For when the mountain wins

Photo by jk_scotland via Flickr creative commons license
Once I had a goal. Not an earthshaking goal, a world changing goal, or a unique goal. Just a small goal. A friend and I were planning to ride in a century. If you aren't familiar with biking lingo (and until we planned this, I wasn't) that's a 100 mile bike ride. I was a very sporadic rider; in general most of my rides were under ten miles. I had a twelve mile route that I rode when feeling especially motivated and willing to try to out ride the mean dog on Gravels Road (which I assume was named after a person and not by someone floundering for the plural of 'gravel'). A month or two before the ride I decided to take my bike up into the mountains and ride from one entry point on Skyline Drive to a location roughly fifteen miles along the Drive and back. This would be my main preparation ride.

I'd like to point out right now that this was pre-Internet days. Or at least, before it became readily available and widely accessed. So perhaps one can excuse my complete lack of knowledge about how to train for an endurance event. I'm fairly certain that if I had actually gotten around to attempting the century I would have lived with regret for weeks after.

On a lovely September day I strapped my hand-me-down bicycle to the back of my little Dodge Omni, filled my water bottle (singular, first mistake), tossed a few snacks and some tire repair patches into my little bike pack, hopped into the car and drove up into the mountains. The weather was perfect, a Goldilocks day of 'just right'.

When you're riding in a car on Skyline Drive, it seems that the road is fairly flat. Sure, you have to drive up a mountain to get there, but the drive itself winds along the ridge lines of the Blue Ridge Mountains. How steep can that really be? As it turns out, it's not so much the steepness, but the fact that a climb can go on forever. And by forever I mean probably only really a mile or less, but it feels like forever when you are on it and the only way you're getting off is to ride the whole thing. As it also turns out, most of the ascending is done on the return trip. It's easy to ignore the long slow inclines when you're headed down them. Or to think that you, who have never biked more than twelve miles at one shot can double that with no problem.

I hit my turn-around point with immense gratitude, and also with a feeling of impending doom. My body was not happy with me. It was beginning to dawn on me that I now had to ride the whole way back. Every mile, in reverse. After a short rest break and refilling of my water bottle I headed off.

I'm not sure at exactly what point I hit The Incline, but it utterly defeated me. If I had had the option to lay down and quit, I would have. I am not sure that it would be possible to pedal a bicycle any more slowly without simply falling over into a heap on the side of the road. I am fairly certain that I actually got off and walked the bike a few times when I thought I couldn't turn another pedal stroke. And as I was chugging along up the incline that never ended, another cyclist flew past me. He rode that incline like it was nothing; like it was fun! And I'm sure that he meant nothing but the best when he called out as he rode past "You're doing great! Keep going!" but I maybe hated him just a little bit for the ease with which he passed me. The jerk could have at least pretended it was hard.

Since I am not lying along Skyline Drive in a tangled pile of bicycle and bones, it is obvious that I DID make it off the mountain. The incline ended at some point. I made it back to my car in one piece. I drank a lot of water when I got home. And I cancelled my plans to ride in the century, citing the lame excuse of "I just started taking Trigonometry this fall and the homework is taking up all my training time." Which was sort of true because Trigonometry was its own damn mountain, but it was also sort of an excuse. The truth is, the mountain won. It was hard, and I decided that I was not up to the task.

So why am I thinking about this nearly twenty years later? Because this morning in cycling class (which is as close to a bike as I get these days) I managed to bump the level of my hills up just a little bit higher, and hold onto them without dying just a little bit longer. I know that indoor cycling isn't half the same as riding outdoors against the wind and up hills that can't be erased with the flip of a lever, but biking up that imaginary hill this morning I couldn't help but think about the time the mountain won and wonder if it would feel differently today. (And then I was so busy thinking profound thoughts and writing things in my mind that I totally missed when the rest of the class sat back down in the saddle for almost forty seconds, which was kind of embarrassing but also why I pick a bike near the back of the room.)

Sometimes mountains win. Sometimes we drag ourselves off of them with tired bodies and aching legs. We've seen the people breezing past us and we've decided that we just aren't cut out for this. We were never meant to be (fill in the blank) because surely if we were it wouldn't still be so hard. We give up, put away the plans and the dreams and settle in to our practical lives.

And then, one day, the dream slips back in. Oh, I'm not going to ride a century any time soon (no bike, no gear, no money, no real desire), but I get a sense of satisfaction when I hit a new gear in class. It's my way of saying to the mountain, "I'm coming for you. I'm building what it takes to beat you."

So pick up that paintbrush, sit down at that computer, look up those college courses, sign up for that race. The mountains that won in the past don't have to remain insurmountable.

It will take dedication.

It will take practice.

It will take determination.

It will take a choice.

Go conquer your mountain.


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