Reflections on BAK 2016

Two weeks have already passed since Biking Across Kansas (BAK) 2016 concluded at the Missouri border, in Elwood, Kansas. I have learned so much on and through this annual ride. My experiences with BAK epitomize my major goal for this blog: celebrating my passion for cycling and the lessons and insight I glean through it. No doubt, more formidable crucibles exist, but I have found BAK to be a reliable forge for my evolving self. From my first BAK in 1999, when I was a runner-turned-novice-cyclist, accompanying my then-boyfriend (now husband), to my 18th BAK, as a seasoned veteran and BAK Board Member, I have moved through many phases of life; gained and lost animal and human companions, jobs and life directions; encountered physical and environmental challenges and felt my way through parenthood. Every BAK is different and special in its own way. These are my reflections on BAK 2016.

  • We are almost always tougher than we think—if we give ourselves the chance to find out. I think my first real inkling of this occurred when I trained for, and completed, my first marathon, the 1996 New York City Marathon. After my introductory BAK three years later, my mom asked, “How did you know you could do it?” I realized that my experience in the NYC Marathon, as well as the encouragement and example that my husband and his friends provided, allowed me to have the sense of self-efficacy necessary to attempt to ride across the state. This year, I was privileged to help my son Logan discover that he, too, is tougher than he realized. Logan has grown up around cycling and has participated in BAK every year since I hauled him into the wind and up the Blue Hills in my belly. He has accumulated some road miles for each of the last four years, but this year, on a new road bike, he smashed his previous record and greatly surpassed his goals. At one point, while he and I were riding late in the week after leaving a SAG (support stop) where he had been complimented, I said, “People are really impressed with you, and they are amazed by how well you are riding.” He giggled and said, “Yeah, me too.” The 309 miles he rode boosted his confidence and helped him to realize that he is capable of taking on challenges that some may find unreasonable or impossible. I hope that this awareness carries over into other arenas in his life as he prepares to enter middle school this fall and beyond. The confidence that I have built by accomplishing challenging cycling goals continues to be invaluable for me.
  • I felt stronger than ever. Last year, my as-yet-undiagnosed B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy were at their peak on BAK. While I enjoyed the ride, I knew something was not right, and I had thermoregulation issues that caused me a lot of discomfort and concern. I did not really tell anyone how much I was suffering at times. Once I was diagnosed and eliminated the supplements that led to the B6 toxicity, I began in earnest to make a conscious effort to minimize the negative stress in my life, manage unavoidable stress more effectively and optimize my nutrition. I was delighted to find this year that I felt strong and healthy on BAK. At one SAG in Highland, KS, a man told me, “It is just fun to watch you go up the hills. It is like your legs are just carrying you up like a little water bug.” While I appreciated the compliment, he might have retracted it if he had seen me in the hot, hilly headwind stretch that followed that SAG. However, I truly did feel strong and in control over the course of the week, perhaps stronger than on any previous BAK. It was a nice testament to the efficacy of the changes I have made in my life.
  • The wind is just wind, and the hills are just hills. As I mentioned in my introductory post about my blog’s namesake quote, there was a time when I allowed myself to become stressed and frazzled by wind. There was also a time when seeing upcoming hills could psych me out. Since my son rode with me for 309 miles on a very hilly route, I had a lot of opportunity to observe his reactions to hills and wind. When we had a cornering tailwind, he enjoyed the hills and did not worry over them. Later in the week, though, when we faced some challenging hills in strong headwind, his enthusiasm for the hills waned. I tried to share my hard-earned wisdom with him. I have learned that I will get up the hill, albeit a slow, effortful slog at times. I will also reach my destination in the headwind. That, too, can be slow and painful, but I have learned to stay calm in both those conditions, as well as to remain unruffled in crosswind. Those can be unnerving, especially in hills, because the wind currents can become unpredictable and scary. I have learned how to talk to myself to stay calm and collected and peaceful. I tried to help Logan do this, too. I think my words helped occasionally, but I realized that experience is often the most convincing coach. He will probably have to learn these lessons on his own, in order to truly internalize them. Watching him allowed me to reflect on my gratitude for these cycling lessons and to recognize how much I have used them over the past year, as I have worked to manage my stress in healthier ways and to be happier in my daily life.
  • Life is more fun if I am flexible and adaptable. There will be wind, and there will be hills, and I just need to flow with them. Biking Across Kansas provides abundant surprises and unpredictability. Will showers be warm, ice cold, a weak trickle or a needle-like spray? Where will we sleep tonight? What vegan dinner options will be available? On BAK and, I have found, in life, approaching the unknown with a sense of adventure, rather than dread, makes the ride and life much more enjoyable. If I remember the underlying truth—that there is nowhere I would rather be than BAK—I can weather minor inconveniences and irritations without allowing them to spoil the fun. The same is true when navigating the mundane realities of life.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. I have been called “rigid” more than once. I prefer the terms “disciplined” and “driven.” I do acknowledge that I can sometimes benefit from relaxing. My nutritional plan on BAK is a perfect example. I never waver in my veganism, but it is not always easy or even possible to meet every one of my daily nutritional objectives while cycling through rural Kansas. This year, I did not always get as many servings of beans or greens as I would have preferred. It is tough to eat exclusively whole-grain pasta or bread, like I do at home. I promised myself this year that I would relax, do the best I could and not allow myself to become stressed if my nutrition was not perfect. I controlled what I could and let go of the rest, and I was very happy and got plenty to eat.
  • Friendships formed and strengthened amidst shared challenge are unique and special. BAK provides an extraordinary medium for growing friendships. Longtime BAKers have shared memories of battling the elements together for many miles over many years. I enjoyed riding quite a few miles this year with my friend David, whose long-ago, matter-of-fact statement about the wind inspired the name of my blog. We share a special bond because of the road battles we have fought together and because of our common love of cycling. We have suffered and survived an 80-mile day with cold, torrential rain, small hail and 45-mph wind. He has stuck by me (twice) when I was slower than slow because of terrible heat cramps. He has worked on my bike roadside when I had mechanical problems. A few years ago, my friend Denise and I rode for a day with two young cross-country runners from Wamego, teaching them how to draft. Even my marriage is a result of cycling. My husband was literally on his bike when we met, and almost all of our dating and early-marriage entertainment was cycling. There is just something special about persevering together when it would be easier to quit.
  • Sometimes easier is better. Before Kenny and I got together, he was a confirmed tenter on BAK. There was no sleeping inside the schools for him. I love sleeping in a tent, so I joined him in his conviction that the tent was the place to be. Once Logan came along, managing the tent and getting on the road in the mornings became more complicated. Over the past few years, and especially now that Logan is riding, rather than sleeping in, we have both realized that sometimes it is just easier and more fun to have one less thing to handle in the mornings (or even in the evenings). There used to be a sort of pride around sleeping in the tent, no matter what. Not anymore. This matches the question that I try to use to make decisions in the rest of life these days: “Will it bring more stress or more peace to my life?” Sometimes easier is better. Kenny and I both owned that truth more fully this year than in the past. We slept inside six of the eight nights. It was easier, and that allowed us both to enjoy BAK more.

A concentrated week spent focused on the bike really illuminates the lessons I learn from cycling. I made a conscious effort this year to enjoy every moment and to avoid dreading my return to real life. Although I would head back out to the Colorado border right now to ride BAK again, I have been fairly successful at cherishing the experiences I had on BAK 2016 and allowing them to enrich my daily life, rather than to look back only with sad nostalgia, wishing my real life were different, as has sometimes been the case in the past.

My goal now is to carry what I have learned from BAK 2016 with me on my training rides at home and in my daily activities as a mom, a wife, an academic advisor, a vegan advocate, a blogger and my assorted other roles. Doing so is evidence that I have truly internalized and incorporated into my being the gifts of the ride.

LoganFirstFullDayBAK2016

A Bigger Yes

Lately, one of my favorite Stephen Covey quotes has been on my mind. In his terrific book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he said, “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically, to say ‘no’ to other things. And the way you do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”

The concept of a bigger yes translates for me to freedom earned through introspection to discover what really matters, awareness to recognize when something may jeopardize our priorities, focus to keep our yes in the front of our minds and self-discipline to say “no” to things that threaten what matters most.

I am at my most empowered when I honor my bigger yes.

Recently, the arena where a bigger yes has been most prominent is nutrition. For most of my life, I have lived a bigger yes when it comes to food. Because of my desire to live compassionately and my commitment to justice for all living beings, I have been vegetarian since 1982 and vegan since 2008. This was easy for me. The bigger yes was compassion. Ceasing my consumption of meat as a 12 year old required some creative maneuvering within my family, but it did not require willpower or sacrifice. I was clear that I cared more for animals than I did for eating their flesh.

For so many years, I wanted to believe that being vegetarian was enough to satisfy my ethics. I allowed myself to linger in blissful ignorance for too long after better information was readily available. It was easier not to know. Until it wasn’t. For a long time, I had told myself that chickens didn’t suffer for us to eat eggs and that milking relieved the cows of their burdens. Deep down, I feared that I was lying to myself in my ignorance. Finally, compassion and commitment to my ethics became a bigger yes than convenience. As soon as I allowed myself to learn the truth, I became vegan. Sure, it requires asking more questions and being a bit more resourceful, but the inner peace of prioritizing my bigger yes makes any inconvenience well worth it.

More recently, the nutritional bigger yes (coupled with my commitment to my ethics) is my long-term health. Toward that end, I have incorporated Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen app (See this post.) into my everyday life. That part was easy. It just meant some small modifications to my daily habits—adding beans to my morning smoothie to get a head start on my three servings; ensuring that I eat at least two servings of greens, plus a serving of cruciferous vegetables and including an eighth of a teaspoon of turmeric into my smoothies. These changes just meant eating even more of nature’s goodness. They weren’t difficult.

More challenging was recognizing that I needed to give up some of my (healthful!) extras in order truly to optimize my health and fitness and avoid gaining weight. After reading How Not to Die, by Dr. Greger, I became serious about making my long-term health and well-being my bigger yes, even more clearly and more boldly than it previously had been.

I have recognized in the past that I have had an addiction of sorts to dark chocolate and energy bars. During times of stress and anxiety, I have used these and other foods for comfort or security. Reading and internalizing Dr. Greger’s evidence-based, whole-food message, I recognized that my relationship to my comfort foods didn’t fit all that well with my nutritional objectives because of the added sugar and the processed nature of those products. Although the energy bars I ate were vegan and relatively healthful, my bigger yes is to maximize whole foods in my diet. So, I stopped a nearly daily habit of both the bars and the chocolate on January 1, when I started using the Daily Dozen app. (The date was coincidental—the day I learned about it—not by design.) In addition to added oil, which I had already largely eliminated, I also decided to avoid added sugar, even agave nectar and maple syrup, and to pay closer attention to the amount of sodium I consumed. Then, I increased my intake of some of the most healthful foods on the planet—dark, leafy greens; flax; beans and whole grains—but I kept a lot of my other little comforts.

They were nutritious additions—bonus foods—to the Daily Dozen. My son had broken our scale, so I focused on how great I felt and enjoyed the knowledge that I was putting good food into by body, without worrying about my weight. Several weeks into this cycle, I went to the doctor for an annual check-up. Stepping on the scale, I realized that even this good stuff was causing me to gain weight that would not maximize my cycling performance or optimize my long-term health.

Once again, it was time to acknowledge and honor a bigger yes. I decided to treat the Daily Dozen goals not as minimums, but as loose limits. By and large, I am consuming only the Daily Dozen now. This is not restrictive! There are so many wonderful, nourishing whole-food options. I am not automatically putting cacao nibs in with my nuts, eating nuts or nut butter several times a day or mixing vegan yogurt into my berries every single day. I still eat these things—nuts are part of the Daily Dozen—but I am eating just enough servings to meet the Daily Dozen goals, and cacao and vegan yogurt (one of the only processed foods in which I sometimes indulge) are truly occasional now. This allows me to honor my bigger yes.

I don’t feel deprived at all. Instead, I feel satisfied and peaceful because I am clear about what my priorities are, and I am living them. These are my comforts now.

Cycling is a bigger yes for me, too. It would be so easy to sleep in on a summer Saturday morning, but if I did, I might not get my long ride. The ride is a bigger yes than the leisurely start to the day. I know that I will feel better and happier with myself if I get up early to ride than if I don’t. Last Friday, I got up at 3 a.m. to take my mom for a medical procedure. Happily, it went well, and I was able to get her home by 1 p.m., avoiding the overnight hospital stay we had expected. When I got her settled at home, she suggested that I take a nap and then go for a bike ride (beautiful day in February!) before my son got out of school. I said, “I am going to go for a bike ride and then maybe take a nap because cycling is a higher priority.” It is not that sleep is not important; it just means that I had to make a choice, and that choice was to honor my bigger yes.

The bottom line is that there is only so much that fits into any one life. We have to make choices. When we say “yes” to one choice, it means that we are saying “no” to another. Conversely, saying “no” makes room for a “yes.” The key is being devoted to a bigger yes, so that the noisy distractions can’t overshadow it. I view this as freedom.

My biggest tormentors are my own feelings—anxiety, stress, disappointment, shame, disgust and guilt. I have found that one way of reducing the power these tormentors have over me is to honor my bigger yes in every situation. When I do that, I am free from disappointment in myself, as well as its previously mentioned conspirators. The key is to be self-aware enough to recognize the bigger yes. These questions may help us discover and honor our priorities:

  • What matters most to me in life?
  • What are my core, defining values for which I want to be known?
  • What do I most want in this situation?
  • What actions will help me to achieve my most important goals?
  • Which choice will bring me the most peace?
  • Where do I need to say “no” in order to make room for my bigger yes?

Reflection and journaling can assist in clarifying the answers to these questions. Then we must commit to the bigger yes. We must decide that we are worth the courage, effort, sacrifice or social backlash that may come with the actions necessary to honor our bigger yes.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said in one of my all-time favorite quotes, “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” The bigger yes helps us hold on to what is most important and to resist the pull of distractions. I have often said that discipline is the reward for making a tougher choice, one that honors a bigger yes. With discipline comes freedom, which brings us closer to inner peace. The more I nurture my bigger yes, the freer and more peaceful I feel inside. That freedom is worth more to me than any taste, convenience, nap or social approval ever could be. The bigger yes often requires making the unconventional choice. That is okay. I choose integrity over convention any day. People don’t always understand or appreciate the choices we make to honor our bigger yes, but I have to live with myself one hundred percent of the time, so I choose to direct my behavior internally. As Covey said, it takes courage to do that, but the rewards are great.

Reflections on #100HAPPYDAYS

When I started my #100HAPPYDAYS journey, I did not take time to calculate when it would conclude. Although just a happy coincidence, as I drew closer to completing my quest and realized that it would culminate along with 2015, I thought there must be some symbolism to that—or at least I could assign significance to it.

I could let this be an ending, or I could turn it into another beginning.

Concluding at the end of the year, it felt appropriate to reflect on what the project had meant to me and how I had changed by participating in it. The number-one influence that the #100HAPPYDAYS project had on my daily life was inspiring a proactive daily search for the positive. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have a daily practice of writing in my journal each night about “3 things that have gone well today.” This practice allows me to recognize and appreciate something encouraging, even on very difficult days.

Rather than retroactively reflecting on the positive bits that I could tease out of my day, #100HAPPYDAYS required me to look for, think about where I might find, or sometimes even create, happy moments that could be captured in a photograph. This was beneficial to my overall outlook because it empowered and challenged me to insert happiness into each day.

This was easier or more obvious on some days than on others. I found myself at the end of rough days, in a less than stellar mood, thinking, “What (the heck) am I going to photograph today for my #100HAPPYDAYS?” On those days purposefully looking around reminded me of the good fortune that that has permeated my life as a whole—a photo of my much-loved grandma, a box painted by a special friend, the mischievous smile on my active little boy’s face. This was an effective way of “counting my blessings,” even on days that were characterized more by stress than by bliss. Our lives are generally dominated by mundane tasks and obligations, rather than by dramatic highs (or, thankfully, lows). So, this habit of noticing the good on an ordinary day was a healthy one.

On some days, it would have been easier not to post, and there were times that I worried that my Facebook friends must be sick of seeing pictures from my life or that I would look like I was seeking attention. The bottom line, though, is that I value keeping the commitments I make to myself. I am what Gretchen Rubin calls an “Upholder,” someone who “responds readily to inner and outer expectations.” If I set a goal, especially one with a clear finish line and specific parameters, I am generally determined to meet it—whether it is posting for 100 straight days about something that makes me happy, training for and completing a marathon or finishing an 82-mile bike ride in torrential rain and 45-mph wind. This perseverance is what makes Kenny call me stubborn (among other adjectives), but it is something I consider a strength and a characteristic for which I am grateful.

I decided that finishing #100HAPPYDAYS on the last day of the year meant that I should begin the new year with a fresh quest. It seemed the perfect segue to a kickoff of the pursuit of what I am calling Vision 2016—my two primary goals for 2016. I am not ready to go public with what those two goals are, but I have adapted the #100HAPPYDAYS format to a strategy to track my progress toward those goals. Rather than posting photos on Facebook, I have created a spreadsheet where I will track my daily activities related to my dual-pronged Vision 2016. This will work for me because I am self-motivated and self-directed and do not necessarily need to make a goal public in order to feel accountable to it. I feel excited at the prospect of this new challenge and am grateful for a structure within which to frame my goal pursuit.

I appreciate my experience with #100HAPPYDAYS and am grateful for my friend Andrea, whose Facebook post introduced me to the idea. I would say that my overall mental health and happiness have tipped a little farther toward the positive. While this emotional uptick is not solely because of this project, I do believe that #100HAPPYDAYS contributed. Even though I won’t necessarily be sharing something positive every day, I hope that I will be able to keep alive the spirit of proactively spotting joy amidst the mundane moments that characterize human daily existence.

Wishing all, human and non-human, a peaceful and happy 2016!

Gameful, If Not Playful

“We all sometimes take ourselves and our thoughts too seriously. By reframing things in gameful ways, SuperBetter can help us gain some perspective and separate ourselves from unhelpful thoughts.”

–Ann Marie Roepke

Playfulness has never been my strong suit. I have always felt that the absence of playfulness in my character was a weakness as a mother, and maybe as a human. I am probably less fun because of my serious nature, although I certainly have fun doing the things that are meaningful to me. I have been called rigid and told to lighten up. This is just who I am. So, it was a bit of a stretch for me to purchase and read the book I just finished, SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting, Stronger, Healthier, Braver and More Resilient, by Jane McGonigal.

Intrigued by what I heard on NPR, I debated the purchase for a few months because of my admittedly disdainful view of video games and my general disinterest in most forms of “play.” However, each time I saw or heard something about the book, I felt a twinge of curiosity. So, I finally ordered it for Kindle. I finished it Friday night, and I am so glad that I read it.

I read a lot of applied and positive psychology, as well as a great deal of personal and professional development literature. While much of what I read has meaning and value for me, a good portion of it cites the same research and presents similar (worthwhile) ideas in a variety of ways. SuperBetter takes a decidedly fresh approach to growth, development and healing.

Jane McGonigal is a game designer who suffered postconcussion syndrome and battled associated suicidal thoughts by using what she knows about the science of games. While I admit that I struggled a bit with some of the “game” language, and some of the concepts push my comfort level with personal playfulness, I have accepted McGonigal’s challenge to take on three adventures that she outlines at the end of the book. These three adventures are designed to strengthen social connections, improve health and fitness and increase the perception of time affluence. I am interested in growing in all three areas, so I started the social connection challenge yesterday and plan to work through all of them, using McGonigal’s gameful approach, over the next six weeks.

McGonigal refers to “quests,” “bad guys,” “power-ups, “allies,” “secret identities” and “epic wins.” Quests are mini-challenges that take us closer to the epic win of achieving a major goal. Both quests and epic wins increase our sense of self-efficacy, which then fuels our initiative to take on additional challenges. Bad guys are common pitfalls, for which McGonigal suggests scientifically backed battle strategies. Power-ups are simple techniques to energize ourselves or clear our heads. Allies are people in our physical or virtual lives whom we trust to be partners was we face down our challenges. McGonigal’s secret identity during her recovery was Jane the Concussion Slayer. While I recognize the potential helpfulness of objectivity, adopting a secret identity and thinking about myself in the third person doesn’t resonate with me.

I was fascinated, however, by the discussion of post-traumatic and post-ecstatic growth. McGonigal and her co-researcher Ann Marie Roepke have found that major growth often happens in people’s lives following either very traumatic or very positive events. Either of these circumstances can be life-changing, prompting reconsidered priorities, closer relationships, clarification of purpose and stronger focus. McGonigal teaches a gameful approach to recovering from trauma or working toward a meaningful and challenging goal. Both can result in epic wins.

Cycling provides me countless opportunities to take on quests. Each ride, or even a tough stretch of headwind, gamefully can be considered a quest in pursuit of the epic win of completing another successful BAK or century or of increasing my average speed or even my baseline level of happiness. Cycling helps me battle bad guys like stress, anxiety, depression, lack of confidence, hopelessness and all the negative emotions that threaten my mental and physical health and happiness on any given day. McGonigal has given me some new tools for utilizing cycling to achieve positive results in my life. I also learned power-up strategies and off-bike techniques for battling bad guys. Most of what McGonigal presented really was new to me, and learning it can help me to take a more lighthearted, yet courageous—gameful—approach to facing life’s challenges. I am grateful to have the SuperBetter tools at my disposal.