My breath was coming in gasps and I fought to keep my bike upright.
I was working my way up a long, steep hill. My friend, Keila, rode to my left, listening to my panting.
She was not breathing heavily as she maintained a slow, steady pace.
We had ridden this hill before. It was three miles with an average grade of 6% – challenging, but in recent tries I had been successful making it to the top without stopping.
My heart thumped hard and fast. My mind screeched at me to stop.
I stubbornly kept on, feeling more and more irritation with myself that the hill was this hard for me.
I uttered an expletive that I won’t print here but sounds suspiciously like “Smucker.”
After 37 mostly horrible minutes, we reached the top.
I dismounted and stood over my bike, my elbows on the handlebars, head down, trying to get my breath back.
When my wheezing subsided a bit, I straightened up and looked over at Keila. She was also standing over her bike, but she had her phone out and was texting someone.
No sign of struggle there.
I shook my head and rasped, “I don’t know why that was so hard this time.”
Keila looked at me and said in a soft voice,
It’s because when you start to suffer, you speed up. And then you get mad.
In the moment, I knew what she meant. Keila was an experienced rider and acted as a coach for me when I first started riding. One of the lessons that was hardest for me to master was pacing myself on hills. They were painful and I just wanted to get them over with so I often rode too fast at the beginning and had to stop to rest halfway up.
As the months passed, I started to get the hang of pacing and became much more successful at climbing hills.
That’s why I was so flummoxed about faltering on today’s ride.
Yet Keila was right: I struggled because I forgot my previous lessons and tried to outpace my pain.
Speeding up to get the pain over with
Keila is much younger than I am and, in many ways, much wiser. Another of her gems popped into my mind:
“Everything that happens on the road relates to life, Bobbi.”
I began to ponder about her observation of what happened on the road that day and how it might relate to the rest of my life.
“When you start to suffer, you speed up. And then you get mad.”
I couldn’t help but smile.
It was the truth.
I thought of times in my life when I suffered:
– being in conflict with others
– feeling indecisive or confused
– experiencing huge losses such as the death of my partner
Each of these situations has seen me speed up to get the pain over with.
When I have a conflict with someone, I try my usually healthy skills to try and work through it with the person.
But if I don’t succeed and the conflict remains, I become very, very uncomfortable.
I don’t like conflict.
Not many people do, but I’m one of those folks who really struggles with it, especially if the other person involved is angry with me.
It’s very painful for me and I suffer.
And then I speed up.
I usually do one of two impulsive things: I take the blame for the situation or I explode and stomp off.
Anything to get to the end of the suffering, right?
Indecision or feelings of confusion can also bring on suffering for me, especially when time is a factor or someone is hurrying me.
Not knowing in general is a tough one for me, so I again speed up to end the suffering, making hasty decisions that I often later regret.
Losing someone or something causes us all to suffer, of course.
When my partner died, I felt like I slowed down both physically and emotionally.
But, with hindsight, I can see that I again made impulsive decisions in an attempt to speed through my pain.
I moved from one city to another, leaving all of my supportive friends behind.
I briefly latched onto a person for support who, while helpful in many ways, ended up causing me more pain and suffering.
And following all of these “speed up” maneuvers came the “get mad” phase.
I was either mad at myself or mad at the other person or just mad in general.
And I don’t do mad well, so I suffered.
And tried to speed things up . . .
You get the idea.
Moving forward through suffering
A week or so after Keila and I cycled up that hill, I rode in a 100-mile charity ride on California’s central coast.
The first 50 miles were uneventful and I handled the rolling hills between Cambria and Paso Robles with ease.
After the lunch stop, though, I ran into trouble. The coastal portion of the ride – the part that I had very much looked forward to – was a nightmare.
The route was 25 miles up the coast and then retracing our path back down the coast to finish the ride.
The afternoon brought a strong headwind and I found myself pedaling in my lowest gear and, it felt like, barely moving forward at all.
I had already been on my bike long enough for my body to just want to get off the bike and now my progress had slowed to a snail-like pace.
The wind blew stinging sand in my face.
It was painful.
And I suffered.
But I kept hearing Keila’s voice: “When you start to suffer, you speed up.”
I noticed that I wanted to use all of my “speed up” maneuvers: pedal faster/harder or just quit the ride and admit that I couldn’t handle the suffering.
Instead, I acknowledged that I was suffering – to be specific, I said, “This sucks!” – and then I kept going. At an even pace, not any faster. It was a snail’s pace, but I was still moving forward even though I was suffering.
After a few hours of battling the wind and the road and wanting to cry and wanting to quit and still moving forward ever so slowly, I realized that I was very close to the turnaround point.
I also knew that once I reached the turnaround point, the headwind that had been my enemy would become the most friendly of tailwinds.
The wind died down as the road wound slightly inland but upward. Steeply upward.
Other riders told me that the last hill before the turnaround was the hardest on the entire ride.
Now, after struggling for hours and feeling exhausted emotionally and physically, I was confronted with the last obstacle to relative peace on the ride back.
A hill. A steep, steep hill.
Like a person dying of thirst who sees an oasis in the desert, I wanted to get up that hill as soon as possible.
When my legs felt the increased angle of the road through the pedals, I instinctively pushed harder.
I had to get to the top! As soon as possible! Because I was . . .
“When you start to suffer . . .”
I released the death grip I had on the handlebars.
I took deep breaths and slowed my pace to reduce my heart rate.
This hill wasn’t very long, but it was long enough that speeding up would have depleted me to the extent that I would have had to stop for sure and may not have been able to make it to the top at all. And I still had 25 miles left on the way back to finish.
Even though a slow pace up a hill can be difficult in its own right, it was the pace I needed for that day. As I ground out each revolution of the pedals, I remembered Keila and I discussing the importance of pacing.
“In the moment, pacing yourself can feel like you’re just prolonging your suffering,” she said, “But if you don’t, you end up gassed halfway up the hill and then you’re stuck. You don’t have enough energy for the rest of the ride.”
Slowly, methodically, thoughtfully, I made my way up the hill and reached the turnaround point. As the road leveled out, I felt a surge of pride. I was proud of myself not only for making it through that hellacious portion of the ride, but for how I did it.
Even though I didn’t like it, I accepted the suffering and worked within it instead of against it.
And that, my friends is the moral of this story.
Accepting the suffering and working within it instead of against it.
And nobody said you have to like it.
5 questions to ask when you’re ready to give up
The next time you find yourself suffering, ask yourself:
1. Am I speeding up to try to end this suffering?
2. What are my “speed up” maneuvers?
3. How can I pace myself instead? Should I call friends? Slow down? Think about things for a while?
Am I breathing?
4. Am I getting mad? What do I usually do when I get mad that doesn’t really work for me?
5.What can I do differently this time with this suffering to stay even-keeled and moving forward, even though it’s at a snail’s pace?
As I’ve asked myself these things off the bike and in my life, I’ve learned to slow down a bit. To notice when I’m suffering and what my default reaction is to get rid of the suffering.
I know from cycling that I can handle a lot more than I ever thought I could. This has helped me to realize that I can take some time to be still and consider any actions I could or should take.
Now, I breathe deeply and say to myself quietly, “Pace yourself. You can do this. You are doing it. You can suffer and still be okay.”
There’s a certain peace to that, isn’t there?
And now over to you: What do you do when you suffer? Do you try to speed up to get it over with quickly? How does that work for you? What do you do to pace yourself?
Let’s talk about it in the comments below.
Photo credit to MollySVH.