The Abler Soul

So it’s been awhile. Sorry about that. I’m…okay, thanks. How are you?

When last we spoke, I had laid out my plans and goals for the 2019 cycling season. We chatted about terminology, about the grandsons, and, of course, about her and life after losing your partner and best friend. Well, the end of 2019 is now upon us, and has John Lennon once said, “Another year older, and what have you done….Give peace a chance.”

I will save my 2019 recap for my final post of the year, as the story has not been completely written yet. There are still miles to be ridden and some goals to be achieved. However, yesterday afternoon, as the sun suddenly broke free from the clouds that had obscured it all day, I broke the 8500 mile goal for 2019 and kept my promise to her once again for this year. As I will relate in upcoming posts, this was not a foregone conclusion in February, March, and especially late June. Such a mileage goal for any cyclist living full time in the Great Frozen North (where Disney’s Elsa has apparently adopted as her permanent abode) is a formidable one. When undertaken by a formerly fat old man whose previous best was 1000 miles less just the previous year, and who lives alone (well, if you dismiss the dog, the cats, and the fish), it is, at best, intimidating and stultifying.

At the completion of my 37 mile ride in freezing temperatures, while dodging icy patches on the road yesterday, I entered the house, let out my dog (being cooped up for two and a half hours for an old dog – or old man – is a painful bladder experience!), and sat on the couch and wept. Once again, as was the case a year ago, I had honestly thought at times I would not get here. Once again, as was the case a year ago, a run in with a motorist kept me off bike (more on this, again, in an upcoming post). And, once again, as was the case a year ago, life and weather kept me from beginning the quest in earnest until later in the spring.

But here I was. On the couch. Dissolved in a puddle of tears, having just met my annual mileage goal with a bit more than six weeks to spare. Why? I asked myself if I would ever find any peace again. I walked over to my kegerator, poured a pint of Scotty Karate, returned to the couch and turned on the final episode of Poldark. Yes. Poldark. Not Lions football. I live in Michigan and know better. The NFL has apparently decided at the upper levels that they will NEVER again allow the franchise to win anything and has gone to great lengths in coaching the officiating crews to insure that outcome. It’s true. There are YouTube videos which have documented the number of times poor, and clearly wrong, penalties (or lack thereof) have been called that have cost the Lions a game.

So, back to Poldark. I love this show. My wife would have loved this show. The hero and equally strong heroine work as partners to overcome incredible obstacles for their family. In this particular episode, at the end, Demelza (our heroine) turns to her husband Ross and, smiling, points out that they must forget the past treachery of others, forget the past troubles they have experienced, and exhibit gratitude if they are to achieve peace. That’s it. I leaned in. She went on to affirm their love and eternal happiness by stating that they were two hearts, sharing one beat. Then I knew where my peace was coming from.

Now, to be sure, this is a common theme in literature…especially theatre – and musical theatre at that. “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story immediately leaps to mind, as does “A Man and a Woman” from 110 in the Shade. But this statement got me right in the feels because of a 16th century poem I had become reacquainted with this spring. John Donne’s “The Ecstasy” was one of his rare works that dealt with human love more than spiritual devotion. In it, Donne states that when love with one another “interinanimates” two souls, they form one “abler soul” which is more powerful and controls all defects of loneliness.

So there it is. My gratitude. My peace. Yesterday’s finish was not about me. It wasn’t about her. It was about us. We had finished those 8500 miles against all odds. I knew several moments this year where she was riding along with me, not side by side on her bike as we had done so often in the past, but rather as though she were sitting behind me on a tandem…sometimes laughing at me (I could literally hear her snort and laugh!) and sometimes urging me to gut out a bit more effort. And, yes, sometimes telling me how wrong I was….but she was most definitely there…and on a tandem, of all things! I felt a bit like Indiana Jones and snakes….”A tandem? Why did it have to be a tandem?” Although I had always wanted to try one, we had never gotten around to it. Not until we flew to the Middle East a few years ago and had a substantial layover (10 hours) in Rome. That’s when she surprised me by having already arranged to rent a tandem a few blocks from the Coliseum as my Father’s Day present. Needless to say, the first time you want to try out a tandem is NOT in one of the world’s largest cities, during rush hour, in the height of tourist season, with a language barrier! It did not go well! However, we did finally get the hang of it after awhile, and, after she was diagnosed, I purchased a tandem for our own use to try and make sure she was able to get fresh air and exercise. It was only used twice.

This year saw big milestone birthdays for all three of our grandsons. The two youngest turned 3 this year, and the oldest turned 5. Why milestones? Because we had decided that 3 was the age at which the boys would receive their first balance bike, and at age 5 they would receive their first two wheel pedal bike. Each of the boys looked forward to this. Our oldest, Rhett, had grown quite proficient in his ability to zoom around on his balance bike. In true sibling rivalry fashion, this caused no end of jealousy pangs in his younger brother, who, though appreciative of his ability to pedal his trike we gave him for his first birthday, saw that two wheels was the way to go! (I didn’t have the heart to tell him that in another 10-12 years he would be dreaming of four wheels, but….) Theo, although half a world away, just knew he wanted a bike like Papa’s!

For a retiree on a fixed income, and whose savings were literally drained by deductibles and copays, this presented a bit of a problem. Quality bikes are not inexpensive, and inexpensive bikes are not quality. No way was I risking our grandson’s lives on cheap stuff! The bill, however, was going to amount to over $700. Enter the abler soul. Theo’s birthday came first, and exactly one month before I received a notice in the mail from an investment company that my wife had begun a fund with over 20 years ago. I had completely forgotten about this…as had she, apparently. Now, this fund had been started and then stopped after just a few months when we, together, had opted to invest our money differently. The balance in her account was low, of course, but the company had been notified of her passing and was contacting me as the beneficiary. The amount, after administrative fees, was equal – and I am NOT kidding – to exactly one half of the total cost for all three of the bikes for the boys. For her ride in October, all three boys used their new favorite form of transportation to wheel around the park and terrorize our participants….each with a picture of them and their Nana applied to the top tube or handlebars. I know she was proud.

Last year I spoke of my goal to return to randonneuring and completing some brevets and permanents. My first was in April. This brevet was to dip my feet into the waters. It had been over two years since my last RUSA event and I’m not ashamed to say that the course, a 110k technical path thru and around greater Detroit, had me a bit afraid. It was going to be in territory I had never ridden before and I had no one to call if I broke down, encountered physical issues, etc. I remember setting off in the car before sunrise and working hard to calm the beating in my chest. Shortly before I left the freeway for our starting point, the sun rose and I heard her voice very clearly ask “What are you afraid of? You’ve ridden alone before. Can’t you just be happy to be out here again?”

I found a friend at the start and we rode together, chatting as we wound our way through some of the downtown streets. This was going to be easier than I thought. Until, for some unexplained reason, I followed a group of cyclists and took a wrong turn. A few blocks later I realized my friend was no longer beside me. I stopped and asked riders in this new group what had happened to the others. That’s when I found out that this group was on a charity ride. Not good. Not good at all.

I turned around and went back to the last point that was on the cue sheet. I realized I had made a rookie mistake that I hadn’t made in several years….I followed others than relying on myself and the cue sheet. Shaking my head at my stupidity, I went back to the basics and focused on that cue sheet and my breathing – which becomes problematic when I get angry at myself!

The rest of the route I rode alone. Or did I? At mile 60, I made a turn and headed down a street right along the Detroit River. Again, as became the case so much this year, the sun came out from behind a cloud, and I heard her voice say “Of course you are not alone. You will never be alone.”

Every athlete has to find motivation. Externally. Internally. What matters is that the athlete is able to discover an extra push when they become physically or mentally pushed to the brink of exhaustion. At several points this year I have been able to rely on the abler soul to get me to the 8500 miles, to get me to achieve some of the goals I had set forth last year, and to forge a path forward with our grandsons. So, having found my peace through gratitude, as Demelza pointed out, I lifted my pint of Scotty Karate to my love and reveled in its caramel and molasses goodness. Even that was a reminder…although a good scotch ale will not work as a reminder for long!

What’s your motivation? Seriously, I’d like to know. Are you motivated by rewards like trophies, ribbons, medals, badges, or plaques? Do you reward yourself by food or shopping? Is it pride? Is it your family? Do you hear voices like I do? Hey, I’m just glad it’s HER voice and not, say, Jon Lovitz, or, worse yet, Pee Wee Herman! Leave your comments below. Not every dream has to be a big dream, as Lizzie would say in 110 in the Shade, some people’s dreams are small. What matters is that you get to live those dreams. And, with Thanksgiving next week, that you find peace in the gratitude of being able to see them through.

What Now, Carl? Goal setting for the cycling grandparent!

The days are getting longer now. Every cyclist knows that….sure, it’s not accompanied by a rise in heat (although it is a balmy 51 degrees here today), but every day for the past week has had just a minute or so more daylight. What possible difference could that make, you ask? Any cyclist will tell you that in good weather that means my rides over the past week could be two whole miles longer! THAT is a huge deal!

So I was in my bike cave the other day putting a pair of new bikes together for my sister. She bought them as holiday gifts for her grandsons and, because she is family and has done so much for us over the years, I offered to put them together out of the box for her and make sure all the cables and fittings were adjusted properly, etc. The store she purchased them from wanted to charge her $80 each for “expert assembly” in time for Christmas! Seriously. First of all, the high school kid they are paying $12/hour to is NOT an expert bicycle mechanic, but even that kid wouldn’t spend more than two and a half hours assembling each bike out of the box!

As I was putting them together, I remembered the joy our grandsons had when we gave them their first bikes – for their first birthday! Yes…the first birthday present for each grandson has always been a tricycle that could do double duty as a stroller for our daughters. The boys loved it, and my wife was thrilled! Each time they would come to our house, they had to ask us to go down to the bike cave to see Nana and Papa’s bikes…each of them had their favorite in our stable, but they know them all! For his third birthday, our oldest grandson graduated to a balance bike. He, and it, were the hit of the party….well, OK, the bounce house my daughter had rented was the hit of the party, but the bike was the hit present! My wife’s eyes sparkled with delight!

Back to my activities last week. I hate getting old and so easily distracted…it’s the same thing out on the road when I’m alone…SQUIRREL!

Anyway, the events of last year prevented me from getting the boys out on their bikes as much as I would have liked. As I was putting together the bikes for my sister’s grandsons, I thought “Why not incorporate that into my goals for next year?” Every cyclist sets some sort of goal as part of their New Year’s resolution…even if it’s as vague as getting out and riding more. Last week, I informed readers of the goals I had set since my bariatric bypass, and how those had unfolded over the years. By keeping my last promise to her, I got back on track and now have other goals to achieve in 2019. I know it’s what she would want. It’s what I have to do to stay positive and keep in some semblance of shape – physically as well as mentally. Part of my goal setting for 2019 is going to involve riding with my grandsons and teaching them a love for the sport, for physical activity, a firm grasp on how to be safe, etc.

What are these goals? How did I arrive at them? And what is all this terminology you are using? I am so glad you asked….because otherwise, there really isn’t a point to this blog, is there???

A few terms and definitions before moving on to the goals will help some of you. Feel free to skip if you are an expert cyclist…or feeling adventurous!

STRAVA – A free cycling app that keeps track of your mileage in a variety of activities. The app tracks your mileage by day, week, month, year, and all-time. It can also track your mileage by equipment – bikes, running shoes, etc. If you pay to upgrade, it can give you some coaching tips, as well as generate a heat map to show you the routes you have covered within a window of time that you specify. I personally do one for each year, as well as for all time. I love looking at the all-time heat map because it shows everywhere in the world I and my wife have cycled and generates memories.

Segment – When you use STRAVA, certain parts of a route may be very popular with other cyclists and it may have been designated as a “segment” that is timed for racing purposes. STRAVA awards a digital trophy to the fastest 10 times (by gender) to those who cover the segment. The fastest is King (KOM) or Queen (QOM) of the Mountain/segment. Several cyclists attempt to collect KOM’s and incorporate that into their goals. At this writing, I have 18 KOM’s on STRAVA – down from 23 a couple of years ago.

Invitational – An invitational is a bicycle race or ride that is usually sponsored by a local bicycle club as a means of fundraising for their club activities. Most bicycle clubs choose at least one charity to donate to, as well as sponsor bicycle safety classes, helmet and/or bicycle give aways to disadvantaged youth, etc. Usually an invitational is a single day event, although there are a few that my wife and I took part of that lasted as long as three days. The invitationals will offer a variety of distances from 12 miles up to 150 or more, and all within the same event. For instance, my wife would ride the 20-35 mile option for a given event, while I almost always took the longest option available. Invitationals almost always offer a variety of services for cyclists and their families, and most will reward their riders with food at the end of the ride. This can range from a full spaghetti dinner, to an ice cream social (my wife’s favorite), to a barbecue to pie….it all depends on the creativity of the organizers…as well as their pocketbooks! Riders will also at times be rewarded with certificates, patches, T-shirts, etc., for completing the invitational. In terms of cost, invitationals can run from as little as $15 to as much as $75, depending on the organizer, length, early or late registration fees, etc.

SAG – Support Assistance Group. These people are cyclist’s best friends! They are part of most organized invitationals and tours. Their job is to ride the route and provide assistance to any rider who needs it. If the assistance is a simple mechanical, such as a problem with a tube or tire, usually they can provide you with the tube and a pump. More knowledgeable SAG drivers can help with other mechanicals. If they are unable to get you and your bike back on the road, whether for mechanical or medical issues (for liability purposes, very few SAG drivers now are allowed to provide first aid), then they will transport you back to the start, the next rest stop, or the overnight town.

Tour – A bicycle tour is different from an invitational in that it is specifically designed for multiple days, much longer distances, and almost never ends where it began. While some tours give a portion of their proceeds back to local and statewide charities, some purposely keep their fees low to just cover their expenses so riders can enjoy the experience at a lower cost. Tours for cyclists usually involve the cyclist packing a tent, sleeping gear, clothes, etc., and having the tour transport those bags to each day’s destination town, where the rider arrives, climbs off his bike, sets up camp, grabs a shower, grabs dinner, grabs a beer, grabs a few hours of sleep, then wakes up at an ungodly hour to pack up and do it all over again the next day! And it’s fun. We like it. Especially when friends, family, and lots of beer are involved! Tours vary in size and length….I’ve been on tours of two days (Hershey, PA to Philadelphia, PA with 400 riders)…of six days (Lake Michigan to Lake Huron, St. Clair, or Erie with 800 riders), to the largest rolling party on the planet – RAGBRAI – of eight days, between 16,000 and 30,000 cyclists every day – from the Missouri River to the Mississippi River completely across the State of Iowa. More on this later. Costs for tours vary widely, depending again on length of tour, but also on the amenities the cyclist wants – such as having your camp site set up for you, or for meal plans. It can be as low as $135 for a week, or well over $1000 for some companies on RAGBRAI that provide you with a tent, private showers, set up camp, etc.

Randonneur – A randonneur is an ultra, long distance cyclist. Randonneurs ride routes between 100K (62 miles) to 1200K (744 miles). They are expected to “check-in” along route, within a specific time window, based on the mileage, etc., similar to automobile rallies. A cyclist must average about 15K/hour to complete the routes within the given window. This is ELAPSED time…in other words, cyclists are given a certain number of hours and minutes to arrive at check points along the route and complete the ride. HOW a cyclist gets there is up to them….nature breaks, photo ops, going slow and enjoying the scenery, etc. For longer rides of 400K (248 miles) or more, sleep time is also factored in. All riders are required to be self-sufficient – that means they must be able carry their own repair equipment, gear, etc. (although you can arrange to have a bag with fresh clothing, gear, food, tools, etc., dropped off at a check-in point along route) No one is allowed to meet you on the route and provide you with mechanical, logistical, medical, or dietary assistance. If you fail to check in within the allotted window, or if you receive assistance along the route, you are disqualified from the event. Riders must belong to a variety of randonneur organizations to participate in these events (in the United States, the umbrella organization is Randonneurs USA… The rewards vary, as there are several categories of achievement based on mileage, type of event, etc. One of the biggest is eligibility to participate in the Paris-Brest-Paris event, held every four years, with 2019 being a PBP year. The PBP is one of cycling’s most grueling events – a test of endurance, speed, linguistic skills, etc. This event is to amateur cyclists what the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, or Vuelta Espana is to the pro cyclists!

Permanent – A permanent is an RUSA route that has been designed by an RUSA member, has been tested and evaluated by RUSA for viability in terms of completion feasibility, and most can be ridden at any time of the year. The routes vary in length from 100K and up, although most permanents are 300K and shorter and are designed for a solo rider, or very small group. There are hundreds of these routes all across the USA. The cost for doing a permanent varies….some are free, and some can be as much as $25. Registration about a week in advance is required to allow the check in card to make it to you.

Brevet – A brevet is a route sanctioned by RUSA, ACP, or other Randonneur governing board. These events can vary from populaires (100K) to Grand Randonees of 1200K or more. Brevets are scheduled at various times of the year and usually involve the same route, such as the Thumbs Up 200, 400, or 600K Brevet ride around Michigan’s thumb region put on by the Detroit Randonneurs every year. Brevets are designed to host large groups of cyclists. For randonneurs, there is strength in numbers! On my first Thumbs Up brevet in 2014, I was with a rider whose rear wheel quick release lever had snapped mid ride. Randonneurs carry every form of equipment imaginable – just in case – such as four extra tubes, zip ties, extra chain links, extra batteries, first aid kits, etc. Yet nobody had an extra quick release lever that day….except for me! His ride would have been done without it. He thanked me and we moved on. Later that year, I was doing a 1000K brevet around Lake Ontario with a group of friends when I got a flat. No big deal…tube replaced in a minute or two, and back on the road. For about 100 feet…until it blew again. Still not a big deal, since I had 4 tubes. The big deal came when I noticed a split in the sidewall of the tire that no boot (a small piece of cardboard or rubber) could fix. MY ride would have ended there except one of my companions happened to have a spare foldable tire in his pack. I now carry one of those as well!

OK…back to my goals for this year. 8500 miles. Minimum. That was the easy part, because, again, my wife and I intended for me to increase my mileage 1000 miles each year until her retirement and I could bike from Alaska to Buenos Aires in a single year while she SAG’d and shopped. Last year I kept my promise to get back on track and hit 7500 miles, which I wrote about last week. To accomplish my goal this year, I must average 23.29 miles every day, or 708.4 miles every month. Not an easy task, especially in Michigan.

I love getting the STRAVA digital award badges. STRAVA challenges riders with these as an extra incentive. At one point, I had ridden a metric century (62 miles) in a single ride, at least once every month for 18 consecutive months! Yes, even here in Michigan! That streak was snapped a couple years ago, but I am currently on an 8 month streak of getting that STRAVA Gran Fondo badge. This year, the goal is to keep that streak alive every month and end 2019 with a streak of 20 months! That will help.

Another STRAVA incentive is the Monthly Training Series badge – awarded to riders who can log 1250K, or 776.7 miles in a single month. Prior to this year, my PR for earning these badges in a year was five, set in 2015. I had never earned one in a month between October and March. This year, I currently have earned six in a row…including my very first October and November MTS badges. I am afraid, however, the streak will end this month as I am about 175 miles shy of the badge and have no plans to try and earn it before Tuesday morning. Realistically, I know that June, July, and August are always my biggest months in terms of mileage. This past year, I logged 3500 miles in those three months alone! While I do not have to earn the MTS badge every month to achieve my 8500 miles, it is my goal to earn the badge in at least seven different months in 2019.

While I can no longer afford to do as many invitationals as we once did, there are a few that I will always do – such as the Pumpkin Pie Ride put on by my club in Ottawa, IL the first Sunday in October…the One Helluva Ride, put on by my club in Ann Arbor, MI the second Saturday in July. A few years ago I reconnected with a friend from HS that I hadn’t seen in over 30 years and we rode the Hancock Horizontal Hundred together – the flattest century ride in the nation – the biggest hill is a freeway overpass! My wife loved that one and we enjoyed the time with my friend and his lovely wife. I’d like to ride that again with him. I’ve attached the links to these clubs and events, as well as some others below. Registration may not be open yet, but most cyclists fill up their calendars early and will register by the end of March for all invitationals when possible.

Of course, the one invitational I HAVE to ride in is for my late wife. When she passed, my children and I decided that in lieu of flowers, we would simply accept donations and maybe send one kid from an inner city school to summer music camp, as means of extending her legacy. I forgot how well my wife and I played good cop/bad cop over the years! We were so inundated with donations from colleagues, friends, family, and former students (hers and mine) that we formed a 501c-3 for the purpose of giving scholarships to at risk students who could otherwise not attend a summer music camp. Last year, we awarded FOUR full scholarships, and hosted the 1st Annual Angie’s Angels Legacy Ride as a fundraiser for the scholarship fund. Our grandsons went on the six mile loop of that ride, with me towing them while they laughed, squealed, and “air-pedaled” the entire way! We are in the process of scheduling the 2019 ride now!

Becoming active as a randonneur again will help make that 8500 miles go fast, if not easily. I love the challenge of a really long ride. The ability to push your body and discover its relative limitless capabilities is a key benefit to being a randonneur. The solitude of the road…the opportunity to purge your mind of all other distractions as you – SQUIRREL! – (sorry) pound out a cadence on your pedals, is a benefit to mental health. I am scheduling several RUSA permanents and brevets this year that will allow me to hit the goal, push my body, and discover new roads. I want my grandsons to be a part of the planning of some of these so they can see what their Papa is doing. I know part of me did it to show off for my wife when she was alive – and it worked – but now I want them to discover and learn just how amazing their bodies can be if they take care of it! I want them to be proud of their Papa!

Before she passed, and even before she began the downward spiral of the last month of her life, my wife and I discussed the tours and invitationals. She wanted me to take part in a tour we have here in Michigan called PALM (Pedal Across Lower Michigan) – a week-long tour the last full week of June that is family friendly and that she and I had done together several times. I did it this past June with her brother, thinking that now that I had done it after she had passed, I could let that one go. But, while putting those bikes together and reveling in the longer daylight hours, I thought…”Hey! What about taking my grandsons on PALM?” I know she would have loved to take the boys camping on this ride – although she would have made ME be the one pedaling them around in the trailer! It’s all good, really! I see lots of people doing the same thing on these tours…pedaling their kids and grandkids along in a trailer, or attaching a tag-a-long to act like a tandem to their own bicycle. My favorite is a grandfather I have seen on PALM several times now that pedals up front and has his three grandkids attached in tag-a-longs behind him “pedaling” together. That man has calves that would stop a bullet! Seriously. He is my hero! Those kids have a blast and are always bopping to the music grandpa streams from a playlist on his phone. At night they are always giggling, playing ball, Frisbee, tag, or other games with other kids on tour and generally having the time of their lives. I want THAT for my grandsons! She would too!

There are other things I am choosing NOT to focus on in 2019….I have decided KOM’s are for stalkers and/or the young. I’m out here to have a good time and not take chances that would send the wrong signal to my grandsons. If I get a KOM by surprise (I actually picked up one about a month ago on my cyclocross bike with wide tires!), then, cool.

I’m not focusing on speed this year, except as a means to an end. A certain speed is necessary for randonneur events, and I want to do a 100, 200, 300, 400, and 600K event this year, with at least one permanent or one brevet in each month. But, at my age, I frankly know I am not going to be winning a spot on Lotto Quick Step’s Tour de France team! I would just like to log my miles in a decent enough time to get back home so my dog doesn’t go stir crazy – literally! The ability to relax at home with a good book, a beer, and a pipe, with my ginormous yellow lab acting like she’s a Yorkie and sitting on my lap to squish everything out of place, cannot be understated! It makes the miles worth it! And it makes grandson moments to remember that she would love.

A couple days ago my children and grandchildren presented me with one of my gifts. My wife and I had a tradition dating back to our first Christmas in 1983 of gift giving. We were poor and it was bitterly cold. I had grown up on my uncle’s laps while they smoked a pipe and told stories. I wanted to start, so she bought me a Dr. Grabow pipe that year…inexpensive, but I cherished it! That was the first year of those silly, plush animal slippers. She wanted a pair to keep her feet warm. I gave her Bugs Bunny. Every year after, I got a pipe and she got slippers…no matter how tight, or well off we were.

I opened the box as my grandson said “Look, Papa!” I had smoked the night before and read him a story while he pushed his fingers through the smoke rings I blew. In the box they gave me was a note from Santa that said “A beautiful angel Whispered in my ear That she needed help Getting it to you this year.” It was on a gorgeous briar pipe carved by Tomas Cristiano, stained with hints of blue and teal – her colors – from the same shop my first pipe came from and that we patronized so much over the years. My grandson was thrilled and, of course, I obliged by smoking it and blowing smoke rings. Yes. It’s ok, you can choke up. I did.

I stand corrected from last week, honey. Apparently you ARE here to share it with! And will be when I get those boys out on the road with me this year!

Death Changes Everything, Carl

Bear with me folks. This is a long read, for a blog. I know. I promise all subsequent posts will be shorter, but…..

There is a spot in your lives as a married couple where you live in a sweet zone of not having to check out show times for the latest Disney, Pixar, or other over-hyped animated movie. Your children have grown and left the nest and you do not yet have grandchildren, so as a couple, you can have a date with whatever form of entertainment you choose. A REAL film: action, mystery, science fiction, romance…it’s a wonderful time where you can focus on each other once again. Date night as an adult with grown children is AWESOME!

So, when the movie “Up” came out in 2009, my wife and I didn’t see it. We had hit that sweet spot! To be sure, she showed it to her classes later to discuss the music (she was an elementary music teacher), but not me! I refused to be suckered in! That is until this past fall when I was babysitting my three year old grandson and he wanted to watch “Up” because of Russell and the Habanera from “Carmen.” So, here I am at the age of 58, a widower for eight months, watching this movie with my grandson about a grumpy old man who married the girl of his dreams, she dies, and he spends the balance of his life in an unchanging environment with her memory and the memory of an unfulfilled promise haunting him…until change is FORCED upon him. I bawled like a baby.

The movie is wrong. Dead wrong. Death changes everything, Carl! And it doesn’t take it’s time about doing so, either.

My wife and I were cyclists. Well, okay, I am a cyclist (rank amateur, but a good one), and she enjoyed riding anywhere from 10-25 miles – as long as it was relatively warm, the course was flat, and we stopped somewhere for ice cream along the route (amazing how many places you can find that serve both ice cream and beer, BTW!).

I started cycling seriously in 2011 after bariatric bypass as a tool to keep my weight in check. We discovered along the way it also helped with my …. artistic …. temperament! I started out slowly with a goal of 2400 miles a year. After the first year, she said that it was too easy for me, and suggested I increase my goal each year, with the long term goal of a cycling trip for us from Alaska to Buenos Aires the year after we retired. She REALLY enjoyed having that slim teenage boy back again as her husband, and, again, the change in temperament after I took a ride was noticeable!

The goal in 2016 was to hit 7500 miles. I went off bike in October for a couple of surgeries – one to remove the excess skin from 170 pounds of weight loss that had remained off, and another to repair a broken foot I had been riding on for a few months. We wanted both to be done at the same time so I could get back on bike by Thanksgiving and hit the 7500. Things didn’t go quite as planned and I ended up short at 6700 miles. More distressing was how ill she became at Christmas time. Two weeks later we discovered she had stage 4 gall bladder cancer and were told she had anywhere from three months to MAYBE as much as a year.

It wasn’t fair. I was retired…she was only a few years away. We had three young grandsons, all under the age of three. Her biggest fear was that they wouldn’t remember their Nana. So we fought. She fought. And I was determined to be right there by her side, the way that she was by mine for all those years. The dignity and grace which she maintained during the fight was incredible to watch.

Obviously, my cycling goals were never on my mind. I managed to get in 650 miles in 2017, primarily because she would get tired of my crap and say “You need to get out on your bike. Go. NOW!”

In December of 2017, a bit over eleven months into her battle, we had run out of experimental options and treatments. We had been turned down by a major pharmaceutical company for an off label trial that was showing promising results because they found out we had contacted an attorney about the initial surgeon who had botched her cholecystectomy in the first place and spread the cancer. One night, alone, she softly said to me – through tears – “You have to promise me you are going to get back on track with your mileage next year. No matter what happens.” I refused. I wept. I told her she was far more important and that we were going to beat this thing together.

A few weeks later she had her last chemo treatment, and two weeks after that she began to spiral downwards precipitously. She didn’t want to enter hospice, because she felt that by doing so she would be giving up. Our children had all left for their own homes after the holidays, and once again she demanded that I promise her to get my 7500 miles in and get back on track. This time I caved. The next day she had mentally slipped away even further and entered hospice. She was gone in less than two weeks, passing on February 1st. I never knew how difficult it would be to keep that promise.

We had two dogs and two cats. One of our dogs had been diagnosed with Cushing’s disease just about a month after my wife’s diagnosis, so we had been watching him lose weight over the year as well. Riding in Michigan year round is problematic at best, but with quality gear, bikes, and a supportive wife, it really wasn’t an issue for me. Until she died. So many issues….

Who is going to look after the animals? I had been a pretty active randonneur, among other things. You can’t, however, go off on a 200, 300, or 400K ride for a single day and leave the dogs alone in the house.

Depression is real Carl. I get it. Finding motivation to get out was something I never struggled with until after her Memorial service. To make matters worse, though, is that you feel you are always losing a piece of that person. Every time one of the kids takes an article of her clothing, a dish, or a piece of furniture (which they should, as my wife and I made sure they knew what they each are to take from us), another part of her leaves the house. Nothing in this house has remained the same, Carl. I don’t know HOW you did it.

Eating, drinking, and sleeping is different following the death of your best friend, your partner, your cycling buddy. I just don’t have the energy to cook a regular meal for myself anymore, and I was a trained chef as an undergrad. Without the food, the energy just isn’t there to do an early morning or late afternoon ride.

Drinking? Ha! My bariatric bypass was dramatically successful in part because I couldn’t process food for the first several months. We discovered by accident one day that my stomach doesn’t produce the enzymes necessary to break down food in a normal way anymore, but that certain beers will help kick start the process! Seriously. I went from vomiting every meal to being able to hold down a meal and digest it properly overnight. Who needs cannabis when beer is legal everywhere???!!! Unfortunately, I no longer have my wife to rely on to bring a Scotch Ale if I have to stop somewhere mid-ride to eat. And Scotch Ales are hard to come by….especially mid ride.

Sleep? When it comes, it is often for only a few hours at a time and is fitful. I read somewhere recently that sleeping in the nude is better for you, because wearing clothing can create a restriction and/or increase body temperature, making it more difficult to maintain sleep. My wife and I, to the chagrin of our children, slept “aux naturale” for years. With her gone, I now have to think of my children. What happens if I die in my sleep (I’m not that lucky!)? Would you want to come to your father’s house to find him naked in his bed, dead from a heart attack, stroke, or something else??? Ughhhhhhh! Pajamas it is…..

The last issue I am going to address is the security issue. Having a partner you know you can rely on allows you to cycle further and longer with the assurance that if there is a mechanical issue you can’t handle, get tired because you bit off more than you could chew, or if there is a weather issue, that person will be able to swoop in to the rescue. (Let the record show that she encouraged me to become a randonneur because she got tired of this function rapidly!)

My children gently pushed me out the door on my fat tire on February 18th – eight days after we said goodbye. It was 36 degrees and I started into a 14 mph headwind. Perfect accompaniment to how I felt. For the entire 16 miles I rode over the course of an hour and a half I bawled. The tears freezing to my cheeks even through the balaclava I was wearing. Stupid wind-chill, anyway. I went out again three more times in March, but each time I went out, I came back to a mess. The dogs were also going through separation anxiety. We had adopted them five years ago as a pair. Their previous owner had passed and the family gave them up for adoption to the local Humane Society. My wife fell in love with Ginger immediately because of her freckles. This ginormous yellow lab spent the next five years parked on my wife’s lap.

So I gave up riding again.

In late April, for my birthday and what would have been our 35th anniversary, our kids stepped up. They took it upon themselves to build a picket fence around our backyard and a shed in a corner so I could put the dogs out and leave on rides without fear of coming back to a mess. Construction was completed May 8th. They reminded me of my promise, and May 9th I started on the quest to hit 7500 miles by January 1st….but I had only logged 97 miles up until then.

Death changes everything Carl. You didn’t realize that, and maybe THAT’S why you didn’t keep your promise. I had once been able to easily knock out 180 miles plus in a single day. I once did 317! That wasn’t the case any longer, however, and I quickly realized that I was going to have to ride nearly every single day to keep this promise. I broke up the remaining distance to reach 7500 and divided it by the days remaining in the year. I had to average 32 miles every single day to keep my word. Many people would say that just getting close would have been acceptable….and to be fair, some part of me feels she may have as well. However, another part of me knows that she was harder on me than on anyone else she knew – mostly because she knew I was goal driven and obstinate as hell! Another part of me felt that I had left so many promises unfulfilled that I HAD to keep this one. No excuses.

I had never really ridden day after day after day before. I would go out and knock off a century ride and then take a couple of days off. Go out and do a metric century and then take a day off, etc. But after the better part of eighteen months off bike, I lacked the stamina to do this. So 35 mile rides it was. And the gap closed….slowly.

Along the way, I was forced to adapt. I was hit by a distracted driver six days after my first ride in May. This lead to a rear facing camera from my children as a Father’s Day present when they became panicked and realized they had narrowly missed becoming orphans. The addition of the Cycliq light/camera, however, overloaded the rear of my bikes and my accessory holders couldn’t handle the extra burden. Death changes everything, Carl. You have to adapt. So I did.

First of all was making sure I had access to a medicinal Scotch Ale when necessary. They don’t travel well in the typical water bottle, you know. Finally, while on RAGBRAI, I discovered a metal crowler at the Iowa Craft Beer Tent. This marvelous piece of engineering is designed to hold 32 ounces of your favorite beer in an insulated tumbler that preserves the carbonation while fitting in your bike’s water bottle holder perfectly. Good Lord, how important THAT has been!

I have been a huge fan of the Kaddy Rack bike accessory system for years and have a four bar system for the front of my fat tire. Fortunately, Andy is a great guy and an engineering genius. When I told him of my problem and situation, he designed a multiple bar system for the rear of my bike that accommodates five tail lights AND the Cycliq. Adaptability, Carl. Kaddy Rack and Andy are FANTASTIC about it! See the link below!

Weather has been more of an issue than I was prepared for. It has been the year of the Big Wind here in the Midwest. So many days with constant winds of 15-20 mph, I had to explore new routes that would allow me to take advantage of tail winds. Many of these involved gravel portions. In 2013, my wife bemoaned the money we were spending on invitationals every year – we did 14 of them that year alone. She begged me to explore more local routes, and eventually pushed me into randonneuring to satisfy my long distance cycling cravings. This year, she got her wish as far as local cycling….I put new wider tires on my cyclocross bike (700×30/32) and took advantage of routes that used both paved and gravel roads. And spent less time paying attention to my stats on my Garmin and more time paying attention to the scenery.

As November 1st hit, however, I was still more than 1400 miles short. This was a HUGE problem. My biggest November for road mileage was in 2015 when I pounded out 535 miles. Similarly, my best December was also in 2015 when I logged 325 miles. As the days became colder, and we had a pretty significant snow and ice event before Thanksgiving, it became more difficult to get out every day and grind out the miles. To further complicate matters, our dog Jasper finally succumbed to his bout with Cushing’s and died on the 25th. But a promise is a promise, and I could hear her voice inside my head “You are a stubborn, stubborn man.” At the close of the day on November 30th, I had logged 895 miles for the month…more than May, more than June, and more than October. Then I knew it was going to be possible, but would require a strong finish.

I became ill December 7th, with 250 miles down in December already and just 220 miles remaining. My Uncle also passed that week and his funeral was that weekend. Nothing about this was going to be easy. It was as though my wife was sitting beyond laughing and saying “This is a character building exercise. You’re going to be stronger because of this.”

But I got better. The four days’ rest did a great deal of good. And the final push began. The morning of the 18th dawned clear and cold, but promised to be in the mid 40’s by the end of the day. A friend I had made on a cycling Facebook page was coming to join me. I only needed 41 miles to keep my promise. The forecast called for all day rain on Thursday. I was determined to finish it Wednesday. But, again, my wife wanted a good laugh.

One of my most prized possessions is a video recording we did three weeks before she passed. We styled it after the famous Story Corps recordings on NPR at a suggestion of the nurses at her oncology center. One of the questions I asked was “Why me?” My wife was a goddess. She never allowed herself (unlike me) to get out of shape. Stunningly beautiful inside and out. We had a series of couple shots taken about five years ago by a former student who is a professional photographer. My nickname for these shots is “The Princess and the Frog.” So, indeed, why me? She said in that interview “Because you could always make me laugh. No one else could lift me up like that.”

I decided to take her bike that day. Wear her helmet. Wear a kit we had designed for a fundraiser ride for the non-profit we organized in her memory (more on that in a later blog). But remember what I said about the conditions necessary for her to ride? Her bike didn’t want to go out in the cold that day either, apparently. After struggling with the pedals, the chain, the seat post, the accessory bars, etc., I finally was able to get out about 45 minutes later than intended. Then it hit me. I was really going to do it. I was going to keep the last promise I ever made to my beautiful and loving wife. That another tie to her was leaving me. And the tears started just as they did on that first ride after she passed. Okay, Carl, maybe not EVERYTHING changes.

At this writing I have logged 7560 miles on the year. The kids are all home for the holidays. The yard is cleaned up finally (since I had neglected it for much of the year while chasing down this goal). The tree is going up tomorrow. Ostensibly, honey, nothing has changed. But everything has. You aren’t here to share it with.