Recently, I’ve been waxing. . .hold on, hold on, settle down, not that kind of waxing. Sure, I shave my legs but I do it the old fashioned manly way! No, I’ve been waxing nostalgic for my first real season of triathlon training, the lead-up to IM MOO.
One of the things that I noticed in so many of the people I was training with, and that I’ve seen in so many of my team-mates since as they have trained for their first Ironman (TM), is the palpable sense of discovery and achievement created by distance. A sizable percentage of people undertaking their first Ironman (TM) have not previously biked the kinds of distances that you need to bike during training. The rides themselves may be brutal or slightly less brutal, hard or not quite so hard, but at the end of every ride, people are standing around in the parking lot and it is slowly dawning on them: I just rode the furthest I’ve ever ridden in my life. And for a while, the next week brings a new “furthest,” and the week after that yet another milestone.
First time marathoners have the same experience, but training the bike portion of an Ironman (TM) is scaled up dramatically. Adding an extra 15 miles can be an hour or more for many people. By that point I’d done a couple of centuries and a double metric, but for me the “wow” distance factor was related to swimming. Plus, of course, there is always the not inconsiderable achievement of completing a 100 mile ride after having run 16 miles the day before and swum, run, lifted, flexed and stretched your way through most of the preceding week.
And now I’ve got that feeling once again. I’m tackling my first 300K brevet tomorrow, my first jump in randonneuring distance. If I complete the ride, it will be the furthest I’ve biked to this point, 40 miles longer than even the Death Valley Ride, where I scoffed at my friend Dana (well, as much as one can scoff when trying to inhale a Ranger IPA and a steak at the same time) when she said “How bad can a 200 be? It is just another 50 miles?” Somehow that planted a seed; I may live to regret it but my goal is to ensure that one day, somehow, she does too!
The thing about all those bike, run, and swim “furthests”–and why I still get such a kick out of seeing people tackling their first Ironman (TM) or century ride or, as my partner is doing, Ridculously Long-Ass and Unnecessary Swim–is watching realization slowly dawn, as it does for most people, that the physical distance is irrelevant. The real distance that you’ve traveled, the one that really counts, is the space and time traversed by mind and spirit.
The Hallmark version of that sentiment has us always improving and growing and becoming a stronger, better, more capable person, the inevitable result of “staying strong” and “overcoming obstacles.” And sure, that is part of it. But the universe is complex and our place in it doesn’t obey nice linear laws in that way. Some people are doomed to the repetition of terrible patterns; marrying the same spouse over and over, for example.
Certainly I have had many occasions before, during, and after the long rides to think how far I’ve come and what I’ve become. It is a long way from a kid who hated with a passion the idea of participating in any kind of organized athletic activity and wasn’t remotely adept at any sport that he tried. Being good at sports was, in the New Zealand of my youth, paradoxically the way you blended in. In the openly anti-intellectual climate of the Muldoon years (the man could put more venom into uttering the word “students” than just about anyone) sports was the only acceptable way of fitting in by standing out. And if you weren’t good at sports, your only hope was to fake an interest and to try and establish a tolerance on the part of others that would only occasionally erupt into open hostility. Gradually, true, I did develop an appreciation for the appreciation of sports; the rituals of getting up in the middle of the night to watch the All Blacks play on the far side of the world, losing an entire weekend day to the lazy frenzy of a one-day cricket match. But that was sports for other people.
I wasn’t inactive by any means; I enjoyed hiking and did quite a lot of it. But I never saw myself doing anything that “normal” people would regard as a real sport-related activity. I never thought that I’d be moderately good at any vaguely sporty thing. I certainly never saw myself being able to do something that only a tiny lunatic percentage of the populace would even contemplate. So in that sense at least, I’ve come a long way.
Yet sometimes coming a long way is simply the long way home. In another, really fundamental sense, I’ve re-connected with the kid I became when my parents gave me my first “real” bike (real because it had ten speeds (I don’t think I ever registered they were gears for quite some time)). That bike became a way of escaping the confines of the small town where I grew up. Small towns are both the best and worst places to grow up and most people I know who grew up in similar towns end up with a messed up, mixed up relationship to those towns that you just don’t see in kids who grew up in big cities or the burbs or even out in the country. They loved or hated where they grew up. I felt both, more the latter during my adolescent years, but never more than a 50/50 balance even as I’ve grown older.
The bike definitely helped me escape the physical confines of the town. I did things on that bike that would give me pause even now: fishtailing madly down washboard gravel roads on skinny tires because no one had ever told me that you didn’t do that with a road bike, and besides, those of my friends with bikes did the same thing because most of us didn’t have cars and what else was a bike for? I undertook self-supported rides across distances that while not that impressive to most of my team-mates would nevertheless be distances that I wouldn’t revisit for the better part of two decades. I went camping with all manner of gear lashed to a frame in ways that made the laws of physics look askance.
Those rides were not just physical distance from the small-town world; even more important they represented mental distance. In ways even more metaphorically important than factually accurate, those rides got me out in the fresh air.
And there are many days now, when I’m biking, that I seem to have circled back to that kid on a ten speed just pointing the bike down the road and setting off. When your job has you spending most of your time working with your brain, things get cluttered up in there pretty damn quick. And we academics as a species can be prone to over-thinking things. Most of the time I’m quite OK with that; I’m quite happy to be the counter-balance to the 90% of the population that by all available evidence tends to under-think things (remember: I live in a country where Bush the Younger was elected to the presidency not once but twice). Cycling, however, is always there as a way of getting me out in the fresh air. Sometimes it allows me to turn my brain off; sometimes it allows me to think differently, whether it be in the logistics that go into getting ready for a brevet, the state that I can only describe as relaxed hyper-attention when you are navigating a complicated route, and the occasional “secure your shit” moments of which there have already been a few at the 200K distance.
Therefore the question “what is the furthest you’ve ever biked?” really doesn’t have a good answer. A long way. No distance at all.