(My apologies in advance to Robert Frost … )
Everyone knows the expression that misery loves company. As for me, I prefer to leave misery the heck alone.
In some cases, leaving somebody to his own misery is not only more convenient for me, but beneficial for the other person as well. I encountered just such a situation while riding my bike through Fort Ord this week.
About two-thirds of the way into the ride, I was spinning toward home and pondering which route I would take at an upcoming fork in the road. The intersection lies in a valley, and both paths back to the start area involve significant climbing.
The direct road begins with a killer half-mile climb, then flattens out a bit before a couple of shorter (but still challenging) inclines lead over the hill and back down to the starting point. The alternate route is a few miles longer, with a more gradual climb that reaches a higher summit before descending to the same point.
I had some time to spare, and was leaning on taking the longer way around. Then as I approached the intersection, I saw another rider in the distance, starting up the base of the direct, steeper climb.
Two things are worth noting here:
1) It’s unusual for me to see other riders in Fort Ord, let alone ones that are just close enough to help pull me up a tough hill. So having someone ahead of me like that was a great opportunity. And …
2) When I’m training, I’m one of the most absurdly competitive dudes you’ve ever met. My inner alpha dog was barking like mad; I simply couldn’t resist the challenge to reel in another rider on one of the toughest climbs in the park.
So two roads diverged in a valley, and I - … I took the one with the chump on a bicycle that I planned on hammering into the pavement. (OK, it’s not quite as poetic as another version, but that's just the way I roll.)
By the time I reached the base of the hill, he was about a third of the way up, and I was locked onto him like a heat-seeking missile. Standing out of the saddle, I was gaining ground with each pedal stroke, and right on track to pass him about 200 yards short of the top.
But as I got closer, I started noticing things.
The guy was a little bit overweight – at least, he didn’t have the obvious physique that would identify him as a regular cyclist or triathlete. He wore a big Camelpak and a cotton shirt and rode a mountain bike that didn’t appear to be sized properly. He used one of his smallest granny gears while sitting in the saddle, and weaved the handlebars slightly side to side as he climbed. He was clearly struggling.
And in the space of two pedal strokes, my competitiveness turned to sympathy. I didn’t want to pass him. Instead, I found myself rooting for him - because I’ve been him.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was the heavy guy who had to get off the bike and walk because he couldn’t pedal to the top of the hill. Then I became the guy who used the smallest possible gears and nearly passed out after finally making it to the top.
Over the years I’ve developed my skills to the point that I can power my way up almost any hill, frequently dropping training partners in my wake when the roads turn steep. However, I’ve never forgotten the humility of being willing in spirit, but weak in the flesh.
I remember the tenuous emotional balance of determination and despair that I had on those early climbs, when I often contemplated taking up some other activity that wasn’t quite so agonizing. And as I approached the rider ahead of me, I was fearful of tipping that balance in the wrong direction.
I could have rode past and yelled something like, “Keep it up!” or “Almost there!”, but I knew those words would most likely be fleeting in his memory. What he would remember more vividly is how he got passed like he was standing still by some idiot on a 1980s tri-bike. It could even be enough to discourage him from returning to the hill again.
So with about 50 yards left between us, I sat down on the saddle, coasted until my momentum stopped, then silently made a U-turn. I headed back down the hill, and turned to climb the other route back to our starting point. Most likely, the other rider never even knew I was there, and I didn’t see him at the starting point afterwards.
I hope he made it to the top. I hope he felt the triumph of cresting a large climb, and I hope he returns another day to feel the satisfaction of the hills gradually getting easier. I hope he continues to progress like I did, and learns the confidence of knowing he can accomplish many daunting tasks through nothing more than hard work and dedication.
And I hope that my leaving him to his struggle helped him stay focused on the challenge he faced, rather than making him distracted and dejected.
Two roads diverged in a sunny valley, and I – well, I rode halfway up one, changed my mind, came back down, and then took the one less traveled by. Hopefully for that other rider, it has made a small difference.
January 11, 2007
(My apologies in advance to Robert Frost … )