Biking through the gate

When we first moved to Colorado in 2010, I was no longer sick, but I had not recovered any of my strength.  Colorado is an easy place to be active!  Everything, however, was hard.  Walking along the bike path left me out of breath (of course, we were living at 8000 feet).  The first time I took my bike out, I made it less than a mile before I had to turn around, and, worse than that, the first significant hill I faced kicked my butt.  I had to get off the bike and push it up.  It seemed that while I was no longer sick, I was also no longer an athlete.  That hurt.  A lot.

I kept working at it: the walking, hiking and biking.  Everyday getting a little stronger and going a little farther.  One day, I decided to start my way up the mountain.  I knew I wouldn’t make it to the top of Vail Pass, but how far could I go?

As it turns out, I made it eight miles, which took me to the campground.  Right after the campground, the road gets really steep.  There’s a short stretch – maybe a quarter of a mile – where it looks like the road goes straight up!  It was daunting.  What made it more daunting were the cyclists who were either pushing their bikes up or who had simply collapsed on the side of the road.  I decided to save that challenge for another day.

A week later, I thought I would try it.  I made if half way until I literally couldn’t make the pedals move any more.  I, too, collapsed on the side of the road, gasping for air.

Three days later, I was up for more torture.  I thought: why not today?  I rounded the curve at the campground and dug with everything that I had for the gate.  I think that I passed others who were lying on the ground, but I can’t be sure; I was too busy gasping for air!  But, I kept pedaling.  Every rotation of the pedals hurt: my lungs were burning, my legs were on fire, and I was becoming afraid that I might throw up.  But I kept the pedals moving.  I reached the gate!  In one fluid motion, I threw my bike down, walked a few steps away from the other folks who had stopped there and dropped to my knees, struggling to breath.  I wanted to act all cool but the lack of oxygen not to mention the lack of ability to hold myself upright and the acute fear I was going to throw up all over everyone sort of got in the way.  Instead, I sat there on my knees.  Once my breathing became manageable, I looked around at the view and at how high I had climbed and I began to cry.  Not out of pain, but out of accomplishment and all the miles traveled since the original diagnosis seven years earlier.

Unfortunately, my climb to the gate didn’t leave a lot left in the tank!  While my spirits were soaring on the ride home, my body was spent.  Ironically, even though I made it to the gate, what stuck in my memory was the extreme effort that it took and the pain and fear that went with it.  For the next year and a half that gate became my wall.  I didn’t even try to make that climb again; instead, I turned around at the campground every time.  It became a symbol for what I couldn’t breach, so I didn’t try.  I just accepted the limitation.

Until one day last summer.  I was out for a ride and I made it to the campground more easily and a bit faster than I had been.  (I should mention that the ride to the campground itself is a climb.)  I was getting ready to turn my bike around and head back down, when I thought, “I hate that damn gate!” and instead of turning around, I kept pedaling.  And pedaling.  Past the others who were walking their bikes, past those who – and I knew their pain – were sitting on the ground, gasping, and finally, past the gate itself!  I didn’t have to stop to gasp and recover.  I was still pedaling.  And, I felt strong and I was picking up speed.  I rode a mile past that gate before stopping to look around and enjoy the view.  And, once again, cry.  The gate was no longer my limitation.  It was simply a short stretch of the ride that was difficult.

I have now made it to the cul-de-sac, which is four miles past the gate and which contains a lot of climbing (gains in elevation).  I can’t say that it is easy, but I can do it.  There are stretches that seem so steep and long that I can’t look at the whole stretch at once.  It’s too daunting.  Instead I find some rock or bush or tree about 20 yards away and I tell myself, “Just make it to that rock,” and once I make that rock, I find the next landmark. And, I keep pedaling.

My next goal is the top of the pass.  I have another five miles to go.  Rick (who is a veteran of the pass) tells me that the next three miles are no worse than anything that I’ve done and then I’ll face about a mile that is really tough – about the same as the campground just longer – and then the last mile isn’t bad.  He’s supremely confident that I can do it.  As I’ve been using my bike trainer and working on my cadence (rate of pedaling), when I am near the end of my workout, and I start to get tired, I imagine myself finishing that last mile and stopping at the top of the summit.  How will that feel?  What will it feel like to stand on the top of a mountain and know that I rode my bike up it?  What will the view be like?

What makes it a remarkably motivating thought is that for the first eighteen months after the collapse, my only view was what I could see from my bedroom windows in Portland: my neighbor, Andy’s roof line.  No disrespect to Andy or his roof line, but it wasn’t inspiring.  I watched seasons come and go and come again.  I remember thinking at one point: Will this be all I ever see?  There was no way for me to know it then, but there were so many more vistas for me to see.  Rick asked me recently why, with so much uncertainty, did I keep going.  As I reflected on that question, I knew that I didn’t have a specific vision during that time but I had something more important to fuel my resolve, which I’ll share in an upcoming post.

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  1. Rick Fowler

    Your experience of allowing something to be a barrier reminded me of when we were renovating our backyard in Portland. Many of our projects were things I had never done before, but the one that stood out was the rock wall in our design. We had the rocks. We had an idea where it would go. I just had never built one before. So I did research on the Internet, talked with our contractor (who specialized in building rock walls), and so on. I felt in a bind because we didn’t have money to pay someone to build it for us, and my research showed lots of complicated ways of doing them. So I left the rocks in the yard for a long time. Maybe weeks, maybe months! One day I work up, and even though it was winter in Portland (not the arctic, but 40 degrees and a total downpour – I mean rain just coming down!), I put on my work clothes and my rain coat, went outside and just started building it. It took most of the day, but then it was done, and it was just what we wanted. Photos of this day are here:

    But why did I wait for so long? I guess it was fear of failure, mistakes, false starts, wasted time, effort, money, pride. And what led me just to do it? I don’t know. Maybe the frustration or embarrassment of making no progress? The wedding in the back yard was not for 6 months, but many other things depended on getting the wall done, so maybe I just couldn’t stand leaving the barrier in place any longer.

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