Monday, August 3, 2015

it's not always like riding a bike

jan taking a bite out of the woods

 Demons. They’re sneaky. 

I’ve always known cycling to be the cure.  Yesterday, I learned it can be a cause.

I went mountain biking for the first time in 2 years (not on a tandem) yesterday with a good friend of mine, Jan.  When I used to live in Michigan, she and I rode together all the time.  We pushed each other to learn new skills.  Laughed when we were stumbling.  And did a few challenging races together.  In the not-too distant past, I was on the trail at least 2 days a week.  The closest trail was 15 minutes from my house.  And it was my place to let go of the day.

Since moving to Cincinnati, where there are many good trail systems, I have not accomplished one ride on the single track.

What I found out yesterday is that, yes, biking is not always just like biking… there ARE some things you forget.  And leave it to the familiarity of an old friend, combined with a new (to you) trail, to help you to learn a few new lessons.  The old friend provides confidence, and the new trail after a long haitus takes it away.

We arrived at the parking lot in the middle of a hot, windy day.  After getting food and water packed onto our bikes and in our pockets, we launched our bikes onto the dusty, hard-packed dirt trail that wound along behind a rather pungent chicken farm before it dips into the woods.  (Needless to say, the wind was blowing in the wrong direction…)  I fumbled around trying to keep my wheel in the path, cutting awkward lines, like a toddler trying to cut a smooth line in construction paper.  Jagged.  Inconsistent.  Raggedy.  My saddle was a little high, and so was my tire pressure – remnants of the last time I rode this bike, when I was running errands around town.  I fought for every inch of the short climbs, legs pushing hard against gravity, arms performing a tug-of-war with the handlebars. 

“Once in the woods”, I thought, “I’d get the groove on.”  Not so much.  We bounded around the 6 or so miles of the trail, my heart never settling down, my face and neck never relaxed.  It was the first white-knuckle ride I have had in nearly 15 years. Not since my very first ride on single track had I ever felt this unsure.

I used to be good at this.  I used to float around the trail seemingly effortlessly.  I used to never put my foot down around sharp turns or dab over roots.  I used to push myself on the descents, and challenge myself on the off-camber sections.  I used to always have balance and know exactly what my lines would be. 

This day was like I was learning to walk again.  My steps were punctuated and unsure.  My gait was uneven.  And occasionally, I fell back onto my diapered bottom, only to turn over to all fours, and slowly push myself back up again. 

Every root seemed to shift under me.  Every corner (though some were deeply rutted from other riders on the trail when it was wet) seemed like trying to carve a pumpkin with a dull knife. 

Pedal, breathe.
Turn.  Weight back.
Pedals even.  Hands loose.
Clip out!  Now!  Don’t slide down the dropoff!
Look down the trail, not at your tire.  Don’t look at your tire!


Use your body, not your hands.
Shift.  Now again.  No… too much….
Uh oh, too much weight forward on that one.  That was close. 

We stopped only once to get water and to make some decisions about trail choice in the first lap.  I was – for the first time in a long time – glad to get the mental break.  Physically, I was fine; mentally, a wreck.  I couldn’t quite get a grip on being so frustratingly bad, and on top of that, I was frustrated that I couldn’t get a grip on being so frustrated. 
a friend cures most everything.  thanks, jan.
It’s been a long time since I’ve challenged myself in this way, I realized.  This was good for me, I tried to convince myself.  That was a hard sell. 

When we finished the last part of the trail, we commiserated over some more water and Gu, at the decision point between going back out for more and going back through the chicken farm to the parking lot.

We decided we needed a little more riding.  And I thought that I was good with that.  I was just starting to warm up to the trail again, and wanted to leave a better taste in my mouth.

So we head out again.  This time, several faster riders had joined the trails and were behind us.  Several times in the first few minutes of lap 2 my “thinking” (such as it was) was interrupted with “on your left,” which forced me off the trail a few times, further interrupting any kind of flow I was slowly building.

It rattled me.  I flashed back to my first race, a 12 hr mountain bike race and a lap I did at night.  I had been covered in mud and sweat and pretty much done with the whole thing, but it was my turn to go out again.  Now it’s pitch black in the woods, with nothing but my headlamp to guide me.  Racers with much more experience and a lot of swagger passed me by, nearly knocking me off the path.  Several times, I had to stop riding completely.  A few times that night, I swore I’d never get back on that bike. 

And yet, I did.  Many times after that. 

But today, you would have never known that.  There I was, a beginner again.  As we rounded our second lap, I was feeling slightly more relaxed and confident.  Only slightly more able to stop my mind from taking hold of every move I made.  Only slightly able to breathe normally, or relax my hands and neck.  Only a slight moment of the joy I remember, toward the end, on a rolling section that seemed to naturally put me back in balance.  I think I may have even smiled a little.

Just the day before, a dear friend of mine, Allison, who always finds new things to learn (e.g., sign language, violin, crochet, running, martial arts, etc.), explained her interest in learning how to play the violin at 50 years old.  She said, “I think you have to know what it’s like to be bad at something once in a while.”  She said she hates practicing when anyone is within earshot.  She hates listening to herself play.  A trained musician, her sense of what it ought to sound like doesn’t quite match up to how it actually sounds. She’s understandably frustrated by that.  But she gets it.  And continues to practice. 

Little did I know what a profound story that would be going in to my seemingly innocent attempt to get some time in the woods with Jan and some bikes. 

My vision, and inner memory of what it was like to ride singletrack, was faint, at best.  Like Allison’s violin playing, what I had imagined in my head,  isn’t what came out on the trail.

Riding a bike isn’t always like riding a bike.

And I hate sucking at it.
And I need practice.
Demons, be gone!

Anyone wanna ride? 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Out of Many, One*

I was standing in line for my flight in Cincinnati with members of my new team from Southwest Ohio when I felt someone behind me touch my back and then hug me.  I turned around to see Erin, a fellow JDRF rider who lives in Massachusetts, standing there, as if out of nowhere, like a brilliant JDRF apparition.  In my moment of shock, I shrieked a loud, “what are you doing here?” trying to piece together the question in my mind, “Why would Erin be in Cincinnati?” And even more disturbing, for a moment I wondered where the hell I was.

Suddenly, this friend from afar was occupying a space we don’t typically share.  And this was no passing-through-moment people talk about when they encounter friends in far-away places, I knew we were standing there for the same reason, to travel to Death Valley together for the Ride to Cure.  Even still, it felt for a moment as if I was stuck in a disorienting dream.

I met Erin two years before as a member of the Hope on Two Wheels ride.  That year, I had accidentally stumbled onto the crew for a 16-leg team ride from New York City to Bethesda, Maryland to raise awareness about type 1 diabetes and JDRF. I had also seen her at Burlington, VT for the JDRF Ride to Cure for two years in a row, and I had ridden with her on the Hope ride last year.  So I had seen her for a few brief, busy days over the past three years.  I shared the back seat of a van all day on the hope ride, watching her test and retest her blood glucose levels as she made her way through the 12 hour, 110 mile team ride.  Am adult about my age, she had been newly diagnosed with t1d, and was still learning how to manage.  She had also just come back from a cycling camp for t1d athletes in Colorado, ready with new strategies both as a person with t1d and as a cyclist.  I learned a lot from her in that van, as we rode together in the pouring rain, and later in the pitch-black darkness as we made our way across three states between two youth diabetes camps.  And I was in awe of her.  (I still am.)

I realize now that what startled me back at the Delta gate was that I was just remarking to my Cincinnati teammates that I had not yet felt that the Cincinnati airport felt like home.  Only having moved a year ago, this was only my second flight from CVG.  I was still remarking about and feeling occasional disorientation in Cincinnati, and here was Erin, from Massachusetts, probably the last person I expected to see in my still-rather-unfamiliar “home” standing in front of me as if it were the most natural thing.  My worlds collided in that moment; I was so stunned that I failed her introduction to my teammates.  I stumbled on her name so long she had to provide it for me.  And in the midst of feeling the shame in that, I missed my opportunity to provide the return introduction.  Luckily, I looked up just in time to realize they had taken matters into their own hands….. of course , they had my back.

On the flight between Cincy and Vegas, I reflected on the experience of watching the Facebook feed about the ride earlier in the morning.  It was blowing up with announcements and posts and “check-ins” from people all across the United States making their way to the ride.  (Really, primarily from the east coast and Midwest, as it was too early for my western region friends to be awake.)

I felt something rumble inside of my chest watching the news feed bloom into one big online gathering: a convergence of purpose I hadn’t seen.

I realized (perhaps not for the first time), that we are, in fact, one big team.

And now, Erin, making her connection through Cincinnati of all places, and on my same flight to Vegas, confirmed this for me even more. It was as if the universe was saying to me, “Of course, silly.  Erin is from Massachusetts, but she’s on your team too.  Why wouldn't she be here in this moment, on this plane?”

We are riding our individual bikes.  We raised money for our individual reasons.  We all have our individual reasons for doing this, our individual goals for ride day.  We have our reasons for coming for the first time, or returning, to Death Valley or anywhere else we ride this season, but…. one thing is certain, we may be from Ohio or Massachusetts or New Jersey or Pennsylvania, or Michigan, or South Carolina, or Florida, or Tennessee, or Texas, or Wisconsin, or Minnesota, or Washington, or Canada, but…..

we are one team.

*e pluribus unum

Sunday, March 23, 2014

shaken, not stirred

keep pedaling.  keep breathing.  keep pedaling.  keep breathing.  don't look ahead.  just don't look ahead at what's coming.  stay here.  right here.  keep pedaling. 

out of pure necessity, i have adopted this mantra since moving to cincinnati 7 months ago.  it's hilly here.  way hilly.  and the hills are longer and much much steeper than anything i have ever ridden on a road bike.  every club ride or casual sunday ride, like today's, challenges me in new ways.  every route i've done shows me not only new roads, but new terrain. 

and i am reminded of something important.  i am reminded that riding hills is mostly (mostly) a big fat head game.

in my first month here, i looked ahead at what was to come: the steep pitch these hills take suddenly (sometimes upwards of 18% or more), the sharp curves and switchbacks that usually hide more steep pitches beyond them, the deceptive flat sections that really are just long uphill grinders.  i looked ahead, and what i usually thought to myself was "oh wow... there's no way! no way!"  and i would gear down, stand up, breathe hard, and kill myself to get to the top, the whole time trying to get my brain to shift to a "it's not that bad, i got this" mentality.  easier said than done. 

today, 8 months later, these hills haven't gotten shorter, or less steep.  they haven't become more forgiving.  but perhaps i have. 

today, i remembered - even though i struggled to not simply topple over on one long, steep climb, which had me pedaling at maaaaybe a 4 mph pace (i couldn't really look at my odometer) - that this game, this dance with these hills, is all about mental power.  i had the power to make it up those hills.  my legs were "fine," even if my lungs were not. 

but my brain?  even worse. 

it was a mental challenge to keep my brain from telling me that i couldn't possibly do one more crazy pitchy section, i just wanted that damn hill to back off.  what's more, i watched my riding companions, all seasoned veterans of this terrain, fly up ahead of me as if they were jet-propelled.  the distance growing further and faster between us, my breathing becoming even more labored and now turning into something just shy of hyperventilation, i kept pedaling, my brain ping-ponging between willfulness and doubt.

i clearly have some work to do.

but.... i learned something new today, as i almost always do when i get back out on the bike.  i was reminded that i am in a new place.  that this is new terrain.  and therefore, it's going to take a new mentality, a whole new mental approach, to ride here successfully. 

and so, the point of my writing?  to remember that a change in terrain is nothing but fantastically good - maybe even key - for a change in perspective, how one defines strength, how we approach the unknown. 

i realized that while i knew where i was, i really still didn't know how to be here.

and i know it'll take a lot more time for that lesson to sink in fully (much to my chagrin, because i'm endlessly impatient).  but i also was reminded that this new place of mine is also going to teach me things i never knew about myself about my riding, my brain, my bike, everything. 

i think maybe we all need to shake it up - and be shaken up - once in a while. 

lookout at devou park in kentucky (at the top of a long climb), looking northeast to downtown cincy.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

giving bikeface

     it's a new year.  of course, not according to any calendar, but, i bought a new computer for my bike yesterday.  that means i start all over again in logging miles.  this morning, the computer was set at zero.  it signaled a fresh new start.  
     this morning, i added air to my tires so i can add miles to my bike, to my legs, to my heart. 
     i set out with one small goal:  get 20 miles in today no matter how it happens.... whether or not i ever have bikeface, i was going out.  tired of not riding, of missing out on rides, waiting to make plans with friends, tired of finding excuses not to ride.  tired of choosing work over riding.  tired.  just tired....
     so i head out to a hike and bike trail that circles a small airport 5 miles from my house.  the route is immediately uphill, and then a long 3 miles downhill toward the river (and then back up, i add) to where the airport and the trail are.  the rail trail is like most: wide, flat, bordered by trees and hedges, and full of people. 

long flat and straight, perhaps the only place like this in cincy.

     it's a beautiful saturday morning.  sunny, 75 degrees, no wind.  couples are walking and biking and running and strolling with children, small airplanes are taking off from the airport.
     it feels like a new home in a way i haven't yet felt.  

small airplanes lined up at the hangar, reminiscent of boats in the docks in saugatuck, mi.
but i notice something is wrong.
     people are out here on this beautiful day, and no one is smiling.  every single person i see looks so serious, pensive, or just blank.  i was especially saddened to see so many people on bikes frowning and overworking and clearly not having fun.
     i checked in on myself.  was i one of them?  what must i have been showing them? 
     did i have bikeface?  was i too serious?  i realized that i had started out feeling weak and out of shape, barely able to hold a 17mph pace, which used to be easy for me a few months ago.... starting to become discouraged...
     i decided that i better stop paying attention to my own disappointments in my own cycling, and find a way to focus my attention elsewhere.  to let off the gas of my own unreasonable expectations for a moment... 
     so, i launched an experiment during my second loop around the airport (8 miles of flat rail trail partially shaded and full of people).
     i put on my bikeface (by now, it didn't feel like it had to be put on, by the way, as after a few miles, even after being off the bike for nearly 3 weeks, even though i was slow and not the rider i hoped i was, it didn't take long for me to feel bikeface).
     i decided to say hello to every single person i passed, and made sure i smiled at them.  i wanted to see what would happen.
     i passed a couple going in the opposite direction on their upright cruisers.  blankfaced, just cruising along.  i smiled.  "good morning" i said.  immediately, their faces lit up and they both responded, "hi."
     as i approached two younger women out on a walk, i said, "good morning, on your left."  as i passed i heard one of them say to the other, "i want to start cycling."  (i nearly turned back to talk to her, to encourage her to just do it.)
     i passed a guy on a mountain bike taking his own time... again i said, "good morning, on your left." and smiled as i went by.  he said "good morning."
     as i passed and greeted each person, i noticed a pattern.  i could change the expression on their faces just by saying hello and smiling.
     the only person who beat me to the punch was a 5 year old boy who passed me going in the other direction. "hi" he said to me.  "he gets it" i said to myself.  i said, "hi" back, and continued on my way. (it turns out he had long outdistanced his dad and younger brother... he clearly knew what this was about.)
     anyway.... it was becoming clear that it's absolutely possible to give away bikeface.
     this ride helped me today.  even though i didn't ride fast, or long.  i was able to push through the loneliness i feel when i ride alone.  i was able to push through feeling like a stranger when i think of my cycling community that i left back in michigan, and the new cycling community here in cincinnati that i am learning to be a part of.  i feel better knowing that i can find some (some) enjoyment out of a solo ride.  i can do something small to maybe make it all better, for me, and maybe for someone else too.
     today, i learned to give away bikeface.  and that makes it a very happy new year's day.  a great first 24 miles on my ol' trusty little red bike....

Monday, May 20, 2013

A Slow Return

When I started this blog, I intended to include pictures of friends (and even people I don’t know) who are riding how, what, where, and with whom they love.  I intended to tell the stories of others, to share the larger world of cycling and of friends and loved ones as they celebrated those personal connections on the bike. 

But those intentions were thrown out as soon as I sat down with my computer.  As it turned out, this has ended up a record of my musings – however meager they can be – about the more philosophical or spiritual aspects of bikeface, of cycling.  This was kind of a surprise to me.  As I wrote, I found myself talking about the lessons I have learned on the bike that I found also deeply informed my life off of the bike.  And I learned a lot of things about how I felt about cycling, and life, in the process.  One of my favorite quotes about writing sums this up perfectly: “How do I know what I think unless I see what I say?” 

I suppose I didn’t know about the simple act of cycling until I started writing about it.  And sadly, sometimes, it’s not so simple.  Sometimes things get complicated, and we have to move our attentions elsewhere….

In the past 8 months, another kind of writing has taken most of my attention away from riding and writing about riding….. As many may know, I have been writing my dissertation to complete my doctoral degree.  As the days get closer to finishing, my cycling has waned tremendously. 

The balance is off.  My cycling community feels different to me as a result.  I feel like a guest in my old group of friends as they have moved on and experienced things together that I have missed out on, and can now tell stories about that will never include me as they once had.  I feel different.  But interestingly, my riding is not.  It is perhaps the one predictable thing in my life.

But, after 8 months of only occasional riding (I have maaaybe 300 miles logged in so far), I am slowly adding more hours in the saddle to my daily routine.  And I’m finding it to be… well… like riding a bike…. I remember everything.

I am discovering my old self again.  I am seeing how my legs actually do remember how to climb.  My core does remember what it means to anticipate the curves in the trail, to intuit the momentum it will take to accomplish a climb (especially on my little single speed mountain bike), the breath control it will take to keep calm and flow during the sections that scare me just a little (and some, a lot). 

And, I am learning – or, reminded – that so much of my writing life and my riding life intertwine.  Momentum helps me get through the next difficult section of text, like the next difficult climb.  Feathering the brakes helps me to carve turns on a downhill carefully while not damaging the landscape, just as much as stepping back away from the page just for a moment helps craft sentences that seem to fit in just right. 

The whole relationship – the dialectic of my life – turns and twists and meanders and finds the main road  again when I am neither pushing too hard, or ignoring it too much.  It just is.  And I have forgotten that of late.

But the crucial part is that I have to show up.  Even when things are difficult – as they are right now – I have to show up to ride.  I have to show up at my computer every day.  I have to show up for myself. 

And this will all be put to the test as I transition into a new job soon, in a new city, with a new cycling community.  It’ll be fascinating to see how one bike life that I have built over several years, moves into a new bike life in a new context, with new people, with a new landscape to learn.

And while I have much more to say on this matter, I will stop this post here. 

My intention was to take the first step to show up again.  So here I am. 

But I have a request:

I want to change the focus of this blog just slightly.  I want to return to its original intention.  So, please send me photos and your stories (even brief jottings) of bikeface.  I want to move back to learning from my cycling community.  I want this blog to include others.  I want to think of this space as representing the multiple ways that people experience bikeface.  On my own, the stories will be limited.  With others, the full spectrum of bikeface can be celebrated.  In short, I hope you’ll come along on a ride with me both on the road, and in the blog. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Revising Fear

In her recent book, Wild (an Oprah Book Club favorite, I have come to find out), Cheryl Strayed writes eloquently about fear.  As she describes her first few moments hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, alone, and in the wilderness for the first time in her life, after a series of events that pushed her (somewhat surprisingly) to take on the lonely hike from Mexico to Washington state, she describes how she moved through debilitating fear. 

She writes, "Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell a different story... I was strong.  I was brave.  Nothing could vanguish me.  Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part, it worked.  Every time I heard a sound of unknown origin or felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away.  I simply did not let myself become afraid.  Fear begets fear.  Power begets power.  I willed myself to beget power.  And it wasn't long before I actually wasn't afraid." 

I have never hiked a trail across three states on my own, let alone any trail through the woods longer than a mile.  I have never taken on the epic journeys most of us only read about in books or blogs, or see in movies.  I haven't ever done these things because of all of the regular reasons most of us have:  not enough time, no extra money, no equipment, no major desire to be alone in the woods.  More importantly, when I experience something like a long hike or camping in the woods, like a bike ride, I want to share it with someone. 

But I also fear being alone in the woods.  I think the woods are beautiful peaceful places.  And I have a huge love affair with trees.  But generally speaking, being in the woods alone trades all of the beauty for extreme fear.  (It's amazing what one's brain can concoct as dangerous and spooky from the otherwise tame woods.)

Recently, I discovered something new about my fear of being alone in the woods.  Quite accidentally.  And I've been looking for a way to write about it.  So with the help of Cheryl Strayed and a few key friends, I have finally found my way in.

As it turns out, an epic bike race called The Lumberjack 100 would be my ultimate teacher in this case.  Lumberjack is a 100-mile mountain bike race that takes place in the winding hills of Northern Michigan.  A sandy, twisty, almost dizzying 33 miles per lap, the course challenges riders of all levels, and has been known to take down even the strongest of cyclists.... Here, I'm thinking of a friend, one of the strongest riders I know, who a few years back succumbed to the trail's evil grip, suffering a dangerous case of dehydration which left him shivering in the 90-degree heat and enduring the last lap with hallucinations of strange figures in the woods.  Not. Fun. At. All. 

So, why did I attempt this race you ask?  The short story is that I registered with two friends.  That's always a motivator, yes?  But two of us registered for one friend in particular who has attempted all three laps for the past two years, but due to a number of momentary health obstacles, hasn't made it to her final lap.  Our plan was to ride together and get her, if not all of us, to complete the full 100 mile race.  It would have been a first for all of us.  Unfortunately, the motivating friend in this scenario broke her arm a month before the race while we were in Fruita, CO, bombing down the sweet singletrack of our favorite trail system

Needless to say, she couldn't race.  And even though I thought for a second about dropping out, I didn't.  I had to race.  At least I had to show up and do my best.  (And I must report that she did bravely take on the pit crew duties that day, pushing aside her understandable heartache to offer her stalwart support to a huge group of us through a very long day.)

For about a month before the race, fear became a more-than-familiar emotion every time I thought about the race.  I had no idea what I was getting in to.  I had no idea what the course, the terrain, the area, or the scene looked like.  The only hope I had was that ignorace could actually be bliss.  So yeah, I went with that....

On race day, I kitted up with about a dozen of my favorite riding buddies, and lined up on the road that lead to the course.  I had a meager-at-best plan to stay on at least one friend's wheel the whole day.  But that plan would be thwarted within the first 30 minutes, as one friend pulled away immediately on the blacktop road, just before the course entered the woods.  The other friend faithfully stayed on my wheel, cheering me up the first long climb, until my chain came off as I shifted, and I encouraged him to go around me.  (I didn't see him again until 10 hours later when the race was over.)  I was glad he raced his race -- which was an impressive story of bravery and fortitude in and of itself as he too was a first time rider, riding for our broken friend, having only purchased and ridden a mountain bike 3 short weeks prior to the race.... 

A few moments after I saw his jersey disappear behind the corner, I realized I was alone in the unfamiliar woods.  Completely alone. 

This is where fear came in.  And it came in ways I never expected.

As rider after rider passed me, I realized that I was the last one in the line up of some 400 riders.  I was the last one in the whole race.  I was the last one in the whole big vast woods.  (Or so my brain would tell me.) 

"You're dead last again.  You suck.  And guess what?  You're alone and hours away from help."  This was the story that I would tell myself. 

But I would also tell myself that pedaling was better than not pedaling, that moving forward was my only option.  There were no shortcuts.  No ways to navigate my way back to the safety of our team area except to finish the lap.  Pedaling was moving forward.  This was the only thing I knew.

And so I pedaled.  And I was alone.  I was alone with the whirring and crunching of the knobby tires on the dirt path.  I was alone with my heart beating in my chest.  I was alone with my lungs expanding to never-before-felt dimensions.  I was alone with my legs reacting to my mounting panic, wanting to stop with every pedal stroke. 

And soon I realized that I, alone, had to re-write my story (though of course I didn't think about it in these terms then).  I had to tell myself that I was safe, that in the very least, the pro cyclists would lap me soon, and if I was in real trouble, I could get help within the hour. 

All this talking and writing and pedaling and panicking and re-writing and panting and pedaling and hyperventalating and near-crying would consume me in the first 30 minutes of what would be a 9.5 hour day in the saddle.

At the top of the second hour, just as I was starting to get it that I was just alone and there was nothing I could do about it, just as sunlight peeked through the otherwise ominous grey sky of my fear.....

I was down.   

Rolling down a hill.   

Inexplicably ejected from my bike and thrown, tumbling down the side of a sandy, weedy, tree-covered (and no doubt tick-infested) hill.  When the tumbling finally stopped, I was about 15 feet from the trail, and looked up to find my bike, upside down, wedged against a tree. 


I found a way to my feet, stood up, brushed myself off, and yelled as loud as I could into the woods..... 


The lump in my throat turned to tears streaming down my face as I trudged up to my bike, which was surprisingly in perfect working order.  I threw my leg over it, grumbled to myself, and started to move forward down the trail.  With the heat of my tears now filling my face, I took three or four more pedal strokes, and....

BAM!  It happened again.  Me.  Alone.  Tumbling down the hill again.

No injuries, no scrapes, no ticks....  just me and the big woods surrounding me.  Just me.  Alone.  Tumbling.  Again. 

This time when I got up, I yelled, "F-CK!" up into the trees, this time with intention, not as the reflex it felt like before.  The trees were seemingly not listening.  I trudged back up to my bike, tears mounting, settling in my gut, moving into my throat, and out of my mouth.... "F-CK!!!!" I yelled again as I wrangled my bike back to an upright position, threw my leg over once again, and headed down the trail, somehow remembering my mantra:  keep pedaling. 

In moments, my fear turned into anger.  Anger into determination. 

And I realized.... I was lucky to be out in the woods alone.  It was an immeasurably good thing that I was alone.  That no one was there to witness not one, but two crashes that seemed to have no rhyme or reason.  I was lucky that no one was there to witness the vast range of emotions that must have washed across my entire body in the 10 minutes surrounding the crashes.  I was lucky that I could be there to just be me.  No embarrassment.  No judgement (except my own).  No one to try to help.  No one to feel sorry for me.  No one but the towering Northern Michigan trees and the sun-dappled understory tumbling mat were there to witness my fear. 

The woods, like a loyal lifelong friend, didn't budge.  The woods didn't say a word.  The woods didn't think my fear was a problem to solve.  And the woods didn't try.  And that... that came as a surprising relief.

And huh... the fear subsided.   

I pedaled on to the Aid Station, just 20 minutes from where I crashed, and continued on to finish the first lap in one piece.  A ragged, dirt-coated piece; but one piece nonetheless.  And after a long  break in the pit area, after talking with the very friend I was there for, I went out for another lap.  At this point, I had no chance to make the cut off time to do a third lap.  The second lap would be the last of my day, which meant I could take it at whatever pace I wanted.  And though I knew that it would take me at least 4 hours to complete, I headed out again, determined not to let down my friend, not to mention the rest of my team.

Though I left the pit area exhausted and nervous, I realized that the fear was gone.  Completely and totally gone.  Once I made it onto the silent single-track section, I realized that I was actually feeling kind of good.  I realized that I could do another whole lap (and complete 66 miles total for my day) and actually had a lot of fun being in the woods alone.   

20 minutes went by, and no fear.  An hour went by, and no fear.  Two hours went by and no fear.   

I suddenly had control over every movement of my bike, of my breathing, of my nutrition, of my technical skills on the now-rutty downhill sections.  The long sandy sections were no problem, and the long climbs, though I had to walk a few, didn't seem so daunting.  Despite the hour dedicated to walking my bike in the rain carrying my broken chain around my neck (yeah), I loved the second lap.  I rolled into the finish 9 hours and 30-some minutes later.  A pitiful time.  But I was upright.  Without injury or illness.  Exhausted.  Elated.  Prideful.  Relieved.  Happy. 

It turns out that Cheryl Strayed is right.  Fear is a story we tell ourselves.  Just a story.  And like it or not, sometimes we have no control over when we will come face-to-face with it.  And if we're lucky, we have the friendship of a huge quiet woods (but preferably some human friends) to help us with the revision. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Crisis of Faith Part II

As most things in life, good things come to me through my connections with others. My friend Jan was riding alongside me today in our usual Thursday morning club ride and told me how she related to my last post, that in her experience, it's the people around her that make or break her riding. Of course, she said a lot of other things, but this is the piece that relates to my next part of the story. And while I can't say that I am completely cured, I can report that, like Jan, I've been reminded and newly confident of the power of people and community in cycling.  Here's (partly) what has inspired this positive and welcome change in my spirit.

Last week, I was in NYC for work, and as luck would have it, my schedule overlapped with my dear friend's plans to be in the city too (that would be Mike, I've mentioned him before.).  So, we made a plan to meet up for a short tour of the city before I had to fly home. He was in town to take part in the inaugural Hope on 2 Wheels Ride, which was the brainchild of Scott Kasper and Mike Chadwick (of the Mid- Jersey chapter of JDRF), to raise awareness of Type 1 Diabetes. This ride was an epic tag-team ride effort from New York City to Washington DC, some 252 miles, done all in one day. Twenty four intrepid riders, two cargo vans, two 15-passenger vans, and three other support vehicles and a bunch of dedicated crew and a cameraman convened on Manhattan's Financial District at the site of the World Trade Center last Friday afternoon. Their mission?  To ride from the JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation) Headquarters to the National Institute of Health Headquarters in Bethesda, MD, all in one day to raise awareness about Type 1 Diabetes (or T1D, as the community calls it). 

But that's just the beginning....

Once Scott found out I was in town, and since I've done some volunteering for JDRF events, I was invited to join the group for dinner that evening at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the World Trade Center memorial.  Just before I was to get in a car bound for LaGuardia, I got a message that my flight had been cancelled.  In seconds, I had three or four friends offering me places to stay and a plan to fly home when I needed to.  But it didn't take long for someone to broach the idea that I should just stay and help with the ride. Because Mike was driving back to my neck of the woods on Monday, I could hitch a ride with him, thus avoiding the whole airport shuffle and allowing me to witness (and help with) one of the most inspiring cycling events I've ever seen. The plan was set... I was totally and completely in... (and didn't care one bit that I had used up all of my clean clothing earlier in the week). I was going to help deliver Hope on 2 Wheels!

At 4:45 the next morning, the cyclists were clad in the blue and white HopeOn2Wheels kit and on the road for a 5 am start from the JDRF Headquarters. The morning was warm and damp (a storm had blown in the night before - hence, my cancelled flight), and uncharacteristically quiet.... no one was out on the streets, save a few folks crawling home from the bar. Perhaps somewhat defiantly, we filled the streets with the sounds of whirring tires on wet blacktop, the click of shifting gears, and the ever-recognizable sound of pride, of bikeface.  (Yes, when it's right on, I swear you can hear it.) Only the quiet friendly chatter in the group could be heard above the bikes' rhythmic clickings, happily the loudest noises in that part of town that morning. 

Meanwhile, I rolled along in one of the passenger vans, with a plan to help support the team with whatever they needed at each transition area.  I had my coffee in one hand, and my phone on camera mode, and I was poised and ready. 

I can't possibly tell the story of the entire day here, but let me get to a few highlights. 

The first highlight happened immediately, at the starting area.  It turns out that the ride had gotten so much press that a young boy (8 or 9 years old?), Diabetes Dude as he is known, came down from Boston to greet the team and deliver his own personal message of hope and thanks.  He and his family were there at 5 am ready to talk to the riders about how important this ride was to him and to many other children and adults with T1D. After a few congratulatory hugs and good luck wishes between Diabetes Dude and the team, they were off.  Once the clicks and whirrs and lights and cheers rounded the corner, I jumped in the van, anxious, yet eager to find out how this long day ahead was going to unfold.

 (This is a video of the start.)

The riders' first mission was to get onto the ferry to Staten Island, where they were to ride across the island, greet a police escort to take them across the bridge on the other side back in to New Jersey. I couldn't go along on this part of the ride because vehicles aren't allowed on the ferries to the island. So, Dave Chadwick (my driver friend, and brother of Hope Ride co-founder Mike and rider Andrew) and I drove to the first check point to greet the team. 

This rest stop was significant not only in that it was the first on the ride, and the first time we would have seen the team since they left Manhattan about two hours earlier, but it was also placed at mile 23. For those outside of the JDRF Ride program, mile 23 is a special mile marker, a mile of silence, (now marked on every JDRF national ride) to honor the lives we've lost to T1D. Michelle, whose son Jesse passed away from T1D on Februrary 3, which inspired JDRF to create Mile 23, was a rider that day. (I can't even imagine the significance for her, and was amazed at her strength and resolve all day.) To add to the honor of Mile 23, the riders were greeted with a bagpipe and drum duo who played as the riders arrived at the checkpoint.  

Here, Scott lead a perfect ceremonial moment to honor Jesse and the others who we were riding in honor of that day. Afterward, we got to business splitting up the team into three smaller groups, filling up water bottles, and getting organized in vans to shuttle riders to their next transition. The plan was to get all 24 riders in shifts of about 15-25 miles apiece along the route to the last transition area where they would meet up at the end of the day to ride the lat 20 miles together ending at the NIH office building in Maryland, just outside of DC. 

From here, the day becomes mostly of a swirl of details, of which I will spare you. Let's just say that the riders rode in near-90 degree heat, in short, but sometimes difficult shifts, non-stop, for nearly 20 hours. I was thrilled to be there at each transition area to help the team load bikes onto the transport vans, hand water and food, take photos, and cheer on each team as they took their turn at spinning the thread of awareness across three state lines.  

 (Scott Kasper, Ride Co-Founder)

 (Motorcycles lead the way.)

 (The team arrives at checkpoint 6, mile 90.)

Toward the end of the night, when darkness fell hard on the team, and on Maryland... but not on their spirits I must add... after 18 hours of non-stop riding, the team decided to make a major decision. Since several members of the team lost power to their lights, and were at this point not well-equipped enough to ride in the extreme darkness, even with support vehicles leading, it would be dangerous to continue with the original plan of all 24 riders finishing the last 20 miles together. Bonded tightly by now after more than a day's work, a lot of sweat and fortitude and mutual respect, the team unanimously decided to skip 18 of the last 20 miles to ride together for the last two across the finish line. (The last two would be under the city street lights, and much more safe in general.) They decided that it was far better for them to cross the finish line as a team "safe, sound, and smiling" than to have a few people try to ride the entire distance in the darkness while the others opted out. It just didn't seem right that not everyone would finish together. So we drove the team to the new transition area where we unloaded all the bikes from the vans one last time. As if to bookend the start of the day, there they were, in total darkness (save a few neighborhood house lights), lining up on a street completely unfamiliar to them, to ride again as a solid team of 24. Once again, I stood in the street while the line of blinking red lights, whirring tires, clicking pedals, and the pride of bikeface rounded the corner and out of view. Once again, I jumped in the van to escort them the rest of the way. 

What a spectacle it was! Two motorcycles lead the caravan of bikes and vehicles, with all 24 riders in a line, like a string of blinking holiday lights, moving up a winding hill, past the NIH headquarters building, and into the hotel parking lot at 11:59. 20 hours after the start. 3 flat tires and two minor medical situations after the start. 252 miles after the start. 16 rest stops after the start. Gallons of water, ounces of chamois cream, orange slices and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after the start. Hours of team-bonding after the start. After countless handshakes and hugs and cheers from the start, all 24 riders escorted slowly through the streets of Bethesda provided the town a late-night light show of red blinkers, gleaming bikeface, and full hearts. (And that includes those of us in the vans, who never rode an inch that day on a bike... we too had bikeface.) 

So 24 riders -- almost all nearly strangers to one another at the beginning of the day -- came together to create a community moment for themselves, and no doubt for others who were watching and cheering, even online, renewed my faith in the power of the bike to heal. It should be noted that the range of cycling experience and fitness was about the same as many area club rides I've participated in. These were not all huge and accomplished riders. Some of them had never ridden more than 60 miles in one day. Only two were professional riders for Team Type 1, who took on some leadership roles on their individual teams. Most were not the hard core riders we would imagine would be required for this ride. They were all just folks, incidentally many of them with T1D as well, who were out to do something important. And their goals were unwavering. But most of all, their teamwork and camaraderie is what inspired me. Again, there are stories of how they strategized together to make the next leg of their ride even better than the last, even as the day heated up, and fatigue set in. There are stories about how they now will find each other at the next JDRF ride and know that their community has just expanded, even if only by one person. Participating in this event -- even if only by sheer luck, by being in the right place at the right time -- has shifted how I see my own opportunities as a cyclist. I now feel more compelled to help the cycling community continue to grow. I now feel more confident that that is an important role for me no matter how well I ride. I now know that that piece of what I do out there on my bike is more important than whether I finish in the top pack. Of course, I will still push myself to challenge myself on the bike, to do things I don't think I can do, but I won't be placing as much importance on them as I once did. Because I was blessed with this opportunity, my spirit has shifted somewhat, and I am now thinking of myself a little differently as a cyclist. I feel better. Thank you Hope On 2 Wheels Team. Thank you mother nature. Thank you cycling...

(See Mike Clark's take on this story here.)