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.

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.

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.