I fell in love with cycling in my adult life. I loved sports as a kid, and spent summers tooling around town on my BMX bike, but it wasn’t until after college that I started riding seriously. What started as a casual goal among friends to complete a local century, turned into a life-long commitment to the sport after one tumultuous and grief-stricken year where tragic news was hurled at me in such rapid succession my heart would stop beating every time I answered the phone, in fear of what news I would receive next.
First was my friend James. A healthy and fit guy whose feathers could never be ruffled and had a love for Boddington’s that I still don’t understand. At 38, and no history of a heart condition, he suffered a fatal heart-attack in the middle of the night only to be found the next day when he didn’t show up for work. Several months later, my cousin’s boyfriend of 2+ years, Sal, died instantly when his motorcycle collided with a cane truck in down country Maui. A couple months after that, my friend Nick succumbed to pancreatic cancer after years of fighting. And in the middle of all this turmoil, my brother-in-law, Seamus, committed suicide.
Each of these deaths was tragic and painful in different ways, but there’s something about suicide that is especially difficult to comprehend. It can’t be rationalized as the normal course of life. Nor can you call it a tragic accident or a sick twist of fate. So when Seamus took his own life I needed to understand what he was thinking, what he felt, to believe that ending his life was a better option. Seamus was very reclusive. Reluctant to have family visit him in Oregon, I never saw his apartment until after he died and when I walked through the front door I was struck by the way he had lived his life. We were the same age, into our 30's, yet while I had made accomplishments in my career, married a wonderful man, and built a beautiful home for ourselves in Los Angeles, Seamus was living in a small, run down, 1-bedroom apartment similar to the way I lived during college; a futon mattress on the floor and beer taking up more room in the refrigerator than food. I still have a picture of his refrigerator door, covered with family pictures. Pictures from his sister’s wedding, and from his brother's and my wedding a year prior. Those were the only two times he had been home to Maui since high school despite how much he loved it there. During one of those trips, he lost his favorite sweatshirt in Oregon’s airport terminal so we bought him another one online. The delivery included a small note to thank him for his help and let him know how great it was to see him. The note was printed at the bottom of the packing slip, nothing special, yet there it was; cut out and nestled in the assortment of family photos on the refrigerator door. It was a small gesture, but a powerful one. Seeing this colorful collage of photos and memorabilia he held close to his heart, in stark contrast to his gray surroundings, I was overcome with loneliness.
The rest of that trip seemed to be one long running thread. I watched people that I love, people that always have complete control, fall apart around me. I tried to absorb their pain like a sponge, thinking I could somehow make it more bearable for them, and by the time I got back to LA I was full. Every moment of that trip was stuffed into every vacant space in my body. The pressure filled my head, my lungs, every fiber in every muscle. But after losing his brother, the last thing my husband needed was to pick up the pieces of a broken wife. So instead, I got back on my bike.
It was the time of day when most people aren’t out of bed, let alone in their cars or out on the streets. The sun was just peeking over the mountain ridges, the air around me had a soft golden glow, and for that brief period all of Los Angeles felt like my own. I began to pedal. Feeling power under my feet, my pace would slowly quicken. My exhale timed to the rotation of the pedals in a moving meditation. Through the air in my lungs and the lactic acid in my legs, molecules containing memories from that trip could be released. The faster I went, the deeper my breath, the more my legs burned, and before I knew it I was flying through the air, heart beating out of my chest, tears running down my cheeks, until all of the space in my body was open again and all I could feel was exhaustion.
Morning after morning, as I added mile after mile to my bike, the painful experiences slowly shed away. With each pedal stroke I felt less like I was riding away from impending doom and more like I was forging full steam ahead into the future. I still think about James, Saul, Nick and Seamus a lot when I ride. But those memories no longer fill me with angst. Instead, they've given me a new perspective. Staring down a long uphill stretch of double-digit grade no longer looks intimidating. It is a challenge that pales in comparison to that awful year I had. I’m not about to let such a small obstacle keep me from making it up and over the top, whizzing down the other side with a giant Cheshire-like grin on my face. The burning feeling in my lungs and legs as I ascend the last climb of a 10,000 ft. day no longer feels unbearable. Unlike Seamus’ emotional suffering, this physical pain is fleeting, and when I get to the summit my discomfort will be replaced with pure joy. A kind of joy that is only experienced in contrast to struggle, one that makes all the pain before feel worth it, and one that I hope Seamus, James, Sal, and Nick had been lucky enough to experience at least once in their lives.
Since that year, big rides and big challenges are no longer about how much suffering I can endure. They are reminders of how resilient I can be. That no matter how badly I've been broken down I'll come back stronger than before, and I'll do it with a smile on my face. After all, I'm pretty lucky to feel the cool breeze on my skin, the warm sun on my back, and the love and support of so many friends I’ve met along the way.