Right now, hundreds of sweaty cyclists are bearing up red rock canyon hills on $15,000 bikes, wearing skin-tight bibs and sipping down increasingly warm water bottles filled with Perpetuum–an athlete endurance drink that tastes something like watered down sour milk. They are doing this in a packs of eighty or so, using each other as alternate windbreakers in the same way geese do when flying in formation. It is known as America’s toughest stage race.
At this moment I am sitting in my robe, having woken up at 10 a.m., well past my regular wake-up time. I stayed up until 4:00 a.m. doing research. I feel well-rested and peaceful. In a few hours, I will drive 11,000 feet up a windy but gorgeous mountainous canyon to pick up the sweaty remains of my husband, who rode the Ultimate Challenge, a bike race encompassing 110 miles up steep mountain passes and sun and wind facing flats.
During the summer I act as the support crew and cheerleader for my husband during his many bike races. I wait at designated support zones and hand out fresh water bottles, half-bananas, Sport Legs salt pills. I will wave at all his biking friends as they pass by, heading up another huge mountain to suffer.
JUST BECAUSE YOU LOVE IT, DOESN’T MAKE IT HURT LESS
I have often been perplexed at this. Why do they do it? Why do they choose to hurt so intensely? It has been the subject of many conversations and my husband’s answer is always the same:
“Because I enjoy it so much!”
“It isn’t painful?”
“Its extremely painful!”
“But why do you do it?”
And the conversation circles. I have watched for years in both fascination and admiration at the feats of endurance he will suffer because he loves it. I keep probing him, over and over for a different answer.I have asked his friends and they say the same thing.
It hurts like hell but they love it!
Is writing any different? Don’t we have to carry our minds up steep hills of rejection and apathy? Don’t we have to carry our stories past the messy middle, the red editor pen marks, the ever present eye-rolling from our parents and siblings who think we are juvenile for even trying?
It hurts like hell, but we love it.
And that’s how it should be. If it didn’t hurt, there would be nothing to stop everyone from doing it. Writing is not a convenience store snack. It is an endurance race.
YOU NEED A SUPPORT CREW
At the end of a race, each rider has dozens of family members waiting to greet them. There are a lot of pats on the back, a lot of smiles and a lot of friendly teasing. Along the toughest climbs people will camp out with lawn chairs and coolers, douse the suffering cyclists with cool water as they pass and call out encouragement. Sometimes supporters even dress up in costumes and chase the cyclists with hot dogs and doughnuts.
I have done similar things. Last year, my three daughters and I drove up and down the canyon, blasting “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey and shouting encouragement and giving thumbs-up on the worst part of the climb. The cyclists, exhausted, would muster a half smile and a wave.
But can this similar thing be done with writing? I have often thought it would be amazing if we could figure out a way. Imagine the writer, stuck in the middle hell of a book, trying to write themselves out of a dark corner. They are alone and frustrated. The internet beckons. They suddenly feel like it would be a great time to organize their hat collection.
In other words, its the 11,000-foot climb and no one is there to cheer us on.
I used to feel righteously angry at the fact that organized sports (which are not my favorite thing) has enjoyed so much familial and cultural support, whereas the arts are left with the crickets, singing in the night, hoping someone might notice them. I used to go off on rants about our culture of sponsorship and playing cards and jerseys. It just wasn’t fair that artists didn’t get similar enthusiasm, even at the beginner level.
Then I realized that I simply haven’t asked anyone to care. I simply haven’t sat someone down and said, “Look, I’ve been working on this novel for five years now and I’m really afraid I might walk away from it right at the 99% mark. Please cheer me on, please don’t let me stop writing!”
How different would it be if we simply asked for support instead of being upset that it hasn’t fallen in our lap.
THE STRONGER YOUR MIND, THE BETTER THE CLIMB
Recently, my husband admitted to me, during one of our many dozens of conversations about biking in any given evening, that he could never have done a certain hill climb when he was 19, he simply didn’t have the mental fortitude. He said he often quit and turned downhill when things got too painful.
Like writing, cycling is heavily dependent on conditions. Here in Utah, it can get up to 100 degrees during the peak biking hours. In the winter one has to deal with slick and dangerous roads. Deer leap out from trees with the intent to kill. Strong headwinds make the ride punishing. Motorists all seem to have something against cyclists. Let’s not forget the pain of a 12% grade up a sun-baked hill.
In writing the conditions aren’t necessarily environmental. We sit in comfortable, safe places, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, sipping lattes. We aren’t sweating or sore. We haven’t had to fuel ourselves with a jelly-like goo in order to keep going. Our electrolytes are fine.
And yet, we stare at the blank screen, unable to start typing.
It’s the inner storm that plagues us. We may be wondering how we can get everything finished at work and still do a little writing. We might feel guilty that we haven’t had a good conversation with our teen in weeks. We might be ruminating over a terrible past mistake or wonder if anyone cares if we do this at all. We are thinking about how we probably aren’t that good or how we wish we had finished college or how the bank account is looking dangerously red.
We may as well be trying to push a bike up a 12% grade in the heat.
Yet, like my husband, I have noticed that with practice and age, these thoughts have lessened. The worries have to work a lot harder to get me down. I have developed numerous tips and tricks to help me finish what I start and they are all there, like bottles of Perpetuum, to help me pull through.
The act of daily writing really does help with the hard spots. It does get better.
CELEBRATE THE FINISH LINE
I will wait for several hours at Snowbird basin, watching cyclist after cyclist come up the mountain, squinting, trying to figure out if that’s my husband. From a distance, all cyclists look exactly the same. One kit looks like another. Bikes are a blur.
He will arrive unexpectedly when I am looking down at my phone or paying attention to a painter, who has set up a plein air station. They will call his name over the speakers and I will be filled with relief. He somehow did it!
Those 100 miles will have kicked his butt. He will look like someone sucked his marrow out with a straw. He will be low on salt and hungry. He will want desperately to get out of his biking shoes. He will crave anything but his recovery drink, which he must have to prevent lactic acid buildup.
We will go get pizza and talk about the race. We may ride the tram up to the summit. Whatever we do, it will be in celebration of the finish. There won’t be Boom Bands playing. There won’t be trophies. There will be a quiet satisfaction of a job well done and the silent planning of the next race to come.
Celebrate your finished work as you would the end of an endurance race. Have pizza and talk of the next story you are going to write. Watch the squirrels chatter at each other in the trees. Go to the top of the summit and look down on the valley and realize that mountains are there to be climbed and races are there to be won. Without them, we wouldn’t suffer and we wouldn’t love it so much.
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