Last week my friend Ezra called me an athlete.
This caused me to choke on my drink, followed by several minutes of coughing and spluttering. Me? Athlete? PFFFFFFTTTTT. Not with my athletic history.
At age 6, I won first place in my beach club swim team race. I later learned that no one else had been competing.
At age 9, I developed a profound interest in perfectly tying my shoes. This happened to overlap remarkably well with games of tag in gym.
At age 12, I broke a bone for the first time in a bouncy castle freak accident.
At age 15, my father saw me run for the first time. He made fun of me for years.
There’s a reason I’m a software engineer, people! I spend my days surrounded by Soylent guzzling nerds who run 12 minute miles and I LIKE IT THAT WAY. These are my people. This is where I belong, or so I thought.
Joining The Dream Project was a major shift in lifestyle for me. On a cycling day, I spend anywhere between five and seven hours on my bike. I drink electrolyte powder, and I care about my protein intake. Worst of all, I’ve become the kind of person that refers to a 6 am wakeup as “sleeping in”. Seriously, I haven’t struggled with my identity this much since I was 12, and getting to this point was not easy. Most of my blogs about this trip have been pretty positive, but it’s time I was honest about the less glamorous parts of the adventure.
The first two weeks on the road were among the hardest things I have ever done. Pennsylvania was, as my teammate Katie put it, “baptism by fire.” I had been so worried about the Rockies that I completely forgot that Pennsylvania is not flat, and the first few days were total misery. I couldn’t keep up with the group, and if a hill was long or steep enough — and they almost always were — I would only manage to make my way up a portion of it before an asthma attack forced me off my bike, gasping and wheezing. I hated slowing the group down. I hated walking my bike up hills. Most of all, I hated not being able to do what everyone else seemed to manage with ease. Soon I got anxious whenever I saw an upcoming climb, and that only made things worse. At the end of the day I was always completely exhausted, and the thought of keeping this up for two months put a heavy feeling of dread in my belly.
As the landscape flattened, things got much easier; I found that I was mostly ok with long distances as long as the terrain wasn’t too intense. Seriously, God bless Ohio. I spent most of the time on very high resistance, and on the little hills we did run into, I found that it was easier to stay in a higher gear for as long as I could comfortably pedal before shifting down. Lower resistance = faster pedaling = breathless SaraAnn. Gradually, I started to challenge myself to go a little bit farther, a little bit more, just a tiny bit more before shifting down on climbs. One day we reached the top of a bit of a steep stretch and Katie asked me in surprise, “How’d you do that in high gear??” I glanced down at my bike, confused. She was right. Somehow, I hadn’t noticed.
Soon after that, my feelings toward hills began to thaw. They went from fear-inducing to merely annoying, and a little while later I actually started to like them. It felt so good to make it to the top without stopping, knowing that I couldn’t have done that a week ago. As we moved into Indiana, the terrain got tougher, but so did I. I learned how to focus on my breathing, to stop thinking so much about the next water break and be present in the ride. I was still usually the slowest in the group, but at least now I was able to keep moving and catch up with them eventually. It was frustrating to not be able to keep up, but like I did when I was learning to code, I tried to focus on progress. Avoiding comparing yourself to others in this kind of setting is nearly impossible, so I focused on the comparison between not and SaraAnn from a month ago. Progress might be slow, but she reassured me it was happening.
This past week has been the best by far. I was out of commission for a few days with a nasty cold that’s currently sniffling its way through the whole group (sorry guys), and the first day I got back on my wheels I was still coughing and sneezing enough to make a Kleenex executive giggle with glee. I didn’t look at the elevation map that day, which turned out to be a good thing. After the first checkpoint, Tae Ho warned us that there was a massive hill coming up. “It’s a giant wall,” he said. Gulp. But after two days sniffling in the car I wanted to get back out there, and I was nervous about taking too much time off, so I gave it a shot. Gradually, my legs began to burn, but it wasn’t horrible. There was a slight slope, sure, but the hill hadn’t yet materialized. I focused on my music and kept pedaling. My breathing felt oddly heavy, considering that I couldn’t see any tilt in the road. Ugh. Whatever, ignore it. Okay, this sucks but I don’t want to die. That thought stayed with me for a while until an eventual downward slope, and I braced myself for the wall. And I kept bracing myself for that giant hill, all the way to the next checkpoint, when I finally admitted to myself that not only had I passed it… I hadn’t even noticed it. I dove into the next stretch with confidence, despite the additional upcoming hills. Between the recent cold and developing fatigue, that did turn out to be too much, and a severe asthma attack forced me into the vans until the next stretch. I was a little bummed, until Riley showed me the elevation map up to where I stopped. Had I really done all that? I let myself sit in a warm glow of pride for a while as I squinted incredulously at the spikes and dips. Sure, I hadn’t gotten through all of it — but I had never gotten anywhere near this far before. And you know what? I got back on my bike, rolled into Minnesota, and finished the day strong.
As the week continued, so did those victories. A couple days later we were staring down an eighty mile route, and my initial reaction was absolutely the hell not, no thank you, nope. Up until then, I don’t think I had ever done more than sixty five miles in a day. I got started with everyone, figuring I could tap out if I absolutely had to. Ten miles in I decided it would be silly to stop before forty, that much I could do easily. When we got there, I felt totally fine, in fact pretty good; it didn’t even seem like I had done any exercise. By sixty miles, I wasn’t so much tired as I was ready to be done. This was our usual distance, and it felt strange and annoying to get back on my bike when this was the time I’d usually flop down on the nearest couch. But I had made it this far and dammit I was going to finish. A map mistake bumped our mileage to ninety, but I was already committed. I was doing this, I wanted the victory of rolling into our stop for the night and I was going to get it. And yes, when the few remaining riders suggested powering through the rest of the way I was nervous, certain I’d be left behind. Running out of good music to listen to and just wanting to be done, I pedaled harder, determined not to drag everyone else down. When I hit the front of the group I kept the pace, certain that they were hot in pursuit behind me. In fact, I accidentally led us through a good deal of that last stretch before Riley reminded me that she was in fact the one with directions and we were going to have to make some turns soon. When we finally rolled into our stop for the night, I was stinky, starving and parched — but to my surprise, I felt ok, nowhere near as tired as I had been on Day 1 (see: I’m sore in places I didn’t know existed). When I checked my Strava for the day and learned that I had biked 91 miles in 7 hours of moving time, burning over 2200 calories to do so, I felt even better. I’ve been proud of a lot in my life, but this was a brand new feeling of accomplishment.
There’s no doubt about it: my body’s changing and the proof is in the miles behind me. Sure, there are some aesthetic differences, but frankly I’ve never cared about that less than I do right now. Who cares what it looks like, look what it can do! Accompanying these changes is also a strange sort of disconnect between the body I’m used to living in and the one that’s really there. I still get nervous when our mileage for the day is longer than usual, I still gulp when people suggest moving at a faster pace or warn us that there’s serious elevation gain. I’m learning what I’m capable of, and pushing what I think I can do to discover how much I can actually handle. It’s difficult for sure, but every new challenge gets a little bit easier, because every day I’m adding one more item onto a steadily growing checkmark of accomplishments. And if I could do those… maybe I can conquer this one too.