Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Greater the Suffering, the Greater the Pleasure

After the finish, all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure.

Tim Krabbé, The Rider
Have you ever hated a ride so much that you wondered why you ever bother getting a bike? Have you experienced that wild moment of thinking maybe you’d give the whole thing up, and go for nice, quiet walks in the woods instead?

And then, after it’s all over, you're already scheming to get back on the bike the next day and see if you can do better?

Anyone who has ridden seriously for more than a couple of weeks knows that the reasons that we cycle are legion. To get out and see the countryside. To have fun, or be social. To improve mood. To lose weight and get fit. To face up to the pure, fierce test of competition.

Then there’s an intriguing one: To exceed one’s limits and grow in self-knowledge.

I’ve always enjoyed sports and the outdoors for a combination of all of those reasons. But that last one has always been the zinger for me. The things I learn about myself on the bike, for example, and the feeling of competence I derive from riding further (or faster, or higher) than I ever have are enormous rewards. They drive me, from the inside out.

I am forever in search of that towering sense of calm and happiness that comes to me after a supreme effort in which I surpass my limits. The high usually lasts 24 hours, and during that time, nothing can bother me. The world which yesterday seemed mean, random and nasty, now makes perfect sense. Every part of it fits oh, so sweetly.

Funny thing, though: While I’m actually exceeding that limit, I usually go through extended bouts of the most forceful disgust and anger known to humankind.

If you’d asked me on Saturday, at about 4:30 pm on the first blistering hot day of the season, how I felt about finishing my longest ride of the year, my answer would have been too raw to print. I was hating it. Worn out, legs weak, drenched in sweat, and using a ridiculously big gear to get up a pitiful rise in the road. Every tiny distraction -- a pothole or a new squeak from my bike -- was occasion for bitter loathing. My thought process (to the extent I was capable of one) was familiar to endurance athletes the world around. Why the ?!%@ do I do this? What possible reward could make this worthwhile?

You get the idea. You’ve been there.

Yet within five minutes after I had rolled into the parking lot and begun stretching and cooling off, I began to feel elated. Not just satisfied; I mean really happy. I was singing softly to myself. I was relishing little blessings like the cool, earthy breeze from the woods behind me. The stop I was planning at the nearby grocery to get a sports drink seemed a grand adventure, ripe with promise.

You might say my mood had shifted.

I’m sure part of it is neurochemical. Endorphins, and so on. I’m sure part of it is relief – I don’t have to push my bike through that ridiculous heat anymore! Part of it is pride in my accomplishment. I could probably analyze it down to the smallest component parts.

But I’d rather relish the sweet insanity of it all. Rather than wax eloquent on the reasons why suffering leads to pleasure (as Krabbé so simply depicts) I’d rather revel in the way that dynamic neatly reflects life itself. The old cliché: You can’t enjoy the sweetness without a little sour mixed in.

Maybe another great book on endurance sports sums it up best. Bill McKibben, in Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, quotes track coach Bill Bowerman. Just substitute your sport of choice for the word “running”:

Running is basically an absurd pastime on which to be exhausting oneself. But if you can find meaning in it, you can find meaning in another absurd pastime: Life.


Anonymous said...

Where do I find this book, The Rider?

Velosopher said...


Just click right on the title of the book in the original post; it will take you to Amazon. It's a beautifully written book; don't miss it.

juancho said...

yes, it is like being in the rider's head during a one day classic.

What up V? Nice to have you stop by.

Velosopher said...

Juancho! Great to see you here, too. Thanks for taking a look.

Glad you liked The Rider. That book was simultaneously gorgeous and scary. So well done.