Friday Group Ride #488

Friday Group Ride #488

George has cancer. He smoked too much, and many of his other habits weren’t conducive to good health. The doctor’s don’t say, “You have cancer because you smoked too much,” because on some level they’re scientists, and they won’t draw clear lines where they don’t have proof. They nod somberly and give vague prognoses. They give percentages of success and focus on next steps.

George has suffered. The first course of chemotherapy was brutal, and in some ways exacerbated the discomforts the cancer was already causing. He was perpetually nauseous, exhausted. He lost 35 pounds. His head pounded. His guts hurt to double him over. Day-after-day the treatment unfolded, and he did his best to go on.

Let the metaphor (at least for you and me) develop.

The thing is, the first round of chemo didn’t work. The cancer grew, and the side-effects of its precarious abdominal placement grew worse. In the end, he needed surgery, not to remove the cancer, but to clear intestinal blockages. He didn’t eat for a week, except from a glucose bag. Every time he cleared a hurdle to move forward a higher hurdle appeared. Day-by-day. Week-on-week.

He felt overwhelmed. He told me, “I just don’t know how to react.” Few of us catch a glimpse of our mortality until we’re older, at a point when the shear number of candles on our birthday cakes suggests some contemplation of the end merits our time.

How do you act when you think you’re probably dying?

There is suffering, and there is suffering. What we do on the bike can hurt, physically, mentally, even emotionally. We’re pulling some sort of trick on ourselves, burning the present for some future gain. We keep faith with the treatment, so we can live more and better, but it’s hard for any of us to say, in the moment, that we’ll be better in the future. We can’t draw clear lines where we don’t have proof. Still, we put our noses into the wind, our hearts into the red, and we wait for the lessons to come washing over us.

George doesn’t like to complain. He has an irrepressible, irreverent humor that means we discuss the finer points of FlexSeal commercials at least as much a. we talk about his treatment. It would be cute to say that he’ll be alright, but of course, we don’t know that. We probably even doubt it.

I guess I think that makes the suffering I do on the bike even more urgent. I don’t really know it will pay off. I don’t really know if it will be ok. Oh, I’m pretty sure I’ll manage to keep myself going, that every pedal stroke is worth it in some way, either physical or metaphysical, but I don’t know what the net profit looks like. Will it make my family’s lives better? Will it save the Earth? How much can we ask of our sacrifices? And when do they cease to be sacrifices and look more like indulgences?

I’m sorry to get so heavy on  you this week, but life is like this sometimes, isn’t it?

This week’s Group Ride asks, why do you suffer? What do you see at the bottom of the well? How has it shaped you, and what has it prepared you for?

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9 comments

  1. Lyford

    Dunno. I guess with suffering on a bike, it’s just physics. It’s not personal. And you can make it stop anytime you want to, so you have control. Other suffering in life is not like that.

    On a hard climb you get a sense of accomplishment, a tangible accomplishment(I lifted x mass y meters!) and often a view at the top. Other forms of suffering have no reward, only faint hope that it’ll eventually ease.

    Hard rides have taught me that I’ve often got more reserves than I think. And in a strange way, kindness: if I don’t ask my legs for more than they can do, they will repay me by doing all they can.

  2. Shawn

    I’ve been thinking about mortality a lot lately, too. To your points though, I see cycling as a selfish, pleasure-maximizing activity, regardless how much it hurts in the moment. It’s what cyclists like to do. On our deathbeds, are we going to anguish about having spent too much time in the saddle like we might anguish about spending too much time at a job that we didn’t enjoy? Probably not. To the contrary, we’ll likely wish that we had spent less time behind that desk and more time on our San Marcos and maybe wish we hadn’t put off that mountain biking trip to Madeira until it was too late to make it. On the other hand, will we regret that we took that rad trip to Madeira instead of a decadent trip to Hawaii for the 25th anniversary? Missed out on being present for the birth of a grandchild because we did that stupid grand fondo? (Oh, but Levi was there. Levi!) Pissed away a shot at medical school because you thought you’d be faster than Lance if you had enough training time?

    I suppose the answers to these questions depend on the persons we are when we are on our deathbeds. If I were facing death when racing is very important to me, I’d have no regrets about cheating other parts of my life to spend time on the bike. On the other hand, if I am facing death in my 85th year on the planet (assuming full mental faculties), the only cycling I _don’t_ regret is riding with the people who are special to me.

    In the end though, cycling is just something you did when you could have been doing something else. You did it instead of that other thing because at that moment that’s what you wanted to do. And i you’re not at peace with that then you’ll never be at peace.

  3. Harry

    I like what Shawn said.

    Friday Group Ride is my favorite thing on RKP and this is my favorite one. The suffering of loved ones is far more apparent as the years tick by and very hard to get used to.

    1. Parker

      FGR is my favorite thing on RKP, too. Both the questions and the responses often make me think in new and helpful ways.

      I learned about the obvious suffering of a loved one when my wife endured debilitating headaches and fatigue while recovering from Stage 2 cancer 2013. So, like Robot, I hope my suffering on the bike will continue to pay off with good health.

      But that’s not my main reason for doing it. Which is, instead, the satisfaction provided by, in various ways, more than less maintaining the strength/stamina discovered in the Marines late-’60s. It was beyond anything I’d previously dreamed possible. And so welcome that maintaining it was and has been reasonably easy. Not that my basic motor strikes fear among those with whom I sometimes ride.

      “Pleasure” and its cognates are not easily defined, but none seem especially apt regarding my own sense of suffering on the bike. Brought home not long ago while riding at two-thirds normally perceived effort over a shorter than normal distance at the end of a week’s worth of a head cold. “Wonderful” seemed so apt that I emailed a friend I’d be doing more such rides if I were smart. I still intend this, but haven’t yet done so. Because the satisfaction from physical fitness is typically more attractive than the wonderful sense of floating thru nature that’s associated with soft-pedaling for me. Both, however, are pretty good reasons for not doing something else.

  4. Michael

    Yes, I agree with the others. There is no real comparison between what we do on a bike and the kind of suffering one has in chemo or sickle-cell anemia. Suffering means you CAN’T make it stop, that you are powerless. On our bikes, we hurt, we experience pain, but suffering goes on and you don’t know how long. In a way, one can choose to stop chemo, so it is not suffering per se, but then you are choosing a perhaps worse option. In my opinion, though, that makes a significant distinction between awful therapies to potentially curable diseases and awful diseases with no cure.

    But, getting beyond the semantics, I think Lyford has some good thoughts. We learn what we are capable of, and how far we can trust our bodies to perform. I will be taking my disabled daughter backpacking in a couple of months and it is good to know how much I can carry and for how long, as I want it to be fun for her. Cycling has given me that body knowledge.

  5. TomInAlbany

    What we call suffering on the bike is really just a test of how far we can push ourselves. How much we can ignore the self-inflicted discomfort and ‘soldier on.’ It IS all about semantics and we know it.

    Most, if not all, of us have actually seen true suffering and we don’t believe what we do on the bike is the same thing. It’s the lack of control involved in true suffering that gives pause. Few, if any, choose that.

    I guess I’d reference Mike Doughty. I’d say that bike suffering is looking down into the well. Whereas true suffering is ‘like looking at the world from the bottom of the well.”

    I pushed harder when I was younger because I could and because I wanted to know. I save those extreme efforts now, for other areas of my life because I want to know…

    Sorry if this was gibberish. It’s what I came up with. I wish your friend and you and all around you well in a difficult time and hope for the best possible outcome.

    1. Robot

      Tom, I liked this:
      I guess I’d reference Mike Doughty. I’d say that bike suffering is looking down into the well. Whereas true suffering is ‘like looking at the world from the bottom of the well.”

      I think the suffering we do/choose is practice for when things go pear-shaped IRL, a sort of dress rehearsal for samsara.

      Also, thanks to everyone for reading FGR. I wish I had more to give than a few meager paragraphs every week, but I love being part of this RKP community.

  6. Richard Freeman

    Voluntary pain is not suffering.

    I’m more worried that so many riders assume that voluntary pain is necessary to cycling. Cycling should be fun, and fun shouldn’t cause pain. There are words used for people who confuse pleasure and pain and they’re not nice words. Without doing the full Rivendell, there are many perfectly good ways to ride a bike without making yourself hurt.

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