Each year, May begins with the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. This race is one of my favorites for its wild remote terrain, for the fabulously eclectic community of Silver City and for the challenging racing. Personally, it is also important to note that it has the Mogollon- a climb from the middle-of-nowhere desert to a ghost town that is really our only true US mountaintop finish. In honor of the Tour of the Gila, the Mogollon, and its sister mountaintop finishes across the world, this post is about exactly why I love to climb mountains on my bike. The fact that I love to go uphill is probably not a secret--perhaps, though, it is time for me to explain why.
The Slow Motion Sprint
Climbing is the Slow Motion Sprint. It contains all of the intensity and strength of a speeding bunch finish, but is on time-extended replay, pedals submerged in molasses. It is the paradox of the picturesque moment that you wish would last forever, but simultaneously can't wait to have over. The idea of this "Sprint" exists in every climb, in a larger sense within a stage race, and can even be expanded universally to illustrate our lives.
Close your eyes and picture your most coveted daydream race win. Envision every detail. How long would you want that moment of victory to take? How long would you want to feel the exact second of achieving the unimaginable? You all may get on the edge of your seats to watch a sprint finish, and I'm with you on the glamor, but for us climbers, the victory salute gets to take that much longer. (As a safety side note, it is also best executed with one hand still firmly on the bars--particularly at Gila, where there is a cattle guard about five meters after the finish line.)
A mountaintop finish takes its own sweet time. The kilometer markers are sometimes more marks of derision rather than encouragement. In fact, the first two times I raced the Mogollon, the 1km to go marker was slightly misallocated closer to a mile out, simply magnifying the phenomenon. In that moment, you want nothing more than to just accelerate, get on with it, get to the finish line. It would seem enticingly simple to just GO FASTER up the hill, but I haven't actually figured out a way to do that yet. On second thought though, if I do find that magic formula I will probably have to keep that to myself.
This yearning for an end or completion exists beyond time on the bike--just like these final never-ending kilometers of a summit finish, much of our lives exists in the pulse of pressing anxiously forward with all of our strength while simultaneously wanting the moment to last forever. When I ask how long you would like to savor a victory, you might similarly question how long you want a last goodbye hug to continue, or the final pages of a beloved novel, the last rays of a florescent sunset, or the final bite of the chocolate cake.
We enjoy the win fully while taking a deep breath, then we exhale, note the lesson learned, and move on to the next adventure - Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
The critical lesson is how to savor joy without clinging to it. When you climb, the task is made easier, because the laws of physics and gravity naturally extend each moment for you. You have no choice but to see the mountains around you in heartbreaking clarity, to feel the torque and change on momentum from each switchback. Descending, ever the favored child, may indeed give you a thrill of adrenaline; but it is when you go up the hill that you get to notice the smell of the spring lilacs and race honeybees that threateningly keep your pace, chasing you right out of your intended training zone. I have actually used that excuse with my coach before--and what's worse, I have meant it.
The 2007 Tour of Gila was the first major stage race that I ever won. It was my first observation of the fact that in many ways the experience of leading a stage race is similar to that of getting through the individual climbs it contains. Coach Dean sagely advised me to savor the moments of wearing a leaders' jersey, despite the massive temptation to wish yourself at the finish with the pressure removed. If you ask Rachel Heal (now my director on UnitedHealthcare, but at the time my teammate on Webcor Builders) for her story of the 2007 edition of the final stage, the "Gila Monster", she would say I asked roughly every thirty or forty seconds if she was sure the break up the road was still safe. I would counter that it was a maximum of maybe ten or twenty times over the course of the stage. Maybe thirty? Regardless, as much as I wanted to rush to the end that day, it was the only first leader's jersey I would ever have. Should I really speed through that experience? That is the Slow Motion Sprint on the level of an entire stage race--we move with utter passion, intensity and focus, always racing but helplessly forced to be patient and maintain precision to the end.
You can't push the river - Rumi
For a 13th-century mystic poet, Rumi has done a stunningly concise job of explaining endurance athletics. Just like his river, you just can't rush time, the process, or the rather excruciating path of challenge and reward that the Sports Gods have decided to put you on THIS time. When you are injured, you have to wait. Sure, you can engage the positive and take the time to rejuvenate yourself, to rest, to pursue other interests and relationships, but you can't heal faster. You move with a focused Slow Motion Sprint toward the metaphorical mountaintop of recovering full strength. When training for a race or an event, you have to take each workout one day at a time. I've never had it work out to stack the workouts tip to tail and finish a month of training within a week. If you ever do, my restless side is dying to know how. We are all captive to the pulse of patience in the effort and recovery and waiting. Bike racers also travel. A lot. And the only true way to get through a flight delay on the way to the biggest race of the year, or perhaps even more so, on the way home from the same race, is to to give in, to sit in Rumi's proverbial river and wait until it carries you to your destination. We can rarely change or accelerate an experience, so it's best to be aware and enjoy wherever we are. This is the patience that the mountains teach me.
I love climbing to be surrounded by peaks and forests. I love it for the fresh air and the silence and anticipation in moving always upward. Yet climbing is far more than its immediate rewards, for it allows me to practice presence. It teaches me patience and full awareness in the moment. It reminds me not to push, but to simply be alive. The Slow Motion Sprint simply cultivates a habit of the passion, integrity and focus that we want to bring to the things we love the most. So find a 28-tooth chainring (the better to take your time), find a mountain, and may it do the same for you.