“Let those winds of time blow over my head,
I’d rather die while I’m living than live while I’m dead.”
–Jimmy Buffett, lyrics from “Growing Older But Not Up”
He caught me off guard, in a weak moment when pride and guilt were joining forces, and I said yes before I had time to seriously consider what I was committing to. And once I had said yes, there was no turning back because my well documented foolishness is surpassed only by my legendary stubbornness.
For the past five years, my husband has participated in a cycling event sponsored by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, riding 200 miles in two days to raise funds and awareness for those battling this debilitating illness. He doesn’t ride alone–hundreds of other cyclists also participate (some of them riding shorter routes), and this year our youngest son joined him as well. Every year I have been asked to ride along with his team, but every year I have steadfastly refused, answering their invitations with a long list of excuses. I’m not ready. I’m not that strong. I don’t like hills (correction: I despise hills). I’m afraid of riding in a big group. I might crash. I might cause someone else to crash. It might be windy. It might be too hot. It might be too cold. It might rain.
You get the idea.
But this year when I stood on the sidelines, cheering them on at the take-off and applauding their success at the finish line, I was amazed at the mental and physical toughness of so many–and I was also more than a little ashamed of my own unwillingness to make the same sacrifice. For you see, at that time my husband and I had already made plans to pedal our way through the Florida Keys later this fall, and while I knew this 100-mile pleasure ride with friends would have no dreaded hills to contend with, I also knew the weather might be too hot, it might be too cold, it might be rainy, it would almost definitely be windy–and my chances of crashing would be just as great. So how could I justify doing one ride for my own enjoyment and not doing another ride for the benefit of others? I couldn’t.
A couple days after his ride for multiple sclerosis–while he was still sitting gingerly–my husband was already online looking for other cycling events when he came across a ride just a couple hours from home, a ride that would support local charities and would include several mileage options. “Why don’t we do this together?” my husband suggested. “They have a 42-mile, intermediate ride that I know you could do if you just set your mind to it.”
And because I was proud of his dedication (and still feeling guilty about my own lack), I agreed–and then woke up the next morning wondering what in the world I had been thinking. I couldn’t do a 42-mile bike ride that would most assuredly include hills–big hills! Stupid, stupid, stupid.
But I had committed, and so I listened to my husband (as much as that pained me) and began a month-long, “no pain, no gain” training regimen. After consuming my morning oatmeal and handful of almonds, I filled my water bottle with sweet tea (Shhh! Don’t tell the purists!), swallowed a couple Advil (hoping to ward off the aching joints and ragweed headache that were almost guaranteed to join me on my ride), and slathered Ben Gay on my lower back, my left knee, my right shoulder–and then slathered a little more just to be safe.
And then I rode . . . and rode . . . and rode some more. I tried to do at least 20 miles almost every day (even the windy ones), and by the end of each week I had logged 120-140 miles. More important than the distance, though, I started incorporating hill climbs and sprints into my ride–not because I wanted to but because my husband insisted I needed to. I hated every second of every leg-churning, heart-pounding, lung-screaming hill climb, but I loved the thrill of flying back down those hills and daring myself each time to go just a little bit faster than the time before.
After a couple weeks, the physical benefits became obvious. I burned a few calories, deflated a few fat cells, and started feeling stronger. I still didn’t like the hills, but I found myself pedaling up them with a little less effort and a little less dread. The mental rewards of challenging myself were even greater, though. During a 20-mile ride, I could usually solve all the world’s problems (Congress really should have consulted me before that shut-down nonsense), and sometimes–if I were lucky–I could even solve a few problems of my own. No matter how much garbage might have been cluttering my mind when I hopped on my bike, by the time I dismounted, all that garbage had been thrown to the wind. And with all that clutter out of the way, I had room to absorb the beauty around me–the tarantulas migrating across the highway, the deer leaping in the morning mist, the fog rising off the asphalt, the lake shimmering in the distance, the sunrise slanting through the treetops, the wildflowers swaying in the breeze.
And most importantly, as my strength grew and my mind cleared, I started believing in myself. Maybe I could do that 42-mile ride after all.
At least, that’s what I thought until the night before.
Since the ride would start shortly after sunrise, we drove up the day before, and I insisted on driving the route so I would know what to expect the next day. That was a mistake. First I saw one rolling hill after another, and then I saw a monster hill that I knew I had no possibility of pedaling all the way to the top. And then there was another hill . . . and another . . . and another. Some of them were long and gradual, and some of them were short and steep, and all of them looked much more intimidating than the hills I had been training on. Suddenly all my confidence was consumed by a wave of nausea, and I stared out the car window so my husband couldn’t see the tears of frustration that were threatening to fall. Since our son and some of our friends were joining us on the ride, my stubborn pride wouldn’t allow me to back out, so I spent a sleepless night worrying about leg cramps and crashes and every other worst-case scenario.
At 5 a.m. I crawled out of bed long before the alarm was set to sound, then lingered under a steaming shower to loosen my tight muscles, dressed in layers to comply with the crisp morning air, swallowed my requisite oatmeal, almonds, and Advil, and massaged Ben Gay onto every body part that might conceivably be hurting before the day was over. And the whole time, the same thought was hammering in my head: “What have I gotten myself into?”
When we arrived at our take-off location, there were several hundred other cyclists gearing up for the ride–and in my mind, every one of them looked younger, stronger, better. Our group positioned itself near the end of the line-up to avoid the congestion at the front, and then we were off . . . and immediately I realized that if I had any hope of finishing, I had to silence the negative voices in my head and replace them with only positive thoughts. “You can do this. You will do this. No guts, no glory” became my morning mantra.
With that deliberate change in perspective, an amazing thing happened. The rolling hills through town suddenly didn’t seem so bad after all, and as I passed a few riders going up the first big one I smiled my first smile of the morning. As I approached that monster hill seven miles out, I noticed more than half the riders in front of me were walking their bikes up the hill, so I realized there was no shame if I did the same. In no time at all we were at the first rest stop, where I feasted on peanut butter cookies (sugar and protein for energy!) and dill pickles (salt and vinegar for leg cramps!).
With a strong north wind in our faces, the second leg of the ride was a little more challenging, but my husband reminded me, “Just pedal and breathe, just pedal and breathe,” and so I did. Soon we were at the second rest stop, where I ate more dill pickles, swallowed more Advil, and re-applied the Ben Gay (just to be safe). And then Bon Jovi started competing with my morning mantra for playtime in my head: “Whoa, we’re halfway there, Whoa, livin’ on a prayer, Take my hand and we’ll make it – I swear,” and for the first time I really believed I could do this. The distance between the second and third rest stop flew by, and at that third rest stop I fortified myself for the final, most challenging leg with another dill pickle and a Dixie-cup shot of straight pickle juice (don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it!).
Coming out of the third rest stop was the longest hill of the ride, but with my husband coaching at my side, I powered up that hill without even using all my gears–pure exhilaration! My smile was widening, my confidence was soaring–and then a few miles down the road I underestimated a smaller hill and almost crashed when I couldn’t shift fast enough going up it. My gears locked up, I sissy-girl screamed, and in the split second before I would have hit the pavement (with several other bikers landing on top of me), I managed to unclip and get my foot down to prevent the fall. I reined in my confidence, replaced it with grim determination and pedaled on.
The smile was back, though, when I coasted into that parking lot and crossed the finish line as my name was announced over the loudspeaker–what an invigorating, liberating, amazing moment! I had just tested my own physical and mental toughness, and I had passed the test by accomplishing something that a month ago (heck, the night before and just that morning) I had thought impossible. Me! What other impossibilities were waiting to be conquered?
In the days since that ride, I’ve had time to reflect on the overall experience and the lessons learned from it. I’ve learned that preparation pays off (and that sometimes my husband really does know what he’s talking about). I’ve learned that being part of a group–with each member encouraging and supporting the others–is easier than being alone. I’ve learned (I hope) to have a little more faith in my abilities. I’ve learned there will often be challenging obstacles in my path–and sometimes the wind will blow me every which way but forward–but the important thing is to keep on pedaling.
I’ve also learned that how fast I travel isn’t important but how far I travel is–and so is how much joy I grasp along the way. And maybe that’s the message we all should be taking away from our journey down this road called Life. Get off the sidelines, enjoy the ride, and, oh yeah, don’t forget to eat your pickles.