Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.—Eckhart Tolle
It is human to want. Beyond Maslow’s big needs, we want plenty. For the kids to be quiet, for the bills to be smaller, for the new bike, for the tire not to flat, at least not right now. We’re told, of course, that the trick to life is to be at peace with your circumstance.
My circumstance and I are, frequently, two routes to a single destination in rush hour traffic. Some of the course is the same, but there are often surprising detours. I don’t get it right as much as I’d like. And like rush hour traffic, that desire to be someplace other than where you are, whether mentally of physically, is the root of the trouble.
When I lined up with another 79 or so hearty souls on a recent Saturday morning in Occidental, Calif., for the Chileno Valley Grasshopper, I did so knowing that my day was going to include 80 miles of “B” roads, roughly 8000 feet of climbing, rain in mythic, Noah-conjuring amounts, and wind that would make sailors swoon. There was no point in hoping for a better outcome. Clipping in suggested a certain sanguine outlook on the next five or six hours of your life.
A friend suggested, as with all water sports, the buddy system might be a good idea. A long day would tax much, and knowing you had backup would be a comfort, one of the few available. But when my buddy got his second flat of the day even before we’d were 20 miles in, I began to wonder just what sort of day was in store for us. He had been climbing away from me and would easily have dropped me (as did the rest of the pack), but I pulled over because that’s what you do.
I took stock of our situation as he checked for debris: four CO2s, a patch kit and one less tube than I thought. Not really the ideal complement when you’re 65 miles from the finish. I really wondered if we would finish the day.
Near Valley Ford we made a right turn and the crosswind that was driving rain parallel to the horizon became one of the most surreal headwinds of my life. I shifted out of the big ring and downshifted multiple cogs in the rear. The pressure of the wind was so great that I wiped off the face on my GPS, just so I could register how slow I was going on flat ground—5.1 mph.
I laughed, then shook my head.
Despite our progress around the course, and the occasional rain-free spells, time didn’t seem to pass. We moved. I ate. We turned. The gray of the sky didn’t change.
While I’d done what I could to prepare for the day—thermal bibs, medium embro, long sleeve base layer and Castelli Gabba jersey plus veloToze over my shoes—I was unable to congratulate myself for perfect apparel selection. That I was comfortable and serene in the face of such awful conditions seemed to owe to something greater than a good set of booties.
There came a point when my partner began to falter. Where before he’d been riding away from me on the hills, I found myself rolling away from him on the flats, and the hills. I couldn’t make sense of it. He’d been fueling and in our other rides together I’d had to dig deep to match his efforts. That I was gapping him with so little effort was a mystery, as much for my ability as it was for his trouble. But when I commit to something, or someone, I stick with it. I wasn’t going to dump him and ride away.
Not long before the southern end of our course he suggested I ride ahead to the sag stop and he’d ride easy there, get some calories and maybe that could get him back on track. I accepted, reluctantly, largely because I needed to generate more heat. Now I see that it was a test; he was seeing what I had in the tank and the way I rode away was probably the confirmation he needed that we should split up. My personal ethos is that the slower rider can send the faster rider away. I’ve been that guy, the one fearing he was the anchor to another person or a group. Rather than struggle for miles at a pace I can’t sustain, I prefer to back off and ride on impulse power and let the warp drive charge for another day.
The sag would have been a lovely location any other day. Positioned at the top of a hill with grassy fields spreading in every direction, there was nothing to stop the wind blowing the rain sideways save the impotent barbed wire fence. Conditions were so bad that I misread the printing on a can of Guayaki Yerba Mate Tea, and mistook the mint for the tangerine lime. That was a flavor surprise. Minutes later my partner rolled in and told me to hit it. We embraced and then I clipped in. The fact that the rain was blowing parallel to the road surface may have made it easier to separate; it felt a bit like every man for himself.
Over the final 30 miles I didn’t so much leapfrog groups as I did just ride past. It didn’t seem like I should have had the kind of strength to do that. With every pass I grew increasingly incredulous, that is until I caught a very strong duo and simply catching them had required a sustained red zone effort.
Those final miles were a mystery. I was comfortable on the bike and in the conditions. Standing water at one of the turns caused me to mistake some orange paint I think I saw for one of our arrows; I screwed up the next to last turn. As a result, while I recorded the same mileage and almost the same amount of climbing, I didn’t cross the finish line and was not an official finisher. Honestly, I don’t care. Never had I done a race of such length in such hard conditions. On days that were shorter and included conditions that were comparable, I suffered terribly. Crossing the finish line wouldn’t have changed the day’s biggest lesson.
But what was that lesson? I’m still not sure. What transpired doesn’t feel like flow. It doesn’t dovetail or replicate any other experience I’ve had. It’s a true one-off. I learned that it’s possible to square my mind with the conditions at hand so thoroughly that I accepted them without reserve. But that’s not the lesson. The lesson would be to understand how to restore that mindset on demand, but for now, I’ll have to satisfy myself with simply knowing that mental space exists somewhere within my brain and now that I know it’s there, maybe I can find my way back.
Images: Jeremiah Moulton Kahmoson