(No poker content.)
Last night I was browsing bike routes that local riders have uploaded, looking for someplace new to explore this morning. I found this one out in Henderson and thought it looked promising:
I did see that hill between the 11- and 12-mile marks, but thought that after my encounter with the monster climb Tuesday, I could handle this one. Ah, the hubris of youth. Or age. To tell you the truth, I didn't even check the slopes. I just looked at the total elevation change, and made a snap-call that it was manageable. Had I peered into the numbers a little more deeply, I might have seen that most of that uphill is 7-9%, and stretches of it are above 10%, peaking at 13.6%. Those numbers may not mean much to you if you have no experience comparing them with real-world roads, but trust me--those are gnarly slopes. The one that nearly killed me Tuesday was a pretty steady 4-5%. So if I had seriously studied the map for this one in Henderson, I might have spared myself what was to come.
The first part of the ride wasn't hard. About ten miles in, I got to the base of the hill and started up, determined that I was going to do it without stopping, even if it meant going ultra-slow. If I just looked a short distance in front of my tire, I could convince myself that I could do it--just keep turning the pedals one more time, then one more time after that.* But if I lifted my head and looked at how far I had to go, and how steep it was, it felt impossible.
I was pushing through the hurt, mostly managing not to discourage myself by looking too far ahead. But then about half way up, I had a sudden collapse. I had not planned on stopping to rest, but all at once I just couldn't push the pedals any more, and had to stop. I parked the bike and sat on a big rock panting, sensing my heart about to pound its way through my sternum, feeling pathetically sorry for myself. I also felt stupid: Twice in one week I had bitten off more than I could chew (an apt metaphor for Thanksgiving week). How could I have looked at the profile of this hill--a mere three days after having underestimated the one in Summerlin--and yet again failed to realize that it was beyond my capacity? Am I really that slow a learner?
As I was wallowing in fatigue and hypoxia and pain and self-pity, I glanced up and saw another cyclist coming up the hill. He was covering ground faster than I would have thought humanly possible, given how that same slope had defeated me. What's more was that he didn't look like it was killing him, or even bothering him. He appeared to be enjoying himself, as if he were just on an relaxing Sunday jaunt. At a glance it was obvious that he was a very, very strong rider. His bike and accessories were top-shelf, and he was clearly in that elite class of riders for whom such expensive purchases were justified, in that he could really squeeze their performance potential from them. If there is a bell curve of cycling ability, he and I are at opposite ends of it.
He never stopped, but he slowed down as he neared me. He called out, "Are you all right?" "Fine," I replied. "I just couldn't make it all the way up without stopping to rest."
He gave me a smile that struck me as warm and supportive, not in the least bit condescending (as he might have reason to be, given the disparity in our abilities), and said sympathetically, "It's a hard climb." By now he was past me, and he looked back over his shoulder to add, "But don't worry--you'll get there." And he sped off.
I'm not usually one to be easily affected by cheap sentiment, breezy cliches, or generic affirmations. But something about the specific words he chose and the warmth and compassion that I detected behind them gave me a real rush of confidence. Like few times that I can remember in my life, in a flash my mood and outlook were transformed. This random stranger managed, with those last six words, to pull me out of a pit of doubt and self-recrimination and snapped me back into focusing on actually getting done what I had set out to do. As soon as he had disappeared around a bend, I hopped back on my bike to attack the hill again.
And you know what? He was right. I did get there. Not nearly as fast as he did, but at my own slow pace I got to the top, when a few minutes before I had come very close to convincing myself that I couldn't do it and calling off the apparently futile attempt.
Not many worthwhile things in life are easy. Once in a while you are treated to an easy coast down a hill and the feeling is exhilarating. But very quickly that freeroll ends and you're back to the hard slog up the ugly side of the next challenge, step after step, day after day. Life is one hill after another after another, and we spend a lot more time trudging up them than we do sailing down the other side. Each one can feel endless, even pointless, as if you'll never beat it, as if you'll never get to the top.
It's a hard climb.
But don't worry--you'll get there.
*If you've never seen the documentary film "Touching the Void," you owe it to yourself to find it and watch it. It's an incredible, harrowing story of survival. In short, a guy with a broken leg has to climb down a mountain in the Andes all by himself, because his partner has left him behind, assuming that he had died in the fall that broke his leg. I thought the most interesting part was the psychological tricks he had to use to get himself through the ordeal. He had a master self who kept issuing commands, such as, "You have to get to that rock over there before you can rest." And the part of his mind that was actually carrying out the orders would protest that it couldn't be done. But the master self was like a slave driver who would accept no excuses for failure. So accomplishing one small goal at a time, pushing through the pain of one more short segment before resting, he made it down and survived. It took him several days of pushing himself in that way. I realize it's kind of melodramatic of me to compare a virtually risk-free suburban hill climb on a bicycle to that arduous journey, but I do flash back to it when trying to push myself to go a little bit farther, and then a little bit farther after that.