“I started really riding bikes and racing when I was in grad school. So, it wasn’t till I moved to Boston that I started riding kind of initially as a way to get out of the city, explore a little bit more. Turns out the MIT cycling team is really good. So, it was very easy to get swept along in their excitement. And you know everyone can think back about that one formative moment that they had riding with a team that sucked them into the community, and now we’re all stuck. And so that for me, that happened in Boston.”
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JESSE: Welcome to the Smart Athlete Podcast. I’m your host, Jesse Funk. My guest today has her Ph.D. from MIT in Biological Engineering. She’s a pro gravel rider for Louth. She rides at the US National Track Team and is a self-described coffee snob, and deprived of coffee apparently today. Welcome to the show, Christina Birch.
CHRISTINA: Hey, thanks for having me.
JESSE: Okay, Christina. First things first. So, if you’re listening on iTunes or just audio and you’re missing out on the video, Christina has got like kind of picturesque scene in the background going on. So, where are you and why does it look so beautiful behind you?
CHRISTINA: Yeah, I am socially distancing really hard right now. I am at my family’s cattle ranch in central Montana. So, if you looked at a map of Montana and put your finger on the exact center, you would land on us actually. And so we have a family ranch that’s shared between all my aunts and my dad that’s about 10,000 acres. So, I am just on the edge of that right now.
JESSE: So, did you grow up like working the cattle and do it all that?
CHRISTINA: Unfortunately, no. I mean, I grew up really, I went to school in Arizona. But I’d spend summers up here working, getting as much of an experience out here as I can, but that’s part of why I’m up here is to work on the ranch and help out.
JESSE: Okay, okay. I was like, if you had I was gonna, after we got done, be like, you’re gonna have to call my dad. My dad grew up as an only child on a farm. So, like he loves to talk about cattle and all that kind of stuff. It’s just his jam. I don’t know anything about it because I grew up in the suburbs. So, there’s like this part of his life that I really can’t connect to, but it was his whole world growing up. So, he loves watching people, there’s like farmers our age on YouTube now, and he’s obsessed with watching those people on YouTube. So, I was just curious if you kind of had that experience growing up.
CHRISTINA: Well, we can do a [??? 03:25]. We’re branding tomorrow the last batch of calves, so I can FaceTime you in.
JESSE: Okay. We can add that on the back. So, you’ve got a lot going on. It seems a little succinct from the intro but it’s kind of hard to figure out where to start. So, you came to cycling kind of, I’ll say “late” in life, quote-unquote, you weren’t doing it from the age of five upwards, right?
CHRISTINA: Correct. Yeah, I started really riding bikes and racing when I was in grad school. So, it wasn’t till I moved to Boston that I started riding kind of initially as a way to get out of the city, explore a little bit more. Turns out the MIT cycling team is really good. So, it was very easy to get swept along in their excitement. And you know everyone can think back about that one formative moment that they had riding with a team that sucked them into the community, and now we’re all stuck.
And so that for me, that happened in Boston, and New England has just got a fantastic cyclocross scene. And so I really fell in love with cross, it was the first discipline I really focused on. I rode for the jam fund up there where [??? 04:48] for a couple years, and I absolutely loved it.
JESSE: Is the MIT team, is it split into all the different disciplines? So, you have like a road group and you got the cyclocross group or how is that set up?
CHRISTINA: Well, I’m not sure how much overlap there is between the disciplines now since I’ve been out of there for five years. Just hit my Ph.D. defense five year anniversary. But when I was a student there, it was definitely sort of parted along disciplines. Road obviously being the most popular and well populated. And part of that was because the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference, the ECCC is fantastically run. It’s probably one of the best cycling organizations I’ve ever been a part of.
And under the leadership of Joe Kapino was running it back then. And he coordinates amongst all these different New England colleges, and we’d have a race every single weekend; Saturday, Sunday. And so you get to see people from not just across the river like BU, but we would go to state college to ride against a whole bunch of teams. We’ve raced against Vermont, all sorts of stuff. And I think that just having that structure made road really big.
And then, for cyclocross, we kind of tapped into all of the local UCI cross races that were there. And collegiate riders just ended up getting scored separately, but you got introduced to some real like world-class level racing early on. And there was actually, there still is a track in Londonderry, New Hampshire. It’s an old go-kart track, but when I was there, the program was run by Kurt Benjamin.
And he ran a fantastic program like really a tight ship. So, even though it was like kind of a questionable facility, kind of bumpy, nothing that really stand out; I could go from there and then go race on a 250 and feel comfortable that I was going to follow all the rules, do all the right things and not hurt anybody at least, you know?
JESSE: Yeah, feel like you’re not taking this weird leap from where you are to actually being out there and competing.
CHRISTINA: Yeah, yeah, I think there’s a lot of people in New England that are super passionate about cycling, and they’re all close together geographically. And I think I really, I mean, I really benefited from that, especially like you said, coming in late to the sport in my 20s. It really helps jumpstart, I think my cycling career.
JESSE: That’s like the community aspect and I think you mentioned kind of the ability of the race director to put things together. It’s always, I don’t want to say surprising to me, but it’s so crucial, but it’s almost this like, hidden element. I’m out of the collegiate scene, I don’t race professionally. But even these community races, how the race director puts together the race, who they communicate with, how they coordinate everything, affects the quality of the race, and how much fun you have.
You’re out there to compete, obviously, but I actually won’t name this particular race, but it was in my 20 years of racing, 10 plus years of triathlon I did this race. It was so poorly run I will never go back to that race and I speak negatively of it. I won’t here but just in person, because the race director basically changes almost every year. So, there’s no consistency. So, it’s awesome that you had that person in charge to take care of that aspect that’s like, as racers we kind of almost forget about. We’re just there to go get [??? 09:05] do our thing.
CHRISTINA: Well, I think part of it is like, the experience of racing is really personal, right? We’re rather vulnerable out there. We’re putting ourselves out there, we’re going as hard as we can trying to win. You really put yourself out there, right? I feel like any sort of impact that you get, any impression from other racers yelling at you, the race director, how everything is run, if it’s adding to your stress, it becomes a very personal thing.
And I think that’s why we all get so worked up about races that have been really tough or like this one guy that yelled at me to, you know, I was wearing my sad saddlebag wrong or whatever. Yeah, it’s a little tough to not feel like everything is really personal. I certainly, it’s– Yeah.
JESSE: Have you developed a routine where you can kind of like, start ignoring people? I know it’s something that develops over time, but coming late to the sport, was that have you done it, and was it more conscious or like a mental warm up routine to kind of block everything out? Like Michael Phelps famously listens to certain kind of music before he goes to swim.
Everybody has their own thing, their own kind of routine. I don’t know if you’ve developed one, but it seems really common from people that start at a young age and kind of go on to perform at the level that you’re able to [??? 10:44] know if you had a similar experience.
CHRISTINA: Yeah, I think that’s been actually a little bit of a shift for me lately since I’ve reached the World Cup level. I think earlier on coming late into the sport having zero experience cycling prior, I think I always had a little bit of an underdog mentality. And I’m very comfortable with that. I’m very comfortable in a situation where I’m underestimated and in over my head and I usually over-perform in those situations. And then you switch gears to being on the national team on the fastest nation in the world right now, and you’re expected to medal.
And so now you kind of have– it’s a huge mental shift, I think to say, well, I’m no longer the underdog. I’m no longer trying to prove myself. I’m out here for blood. I’m out here to win, to be aggressive, to beat people, and to beat them badly. And it’s obviously a very different experience that I’m talking about with myself racing individually versus racing with a team.
But I think I’m probably much more relaxed now at these races if we go to a World Cup or PanAm Champs or something like that with a team, I trust so much in my preparation that it’s almost like finally, everything we’ve been working for is here now and now I just get to enjoy the process, enjoy the racing. And of course, that won’t go any less hard if you’re enjoying everything. There’s still like the adrenaline rush, there’s still the pain, the bike, you know.
But I think that was a huge shift. I think I used to be very high stressed early on, and not wanting any sort of outside impact that threatened to deviate me from my baseline. And now it’s sort of like I’ve had some of my best results when we didn’t have bikes for warm up until about eight minutes before we had to go to the start line. You’re just like, all right, this is my new reality. What do I do with this?
JESSE: Yeah, yeah. I found as I progressed in college, I have a lot of expectations for myself, but I’ve found consistently my best days were like, not a game plan. And then I said, coach, I’m just going to go have fun. Like, that’s my goal today. If I have fun then I’ve succeeded. And those were all like, I would always come up with big PRs on those days because you just find something in yourself where you’re not worried about it anymore.
And maybe you’ve got an answer to this because I don’t know that I yet have the answer to this. I find the trick is, even if you know okay, my goal is to have fun and that’s how I performed the best. Then you’re like working this almost Catch 22 where you’re like, but now I want to do my best so I’m focusing on making sure I have fun and then you’re like back to high stress.
CHRISTINA: Yeah, I think there is definitely a balance in the immediate environment of the race and the context and everything going into it, I think really dictates. So, I know thinking back to like, my collegiate days when I was racing cyclocross, the year I won collegiate nationals, I went in just being like, look, I’ve done the best I can. I have my best UCI results of the year. I feel like I’ve really proved to myself that I’ve made huge improvements, and I deserve to be at the front of this UCI pack.
And whatever happened at Nationals happened and it was very liberating. And so I had a lot more mental energy, I think to focus on the day. And then in that, I think it’s not that I’m trying to focus on having fun. It’s more my mind is quiet enough to allow the fun in. It’s not just like this wound spring turning.
JESSE: Yeah. I don’t know if this is a Midwestern phrase, but especially when it came to conferences or championships, whatever it’d be. And I’ve had a number of coaches over the years that all, all of them seem to say hay’s in the barn. Hay’s in the barn.
CHRISTINA: Hay’s in the barn. Money’s in the bank.
CHRISTINA: All that, yeah. Yeah.
JESSE: It’s just like, you’ve done the work. Don’t worry about it anymore.
CHRISTINA: Which is so easier said than done. Oh, my God. I mean, I, unfortunately, I think I’m a naturally very anxious person. I think because I’m very type A I like to control a lot of, like to control as many variables as possible. I like to think through things in great detail, in part because I get some pleasure about thinking about plans and things like that.
But you’re right, sort of ironically, I’ve had my best results when it’s almost like someone cuts loose the leash, and I can just go for it. And it’s like all those things I was worried about are no longer applicable, clean slate. And there’s got to be some psychology there about just some event that really pulls you truly into the present moment. That I think for a race mentality is incredibly powerful.
JESSE: I spent a lot of time kind of reading books on the winning mindset and like race, performance, and like all about kind of getting your brain in the right space. And a lot of it seemed to come back to this kind of idea of a beginner’s mind, like not getting so ahead of yourself that you think I’m awesome or I don’t know that or I do you know that. It’s like in this place where you’re not– like a beginner often that’s interested in something just does it. They don’t worry about, am I doing it right, is my form perfect?
Like in your case, is my cadence right? Am I in the right gears? Is my line perfect? I should have taken a better– You’re not worried about all those things. It’s like, it’s just right now, this is what I’m doing and you make adjustments on the fly. Because no matter what race plan you come together with, and over the years, I’ve executed race plans where it’s like 90% there, like 90% exactly what I thought. And then there’s always something if not a lot that goes wrong and you gotta adjust.
CHRISTINA: Yeah. I mean, I’ve talked about it with my family, and they know that for me just getting to the start line is the hardest part. As soon as the race starts, it’s easy, right? But just get into the start line is the challenge. And so I travel with a notebook that I use for bike measurement notes, passwords, race journals, whatever. And it probably has for every single race, this same exact like to-do list or packing list that I run through. And it’s like, well, I’m going to pack the same 30 things every time. And somehow, instead of just looking at an old list or trusting my memory, because I’ve done this so much, I like to remake that list. And so that is actually the process of making the list has now become part of my process of race preparation.
It’s like, okay, well, I’ve gone through the checklist, like explicitly. Okay. Maybe I wasted 10 minutes, but it was 10 minutes that my brain was occupied on a very specific task. And that helped and that was like one of the things that seemed to help. That, and I think just like, I think for me, a lot of my training now is more difficult and more stressful than the race itself. And like you said, the same thing, hay in the barn. I’m like, I’m worried [??? 19:13] am gonna get enough water? Is there gonna be enough growth? Is the hay still wet? Can I bail it? Is it ready, you know?
JESSE: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you’re stressing over that checklist maybe does a couple things. I mean, first just kind of calms you down that you know, hey I’ve got everything. I’ve gone over this and gone over this. But like, I’ve got checklists for races because I’ve always, and it’s particularly because of the bike, triathlon just have the most nonsense that you gotta bring with you especially when you’re getting on a plane, you gotta break the whole bike down, put it in the– I use a [??? 19:59] case so it breaks it into two cases.
So, you’re essentially breaking it down into almost its basic components and you gotta put it back together again. So, you got all these pieces, you got three pairs of shoes and a wetsuit and gathered just all these things. So, I made a checklist that I can just print out. The problem being that, that checklist will vary depending on whether it’s a local race, whether it’s far away, if I’m staying more days than average, if there’s a new nutrition piece I like. So, even having that thing that you could print out is not necessarily helpful. Sometimes it’s harmful. So, your method’s probably good.
CHRISTINA: Or redundant. But it’s funny you bring up the travel component ’cause I feel like that’s actually something that I used to be pretty terrible at, and found traveling really stressful. And so I would often get sick after traveling. So, I’ve been sick for some key races, unfortunately, still can compete but you’re obviously not at your top. And I think just reducing the stress of travel so it’s like, I don’t even know how many times I’ve packed, unpacked and packed my bike, everything has a spot.
And now, in the World Cup circuit like you become friends with other teams and you know people that are local. And so if you miss something, I know exactly who to talk to if I’m in Poland or if I’m in New Zealand. I’ve got friends that live down the street. That’s been a really cool part of this whole experience. But I think it’s been a little bit helpful to adapt that whatever happens like I’m going to sort it out and just being very zen, and specifically focusing on travel and reducing stress during travel has helped a lot.