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!.

Dark Birds

Artist: Kelly Moore

a full blown dark bird 
has flown well past being
an outsider or a misfit
and no longer needs to be
part of a group or wear
a label or needs to be
understood
i am
we are
our own person
born in the clean space
of the desert powerful beings in our truth
choosing our own path
living our own lives
often loving
places and people
others dont care for or understand
we are simply
dark birds

(poem by artist, Kelly Moore)

4:00 a.m. I am lying awake in the dark of my room, listening to the wind outside howl. Its mournful sounds are anemically echoed in the high whine and hiss issuing from the radiator at the head of my bed. The alarm will go off in twenty minutes, and I face a choice: spend the next few minutes mostly asleep or mostly worrying about things I can’t change at 4:00 a.m. I choose sleep.

It seems like a small choice. But our days are filled with these small choices. Added together their sum equals this thing we call “my life”.

One spring a few years back, I visited Pecos National Historic Park in New Mexico with my parents. I felt some sort of magic there, emanating perhaps from the confluence of history and landscape. I wanted a moment to just soak it in, so I let my parents walk on ahead. The wind was strong, and as I stood still on the trail, I felt it blowing against me with force. I watched as a raven flew toward me. It drew even with my eyes, just a foot or so in front of me, and hovered there, riding the air current and making eye contact with me. After a minute, the raven opened its wings and flew off in a graceful arc. The momentary spell was broken. As I rejoined my parents, my dad asked, “What did that blackbird have to say? It looked like he was giving you a message.”

Perhaps it was more a lesson than a message, one that I needed the distance of time to learn. As it hovered in front of me, the raven’s wings were not moving. They were simply holding steady, allowing the wind to do the work. It wasn’t that the bird did nothing. Rather, the bird did the very thing we struggle against so often in our lives: it trusted the flow.

How simple, yet how incredibly difficult, is that? Still, the lesson is clear and can be found in many spiritual traditions as well as in self-help and pop psychology books. The language varies, of course, but the message is the same: stop worrying and learn to trust.

Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

Buddha: Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.

Lao Tzu: Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them – that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

The wind has, if anything, picked up force in the hours since I first heard it blustering. I can hear bits of detritus being blown against the windows: broken twigs, a few dead leaves that somehow escaped being buried in the snow. As I think about these forlorn items, I realize that there is a difference between being a twig buffeted willy-nilly by the wind and the raven. The twig exerts no will, while the raven wills itself into the flow.

In a little while, I will venture out of the protection of my apartment and into the gale-force winds. I will gird myself for the experience in a huge down parka. As I face the day ahead, I will attempt to will myself into the flow and then relax there, rather than be thrown about without volition like the twig. Another small choice, adding to the sum of “my life”.