Thursday, July 21, 2011

Making Granddad Proud

In just a few days, I start the first day of my vacation. It’s a vacation, mind you, that’s required me to train.

Last year’s adventure brought me to Napa and Lake Tahoe, where my sweetie and I fell in love with the idea of bringing our bikes on vacation. We saw so many out-of-the-way places that tourists don’t usually see. At one point, we even said we’d never vacation without them.

We’re making good on that. This year, we’re kicking it up a notch with a seven-day cycling tour through the Finger Lakes, New York. A cycling tour doesn’t just mean a few bike rides mixed into a trip of wining, dining and sight-seeing. It means, rather, that we’ll park our car at the meeting spot on the first day and use only our pedal power for the rest of the vacation.

We’re not alone in this adventure. We’ll be joining 650 strangers. By the end of a full week of cycling and camping together, I doubt I’ll refer to them as strangers.

It may seem a bit ambitious - biking 350 miles in seven days, camping in between stops. But with organized camp sites, prepared meals, nightly entertainment, showers and even traveling vans to carry our gear from place to place, it really is one of the more luxurious cycling tours.

My grandfather, I’m sure, would agree. Although I suspect he’d be excited and intrigued about my upcoming trip, I think there’s a part of him who would scoff at the plush conditions.

Nearly 28 years ago, Granddad set out on his own cycling adventure, a sort of race to check off another thing on the bucket list. He was 65 and had just been diagnosed with cancer when he decided to make the trek from Toronto to Cape Cod. Yes, by bicycle.

I was too young, just 8 years old, to fully comprehend what was happening. I knew Granddad was going on a long bike trip. That alone didn’t seem completely out of the ordinary.

Granddad was a bit spontaneous and eccentric, always running, cycling or kayaking. For a while, he worked as a bike messenger through the crowded downtown streets of Toronto, dodging traffic and asserting himself as - that kind of cyclist - that gives cyclists a bad name. My mom recalls that the first time she was going to meet her future father-in-law. When she and my dad saw him riding his bike in traffic, they honked and waved. My grandfather, assuming they were just more pushy drivers, saluted them with the middle finger.

Several years later, he was standing in our driveway on a heavy, aluminum 10-speed, packed up with a tent and other necessities.

Most of what I know about his trip I learned through a journal he kept along the way. Each day in a short entry, he noted how many miles (or being Canadian, kilometers) he’d covered, the people he met along the way and what he ate.

Just a day into the trip, he’d discovered that his tent had a hole. Of course, he discovered this during a rainy night. He also discovered that he severely under-budgeted for his trip and, before the days of ATMs, feared he’d run out of money. He started a diet of cheap canned foods, like baked beans.

Soon, he had another plan. Granddad spent the remainder of the trip meeting strangers and somehow convincing them to make him dinners and sleep in guest rooms or on sofas. Granddad was a friendly guy.

He kept a list of the people he met, along with snap shots to documents his travels.

He died just a few months after he returned from his 700-mile trip. My grandmother called all of the names scribbled in the back of his journal to let them know he’d passed.

I feel a special connection to my grandfather when I think of his personal journey. I think I understand him in a way that others don't. I wish I’d been old enough to know him better and that he’d been around long enough for me to talk about his escapades. Who knows, maybe we would have even gone on a cycling adventure together. He’d be in his 90s now, and somehow I think he’d still be riding.

Sometimes the idea of retracing his journey slips into my head. I’m not quite as daring as Granddad, though, and I’d be more likely to make hotel reservations and eat at restaurants along the way.

For now, I’ll take baby steps into the cycling tour world. I’ll enjoy the nightly cookouts, the clean towels, the maps and marked route, all of the luxuries.

But I also plan to completely unplug. No phone, no email, no computers, radios or televisions. Just my bike and, yes, a journal.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Just A Number

As a July 2 baby, I'm pretty lucky.

I usually get to enjoy Fourth Of July festivities, cookouts and fireworks. Everyone seems to be in celebration mode, trying to enjoy every ounce of summer sunshine.

I especially like years, like the past two, when my birthday falls on a Friday or Saturday. Next year, when the leap year pushes it to Monday, won't be bad either. Another long birthday weekend.

Aside from the obvious perks of having a long-weekend birthday,
the July 2 date has other advantages.

As someone who likes to look both ahead to where I'm going and back at where I've been, my
birthday falls almost perfectly, smack-dab in the middle of the year. It provides just enough time to review the year-long goals I set back during resolution-season and to think about how the rest of the year will be.

From a running and cycling standpoint, I'm faring pretty darn well with my 2011 goals that I set in January. (See them listed on the right?)

Boston Marathon? Check. Raise $4,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society? Check. (Actually, it ended up at $5,525. I get bonus points for that, right?)

There's still plenty of time to get in a Century Ride and a sub-9 10K. Just gotta find the right events and put them on the calendar.

And my longer-term goal - the one to run and ride 3,000 miles this year - is looking decent, too. I'm over the 550-mile mark for running miles and just passed 900 miles of cycling. Almost exactly half-way there. Pretty near perfect.

When I'm done, I will have logged enough miles to "virtually" get me across the country. I figure I'm just coming up on Kansas City, Missouri.

My running and riding goals are easy to track. Like all good checklist goals, they're easily measurable. Either I did them or I didn't.

Black or white. That's how I usually am when it comes to goals. I recently found a mini bucket list I'd put together several years ago, lining up a few personal goals I'd set for myself. The list consisted of the following: get a tattoo, run a marathon, finish a half-marathon in less than two hours, and get my American citizenship.

Yes, it was a pretty big year.

I did everything on the list except get my citizenship - and that's just a long, story and something I've been dragging on for years and years.

I haven't really set any personal goals for myself for a while. Maybe it's time to change that. The problem is, "goals" related to personal life tend to be much more gray. I'm not talking about the kind of personal goals that I listed out above. Those are black-and-white goals, too. And two of them, mind you, are related to running.

Where is it, exactly, that I want to "be" at this time next year? Or the year after? Or when I'm, gasp, 40? And how do I know if I've gotten there? Surely it can't be as easy as checking something off a list.

Succeeding, if you can call it that, in life isn't always about checking things off a list - not always, at least. It's more about a feeling, something intangible. And something totally outside my comfort zone.

I know I'm happier than I've ever been. I know I'm healthier than I've ever been. I feel successful and secure in my relationship and where it's going. I feel confident and excited about my career. Yes, things are good. Really, really good.

So why is it that last week's birthday (I can't believe it's taken me a week to get to my traditional birthday post!) has me a bit on edge. Why does it have me asking myself those questions about "where" and "who" I want to be?

Plainly said, I'm having a bit of anxiety about now being closer to 40 than I am to 30. Yes, 36 somehow feels different. At the very least, it sounds different. Although I certainly don't feel 36, there's no denying that I'm there.

I haven't really expressed my anxiety about that stupid little number to anyone - not counting the old lady jokes I crack. I think it's because I know the oh-my-goodness-I'm-getting-close to-40 panic isn't me. Or at least it shouldn't be. Or I don't want it to be.

I'm supposed to be that level-headed person who looks objectively at things. I weigh all of the options and evidence. And when I look at everything going on in my life right now, I have absolutely nothing to worry about. So why worry?

All of this was swirling around in my head in the days leading up to my birthday. A Friday night pre-birthday ride was the perfect time to dig a little deeper. I do some of my best thinking while running or riding.

On that ride, I thought about what age means, what life "should" be like and all of those philosophical, gray-area topics that getting older throws at us. I thought about the Dailymile question of the day (nice timing, huh?) that asked members to list the things they were most proud of - in life, just not when it comes to training and racing.

What am I most proud of? What is my best accomplishment? Is it enough for marathons and bike rides to top the list? Or is there something more?

As I rode, I realized that life, as cliche as this sounds, is kind of like a long, hard bike ride.

There are ups and there are downs. And there are big climbs. I swear my early-30's were some kind of treacherous mountain pass. But then we get to the top, we get to enjoy the incredible view.

We can look back at where we've been, but we can also look ahead. From the top of the hill, we can see a lot.

I think that's where I am now. Sitting at the top of a high hill, looking ahead at the windy road. I don't know exactly where it will take me, but I know there will be more hills ahead (there always are) and I know I'll tackle those and get to the top (I always do). And I'll be ready for the next one.

Until then, I plan on enjoying the view and just seeing where the road ahead takes me.

Turns out, I thought about the life-bike analogy on my Birthday Eve ride as I rode up to the top of a familiar and steady hill. The view at the top, I'll note, is beautiful. I pause, at least mentally, every time I'm there to look out toward the mountains on the horizon.

Then, like I always do, I steered into the hill, clicked into my bigger gear and started pedaling. I felt confident and steady on my bike, despite the steep pitch of the downhill. I loved the fresh air whipping by me and the smells of summer hitting me in the face. Fresh-cut grass, burgers on the grill. The sun was shining, the air was warm. It was perfect.

As I neared the bottom of the hill, I glanced down at my speedometer: 38, 39. Could I reach 40? I couldn't recall seeing a 4-0 on my speedometer before.

Just then, it ticked up to 40 miles an hour - 40.1, to be exact. I felt this strange sense of exhilaration and accomplishment. Once again, I'd done something I hadn't done before. And it felt good.

The road starts a gradual uphill and I naturally slowed. I laughed to myself, maybe even aloud, as I realized the irony in my bike ride. I'd spent the first 10 miles thinking about figuratively racing toward 40 - as in years old - and feeling apprehensive and nervous about it. Now, I was celebrating about literally hitting 40 - miles per hour - on my bike.

Just goes to show you, it's just a number after all. Right?