Friday, July 19, 2013

When Looking Back Is Better

Hunched over my handlebars, eyes fixed on the road inches in front of my tire, mouth hanging open to capture as much of the arid air as I could with each heaving gasp, I watched the asphalt crawl by.  I was making slow progress three minutes ago when the older biker passed me.  I was making slower progress now. 

A shadow passed over the road ahead, so I glanced up into the punishing sun.  A single raven circled and came to rest atop a boulder near a road sign beside the bike lane about 30 yards ahead, and watched me approach.  He was a big one.  At least two feet from tip to tail.  I had talked myself past the last few logical stopping points, so this looked as good a place to stop as any.

When you climb a hill on a bike, it’s a battle between your legs and gravity.  Wheels roll backward as easily as they do forward.  You stop peddling, you stop making forward progress.  Gravity wins.

I pulled to a stop beside the sign and the raven hopped down for a closer look at me, head cocked slightly to the side.  With one hand, I reached back to retrieve a hand towel from a rear shirt pocket and with the other pulled my sunglasses off.  The light was painfully bright, but after I wiped away the rivulets of sweaty sunscreen stinging my eyes, I squinted one open and scanned around to make sure the well-fed scavenger was alone.  He probably wanted a hand out.  But I didn’t like to think that he sensed something I didn’t and wanted to beat the lunch rush. 

Photo by HotBlack at
I returned my glasses and stooped to pull up one of my water bottles.  I squirted a long blast into my mouth, swallowed, and repeated.  My heart and lungs were screaming in unison.  What the hell are you doing to us?  But my breath was settling enough that deep inhales through me nose were enough.  I am always surprised how quickly I can catch my breath when only a minute before I was sucking wind.  Maybe that’s a sign of conditioning.  Maybe I’m getting better at this.  Maybe.
I looked ahead, evaluating the age and fitness of the older biker who was continuing to pull away seemingly without effort.  That could be me in 20 years if I kept at this.  It occurred to me more as a question than a statement of confidence.  Could that be me?  Ever? 

The road up to NCAR (The National Center for Atmospheric Research) is a little over 1 mile from its entrance up to the laboratory on the mesa during which you climb about 400 feet in elevation.  My house is a little over 3 miles from the entrance and another 240 feet lower.  So that’s roughly 4.3 miles, a distance that is really nothing on a road bike even in the heat of summer for someone who rides even a modest amount.  But that 640-foot climb, that’s another thing altogether. 

NCAR sits atop a mesa in the foothills above Boulder with the Flat Iron mountain range, literally the front range of the Rockies, framing it behind.  It’s an impressive sight.  And for a biker, at least for this biker, it is a beckoning objective.  Countless runners and bikers have made the journey up the mesa and back down again.  Scores do it every day.  Some do it multiple times in a day.  But I had only attempted it a couple times and always turned back, making it no further than halfway.  I told myself it represented a milestone for me.  If I could make it up NCAR, then I had attained something as a biker – some badge of accomplishment. 

To serious bikers, NCAR is probably little more than a warm-up.  By “serious bikers” I do not mean the elite international athletes who compete in the Tour and Giro.  I’m talking about any old committed road-biker around Boulder.  And there are loads of them.  But to me, making it up NCAR meant something.

So there I was, catching my breath, rivulets of sweaty sunscreen running into my eyes, hoping the electrolyte mix in my water bottle could somehow renew my strength, agreeing with my inner voice as it told me that my heart and lungs were making a lot of sense.  I made it this far and this was far enough. 

Beyond the older man ahead of me, I could see a more conditioned athlete coast down the final stretch, then turn around and sprint back to the top.  He had passed me about half a mile back and he was probably already on his third or fourth sprint cycle at the top. 

Have you ever experienced that optical illusion when you’re stopped at a light and the car next to you glides forward a little and, for a split second, even though you know you have your foot on the brake, your brain tells you that you are rolling backward not that he’s moving forward?  Yeah.  That’s about what it felt like when he dashed past me.

I took another gulp and watched another fellow who had already successfully crested the top whiz by as he flew back down the hill.  The road is steep enough that it’s easy to get above 30 on the way down.  In fact, you probably can’t stay under 30 unless you’re on the brakes.  Road bikes don’t have disk brakes, they have the style of rubber-shoe rim brakes that most people are familiar with.  On a long, steep grade you can pick up so much speed downhill that, if you stay on the brakes and don’t alternate pulses between the front and rear, you can easily overheat the brakes, cooking the rim and melting the rubber shoes. 

I did good.  Halfway is good,” I told myself.  This is far enough for today.  It’s a milestone for me to pass next time.  Yeah.  Let’s join that guy on the flight back down.  It’s the best part, after all.  The voice told me the last half was the hardest half.  I looked back up to the top and agreed.  Then glanced over at the raven and he agreed, too, though maybe for different reasons.  Take a load off, man.  Just lie down here beside the bike lane and I’ll take of the rest.” 

I had already been talking my way through each pump of the peddle for the last few minutes.  Just make it to that pull off and we can rest… okay, we still have a little something left in the tank so let’s make it to the next flat and take a breather… alright, still going, still going… this is good, this is good because when you finally do stop you can take comfort in the fact that you made it that whole way without resting.  It really is amazing, the self-talk.  I’m not really exaggerating about this – some part of my brain is trying to use reason to win an argument with some less-reasonable part of my brain that is determined to prove something.  Reason was winning.  And then I looked back.

The blistering sun brilliantly lit the entire valley and the cloudless sky provided a clear view down the hill, across the whole of Boulder, and out into the plains beyond.  We can overuse and misuse the word, literally, but this view was literally inspiring.  

Photo by HotBlack at
To my surprise, I saw that I was well past halfway.  I was at least two-thirds of the way to the top.  I had been so absorbed in just keeping my legs going that I didn’t realize the progress I had made.  I looked up from where I was, then back down, up, and back down and again and, wow, did it look so much steeper looking down than looking up. 
From the bottom, your perspective is different.  When you begin, the last half looks the steepest.  But, looking back, it’s clear that the toughest leg is already behind you.  How many of those who set out surrender too soon thinking they barely made a dent in the NCAR climb?

I had already completed most of the work.  I stuffed my drink back in the cage and my towel in its pocket, clipped back into the pedals, and bid the raven adieu.

I’d be lying if I said the last leg was a cakewalk.  It was work, but it was doable work.  For a couple minutes back there, the raven and reason nearly talked me into believing it was insurmountable, not worth the continued effort on that day feeling that way.  But I can say with complete candor that the final hundred yards were surprisingly easy.  I felt stronger, as if the exertion of the miles behind me fell away.  Like there was a wind at my back.  I had been grinding it out in my lowest of 30 gears for most of the climb, but toward the end I clicked up one gear then another then another then another.

When I stopped – no, when I paused, because that's all it was – when I paused, if I had focused exclusively on the work that awaited me, I probably would have quit.  Like I had every time before.  But looking back allowed me to appreciate how far I had already come.  My own progress, the results of my own hard work, inspired me on for that last push.  And where did that get me?  It got me to the top.  I accomplished the goal I had originally set for myself five years earlier and had stopped even attempting because it had defeated and humbled me the first few times I tried.

I used to say the race back down was the reward for the grueling haul up - the wind in my face and especially the speed meter flashing at me at the bottom to let me know I was going well beyond 25mph.  I wanted to shout encouragement to every person still huffing their way up.  It was fun.  But the real reward was at the top.  I made it.  I looked down at where I had been, at how far I’d come.   

I took well-deserved pride in overcoming a truly difficult obstacle – not the mesa climb itself, but my own internal urge to give up.

Sometimes looking back is better.

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