On the bike, thoughts come for you. Exposed and vulnerable, distance and landscape bring messages from your past, images of paths not taken, admonitions. Dreams so vivid they seem to almost have vicissitude and all the while you’re just cranking, cranking, breathing, watching, cranking.
Lately the demons are called Sadness and What Ifs; perhaps an improvement, I tell myself, over Anxiety, but they also bring with them their brothers Defeat, Regret, and, the worst of the lot, Profound Self-Doubt. I do what I have learned best—I sit with them in the saddle and ask them what they want from me. Fighting is useless as they are will-o-wisp, hydra, refugees from my own conscience. There is no running away, no defeating them. No pretending they don’t count. I ask them what they want. Often they are silent, more often they show me movie memories, less often they climb up and tell me they’d just like to hang out.
Cycling is far more than exercise or exploration; for this hermenaut, spinning the wheels is about exorcizing the spirits who lay in my bones and muscles and brain cells and riding them double on the handlebars or seat while we have a serious Mano a Mano. Inside me they reek havoc, trash the place, spray paint and defile and ghettoize the palace. At least out here, on the road or trail, in the wind and rain and sun, I can see them. At least out here it’s just the two of us.
Trail running has, for years, been my mainstay activity—it is my fitness, both physically and into this world, and where I learned that meditation can move. Long-distance trail running, in particular, has been my saviour, it has given my life focus and taught me about dedication, health, and the importance of excellent friends. And for a 47-year-old dude, those are, I’m convinced, the beating heart of lifelong wellness. So a year ago or so when my foot started to hurt I did exactly what anyone in my situation would do; that is, I ignored it and kept going. Kept telling myself that it would work itself out. That it was nothing. That everything was fine.
But it wasn’t. A small pain became a big one; trips to the chiro, the physio, and the internet all confirmed that this wasn’t going away. That it was time for a break. That healing would require rest. Rest; for someone like me, is a hard one to swallow.
Will Gadd—climber, smart ass, and all around world-class doer of awesome stuff—once said something along the lines that your job as an athlete is simple, to keep moving. That if something hurts, do something else. And so I took what was, up to that point, a thing that oscillated on the spectrum from toy to machine and decided to use it, as Henry Rollins once framed it, to reinvent myself, to carve myself from stone. To move in a new way.
Let’s be clear: while I’ve never been a fully invested couch potato, I was also not one of those stoked mid-’90s rad-dudes who saw the future and headed to the woods the moment Gary Fisher and the boys hit the market with their suped-up stump jumpers. I was too busy getting high, quite honestly. But those guys were my friends and so somewhere in the deepest stretches of my now-adult mind there was an inkling that yeah, maybe riding a bike was more than transportation or something that those working out the penance of a DUI did (which, FYI, fortunately never happened), that maybe the MAMLs were onto something, that perhaps while the bicycle is a toy for kids, and a means to get around for students, it was something else as well. Maybe it was more of an existential machine than I was giving it credit for. Whatever, it certainly beat sitting around beating myself up over a beat up foot.
In addition, I have the great fortune of living in a city that, first, is surrounded by forests and, second, where said forests have been the playground and sacred grove of the cyclists since the explorers of Marin County put two and two together and came up with a new sport. As a runner, I knew all of these trails like the back of my hand and so, naturally, felt that having an intimate knowledge of basically every root, rock, mud hole, and dip that was out there, learning to cycle them would be a snap.
I also thought that because my cardio was basically bang on and that due to my work as a landscaper my core is pretty strong, my fitness wouldn’t really be an issue either.
Also, big mistake.
And so I managed to score myself a snazzy full-suspension MTB, sussed out a race or two, and hit it just as hard as I could. Low and behold, the demons were right there. As was my lack of skill. As were my inadequately trained muscles. As was the general population of seasoned cyclists. The hoard of Frustration, Desperation, Anger, Hurt Pride, and Self-Pity came rushing in for the party that the neurochemicals were cooking up in my brain and the cocktails flowed like buttery singletrack.
For anyone who has tried to pick up something relatively new relatively late in life, you know what I’m talking about. And doubt, that blood-sucking beast suckled in middle school and only made super strong by feeding it all the reefer and bad decisions any university student can muster, was right there. Who was I kidding? Seriously, mountain biking?
Our man Jens Voigt, he of leg shut ups and the kind of cruel tenacity that marks every noble lady and gentleman of sport, if he were to weigh in might say something like, “Doubt is a small voice, silence it!” And how right he would be. Because you and I both know that the podium is a mental thing, entirely relative to where you are in the great peloton of life (ugh, I’m really sorry about that one), that success really, truly, honestly is something so utterly subjective as to be… utterly within your own control.
A challenge, I often remind myself, has to be two things: hard and easy. In the first sense, it has to carry with it the real possibility that you won’t be able to do it; in the other sense, it also has to be at least plausible. A challenge, an activity that holds within it the potential for significant self-transformation, cannot just be overwhelming or a walk in the park. Take Harry Potter for instance—imagine that he and his friends were to have faced a dragon in the washroom instead of a great lumbering troll… result? Death, series over, tragic ending all around. But the troll presented real and tangible danger for the young wizards and called on all their abilities and few extra in order for them to meet the ordeal and transform individually and as a group. All myths are built on this kind of stuff.
And all myth relates directly to your life, your journey, your long and deliberate meander toward greatness. Joseph Campbell refers to this as the Cycle of the Hero, the drawn out process of self-discovery, fraught with inner and outer obstacles, that brings you, as Henry Thoreau said, “Back to your senses.” These days I may have traded my running shoes for some cool wheels, but the intent is the same: to reach my highest peak, to see the world fresh everyday, to meet excellent people with similar magic and join them exploring the wilderness, and to face down some demons. To reimagine what I’m capable of, to recycle this body over and over and over again till death come and do us.
-Originally published at irunfar.com