As I share this story, I acknowledge that I have privileges. Despite juggling two or more jobs for much of my adult life, I am aware of my many gifts and access to a world that is filled with blessings, luck and love.
I’m telling this story in an effort to care, to connect and to inspire.
During the past few years I have written about my public (and vulnerable) journey to gain physical strength, lose weight, build stamina and create a healthier future. I’ve received some criticism, but I’ve also heard positive sentiments from countless others and I’ve learned about others who have started on journeys similar to mine.
In that spirit I wish to share some of my challenges you cannot see. This comes from a place of lessons learned as I set goals to build community, create connections and inspire teamwork.
When Covid-19 first hit, out of desperation I bought an electric bike. I had not ridden a bike with any kind of regularity since the 1970s, but in the past 18 months I have peddled about 4,000 miles. Slowly and surely my body is transforming, moving closer to a healthier me. I continue to work out with a personal trainer and movement specialist in weight training, pilates and cardio. We often discuss goals.
A glance in the metaphoric review mirror shows someone other than who I am today. I was moving toward an increasingly unhealthy state. Like so many things that creep up on us, poor health is not necessarily a choice, though in my case much of it was preventable. The starting point was when I had a benign nerve tumor removed from my spine several years ago. Because of pain, every year I moved slower and my weight ballooned to record numbers. I was caught in a vicious cycle of steroid epidurals and sugary foods that worked on my mind much like a painkiller. Since the surgery it’s been an up and down struggle, with the most progress in the past few years.
On the first Saturday of November, in a gesture of sublime overconfidence, I decided I should try The Iceman Cometh Challenge, Traverse City, Michigan’s bike ride of all bike rides — 5,000 people on a cross-country race cheered on by more than 15,000 spectators. After a reality check, I dropped down to the beginner section — the Slush Cup, which is a fraction of the big 30-mile ride. I would soon learn I was the most beginner-ish rider in the Slush Cup.
On my first day in Traverse City I decided to venture out and see what the race course was all about. To quote Scooby Doo, there are only two words: “Rut-ro.”
As I got farther and farther out and took more wrong turns, I suddenly realized, “Wow, I am lost.” As casual as that “wow” may seem, there was nothing casual or relaxed about the situation. I wasn’t lost in my Northern Virginia Nordstrom’s.
I didn’t know what I didn’t know and, to be truthful, my response was more of a PTSD reaction. I was yelling in my head, “WTF am I doing and how do I get out of here?”
I made two big beginner mistakes: I didn’t take anyone with me and I was short on water. My intention was to take a brief spin, but little by little I was caught up in the beauty of Michigan’s north country. I peddled farther and farther until my internal narrative was, “You are the dumbest! What were you thinking?”
By the time I realized I needed help I was in a dead zone. My cell phone was useless. I was lost and panicking. If nobody heard from me, maybe by spring someone would find me. I was eventually able to get through to a person who assured me via text that I was going to be okay.
In light of my shortcomings, in the name of being a good sport I have honed the ability to laugh at myself. Being self-effacing is my go-to tool and a buffer for filtering and dimming the stark glare on my list of athletic failures. As a child, for several valid reasons, I often felt a sense of loss and, more specifically, unsafe. That unsafe feeling evolved into hard-wiring that sometimes has me anxious on the inside while smiling on the outside. How can a man my size, tall and steady in appearance, ever feel so insecure? Friends and even strangers often look to me for support and wisdom.
Back to that race day in Michigan, when I was signed up to ride in the Slush Cup. As the start time approached, I became increasingly alarmed, hoping for a valid excuse (like a missing bike) to not participate. My fear wasn’t about coming in last; it was my childhood alarm bell ringing familiar warnings of danger. And for good reason, I thought. I had just been lost because of my inexperience and lack of knowledge.
The internal alarm bells that I discovered as a first grader had continued throughout my development. By the time I was in high school I had been diagnosed with epilepsy and was taking a cocktail of meds that made me foggy and depressed. I was a combination of awkward and sedated, coupled with severe cystic acne. Who wouldn’t want to be invisible? My doctor and my parents warned me that my condition was nothing to discuss and must be kept secret to protect myself. As a result, nothing but danger bells motivated me. My high school career was spent dodging anything normal, including graduation. The strategy was to be invisible and hide from judgment.
Forty-five years later, I was preparing to ride in a bike race to model my Less Cancer journey for others, to show my wellness, stamina and weight loss. At some level I accomplished that, though in hindsight I was hiding behind my public figure /teacher role.
But something bigger happened. Something else moved me though a journey I was even less prepared to face. I met folks in the race with significant hurdles, far bigger than any of mine.
As I made my way through the course it became more difficult physically, but there were other hurdles that I was unprepared for. I was mentally peeling away to my emotional core. Hill after hill, there was a point where I was convinced it was never going to happen. I wouldn’t finish. As I climbed each hill, my language would have shocked any sailor. I repeatedly shouted the F-word like a madman as I clawed my way along.
When the sweeper, Jason, came up behind me, my first thought was, “Great, can you call me a cab?” Patiently he urged me up and down hills as I swore, cried, hyperventilated, and even got off my bike and pushed it up a few hills, stomping my feet.
I was in a war, a war with myself as I shouted my emotional armor clear from my whole being. I could not help but think of all my failed childhood challenges, such as running backwards around the baseball diamond and seeing my dad bury his face in his hands. And the countless gym experiences: I was so bad at everything that I finally secured a gym class wavier. However, throughout the ride I also thought of my trainer, Chris, who repeatedly coached me to stop my negative self-talk. That was the goal, but doubting dialogue is hard-wired.
Then something remarkable happened: The bells in my head that had resided there for nearly 60 years were met by the sounds of cowbells. Not one or two cowbells, but countless ones being rung by spectators along the race route.
I had reached the last hill, called the Ice Breaker. I screamed, “Are they kidding?” at this final challenge. Pedaling and walking, I made it to the top of the hill and jumped back on my bike for the downhill run.
Jason had said, “I’ll see you at the finish.” And he did. I came across the line to the voice of Olympic cyclist Frankie Andreu. A hero’s welcome. I heard my name and then Less Cancer and I was overwhelmed, not by alarm bells but cowbells. There was no place to hide — or reason to. I was not invisible. There I was, hugging and hearing lots of kind accolades from countless kind people with generous hearts.
I returned to my car, jumped in, and wept. I was armor-less, having shaken off all my protective shields. I had shown up simply as myself, needing to be good enough, and had come home better than good enough.
Thank you, Iceman.