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A Ferret Called Wilson

Chasing Happy, Chasing Dreams

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success

Sick Ride of Sickness

Continuing the theme of my reinfatuation with cycling brings me to the topic of bicycles and health. Some people believe that when you catch a cold you need to lie in bed with lots of blankets, drinking soup and being generally incompetent. I, on the other hand, believe you need to ride your bicycle.

Yesterday morning I woke up with a distinct coldy-feeling in my throat. Ugh. I just got over one bug and I seem to be picking up its ugly cousin barely a week later! It was a teaching day, so I went to work anyway. As the day progressed I developed a fever and by the time the bell rang for my final class to begin I was delirious. Personally, I don’t mind fever induced delirium so much. It’s like being drunk, but without the alcohol. My students also think I’m hilarious when I attempt to teach class in a fever induced semi-stupor. Overall it was a good day, you know, except for the part where I was sick and teaching class in a fever induced semi-stupor.

I went home right after class, not even bothering to go back to my office for my things. At 7pm I was in bed and while I knew I was incapable of doing anything that involved being out of bed, neither could I sleep. The reason was that my fevered brain kept sending images of thigh-rippling, spandex clad, fierce eyed cyclists burning lap after lap across the back of my eyelids. On through the night they rode, chasing each other up hills as if they didn’t understand how gravity works, and around corners as if their wheel secreted sticky juice like spider man. By midnight I knew I had a problem. By nine the next morning I was facing a decision: is the sickness of my legs stronger than the sickness of my face (also known as a head cold)?

It turns out that my legs do not like reasons. I tricked them into a baby ride by picking a road that, as far as google maps can tell, dead ends along a river 10km from my house. It doesn’t actually dead end, just sort of wanders off into the mountains, but the pavement gets nasty quickly and I figured I would promise my legs a ride up to the God Rock if that wasn’t enough, but was hoping they’d be too distracted by the second half of my plan to take me up another 500m of climbing while still mildly feverish.

The highlight of today was my cornering practice. I read an article on cornering on a road bike that said smooth is the most important goal. It also explained what the apex of the turn is, which apparently I never knew and that’s why cornering was scaring the shit out of me all the time. In case you’re wondering the “apex” of the turn is the innermost point of the road that you will pass with your bike. The “exit” is the outermost point of the road you will pass after which you straighten your line and are no longer turning. If you’re a “roadie” or some other hot shot and disagree with me, go crash your bike somewhere because this understanding changed my life! On the descent, which had me in my full gear most of the way, I focused on taking every turn smoothly and safely. Specifically, I made braking, looking at the apex, then looking at the exit my main priorities. There were some turns that scared me quite a bit, but I promised myself that I would follow my instructions — brake, look, turn, look, exit — no matter what. If I spooked, I said I would give myself a meter space between me and the edge of the lane and if it looked like I was going to ride into that meter, I would use it solely for braking in an upright position.

And you know what? I DESTROYED those curves! Some spooked me at the onset because, being in the mountains, most of them were blind and some were blinder than others. However many of the spookey entrances turned out to be nice smooth sweeping corners that were only blind because the mountain was cut close to the road. Others spooked me mid way through. But the amazing thing was that I didn’t have to bail on a single curve the whole way down! When my internal alerts went off all I did was recheck my edges: Had I reached the apex yet? If not then I could still turn in harder. Was I approaching my meter margin already? Look at the exit and correct your line. At no point did I actually have to brake mid-turn just by using these rules.

At one point near the end of my descent there was a long high speed (40kph+) S-curve that really pushed my mental edge. I wanted to get out of the saddle. I wanted to hit the brakes midway until I was back at a rolling speed again, but I did neither. I kept to my course, followed my own instructions for success and BAM! out the other side of the curve without so much as feathering my brakes! I was so happy I cried. I’m trying, but I feel like I can’t come close to explaining the amazing difference in sensations I felt on those final corners. It’s like, before I made myself this recipe for success I would just panic. Now, I would sense fear but also maintain control. I can say with certainty that I was well within the physical boundaries of safety on those turns, even in the wet conditions of the day.

So, to sum up, what have we learned today? First, we learned that being Sick means that being sick will not keep you off a bike and you will be better for it. Obviously, my cold is already in remisison. It’s just that the symptoms haven’t gotten the word yet, but they will. On my next ride. For sure. Second, we learned how to corner like a motherfucking adult! Ok, that’s not quite right. We learned to corner like we know what we’re doing! …not as satisfying, but yes. But perhaps most importantly we learned that riding makes everything better. Take a day that doesn’t involve riding your bike. Then consider what that day is like when you ride your bike. Instant better, right?

Obviously.

At the Top

At the Top

Recently I became friends with the former ice climbing champion of Japan. After years of topping the charts in her particular sport, she decided she needed a hobby and took up mountain biking — trials, specifically. Except for the fact that we both often get mistaken for high school boys and practice the same sports, we are almost perfect yin and yang. I have tried my whole life to be the best at something, but have always fallen short, usually because I get swept away with some other hobby. She decided one day she wanted to be a world class athlete and was successful very quickly, but then spent the rest of her career in a pervasive ennui about professional sports in general. While I love mountains so passionately that my bones quake whenever I look up and see them on the horizon, she could take them or leave them. I am very comfortable in cold; she hates it.

There are many differences between us, but at the same time both of us share the experience of dedicating our entire lives to the pursuit of a single goal. In her case it was ice climbing. In my case? It was, and still is, answering the questions that arise when common knowledge just doesn’t make sense. Both of us have spent hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours alone, relentlessly chipping away at the wall between where we are and where we feel compelled to be. We are both very intensely aware of how lonely the path to the top truly is.

Over drinks last night I said to her, “When I was young, my mother always warned me that it is lonely at the top.” She paused for a moment and said to me,

“Maybe. But when you actually do get to the top, the scenery is vastly different than anywhere else. You can see things and meet people from the top that you couldn’t if you were just bumbling around mid-pack. For example, you get to meet the other top athletes from around the world. And even musicians. The top climber might have something in common with the top musician even though one is an athlete and the other an artist. So actually, it’s not really that lonely.”

Suddenly I felt criticized. It’s not that she was saying something so very different, or even inconsistent, than what I said. To be at the top is to have gone somewhere that no one else is by definition. But in my friend’s view, being at the top of your own mountain meant being able to wave to everyone else at the top of the other mountains. You can’t see who else is at the top when you’re still down below tree-line and that’s pretty obvious, too. However, I have never gotten to the top of anything. I was never the smartest in math, or the best dancer, or the strongest climber, or the most moving writer. Everywhere I went and everything I did I would excel far beyond the average schmuck, but I would soon find someone excelling even farther than myself. Try as I would to catch up, they would only ever disappear over the horizon, leaving me both alone and stuck in the middle. So while I know the pain of solitary training, I have never seen the beauty of surpassing all of my competition.

As I sat there at the corner table in the dark, twenties speakeasy style whiskey bar, I wondered to myself why this person who I liked so much was making me feel bad about myself by speaking positively of her own experience. Most of the time she is unhappy with her responsibilities as top Japanese athlete. So why would this one moment of positivity disturb me? It occurred to me that she, like so many people alive today, was implying with her language that the scenery at the top is better than what you would see from the middle. While most people would probably think it pretty cool to meet the top violinist in the world, or the top mountain biker, or the top runner, or any other person who had topped their field, people who have never undertaken the long and lonely struggle of getting to the top themselves would probably not appreciate on a personal level all that the other person had accomplished. It would be much like meeting a famous celebrity. We could react with awe, or respect, but we would not be able to connect with that person because we would not be able to share the experience of being at the top.

I thought about some of my own struggles as I sipped a rich brandy out of an extremely large glass. When I was a runner, people would come to me full of excitement saying things like, “did you hear? So-and-so just broke the world record marathon time in Berlin!” My reaction was always, “So? What does that have to do with me?” I was always much more excited to hear that the overweight office lady who just started running last season broke the 4.5 hour barrier, or to find out that a former professor of psychology had quit her job to become a professional endurance athlete. These were things that I could relate to. The professional athlete with the professional team of coaches and the sponsorships and the free medical support breaking the world record was just irrelevant to me. Who knows? If I had all those advantages, maybe I could break a record, too? In essence, I wanted to hear stories of people like me accomplishing things that I would love to be able to accomplish. That way I could hope for my own goals to be one day realized.

I think one of the reasons that I never made it to the top is that to me, being better than other people doesn’t seem to mean much. I like when people cheer for me and praise me. I love it when my friends, people that I truly respect and care about, speak proudly of something I did. If I were a top athlete, news anchors and specialty magazines would say things about how amazing I am, but I would know that it’s their job to say those things, and I would know that the day someone else overtakes me would be the last day that any of those strangers would care. If I ever were to become the best at something I would want it to be because I did something or discovered something that no one else did. I would want it to be a reflection of who I am, not simply an artifact of the relevant competition at the time. To me, the value of making it to the top would be that it would validate all of my effort and all of my uncertainty along the way. I imagine that my friend and her colleagues at the top of their fields are all enjoying a similar type of validation. I imagine that to most of them, being at the top means that they are close to their own potential and that defeating the other competitors isn’t the point at all.

When we finally left the bar and walked out into the eerily cold night air, I couldn’t help but think to myself: She says you have to get to the top to hang out with the others at the top. But what are we doing right now? All I’ve ever been able to do well in my life is be stupidly happy over the incredibly mundane. And yet I get to spend my Saturday evening sharing drinks with a champion athlete and hearing stories of a world that only a handful of other humans will ever get to see. Somehow, I feel like I might have found a shortcut.

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