Humility at 2170 Feet

I have been racking my brain this morning struggling to conjure up an adequate analogy describing how sore I feel today. Whether it is the case that none exists, or, the general foggy malaise pervading my consciousness prevents me from finding it, I cannot be sure. In this failure, I will say, simply, the muscle soreness has migrated into my bones so, even my skeletal system feels achy and inflamed. I did not think this was possible.

The cause of this pain is I have just returned from a cycling trip across Vermont. Along with Erik DaSilva, my co-leader, I pre-rode the 140 mile loop which we will take the Bangor YMCA Adventure Seekers through in October. Erik and I felt the need to pre-ride the route because even the best maps and most up-to-date satellite imagery does not give you a handle on a routes highlights, low-lights and overall difficulty the same way riding does. Without firsthand knowledge even the best roue makers are just making educated guesses. However, both of us work too much and have families. In other words, we are chronically short on time. Thus, in an act of either over-ambitious foolishness or supreme time-efficiency, we decided to ride the purposed three-day tour in a day-and-a-half. Piece of cake. Today, I pay the price.

One of my greatest personal sorrows is that I am not a stronger cyclist. I am, by my nature, a rock climber. If I can say I have an area of expertise, anywhere in my existence, it would be climbing. While, I excel at scaling vertical surfaces, I have never progressed past slightly “above-average” on a bike. Even at my peak, I was never more than a “B-” cycler. In college I briefly experimented with living the life of a triathlete. It was, ultimately, the cycling leg, in which, I realized the sport was never going to be my thing. I would come out of the water in respectable time then helplessly flounder my way to the back-of-the-pack as meaty-quaded supermen zipped past me, clad in their color coordinated spandex and aerodynamic sunglasses during the bike portions. Usually, I was able to make up time during the final run, but with all the lost ground, I never progressed above middle-of-the-pack and, ultimately, decided, for all the effort, being average just was not for me.

The group approaching Lake Champlain as day 1 comes to a close. Photo provided by Beth Pulini.

Do not get me wrong, I love cycling, which, is why it is so sad for me that I am not stronger at it. If I could not climb, then cycling would very likely be my recreational activity of choice. However, with that said, I do not want to give the impression that I am am completely inept at it. It is not quite that bad. For the most part, I can “hang” okay. As it turns out, as in most thing in life, having a strong heart and lungs, a bit of stubbornness and some determination can get you rather far. Unfortunately for me, however, also like most things in life, genetics puts in a word as well. In my case, the DNA molecules which organized themselves into the blueprint of “me” built a climber not a cyclist. To say that I have legs like a flamingo is probably disrespectful to an otherwise majestic bird. While, these skinny legs are an asset when I am pulling my way up a rock face, they are not as useful in my attempts to pedal gear laden bicycles up mountain passes. When push-comes-to-shove, I am most often left sweaty, huffing, puffing and grunting my way through challenges while looking with envy onto the bulky quads and shapely calves of the stronger riders who pass me by, seemingly, in ease.

Erik could not be more opposite. He has been given all the genetic blessing to make him the strongest cyclist I know: thick, muscular legs, the body fat of a ballerina and the cardiac output of a blue whale. Believe me when I say that I am not short on pride, ego or a competitive nature, so, it pains me quite a bit to say that he is, for sure, an impressive athlete. When it comes down to testing the limits of legs and lungs I have, more than once, been left in his proverbial dust. Whether we are cross-country skiing in Baxter State Park, slogging up snow packed mountains or, like this weekend, trying to cycle an ungodly number of miles in an unreasonably short span of time, it is usually all I can do to stay within even a respectable distance from his tail.

Enjoying the sunset over Lake Champlain before bed. Photo provided by Beth Pulini.

This dynamic, of course, turn events like this weekend’s into torture trials for me. I could, perhaps, live with it if it were simply a matter of physical differences. I’m old enough now to have accepted myself and my body for what it is; strengths and weaknesses. There is, after all, always climbing. For which, by-the-way, I am pretty darn good at and, on the occasions, in which, the script is flipped, I get to leave him in the dust. That thought is usually comfort enough to help me slug through these tests of endurance.

What makes these trails so down right agitating, however, is Erik’s genuine and utter joy in them. After nearly throwing-up trying to grind and battle my way to the 2170 foot apex of Brandon’s Gap, I was greeted at the summit by Erik and two of his friends, Justin and Beth (a New Hampshire couple who joined us for the trip, and who are themselves pretty avid and strong cyclists) waiting restfully for me. Who knows how long they were waiting for me? I certainly did not want to ask. I did not want to know. I do know they looked sufficiently refreshed, comfortable in the shade, snacking on trail mix, with their shoes and helmets off. All of which, was a nice, subtle jab to any self-respect I may have had left.

“Wasn’t that great?!” Erik says and he genuinely means it. He’s glowing, beaming, ready to do the whole thing again. Which, is just so, darn irritating.

“Oh yes, just fantastic Erik. I’m not sure what I liked more, the bit in which the excessive physical exertion caused me to lose control of my bodily functions and evacuated my bowels or the heat induced blackout? Both were quite splendid! I really can’t choose.” Is what I would like to say, but, of course, I do not.

Instead, I grunt something inaudible to express my displeasure and, in shame, find a shade spot away from the group to get some water, a quick snack and to dwell on my humiliation. By-the-way, I do mean I have to do this quickly; they have probably been waiting for me for over 25 minutes and were already primed to keep moving 20 of those minutes ago. If I take too long pulling the shattered pieces of my body and psyche back together they will take off again leaving me to, once again, play the catch-up game. Which, of course, I will and which, of course, not be able to do, but will, of course, exacerbate my cycle of physical torture and emotional ignominy.

Heading toward Middlebury, VT to start day 2. Photo provided by Beth Pulini.

The thing about all this misery is, in really, it is largely (in fact, almost wholly) self-induced. Yet, one needs retrospection to understand this. In the moment a mind protects an ego by finding scapegoats and whipping boys for personal insecurities. When Erik told me he invited Justin and Beth along for the weekend I was both alarmed and disheartened. Do not get me wrong, having spent the weekend with the couple, I can say they are are a lovely, pleasant duo who, under any other circumstance, I would have jumped at the chance to get to know better. However, I know my weaknesses and being the slow guy, in a group of two when the other is a trusted friend is one thing. Introducing two new folks into the equation as audience to my shortfalls is another and led to much unnecessary anxiety. Having my fears confirmed in reality was an unbearable embarrassment, to which, I responded to by shutting down.

As I sit in reflection of the weekend I know the reality is no one really cared much at all about waiting for me. Nor did they, in all likelihood, give much thought to my cycling speed. The slights were all imagined. The only person who really cared was me. To my regret, I allowed a social phobia pervade what should have been an otherwise pleasant and fun weekend with some otherwise pleasant and fun people.

You would think, by now, I would have learned my lesson. As a matter of fact, I spend most of my professional life attempting to convince others to partake in activities they fear and, most likely, will, initially at least, not be very good at. Although I have never officially tracked such things, I would say, of all the phone calls and emails I field in the recruitment of new people to our cycle tours, hands down, the number one reservation potential clients express is: “I don’t want to hold others up.” I hear this a lot; like every day.

“We do have a support vehicle.” I often reply in my attempts to mitigate their anxiety. “If it really is too much for you there is always the option to ride in the van for a bit.” This tact seldom works. Why I continue to resort to it is beyond me. The potential shame and embarrassment of being the slowest rider in a new group is strikingly and stunningly less-than the potential shame and embarrassment of being shuttled through parts of a ride. It is not the actual ride itself, as far I can tell, which intimidates folks. It is, rather, the thought that they may be seen as weak, slow or unfit by a group of peers. Ironically then, the support vehicle, meant to provide piece-of-mind and comfort to our riders is actually an added stress; it is perceived as more of a “shame wagon” to be avoided rather than a tool to be utilized.

Yet, just like with my experience over the weekend, the real problem is not with the ride, the company, the bike, the weather or any other external variable. The problem is in the head. Honestly and quite sincerely, nobody on our tours seems to care the slightest bit about how strong, fast, fit or good any other rider is. Try to convince a new rider, a bit unsure of themselves of this, however, is like trying to convince a ferrell animal to allow you to pet it. The fear is too much and, despite all your gentle coxing the thing is, inevitably, going to end up running away.

Social fear is, perhaps, the human being’s greatest motivator or, de-motivator, as the case-may-be. This is both tragic and underhanded. Underhanded because the fear usually masks itself in various forms like polite self-sacrifice: “oh no, I would not want to hold the others up.” Justifications: “hmm, I think the old back is acting up, I better not.” Or, just outright self-deception: “No, no, can’t do it, it’s too hard,” but it all, when you really look at it, boils down to the simple fear of failure in front of others. It is tragic because just how much fun, growth and opportunity this fear ultimately prevents in our lives is, I am sure, incalculable.

What is perplexing about the whole matter is, in almost every other area of my life, I am not a particularly risk-averse person. I would say, in fact, I manage my other fears quite well. Place me 150 feet off the ground, pushed to my limits, fighting for my life on a rock precipice and the old coping mechanisms kick right. I become a generally cool customer. I am not alone in this either. Take, for example, an investment banker, seemingly fearless in the stockroom, with the entirety of his life savings riding on a gamble or an ER surgeon who coolly wields her scalpel with lives in the balance and ask them, or me, to sing in public, dance in front of an audience or perform any number of observable feats of physical fitness and you can watch a transition into the Cowardly Lion unfold before your eyes. How quickly the mighty fall under the pressure of only the slightest possibility of critic from our peers.

No matter how it shows itself, is the missed opportunity which fear can create, in the end that really burns me. I’m not sure I will ever see Justin or Beth again, but if I do, it is going to be hard to overcome the poor, shame driven first impression that I made. That is the regret: the missed chance to connect with good people, which is really sad. For others, the tragedy, whether they are conscious of it or not, is allowing fear to prevent them from trying new things in the first place. As it turns out, it is not the height of a mountain, the length of trail, the strength in our legs, the heat of the summer, the cold of the winter, the condition of our equipment or the steepness of a rock-face which serves as the greatest barriers to our success. Most often, the biggest obstacle is, simply, the ugly voice of fear within our heads. Overcoming it is the real adventure.

The view from Brandon Gap.