Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A Cyclist with a Goal

"I don't want to try, it's too hard."

The comment often has to do with suggestions of taking a personal risk. And the people who seem to be able to avoid that language are amazing to me. They want to step away from what is comfortable or easy in order to achieve a goal. I want to be that kind of person.

One woman that comes to mind when I think of athletic risk-takers is a woman named Karen. She was a member of the bicycling club that my husband and I used to be members of in NYC, back when we were single and lived in a city. Karen was in her mid-40s, didn't have children, and worked full time as a graphic designer. She was not as muscular or thin as most serious cyclists. But she was not super competitive; instead she had endurance and persistence and rode because she loved it, not because she wanted to win a race.

Karen had recurring back pain that caused her to jump off her bike at stop signs, and lie down on her back in the grass with her arms stretched above her head.

Karen decided that she needed a bicycling goal, and that the goal should be geared toward participating in a noncompetitive endurance event, but an event that was beyond the scope of anything she had ever done. And she wanted to do it in a foreign country for an added adventure.

Karen chose the Paris-Brest-Paris Brevet, a 1200 kilometers (almost 700 miles) cycling event. It is apparently one of the oldest bicycling events anywhere. It started out in the early 1900s as a race for professional cyclists, but is now open to amateurs. You have to finish in 90 hours, which means that you have to eat on the bike, and plan your sleeping so that it doesn't interfere with reaching the goal of finishing within the set time limitation. Most people do the ride for the "fun" of it rather than trying to win.

When she told most people about her goal, people had no idea what to say except "wow." Many people told Karen she was nuts or worse, obsessed. They wondered why someone would want to be on a bicycle for that length of time. She must have psychological problems, they thought.

Yet she simply wanted a goal that seemed in theory to be beyond reach, and to prove to herself that she had the strength and will-power to stick with it.

Karen started bicycling to and from work, and just about everywhere else. She organized rides for members of the New York Cycle Club so that she could meet like-minded people, and have others to train with. Karen's organized rides were long. They lasted all day. You would start at 8:00 am at the boathouse in Central Park, ride up the Grand Concourse through the Bronx, then continued into Yonkers, Bronxville and woodsier parts of Westchester County.

Sometimes she led the group to Croton to see the dam, have some lunch or ice cream, before turning around to ride all the way back to Central Park. Those of us who weren't in as good shape, or had shorter goals, or evening plans, would hop on a train after 50 or 60 miles and get back into the City. Karen's rides would usually total about 100 miles but she wouldn't make you feel ashamed for quitting early if you needed to.

On her off days from riding, Karen did yoga and physical therapy to try to deal with her recurring back pain.

To make a long story short, she trained well, and reached her goal. And she not only has a sense of achievement but she earned a few good stories to tell about riding through the streets of France at three o'clock in the morning.

And like the endorphin-addicted, goal-oriented person that she is, she started to think about her next challenge after she had reigned in Paris-Brest-Paris and kicked its butt. I can't remember the goal that she chose, but it was another endurance-related goal that motivated her to train all year.

Karen is drawn to physical challenges. She is also down-to-earth, and encouraging toward other cyclists. She doesn't brag or make you feel bad about yourself. She just does what she loves to do, and doesn't complain about how hard it is. She is the type of athlete that draws others in by her shear love of the sport.

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