Sunday, January 1, 2017

Festive 500

This isn’t a story of epic proportions. It isn’t about how many miles biked, how many extreme weather conditions endured or how many miles climbed. It is about an average person riding an average bike and trying to make sense about what drives her to keep pedaling. There are certainly many reasons to stop. The disappointed tone in her mother’s voice when she tells her, “yes, mom, I’m going to be bringing my bike home again for Christmas” and her mother replies, “oh honey, you’re not going to do that silly biking challenge again, are you?” The alarm going off at 6am every morning during a rare week off from work at the hospital and dragging a tired body out from underneath the warm blankets. The constant worry that every dark patch on the road is black ice that will send her back wheel flying and her face into the unforgiving asphalt. The unspoken pressure applied by parents and family to be around to eat meals and play games together and not to be off cycling alone.

But the trouble is, there is meaning to what she does, to what draws her to the bike and solitary winter Connecticut roads. The rhythmic churning of legs, lungs and beating heart together. The feeling of the frosty wind across her face. There is a solace in the solo hours alone at dawn. The world is awakening for a new day and awakening a new sense of purpose in her soul. There comes with long hours alone an acceptance. An acceptance of the head wind that blows her backwards, an acceptance of the pain that comes with pushing up hills, an acceptance of the slow deliberate process of moving forward and checking off the miles. It’s a daily meditation. A resetting of stress and energy. It’s the one part of the day she has to let go of learning how to be a doctor and instead to think only about the road ahead.

Her dad is sitting in the living room watching a PBS special on Shackleton. They are recounting the story of how he and his crew became stranded on Elephant Island near the South Pole after their ship was crushed by ice and then had to make a daring open ocean crossing in a small sailboat to South Georgia to get rescued. Those were the days of true explorers, enduring the harshest of conditions, having the chance to stare death in the face and live to tell the tale. There is such a lack of adventure in the mundane life of constant work and studying. What does it mean to be alive when you spend your days enclosed within sterile walls, feeling the weight of the stethoscope around your neck like a yoke, driving home in a car, falling asleep in a heated house and repeating it again and again and again? She craves to break free from the monotonous routine. She craves to experience in any small way the same journey that those early explorers sought. To push herself beyond what she thought her body was capable of, to feel the icy wind against her face and do battle against it, to ride and discover new backcountry roads, to find herself completely broken mentally and physically, down to the raw essentials of being, and then learn how to build herself back up.

The bike is what makes her feel like she exists in the world; a living, breathing part of it. There is wildness in the descents, a sense of child-like playfulness in the trails, incredible views to take in from the top of hills, the feeling of flying along flat straightaways. Heart pumping, lungs sucking in air, arms pulling, muscles searing in pain. A sense of feeling strong, powerful, in complete control of body and machine. Numb fingers and toes, wind burned cheeks, drenched in sweat and rain. How many people get to experience that in their lifetime?

The thing her parents don’t understand is that she is not riding to escape. She is riding to be more present. There is more gratitude and gratefulness after suffering and pain. Sharing a warm cup of coffee on a couch with cousins is the best thing on earth after being alone for hours on the bike. A home cooked meal tastes ten times more delicious after a 40 mile ride in below freezing temperatures, and yes, she would love seconds. Going for walk in the woods and watching the dogs run through the snow seems like such a peaceful way to enjoy a windy afternoon.

And so, she rides on through the wintery scenery, a lonely bike against snow covered pines. There is nothing extraordinary about it, but there is a deeper meaning in what she does. She puts herself out there day after day to experience the world, to meditate, to test herself, to find the adventure in the routine, to satisfy a deep yearning to live and most of all to understand what it feels like to truly be alive. 

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