Saturday, June 14, 2008

Running Towards What We Don't Want

For one reason and another, I haven’t been able to go on a “spirited group ride” (as the journalists like to call them) in about nine months. Extreme busy-ness colluded with nagging injuries to keep me away. I spent much of this time very, very frustrated, obsessed with how I could get back to that experience. It was my main goal when I started getting back into cycling seriously last fall.

For one reason and another, I finally felt ready to go on that particular weekly ride this morning.

I was really nervous as I was getting ready this morning. Last season, I managed to join this group only five or so times. I was just back on the bike for the first time in many years, and only in decent shape. I got dropped, badly, time after time. I would ride home alone, nagging myself again and again about the question of my fitness and ability, as if picking at a scab. I bored my poor wife with these involutions for weeks.

I went on to spend much of the winter and spring sticking rigidly to a training schedule and trying to heal from that recurring injury. I fantasized about going back and showing them – uh, I mean, showing myself (yeah... right) – that I could pass the test. That, at 44, I still had a little of the spark of youth in me. Granted, a spirited group ride is not a race – but the front half of this one is pretty close to a race. And I wanted to be indisputably IN it – not off the back. I worried. I trained. I researched. I trained. I upgraded my bike. I trained. I lost weight. I trained. Through snow and sleet and hail. Literally.

Today was the day to put all that obsessing and research and training and healing and money and time to the test. Was I right to think I could do it?

As it turned out, I did well today. I exceeded the goals I’d set for my return ride with this group, goals dreamed up during countless dreary winter training sessions in my basement.

Now, here’s the interesting part: The experience didn’t mean all that much to me.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed it. It was exciting to ride hard and fast, to be in the chase, and, certainly, to be the one being chased. To feel the utter exhaustion and happiness at the end of the road, and the camaraderie with the other riders, the full kinship I couldn’t feel during the rides last year, because I wasn’t really one of them, couldn’t stick with them. I earned those things today, and they were nice.

But they didn’t thrill me like I thought they would. I mean, I poured myself into this goal, folks. I could not have done any more to make it real. Along the way, this nagging knee injury kept making me slow down, enjoy the scenery, ride like I rode when I was last really into cycling, as a teen. I rode in those days for the love of it, now didn't I? I seem to remember...

This year I kept moaning and groaning about how the injury was keeping me from what I really wanted. Turns out, what I wanted so badly? Not so much. It doesn’t do much for me to “rip someone’s legs off,” as the saying so tellingly goes in our sport. I thought it would really give me a frisson, make me walk taller. Nope. Fact is, I had at least as much fun last week exploring the Metrowest area on roads I’d never tried before, getting lost, intimately experiencing new places in my own backyard. Funny – Just like the stuff I loved when I was a punk teen. Huh.

I’ll probably go back to the group ride, and I’ll probably try to beat a few guys in a sprint here and there. It’s human nature to compete sometimes, and I like the buzz. But I’ve been healthily reminded that, if I ride for the love of riding, I will be happier both during and after. Whether that means meandering around new roads, or doing sprints that leave a long streak of melted rubber down my standard training route.

I have a stockpile of adages I’ve coined over the years to remind myself of the important stuff I’ve learned. One of them is: We run fastest from that which we really want. Today, I discovered a corollary: Sometimes, we run fastest towards that which we don't really want.

Let that be a lesson to me.

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