Losing

I’ve been thinking about how some Bernie Sanders supporters are acting right now.

A few years ago I rode the Transylvania Epic for the first time. It’s a seven-day stage race through the forests of Central Pennsylvania. I had trained so hard and hoped to finish on the podium of the single speed racers. Months of work training in the snow, on the trainer indoors, climbing and climbing and climbing, riding single track, and riding for 10 hours in a row.

zr_250-115-80
Me. With cramps. Very bad cramps.

Day one I rode conservatively and took a satisfying fourth place. On day two I flatted early after a long super-fast descent on  rock-strewn Stillhouse Hollow Road. Then wicked cramps wound up my adductors like hot steel wires halfway through the fifty-mile grind, but I still clawed back to fourth.

On day three I got heat exhaustion and dropped out. Up ahead, an 80s pick-up jerked its way down the rutted rock-strewn road. My body felt like sand. I could barely turn the pedals. In the 100-degree F heat, I was shutting down. Even my lips were losing their ability to hold a gritty grin and my face hung slack on the front of my skull, a dead-eyed mask. Defeat stared me in the eyes.

I sat out day four with pancakes and sadness. So much for being tough.

On day five my tires decided they were actually leakage devices: four flats.

Day six with toasted tires, I rode my ex-wife’s bike. I’d also drank too much the night before in self-pity, but charged on with a hangover. There was a delightful absurdity to the whole thing by this point, and a kind of mania took me. It flummoxes me to think that I didn’t dab once the whole day, that I cleared the rock gardens on John Wert and Tussey Ridge Trails on a thirty-pound small women’s bike with the seat the whole way up.

And day seven was just something to do. I had to finish with face. But I felt like years of blood and sweat racing and riding bikes were poured into a sieve. I felt a total failure.

One of the dumbest and best things I’ve ever done happened on day five. After the fourth flat, I started running toward the end. As I ran along a power line cut surrounded by hardwoods and laurel, I lost it. All I could think was how much I wanted to do well and how much had gone wrong. Petulance seethed in me. My sweat tasted of resentment. And I let it drive me to snap. I was lost in myself.

I had never learned to lose. How do you learn to lose?

I flung my bike into the laurel. Walked over, picked it up, and through it against a tree. Three or four times I did this with folks riding by. Later, some guy heard me bitching in the parking lot as my friend Bob tried to console me by the truck. This guy said…I don’t actually remember. I just remember that I told him to shut the fuck up.

I was lost in myself.

Poor Bob. He had to give this 34-year old child a ride home. I’d never really learned to lose. A couple days later Freeze Thaw’s owner, Justin, confronted me about it. He called me a baby, said he didn’t want to be associated with that, that he’d always thought it was stupid when guys lost it like that. I’d thrown my bike before. Get it together.

I was ashamed. I apologized. Justin, five years my junior, was coaching and fathering me.

He said the first words to get me out of myself. He showed me the steps to losing well.

It took almost four years for me to process all of what happened in those days. The bike throwing. The heat exhaustion and dropping out. The decision to ride on my ex-wife’s bike despite it being humiliating. The look of that truck coming down the road toward me and feeling total defeat, feeling that what I’d worked to do was gone. It took years for me to realize that the lessons for me were in patience, perseverance, and kindness to myself, and therefore in patience for others, bolstering others so they can keep going, and kindness. Then I was divorced. I worked at a boy’s boarding school where boys lost and won every day and I had to coach them. And I wrote poetry and exposed myself, learned a new way to be vulnerable, to open myself to loss. And through it, I learned how to step into a role where you are required to do what you say and say what you do. And I learned that the story we tell ourselves is not the world, that the world does as it does and we can see its beauty and distinctness as it whirls on around us. I learned more about letting go.

wildcat
Descending into the gauntlet of Wildcat Trail in the ’15 Transylvania Epic.

And last year I rode it again. I got out of my way. I lived into knowing in my body-heart-mind that there is honor in failure. If I honestly worked to make it to the end and live the story as it was given to me, to seize the opportunity for what it really was, and not the deluded fiction I’d constructed, that I would succeed. Last year I finished and got fourth. As Camus said, “The struggle itself for the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” It was.

So today, when I walk to work, I’ll look at the leaves coming from the red maples and elms, watch the whirring traffic, and hear people’s and cardinal’s voices and be glad for those things.

I hope it doesn’t take Sanders supporters four years to get here.

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