Kelly Catale is an elite mountain bike and gravel racer and a mental health advocate. This piece originally appeared on her own site. It gives a close insight into the challenges top athletes face in making a living and keeping their lives together.
Many people have asked about my transition to part-time work. What was the motivation? What does it mean? Now that I’m three weeks into this new chapter, I reflected on my time trying to “balance” work and training and the dissonance that evolved over the past several years. This post is my attempt at sharing what I discovered with you, dear reader, because sometimes our own deep reflections can help others feel a bit less lonesome in their personal journey, if only we’re willing to share.
Sometime in 2018, when I began pursuing elite mountain bike racing, my one life diverged into two.
My athletic pursuit was born out of dissatisfaction with my engineering career. I suppose part of the reason for the divergence of my two lives was to separate distinctly something I disliked and felt was contrary to my true self, from something I expected to be full of excitement and joy. Or, perhaps I’ve always lived “many lives” running parallel to one another, but the introduction of Kelly-the-cyclist made the divergence more obvious and distinct because it was so starkly different from the traditional 9-5 desk job that defined Kelly-the-engineer.
My two lives were born from the same source and while not identical, they shared many of the same features of the original Kelly—passion, commitment, and drive. Switching between the two was relatively seamless for a couple years, and I found a way to fit them together that was novel and motivating. It seemed I was making the impossible possible, and I took a lot of pride in the achievement. Coworkers even called me “Bicycling Batwoman” (engineer by day; cyclist by night) and I wore the silly nickname like a badge of honor.
One fundamental problem existed with this framework, namely that my two lives never existed together. They were mutually exclusive by design, which made my work life tolerable. I was made whole by knowing both lives existed, but the divergence meant I could never truly be whole.
The lack of wholeness wasn’t an issue for me because each life was so consuming that I never had time to think about the other. While at work, I was immersed in meetings, planning, and technical discussions; on the bike, I was solely focused on performing at my best.
When I did reflect on my two lives together, I did so with an odd sense of pride, knowing that I was achieving something most people could never fathom. I was a female working full-time in STEM and I was a professional cyclist—a combination that made me unique and seemingly motivational, which was particularly important to my sense of self worth.
Every time something went wrong in one life, I could count on needing to transform into the other shortly after. In a way, I was saved from having to sit with discomfort and learn from failures or mistakes in either life. This also meant I was robbed of celebration for my successes in one life, because I so quickly had to step back into the other. Perhaps the biggest downside of my two-life dichotomy was that I never had a moment to realize that it was, in fact, nearly impossible to live this way and truly feel happy, no matter what my pride had to say. In this way, I faced each life with a ferocity and commitment that was both unsustainable and unfulfilling, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
Over time, the two lives drifted so far apart that they were completely unrecognizable from one another and from their original source. All at once, I was both of these lives and I felt completely removed from them. If you put them in a room together, they would immediately repel, akin to placing two enemies together in a small room; all that would result is a calamity of bickering, backtalk, and blame.
At this point, if you had given me a personality test (like a Myers-Briggs test) I wouldn’t be able to complete it without first knowing which life I was assessing. I was two completely different people simultaneously. Kelly-the-cyclist is confident, outgoing, passionate, and she believes she is on the path to something greater and more meaningful. She is also an introvert who doesn’t mind interacting with others because lonesome hours in the saddle are the perfect recovery and escape. Kelly-the-engineer is a forced extrovert because that’s what the job requires. She’s transactional, clinical, and a perfectionist. She never feels at home in this life because she believes it might not be the right path for her; but she also feels she locked herself into this path years ago and never felt compelled enough to make a change.
Ultimately, my two lives were at odds with each other from the start. The context switching became tiring and draining. When one life excelled, the other suffered. Kelly-the-engineer started becoming the bully of my world because she was the one paying the bills and funding Kelly-the-cyclist’s dreams. Thus, my work life necessarily consumed more of my attention and energy. I would come home from work completely drained and still have to be Kelly-the-cyclist for my workout. By the time I hopped onto my bike, I didn’t have the mental fortitude to push through workouts. Some days, I would be so stressed from work that my first intense interval in a workout would bring me to literal tears because I couldn’t fathom pushing myself anymore than I already did at my first job. When I did push through my workouts, the quality was almost always suboptimal.
The negative pieces of each life started crossing boundaries into the other. I now had scapegoats. When something went wrong in one life, I blamed the other for my shortcomings. If I was late on documentation, I could blame the previous week’s trip to Europe. Or, if I bombed a workout, I could attribute it to the lack of sleep because I was so stressed at work.
Blame is an ugly noun; it burrows into your core leaving guilt and disappointment in its wake. Resentment for my engineering self became the core of my feelings and with each compromised race or workout, the guilt and disappointment grew.
In reality, the only person I had to blame was Kelly. Whether it was Kelly-the-cyclist or Kelly-the-engineer, it was still Kelly. And yet, I was never really just Kelly. I was always one or the other and never my whole self, which—if I’m being honest—was an awfully lonely existence.
This is when Depression would settle in; a state of true despair knowing that I was the reason I was suffering. That I did this to myself. It was not that “I was robbed of celebration for my successes” – it was that I robbed myself of these things. It was not that “I never had a moment to realize that it was, in fact, nearly impossible to live this way and truly feel happy” – it was that I never gave myself a moment to realize this truth.
At work, I used to tell people that “a happy Kelly outside of work is a happy Kelly in work.” I realize now that this could never have been true. Both lives required more than I was able to give.
Each life built its own momentum and their existence didn’t require my full presence and awareness. Sheer momentum allowed my two lives to unfold for the last six months of 2021. Each version of myself had a mind of its own, commanding the unfolding path, making decisions in favor of ensuring its own survival. “Survival mode” is a scary place—decision making purely for the sake of keeping momentum. It’s like driving without a windshield or a rearview mirror.
At the World Championships in October 2021, I finally gave myself a moment to dream what life would look like if I allowed myself the grace to see a whole life, integrated. I think I’ve always had this belief that life’s pursuit is not rewarding or meaningful if it isn’t challenging; that increasing challenge means increasing value. This deep-rooted principle is tattooed in my subconscious, and has served as my internal compass for a very long time. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t choose “the harder path” when given a choice. I don’t know why I feel so compelled to live this script, but it feels just as natural to me as breathing. The narrative that “if it’s not hard, then it’s not worth the effort” might have been true at one point in my life, but it’s not serving me anymore.
On the surface, my motivation to pursue the part-time work opportunity seemed to be purely based on my desire to train and race more. And that’s the story everyone knows. But if I’m honest, that’s not the full story. Of course, I need more time to train and recover if I want to excel and reach my potential, but the deeper truth is:
I’m re-writing the script.
I used to desire the feeling of inspiring others because I was achieving the impossible and thriving while doing so. I was “Bicycling Batwoman”! I wanted to be an example of an unremarkable person doing something remarkable through brute force, to help others feel compelled to chase their own dreams. The message I put out into the world was something like “Look at me! I’m living a completely unsustainable lifestyle but I’m making it happen. You too can achieve this level of burnout if only you try hard enough!”
No. No. No. I would not wish this lifestyle on anyone. I’m proud of the resilience I displayed during that part of my life, but I’m so glad it’s over. Now that I have some perspective, I’m actually a bit ashamed of how I tried to make the world believe that pursuing your dreams at all costs is admirable and motivational. If you’re going to read that chapter and seek deeper inspiration, the only thing I hope you find is a lesson to avoid chasing something at the cost of losing yourself.
In this new chapter, I want you to see what it looks like to put mental health first. I want to be an example of an unremarkable person doing something remarkable in a healthy and sustainable way. I want you to see grace and self-love. I want to show you what it looks like to recognize something needs to change and honor that need before something terrible happens. To work hard but acknowledge limits and set boundaries along the way. I want you to see me as a regular person who feels a deep pull toward a greater purpose, a dream, and who chooses to chase it but does not use core values and principles as currency for the pursuit. That’s a legacy I would be proud to leave behind.
The new chapter is here.
I’m shaping a life that’s worth living because it feels true and honest to who I am. I’m not going to let challenge and struggle be measures of worth. I’m going to find value in the richness of my experiences; in making sure I’m actually living my life rather than letting momentum carry me through everything. I’m going to write more. If I don’t love my career, then I’m not going to let it dominate my life anymore. For now, I’m holding onto my career because I need the intellectual stimulation, problem-solving, and work relationships that only program management can give me at this point in my life. It’s very possible that actually do love my career but I’ve spent too long looking at it like a bully and a thief.
It’s going to take profoundly hard work to re-frame toxic mindsets and eliminate habits that no longer serve me, but the work started on January 1st, 2022. I’m standing up for myself to myself. I need to believe that I deserve better, and the first step is to start acting like it.
This new chapter represents a reset of sorts and a convergence of two very different lives. It’s end to self-sabotage and an attempt at harmony. It’s an assertion that I can have many facets of life and still be whole. It’s an attempt to show myself that I’m worth making a life worth living. It’s a reminder that no matter what I do, I will always be simply Kelly—the confident, passionate, and introverted elite cyclist with an engineering degree who loves connecting with others and also needs long, lonesome days in the saddle to feel refreshed and free.
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