yesterday September 18th, was my 51st birthday, and time for another feats-of-strength. this year i wanted to something in moab utah. one of the things i’ve always wanted to do was to survive desert conditions under extreme conditions. one of the options that came to mind was the famous white rim trail. 103 miles along the cliffs. most of the suggestions for this ride recommend having a “sag wagon” or stashing supplies, or riding with a group. since i didn’t have any friends.. i decided to do it solo. carry enough water, food and tools for 103 miles.
as it turned out, a one hundred mile mountain bike ride through the desert has a lot of parallels to aging and life. i came up with this theory somewhere around mile 40. let me just outline the stages and i’ll fill out the items as i go along.
This epic, started pretty early for me around 5am. The road was smooth and mostly paved, just riding with a head lamp i didn’t really get to see the amazing life around me. i rode fast and hopeful. hopeful that that future would was going to be amazing. hopeful that i was going to get through this ride like no one has ever done before. like i said, there are parallels to life, and when i was ten i was hopeful that i would be able to do anything i wanted. i don’t really have a parallel for riding with a headlight … but looking back, i don’t really remember much around me, so i’ll just skip this one and continue… with this post.
These were the miles where i could see more around me. the moon light was illuminating the beautiful canyons around me as i fearlessly descended the shafer switchbacks. i didn’t realize how fearless i actually was, until i caught a glimpse of the partially illuminated canyon wall. i had stopped every now and then to admire how fucking dangerous this road was, and why people were not driving their cars off this thing, left-and-right. it was truly an awesome and scary thing to be riding next to the shear drops to my side. what does this part have to do with life? well back in my teens i didn’t realize how close to death i was all the time. jumping off ramps with my bike, driving jeeps, climbing things, jumping off things… also the endless energy i had back then was not even a “thing” you just did things. here as i’m riding next to the cliffs, i feel no anxiety, no tiredness, and limits.
These were my “woo” miles. It’s still predawn in the desert, but the light was starting to fill the canyons. Every mile was full of “fuck-yeahs”, and “holy-shits”… i was doing it.. riding through the desert all alone, but i didn’t feel alone. i was experiencing the moment to it’s fullest. I took many pictures, and stopped to admire everything. The miles were still going by so fast. I really wanted to be in that moment forever. if you are wondering what my 20’s were like… pretty much that. lots of hard work but it was only a means to all the great things i experienced. it didn’t feel like hard work, at least compared to how hard everything seems these days… but i’ll get to that later.
These were my, “ok get your shit together” miles. I started to think about my pacing. i had a mental list of how often i was supposed to drink, when and what i going to eat, and when i was going to reapply my sun screen and chamois cream. just a side note, this is one of the most important things i did during my ride. This was pretty much how i lived my thirties. harnessing and focusing all my energy into something that is going to last. making plans, trying to follow them. the definition of maturity.
These were my “i’m not that tired” miles. I was getting pretty tired, but i somehow convinced myself that i was feeling as good as i did back at miles 20-30. i was clearly not, and it was taking far more energy than i had realized. i could tell because i was sweating more and breathing harder. these were also the miles of realizations. the realizations that there were no turn around points. if i turned back now, it would be almost as long and difficult as the planned-ride itself. In life this was exactly what the 40’s were like for me. walking around in denial ignoring any and all age related slow-downs. i was absolutely convinced that i had the exact same endurance and strength as i did in my youth. (this is impossible by the way) also, it was in my 40’s, when i realized that there was no way back. i was almost halfway through this life and everything i did or didn’t do correctly prior to this moment had already set my trajectory. my personality, my fitness, my knowledge, and my career, couldn’t be redone. just like this ride, i couldn’t take another route, i couldn’t pick another day, nor could i get into better shape, everything was set, it would take another 40-50 years just to get back to this point. this happened toward the end of my forties, but the realization of it was like slamming into a brick wall. and the midlife crisis was hitting me once again, but this time out on the trail.
These were the toughest miles to deal with by far. i had just fallen into a rhythm. consistently ticking away the miles with every pedal stroke. the dirt road was smooth and predictable as it twisted along the desert rim. as the road rounded each of the canyon’s edges i could see it disappear off into the horizon. i was getting good at estimating how long it would take me to get to the next corner. how long before the next mile, how long before my next drink…etc. i had accepted my situation, i was comfortable with my pace with the amount of energy i was expending, and my overall physical condition. i was being smart i was walking the bike when i needed to, i was going out of my way to avoid bumps and be as smooth as efficient as possible. i was trying to conserve energy and avoid injury. i had to look at the big picture of finishing this ride alive. at this point in the ride i was working with a combination of experience and familiarity of the surroundings to help me move through the ride. as my brain started to beat to the rhythm of this ride, i was calm and confident that this would be another epic mountain bike ride that i could put on my “adventure” resume, if there is such a thing. and like lightning from a clear blue sky, the rhythm stopped. the easy rolling dirt road turned a corner and went straight up into the sky. i had to walk the bike up this long steep road, there was no shade, no flat spots and the weight on the bike and on my back were now getting notice. i was surprised how much energy it took to hike the bike, up hill. when i got to the top i was sweating much more than i had all day. i didn’t think too much of this hill until i got to the top and saw the the road immediately went down hill just as steep as the climb up. this really sucked.. no long freewheeling downhill to enjoy. i had to keep on the brakes and hold my weight back to keep the back wheel from slipping. i wasn’t expecting that change in terrain… until it happened again, and again for the next 12 miles. each new corner brought unexpected energy draining challenges. i cursed and screamed a few times but that didn’t help, these hills kept coming and there was nothing i could do to change the situation. all my rhythm was gone i had no idea how fast or far i was moving, but it was far slower than i thought.
in life, this is pretty much exactly how my 50’s have been going so far. i was on a difficult but comfortable pace as i left my 40’s. i had accepted my modest life for what it was. work and family were good, and physically; i was still hopeful that i could return to some sort of age division champion. after all, nothing was broken or worn out, or needed replacement. i’ve had financial, family and physical set backs in life but i learned to deal with most of them and somehow managed to get smarter and stronger as i moved along. my 50’s started out with a familiar running injury, plantar fasciitis. this version of PF, took months to finally go away, taking all my fitness with it as it finally left me in the cold january snow. it was only 2 short weeks after being healed, that i broke my lower fibula while running. i had no chance to regain my fitness and had to walk around in a cast for 2 months. i was completely disabled and dependent on everybody to help me out. this was a rather small setback compared to the personal tragedy that hit me back to back. in the following months , a dear friend took his own life in a very tragic manner. still mourning the loss i got news that my sister was kill crossing a street, one block form her home. this is a whole other sad story by itself. but the reason i bring it up, is because, there is actually a parallel to the ride. now that i am 51, i am starting to realize that life can give you a sucker punch at any time. i can disrupted, slowed, twisted or set back, but how i choose to deal with these things, is exactly how i dealt with those miles… cry and scream, but keep moving.
These miles were the miles where my head was full of internal voices. i’ve had voices earlier but they were simply practical tangible voices that would remind me to drink water, lean back, look at the views etc. at this point however, those voices switched over to more motivational and philosophical voices. they would say things like: “what am i doing?” “i don’t think i can make it” “please be downhill the rest of the way”, “i guess it’s ok to die out here”… after spending a few miles with these types of messages going through my head, an amazing thing happened. my internal voices turned into “bad cop”. it started saying things like, “shut up you fucking pussy” yep my brain actually said that. it was something that actually shocked the “good cop” side of my brain. bad-cop voice was actually full of advice… “stop your fucking whining, you wanted to do this, you asked for it. don’t expect anyone to help you. you either die out here…. or finish it” i have to say it kind of worked. negative thoughts are the demise of any effort. i can talk myself out of anything, it’s easy to start feeling and acting how you are thinking. i don’t know how my brain chose this way to intervene.. but it did. in life, i’m not in my 60’s so i can only imagine what this is going to be like. all i can imagine is a guy who stopped worrying about things long ago. when new challenges come up he shuts up and just puts them into one big fuck-it bucket. and just is living out his life “dealing with it”. no regrets, just acceptance to this is it.
These were the most difficult miles covered so far. the road was kinder and less difficult than earlier, but with my diminished capabilities and fading enthusiasm, it was very difficult getting through these “septuagenarian” miles. it was unclear if the internal voices became silent or the internal ears became deaf, but there was no more complaining, no more self affirmations … no motivational speeches, and even the internal “wooos” were long gone. just one quiet mile after another. i think it was an implicit determination that kept me riding through the sun-soaked desert in a zombie-like manner. i was moving so slowly that i stopped checking the gps long ago, because the lack of progress was greatly demoralizing me. i didn’t want to be seen crying out in the desert. every few miles i had to stopped and rest under the puddles of shade that were cast from small bushes next to the trail. i wanted to stay stopped for long periods of time, but i knew my energy levels were on time limit. just being out in the sun was taking its toll. the backpack was nearly empty but still seemed as heavy as it was at the start. i was too tired to dig through my pack to get some sort of nourishment form the food or gels that i had packed, so i often just sat there carefully sitting in the small piece of shade dreading the moment i had to get back on my bike. in life, i am not in my 80’s but i can only imagine how this will parallel life. just an old tired man with limited physical capabilities struggling to do simple things, that were once taken for granted. still being able to take a walk, ride a bike, make dinner, and mow the lawn… but doing them ever so slowly. giving up on doing things at are special and outstanding just focusing on getting through the day. i’m almost crying as i write this because i can imagine it so vividly…. almost as if it is real. all i really know is that, life is going to be tough when i get there… i am clearly not ready.
These were the “easy” miles that wouldn’t end. no matter how far i looked forward there were more and more winding and twisting road off in the horizon. all i could do was put my head down and pedal one circle at a time. it was brutally hot day but the road was pretty easy for a while, with the exception of one last 1700 foot climb out of the canyon. there was no way i could pedal up this thing i had actually decided that long before i started this ride. i had read that it was steep, and i knew that it would be challenging on fresh legs. even though i was content on walking, i tried to ride it several times, but there was nothing left in the legs… or my spirit for that matter. after about a mile of slow delirious marching up the road, a car approached. they stopped without me flagging them down. the lady in the passenger seat ask if i was alright. i told her “not really”. she asked if i needed a ride, and i replied that my bike won’t fit. her husband said “we can probably make it fit” i took a look in the back and told them unconvincingly, “it’s alright, i’ll make it.” she said,”are you sure, how about water? you good?” i gave them a thumbs up, they drove off, and i instantly regretted that. i kept walking. a little further up the road a bunch of guys were filming a motorcycle video. they had nice cameras and motorcycles. i stopped to talk to them. they were impressed that i had done the whole loop on a single speed. i told that i wasn’t done yet and this hill is just about killing me. they wish me luck and off i walked. a couple turns later i found some shade and put the bike down and laid in the road flat on my back with my arms out. it felt so good. i could hear myself breathing. i could also hear the film guys talking, with their voices echoing. i couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the incoherent sounds made their way into my altered state of consciousness, providing me with the most captivating psychedelic experience i can ever hope for. after a few minutes, i finally got up, and started marching back up the hill…one switchback at a time. i got to the top and thought “hallelujah” almost done. the rest of the road was rolling gravel. in life…again i can only project what it will be like in my 80’s. i imagine that now the simple things in life will require greater struggle. it will be the time when, to the outside world, you can no longer function. people will try to help, but you will be too determine to hang on to that last piece of dignity..self reliance.
These miles were full of false summits. a feeling that if i can just make over that little hill over there, i know my truck will be there. i rode most of this section but it was difficult. at this point however pedaling seemed easier than walking. rolling hill after rolling hill i kept thinking the same thing.. it’s gotta be over that hill. finally i stopped and checked the gps… i had about 8 miles to go. it doesn’t sound like much but when you’ve been thinking that you only have about “one mile to go” for the last 3 miles…. very heart breaking. this is when i needed that other voice to yell me through this. i needed people with motivational signs yelling “good job, you’re almost there!” but i wasn’t in a race, and no one knew i was here. i couldn’t hold up my head any longer while riding … nor could i hold my arms on the bars while walking. everything hurt. finally i heard a truck coming. without thinking i stuck out my thumb and glanced back. it was the filming crew! the driver stopped the truck right next to me said, “ok, hop in man!” without hesitating he jumped out of his truck and threw my bike in the back. he didn’t verify or second guess my request, i guess it was very clear to him that i needed help. he cleared out the back seat of his truck, and welcomed me in. his girlfriend was riding shotgun and kept apologizing for the mess. i told her don’t worry, i am just so happy to have a ride. the guy and i had some small talk, but i was having a difficult time talking. my throat was so dry that i could barely make sounds. the ride took quite a long time even though he was hauling ass though this gravel road. 7 miles later we arrived at my truck. i was so happy to see it. the guy pulled out my bike and backpack and wished me luck and we waved good by. i opened my truck and climbed in the back and laid down watching the sunset.
in life i can’t imagine what i will be like to be in my 90’s if i make it that long. i imagine that’s when you just “give in”. you won’t really need to ask for help, but hopefully there will be people around you to help even if you don’t ask for it. all shame will be gone and you may even feel good, that you made someone else feel good that they helped you. i hope this is how it works out, but until then i’ll just have to wait. as a side note, whenever you help someone do it with enthusiasm…
your mileage my vary