How many times have you been frustrated? Overwhelmed? Lost in the maze? Well, as a farmer I can tell you that these are not uncommon occurrences. It seems that most years in the potato industry are more than a little frustrating on average and with a year like the one we are in the midst of now, which is by most accounts I have heard is the worst in most memory, it happens more frequently to me than I’d like to admit. Enter: cycling.
What started nearly three years ago as a nice way to help me lose weight has grown into one of my preferred passions. At first it was just painful. It hurt my legs. It hurt my lungs. It hurt my neck. Last but not least, it hurt my pride. It was hard work. I mean what “normal”, “sane” person actually likes to go and pedal a bike down the road with cars and drivers too busy paying attention to their most recent “lol” text or lifted pick-up trucks trying to see how close they can get while spewing exhaust all over you? But once I got a little better at it and could see the improvement I was making it was easier to get past the pain as a limiter and instead see the pain as my reason for improvement.
It may sound crazy to some people but for those of you who have heard of the “runners high” or who have maybe even experienced it know what I might be talking about. At first thirty to forty minutes was as much as I could even comprehend handling. Then it became an hour, then an hour and a half, then after a year I was up to two hours. At this point I had gone on a couple of rides with people, namely my brother and my uncle who helped me get started, but hadn’t done a large group ride. There is a local group that meets every Tuesday night to ride. My uncle had been telling me that I should go and give it a try so one day I decided that I would, I mean what’s the worst that could happen right?
It turns out that the worst thing that could happen is getting halfway through a forty mile ride and then having your legs cramp so badly that you can’t move the pedals without one leg or the other trying to put you into what would look like a seizure on the side of the road. As I watched the main part of the group fade into the distance my uncle and a friend of his that were on the ride fell back to try and help “pull” me in to the group. When cycling the person in the lead breaks the wind in front of the group creating a bit of a slip stream or “draft” for the rest of the riders. Riding in this draft makes things easier by a long ways. As much as I appreciated the help my legs were too far gone to let us make a pull back to the main group so instead they helped drag me all the way back to town where the ride had started.
Appreciating the Pain
What I learned from this was three-fold: First, I needed to get in better shape to even hang with the group; Second, having friends on a ride can make it a lot easier; Third, I hadn’t worried about work the entire time my legs had been trying to kill me. So, now cycling had two benefits. I was getting in better shape at the same time as I was able to forget about my work worries, even if it was only for a handful of hours at a time. Now that I knew there was an additional benefit to the runners high that I was really beginning to enjoy, I got a little more serious about finding time to get my workouts in.
I started trying to go faster and farther regularly. By focusing on my ride stats like cadence (how fast the pedals are turning) and speed, I had something to make sure my mind was occupied. I was also able to head in to my workouts with a little extra incentive to get things moving. Spring time can be particularly stressful for seed potato farmers and this also happens to be when large gains for the year can be made after a winter of off-sport training. That extra motivation last year, 2016, seemed to be what really got me into making large improvements. I started the year with a short ride that ended in getting rescued because I had a flat and all of the repair stuff in my kit had spoiled over the winter. The next ride went better though and I was able to see an improvement over where I had been the year before already. I decided to go on the Tuesday Night Rides with the local group and was dropped and left alone about halfway through the ride again. Instead of throwing in the towel I took it as a reality check and really started going. I had plenty of “stress-fuel” and desire to be able to keep up with the main group and so decided to make more changes. I was riding as much during the week as work and my body would allow. I started eating better to try and aid recovery (this also helped with the weight loss I am still working on). After a few weeks of this my brother and uncle invited me to go on a seventy mile weekend ride with them.
Before this ride the longest I had gone was forty miles. I was nervous, way nervous actually. I didn’t know how to pace the effort. With a forty mile effort I was able to just go as hard as I could the whole time and not worry because if I kept up the group would help pace me and if not then I was on my own anyways. In a group of three though, one guy deciding to be a hero early on can lead to a not so fun finish for everyone. I started out just following, trying to see how fast we would be going, and listening to see if I should go slower or faster. That ride was eye opening. I learned that even a small group limits itself to the weakest rider, but that a strong rider can still keep things moving well. I also learned that I was capable of a lot more than I thought I was. Before that I didn’t think there was a snowballs chance in hell that I could do a ride that long. I mean, at my average speed that was going to be near four hours with a water refill stop or two and a bit of climbing slowing things down. Two hours before was hard enough right?
It turns out that I finished. I’m not going to lie; it hurt like hell at the end. But what I learned was worth every bit of pain. Not only had I learned again that I really could do difficult things; I also relearned that I didn’t worry about work once while I was out there on the road pedaling. At the end of that ride, my brother asked if I wanted to do a century ride with him a couple of weeks later. I think that I must have had the same problem that women who have kids do, namely that in the moment, in the pain, they never want another kid ever again. A few weeks/months/years later they usually want another one. I was the same way, those seventy miles had hurt, but by hell I wanted it again.
Learning and Relearning
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I had loaded up my family super early in the morning and loaded them and my bike into the car. I thought I was all sorts of ready for this 100 mile ride. I had laid out all of my stuff the night before, figured when I would need to leave (with my wife and the four kids we had at this point) to make it to the starting point on time – which just so happened to be 7:00 am. When you have to drive an hour to make it to a ride that is going to last at least five hours having things organized is kind of important. So, with everyone and all that I would need in the car we headed out. We got about halfway there when I realized I had forgotten my water bottles.
A quick stop into Wal-Mart on the way there and I had a couple of crappy water bottles that wouldn’t really work but would have to for today. Because of this incredible pre-planning I had done I was able to promptly arrive ten minutes late to the start, just in time to see the group roll out ahead of me. So, I grabbed my stuff and jumped out of the car, put my bike together and then got on the road. This particular ride has a thirty six mile first leg with a 2,000 foot elevation gain to get there. At first I felt good but I realized I wouldn’t be able to catch a group of twenty guys by myself. I wasn’t in that good of shape and didn’t have anyone to try and create a group with to get our own draft going. Fast forward about thirty miles and my legs were starting to burn. I was by myself and part way up the biggest climb on the biggest ride I had done to date. I made it to the top where my wife was waiting with a little bit of food and some other stuff I needed to finish but I was convinced I was going to throw in the towel and be done. My. Legs. Hurt. I had a hard time even walking around. Just when I figured I would be free and clear I saw my brother. He had waited there for me to get there. He had given up riding with the main group for me to get there so we could ride the last sixty plus miles together. I don’t think he quite knew what he was in for. I was spent, or at least thought I was. It turns out I was in for another lesson. I could endure more pain than I thought I could.
You Can Do More Than You Think
There is a bit of a distinction to make here. I am no stranger to pain. I have had multiple broken bones; collar bones, arms, wrists, toes, and ribs. I have dislocated my left hip riding dirt bikes. I have had teeth knocked out from getting hit in the face by a chain when it broke. But all of that was what I would classify as involuntary pain. This was voluntary pain. The only reason I was feeling it was because I was putting myself through it. The worst part of the whole ride was that there was a pretty stiff headwind. There was a headwind for the entirety of that ride. What was supposed to take about five hours took six and a half. But I hadn’t worried about potatoes the entire time.
Since this ride I have upped the amount I try and ride every week to around five hours, more if I can find the time. My legs at least ache a little more days than not. I use my time on and off the bike better than before. I make sure to utilize my time when I’m not at work better. I bike when I can. I practice my violin when I can’t. When I get too frustrated trying to tie my fingers into increasingly smaller knots I do something with wood. The thing is, whether the pain is voluntary or involuntary, it can always be learned from. Pain caused by problems in whatever industry you’re involved in. Pain from the squats you thought would be a good idea at the time. Whatever the cause, use it as a reason to learn and grow. Use it to always improve.