You know what this is like, because you’ve been there, too. For me, the most crystalline memory is of Rasputitsa 2018, about two thirds of the way through. I had just rolled into the bottom section of another long, sandy climb. My back hurt. My quads were toast. Every pedal stroke cost me. And then my mind came to a still place, the high frequency buzz of pain receded, and I thought, “This is it. I’m going to hurt, but I’m going to keep going. I can only sit in this pain, until I’m done. That’s all.” And I rode out to the finish, and it was grueling, but I felt calm about it.
That’s the turned-to-11 experience I’ve had a thousand times on too-fast group rides and at other events, the root level feeling you won’t make it, that all prudence pleads with you just to stop.
In the last nine months, my father has died, my brother has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died, and my mother has discovered that she has breast cancer and gone through treatment for that. I’ve had a ringside seat for it all, the shock of diagnosis, the endless doctors’ waiting rooms, hospital stays, the winddown to the end, the family all together and laughing/crying, always running out for food to fuel the vigil, the harrowing end itself, and then the quotidian paperwork, personal tragedy reduced to forms and legalese. I hoped my brother would last longer than he did, if only because I didn’t feel up to another round, so soon after losing my dad. In the background, trying to keep my mom eating and safe and sane during her own chemotherapy.
Friday Group Ride #488 asked about suffering, how what we do on the bike relates to “real life” and maybe what you find at the bottom of that well once you get there. At the time my brother was still alive, and I was wrestling with how to pull my life experience into the present to make things easier than they were, easier than they have been for a long time now.
Maybe my favorite RKP post of all time is There Will be Chaos. It’s the one I go back to most often and the lesson I most often call on. There will be chaos. Keep pedaling. This is it, at the bottom of a sandy climb in mud season in Vermont or on the couch next to my brother’s hospital bed, recognizing that he’s no longer responsive, the air heavy with what’s coming and the light barely sneaking in through the slanted blinds. You have to keep going. It will get easier, or it will get harder, but you have to keep going. The only direction is forward.
I’ve ridden Rasputitsa twice. If you are unfamiliar with the race, and its charms, I would summarize it this way: It’s a circumnavigation of the mountain that hosts the Burke ski area, held in the inchoate days of northern Vermont Spring. It’s stupid. It’s unpleasant. It’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. The organizers compound the difficulty with hike-a-bike sections through still frozen trails and end-of-race forays up the steep bits of the ski hill. It’s genuinely a celebration of the ludicrous endeavor of cycling. And both times I’ve done it, I’ve spent much of my pedaling time asking myself over and over, “WHY AM I DOING THIS?!?!”
It’s just training. I mean this in two ways.
First, in order not to fail miserably, you have to get on your bike in the winter. This is just to be in reasonable enough shape to climb all the climbs and grind through all the mud. Rasputitsa is a classic race-to-train set up. I’ve done dozens of steep hill repeats on a freezing Saturday in January just to be ready for Rasputitsa in April.
Second, and this brings us back to FGR488 re: suffering, what I find at the bottom of that well of suffering is not just the will to go on, but actually the inescapable truth that it is the ONLY thing to do, and further that beyond the suffering there is always something else. I thought about this a lot while my brother lay there in his hospital bed with my mother, her hair all fallen out and her skin the color of cold ash, gazing sadly at him. There is more beyond this, and it won’t all be bad.
We’ll open the blinds. The sun will shine.
After we suffer. Eventually. We’ll roll across the finish line to a group of smiling fellow travelers. Someone will hand us something to drink. We’ll sit. We’ll eat. We”ll find a shower. And life will go on.