Last weekend, I did “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” As a mother of two, I was asked, “harder than childbirth?” Yes. Harder than that.
It has been one hell of a year for me, chock-full of tough stuff. I lost my mother to suicide without a goodbye. I learned my long-lost father died mere months after her. And, I signed my final divorce papers. I officially became a middle-aged orphan and divorcee.
Yes. Harder than that, but in a different way.
Okay, so what did I do? I went for a bike ride.
Not just any bike ride—one that is famous here in the northwest of America: the Seattle to Portland (STP). Around here, you say, “I did the STP last weekend,” and people say, “Ouch.” I biked 200 miles in two days. And, while it isn’t unique to do it (I was joined by 10,000 other crazy cycling lovers), it was profoundly life-changing.
Explaining what it is like to set out on an adventure through two cites, along back roads, for 12 hours at a time with 10,000 other cyclists is near impossible. It deserves Hemingway-level description. The beauty and the misery is beyond my writing talent.
But, I will tell you about the morning of the second day. There is amazing grace in speeding around curves framed by vast green fields, along with hundreds of other cyclists pedalling through the early mist. In single file, we looked like stitching on a quilt as we crisscrossed the landscape. And yet, there was barely a sound. All I could hear was my tires wetly spinning on the dark asphalt.
I will feel the freedom of that morning forever.
Other moments were full of intensity—cars whizzing by, horns blaring, kicking up dust in the wind, gasps of suffering, tears, and triumphant shouts. The pleasure of barreling down the Longview Bridge at 30 miles per hour after shaking to climb it at 10. And oh, the miles, the miles—they just kept coming.
These experiences can only be felt, not written.
There is only one thing you get more of during the STP than miles: Time. Time to think. Time to become friends with pain. Time to become friends with “hard.” Which is how I know it was tougher than childbirth.
How could that be?
I explained, “Well, when you’re having a baby it’s really beyond your control at some point. The agony happens without your choice.”
Choice made this my hardest thing, but a different kind of hard.
We all avoid pain. We go to great lengths even to avoid being uncomfortable. On the ride, I tried everything to avoid pain. I couldn’t escape, so I pressed on. My neck, legs, arms, head and heart screamed at me. So, you may be asking yourself another question right now. Then why do it for goodness sake?
My answer is in a paraphrased quote from Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I scrawled it across my arm in permanent marker the night before the STP. Strayed wrote that hiking the Pacific Coast Trail was the hardest thing she’s ever done; although she’d also lost her mother and divorced. My shortened version of her quote went like this:
“It was hard in a different way, a hard that made all the other “hardest” things a little less hard.”
~ Cheryl Strayed
I went seeking that feeling when I took my first pedal stroke. For two days, I found it.
Pain arrives in all our lives, usually without us wanting or expecting it. To keep living while hurting is the hardest thing all of us will ever do.
To my surprise and joy, I found a lot more than just hard stuff. There are life lessons in the gritty, lovely, heartbreaking and soul-affirming sport of cycling.
10 Lessons that 200 by Bike Teaches Us:
1. Do hard things. Afterward, all the things you thought were hard—aren’t.
2. Go your own pace when you need to, even if it separates you from everyone else for a bit.
3. Choose companions who will love you at your best and worst.
4. Learn to relax in the downhill; it’s as important as pushing in the uphill.
5. Do not start with doubt, and you will never consider quitting.
6. The journey makes you family.
7. Cheer for each other. You don’t know who needs you or who you’ll need around the next turn.
8. People are capable of great kindness.
9. Sometimes, all you can do is move the next five feet—and that’s okay. Just don’t give up.
10. Up, down or sideways, and even when it hurts, enjoy the ride, because it will all be over too soon.
I believe these lessons apply even if you have never spent any time pedalling. May your journey be hard, but amazing.
Author: Stephanie McManus
Image: Author’s Own
Apprentice Editor: Justine O’Connell; Editor: Toby Israel