“There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on,” said Robert Byrne and oh, I know what kind of person I’ve always been. Easily excited, easily distracted, chronically overcommitted, and so on and so on…I have a hard time finishing reading a book, let alone writing one. When I finished writing Some Nerve it felt like a crowning achievement never to be repeated. But then something even more unlikely happened.
Followers of this blog will remember that I, a non-biking, self-professed couch potato and klutz declared in January that I would train for the 42-mile TD-Five Boro Bike Tour as my #SomeNerve Challenge. I would face my fear of crashing, crowds and breaking a sweat by riding with 31,999 riders around New York City. And for every day leading up to the Tour I’d face my fear of fear itself, bearing the anxiety of whether I could learn to bike well enough in four short months.
I suffered an anxiety attack going around the block the day I bought my bike (see “How to Put the Brakes on an Anxiety Attack”). I suffered anxiety each and every time I hit something I couldn’t do well (turn, brake, shift, signal, go uphill, go downhill, miss a pothole or a puddle). It was agony! But every time I figured out how, I felt a sense of accomplishment that made me almost have faith I could finish what I started. Almost.
The morning of the Tour I was jumpy and tired (I had spent the night before praying). The longest training ride I’d done was 24 miles, and nothing can prepare you for riding in such a huge crowd. Every 30 seconds before the ride started I swung between excitement and despair.
The moment we pushed off from the start in a cascade of riders up Church Street was thrilling, and every marker afterward - Central Park, the Third Ave Bridge, the FDR Drive, the Queensboro Bridge (all those on ramps! All those off ramps!) – was something I’d worried about for so long and over in a flash. By the time we arrived at Brooklyn Bridge Park at mile 30, I was proud of myself but also scared. What lay ahead was what everyone who’s ever ridden the Tour would say in a voice of doom: the B.Q.E. (Brooklyn Queens Expressway) and the Verrazano Bridge.
People who’ve done the ride before said things like ‘Beware of sunburn,” “Beware of dehydration,” “Beware of wind,” “Beware of tired cyclists,” “Beware of broken glass,” “Beware of the long incline” and “Just be careful.”
Our day was cold and cloudy so sunburn was not going to be a problem. The wind, on the other hand…
“When I hit the 20+ mph headwinds on the Gowanus Expressway I had two thoughts,” said Team #SomeNerve member C. Feng after the ride. “1) Patty’s gonna weep when she realizes there’s five miles of this before getting to the bridge. 2) She’ll gut it out and grind it out because she’s not going to give up”
The process of gutting it out and grinding it out was not a pretty one. I pedaled and pedaled against the wind, feeling no forward progress whatsoever. My friend Ken biked alongside and put a hand on my lower back and pushed me for a stretch. More and more cyclists were dropping to the side to walk their bikes.
By the time we got to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the longest bridge span in America, I was spent. “Are you bonking?” Ken asked. Bonking is the biking term for hitting a wall, the point where you can’t physically go any farther without rest, water and calories. I didn’t know if I was bonking – I’ve never bonked before! Yes, I was crying and whimpering - but after 5 hours of cycling my legs were still moving, and I did not want to get off the bike. After all the things in my life I have quit or never started for fear I would quit, this I wanted to finish.
“I’m okay!” I said. Except I can’t see. Crying as a coping mechanism was not helping. How many times before, when I’ve started crying, have I stopped doing the activity? This time, I stopped the crying and kept pedaling. U2′s “Beautiful Day” was blasting from the top of the bridge, spray painted arrows on the pavement said “Keep Cranking” and “4 Down 1 to Go.” People on megaphones shouted “ALMOST THERE! THE FINISH IS AT THE BOTTOM!” One pedal was as excruciating as the last thousand, and then the next was all of a sudden, easy. I’d reached the top of the bridge! I cruised what felt like the sweetest, shortest downhill of all time into Staten Island, the 5th borough and finish line, and into a new life.
I, who have always viewed myself as non-athletic and too often a quitter, felt for the first time like a champion. The entire Greek Chorus of Perpetual Doubt I carry in my head that tells me I’m not good enough was evicted over the Verrazano by the irrefutable fact that I did it.I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.
I think what helped me most was declaring the challenge publicly, forming a team, taking Bike New York classes and seeking support from every corner. And making it a priority because finishing a ride is not just about finishing a ride. It's about knowing that you are capable of finishing anything you set your mind to.
What have you started that you’re afraid to finish? What would it take to stay in the saddle and keep pedaling? What would you gain by seeing it through?
For more pictures and a full Team #SomeNerve Tour recap click here.