Refuge

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I’m at a point where I’m no longer taking the stress in stride. I was able to do that for a few weeks, but no more. My one refuge, the bike, no longer provides a cover from the pressures that have been building.

Last week, I wrote how following a single hard effort on a climb I was unable to recover and how I was forced to let the group go after the next acceleration. That inability to dig has grown like a tumor in my muscles, preventing me from all but the most faux of efforts. Worse, something deeper has gone sour. Something has compromised my ability to descend. I know that stress is the something in question, that my reaction to the stress of the last month is what the trouble is, but the actual mechanism responsible for the degradation of my riding skills is as mysterious to me as quantum physics.

I opened the weekend with a training ride meant to help bring my fitness into sharper focus for SPY’s upcoming Belgian Waffle Ride. Less than two miles into the 11-mile ascent of Latigo Canyon, I let the leaders go. Minutes later, a friend passed me. Several more minutes and another. So it went. Of roughly 20 riders, I was among the last to reach the top of the climb. I used to routinely do this ascent in 45 minutes, and this time it took me an hour. Following all the gains in fitness I’d made over the winter, I felt like I was coming back to the bike after two weeks off, just without all that hungry motivation.

On each successive hill, bumps too short to break the group up, friends kept riding up to me to ask about the Deuce and how he was progressing. Look, I’m completely okay with many of my friends not reading RKP; most folks don’t read all that much and that’s fine. And I respect that because these people ride with me they would rather get the story from the horse’s mouth. Wouldn’t you rather go for a ride with your favorite pro rather than just read an interview? Not that I’m anyone’s favorite anything, mind you. But I get how they’d rather hear the story firsthand.

The trouble is that when I’m trying to pedal, talking about what we’ve been through with Matthew digs all the stress up, makes it present tense. To the degree that the bike can allow me to escape my worries, asking me about the Deuce steals that chance to find refuge in wheels. While other riders may be hiding from the wind, I’ve been hiding from something tougher to dodge.

My heartrate monitor’s chest strap wasn’t working that day, but I didn’t need it to tell me what was happening. With each question my ability to sustain a high hear rate plummeted. It felt like my legs were loading up with lactic acid, just without the burn. For all I know, they were.

Yesterday, I knew that I couldn’t deal with more questions, even if the news was encouraging. That we are feeding the little champ breast milk is huge. Still, each time I have to talk about it takes me out of the ride, mentally off my bicycle. So instead of heading out for one of the group rides, I took my mountain bike to Del Cerro Park in Palos Verdes. It’s a relatively small area and the riding that I do there is pretty tame. Parking is at the top of the hill, so any ride I do begins with a descent. Knowing how my descending went the previous day, I figured I’d take it easy on myself and avoid the singletrack. And while I could have bombed the fire road at better than 30 mph because there were precious few hikers out, I felt unsure of myself on a full-suspension mountain bike on a fire road.

I felt like my body was betraying me. Under other circumstances, I’d have been angry. Instead, I’ve just been disappointed and sad. I’ve got nothing to fight this with.

Personal history has shown me that I tend to respond well during a crisis. Once, I was run over by my own car. The story is long enough to require beers for proper telling. The relevant detail from that tale is this: I was the only person thinking clearly enough to figure out how to get me out from under the car. I had to call for help, then direct someone to turn off the engine, take the keys out, open the trunk; it was about this time that my mother walked outside and saw my legs protruding from under the car. She freaked out; I had to call to her to calm down—and convince her that the person helping me was not harming me—and then direct the other person to get the jack out and jack the front end of the car up enough that I could crawl out.

I stood up and my mother said, “My God, Patrick, you look horrible.”

What the appropriate response to such a statement is, I still don’t know. I went with the all-purpose, “I love you, too, Mom.”

I then spent the next five hours in the emergency room. It wasn’t until the next day as I bathed my scrapes and cuts that I began to shake with the realization that with my head stuck in the wheelwell of my car I had been inches from death.

Last fall I walked around the corner to pick up a pizza from our (my) favorite New York-style pizza place in Manhattan Beach. When I got back, our son Philip was missing. We started with the search of each room in the house. Then the closets. Then under all the furniture. Then the garage. Then under all the furniture, again. Then the closets, again. Then I went outside.

There comes a point when panic overrides pride and you just want your kid back, no matter where he or she is. I don’t think 10 minutes had passed when we reached that point. Our home was a wreck, toys everywhere, unfinished laundry out, dirty dishes on a counter. I wouldn’t have let a friend in the door.

We called 911. I gave a physical description down to each item of his outfit.

Two officers arrived with the speed we used to associate with pizza delivery. They asked for a physical description again, then I gave them a picture of Philip. Two squad cars were patrolling our neighborhood, looking for him outside. They had me double check to make sure his bicycle and scooter were still inside. They were.

Less than five minutes into the search one of the officers shined his flashlight into the back of a closet that runs beneath some stairs. My wife and I had both looked in the closet. It was so jammed with boxes that neither of us had figured Philip could make it into the space’s nethermost regions. But make it he did. When the officer waived his flashlight, Philip moved his head and the officer saw his blonde hair.

To this day, I don’t understand how he got back there. It would be easier to fit a bowling ball in a shot glass.

With Philip out, the officers thanked and our front door closed and locked, I slumped against the door, and then began sobbing with a depth that surprised even me. It was only then that I allowed myself to feel the relief that could only come from recognizing the magnitude of the disaster we had just escaped. Until we found him, every belief I had in my wife and myself as responsible people had been up for grabs. My identity was up for grabs.

So while I have evidence that I do well during the crisis, once it is past, that’s when I collapse.

That I’ve lasted this long surprises me, personal history notwithstanding. I don’t think I’d have held up were it not for all the comments here on the site and on Facebook, the many Tweets and then the amazingly personal emails I’ve received.

There’s a couplet in the Sting song “All This Time,” in which he sings:

Men go crazy in congregations
They only get better one by one

I suspect that the Salem Witch Trials are a great example of that, but in my life that has never been true. The opposite is what has proven to be the case in my life. Without the help of all those words of encouragement I think I’d have slipped down the rabbit hole by now—no passing “Go,” no collecting $200 and skidding to a halt well past the entrance to crazy town.

On my own, I can spin into crazy. Isolation is sanity’s enemy. Studies of men held in isolation in prison have show the long-term damage it can do. It’s in talking to other people that I gain perspective, that I discover hope, that I find my way to sanity. What it means to be buoyed by the words of others is to know that other people want a good life for you. They care for your happiness and success. What’s significant in that is what it says about the hope other people hold for lives that are not their own.

As those comments keep coming, they are the light at the end of the tunnel. Though Matthew isn’t home, and we don’t have a date for his likely release, we have good reason to believe he’ll come home with us.

This morning I avoided the group ride, went out after everyone had returned home. The ride was lonely and I turned home early. I barely remember the final mile or two. I know this won’t last, that I’ll be able to deal with friends again, to speak without shutting down, that riding will again be my refuge. But there’s going to be a personal reckoning once the Deuce is in the door and I don’t see a way to share that road with another soul.

 

34 comments

  1. Patrick O'Brien

    When you get time to ride among all the things required of you and your family lately, maybe training or preparing for a race is simply not the thing to do. Get on your most comfortable bike, put two bottles in the cages, and just ride for fun; whether you go fast or slow doesn’t matter. Skip the heart rate monitor, and just for kicks, take the computer off too. When one bottle is empty, turn around and go home. If it aint’ fun, it ain’t helping the stress.

  2. Michael

    I completely understand, Padraig. I can’t ride with others when I have times like you are having (my daughter has had a rough life for sixteen years). I need time for free-form mind healing, and that doesn’t work when I have to verbalize. Patrick’s suggestion is a good one. Hang in there – what you are experiencing is normal, for the circumstances. Let yourself feel it and it will pass more easily than if you fight it.

  3. Rich in Princeton

    I ride alone to have the conversations I sometimes really need. They start in a jumbled, stressed mess and so often end in peace, even when the underlying cause of stress remains. On and off the bike, I know you will find your peace.

    But, if you find you’re approaching crazy town, remember, we ALWAYS sprint for that town line.

  4. Hautacam

    +1 for lowering your riding expectations for the time being. Your body is telling you to put your energy elsewhere for the moment. Recuperation — yours and your wife’s and the Deuce’s. You’ve all been through a multi-week stage race from hell.

    FWIW my rides have all felt like that this month — spent before I’ve even started, often so tired I can barely walk up the stairs when I get home. But I’ve got no excuse and no explanation. Everything else is more or less the same as it ever was. Go figure.

  5. Janet D.

    Stressful, oh yes, but you are in a tunnel, not a cave. The light at the end is looking more and more likely. Imagine the sweet relief, and keep moving!

  6. Nick

    This is where the whole “to suffer is to learn” sadly falls hollow for me. It’s okay when applied to tough rides and moderately tough times, but for dealing with violent deaths, trauma, sick babies, etc., I just can’t pull strength from it. Maybe in many years time you’ll be able to find that all this horrendous pressure has somehow yielded a tiny diamond, but for now it’s just stress and pain and hell.

    Keep doing whatever it takes to find your moments of refuge, whether that’s a solo ride, writing, or taking a cue from your son and hiding in a closet for a while. Everything else will still be here when you get back.

  7. Peter Kelley

    I find myself stopping by frequently – checking how The Deuce is doing, checking how you are doing. My wife (a UMass grad) asks, ‘How is your friend’s baby doing?’ She knows we’ve never met.

    The majority of my rides are with a group, but I often crave the solitude of a solo ride. I find that I need a little of both. What you are feeling sounds like post traumatic stress. Your wife probably feels it too. Take care to make sure you both have the support you need to run the show once you get the Deuce home.

  8. jbRidesBikes

    Patrick,

    Sometimes, in times of crisis, what we can’t do for ourselves, others have to do for us.

    When I go hard this afternoon, you and the Deuce will be in my heart and mind. If you can’t punish your bike, then I will punish mine for you.

  9. Tom in albany

    What Peter Kelley said, above. Presuming the best outcome and Matthew comes home, you and your wife will be elated AND exhausted. And a newborn at home is not restful. Remember to ask for AND accept help. It’s perfectly fine to do so!

  10. Mike Dublin

    I’ll say it again – hang in there, just keep doing what you’re doing, and if that includes lonely, solitary rides then so be it.

    Sounds like it’s the best thing for Matthew, for your family and for yor stress levels..

  11. Diane

    While riding might be your “escape and salvation” at certain times, might I suggest that taking a quiet, meditative walk might soothe you even more. Or, a gentle and quiet yoga class.

    Sometimes, the mind just needs to be clear and free so that the anguish, stress, and pain can find its way out.

    You are so much more than just your “thinking” mind – don’t let your mind think you! BE who you are.

    I find that this is the most difficult thing my yoga students face when they first come to class – how to calm and clear their minds; yet, once they do, they are able to leave the studio refreshed and relaxed.

    As I say at the end of every class – have a happy, peaceful day! :-)

  12. MCH

    F**k the bike. Screw the training plan and the damn heart rate monitor. Pop a nice bottle of red this afternoon/evening. Watch the sunset. Enjoy family and friends. Free your mind – chill. Live in the moment – the future will still be there tomorrow. The bike may be a passion and the source of your livelihood, but your family is your soul. Sure, this is all a bunch of platitudes, but if the bike isn’t doing it for you, don’t force it.

  13. scaredskinnydog

    I can’t imagine anyone handling your situation better than you have. Having said that, its also o.k. to lose your shit once in awhile, you are just a man afterall. If the bike’s not getting it done for you try letting loose on a punching bag or ride to the top of an isolated climb and unhurl a priordial scream(my personel favorite stress reliever). It won’t make your problems go away but it may help you fight back those demons.

  14. Luis Oliveira

    You can say all you want, you’ve became a monster of sanity and perspective to me. Your son is getting better and should be on pod A and then home any time now. By then you’ll be able to appreciate this time for what it is / was. Don’t sell yourself short: YOU ARE A FREAKING HERO. So is you lady, your son Philip and, of course, The Deuce himself!

  15. Steve

    The words of Patrick O’Brien and Diane above both resonate with a deep wisdom… A bad day on the bike is just that and everyone who has ever thrown a leg over a bicycle has them. Seeking refuge is a healthy thing to do, but recognize that there are many places we may find that. I’ve found that I can’t ask too much of the bicycle – or any one place of refuge for that matter. Music (listening and playing), meditation, yoga, fly-fishing, and sometimes the simplest thing of all – just a walk – can serve to take the load of riding. Build a model, draw pictures or do a puzzle with Philip and your wife… Try to make a refuge with the others who may also need such a place.

    Your honesty with yourself is extraordinary, and that you choose to share that here – for all the world to see – demonstrates an inner strength that I can hardly fathom. By writing about them, you are acknowledging all these emotions and thoughts and this is how you can step back from them. Every time you read your column before it gets posted, you are able to see this process from a different vantage point. Then you send it off for all to see and, in some ways it is no longer just yours.

    I read these posts every morning and I see them as I would see a picture from a few days ago. It is the newest news I’ve got, but I also recognize that you’ve moved forward, progressed to another place that I’ll learn about tomorrow or the next day. Then when I read the next post, I smile as I see the change.

    The best advice I’ve been given in dealing with the challenges life presents is, “Be kind to yourself.”

  16. P Poppenjay

    Padraig, had I but one of these friends to support me I wold know God has blessed me.
    I can only say dittos to each of them.
    And yes, be kind to yourself and add a big dollop of patience to it.

  17. Linda

    Prayers and best thoughts are with you each day. Keep on doing what you need to do to care for yourself and your family. Nothing else matters.

  18. todd k

    I’ve not had a situation that is the same as yours, but have had an instance in which I was grappling with an issue that, though different, was as mentally consuming as the one you have encountered. I found that riding a bike was something I absolutely couldn’t do as it did nothing to ease my mind and my inability to focus on the task at hand was actually putting in more danger than necessary.

    I decided to go ahead and do a short track mountain bike race even though we had a family issue that was serious and was occupying large portions of my attention at the time. I was warming up and went down a slight downhill. For reasons I still don’t understand, I grabbed every bit of front brake possible at about 30 miles per hour. I have no idea why I grabbed that much brake. I just did. And I instantaneously catapulted myself face first into some particularly hard packed dirt. For reasons I don’t understand, I was able to walk away from it. I was extremely lucky given how fast I was going and how hard I hit the dirt. But I still chose to “push forward” and race thinking it would “clear my mind”, because, well, cycling generally does that for me and is the activity that best puts me “in the moment”. I felt I just needed to be patient and it would come around for me.

    I then proceeded to crash at high speed right out of the start. I got pretty scraped up and run over by a couple of tires, but was able to walk away from that. And I told myself to soldier on. I then crashed a couple more times during the race. (Definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.) At the end of a race or ride I usually feel some sense of accomplishment even if it is just simple completion of a nice hard physicial effort. But I didnt feel much of anything this time. Honestly, it was a waste of time and accomplished nothing but physically beating myself up in a not good way.

    All of this was basically me trying to force my head into one situation, when it was clearly dealing with a more significant and serious situation that required, as unfun as it was, necessary time for me to think through that situation. It was only after the race that I determined that given the circumstances and where my head was, I really had no business being on a bike and it was a rare situation in which riding a bike simply wasn’t the correct outlet for me. I had to take a break from riding the bike and find other activities that were a lot less demanding physically and could permit my body to go on autopilot so I could let my mind contemplate and grapple with the situation. Mostly walks did it for me. Also somewhat simple activities like sitting on a stool and meticulously cleaning a bike. Really, the activity itself wasn’t important providing it required little sense of physical effort or physical presence so I could freely allow my brain to go where it needed to go. I still thought about cycling when my brain permitted me to, I just couldnt physically do it for a few weeks while my brain figured things out.

  19. Tom Petrie

    Hi Patrick,

    Looks like there’s a light at the end of your tunnel.

    Reading you posts and vicariously sharing your travails has been an extraordinary experience. It’s generous of you to so publicly share this incredibly difficult and private part of your life. But I suppose it’s also cathartic, perhaps the only way to put perspective on these events.

    I feel confident the Deuce is on his way home. Your climbing and descending are for shit? Patrick…what did you expect? That this somehow wouldn’t have affected you? That the psychic toll of dealing with this episode could somehow be compartmentalized and dismissed?

    I recommend solitary rides for a while. They’ll help you reset. And, when he’s home you’ll start riding like Merckx, stage 17, 1969 Tour de France.

  20. Eric L.

    I think this has been a general theme in the comments but I will put it a bit differently. You cannot understand why your descending has suffered. It is simple. Pushing any vehicle (bike, car, boat, etc.) to it absolute physical limits takes total and complete concentration. You cannot put your total and complete concentration on descending at the moment because you care more about your family than your own personal desires.

    So what does it mean that you are struggling on the bike? It means you are a good father and husband. Might not feel all that satisfying now but is a quality that so many do not share. Do what is important now and worry about better descending later.

  21. Adam

    My best riding budy is dealing with his mum going through cancer and it’s bad. It is a topic not discussed on the bike. Instead we continue with infantile jokes, and debating Sagan versus Cancellara. My wife doesn’t get it and asks how I can’t talk about this over, but he doesn’t get on a bike for that.
    But maybe your group thinks they’re being kind by asking.

  22. Full Monte

    Last March, I went for a ride with my good friend and riding buddy, Chris. Two days earlier, he learned his wife’s cancer had returned. Again. The fourth time in seven years. I could see the strain in his face, but he wanted to ride. The bike has always been a refuge for him, a place to think things out, to get to the essence of something.

    So we set off into the cold, sharp wind, gray clouds scudding low. An icy sprinkle here and there. Just a miserable day to ride. Half way through our 40 mile route, Chris was done. Gassed. Barely able to turn the pedals over. Here’s a guy that was once a nationally ranked distance runner, eventually turning pro for awhile — a guy that’s never lost his fitness, ever. A rider that’s pulled me along so many times I can’t count. And he was wiped out. “Just go,” he said. But I didn’t. I pulled him slowly into a headwind and we got home. If I could have carried him, I would have.

    Stress. It will override every bit of your strength and senses. It will make the strong weak, the wise stupid.

    It too, shall pass. You will be yourself again. Be patient. Give yourself time. Rest. Treat yourself with kindness, tenderness. You’re injured, as surely as when you crashed last summer. So go easy. If you ride, ride like a kid. Ramble, explore, pedal in circles, ride a wheelie. Fitness is ego. Speed is meaningless. Power is an illusion. Strive for peace for now.

  23. MCH

    As a follow up to my F the bike comment, I’d observe that if cyclists have anything in common, particularly those with competeitive backgrounds, it’s stong OCD tendencies. These compulsions serve us well when climbing the last 10,000 ft peak of a 120 mile ride, or grinding out the 9th interval even though your head feels like it’s going to split and you’re about to puke, or when starting a 3 hour ride when it’s 30* out with a chance of rain or snow. On the other hand, when your body and CNS are telling you to stay home and hang on the couch, it’s probably a good time to ignore your brain even though it’s shouting to stick to the training plan. This may be a good time to ignore your brain and listen to your body.
    As always, warm wishes


    1. Author
      Padraig

      Thanks everyone. The encouraging words always help. This Sierra Nevada Torpedo doesn’t hurt either.

      Full Monte: That was lovely. Could have been a post on RKP in its own right.

  24. Patrick O'Brien

    Try a Firestone Velvet Merlin Oatmeal Stout tomorrow. That stuff could turn a Mad Dog into a cuddly pup. Tomorrow will be a ride up to the Brown Canyon Ranch house in the Coronado National Forest. Wish I could take you with. That place smoothes my rough edges every time.

  25. Pingback: More bicyclists than voters in L.A., and it’s déjà vu all over again as 3-foot law makes a comeback | BikingInLA

  26. Thomas Fleishman

    To heal from getting dropped into a hole like you have the most beneficial thing I have found that helps is to step back and count your blessings. I work with people that have real disabilities, every day they struggle. Their strength and inspiration has allowed me to endure and rebuild my life after cancer and open heart surgery, and yes I ride with the front group here in Grand Junction. As time passes you will see this time you have endured as a strength you can draw from. I get dropped by the young punks, but I never make it easy for them. Step back, look at El photo grande. We are all so much luckier than we know. Peace, Viva Velo, Thomas Fleishman , Grand Junction, Colorado

  27. Zach

    I felt the same way when my wife was in cancer treatment. I understood people were being nice, but I got really tired of talking about how shitty it was and then letting other people practice their ability to be compassionate with me–some of whom were good at it, some of whom said really stupid things. Anyway, I feel for you, and I pray that you get all the spaces for sobbing and laughter that you need in the coming days and weeks. Prayers are with you.

  28. Full Monte

    My friend Chris’ wife died last week. Almost a year to the day they learned her cancer had returned. He, with his adult children, held her hands as she passed away. If I could carry them all now, I would. I don’t know what our rides will bring this season. Tears and sweat, mostly. A four-month long recovery ride. Eight years of stress, lactic acid in his heart, to work off.

    He soldiers on, leading again. This time by example, showing me the grace and acceptance of grief.

    http://werunandride.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/the-fine-line-between-livestrong-and-being-strong/

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