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My Wall of Worry

OK, so about a year ago, I decided to get into cycling. I was in NY/NJ visiting a friend, and he showed me the bike he had purchased that was meant to be “for bigger guys.”  I was hooked, but just didn’t know it yet.

Upon returning home, I started looking for the same bike.  After all, I -am- was 6’3’’ and 245 lbs, as opposed to the average cyclist at 5’7’’ and a buck-thirty.  I found my bike, paid too much, and we are off!

Initially, I thought to myself, “I am not going to be one of those guys that wears the tights and the cycling jersey,” so initially I rode in mesh shorts and a t-shirt.

Then, someone showed me the padding the cycling shorts offered.  Armed with this knowledge, I was faced with a choice between continuing to ride my bike while being castrated or buy the dang shorts and deal with the heckling. Then came the jersey, the shoes, the GPS unit, etc….I am now a full blown cyclist – you know, the person you honk your horn at while screaming “get off my road LANCE!” Yep, that is me.

I started off small.  10 miles here, 20 miles there.  I knew there was a religious following behind this sport, but the idea of peddling a 240 pound butt up a mountain seemed comical to me.

After about 6 months, I got introduced to some guys that knew what they were doing.  They rode hard, and long….and, as I said before, these guys were small.  5’7’’ – 5’9’’ and 150-175 lbs…..basically, they weighed what one of my legs weighed.  Either way, it was nice for them to allow such a Sasquatch into their inner circle.

For the winter months, I met these guys at 5 am in their garage to endure torture – riding in place on an evil device called a “trainer.”  I was told that this act would prepare me for “the season.”  I’m sorry….what season?  When did I become a professional athlete?  THE SEASON is the set of organized rides that this group rides together every year.

I agreed to ride in an organized ride.  I know, I am an idiot, but when I tackle something, I go ALL IN.

Assault On The Carolinas is the name of the race.  It is a 66 mile ride that includes 2 “climbs” – cycling nomenclature for a ride up a mountain.  Yep, 2 of those in my first race.  Like I said, I AM an idiot.

Little did I know that this race would teach me things I haven’t fully grasped in my 37 years on this planet.  Keep reading if you are wondering what those things are.  These are the lessons I learned:

SET GOALS.  My objectives were simple. (1) Finish the race. (2) Don’t crash. (3) Never give up. (4) Don’t get in the SAG wagon. These would come into play later on…..

DON’T BE INTIMIDATED. This race was long, and hard, and all of the other riders were half my size.  Forget that, I was going to finish.  Upon check-in, the lady asked me "are you riding the 40k (about 25 miles) or the 100k (66 miles) and I simply said

“the manly route.”

I refuse to be intimidated. Just to make sure I wouldn’t give myself the out of the shorter route, I told my buddies what I had said. Now, it was ON. I have no choice but to finish. I’ve always performed well when under pressure, so I had to create some for myself.

FORGET PAST STRUGGLES.  The first climb was short (1 mile or so), but steep!  The grade maxes out at 17%.  Stand back 100 feet from your house and look up to the top of the 2nd story….that is a 17% grade.  OUCH.  I made it 2/3 of the way up before having to walk beside my bike to the top because of a heart rate spike.  I was discouraged.  If I couldn’t make it up a 1-miler, how would I handle a 7-miler?  I knew I was in trouble, but I don’t take no for answer. I had to forget this and move on.  If I was going to have any chance of climbing the monster, I had to forget this.

PERSEVERE.  Once I had ridden 44 miles, I was tired.  However, we were just approaching “Caesar’s Head Mountain” –  a nasty 7 mile climb.  I knew I would NOT make it up and down that mountain alone, so I had to find something to distract me.  I found a mid-50’s dude to follow – if he could make it, so could I.  Also, I remembered my advice to my 7 year old daughter, Ava, the week before.  It haunted me.

“Just pick a cadence with your legs that you can maintain and keep peddling.”

I literally started to hallucinate – I could see her riding beside me…with her pink bike and her blonde hair spilling out around her helmet.  As long as she wouldn’t quit, nor would I. One pedal stroke after another, I stayed on this guy’s wheel. He was not going to leave me. Never quit.

FORGET OTHERS.  People were speeding by us.  I was averaging about 5 mph at the time (a normal average on a flat road for me is around 15-18 mph), and both men and women were passing me easily….but I kept on.  "Ignore them, control your breathing" was my thought, and my HR was between 157-167 the entire way up.  Also, after about 4 miles, I saw the guy who had passed me…he was standing beside his bike puking his guts out.  And the lady?  She was lying on her back on the side of the road talking to herself.  Glad I ignored them. Forget what other people do…only focus on what YOU are supposed to do.

EMBRACE SETBACKS.  When I was about 50 yards from the top of the mountain, my legs cramped.  I don’t mean that they became sore and difficult to use….I mean that they literally froze in place.  I waddled into the rest stop at the top of Caesar’s Head with my legs perfectly straight – you know, the walk you do when you REALLY have to use the restroom (not #1)…yep, that’s the one.  Except I was in pain, and it had nothing to do with finding a restroom.  I felt as though my race was over.  There was still 16 miles to go, and the “SAG Wagon” was looking like a feasible option.  For those that don’t know, the SAG Wagon is the SUV that drives around and picks up riders that cannot finish the race. Some of these people are hurt, but most are folks that just “tap out” – they are too tired to finish.  Was I going to get into the SAG Wagon? At this moment, I didn’t know. I walked the last 50 yards to the top of the mountain without bending my legs.  Try to walk across your living room straight-legged….it isn’t easy.  This was going to be a make or break moment for me, and I knew it.  I could either overcome this obstacle, or give up.

REMEMBER YOUR MOTIVATION.  As I sat alone on that bench at the top of Caesar’s Head, I had things running through my head.

“At least I made it this far.”
“Nobody would blame me for quitting.”
“It is my first time.”
“I am too big to ride a ride like this.”
“What was I thinking.”  

I had almost talked myself into calling the SAG Wagon when two thoughts hit me.

ONE. What did my wife…my precious, beautiful wife, go through as she gave birth?  Did she quit?  Did she give up? TWO Cole….my only son, my pride and joy….what did he do when faced with a battle of life and death?  He was literally gasping for air while 15 people were trying to save his life, but he never tapped out.

If they didn’t quit, I wouldn’t either. I was NOT going home in any SUV.  I was either going to finish, or be airlifted off of that mountain trying……there was no other choice.  At that point, I made a commitment to myself, and my mind was made up.

ASK FOR HELP.  My friend, “The Beard,” had already finished the race.  I knew he would know what to do since he is an experienced cyclist, so I texted him.  While sitting on that bench with my legs locked stiff, I read “This is gonna hurt, but you have to do it. Get back on the bike and start peddling.  Your legs will loosen up.  Then, ride at 50% power the rest of the way.  It is all downhill from here.”  Wow. I couldn’t even think about standing up, nevermind walking or riding a bike.  This was going to H.U.R.T.  but I trusted that he knew what he was talking about.  This was the same guy who I had ridden with  for all of those months when it was 20 degrees outside.  The same guy who had taught me so much about this sport. I knew he was right, but just didn’t want to move.

PAIN IS FEAR LEAVING THE BODY.  The best way I can describe the pain is to imagine if someone took a machete, laid it on an open flame, and then slowly inserted it into your hamstring.  That is what my legs felt like when I climbed back on my bike (after crawling to the bike in the first place).  However, I made it on, and clipped in – shoes attaching to the pedals is known as “clipping in.”  I was either going to die on this mountain, or make it home. There was no in-between.

ENJOY THE RIDE. I was quickly descending the mountain at 40 mph.  40 miles per hour on a bike creates an endorphin rush.  Add in some severe curves with oncoming traffic and it becomes the same thing as sky-diving.  You might make it…you might not, but either way, it is fun!  All of those days  riding by myself, sweating by myself…I never knew it could be THIS MUCH FUN! Ya-HOOOOOOOO!!

REALIZE YOUR PLACE.  About half way down the mountain, the pain lessened. I began to sing Gospel music.  I was both thankful and hopeful that the pain was gone, for good.  Nevertheless, it returned.  I kept singing.  Giving thanks to my maker.  Believe what you wish, but I was speaking directly to my Lord with hot tears streaming down my face.  At that moment, I knew I would finish.  Also, I knew my place on this Earth.  For some reason, I appreciated my wife more.  I appreciated my children more.  I was thankful that I had a job I love to do…I even looked up at the trees and enjoyed the beauty.  It was euphoric.

RETURN THANKS.  Once I crossed the finish line, I was both relieved and sad.  Relieved that I made it, but sad that I had lost my riding partner.  The older gentleman that had pulled me all the way up that mountain – I wanted so badly to find him and thank him.  However, with over 1,000 riders walking around, all I could see was a sea of spandex.  The odds of finding that one man was probably .1%.

It sure is funny how things work out when the Man Upstairs is smiling down on you.  As soon as I got off of my bike, the older man right right beside me!  I introduced myself and thanked him profusely.  "I was the guy that rode your wheel all the way up the mountain.  Thank you so much for pulling me, and inspiring me.  I would not have made it otherwise."

REFLECT. This journey had started a year ago.  I am half the man I was (size-wise), but double the man I was (character wise).  Initially I struggled to ride 10 miles, and now I have made it all the way up to 80!  Every little hill buried me, but now I know I can at least climb Caesar’s Head mountain.  My hope is that this sport will continue to inspire me and challenge me to be a better husband, dad, advisor, friend, employee, etc.

Thanks for reading.