Let me begin this post by recapping my brief bicycle racing career so far:
Race #1, Long Run Park Circuit, 45 minutes + 1 lap – I am in the pack for about 1/2 mile, and then am “spit out the rear” or “shelled” or “blown” by the sheer speed of it. The rest of the race I ride alone or with small groups, but feel pretty good. By the way, the “staying with the pack” thing is critical in bike racing – you’ll gain a significant speed advantage. If you don’t stick, well…
Race #2, Lexington Circuit Race, 45 minutes + 1 lap – I managed to stay in the pack the entire time, save for the very last lap. I am both extremely terrified as there were 100 cyclists in a large group all together, and a couple of gnarly crashes. I finish squarely in the middle of the pack (51st). Huzzah!
Race #3, Shelby County Road Race, 30 miles – My first “long” road race on country roads. I last hardly a mile or two into the race in the peloton. My heart-rate goes to the redline and it takes me literally 10 miles to calm down to the point at which I am not considering throwing up or quitting the race (…and I have never consider quitting before). The rest of the race I am alone or with small groups.
I’ve come a long way since the fall of 2008 when I was asked to join the TwinSpires.com Cycling team. I’ve put in about 600+ cycling miles in those 5 or 6 months plus maybe another 400 “miles” in Spinning classes or on the trainer. I’ve lost about 10-15 pounds and gained a level of fitness I’ve never had before.
So, here I am, in the “best shape of my life” (BSOML) and I am getting my ass kicked in these “entry-level” cycling races… and you know what? I am loving it. I am eating it as you would relish a delicious slice of pie.
When I run or bike or swim or am “at the gym” I never wear headphones. I rarely wear a watch. To some, this would be considered torturous. For me, it is a time to retreat into my thoughts – to be alone.
Those thoughts vary greatly, from me dreaming up my next project to just what I’m going to eat after I’m done to repeating the lyrics to a song in my head. Inevitably, though, my thoughts always come back to the “Why are we doing this?” question. I’ve considered that question countless times on countless hills on countless laps and countless reps. Not only is that question one that I ask of myself, but I’m sure plenty of people have asked of me, or IronMan Kelly or anyone who spends precious time and energy on physical pursuits.
I can give a simple answer: “I enjoy it”.
But that wouldn’t begin to scratch the surface of it – I do it for myself, for those I love, for those that love me and last but not least: Because I am able.
Physical pursuits often get short shrift – either dismissed as narcissistic or testosterone-fueled, but for me that’s not the case. What I revel in is man’s ability to do and to strive, to suffer and achieve. To learn and be finer than the day before, to struggle for perfection:
“What matters to me is the perfect throw. Making the perfect catch. The perfect step and block. It’s perfection. That’s what it’s about. It’s about those moments when you can feel the perfection of creation. The beauty of physics. The wonder of mathematics, you know. The elation of action and reaction. And that is the kind of perfection I want to be connected to.”
- Anders, Battlestar Galactica, “Daybreak”
Yes, I did in fact just quote Battlestar Galactica. And it works. (pow)
I never considered myself to be one of those people who considered themselves “competitive” – at least when it came to other people. Yes, when I am competing, I wish to beat that other guy in my age group, or to help my team score a goal – but not to assert my dominance over a vanquished foe. I revel in winning, but not for the win. I revel in the game. And more often than not, I lose. I am a loser.
But, as a teammate of mine recently said: Every race is an education.
…and I love learning. A loss is worth more to me because it’s so valuable to my understanding. A win is nothing more than validation. A loss I can work with and incorporate, but a win is a culmination and something I have to defend.
Winning is great, but everyone loves the underdog. And few things like the ideal of the underdog get so close to my being. My love of my country largely has to do with our underdog, upstart way of life. The people that shaped this country were not kings of men, but rather people of humble beginning who through struggle made themselves and in turn made this nation.
“After we had conducted thousands of experiments on a certain project without solving the problem, one of my associates, after we had conducted the crowning experiment and it had proved a failure, expressed discouragement and disgust over our having failed to find out anything. I cheerily assured him that we had learned something. For we had learned for a certainty that the thing couldn’t be done that way, and that we would have to try some other way.”
- Thomas Edison, American Magazine, 1921
It’s not an easy thing to revel in suffering or to “make lemonade out of lemons” as the saying goes. Some people find themselves incapable of it, and there were no doubt many times in my life were I gave in to quitting or shrank from whatever conflict. But that was before I realized that in struggle and suffering we can be made better people for it. My love of Abraham Lincoln expanded greatly upon reading Lincoln’s Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Schenk:
“Remember in the depth and even the agony of despondency, that very shortly you are to feel well again.”
- Abraham Lincoln to Joshua Speed, 1842
Certainly Lincoln was here speaking of some emotional agony, likely not even self-imposed. Schenk’s book made me reconsider what it is to be depressed or to be suffering under some weight – and rather than to give in or give up and “quit the race” (however that metaphor suits you) such suffering can be found to be a source of strength, be it emotional or physical. After all – how could a man such as Lincoln, gripped with “the melancholy” so often during his life as to cause him to “take to bed” for weeks at a time lead our nation through it’s most trying hour? He came to understand suffering. He came to realize the optimism that lies just over the crest of that hill.
And while I realize that relating the invention of the lightbulb or the salvation of our nation from collapse and my lowly running and cycling exploits share little in the way of scope, the nut of it all remains the same: There is beauty, dignity, honor and purpose in suffering.
And in that last race in Shelby County, I suffered. Greatly. To the point at which I thought I was going to abandon the race – something I so very, very rarely consider. The starting field was some 91 people. 91 people contained largely to one 8-foot-wide lane of pockmarked country road, and apparently my little brain was having none of it. I am dropped from the group, and looking over my shoulder, I realize that I am the only one. I could have just soft-pedaled it home and abandoned.
But no, I didn’t. I make the effort I could to get back to the group, pushing myself to my (albeit low) limit. By heart is pounding, my legs are burning, my mouth is cotton, I am unable to swallow without retching. It just plain sucks to be me. And then I hit the bottom of a hill that goes to 10% (pretty damned steep). My only thought is getting back to the parking lot, turning right, getting in the car and driving away as fast as I can so that no one will see me.
But I don’t… I plod my way to the top of the hill, alone. I pass by the photographer thinking “dear god not now how could you, Dooley?!”
I get to the top of the hill and I manage to claw my way back from despondency. I’m thinking a lot of things, like “I paid $30 to do this” to “My god this is beautiful weather” to “Hey I’m feeling better now that I’ve calmed down” to “I think I can catch that guy I saw at the top of the hill” to “It is a great day to be alive”.
Eventually I get back to a point I’ve felt before – it’s that “runner’s high” of endorphins, and while my muscles might have been screaming in pain, my mind was having none of it and just rightfully enjoying the day. At these moments, the mind wanders. It will latch on to whatever it can just to retain some focus. For some, it’s a musical refrain, for others, lots of cursing. For me? I am the latter-day Irish champion Sean Kelly, making a daredevil attack down “il Poggio” in the 1992 Milan-SanRemo. Every rider I see is Argentin. There is fire in my belly and it feels great.
In the end, I did chase down about half-dozen riders, clawing from 69th to 63rd place. I even had the strength to attack a few times in a small group I picked up into the 3rd lap, nearly getting away. Eventually I was caught about a mile from the end and we had a bunch sprint there at the end, we stragglers some 14 minutes behind the pack. We had been very well bested on the day, but we weren’t going to let that take the air out of our tires.
I pat some backs and shake some hands while cooling down on the bike. The kid I offered my wheel to sometime during the 2nd lap (he was hurtin!) said “Thanks” in the parking lot. Much respect all around.
I made it, and I was not last. I fought my fight, even though my fight wasn’t good enough, but I suffered, I overcame, and I learned a lot. And I’ll be back to do it again some other day.
So here’s to the pain and the suffering: I’ll be seeing you…
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