09 February 2011

Sue Butler Takes on the World

Back in the U.S. with stitches in her side and a hunger in her belly, Butler talks candidly about riding, racing, and pursuing your dreams

“It was like a punch in the gut. The funny thing was, while sobbing in the ambulance, my first thought was about everyone else. Everyone who supported me to get there and how I let them down. It really wasn't about me. It was somewhat unbelievable. I think I was in shock for a while. I have never crashed so hard that it took me out of a race. So, I was bummed. Pissed…I hate being hurt, but I am also thankful that it wasn't worse. I could have broken my hip or bones and then I would have had a nice extended stay in Sankt Wendel [Germany]. That would have been bad.” ~Sue Butler on the course-altering crash that ended her bid for a 2011 World Cyclocross Champion title

Of course, if Butler were a practical soul, she never would have been there in the first place. Reflecting back on her decision to quit her full-time job as a guidance counselor with the Portland Public Schools in 2005 at age 33 and strike out to become a professional mountain-bike racer, Butler candidly admits, “I was crazy to think I could do it. I had no history of racing. I don’t know what I was thinking…all of a sudden I was going to quit my job and pretend to be a racer? “

There aren’t many instances in life when our significant other reminds us of our advancing years that the conversation ends well. However, in Butler’s case, it proved to be just the push she needed. “My husband [Tim] said, ‘You know what? You’re not getting any younger. You’re fast and you’re good. You won’t know unless you try. You won’t know unless you give it your 100% and see if you can do it. The worst thing is going to happen: you’re going to try it, you’re going to suck, and you’re going back to your job. BIG DEAL.’ At least you know, and you’re not going to sit in that office ten years from now and think, God, I had an opportunity, I could’ve been a professional mountain-bike racer…I didn’t want to have to say WHAT IF. I had this opportunity and I didn’t take it and now I’m miserable. Man, I should’ve done it when I could.

With that spirit of determined ferocity and ambitious optimism, Butler set out on her chosen path. Temporarily waylaid by a skiing-related knee surgery the following February, a short 5 months later she won the 2006 National Mountain Bike Championships, 35-39 Expert division, in Sonoma, CA. What had seemed like a setback at the time turned out to be a blessing in disguise: “If I had turned pro [that year] I never would have been able to win a national championship at that level. It was such a huge accomplishment after going through all that rehab.” From there, she went on to win the 2006 TransRockies Challenge with Barenaked Cannondale team member Anna Vacca, and began “dabbling” in other endurance-challenging events such as the Salt Lake City U100 (100 mile MTB race), the Canadian Masters World Championships and, of course, cyclocross.


When asked to pinpoint her favorite discipline, Butler and fellow racer Wendy Sims agree: “I like riding my MTB the best but I LOVE racing cross. It’s finite; you know how long it’s going to be: 40 minutes of pain. You can suffer for 40 minutes. You can put your body in that discomfort for that long.

There is some strategy in it; it’s technically challenging enough, but you know it’s going to be over soon. [The course is] a proscribed thing; you go over and over again so you can improve your lines each time you ride it. And you can pre-ride, so you can kind of know what you’re getting yourself into. You’re racing twice in a weekend most of the time, so if you really have a bad race on Saturday, you can do something different and improve it on Sunday. ‘What did I do wrong? What could I have done differently?’ Most of the time [with mountain-bike racing] it’s ‘one and done.’ And if I really screw up a cross a race on Saturday I can try and do something different on Sunday and say, okay, that worked."

Representing Hudz-Subaru for the 2010-2011 cross season, Butler set--and reached--some pretty ambitious goals for herself this year, including podium finishes at the USGP in Portland, Cyclocross Nationals in Bend, and qualifying for 2011 World Championships. Done, done, and done. Plagued with asthma and health issues and unable to compete at Worlds the year prior, she was determined to come back this season more competitive than ever. Despite the unfortunately-timed crash in St. Wendel, Butler is able to take a more macroscopic view of her overall accomplishments. “I knew I was on the right track in Vegas when I made that front group, even though I didn't quite have the fitness to stay there. Then in Madison on the second day, I found myself on the podium at the USGP. As the schedule went, I was unable to be in Louisville and then got sick for the next round in Colorado, but then in Portland on the first day, I accomplished my goal.

“It was good to be back. So, although the season didn't really go 'as planned,' with a sinus infection taking me out for a few weeks, it was good. Something to build on and improve for next year. As for my proudest moment, I have to say that making that podium in Wisconsin with my family all there was pretty cool. My mom is pretty cute about all this. And my 15 year old niece was impressed. That is hard to do. But podium in Portland in front of the home crowd was almost as sweet.”


Winning races as diverse as the High Cascade 100 MTB Race, short track and cross country OBRA Championships, and 40 minute ‘cross suffer-fests, you’d think Butler must have been born the uber-fast and furious pro with a VO2 Max that rivals Lance Armstrong’s. Not so, says Butler. “It’s taken years on some of those trails to be able to clear; it didn’t start overnight. I remember walking thing that I don’t even think about now. [Being teased] ‘I remember when you couldn’t hop a log’; in Forest Park I could not get over a little 6” bridge—I didn’t know how to get my bike over it. “

What were the tools that unlocked it for her?

Determination. I want to be able to do it. And I know it’s possible. You see other people do it. And I think that’s important: knowing it’s possible. All those sections that I can ride now: After the first time I did them, I’ve never NOT done them again. Because you know what? Now I can. But it took riding someone behind that did it fine and then you know it’s possible and you can do it yourself. So I always ride with people that are better than me. That’s how I got faster; that’s how I got better technically.

"Doing the BC Bike Race improved my skills amazingly technically-wise because the trails up there were difficult and it was scary and there were things I would not have ridden on a joyride; but racing, you don’t have a choice. And I think racing has made me a better rider and a better athlete because it puts you in a position where you don’t have a choice.”

When asked whether not having a choice might put a rider in a potentially dangerous position with un-alterable consequences, Butler pauses for a moment before responding: “Adrenaline is an amazing thing; yes and no. But I think it allows us to accomplish things we don’t think we’re capable of…You know, you’ve got to ride within your skill abilities …I have the fear of riding over skinnies and little bridges—I’m freaked out by it. Well, singletrack’s only that wide. Well, I can ride that, why can’t I ride [this]? I mean, it’s stupid. I should be able to ride it. And guess what? If I was racing, and you want to beat the people behind you, and you have a partner in front of you riding it, then are you going to walk it? NO! You’re going to ride it. It’s amazing the things you can ride when you’re following someone that’s good and skilled. It’s pretty inspiring.”

On overcoming fear:

“Even for me I have to get past that [fear of crashing] because 99% of the time you’re going to be fine. So you really can’t focus on that slight, slight, slight chance that something bad is going to happen. You don’t want to live your life out of that fear; fear is one of those emotions that will paralyze you forever and it will not let you continue to let you do what you love. “ Showing off the well-earned battle scars along her elbow after opening up her arm three times in one season, she continues. “Yeah, it’s ugly and it reminds me of those crashes…and makes you laugh too. I don’t even think about it now. I LOVE going downhill on my MTB; I LOVE rocks and just rooty stuff.”

Her best advice: Practice makes perfect; hone those skills, so you can be confident in going down something. If you’re going to be scared you’re going to be walking a lot. I HATE walking my bike. My objective is to get better and get over those things b/c I really don’t want to walk my bike…I love riding it, and I love the challenge of it! I think that’s why I keep doing it.” Another skill set that’s served Butler well in both the cross-country mountain bike and cyclocross arenas? Her ability to re-set and go. “You’ve got to be able to do that [re-set] and not let things like that stay in your head and totally plague you. Because you won’t do well [otherwise].

“I remember the first year I went to Worlds, at the USGP Portland 2007. The race was horrible; bad; not a good day. I was plagued with mechanicals, it was muddy…shaking and freezing cold. I was so determined to do well. Bad bad bad…I was sitting in the Tahoe shaking crying sobbing –okay it’s a race why am I crying”? -- It was so emotional because I was ready to kill it and I didn’t. I was like, 'There goes my chance to go to Worlds and I really screwed it up.’ It wasn’t my fault; I couldn’t have done anything differently. But I reset, went to Kansas got 6th at nationals and ended up going to Worlds. You have to always be determined; you should never give up you shouldn’t write off your chances.”

A “Late Bloomer”

With a race career and backstory this impressive, and elite-level results no one can argue with, it’s dismaying to learn Butler’s biggest barrier isn’t a 2 foot log in the middle of the trail or a brutal run-up so muddy cyclists are losing their cleats in the brine, but her age. A self-described “late bloomer” to the pro circuit, the chase for sponsorships and professional opportunities has been a difficult quest. Racing first for local bike shop River City Bicycles, Barenaked Cannondale and then Monave Cannondale, Hudz-Subaru picked her up for the 2010-2011 cross season but the future remains unwritten and unknown. “Since I didn’t start racing until so late I still feel I have several good years left in me. There’s something about young development, new and up-and-coming, blah blah blah…But even when I had my first good season, it was impossible. It’s been really hard as someone who’s started late in life to get sponsors. So it’s frustrating.”

Pair that with another national trend: the lack of junior and U23 development programs, sponsorships, equal prize dollars and race opportunities for women—and it’s an uphill battle. Having raced throughout the U.S., Butler comments on the lack of equal participation she sees in the sport: “I don’t think a lot of women are encouraged, and I think a lot of women don’t know that the opportunity exists to race your mountain bike. There’s probably a lot of mountain-bikers out there that have no idea there’s mountain-bike races. I didn’t know that; I had no idea. I think woman are really competitive and I think they can handle pain better, too….[But] women are more practical. They’re not going justify spending money on themselves to race, whereas men are like, ‘whatever; I’m going to go do that race.’ Women are more sensible that way."

Another good reason? Women in their late 20s and mid 30s are starting families, and a different set of priorities come into play. While men can choose to still race, women who are pregnant, nursing or performing childcare duties unfortunately takes some women out of field—at least for a time period.

It’s Never Too Late to Start

At age 38, Butler is competing—and winning—against elite women 10+ years her junior, and can honestly tell you she’s in the best shape of her life. Ironically, in part due to the aforementioned encouragement, funding and priority discrepancies when it comes to the junior development and U23 teams for women, she “I couldn’t have raced as a U23; I couldn’t have afforded it. Unless you have racing in your family; or you have somebody in your life that’s willing to do that for you, how are you going to do it? There’s probably a lot of talent in this country we’re never going to know about because guess what? We’re never going to tap into it. And it IS expensive. We have to be honest about that.”

Despite prior health setbacks, bad crashes and sponsorship issues, Butler remains an optimistic ball of positive energy, radiating her passion for bicycling to everyone she comes into contact with. More than anything, she wants cyclists to eradicate “I can’t” from their vocabularies. “It IS something they can do. They do have the fitness and the ability. We have a tendency to say, 'Oh, I’m not good enough to do that.' Oh no, you are, you definitely are—you just have to want to do it and you have to do it.

"I started really late in life compared to most people but it doesn’t mean you can’t be competitive. It’s hard work, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t happen…You don’t know it unless you try. I think people have this concept that they’re not good enough. NO, YOU ARE. And unless you go do it, you’re not going to know how you stack up against the rest of the country.”

Hunger in Her Belly

What’s going to keep Butler hungry for more in the upcoming season? “I haven't gotten to where I want to be. Racing in Europe this past year was like a step back. I need to master the starts and have better races over there. And although I did podium at nationals, it wasn't a clean race. Wasn't my best race. I want to have more races next year that I walk away from and say, YES! I gave it my all and got the best result I could have. I didn't have as many of those as I would like to have. I have to fix the little mistakes and there is still lots of room for improvement. I am already looking forward to it.”

“I love riding my bike, “she says simply. “That’s basically what it boils down to. What ever I’m doing, I’m going to make sure I do it 100%

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thankyou for this story you are an inspiration to me keep up the good work as long as you are still having fun

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