Permit me my sisters and brothers to begin this Tuesday with a recap of my recent exploits. Yes, normally this blog is an ode to the science behind what we take for granted everyday.
But if I may, something magical happened to me 10 days ago and I thought I might share it with cyberspace.
I participated in the INTREPID cycling stage ride through the Okanagan, BC. This is a 3-day stage race through west coast wine country. It spans 450km and over 6500 metres of climbing. In short it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done and yes, after 72 hours I indeed worried that I had lost my mind.
But with all things lost comes something gained and sure enough the experience of it all was so much more than the numbers.
For over three days in lovely September, in “Peach Country”, Canada I became the athlete I always wanted to be.
I’ve been thinking a lot these days, my sisters about what it means to be an athlete.
I think in many respects we characterize this idea in too static a term. The media, pop culture, mainstream have all tried to define the term “athlete” in a specific context.
An athlete is someone who is seriously fit, who devotes their life to sport and who is usually a part of a team of some kind.
Webster’s dictionary defines athlete as:
“a person who is trained or skilled in exercises, sports, or games requiring physical strength, agility, or stamina”
I can’t help but wonder if this definition limits the real meaning of what it means to be a true sportsman or sportswoman.
Here’s the deal….
When I was a kid I hated sports. Sure, I watched football on television with my grandmother but on a personal note- I could not get into playing it. I WAS the last kid picked for dodgeball in school. I was forced to play little league at the age of 6 but was often stuck in centre field by the coach more as a place to put me than a real position on the team.
Hint- what 6 year old girl can hit a ball to centre field? I pretty much sat in centre field (yes, sat, on the grass) and bit my nails. In fact if I’m being really honest- I usually would intentionally pee my pants in centre field in order to be able to go home, have a bath and end the madness of it all.
My mother felt terrible for me and would often treat me to an ice cream. It was manipulation at its best and really a 6-year old stroke of genius.
Fitness was something that I came to rather later in life. It was a slow progression but now it really is a part of who I am. I AM a runner…. Fast or slow. I AM a cyclist; more slow than fast- I am someone who loves to train and who competes regularly- but only against myself.
And if I’m being really honest- I don’t even do that. When I run a race or finish a triathlon I’m really only there for 2 things…. To finish and to have fun.
Sure the hours are grueling and the pain is there but there a re moments amidst it all- these glimpses when I pause almost in suspended animation and smile at the fact that this chubby kid – this little league drop out is sharing the road with the best of the best… and I love it.
Now, I’m someone who is very active. I easily do a minimum 2 hours of exercise every day between training and commuting to work. But I never really saw myself as an ATHLETE until last weekend.
You see, I’m rather slow on the field. Yes, I train but I would argue that being fast does involve having some genetic gifts. I was blessed with s decent brain and great hair. Good muscle tone? Not so much. My genes lean more towards the cerebral than the visceral. Make no mistake anyone can learn a skill- but in order to be a star I would argue that you might need to be born with a decent machine in order to make the best practice prosper.
But, I digress.
Back to my Intrepid experience.
Here’s the thing with about a bike… A bike really is about that kid inside of all of us. Cycling, at any age is the one sport that connects us to that primordial moment in all of us. A bike was your first set of wheels. A bike was your ticket to freedom. Your bike was your pass beyond your neighbourhood and into the big brave world.
Someone who loved you very much not only bought you your first bike but also taught you how to ride it. You remember learning to ride that bike- practicing every night after dinner until that moment when you could take the training wheels off and it was official- you had arrived.
Even if your bike was a “hand me down” from an older sibling or second hand from the kid down the street- your bike became your first real piece of property. You made sure you locked it up at night and you made it your own. Maybe it was a banana seat with sparkles or streamers from the handle bars- even a bell or a sticker on the back- you put your own flare on YOUR bike with pride.
And so I remembered all of this as I rode the hills and valleys of the Okanagan last weekend.
The day began with me- decked out in a fabulous cycling kit surrounded by 66 riders all Type A cycling beasts and all with less than 1% body fat. I knew it was gonna be lonely. I would not be able to keep up to these machines (the people- not the bikes) and so, I had downloaded a few books on tape and a great playlist to keep me company on the long road ahead.
The first day was a ride up Silverstar mountain. I am not a good climber but I do get it done. After 1600 metres and 22 km of an 8% grade up to the top of the ski hill I had found new swear words I did not know existed and I still had 120km to go.
Needless to say the day ate my soul. Most of the riders rode in packs or “pelotons”- pace lines that allow the cyclists at the back to benefit from drafting.
I ride alone. I have a single ear bud playing a book on tape or music to keep me company. If there is a head wind- I get it. On the down side- there is no drafting. On the upside there is no one to hear your profanity and judge you harshly.
And so it was for Day 1. After the climb and descent came a fever of rolling madness through the wilderness. I developed “Athletic Tourette’s” sometime after lunch when there was a further 500 metres of climbing before I reached the finish line.
I saw eagles, hawks, a pack of mountain sheep and the depths of my soul before I headed to the finish line where I was greeted by a black bear 200 metres in front of me. Did I turn around a pedal the other way for fear of being mauled by Mother Nature’s minion? Hell no. Bitch had had enough fun for one day- I pedaled past that black ball of fury yelling at it the whole way along.
Day one took me over 9 and a half hours to complete. And there I was ready to do it all over again tomorrow and the next day.
At the awards ceremony that night- Chad the race organizer announced the winners for the day.
In the solo women’s category I was in third place.
Yes, there were only three women in the solo women’s category and even though I was last in the pack…. If I finished this race- I’d be on the podium.
Yes, this is ridiculous. But somehow this kept me going.
Onward through Day 2, 157 km of rolling hills through Wine Country, BC. I should say it plain- I’m not a big wine drinker. Sure there are lots of reasons- the fact that I don’t like the taste of wine- being the biggest- long and short? My liver is not my best feature.
Having spent three days riding a bike through vineyards I now have less of an affinity to wine…. You see grapes are grown on hills. If you want to ride through a vineyard- you have to expect that you are going to do some climbing. And so the divide between the grape and me grew even stronger this weekend.
Day 3 saw the dawn of a new set of hills- a climb up Apex mountain and a new fabulous outfit. I did not make the cut off to climb Apex mountain. I’d like to say that I was disappointed but I’d be lying like a dog in the street.
Did I need to climb another 12% grade for 10km to prove I was a cyclist. Hell no. I was riding by myself out in the hills for the last 100km listening to a book on tape on the biography of cancer.
The book was 18 hours in and we still had not found a cure. I had endured more physical and psychic pain in the last three days than I thought possible. And yes, I was still smiling. So screw Apex- I’m still a rider- I told myself. I will finish this race with pride and I will accept my podium place.
And so there it was…. amidst the hills and the hell something magical happened. Somewhere over those three days with my body pushed to exhaustion and my will ever more willing I learned that indeed I am an athlete.
You see- I crossed the finish line 3 days later in 27 plus hours- a full 13 hours after Jay- the guy who won the whole race. But, at the post race banquet he and a group of the fastest men came up to me to express their admiration.
“Ali- you sure have heart” he said with a hug.
True to form- I was third on the podium. Yes, this may be an insult to third place finishers every where- but screw 'em. I’ve got the heart of a bronze medalist and that is really all that matters.
And sure enough- I did win an award….
I won the INTREPID award for rider who overcame the most obstacles to finish the race with the best attitude.
Let’s be clear- my whole life I was the kid with brains and not with brawn. I’m certainly never the fastest rider or runner in a group but when the rubber meets the road- I get the job done and I try as hard as I can to do it with a smile on my face (and a swear under my breath).
But I think my sisters that THAT is what it means to be an athlete. An athlete is indeed not the best in the field but the best they can be on the field.
I had got it wrong all those years- an athlete is so much so the most personal of definitions. And it is in those moments when we connect to that athlete inside of us all that we learn how great we truly can be.
Because my cyclists- life’s not about racing to count your victories- it’s about being victorious at the end of it all.