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.