Riding Lessons: What I Learned Over 406 Miles and 17,000+ Feet of Climb

The morning air was fresh, though not really cool, as we made our confused and circuitous ride along the Missouri riverfront in Council Bluffs, Iowa. We found ourselves amid other discombobulated riders searching, as we were, for the elusive “Dip Site”. Eventually, we found the patch of sand leading down to the water where bicyclists were dipping their bike tires in the river. If I had known we would spend our first four miles of RAGBRAI 2013 riding in the wrong direction (west) I might have been tempted to skip the traditional dip. On the other hand, I’ve always been a traditionalist when it comes to rituals like this one. So, dipping my tires at both ends of the ride was a must.

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And it was all uphill from there.

Well, at least the first few days were. At the end of day one (Council Bluffs to Harlan –  54.8 miles and 2476 feet of climb), I was tired and sunburned. My brain felt like it had been cooking inside my helmet. The minuscule amount of thought power left for my use was mostly taken up wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. I was dreading day two (Harlan to Perry – 83 miles and 4239 feet of climb).

Miraculously, day two was incredible! Despite the sun beating down on me, I felt great and my muscles were all cooperative. I rode all but one hill of that climb – and the one hill I walked was too much for hundreds of RAGBRAIers. It was the only hill I walked all week, across the entire state (and I’m here to say that Pleasant Hill isn’t all that pleasant).  When I got off my bike that evening, I felt like I could do anything!

Day three was blessedly cool, overcast and relatively short (Perry to Des Moines, 49.9 miles and 1308 feet of climb). Day four (Des Moines to Knoxville, 49.9 miles and 2920 feet of climb), hump day, was painful. My butt hurt from sitting on the bike saddle, I had serious chafing where my right buttock met the top of my thigh, and my legs were spent. For the first time, dealing with muscle spasms in my glutes and hammies, I wondered if I had it in me to finish. Thankfully, my support team of friends, co-riders, and moms were encouraging and refused to listen to my fears. Layne (who, with her fiance Chris, hosted us for three nights) made us a dinner that tasted like a feast! I will never again underestimate the positive, soul strengthening, effect fellowship with friends over a really good meal can offer.

Day five (Knoxville to Oskaloosa, 52 miles and 2808 feet of climb) was less horrible than I anticipated. I had wisely purchased some chamois cream to help with/prevent further chafing. I rode the entire day out of grim determination and little else. But I finished, and actually enjoyed a pleasant couple of hours in the Oskaloosa town square, people watching and listening to the community orchestra.

Day six, Oskaloosa to Fairfield (52 miles and 1222 feet of climb) we had the flattest, fastest, easiest ride of the week. Woo-hoo, flying along at 18 mph felt pretty awesome!

Day seven, the final leg of the route, Fairfield to Fort Madison ( 63 miles and 2427 feet of climb) had its challenges. But by then, I knew I would finish. The pure adrenalin push to reach the Mississippi got me there well before the route was set to close at 3:00 p.m. This time, the dip site was easy to find – though still difficult to reach due to the press of other riders making the ritual dip at the end of the week. And every single one of those thousands of riders was celebrating a personal victory or accomplishment. Powerful to be among such a crowd!

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And that, my friends, is the recap of the week. However, there is so much more to share. There were moments that took my breath away, when I was overcome by the beauty surrounding me and the grace of being alive. Every morning’s ride held at least one completely perfect mile. On the first day, I raced a train coming out of Council Bluffs and left it in my dust! Crossing Lake Red Rocks on a mile long bridge. The morning Sarah rounded a bend coming out of Pella and almost hit a deer, only to have a spotted fawn trot out onto the road right in front of us. I rode with friends (Colette, Tricia, Tammy, Ryan and of course Sarah who rode the whole week with me); unexpectedly ran into friends (Mark, Andrea, Joe, Mary Beth); stayed with friends (Molly,Layne, Chris, Ari, Sara). And, of course, made new friends, most notably Ma Botkin, Sarah’s mom who travelled as our support and team mom through the hardest part of the week.

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Last summer, I shared the lessons I learned through some mishaps while preparing to ride three days of RAGBRAI 2012 , ( “Learning to Shift” which you can see, here).  Virtually everything about my life is different from what it was a year ago: no job, new city, a vacation that has lasted all summer. The RAGBRAI 2013 experience also taught me some valuable lessons – the kind that resonate with life experiences off the bike as well as on. It seems only appropriate to share them:

Know why you’re riding.

Everyone has their own reasons for attempting a ride like RAGBRAI. They range from having a week of raucous partying to raising money or awareness for an important cause. And that’s fine – I’m not about to judge. But what I do know is that I had to be clear with myself every day about my reasons for being there – or on the hard days, I would have just given up and flagged down the Sag Wagon. On Monday (Day 2), pedaling up yet another interminable hill, the silence nearly drove me batty. By the end of the week, those uphill climbs were some of my favorite moments: the shouts and laughter quieted, and the only sound other than birds was the occasional click and whir of shifting gears or another rider huffing air as we passed each other. It was in these moments that I had the most clarity of purpose – I was there to fulfill a promise I made to myself back in 1978. There were no external factors involved, only a need to prove to myself that I could do it. I never overheard anyone declaring their intention to quit while coasting down a hill – but there were plenty such conversations taking place halfway up seemingly endless inclines. Those hills were a crucible of clarity for many of us.

Is feels obvious to me that this maxim is true throughout our lives. Clarity of purpose is so important to staying the course. When I left New Mexico in June, preparing to move to Minneapolis, my dad said this: “There are gonna be days that are hard, when you’re lonely and frustrated and you wonder why the heck you did this. At those moments, try to remember how you felt back in February. That will help you weather the tough days – knowing you had good reasons for making these changes.” Already this has helped me weather those brief moments of panic and anxiety. I turned 52 the day after I finished RAGBRAI, and this is the first time I’ve truly appreciated the gift of clarity.

Every hill is unique.

Since the first time I rode a bike as an adult, hills have presented a challenge to me. RAGBRAI offered me a unique opportunity to learn how best to manage them. Over the course of the week, we rode every type of hill imaginable, and what I learned is that no two are the same. Yes, you have basic strategies for conquering hills, but the truth is, the hill you think you see as you approach may, in fact, present very differently when you’re actually riding it. Sometimes, I thought “this one will be easy” or “this one is gonna take everything I have” – and I was often wrong. You have to take each hill as it comes: adjust for the wind and momentum and freshness of your legs, find the sweet gear that works for both you and this particular hill, take it as fast or as slow as necessary to make it to the crest.

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The lesson in this is that each challenge we face in life is different from the previous challenges we’ve overcome. We can’t lull ourselves into a false sense that today’s challenge is a piece of cake because we’ve overcome such challenges before. No two will be the same. For example, I’ve moved before, and those moves have been harder or easier depending on a variety of factors. I’ve never moved at 52, without previously arranged employment, to a large metropolitan area. This move won’t be the same, though there may be some similar features. Just as you can’t anticipate exactly what each hill will require, you can’t anticipate what each life challenge will call for from you. And that’s ok – because you can’t ride up a hill you haven’t come to yet! You can’t meet life’s challenges in advance, you have to meet them as they present themselves. And each one will be unique, and call forth a unique response.

Everyone needs support…

There were a few lone rangers out there, bicyclists who towed their tents, camping gear, and clothing with them. But they were few and far between. Most riders had support teams – Sarah and I had Ma Botkin, who dropped us off each morning at the starting point, then met us at the (roughly) halfway point with food and cold beverages. At the overnight towns, Ma Botkin was there, waiting for us to roll in. She took really good care of us, anticipating our needs and generally mothering us. We also had Layne and Chris, offering us air conditioned sleep, private showers, sustenance and the love of a giant yellow lab named Ari. And we had Tammy, Tricia and Curtis who kept our support vehicle following us after Ma Botkin had to return home to Illinois. Most of all, I had Sarah – who was the mastermind of the trip plan and who, as the stronger rider, waited for me at each stop. Every time I rolled into a town, the first thing I did was seek out her jersey. And it was there, every single time, in a patch of shade, waiting patiently for me. Talk about steadfast and loyal – I can never articulate how much that means to me, or how happy and/or relieved I was each time we met up.

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The support I felt while on RAGBRAI is only one example of the amazing support I have had throughout the recent major changes in my life. Every single day since I tendered my resignation has brought a message or action of love and support from someone. And every day has been filled with goodness, light and love – even the slightly crappy ones. It overwhelms me with gratitude – and reminds me how important it is to be on other people’s teams myself. To return the gift of unconditional support whenever/wherever possible.

…But in the end, you pedal your own bike.

While support is awesome and a necessity for most of us, no one else can actually pedal the dang bike for you. Whether on flat ground, snailing up a hill or sailing down one – the bike is powered by your steam and no one else’.

One day on each RAGBRAI offers a Century Ride – an extra bit of road called the “Karras Loop” – which allows motivated riders to get 100 miles done in that day. Upon completion of their “century”, riders get a patch celebrating their accomplishment. Curiously, I heard riders talking about some others who cheated on the century ride – they found, and took, a shortcut which shaved 10 miles or so off the ride. And yet, they picked up century patches alongside riders who completed the entire loop. The people discussing it just shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads. They weren’t outraged, they were perplexed. And I agreed with them. Why would you proclaim an accomplishment you hadn’t earned? There are no prizes, most of the world knows nothing about century rides or RAGBRAI, it won’t get you a better paying job. Worse, you will always know it is just a patch that actually means nothing.

Some days, the Sag Wagon did a huge business. People had lots of reasons for not finishing a day or the week – bike trouble, injury, fatigue, heat exhaustion, or they just hit their limits. I would never call that cheating. Every mile of that ride, especially the truly painful ones, were a test of my willingness to accomplish something that really only mattered to me. I crossed the entire state of Iowa using only my own power to do so. I had a team without whom I never could have undertaken the challenge, but I was alone on my bike, mile after mile, pedaling.

In life, we don’t live well without others supporting and challenging us. But this life we’ve been given is ours to live day in and day out – no one else can live it for us. There’s no point in trying to cheat our way through it, but honest failure isn’t something to be ashamed of. Our truest successes, in the long run, are those that live within our hearts and matter most to us, not to the rest of the world.

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The Very Things

“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.”
― Cynthia Ozick

Who hasn’t had weeks or days like this? When it seems that everything that can go wrong does. When every item that lands on your plate is a challenge to your ethics or your knowledge or your compassion. When your plans are derailed time and again by forces outside your control: the weather, mechanical difficulties, other people. At times such as these we have few options other than to just do our best as we find a way through. Even though objectively I know I can only do my best as each challenge presents itself, subjectively many times my best feels woefully inadequate.

So when I came across the quote, above, from author Cynthia Ozick, it seemed like a good idea to take a few minutes in the midst of this week to be grateful for some of the things I take for granted.

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Healthy, fresh food: This was my Sunday brunch, a frittata made with sweet potatoes, asparagus, onion, grape tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese and eggs. With a rich cup of French roast coffee to wash it down, of course! When I stop to think about the fact that I have both the means and the access to acquire the freshest, healthiest ingredients – and how many people in this country, this world, don’t –  I am truly humbled and grateful. At the same time, if I really think about this, I am also energized to find ways for all people to have this simple abundance.

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Natural beauty, even in winter: This photo of the Cedar River was taken in February on a day when I just needed to have a calming moment of stillness. I drove out to a rural access point, and spent a while just gazing at nature (mostly from inside my car, as the temps were dropping rapidly that afternoon). I have, only lately, come to appreciate nature and its direct impact on my mood. It seems miraculous to me that we live in a world where such beauty is, literally, just around the corner.

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Kindred spirits: On a recent trip to sunny Florida, I optimistically wore sandals to the airport, despite the bitingly cold wind here. I knew it would be in the high 70s when we arrived at our destination. My friend, Molly, saw my toes and asked if I had recently had a pedicure, which I had. Turns out, so had she – and we had selected the same shade of sparkly orange polish! One of the things I value greatly about my friends is that we are all so different from one another – in age, temperament, experiences – yet on a level deep beneath the skin we “get” each other. The love and respect inherent in these friendships with my kindred spirits is such a gift – one that I rely on heavily in difficult times. Sometimes, it is hard not to take them for granted due to the ease and natural fit of our friendship. I need to remember that my friends and family are people to treat with true appreciation on a daily basis, as that is how often they lighten the burden and increase my joy in life.

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Sunshine: It is March. In Iowa. Every moment of sunshine is a little miracle that needs to be appreciated.

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Serendipity: It just so happened that I arrived at the Merritt Island Bird Sanctuary on the morning after something or someone had trashed the bird feeders next to the observation deck, spilling the bird seed on the ground and offering a veritable feast for a variety of species. Including these painted buntings – which the volunteer at the sanctuary informed us were a rare sight. Another example of serendipity: my friend Wendy gave me a gift certificate for a 60-minute massage (she gave it to me for my birthday in July). I realized several weeks ago that the certificate expired at the end of March, and scheduled the first available evening appointment – which was last night. Not knowing, at the time I scheduled the appointment, what would be happening this week, the massage could not have come at a better time. Appreciating these moments when the confluence of events creates just the right and needed experience to salve my soul is an important form of gratitude. These are the moments that remind me that all good things come as gift and grace, rather than through my own deserving.

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Simple Silliness: I tend toward the serious most days. My work involves people and their life issues, which are serious business. When moments arrive which allow the freedom of letting go of all that seriousness, it is a big deal to let go and relax into them. I love that Mike captured this photo of me engaging, with silly abandon, in a misguided attempt to make a snow angel on the hard, crusted snow covering Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis a few weeks ago.

So, there are six things that I tend to take for granted which are richly deserving of gratitude. There are many more – education, clean water, fresh air, family – the list may, in fact, be endless. Endless, because I suspect the truth is that gratitude should be the center from which I live into each moment of this precious life I’ve been given. Each moment experienced as gift – I wonder how that would change my perceptions? My interactions? My creativity and flexibility when faced with life’s challenging and emotionally depleting days? What if I could also add my own imperfections to the list of items I am grateful for? Wow, that would likely be a game-changer. Imagine saying, “Thank you for my fear.” “Thank you for my confusion.” “Thank you for my flawed nature.” Hmmm. That, my friends, may be fodder for another post!

Note: I invite you to share in the comments some thing(s) you take for granted but would like to be grateful for – I would love to hear your thoughts!