Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Return of The Rider and The Machine

When is a 15 mile ride not just a 15 mile ride?

The last time I was on my bike, it was for a funeral.
The last time I was on my bike, my daughter was born.

Spring is working hard to crack open here. The temperatures approached 50 degrees, but the cold wind reminds that winter won't be undone just yet. Even so, it was time, at last, to ride again.

There is nothing - no thing, as my friend says, like being on the bike.

I was thinking, as my mind shifted to auto-pilot, about how synchronous the experience becomes between us, The Machine and me. My fingers flex the gear shifters automatically, feathering them just-so to avoid any chain rub - I don't think about this, it just happens. I push the pedals at 90 revolutions, and I can feel when I'm there, or pushing too hard, or going too easy - The Machine tells me what's happening. Cliche's should be avoided, but there is a weird synergy there. I am thoughtless about the machinery underneath me; if we are not compared to some new organism, then at least let the Machine be like a Gunslinger's worn ivory handles, or an old Cattleman's hat, or maybe the horse and saddle underneath him; time-tested, weather-worn, experienced. So that we fit. Click. There's a sense of us. And when that happens, it's no longer a ride, and it's hardly bicycling, and it certainly has nothing to do with triathlon. There is achieved an event horizon, where those things are left behind, where the experience is all there is. Wind and breath and exertion and the quiet, slightly metallic thrum of chain on gears on wheels on tires on earth.

I was thinking these things - truly doing my best to not turn the first and so splendid ride of the year into some kind of metaphysical exercise in worship, when - and I'm surprised it was 10 miles in before this all came abruptly to mind - I remembered the last time we were Rider and Machine.

When is a half marathon not a half marathon?

My mother's father was sick all summer, arguing first with some illness or another, then fist-fighting with it, and finally in full defense of age's assault. He seemed to almost pull through, only to be flanked by surprise and suddenly take a new devastating hit. My Grandpa's life, and my life with him, is a longer story than I'll share here, but I imagine it's not terribly unique; I watched him age, but never considered he'd not be here. I have thick volumes of memories and laughter and frustration and love shared for and through him. He was one of the brightest stars in the constellations that guided me into becoming a man.

I was told to come home, that it was time. I went as fast I could. I went a thousand miles, back to Dakota, where I'm from. He was in the last throes, then. Not responsive. An icon only. A shrine to himself, for all of us, his children and grandchildren and wife, packed into his tiny hospital room.

A day passed, another. We kept vigil. His daughters sang his favorite hymns. His sons kept quiet watch. His wife dozed, and we dreamed she was meeting him there, wherever there is. His candle burned inevitably lower. On Sunday morning, October 14th, we were told to come in, things were happening. We rushed. He rallied. We waited.

I ran.

I ran to every landmark I could think of in my old hometown, making short distance of spaces that seemed so far between growing up. I ran down my old street, past my old house, where my father lived and died. Down further to Ninth street, turning right, past my other old house, the one I grew up in, the one that I still visit frequently in dreams. Down my old neighborhood then, hearing the echos of bike chases and front yard football and back yard swingsets. Down to First Lutheran, where my parents were married. Where I was baptized. Where Dad's funeral was held. My wedding, my brother's, my sister's.

Straight on, now, past my best friend in high school's old house, our laughter and basketball games and time there the pulse to my footfalls. It's like any small town. I can point to almost any street, any park, any store, and tell you something that happened there once. All threads in the fabric of me.

To the cemetery now, and stopping at the grave of another, and the brightest, of the stars in my constellation. I slow, crouch down on my haunches, breathe deeply. "Pops. I can't think of any reason he should still be here, not like this. He's ready to go. If you have any part in any of this, help him out. Do what you can. It's time."

I hit my fist to my heart twice, like he did once when seeing me off to Boston, then press my hand into the earth above where we buried him 11 years ago. I do this whenever I visit his grave. Always. I wiped my forehead then. I kept going.

Left past my Dad's old business. Through downtown and the movie theater where I had my first job. Next to the pool where I lifeguarded and taught swimming lessons all those summers. Past the high school.

Into the outskirts now, and all the way to Spring Lake Park. It skirts the old golf course, where I spent so many weekend mornings with the old man, including the very last summer day I'd ever spend with him. 2 miles around it, and I see the small lake where I used to fish for perch. The hill where we used to go sledding.

Coming home now, and my legs are tired and this whole time I've been putting memories in a jar. Thinking of my Grandpa. About a life lived. About what that means. How it goes. Where it is.

I glance at the Garmin, finally. I wonder why I even brought it - I haven't thought or cared. This wasn't a training run. This wasn't even a run. This was something else. Something private and personal. It was, I realized, my time with my Grandpa. Trying to find him in the haze, wherever the essential him was now, with his body uselessly awaiting something else. I thought, maybe if I go look under every stone in this old town of ours, I'll find him.

My watch says, at that moment, 13.1 miles. In under two hours. This would be, I remark, some kind of personal record for me, if it were relevant at all. Such things as records, or mileage. Who cares? Let me run.

I finally turn the corner to my brother-in-law's house, where I'm staying with my sister, to shower quickly and go back to the hospital. Then my sister's car turns the corner ahead of me. She sees me. Stops. Gets out.

"He's gone."

We flee to the hospital directly. I'm sweating and in Under Armour and Asics. We arrive to the whispering, quiet hush of mourning. I weep then. Hard, and loud, and long. He's gone. He's gone. He's gone.

On Monday, we wrote the obituary. On Tuesday, we finalized funeral plans. I was to join my brother and cousins as a casket-bearer. Then Amy called. "Come home." She's 4cm dilated. But...it's 3 weeks too early? The baby doesn't care! Come home!

Probably all of us suspected then that it was an over-reaction. One of those false alarms. Close calls. I would miss my Grandfather's funeral. My mother, she hugged me as I left and said, "Go now. Tend to the living. Grandpa goes with you."

I flew. A thousand miles home. Calling at every few mile markers, to make sure all was well. Praying to my God or my Dad or my Grandpa or whoever was in charge that I might make it. Trying to make sense of such conflict as comes of simultaneous, nearly equally profound joy and grief.

I got home. Exhaled. And waited.

Part Four
When is a 15 mile ride not just a 15 mile ride?

I got on my bike the morning of Thursday, October 18th, to attend the funeral of my Grandpa Wally. I didn't know what else to do. What am I, supposed to sit in front of my computer and work, knowing that my family is at that moment paying respects? Should I sit quietly and reflect on things? Find a church somewhere and worship?

I didn't know. So I got on my bike. It was the only thing that felt right. It wasn't about being a triathlete, or Ironman, or any of that. It was the only place I could think of where I could dedicate my efforts, my thoughts wholly to the memory of my Grandpa. Where I could process, pay tribute, actively grieve. And, in some way, give of myself.

So I rode, and let the tears stream windblown across my face, and didn't take action to think of anything in particular. I didn't try and be anything, or anyone. I just rode my bike. Because my Grandpa died. And it made some kind of sense to me then. And it still does.

Then, only 2 miles from home, my phone rings. I'm carrying it with me everywhere these days. I stop at the corner to answer it. "Babe? Where are you?" My wife is at work.
"On my bike."
"Can you meet me at the hospital?"

And the Garmin will reflect that the average mph that 15 mile ride was 17.5mph. The max - which was engaged for most of those last 2 miles - was 29mph.

By day's end I would be introduced to a new, brilliant star.

Do other people have this? Do...I don't know. Chefs find solace in chopping tomatoes? Does the sculptor find some kind of zen as he reveals what's hidden inside stone? If I didn't have this, would I have done something else? Found some other means than 13.1 miles to make sense of myself in the shadow? If I look back, to all that I've chanced upon, or discovered, or stumbled upon within the labyrinth of me while simply plotting one foot ahead of the other, or turning cranks - might I have done the same in some other atmosphere? I don't know. Probably? Maybe? Or I doubt it.

What it comes down to, I considered yesterday as I turned left at that same corner where I answered the phone 5 months ago, is that it doesn't matter, because I do have this. However and whatever This is. The game is great, but it's incidental, isn't it. Take from me Ironman, or the races, or the gadgets or trappings or even the friendships and exhilaration, and I'll still be out here, on my bike. Not seeking greatness, or trying to get better or faster or stronger, or daydreaming about the newest, sexiest rocketship and how stunning I might look upon it. There is a time for those things, and a time to enjoy them in their own right. But they are just trinkets and baubles that decorate. They are not very important to what I'm doing out here.

In my soul, there is a road, and on the road there are many turns, and some lead to the unknown and others lead to safe harbors and still some are dangerous and frightening. If you could see inside my soul, you'd know I ride that road, fast and free. I glance at constellations to guide my way. I know the shiniest stars by heart.


TriSaraTops said...

Your best post ever.

Absolutely beautiful.

Team Brazo said...

Excellent Post!

LBTEPA said...

What a wonderful post

Heidi said...

What if there are no accidents...Sometimes it's strange how the stars emerge to show us the way when we don't know where we are going or why.

Amazing post. Thanks for sharing :)

marathon2tri said...

Wow. Simply magnificent.

Anonymous said...

Nice. Almost made me cry sitting in an airport waiting for my flight.

Collin said...

Amazing post. Thanks for sharing.

Triteacher said...

I read this post 3 days ago for the first time. Subsequently, it has accompanied me on a bike, a run, and a swim... Good one, X.

Sarah said...

that was an incredible post. wow. and I just had to say hi because before I knew you were here, I watched your videos on YouTube. Becoming an Ironman.