Sweet Oblivion

Tire Pull

I love cycling. I love the simplicity of the machine. I love the connection I feel between me, the bike, the road and the countryside I am gliding through. Though pedaling is where my heart lies most of the time, every year I take a break from the saddle for a couple of months. In its place, I bury myself in another form of endurance training. The diversion is good. It renews my desire to go long on the bike in the Spring. It forces me to use other parts of my body.

Ever since I was little, running has filled in the cracks of my endurance pursuits. I can always run. Anywhere. Any time of the year. With Autumn here, and Winter on its heels, running gradually turns into sled hauling. And to train for two Winter events that involve pulling my gear in a sled, I have turned to a new form of resistance. The tire. In this black, round chunk of steel and rubber, I have found a new level of mental clarity.

I think I will be forever intrigued by the theory that there is a gene deep inside of me that drives me to do some of the odd things that I do. It is a blustery, gray morning with a light mist blurring my vision. Lake Superior waves are rolling in on my left as I click the last carabiner to my waist belt, lean forward into my poles, and feel the weight of the truck tire hooked up behind me start to drag through the sand. Why?

Among the other special landmark dates like birthdays and holidays, my year is punctuated by four other occasions: racing the Spring gravel classics in Southern Minnesota, racing the Arrowhead 135 in early February, and training in the Fall and late Winter for each. And though I will never race to win the gravel classics, and maybe not even place at the Arrowhead, they are races none the less. They are races against the clock, against getting older and races to stay connected to past lives I have lived.

The gravel cycling races of the Spring and early Summer are wonderful events. I even went as far as to design and host one here in my neck of the woods. The Arrowhead 135 is also a very special race. Competitors must choose between one of three disciplines; cycling, running or skiing. I have finished the Arrowhead now in all three. The Arrowhead 135 allows me to indulge my base athletic instincts as a runner for a simple change of pace away from the bike. Where cycling is a graceful composition between a person and their machine, running brings athleticism down to its barest structure. Very little gear is needed. Speed is reduced to a fraction of cycling’s. There is only you and the trail and your desire to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

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I often get asked at work, “…why are you doing this?” “Why are you walking for hours though negative 30 below zero weather?” “Why are you riding your bike over 340 miles of Iowa gravel roads without sleep?” And, “why haul a giant tire behind you through the sand just for fun?” These are obviously legitimate questions. And a cohesive answer has eluded me many times. But a couple of days ago, head down and plodding along, I thought of something that stuck.

It parallels a criticism I often hear at work (as a male RN on the cardiac floor and now the ER), “Men can’t multi-task…sorry. Women are just better at doing several things at one time…” I bristle every time I hear it. But after defining “multi-tasking” with my wife, a writing instructor, I am starting to think there might be some logic to such a statement. It pains me to leave a project (or task) unfinished. And my days are filled with such unsettled business. But let me continue on with the main point…

I have speculated that I was born in the wrong century. Instead of working in the hospital as a RN, I should really be walking the Oregon Trail westward with my family, amid the prairie, wolves, and roaming grizzly bears, looking for that ideal plot of land to call home. Or, maybe I should have been jumping between foxholes in the Great War, living in mud and blood and cold and death. Or possibly, just possibly, stalking Wooly Mammoths 10,000 years ago right down the street where the new Super America is being built. What does one do with this energy that was designed for another era?

I abhor war, but pretend to understand it. As much as I play around with the war metaphors, I know that my desire to pursue endurance sports probably has little to do with actual war. And nor do I want to compare myself to those who have actually been shot at. But there is a special part of me that needs this physicality just like I need water. I simply must pull something. Or pedal endlessly into the night. Or dream about doing some sort of adventure that pushes me beyond what I think I am capable of. I have to lash something down with a cord and a trucker’s hitch. I have to pack my gear that will help me survive into a too small pack. I have to move and pretend to be self-sufficient. I must.

But as I was pulling my tire along the deserted beach, I realized that it may be more base than that. I just need focus. Or, in another way, the act of endurance training allows me to enter what I have started calling “the sweet oblivion.” This oblivion is born from the simplicity of only needing to get from point A to point B. The simplicity of focusing solely on eating, moving, temperature regulation and staying awake. A world that is free from multi-tasking.  Note that most of these are pretty low on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There certainly can be complex issues at play surrounding these activities; such as travel logistics, financial investments, and gear necessities. But when stripped down, there are only the essentials. There is only the staying awake in the wee hours of the night after having pedaled for 20 straight hours. There is only the resistance felt from your sled as you step one foot in front of the other, trying to reach the finish before you fall over from exhaustion.

There are no mobile devices, “smart phones,” six year old tantrums, patients crawling out of bed confused, meth-ed out addicts yelling at you for more drugs. There is only breathing, pedaling, walking and eating. There is only that resistance felt in your legs and arms from the sand and the gravel and the snow. And given enough time, even the voices in your head go away. In those rare states of endurance grace, I can become a simple creature only interested in the most rudimentary of bodily functions. It is an incredibly selfish act, this search for my own temporary oblivion. But, for some genetic reason, that desire to devolve is still present.

I lean into my tire rig and choose a new landmark to make. That piece of driftwood. That black spruce. And I dream of walking through the night and pedaling alone with miles and miles still to go.

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