Monday, July 24, 2006

Why I like endurance

One of the great things about putting in a good, hard day on the road or trail is that supreme feeling of tiredness you get right afterward - those rare moments when you curl up on the couch with a cold can of Pepsi and let your fatigue wrap around you in a blanket of calm satisfaction.

I have never experienced that after any of my endurance events.

Usually, I spend the first few hours after the ride wishing I owned a loaded gun. After a fitful night of sleep, I spend the next day in a "I-feel-like-I-was-hit-by-a-truck" state. By day two, I have a vague recollection of what normal might feel like, and by day three I'm itching to get back on my bike. There's no Pepsi. No supreme fatigue. Only the cold motions of recovery.

So a very good question that I'm often asked is - "Why?" Why put myself through it?

I think it goes back to high school, when I was looking for a place in the world. I was an odd duck like everyone else. I was introspective but not intellectual, smart but not studious, active but not athletic. I never played competitive sports and wasn't about to join the Mathletes, but I used to wonder - why can't there be a sport for the nonathletic? An intellectual challenge for the nonacademic? I never knew I could have it all in a single event - endurance cycling.

Endurance cycling, especially the kind that pushes you deep into the remote wilderness or the frozen tundra, is an exercise of willpower. An exercise of survival. An exercise of that dogged determination we like to call "inner strength." There isn't a choice in this world I could make that would allow to me to go out and run a four-minute mile. But I can go out and ride 100 miles, 200 miles ... maybe 1,000 miles ... because I decide to. I like that.

"It's all mental from here on out," people like to say. And it's true, except for the fact that your body isn't a direct extension of your mind. It can break down. It can run out of gas. It can fail the world's greatest Zen cyclist, just as easily as a Wal-mart bike can drop a derailleur. So you train. You go out nearly every day and you ride a little faster or a little further, and you feel yourself growing stronger. You learn that you can make a decision to be stronger. I like that.

And when I make a decision to be stronger, I make a decision to be less afraid. Hail and lightning. Bears and rattlesnakes. Rivers and drop-offs. These things scare me - to the point where my heart still skips a beat when I hear a Ptarmigan tearing through the grass even when I know there are no snakes in Alaska. But when I ride until I become so lost in the here and now that I forget to be afraid, I slowly learn that there's no reason to fear. I like that.

It's a cliche to say that endurance cycling is a Zen thing, but it's true. It's a rare experience to let my mind drive my body to its bruised and battered breaking point, only to watch it return with more confidence, more appreciation, less fear. I like that.