As Low as You Can, As Slow as You Need

2 06 2016

 

A couple of weeks ago, I went on a group bicycle ride sponsored by a community organization. I had been told that these were easy rides, all fitness levels welcome, so I decided to give it a shot. The ride leader turned out to be the person who sold me my new bike back in March. He gathered the group together, shouting to be heard above the traffic and the crowds of people there in the busy market. “In case you didn’t know, this is going to be a hill ride,” he called out.

The groans were audible even above the surrounding din. The vast majority of cyclists I know dislike riding hills. Even cyclists who are in good condition sometimes prefer to avoid them. I have a varied history with hills; I hated them until I understood how to ride them. Then I enjoyed testing myself against them, and I got pretty good at navigating even the more daunting ones. However, at this point in time, I’m out of shape for riding, am just building my skills and stamina back up – and I haven’t taken on many hill challenges on the new bike. So while I wasn’t one of the groaners, I was a bit nervous to see how it would go.

Just before we hit the first and toughest hill, slightly under half of the group split off to take an alternate (hill-avoiding) route. I shifted gears and began the ascent. Barely more than halfway up, I was unable to continue on the bike, and got off to walk. The difference between my easiest, or granny, gear on a 21-speed (my old bike) and the granny gear on my new 9-speed is significant. But I was mostly disappointed in myself for losing fitness and gaining weight – both of which are a significant part of why I was unable to ride that hill.

While I successfully maneuvered the remaining hills, and enjoyed the speedy final descent, I was still processing that first hill climb when we reached the park where we reunited with those who had chosen to avoid the hilly passage. When the ride leader approached, asking how it went, I told him that while I love my new bike, I miss my 21-speeds on the hills. He said, “Did I know you were going to ride hills? Because we don’t usually recommend that model for hill riding.” He walked away before I could answer.

I was fuming. Without going into the entire story of my purchase, suffice it to say that his comment was both unexpected and unwelcome. I began to obsess about it, and I was filled with righteous indignation for days. The next few times I went out to ride, all I could think about was that I had a bike that would never meet my needs. This made my rides much less enjoyable, and contributed to a reluctance on my part to attempt any but the most easily navigable hills.

However, it is a truth universally acknowledged by cyclists that a ride in want of daunting hills will never be a truly epic one. Also true? No matter what avoidance techniques you employ there will be hills. So, the next time I was faced with a hill that required me to climb it, I grimly squared my shoulders and kept riding.

I talked myself through it. “Just drop into as low a gear as you can. Ok, doing great. Now, take it as slow as you need to. There’s no hurry.” It wasn’t pretty. It was tortuously slow. Onlookers may have wondered if I would ever make it to the top – and if so, WHEN?! But I just kept repeating, “As low as you can, as slow as you need to.” Eventually, my heart pounding and gasping for air, I crested the hill.

And that’s when I realized that it was an ordinary hill. Not an epic hill, not one for the record books: an ordinary, everyday, hill.

There will be lots of ordinary hills for me to climb. Just as there will, sometimes, be epic hills to get over.

One of the great things about cycling, in my opinion, is that I continually learn things that apply throughout my life, not just while on the bike. In life, we face hills. And we get over hills. Even if we have to go slow; even if we have to walk. In my almost 55 years, I have yet to fail at getting over one…eventually. Sometimes it has been easy-peasey, and other times it has taken everything I had – more than I thought I could muster.

My new hill-mantra, “as low as you can, as slow as you need to”, is one I can generalize and use throughout my life. Drop your affect, keep your anxiety levels down, breathe – in other words, go as low as you can. Ratcheting up the fear, anxiety, or panic because you see a challenge looming on the horizon only makes things worse. More stressful. More difficult. More tense. No job is done more easily with your tense shoulders hunched up around your ears! Relax into the upward climb and it will be a lot less painful.

Then: take the time you need. Life, contrary to what we sometimes glean from our surrounding culture, is not a race. While timeliness can be a factor, it is rarely the only factor. Finishing well is generally more important. I can’t think how many times I’ve hurried through some project or task, only to discover that I could (and should) have taken somewhat more time to do it really well rather than to rush to completion.

Go as low as you can, as slow as you need to. I keep repeating this mantra to myself, on my bike and off, and finding it beneficial in setting a great tone to my days. When I do encounter one of life’s hills, I have a way to approach it that doesn’t incite unnecessary fear or stress. Just the calm, ordinary effort required to keep moving forward.

 

 

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Truth, 2016

14 01 2016

It was New Year’s Day and I was feeling ambivalent. About pretty much everything. I wasn’t in the mood to reflect on the year just ended, nor did I feel quite up to staring down the barrel of 2016 with unblinking fortitude.

I noodled around online instead.

A post popped up on a friend’s social media feed, its flashing letters calling out to me like a carnival barker: “Find Out Your Word for 2016!” Easily distracted by shiny objects, I clicked on it. In almost exactly the same split second it took me to regret clicking, the word generator selected randomly for me:

Your word for 2016 is – Truth.

“Crap”, I thought. “That’s the last word I wanted”. Without even reading the explanation that came with the announcement, I hurriedly moved on to a different site.

But, of course, the damage was already done. Why, I wondered, had I responded so vehemently to the word “truth”?

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Two summers ago, when I worked the opening shift at Starbucks, I often spent long afternoons riding my bike. My friend, Mike, was bike commuting from our apartment building out to his office in the suburbs and I would sometimes ride out to meet him for the commute home. The trip was 17 miles each way, and offered a variety of surfaces and several hills in each direction.

I finally hit my stride with hills that summer. I can’t say that anything in particular clicked into place, other than that I had, perhaps, finally spent enough time in the saddle. Anyway, the hills on our commute back to the city were long and rolling, so we would fly down one hill and immediately begin ascending the next. Mike was always ahead of me heading into the uphill climb, but about half or two thirds of the way up, I would pass him.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Mike was in great shape – lighter, stronger and faster than me. When we rode together he often needed to moderate his pace so I could keep up. But I overtook him on those hills, and it was exhilarating! Not because it activated a competitiveness in me – although I wouldn’t be human (or honest) if I didn’t admit there was a smidgeon of that. But the main reason I found it so wonderful? It was evidence to me that I had developed a kinesthetic knowledge, a way of uniting my body and the machine I was riding into one efficient, smooth, and cohesive entity. Riding those hills well was deeply satisfying in a way that had nothing to do with anyone or anything else: my body my bike.

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This past year, I barely rode. I changed jobs twice and I’ve been living in a place of transition. Consequently, I was experiencing what a colleague calls “grief resistance” – riding just hasn’t felt fun since I returned to Cedar Rapids, missing the cycling culture (and my bikey friends) in the Twin Cities. Several times a week, at the gym, I climb aboard a spin bike and ride. Sometimes, I close my eyes and pretend I’m riding outside, actually going somewhere rather than just spinning my wheels. But mostly I just make myself pedal, varying the tension and the speed to get my heart pumping and work up a sweat.

Driving home from the gym after a less-than-satisfying session, I had a depressing vision of myself living like that every day – on auto-pilot, tired, anxious, my body heavier and more lethargic than I prefer. And that is when I began to more deeply understand my aversion to the word “truth” as my word for 2016.

The truth is, I’ve been avoiding my own truth for a while now. Avoiding consciously addressing what my heart already knew: that I’ve been abdicating my responsibilities to myself and my life. I’ve been making excuses instead of making active choices.

The truth is, going through life transitions is challenging; it can be really hard to do – like riding a bike up long or steep hills. You can fight the hill, complain about the hill, whine the entire way up the hill – but eventually you’ll need to crest the hill, however you feel about it. The kicker is that there will always be another hill, whether immediately in front of you or just visible on the horizon.

The truth is, hills are a fact of life – both the literal and the metaphoric ones. You can let them depress you or you can find them exhilarating. The main difference is in your approach.

#Truth

 

 





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

1 08 2013

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.