For the majority of my life, I have enjoyed sports. Some of them I was reasonably good at, though I never practiced much or put much effort into trying to hone my skills or improve my weaknesses. The sport that comes to mind is basketball. As a young boy, I was often taller and quicker than most of my friends, which allowed me to win most of my one on one basketball games. This continued until I was in my early teens when I found myself in my first gym class in junior high. Naturally competitive, I thought I could easily dominate the majority of kids I would encounter as I had through my childhood. I was mistaken. Most of the other kids were either better or meaner than I was. Being under 100 pounds and very fearful of physical confrontations, the aggressive kids sucked the fire right out of me. I began to be afraid of my opponents for the first time in my life. In fact, for most of seventh and eighth grade, I hated playing basketball at school. Rather than use this new challenge as motivation to get better, be stronger, I allowed it to crush my spirit and relegate me to mediocrity.
Still, I had some talent for the sport and as I grew older, the desire to play moved from something that I did after school or on weekends towards something I could not stop thinking about. I played every chance I got, watched every game I could and it began to matter to me that I was fearful of better players. That being said, I didn’t really practice. I just played. That was enough to make me better at some things, but when I played, I used my speed and quickness to get lay-ups rather than improving what I was weak at, namely defense and outside shooting.
I tried out for the high school team as a freshmen and a sophomore, with improving results. Cut after the first day as a freshmen, I lasted three days as a sophomore, but fell apart as the competition got more difficult and the drills we were running were completely new to me. In my junior year, relying on quickness, speed, and a coach that saw those things and (in retrospect) saw someone that could be held up as a surprise pick, making sure the notion of a pre-selected team could be debunked, I made the team. I played three minutes of varsity that year. I averaged 1.8 points per game and .5 rebounds in Jr. varsity games. Though, for the first time in my life I spent time trying to get better. I shot all the time, worked on shooting from various places, continuing to shoot from one spot until I made three in a row. I tried to improve my footwork and my movement on defense. I could feel myself getting better, understanding the game more. Unfortunately for me, this improvement was not enough to stay on the team as a senior, even though I knew I was twice the player I had been the year before.
After getting cut, I started to leave basketball behind. I slowly lost the passion for it and now, while I still enjoy the sport, I have not played competitive games in years. I think it would shock my younger self to see this. Though I think all of our younger selves would have a hard time with what most of us have become. I don’t regret letting basketball slip from my life. I filled that spot with many more things and people that mean just as much or more. I do regret not working harder. Like most people, I wish I could have had a different perspective on things, on the transitory nature of being a teenager, being able to understand how short of a time that really is. I have no illusions that I was skilled enough to be a professional athlete, but I should have been a better high school player.
In my 40’s I have found something I am passionate about again. I have fallen in love with cycling. For the first time in my life I understand what runners talk about when they say they crave running. I always despised running and never worked to get good enough at it to experience a second wind, or a perfect groove where feet and arms and lungs found that soothing rhythmic pace. I do though, finally know what that feels like on a bike. I practice it, push myself, work to be better and stronger, faster than I was the week before. Now I need to be clear, I am not great at riding. I often get passed by better riders and I will never be a great cyclist, but it matters to me that I never quit a hill, that once I start a ride, I am going to finish the ride I set out for myself. This surprises me immensely. It was always easy for me to just quit something if it got hard. If I was tired, I rested. If my lungs hurt or burned, I would slow down, stop, resign myself to failure.
This September as I rode the Heber Valley Century Ride, I experienced what I am seeing as my defining moment in cycling. I had ridden close to 85 miles of the ride. My legs were tired, I was low on water and low on energy. I came through an area of rolling hills, using the downhill to recover. I then remembered I still had to climb the mountain up towards the Jordanelle reservoir overlook before completing the ride. The back side is not as steep as the way up, but it is longer. Also, when you have been riding difficult terrain all day, another three miles of straight climbing can be deflating. I looked ahead and saw the line of cyclists climbing up the first stretch of the hill and thought I was done. I didn’t see how I could manage the climb the way I was feeling. Still, I had to go up and over, even if that meant I would allow myself breaks to recover.
I started to climb and my legs tired very quickly. The usual burn of acid build up was replaced by a heavy numbness, almost as if my legs were asleep. I was pedaling hard, however, and in the first 500 yards, found myself passing five or six riders. At that point I had to shift to an easier gear, and slow down. I could hear my pulse and feel my breathing but I rode on. I went by three more riders and reached a spot where the road leveled off a bit. Almost out of energy and really riding on will alone, I continued to climb. I wanted to stop. I needed to stop. I could hear my brain saying, “no one will know, no one will even care,” but I knew I would know. This moment was what all the other rides, all the other training had been working towards. I had climbed canyons that made my heart hurt, I had ridden for miles, my rear end sore and my body dehydrated and sunburned just so I could be ready for this moment, when I would either do what I always did, and fold, or try something new- push through, ignore my pain and previous failures and succeed! I put all the pain and tiredness right in front of me. I did not try to hide it. I embraced it instead and kept going. One mile turned to two and then three. I was rounding the overlook and heading down the other side. The last ten miles flew by. I was elated. When I finished the ride, I stood by my car, alone and let the thrill of completion wash over me. I don’t want to compare riding 100 miles to running a marathon because running 26 miles is MUCH harder than riding 100. But I do feel a huge sense of pride in completing it. I rode two century rides this past summer. Next year the goal is three official and one that I plan and ride on my own. I want to be stronger and better next year. Who is with me?