After the Bonk

bonk*:  Expression used by cyclists to describe excercise-induced low blood sugar levels; being a feeling of light-headedness and weakness in all limbs. Similar to ‘The Wall’ in running. Has fallen out of usage in recent years due to alternative meanings. — Urban Dictionary
One of the realities of life for true afficionados – whether it is books, movies, running, or some other thing that is loved – is that even at times when we aren’t engaging with the thing, we talk about the thing. For the better part of the last year, this has been the case with me and bicycling. I’ve read about cycling, I’ve talked about it and written about, I’ve participated in the Thursday night twitter meet-up called #bikeschool – but I haven’t been riding.
I’m making a concerted effort to change that, primarily because I miss the way biking makes me feel when I do it – calmer, fitter, more engaged with my community and with nature. I do love riding – even more than I love talking about riding.
April is the month that I pledge (for the past three years) to ride every day. It’s called #30DaysofBiking. Begun by friends in Minneapolis, it has become a worldwide movement with teams in cities all over the place – including Spain and Belarus**. April, at least in east-central Iowa, is also a mixed-bag of weather, which is part of the challenge of keeping to the pledge.
This year, the first three days of the month offered a cycling challenge in the form of high winds (which I gladly faced rather than the sleet I rode in last year on the #30daysofbiking kick-off ride in Minneapolis). Friday and Saturday I dutifully rode, pushing against headwinds and trying to remember the tricks of countering gusty crosswinds to remain upright on my bike.  Dressed in layers and wearing gloves against the early spring chill, I was excited to be out riding my new bike.
Sunday, April 3, was a beautiful day; sunny, with temperatures climbing into the 70s. I had social commitments early in the day, but I was itching to get out for the day’s ride. It was mid-afternoon before I managed it, but as soon as my tires hit the pavement, my spirits soared. I headed south on the trail, nodding or calling friendly greetings to the other trail-users, plentiful on such a gorgeous day. The winds were still gusty and strong, but when I set out they were manageable. And at my back.
When I last rode regularly, it was not at all unusual for me to easily ride thirty or more miles in an afternoon. My mind remembered that – overriding any signals from my body that I hadn’t stayed in shape to do that easily. So I rode and rode, loving the experience. Eventually, my brain received the message my body had been sending for a while: turn back or you’ll regret it! When I did turn around to head back into town, I was immediately struck full-face by 40-mile an hour winds. Um, yeah. The ride back was going to be a bit more difficult.
In one section of trail, surrounded on all sides by open fields, the wind threatened to sweep me right off my bike, and my bike right off the trail. Suddenly, my awesome Sunday ride had become (in my mind anyway) an epic battle between me and the elements. My knees painfully protested the degree of force necessary to crank the pedals. My mind contracted – gone were the sweet fancies that had flitted through it on the ride out. Now, my only thought was a repetitive, “Keep going.” When I allowed myself a rest stop, I rationed the water in my bottle so it would last a bit longer, even though my mouth felt bone dry. Because it was my third ride in as many days, I was sore from getting accustomed to my new saddle. My knees had commenced screaming. I considered calling a friend to come pick me up, but rejected the idea with stern self-talk. At the downhill section where speeds well over twenty miles an hour are typical even while sometimes coasting, fighting the wind I never got above 13 mph. My attention was so concentrated that I hadn’t noticed the clouds massing until it started to rain. And then, weirdly, my feet started cramping. I got off the bike and walked until the cramps subsided. Then I rode some more.
As suddenly as it had started, the feeling that I was locked in an epic battle against the weather ended. I was simply exhausted with another two miles to go before reaching home. The rain had been brief, but the wind continued unabated. My internal dialogue went silent. There was nothing to do but keep moving. And so I did.
Later, after a shower and food, my body was sore and tired. But I couldn’t stop thinking about the afternoon’s ride. When, I wondered, would I be able to get out again? How would I keep challenging myself to push my limits? I realized, with real surprise, that – miserable as I had been – I had been enjoying myself! Not the kind of enjoyment that results in warm feelings and easy laughter – not even the enjoyment I felt after riding in last year’s sleet, because that was derived in part from the camaraderie that develops when friends share difficulties. No, this brand of fun was definitely a more serious kind. I hadn’t been in any real danger – I could easily have stopped and called for assistance. But I didn’t, and the serious fun of it was exactly that. I pushed myself to do more than I thought I could. In doing so, I realized that I was capable of more.
I bonked hard that day. But what I learned was this: what I am truly capable of doing is only visible after the bonk. And that is an important lesson to keep hold of in other parts of my life. I wasn’t embarrassed that I crashed and I didn’t waste time berating myself (though I could have taken some measures to mitigate or prevent it). Instead, I was proud of myself for keeping on. Why is it so hard to generalize that experience to the other parts of life? Lord knows, I crash and burn in my personal and professional life with regularity, and sometimes it is my own fault. But why should I allow the crashes to define my sense of self-worth, when what comes afterwards is often more revealing of who I am and what I’m capable of achieving?
I think that is what “serious fun” is all about: challenging limits, not solely for the sake of doing so, but in order to learn and grow. And that’s what I’m taking with me this time, after the bonk.
*Yes, I know bonk is a word used in other contexts that are sexual in nature – try to be mature enough not to snicker about this every time I use it in the context of cycling, please!
**My friend, Patrick Stephenson, is the driving force behind this movement of “joyful cyclists” which contributes, through sponsorships, to cycling charities – check it out online!.

Words That Changed My Life: Hubris

For much of my early life, I was not particularly self-aware. Self-conscious? Absolutely. But I had not yet learned to see myself, my actions, my interactions with others from an analytical perspective. I simply could not stand outside myself and review with honesty my actions, motivations, or emotions. As a result, I was often taken by surprise, both by my own choices and by the reactions of others toward me.

My junior year in college, I took a Greek Mythology course as an elective. The course was taught by a nun who had spent most of her career teaching in grade school. We were horrified, on the first day of class, to be told we must respond in unison to her questions. We were also given worksheets and made to place them in exact order in our notebooks at the exact same moment, so that the noise of opening our required 3-ring binders (then snapping them shut) would take place all at once – no stragglers allowed. We were required to turn in the binders weekly. Misplaced worksheets resulted in deducted points. We began the semester hating that we were being treated like children. After all, we were confident and competent adults.

Through the course of the semester, though, my classmates and I grew to love Sister’s techniques. First, we decided to have fun with the novelty of returning to our third grade classroom structure. Then, the sheer amount of information we were actually learning – and retaining – became fun in a different way.

One concept that has stuck with me from that course is the idea of hubris. “The word was used to refer to the emotions in Greek tragic heroes that led them to ignore warnings from the gods and thus invite catastrophe. It is considered a form of hamartia or tragic flaw that stems from overbearing pride and lack of piety.” (eNotes: Guide to Literary Terms) Hubris: on one level I kept the word in my arsenal because I love words, and this is a good one to pull out in arguments and essays.

On another, deeper, level the idea that overbearing pride could be a tragic flaw was working on me. How would I know if I suffered from this? I mean, does anyone with this problem know they have it? Or are they all so arrogantly sure of themselves that they would never recognize their own puffed-up sense of self? The more I thought about it, the more relief I felt. After all, I was the opposite of self-confident – I was fearful in every way. And I was sure that everyone could see my inadequacy, despite my efforts to cover it up.

Pride, as they say, cometh before a fall. I reached a point in my life when it occurred to me that I had been allowing my life to happen to me, rather than actively living it. Of course, this realization came about as the result of pain and unhappiness that finally became too great to ignore. I think for most of us, these emotional growth spurts are often the result of difficulties, challenges, sadness rather than of happy times. The rawness of our emotions can cleanse away the lethargy and inertia of daily life, and we see ourselves more clearly.

What I saw in myself was an unbending pride that approached the level of tragic flaw. My pride didn’t stem from arrogance and overblown confidence. Mine stemmed from that very sense of inadequacy rooted deep in my psyche. My pride did everything it could to hide my unworthiness. I never wanted anyone to know I was clueless in a new situation, so my pride prevented me from asking questions. I never wanted to appear as stupid as I felt, so my pride kept me from venturing opinions or seeking out mentors and teachers. I certainly didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, so my pride prevented me from reaching out honestly and letting my friends know I was in pain, or lonely.

In Greek mythology, the story of Icarus is often used to describe the concept of hubris:

The main story told about Icarus is his attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. He ignored instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned. The myth shares thematic similarities with that of Phaëton — both are usually taken as tragic examples of hubris or failed ambition — and is often depicted in art. (Wikipedia)

Presented with hubris in the context of my mistaken pride, which prevented me from fully engaging with others in my life, or with that of Icarus, I now see the second manifestation as preferable. At least Icarus’ pride led him to strive for something greater with his life – rather than using pride to keep life small and crabbed into a safe little box. I can’t say with utter assurance that I have mastered my tragic flaw. But I can say that, finally, I am self-aware enough to be able to see my choices and behaviors in light of how they either are filling my life or depleting my life – and then to take corrective action. Sometimes, I am even able to reflect on possible choices and take the best path first. And that, friends, is worth suffering a blow to one’s pride.