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

Expressing Character Through Movement

“It’s so powerful to get a sense of our character as our bodies express it, as all of our senses perceive it.” Journalist and surfer Eve Fairbanks said this in reference to her experience learning to surf. Her words resonated with me because they articulate the way I often feel on my bike. I think this is the aspect of cycling—and other movement—that is most magical. Like Fairbanks, I learn more about who I really am and about the depth and quality of my character when I ride.

I think athletic endeavors, in general, can teach us so much about who we are. I have told students and clients in the past, “You are capable of more than you realize.” I know this because I have seen it borne out time and again on the bike and in other athletic events.

Biking Across Kansas offers a wide assortment of cycling conditions. Over the 17 tours I have ridden, I have enjoyed gorgeous, sunny days with tailwind; I have also slogged my way through hours of brutal headwind, miles of torrential rain and hypothermia-inducing wind, among other conditions. What I have learned through training and touring is that I am tougher and more resilient than I once would have dared to imagine.

Exercise, in general, and cycling, specifically, has allowed me to get a sense of my character in the way that Eve Fairbanks describes. In her article, “How Surfing Taught Me to Make Choices,” Fairbanks explains that she had to “decide to stay on the board.” I believe that is true for so many things in life, and she agrees. That decision to stay upright on her surfboard taught her to be more resilient and persistent in her life on land. The bike has done that for me. The more I ride, the more confident and powerful I feel—and, therefore, become. It is one of the great beauties of cycling for me. I am able to translate something I accomplished on the bike—like finishing a brutal 80+-mile day—to the self-efficacy I need to persist at other challenging tasks, whether on two wheels or two feet. I have many times said to myself, “This isn’t as hard as Satanta to Ashland or Spearville to Ellinwood.” Those are epic BAK days from years past, and they have carried me through many a tough headwind or a difficult work project.

I know that I possess the character necessary to accomplish difficult things, to stand in my power and refuse to give up, back down or shrink away. The off-season is hard for me, for a lot of reasons. One is that I have fewer opportunities to reinforce the expression of my character on the bike. Even an easy day gives me a little booster shot because of the exhilaration of the ride.

My wish is that we all find a way to allow our bodies to express our character, that we realize that we are tougher, stronger and more powerful than we know.

Board or bike, court or field, road or trail, mountain or canyon, class or machine—there are so many ways to test our bodies, which really translates to testing our minds, our inner toughness, our mental discipline. I encourage you to experiment, if you don’t already know what physical challenge allows you to express your character. There is nothing like the feeling that comes with that full expression of our deepest selves.

Lives and Lifelines

As it often does when I am moving in some way, my mind wandered when I was walking home from my son’s basketball game a couple weeks ago. I don’t recall the specific stream of consciousness that led me to the thought that it often seems like I have lived several different lives. As that thought occurred to me, I wondered if I was the only one who often feels that way and if most people experience life as one coherent path.

I find that it is often easier not to allow my thoughts to linger too long on past phases of life. Pain, disappointment, shame and regret stain some of those memories. There is happiness, too, but when I think about life this way—in compartmentalized lives—the negative emotions are the ones that push my thoughts quickly from one to the next.

Anatole France explained this phenomenon well. “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Reading his words, I realized that at least some other people must feel the same way.

For me, the melancholy is not nostalgia or wanting to “go back” to some previous stage of life, although there may be certain individuals or feelings that I miss.

It is more that I have needed to let go of a phase—to die to one life—in order to move into the next.  Frequently, the past lives that I tend to push out of my mind are those that ended with at least some degree of involuntariness—deaths of animals and humans I loved, disappointments in jobs, hard decisions that had to be made because of life circumstances.

Sometimes I have died so completely to a life that, as far as I know, people who have more recently come into my life have no knowledge of something that once may have been a huge aspect of my identity or fact of my life. Often, that is because I want it that way. It is easier than getting into details of the past and less painful than bringing up a topic that still has a lot of heartache around it.

I wonder—does this make me less than honest? Or does it mean that I am living in the present? Is it healthy to die to the past lives, or is it just a way of repressing pain and other negative feelings? Maybe it is a little bit of all these things, and the fact is that we are so overloaded with information in the present that there is rarely room for ventures back in time.

There is a ritual in the Unitarian Universalist tradition (and some others) called the Burning Bowl Ceremony. It is usually done at the beginning of a new year, but my son and I performed our own ceremony at the 2015 winter solstice. In a Burning Bowl ceremony, people write down things they would like to leave behind, place them in a bowl and burn them as a symbolic release of habits, relationships, ideas, problems, worries and other things that may be dragging them down. I certainly haven’t done that for every phase in my life, but in our 2015 ceremony, I included generic categories of shame and regret because I had felt myself too often dwelling there in the past year. It felt cleansing and has been largely effective.

Maybe that is why I am noticing the phenomenon described by Anatole France more acutely than I have in the past. Maybe the release of certain “lives” is more complete and conscious than it has been in the past.

I think it is sometimes necessary to shed some excess baggage in order to move forward to the next phase. Maybe this is intrapersonal evolution, although not all changes feel that way in the moment. Perhaps they are all part of the spiritual, emotional and intellectual growth that is part of gaining wisdom, although it sometimes feels more like cynicism, I notice.

In any case, France’s words resonated with me and validated the ideas that had been going through my head.

I am reminded of Maya Angelou’s words from Wouldn’t Take Nothing for My Journey Now:

“Each of us has the right and the responsibility to assess the roads which lie ahead, and those over which we have traveled, and if the future road looms ominous or unpromising, and the roads back uninviting, then we need to gather our resolve and, carrying only the necessary baggage, step off that road into another direction. If the new choice is also unpalatable, without embarrassment, we must be ready to change that as well.”

Maybe that is what it is all about—having the resilience to move with some grace from one phase of life to the next, and the only way to do that is to die to one life, to put down the baggage that adds unnecessary weight.

Maybe those lives have already done their work to shape us. I believe we retain the growth. Even if our minds don’t go back, the changes that those lives and even the loss of those lives effected in us are part of us now and forever, part of that journey that Maya Angelou recognized as an indelible aspect of her identity.

Writing about this does induce—or maybe arise from—a sense of melancholy. Again, it is not nostalgia, not a desire to return, but a recognition of having come through an important leg of the lifelong journey—like turning out of a long stretch of headwind on the bike. It may have worn us out in the short term, but in the long run, we will grow from it.

Just as important as moving forward on our journeys without carrying undue burdens from the past are the people, activities and values that have seen us through many or all of the phases of our lives. Those are the threads that connect all the different lives—the ones that have died, the one we are currently living and the ones that we will live in the future. They are the constants, integral to our identities.

Cycling has been a constant for me. Although I didn’t start cycling seriously and passionately until I was 28, the avocation became so much more and attached itself to my personal value system. The attachment has grown tighter—indeed has been a lifeline—as I have lost dogs, people, career paths, identities, dreams. I am grateful that, while I can let go of what weighs me down, I have aspects of my life that allow me to continue to find my way and remember who I am at my core as I push forward.

I think France and Angelou understood that the journey is all about learning what we need to learn in a phase of life, dying to it when circumstances dictate and holding tightly to the threads that form the lifeline to connect one life to the next. Recognizing that the lifeline is there even alleviates some of the melancholy associated with the serial dying that we must do in order to keep on living.

It’s Just Wind

On a hot, windy June afternoon in Holton, Kansas in 2002, I encountered my friend David Blair walking among the unloaded bags at our last overnight school on the annual Biking Across Kansas (BAK) tour. Wind is not uncommon in Kansas, but the 2002 tour had been extraordinarily windy, and I was coming down with a cold after seven days of battling the wind. We greeted each other and compared notes from our ride that day. I was sick of being beaten up by the wind all week, and I proceeded to have a mini-tantrum and complain about the wind. David listened quietly and then shrugged and said, gently and matter-of-factly, “It’s just wind.”

Something about the way he said it really struck a chord with me. It was such a simple, casual statement, but it felt profound and full of truth. In an instant, I knew he was right. I was on my fourth BAK, a ride that I loved. It occurred to me that, if all life’s problems were as simple as fighting wind for 60 miles or so on a ride that I had chosen to take, then I would be very fortunate.

I love quotes and have several volumes of formerly blank books filled with them. David’s words went into my then-current volume, and I began to view life through a different lens. I realized that, not only could I acknowledge how minor an issue a windy bike ride really was in the big picture, but I could choose to see the rest of life’s challenges as “wind” and strive to take them in stride, just as David had taught me to do with the Kansas wind.

That was 13 years ago, but I still remind myself often, when dealing with tough issues, that, in the big picture, most of my challenges are “wind.” Living in Kansas, there is no shortage of wind on the bike. Sometimes I am fighting it head-on, and it takes tremendous effort. It can even feel like I am being pushed backwards at times. Other times, it is a crosswind that threatens to buck me into traffic or push me off the road. Times like these, it can be exhausting to hold my line. My hands and arms get worn out from the effort of staying upright in the vicious crosswind. It can be treacherous at times. My best bet for handling it is to stay calm, use caution and determine the best strategy for staying safe. Sometimes that is tucking low and trying to minimize my contact with the wind. If I am in the hills, I often feel safer and steadier if I sit up and take more of the crosswind, but slow my descent. I am not a fearless descender under any conditions, especially in squirrelly crosswind, but staying calm and reading the conditions allow me to respond as effectively and safely as possible.

These experiences and techniques for managing the wind on my bike serve as informative metaphors for handling what life throws at me. David’s response to my complaining was a wake-up call, and it has contributed to my growth as both a cyclist and a human. It was the beginning of my recognition of the ways that cycling’s lessons could apply to the bigger picture of my life. Cycling became more than a physical challenge; it became a foundation for growth and a source of deep joy. Not every moment on the bike is bliss, but I am now grateful for all of them and for the countless gifts they give me. I am stronger both on and off the bike because I have learned to accept the wind for what it is and deal with it calmly and confidently.