Monday, 17 February 2014

Why I do endurance cycling

What is it that attracts people to endurance cycling, or endurance anything?  This is something I’ve often pondered but have never been able to answer satisfactorily.  What makes it so difficult is that the reasons are many, varied, and, in my own case, seem to change with how I’m feeling.  I’ve tried to put my thoughts down here and, sadly, it’s not adequate.  But I think that it needs to be explained.  Why does a person do something that hurts so much and consumes all your time?  I’ll divide my answer into three parts: (1) what got me into the sport; (2) what kept me persisting; and (3) where I am at now.

1. What got me into the sport?

Two things probably attracted me to the sport in the first place, one positive and the other not.

First was a childhood and continuing adulation of those who push themselves physically and mentally.  As a child, the people who fired my imagination were not necessarily sportsmen or super-heroes, but the explorers, mountain climbers, and other loners who faced immense odds and did not always win.  What attracted me was their courage.  This is what has drawn me to solo sports.  It also fitted in with my introverted personality.  I initially got great pleasure from tramping, with running eventually becoming a more time-efficient way of getting similar highs.  Cycling was forced on me by knee problems that worsened as I got older.  It coincided with my children growing up and leaving home, which has suddenly given me a lot of more time to spend on myself.  The perfect recipe for endurance cycling!

Second and not so positive, throughout my life I’ve been subject to depression.  As such, an appeal of endurance sports had been the negative one of being able to hurt and humble myself, of being able to punish and physically crush myself.  Not so good!  However, there was a positive spin to this wish for self-annihilation.  In the hurt and hunger I might feel on a long run or bush tramp, or the fear I’d feel scrambling up a steep slope or kayaking off-shore on a stormy day with no-one around, I would gain a new appreciation for life.  We have a natural desire for self-preservation and there is no better way to kick this off than to put yourself at risk.  It definitely puts things into perspective and jolts you to the reality of what is important in your life.  Strangely enough, it also gave me a peaceful, almost religious connectedness with the natural world around me.

As an aside, let me say that I’m not like that anymore.  It’s been a while since I’ve been in a depressed state.  Sure there’ve been ups and downs, but that’s normal; depression is another thing altogether.  And part of the reason is endurance cycling!  Essentially, what it’s done has been to fill my life with an easy-to-grasp sense of purpose and has put things into perspective.  Pretty much, it’s filled the void that was a contributing factor to much of my previous depression.

2. What continues to keep me in the sport

Obviously the above reasons also serve to keep me in the sport.  But there are others too.

One reason is the great sense of satisfaction of successfully overcoming a challenge.  When I think of the particularly memorable parts of a race or hard ride, it’s always the bits when I’m suffering the most that I think of.  And I remember them with fondness and pride, because they are what I went through and overcame to get to the finish line.  The greater the challenge, the greater the satisfaction!

Another thing about this sport is that it gives an almost primeval sense of purpose.  It brings everything down to the simplest of levels – to ride, to ride fast, and to finish.  And, when not riding or racing, then to prepare for the next one.  It’s away from frivolous things such as television, computer games, work plans, the opinions of others, household goings-on, and so on.  It’s life at its most basic and instinctual.  To look after yourself, to go fast, to keep eating, and so on.

Existing at this primeval level also means there is absolutely no bullshit.  Bullshit won’t get me over yet another hill while in a state of absolute exhaustion.  The bullshit of others won’t help them either.  Endurance cycling is an honest sport.  In the end, it’s about getting to the end and doing so in the time you want.  That’s what counts.  If I don’t, then I don’t need to embellish things with excuses.  I just need to succeed next time.

Here’s another variant of some of the above reasons.  How many wars in the yester-years did not begin with teems of young men rushing to join up and be a part of it.  So many things attracted them.  Endurance cycling offers the same thing and does so without the misery and toll of war.  And I think that there is definitely an urge to do this sort of thing for humans (men anyway), even though most confine themselves to realising it in books and computer games.

All of the above sounds dreadfully earnest and dull.  Here’s a more positive and light-hearted reason.  Cycling is a great sport.   Period!  It’s just great riding a bike.  The almost air-borne freedom you feel; the speed and power you can achieve from that supremely efficient machine beneath your backside; the joy of charging down a steep hill, or powering up and down rolling hills, or taking sharp corners fast!  It’s exhilarating.  It also takes you places quickly.  Within an hour, you can be up in the hills; within a couple of hours at a beach 50 km away.  There is also that sense of camaraderie with all those fellow cyclists that you socialise and skirmish with.

I do enjoy the social side too, even if it is brief.  I’m part of the endurance cycling scene.  Endurance cyclists are amongst my good friends.  I also have made good friends amongst wider circles because of their interest and respect for what I do.  I may be an introvert, but in the end the human is a social animal.

And, I must admit, I do enjoy the recognition and praise that comes with the territory.  This is by no means the reason I started this sport or remain in it, but it is rather nice.  I was stunned at the adulation I received when doing my first Taupo Enduro.  It wasn’t something I was used to and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

Endurance cycling has also given me a lot more confidence.  Interestingly, it’s not just that I know I have the ability to push myself and have people’s respect.  In fact, it might mainly be because I just couldn’t care a less.  What do a lot of the petty things we have to deal with matter when I’m dreading the intense 3-hour training session I have this evening, or the fact that I’m still really sore from the last ride, or that I have to get up well before dawn tomorrow for an all-day ride, or that I know just how much I’m going to suffer in the next race.  It’s easy to be confident in such circumstances.

But basically it comes down to this.  Endurance cycling fills what has been an existential void for me.  I have always felt the need for something greater than myself, something to really challenge me and push for.  It’s how I’ve been made.  And not many things fill that void.  I’m too analytical to be swayed by religion.  Ego doesn’t take me far, as it’s hollow.  I’ve tried politics and “good causes” in the past, but do not have the personality for it.  Work is pretty empty.  I’ve never been interested in developing close networks of friends around me.  And I’m too far removed from the world’s trouble spots to know how I can make a difference there.  But endurance cycling does it for me.  It’s hard, unbearably hard sometimes.  And it’s a mission.  It’s filling my life.

3. Where I am now

In a nutshell, endurance cycling is currently my life.  It fills my time, energy and focus.  It’s how I define myself.

This is not all good, as the duration and intensity of the training is tough.  It’s very easy to feel quite overwhelmed by it.  Most importantly, it is a lot of time away from Helen.  I also often have a sense of foreboding and fear for the next race on the schedule, which, as always, is yet another step up in distance and difficulty.

But I do love being on my bike, riding with others, pushing myself, and continuing to work towards my goal.

I know that there will be a time that I will move on from this fixation.  Hopefully it will be replaced by something more healthy and moderate.  But, in the meantime, endurance cycling it is!

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