When I’m asked to provide a brief biography of myself (not that it happens often), I like to throw in there that I’m a keen cyclist. It’s done to add a hint that I’m sporty and active, and it’s true, I’m a fan of cycling. I have a road bike that is far more technically advanced and expensive than I could ever justify. I’m comfortable enough in lycra cycling gear to appear like I belong in the saddle. What has been lacking from my life in recent months is much time spent actually wearing the gear and riding the bike.
It’s a hobby that demands a lot of time, with a decent 50km ride demanding at least a couple of hours. Where I live, in the Peak District of the UK, it’s impossible to leave your front door without going up or down (and then up) a steep hill. Add to this the time spent before the ride getting ready and cleaning the bike afterwards, and you can see why time was a factor (or should that be, an excuse) for not having been cycling in recent months.
This summer, the barriers of time were lowered. A week’s planned vacation extended to three weeks off work when my client announced a mandatory two-week furlough. Blessed with unpaid time on my hands and little to do, I decided to get back in the saddle.
My time off coincided with some truly summer-like weather (a novelty in the UK), and conditions were perfect for a ride. While visiting with my parents who live in a flatter part of the country, I plotted out a route of 95km that would take me to the East of England coast and back again. I’d aim to do this in 4 hours, leaving at first light so I could be up and out while everyone was in bed asleep, wasting the best hours of the day. I would ride non-stop, pausing only when I reached the seaside town of Southwold, to refuel with a banana and an electrolyte drink (got to avoid those cramps). I’d stop long enough to take the obligatory selfie of me, cycling helmet and glasses on, the early morning sun glistening off the rolling seas as the waves lapped against the shore. I’d send it to my family. They’d likely open that as they were awakening, marvelling at the fact I’d covered 50km while they were still asleep. I’d be back in time for morning coffee, where I’d regale them with tales of my epic feat of human endurance, all clocked up before they’d achieved a thing. I’d be the hero of the day.
I’m embarrassed to admit to that account of the thoughts that went through my head as I planned the ride. I’m not exaggerating in the slightest.
How pathetic am I?
I’m willing to accept that such thoughts might point towards some serious underlying personality defect within me, for carrying such a desire to boast and brag of such minor sporting achievements to my family. In my defence, I would point out that it’s not solely related to my cycling or a desire to impress my family. It has struck me in the aftermath just how often I set out upon many endeavours and trivial tasks while thinking about how the outcomes and results will reflect upon me and whether I’ll be able to brag about them. I’m often so wrapped up in what other people will deduce from my anticipated successes, that I can forget (or at least, become less concerned about) the real reason I started out in the first place. Am I alone in this?
As it happens, enough time has since passed after that ride for me to reflect on it with fondness and a small sense of accomplishment. At the time, it was like pedalling through a living hell. I ended up cycling to Southwold and back, as planned. I started at sunrise, and got to the halfway point after 90 minutes. I covered the 98km in a shade under 4 hours and captured the half-way point in a seaside-selfie (see below). That’s about all the good things I can report.
The experience itself was hell. While I was adequately fit for the endeavour, I’d forgotten how much ‘saddle-time’ matters when it comes to cycling. The paradox of road-cycling is that modern-day bike saddles are constructed in a way that presumably favours aero-dynamics and lightweight materials over comfort. The only way to overcome this is to ride frequently and immunise oneself to the pain.
I wasn’t saddle-ready.
From 10km I found myself shifting my weight frequently from one side to the other in search of illusive comfort. I suspect that the changes of position meant that numerous other aches and pains developed in my hips, knees, back, arms, neck and just about everywhere else. My hands were numb by the half-way point.
I took an improvised shortcut after about 40km as I sensed I’d taken on too great a distance but succeeded only in adding 4km to the round-trip. A minor endorphin rush at the half-way point seemed to numb the pain for 15 minutes or so. Most of the return leg, 2 hours of it, were spent trying to distract myself from the pain. I cursed every bump and crack in the road that I seemed to find, and chastised myself for getting the bike out of the garage in the first place.
My overriding thought as I pedalled my way along the (thankfully-flat) roads was why, oh why had I been so fixated on the bragging rights that I might earn from taking on and completing the modest challenge I’d set myself? Why are bragging rights even a factor?
The night before, as I lay out my kit, my Dad had suggested that if I felt uncomfortable at any point, I should turn back. Why did I find his advice so difficult to contemplate? His words first came back to me when those early pains started to niggle at me. Yet I carried on regardless, blindly-focussed only upon doing what I’d set out to do and absolutely nothing less.
I had completely forgotten that I was out there to enjoy myself. I could easily have shortened the route, taken a few different turns and been back home within a couple of hours. It still would’ve been painful, but the pain wouldn’t have been the main abiding memory. Why did I forget the importance of enjoying something that I was essentially doing for fun?
I had become obsessed by the goal that I’d set myself. To allow myself to stop pursuing it, to shift my focus onto a lesser goal or to lower my sights would signify a weakening of my resolve, a lowering of my standards and a failure to which I’d submitted. I could still have done a decent ride of half the distance or less and would have completed a decent workout. I’d have burned a bit of fat, earned a decent breakfast and could have proceeded through the rest of my day with a sense of accomplishment. Why did the goal matter? Why couldn’t it have been modified?
I was fixated on being able to tell the story to my family that I’d been rehearsing in my mind. I wanted the bragging rights, to be able to point out the many ways in which what I’d done was great, to be admired. Why did I feel such a need to impress or be able to brag to my family? They were simultaneously likely to have been pleased that I had done something I enjoy, for myself and I know they would have been impressed if I’d gone any distance at all. But as quickly as their initial praise had been given, no doubt they would quite rightly move on with their own days; my accomplishments weren’t all that significant to them whether I’d ridden 100km or 200km.
This little personality defect of mine had dawned on me and thoroughly crystallised long before I rolled into the driveway, wincing as I bumped up the curb and stopped outside my parents’ house.
So often, in so many aspects of my life, I’ve been doing things for the wrong reasons, to be able to claim the bragging rights, or in some way motivated by the story I’d be able to tell if I succeeded. Often times, I’ve had a more than adequate reason in the first place, but for some reason I’ve tried to dress it up with other, bigger, louder, sexier reasons. At times perhaps, these additional reasons have spurred me on a little, and served some useful purpose as a motivational aid. Sometimes though, the real reason, the heartfelt reason is the only reason I should have needed for doing something.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve tackled an unpleasant or taxing task for myself or to help others, staunchly resisting help, shunning the right tools or failing to wait for the right time or conditions, only so that I could earn the mantle of someone who took on the odds and won. I’ve shown a desperate need to be recognised for overcoming the odds and coming up trumps. That I was doing something positive should have been enough, but I wanted the story to tell as well.
I set myself near-impossible personal goals and then broadcast them to others (you’ve got to have group-accountability, right?) in the hope they’ll be inspired and in awe of the lengths to which I push myself. It’s not enough seemingly to do something stretching, I’ve got to earn the admiration of others in the process. Why is that?
I refuse to lower personal standards, to cut myself slack, to lower the sights or to tolerate that maybe I bit off more than I could chew. What do I have to prove?
In each instance, I’ve convinced myself that it was a case of holding myself to the highest standards, of giving each and every task my all, of pushing myself to whatever limits I could. I now see as I look back that on more occasions than was appropriate or helpful, the pursuit of bragging rights was also behind my behaviours and choices.
And so, the summer has yielded me with another valuable lesson (besides to get in the saddle more often if I intend to describe myself as a cyclist). I shall be giving up on pursuing bragging rights from here on in.
If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing in its own right; the reasons don’t need to be inflated or augmented with the pursuit of stories to tell when it’s been done. The inherent reasons for taking on a task or activity could be numerous: to broaden the mind, for health benefits, for exercise, to do something nice for someone, to learn something new, to make money, to learn a new skill or whatever else.
The reason for doing something may just be for the pursuit of fun or enjoyment. Because it feels good. Because I want to. That is good enough.
Not everything needs to be encompassed by, or contribute to the achievement of taxing and stretching goals. Even if it is, to lower our aim or to revise what we’re doing doesn’t signify failure or a lowering of personal standards. It doesn’t equate to weakness to change one’s mind or to do something different than what you set out to do, particularly when you’ve bitten off too much in the first place.
Being able to tell a story about how much you overcame, how difficult it was or what a hero you were shouldn’t be the reason you take on difficult or unappealing activities and shouldn’t be supplanted as the reason for doing something that has another perfectly valid reason behind it.
The best stories of heroism emerge naturally as an unintended by-product of the ventures that demanded efforts above and beyond what were expected or anticipated. Those are the stories I want to be able to tell, when I know that the plaudits are deserved. They cannot be artificially constructed or sought out in a bid to give my ego a boost.
I’m abandoning the pursuit of bragging rights.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to get back on my bike.
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