I wake up alone, at dawn, streams of the first light of the morning reflecting across my bed, the one that seems so big now. These days, my first thought at the beginning of the day is that I’m on my own. The second is fear. And then sadness and guilt and then a flood of a hundred other things I should and shouldn’t feel. I have to cover my head with the pillow to keep the train of emotions from boring into my brain and paralyzing me. Because really all I want to do is go back to bed and forget all of it.
I fight it because I know I should get up. And because I want to ride.
I’ve already prepared myself. Last night, I picked the route and ran through it in my head, promising myself as I fell asleep that I would climb some hills, put some miles on my bike, get out and just do it. But lying in bed, I can’t move.
My cell buzzes. I’ve been keeping it on vibrate lately. I want to feel when someone calls or sends me a text or email but for some reason, I don’t want to see it. Sometimes, I don’t even answer it anymore.
I look at the screen. It’s my sister-in-law calling to see how I’m doing. It’s unbearably sweet how she keeps checking in on me. Three thousand miles and three hours and three little children and she still makes time to call. I want to tell her how much it means to me but before we can start, my mom calls. That’s a call I have to answer.
Mom’s mad at me about something. I don’t really blame her even though I feel it’s not entirely in my control. Hell, I’m mad at myself, too, but how do I explain what I’m going through? That I can’t possibly keep my life in order when it’s splitting apart at the seams. How do I explain to my Mom how hard it’s been here, when she is all the way on the other side of the country alone with Dad, who is really not Dad anymore, not entirely. Jesus. More guilt.
The phone call is hard. We fight. She yells. I’ve “disappointed” her. Moms know where the soft spots are and she has said the absolute worse thing to me she could ever say. I course I feel awful about it. I know she’ll always love me. But now I’m the Child Who Disappointed Her. Ouch.
I hang up. I want to cry but I don’t and I don’t know why. Instead, I call back my sister-in-law and we talk and it’s nice but I start to get anxious again. I’m still in bed. The sun is out now and it’s one of those January days that makes living in California the best place is the world. Blue sky, a slight wind and that feeling that spring isn’t months away. Maybe we’ll hit 70 today.
I know I have to get outside so I beg off the call. “I’m going to get on my bike,” I say, though I say it half-heartedly like I don’t really mean it. Like when I was talking to my Mom. I gather my bike gear. The week has left me stiff and sore. A new workout regimen to start the New Year is kicking my ass. I find I’m starting to enjoy the pain a little like maybe I’m real cyclist now, but three days in a row and a night of drinking in the middle has left me feeling my years. Like all of them.
I don’t think much about having one lung but today, it’s on my mind. Why? Because it’s an excuse and it’s one I’ve used for years to keep from pushing myself. Over a few drinks the other night, my friend posed a question to me: why do we have one heart and two lungs? He asked that of someone who only has one of each which is crazy because, all things considered, I make it work somehow. One big lung, one big heart is how I see it. I wonder now if maybe what we really need is two hearts and one lung. Can you imagine? Human beings with two hearts? As if one isn’t enough. Talk about being road kill for your emotions. No, come to think of it, one is more than enough.
I think maybe my friend is convinced science doesn’t have all the answers. I used to think that was a bunch of bullshit, but now I’m not so sure. I’m clearly thinking too much.
Maybe I won’t ride today. Maybe I’ll listen to the voices in my head that are saying “you’ve done enough this week” and “take it easy”. I think about a blog a friend wrote recently about the same thing – how tough it is to get up and go exercise, the excuses we pile up like firewood to make ourselves feel better for skipping the hard stuff. It’d be so easy to say no.
But I’m not listening. I am in fact pulling on my tights and shoes, filling up my water bottle, stuffing a banana and some Hammer Gel into my back pocket. And then I’m out on the road, pedaling. My lower back is complaining, my knees are aching and my head is not clear. Not at all.
And it’s a burn day so the first mile the air is peppered with the thick, sooty smoke of the vineyard fires burning around me. I push on anyway, even though I feel like shit and my heart rate is pushing its limits and my hands are tired and shaking. I feel every little pain on my body, like the bruise on the instep of my left food, the one I got tripping over a friend’s coffee table in the middle of that night of drinking. I’m starting to think this isn’t my day to be out here. Even on this perfect afternoon as I spin along a spectacular two-lane that’s winding through the now-dormant vineyards against a blue, blue sky.
I get through the first few miles and I’m suffering like a stuck pig. These are rollers. In bike speak, that means these are supposed to be easy. The climbs ahead, they are going to kill me. I should take a day off. Give up the ghost. But instead, I coast down the short hill before the first climb and I start spinning. Nice and easy, my heart not into it. I go on up anyway. One hill. See if I can do it. A moral victory before I run back home, tail between my legs. It’s just as hard as I think it’s going to be but I just take it one stroke at a time, try to breathe evenly, find “my pace” as my friend always tells me. I know I’m not going to break any personal records on this ride. Today is about surviving.
The climb is a slog and my heart rate is too high and I start to think about all the reasons why I should go home. I have to quell the panic attack that’s brewing in my gut. The whole negative “you can’t do it” vibe that’s festering. I manage to clear my head just enough to concentrate on the climb. I’m almost half way up the hill now and wouldn’t you know it, but I get a second wind. I start to pedal faster and before long, I’m not just surviving this hill, I’m actually climbing it. Yeah, my legs are sore, the muscles are shaking and I keep thinking I’m going to cramp up but I go on anyway and I gain a little speed and I don’t cramp up. Wow. I ride past the turn I was thinking of taking home, the short cut. The way back. Instead, I head down the other side of the hill, pedaling for speed, feeling the wind on my face as I descend. I’m committed now. Six miles behind me. Twenty-four or so more to go.
It’s still not an easy ride. On the frontage road next to the freeway, I’m pedaling like my bike is going through mud not rolling on pavement. I feel every bump. The freeway traffic next to us is loud and there’s smoke and fuel in my nose. I know I’m trying to find excuses to stop, to call someone to come get me. My legs are feeling every pedal stroke. Damn, I thought I was in better shape than this.
Then I’m facing the Last Big Climb of the day. I ride up, sure I’ll never make it, stealing glances at the road ahead that’s sloped upward without an end in sight. But weirdly, I find another gear again. My breath is steady and easy. In out, in out. Huff, puff. I pedal faster. I pedal faster uphill.
At the top, I feel like shit but I’m over it. It’s pretty much all down hill from here. Still a good 15 miles from home but the big climbs are behind me. My legs are jello. The air so warm, I’ve unzipped my jersey and the tails flap in the wind behind me. I can see my
shadow keeping pace next to me, elongated like I’m tall and thin and lithe and graceful.
Grace is never the kind of word that would be associated with me. Except out here on the bike. Out here, I fly. Just like the wind.
I watch my shadow and I smile. I wonder if that’s really me or just what’s left of the me I used to me. Those last few miles are almost unbearable. My legs give in around mile 22 but I’ve no choice but to keep pedaling. It’s the only way home and anyway, it’s way past giving up time.
I keep up a pace and I feel it. In my legs, in my chest. My heart beats a steady rhythm again, I can hear it out there on the road like it’s just me and the bike, click, boom, click, boom. Almost thirty miles done on a day I could have stayed in bed.
I push the pedals harder. I’m almost there. Almost home. I keep my feet moving, my eyes focused ahead on the vast open sky, my thoughts buried somewhere deep inside my gut, too far away to make sense of, like their buried underwater.
I want to keep pedaling now. I want to ride right to the edge of the horizon and beyond and never stop, not ever. I think it's where I belong, where the road meets the sky, where my heart will be free.