunday morning, I lined up with a smile on my face and fire in my eyes. “Say yes to the fight, say yes to the challenge, you have what it takes,” I repeated to myself on the start line. The first goal was to get to the front early and put in two solid laps. I charged off the line feeling a calm focus, finding my way to the front and entering the singletrack in second place. Yes.

By lap one I was settled into position in the chasing group, consumed by the task in front of me. My mind and body were in sync, my focus shifting from one section to the next. Execute your lines, stay in it.

And then I made a mistake. I got slightly off-line and slipped on a wet root. I hit the ground hard, my bike suddenly above me. I jumped up, feeling the ache of the impact but stumbling to get back on my bike as quickly as possible. It’s okay, keep going, I thought. But when I reached for my brake lever, it wasn’t there. Oh boy. From that moment forward, it was damage control.

I rode as quickly as possible to the tech zone where my mechanic Brad stood ready to leap into action. I was almost certain my day was over as I began to feel the impact of the crash and saw the damage to the bike. I stood in the tech zone feeling like I was watching a train go off the tracks in slow motion. No. No. No. Should I even keep going?

“This is going to take a minute,” my team manager, Frischi, said, “Just eat and drink. You need to find a way to finish this race.”

Quitting was not an option. I nodded and waited as my mechanic miraculously changed out my brake lever in two minutes and sent me back on my way. In some ways, it felt like terrible luck. My mistake could have resulted in just a bruise, a few lost seconds. Yet with a different perspective, it was also very good luck. My bike could be fixed and my body was okay, I wasn’t on my way to the hospital. I had a fantastic mechanic capable of getting me back out there. I had a team manager who believed in my resilience. I could keep going.

At the beginning of the race I was focused on being ready for the challenge. Well here it is, I thought. Say yes.

I tried to shift my mindset. Just pass one girl, I told myself. Now two. Up there is number three, get her. I started to find my rhythm again by the end of the lap, just as my rear tire began to go flat. Back to the tech zone for a wheel change and another pat on the back from Frischi. Keep going. Another nod. Yes.

I have never wanted to quit a race so badly. But my subconscious took over — don’t think, just go. I set a new goal: Pass as many girls as possible. Every girl up ahead was just one more number to add to the count. It became a game. Quick – there’s number 24. Go get her. I wonder if I could make it to 30? Oh good here’s a big group.

My mind became so focused on the task at hand that the pain from my crash faded from my consciousness. I didn’t care what position I was in or how far back I was, all that mattered was catching the rider in front of me.

By the end of the race, I had made 57 passes. I had the 8th fastest final two laps. I crossed the finish line. Victory in the face of defeat.

I congratulated the winners, commiserated with those who also had challenging days, and thanked my team for their support. An hour later, I was finally back in my hotel room. I closed the door, sat on the floor, and let the tears come. It was an almost comical sight — covered in dirt, blood and sweat, my head leaning against the back of the door to my hotel room. I thought about the words I had read earlier that week, about the commitment to saying yes not only to the possibility of victory but to the possibility of defeat. That was a tough day to say yes to. But I had faced it head on.

On my way home, I listened to a podcast with one of my favorite authors, Glennon Doyle. She described anxiety as the recognition of life’s intolerable terms — the inevitability of heartbreak, challenge, and the uncertainty of it all. Sport is a microcosm of this. The emotions are visceral, the uncertainty visible. The terms are intolerable. But we keep going anyway, we keep living and we keep competing. We keep “saying yes to life on life’s intolerable terms” as Glennon Doyle wisely said.

To say yes is to accept uncertainty and to understand that things may not go your way. In fact, if you keep showing up long enough, it most certainly will not go your way at some point. It will not be easy or fair. You can work the hardest, or be the most prepared and fail again and again. But the possibility of triumph is as compelling as the fear of failure. That same uncertainty leaves room for magical, almost inconceivable possibilities to rise and triumph. They are two sides of the same coin. And to have one, we must be willing to have the other. We must be willing to say yes.

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