Ten Things I Learned Riding A Bicycle Across the USA

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Ten Things I Learned during Martin's Ride To Cure Cancer:
  1. The USA is a BIG beautiful country. 
  2. Bite off more than you can chew every now and again
  3. GO NOW, always go now
  4. Climb Avoided Mountains
  5. Hills look worse from distance (ride and live in the moment)
  6. When you fall, get up (see lesson #2)
  7. We never do anything alone anymore
  8. Positive thoughts enable, negative thoughts cripple
  9. Much of life is fun and funny but you may not see it at the time
  10. Things you think are important may or may not be and vice versa

1. The USA is a BIG beautiful country.
I was twenty something the first time riding a bicycle across the United States sounded like a cool thing to do. The idea germinated with such force I created Martin’s Ride thirty years later. Life is ironic and full of CATCH-22’s. When I was twenty I had the physical shape to ride three thousand miles across our rugged and variable country, but I didn’t have the experience or resources. In my fifties I had means and experience but legs, lungs and butt wanted OUT ☺.

Our minds don’t register large things. We understand REALLY BIG stuff conceptually in a fuzzy-math oblique way. Three thousand miles doesn’t sound bad. We cover 500 miles in a long day of driving (with enough caffeine and no traffic). Cars distort perception. Cars become another pair of powerful legs. Pedaling a bicycle fifty miles a day for six days in a row is different; time slows, you are the gas pedal. Looking up a mountain you know legs and lungs will get you to the top…eventually. Comfort, ease and speed give way to slow building pain with a single relief – reaching the top. It is impossible to take distance or time for granted on a bicycle. You earn every mile, moment and reward. After reaching the top of a mountain you descend like a screaming eagle because you earned the descent and the scream. .

Sometime it is best NOT to understand something. Would I have started Martin’s Ride at 52 if I really knew what lay ahead? Doubtful, but, having done it, I have new appreciation for just how BIG and beautiful our country is. We visited so many national parks we lost count. We saw North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Parkway dwarfed by Colorado’s continental divide supplemented by Utah’s Arches and Zion’s granite trumped by Yosemite’s Capitan and finally California’s sierras. Now I know how big and beautiful the United States is, a wonderful gift and worth the thousands of dimes spent.

2. Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Nietzsche was right. If something doesn’t kill us dead we get stronger (and better). Imagine the logistics of Martin’s Ride, a bicycle ride across the country to raise money to cure cancer. I was over my head, drowning doesn’t begin to cover it (lol). Seeing my mother in Tennessee I said, “sometimes you bite off more than you can chew.” It was the first articulation of an idea, a feeling I had since we left Duke University Hospital.

The solution to something so absurdly overwhelming was to let rapids move me down stream. Beginning is always hard. I didn’t know Brian or Jeremy before we agreed to live in a closet for two months taking on the hardest physical task of our lives. My first reaction (to being overwhelmed) was to organize, detail and delegate. How do you organize a white water rapid? It doesn’t work, so you strap your helmet on and hang on for life. I tried to remember to smile and have fun along the way.

Life becomes simple when you core down to survival (as every cancer patient knows). When riding a bicycle across the United States you have to eat well, take care of yourself and throw anything that doesn’t help out. We don’t control life. Change, chance and chaos are sure. Spending energy trying to organize your way out pisses into the wind.

On any journey you learn the strengths and weaknesses of your team as they learn yours. Focus must narrow to getting such a ride done safely while preserving some aesthetics (if possible). Appreciation is key. Your glass must be seen as more than half full even if you feel like you are being water boarded.

Energy may be the most contagious virus on our planet. How energy is projected becomes almost a full time job: calm beats angry and acceptance is more important than struggle. Crying over milk already on the floor must be replaced by confidence in end results not momentary failures (of which there will be many).

The most important aspect of leadership in such circumstance is to NOT actively lead. Active control is replaced by group dynamics and intelligent safe choices. The leader is whoever has the emergent expertise necessary to address a current problem. Top down can’t work in such a quickly changing world. The sum of the team’s parts is much greater than the whole.

Choking was my first reaction. I realized just how much more I bite off, so much more than I could chew. This is a natural reaction. It is important to leave any recriminations. Recriminations only make choking worse. Instead I had to become comfortable with life’s only sure thing – change. Relaxing when your body wants to fight or flee is life’s hardest Zen lesson. I learned life’s hardest Zen lesson only because there was no other choice ☺. Drown or go home brought a familiar clarity, a life struggle any cancer patient (or their family) knows well. Enjoy the precious ride is my best advice.

3. Go NOW, always go now.
There were a thousand reasons NOT to attempt Martin’s Ride. My mother wanted me to get to the Mississippi, a big body of water, declare victory and drive home. My sister was rightfully worried about my lack of mountain training. My Duke friends were worried about what could happen. I waited for the “perfect” time for Martin’s Ride for thirty years. Finally I realized now is the perfect time. Now is what we have, what we are granted. Now is always the best time to start. By the way, now is the only time anything EVER starts, but let’s put Eckhart Tolle idea aside for a moment and just say that worry about the future creates a poor NOW.

Bringing future worries forward into this moment stops forward progress. Progress stops for something that MIGHT happen. Deal directly with what IS happening. I had to jump and reach for my parachute chord assuming it would be there. I’m not saying don’t prepare. As an old P&G trained sales person I know my 5 P’s (planning prevents piss poor performance). Planning is important up to the point where it becomes an activity unto itself.

Behave as I think not as I act (mostly). Martin’s Ride came so fast and furious no planning could stem the water. Planning did help. Our pre-planning worked through North Carolina and half of Tennessee before breaking down under its own weight. Our original plan, to ride straight across the flat middle of the country, was deeply flawed. There was too much traffic, dangerous unknown roads and scary ad hoc daily planning. Google Earth can’t give you enough information to make an informed decision about a rural road in Tennessee. We junked our starting plan before leaving Tennessee.

We developed a new decision matrix where safety and beauty outweighed flatness. This meant I would climb mountains for almost six straight weeks. Mountains are where the views live. Mountains are why you make a journey such as Martin’s Ride. Martin’s Ride is at least partially about finding out what I was made of. Steep mountain roads help with such a task beautifully. We gave up our city center to city center plan in favor of rural mountain roads through small towns and national forest.

Part of going now is realizing when something is not working and quickly working together to fix it (read my article about high performing teams for more on Martin’s Ride’s team crisis). Plan but don’t use planning as a means to avoid going. Go now because now is what you have, anything else is speculation. Go now because rewards from moving always outweigh illusions of safety. Go now because change is the only sure. Better to be your life’s captain facing into change’s wind.

4. Climb Avoided Mountains
What mountains are you avoiding? My first idea for Martin’s Ride was to avoid mountains, to ride flat roads from Durham, North Carolina to Santa Monica California (read Climbing Avoided Mountains). This idea was impossible and stupid. When we moved Martin’s Ride to rural towns with roads climbing 12,000-foot mountains the ride was harder but much better. Accomplishment comes from climbing avoided mountains. No one thought I could climb Monarch Pass Colorado to the continental divide at almost 13,000 feet. No one.

It helped that no one thought I could make it. There was something to prove. On the day off before the Monarch Pass climb I created a plan. Every thousand feet of elevation would be marked with a picture and fuel (water and Hammer gels and drinks). I would slow way down. Riding Monarch Pass would take however long it took. Breaking the mountain into smaller bites made riding it possible. My plan helped my lungs not give out. I kept my mind positive. I could see progress being made, marked by taking a picture.

Once on the climb I modified my plan a little. I stopped every four miles during the ride up to the real steep stuff. Once elevation reached 6% I started stopping every 1,000 feet of elevation as planned. Getting to the top of Monarch Pass and waiting for Jeremy and Brian to catch up, they were down the mountain sure I would double back, created a sense of accomplishment. By the way, the views above 10,000 feet were amazing. The rocketing descent was so intense I could smell burning brakes as we smoked our way down the mountain. The joy at the top was greater than the pain along the way. Mountains happen. Best not to avoid mountains (or challenges), better to create a plan and ATTACK.

5. Mountains look worse from distance.
There was a ten-mile preamble to Monarch Pass’s 13,000-foot mountain. Looking up while riding this preamble I saw a terrifying mountain. Its pitch seemed impossible. It’s top went into a fog bank. It looks like a climb to heaven.

The closer I got the less intimidating Monarch Pass became. Monarch Pass’s pitch was sustained for a long time, but being right on top of it my perspective wasn’t scary. Being in something isn’t as scary as thinking about it. The mountain became metaphor. Cancer sounds like the steepest mountain. It feels like you must climb your way to heaven. Cancer is a big hill. Create a plan, modify the plan as needed and ride the mountain. Actually riding it will seem less scary than thinking about riding it (guaranteed).

6. When you fall, get up.
Falling creates defeat (read Falling), but we fall all the time at least metaphorically. The shock of it takes wind out of your sails. One minute your are up riding with confidence the next you are in the highway hoping your head doesn’t get squashed. No matter how many times I fall on a bicycle, and with clipless pedals I’ve fallen over 100 times, it is always surprising.

The ego is wounded. You are riding well. You see yourself as LARGE and IN CHARGE. Confidence is necessary to do anything in life, but there is a fine line between confidence and hubris (one I cross on a regular basis ☺). Each time you fall it feels like you can’t quite get whole again. This is funny since one could argue falling is the rule anything else the exception.

Not being in control is scary, but we aren’t in control, or we aren’t in nearly as much control as we think. Since we aren’t in control as much as we think the big hand will slap us to the concrete. There is never a question of IF only WHEN such slapping happens.

It is important to get good at falling, to roll with the momentum. This may be my most salient football lesson. Learning how to get the snot knocked out of you takes practice, courage and a little stupidity. This is one of those cases where the physical lesson, learning how to get knocked down, becomes metaphor for life’s psychic beat downs.

Ever notice your worse falls come when your ego was writing checks you just couldn’t cash? Took me a bit to make the connection, but there is one. Falling is God’s humbling universal force. Get too big for your britches and you will fall usually in proportion to how big those britches became. You don’t eliminate falling by keeping ego in check, but the severity and duration of your fall is less. What does every child know that you may have forgotten? When you fall you get back up, check your ego, adjust your confidence and get back on the horse (even it is mechanical or metaphorical).

7. We never do anything alone anymore.
Our romantic illusion of the self-sufficient man is long dead. Modern life since about the fourteenth century requires cooperation and interdependence. The three most important words today are teams, teams and teams. Teams aren’t one way to do things they are the only way to do anything.

Think about how many teams are involved in your life. Your life is supported by dry cleaners, baby sitters, teachers, doctors, cops, soldiers, firemen, super markets, restaurants and gas station and a host of creative people (if you read books, watch television or go to the movies).

Romantic illusions aside we form tribes, work in teams and contribute our expertise into a huge stew of interdependence. Martin’s Ride relied on an army of strangers, friends and family. The only thing I did alone was turn my bicycle’s crank over a million times. There is no way I could live or share such a dream trip without an army of people willing to chip in their expertise without concern to quid bro quo return.

8. Positive thoughts enable, negative ones cripple.
Climbing a mountain may be more psychological than physical. There is SO MUCH time to think. Grinding your way up a mountain your mind is more active than your legs. Minds are a funny thing. Minds can create their own dialog, one that you control only slightly.

During a long mountain climb your mind’s voice can get a skip in it something like a broken record. “You are doing good, keep going” is the kind of broken record you want. “You are tired, you can’t make it” is one of the many conversations that will zap energy out of your legs. Positive thoughts enable. Negative thoughts cripple.

9. Much of life is funny, though you may not realize it at the time.
When our RV got stuck in the mud in Kansas no one was laughing. Brian and I were thirty miles away and worn out. I called my friends and triple A, but a tow truck driver couldn’t get to our remote location for several hours. It was hot. We sat on a steel bench outside of a bike. A woman tapped on the window waving us inside. “Come in and sit in the air conditioning and have some water,” she said. We were glad to oblige. She asked us what happened.

I told her about the RV stuck in the mud. She wasn’t surprised since it rained four inches the night before after hardly a drop all summer. “Don’t call the automobile club,” she said. “Farmers do everything around here,” She stated. Not five minutes after she explained how life works in rural Kansas Jeremy called to let us know a farmer pulled the RV out of the mud and refused payment. I had to smile. I smiled with relief and recognition that much of life becomes funny with time.

10. Things you think are important may not be and vice versa.
I thought it was important to ride Martin’s Ride like a race. I wanted to set a record. I realized speed wasn’t important almost immediately. Martin’s Ride was a once in a lifetime event, so enjoy every minute of it became an important lesson.

New criteria came rushing in such as seeing beautiful views, rocketing descents (after long climbs) and visiting National Forests. Before starting Martin’s Ride these criteria wouldn’t have seemed important. If we don’t really know what is important, at any given time, then getting angry or upset when something doesn’t go as planned seems crazy. We surf shifting sands of time and belief. The only important thing is becoming a better surfer.

Posted: September 13, 2010 by Martin Smith | with 1 comments |
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Martin Smith commented on 9/28/2010 1:28:06 AM