Not first, not fast: A case for racing just to finish

By The Tennessean

My friend Andrew and I rode 62 miles Saturday in Nashville’s big annual group ride for cyclists, the Tour de Nash. We started in a parking lot at Vanderbilt, cycled north through Metro Center, east through Inglewood and Shelby Bottoms, took the Greenway all the way to the Percy Priest dam and back, then back across the Korean Vets bridge from East Nashville, north again to the Bicentennial Plaza to Charlotte, to Sylvan Park, to Belle Meade, up through Percy Warner, and back to Vanderbilt with many meandering, pretty excursions along the way.

That is a long ride.

Hilly.

Trafficked.

Scary at the end when a thunderstorm caught us on the last several miles.

Many friends cheered us on; others called us crazy. Why do we do things like this?

Like all the endurance events I’ve done – half marathons, long bike rides, weird adventure races like the Muddy Buddy – I started this one with adrenaline and confidence.

Part of it is Andrew. We ride together nearly every Saturday. I know if something goes wrong – mechanically, physically or even emotionally – he will scoop me up.

Part of it is me. Running and biking are the two things I really don’t think about too much, and it’s a great mental break.

The First Bit, though, yes. It always sucks, no matter what. I can’t breathe, my legs feel heavy, it’s too hot or too cold, etc.

Soon, though, I stop thinking about what hurts and I start thinking about other things: my daughter, my job, my friends, things I want to do, places I want to go, goals that have nothing to do with running or riding. (If I’m with Andrew or another partner, I’m saying all this stuff out loud.) Because I am in it, it is very easy to appreciate the natural beauty around me – especially on the bicycle. Because I am moving, it is easy to feel grateful for my health. I work through a lot of problems during these miles.

But there comes a point, if the miles continue for long enough, when I start to feel crabby again. I’m whiny. If I’m alone, I’ll make bargains I’m too proud to reveal to another person: Just get to that traffic light and then you can walk, or turn left so you don’t have to climb the hill. If I’m with a partner, I’ll let them take the lead. If they’re inclined to take it easy, I’ll go along without protest. If they’re inclined to push ahead, I’ll suck it up but I’ll get very, very quiet.

On Saturday, my Very Quiet Point came around Mile 50.

We had ridden through North Nashville and Sylvan Park and were headed toward Percy Warner, which has arguably the toughest hills on the whole course. And though I was not looking forward to the Percy Warner hills at that point, I also was not enjoying the relatively flat expanse of Belle Meade Boulevard leading up to them. After 42 miles, that boulevard is loooooooong.

We had been riding for … I am estimating … six hours? … at that point.

I had eaten a half a bagel and two sips of a protein shake that morning.

I was not a happy camper.

We crawled our way to Percy Warner and, after a water stop at a tent where bumping into my new friend Cindy was a pleasant diversion, we began our ascension up the hills.

I shifted into a lower gear and my bike – which needs a tune-up – rejected the motion, refused to catch. “Crunchy,” as Andrew says. As I struggled to find a gear my bike would accept, it actually became harder to pedal for a minute instead of easier. I nearly careened off the edge of the trail, which definitely would have hurt.

We kept climbing.

Another cyclist – either much fresher or much stronger, or both – passed us with ease.

Andrew, ahead of me, looked back to check on me. He does not struggle the way I do sometimes.

“I’m alright,” I said.

I was alright.

“This is as high as we climb,” he said.

I was relieved.

He was wrong.

The path rose again several meters later.

But instead of feeling defeated, I was graced at that point by the thing that always happens to me after the Very Quiet Point – and that is that the Very Quiet Point subsides, suddenly but subtly like the hiccups. Like, one minute you’re thinking, “How much further? When will these damn things go away?” and then, before you think about it, you’ve moved on. The hiccups are gone.

Right after that other biker passed us, I felt The High.

I was no longer working through day-to-day problems, no longer focusing on physical pain. I leaned forward a little more. Pushed down a little harder. And then we were coasting. Ten miles (and a rainstorm) left. No problem.

In The High, it is so clear that not only will I finish this thing, but all the other things too, all the difficult things in life, including the ones I’ve not yet imagined.

I can do whatever I want, and I can deal with whatever I don’t want. Everything, everything will work out. Give it long enough, enough miles, and The High will come.

As for racing: I have never been first or fast, but I have won them all.

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4 thoughts on “Not first, not fast: A case for racing just to finish

  1. I loved how, in the middle of the pouring, cold rain, as the course took us a less-than-direct path towards the finish, you rejected instantly my suggestion that we could save a mile by skipping the uphill turn onto Bowling.

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