The Thing You Think You Cannot Do
by Sara Bilhimer
I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with my friend, co-worker, and Sunflower Repair Shop Manager Joe Sweet. (Well, shoulder to rib cage, I should say. Joe could only stand shoulder to shoulder with the Jolly Green Giant.) We are listening to two of my cycling heroes, Dan Hughes and Rebecca Rusch, talk about the Dirty Kanza. A dusty ride born in a motel parking in 2006, it has grown into, very arguably, the premier gravel grinder in the nation, and in 2015 will be undertaken by a field of over a thousand riders.
Joe and I were signed up for the more demure 110-mile DK Half Pint. Neither of us had ever completed a Century. Both of us professed to day-dreaming- rolling green hills, a big blue dome above your head, white gravel crunching under your tires. Dreams filled with roads snaking up to the horizon, miles on miles. Freedom with no fences. But we didn’t talk as much of the sleepless nights we were both having- nights filled with 30 mile-an-hour winds, searing heat, unclimbable hills, and the heavy prospects of failure and defeat.
Dan talks of the temptation to quit, of “praying for a mechanical that would force me to stop pedaling.” The payoff, he tells, is the final ride down the red carpet and across the finish line of downtown Emporia. “There isn’t anything else like it. There’s nothing better.”
Reba gives her own reasons for indulging in the masochism of the Kanza “I’m not addicted to the podium…I’m addicted to the finish line. I like the person I am better on the other side.”
I take another sip of PBR, feeling the cold condensation and the slickness of the red and blue can. I feel like I don’t belong in the room. Reba reads from her book, and sums up the task in a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” I find the quote comforting, affirming. I am all but certain that I cannot finish a hundred miles in the Flint Hills.
* * *
A couple of months earlier, I threw my bike down in the sticky brown mud at the Austin Rattler, 60 miles of singletrack snaking around the hill-country south of Austin. I’d finished half the race, and I was more emotionally exhausted than physically. By my second lap, the leaders were practically elbowing me in the face to finish their last one. The tight turns of the damp single track meant that at points, only one rider was going to get by at a time, which meant I was pulling off the course for frustrating whole minutes at a time, waiting for a break, and then struggling to clip into pedals caked in mud so that I could do it all over again in another quarter mile. At one point, a faster rider’s shoe clipped my bike, dragging me down, and literally through, the mud. It didn’t feel anything close to fun, it felt like trench warfare.
Across the finish line after the second lap, I shook my head despite fellow Lawrencian Michelle Jensen’s encouraging words to keep it up!, and handed my DNF to an official. She quickly pulled back the proffered finisher’s medal she’d almost mistakenly placed in my hands. I wasn’t ashamed of myself- I felt more pissed off at the whole situation. I wasn’t a mountain biker, and part of me felt like I’d just followed my boyfriend down there, and let my coworkers talk me into a ride I’d not known that much about in the first place.
I ended up crying in the breakroom at work the day I got back to Lawrence- I told my coworkers I was disappointed in myself. But somehow that wasn’t quite right- Sorry, I apologized, I’m just a crier. I cry all the time. When I’m happy, when I’m sad, when I’m angry, when I’m frustrated, when I laugh. I cry at movies and when I’m reading books. I wasn’t really sure at that moment why I was crying- I knew I wasn’t a quitter. This was the moment that I knew I absolutely had to finish the Kanza, that I had no choice. I had to prove it.
* * *
The race itself ended up seeming almost anti-climactic. Certainly it wasn’t easy, but the weather was nothing short of beautiful- high 70s, 15mph winds. The gravel was white, the grass was green, the sky was a yonder blue, and it was hills to the horizon, not a power line in sight for most of the race.
Probably my best memory was of Joe and I, rolling to a stop at a deserted intersection about 5 miles outside of town. We complained about our backs, our asses, and our aching feet. Everything hurt, and we were exhausted. There was a pause, and Joe kind of chuckled. I looked up, and could almost see blue eyes twinkling behind his dark sunglasses. “Well hell, Sara. We’re really gonna finish this thing.”
The ride down the red carpet was almost as glorious as I had pictured. The announcer called my name, and Joe and I were there together at the end, just as we’d been together at the start. I did almost accidentally run him into a barrier when I attempted to throw my arms up in victory- but I’m pretty sure he’d tell you the important part was crossing that line, not the fact that I’d ruined our photo finish. But you’d have to ask Joe.
Second Time Around
A year later, and I’ve signed up again. Some things have changed. This year feels less important, less epic, and I don’t have my friend Joe by my side. The first time that a challenge is taken up, there is adventure, and there is a sort of frontier of known experience to be crossed. The second time, however, the task is inherently less interesting. The question, “Why are you doing this?” can no longer be answered with, “Because it is there. Because I don’t know that I can do it. Because I must try.” You’ve done it already. We’ve been to the moon once Neil, why spend all that money and go again?
Last year, I lived with my friend and riding partner (Paul “the Bulldog” Heimbach), a block away from my job at Sunflower. I was the assistant manager at a place I had loved since I was 18, working with a fantastic manager (some of you may remember Trent “the Gent” Sorensen). Rides were easier to get in, I was more disciplined, I had a routine going, and it was working pretty well.
Also, I had just left grad school, where I was miserable. And it seemed clear to me that my new life was simpler, less stressful, and healthier. If I could just finish these hundred miles of gravel in the Flint Hills- things would be better. I would be better.
This is a story. My sister would quote Joan Didion here (she’s an English major at Rice). I’ll indulge her:
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely […] by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
-Joan Didion, White Noise
This year that routine, that balance- has been missing. I use the word “balance” loosely here.
The balance of being good at my job, being a good girlfriend, being a good daughter, a good sister, of reading the books I want to read, and eating well- and getting the miles in. I feel constantly that I’m only very partially succeeding at a few of these at a time- and sometimes none of them at all.
Doing all of these things is an impossible task. People like to throw around the term “work/life balance.” They like to read and write self-help books, and pen little “How-To” articles on Facebook. This is all complete crap, of course. Nobody can be good at all of these things. You have to pick what to salvage, and what to drop. Thank God, I think, I don’t have kids.
This year I’m out of college, searching for a purpose and a selfhood of my own now. There is less time to see the important people in my life. My twin sister is in Texas, reading Thoreau and George Elliot. My brother is doing his pharmacy thing in New York. Always the homebody, I’m the only kid left, and even now I feel like I barely ever see my parents anymore. I still work full-time at the Shop- only I don’t have a Captain to follow and stand beside. He’s given me the Bridge.
I am now responsible for a place that I love, and for a whole lot of people that I love. Things make less sense now, the lines are fuzzier, there’s more grey on the map. Which is probably how it was all along, that shifting phantasmagoria.
So why the Kanza? And why a second time?
I think it all comes down to the simple fact that riding bikes is fun. It has a lot of the simplicity of running, of getting somewhere by virtue of your sweat and your legs, but with less of the loneliness. Even when you’re riding by yourself, you have your bike. Your bike is your steed- if you take care of her, she’ll take care of you. You get the sun on your face and the wind in your hair, and the thrill of surfing down big gravel descents. Nothing feels better than a long descent after a grueling climb. Someone once said if you understand baseball, you understand life. I think there’s an argument there for cycling, too. Ups and downs, and all that.
There are rides that suck, but you live for the good ones, the rides where you feel strong, where you’re out of the saddle and it’ s just you and your bike and the gravel road ahead. No work, no friends you’re letting down. No worries. For a few hours, things actually make more sense, and the lines are pretty sharp. It’s just you, your legs, your bike and a few hills thrown in.
I’m doing the Kanza again because it makes me a better person. Reba does it to see that other version of herself on the other side of the finish line, the Reba that she knows she can be. Dan knows even at mile 170, that as much as it sucks now- and it really, really sucks- he’s going to thank himself later for the perseverance.
It’s Sea Fever. The lonely sea of green grass and the sky. It’s the same reason that Captain Kirk will never be a decent Admiral. He needs to be at the helm of the Enterprise, heading into the stars of the Final Frontier. Just a tall ship and a star to steer her by.
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.*
Now, bring me that horizon.
The thing is, I actually like being Captain of the Starship. As a kid, my favorite Star Trek character wasn’t Mr. Spock, it was Captain Janeway (apologies for the mixed-franchise metaphor). She was fierce, brave, maternal, intelligent, and flawed. She wasn’t good at her marriage, she never had children (instead opting for the golden retriever proxy). Sometimes she made a bad decision. But she was a great Captain, and she loved her crew.
I love my crew. And I love riding the Dirty Kanza. Maybe a few rides have sucked these past couple of months, maybe I’ll be even slower this year than last year. But basically, I just have to get up on a Saturday morning and ride my bike all day. I’ll figure the rest of my life out later.
I quoted John Masefield earlier. He was a merchant seaman and a poet laureate. He wrote a lot about the call of the sea, and the siren song of adventure. Tennyson felt the same way, that saddling up and doing what’s difficult was necessary, instead sitting around and becoming but a name, to rust unburnish’d!
Here he is in his glory, because people don’t write like this anymore. They haven’t got the time, or the patience. They‘re too cynical, and too busy being ironic, or Instagramming pictures of themselves looking cool. Anyway. Here are words to live by, and a story to tell yourself:
Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
*Masefield, John. Sea Fever.