Suffering: It May Not Be Fun But Is It Good?

winter wind

On Sunday morning I kept looking at the weather report and out the window, almost (well, okay, REALLY) hoping for rain. It was cloudy with a low probability of precipitation, but both the forecast and the trees outside said: WINDY. Winds of about 40km, gusting to 60 km. And kind of chilly (6 degrees C)–I had to duct tape the vents in my shoes to keep my feet from freezing (didn’t quite work).

So why was I hoping for rain? Because Sam said that if it was raining we wouldn’t go for our bike ride. I wanted an out. (See here for more on excuses.) But no such luck. We went, which prompted Sam to post about the “which is worse? wind or hills?” debate among cyclists.

We went with two cycling friends, Eaton and David. They all ride all the time. They’re fast. I’m new at this. And slow. When I got to the meeting spot at the Forks of the Thames, Sam asked if I’d seen Eaton. I was already late (because of road construction and poor planning) and he’d gone to look for me. The theme of Sam, Eaton, and David waiting for Tracy had thereby established itself before we even started.

We biked the Belmont “short” route. I’m really glad that no one told me ahead of time that “short” meant 50 km because I am pretty sure that I might have bailed. Our trek out of town gave me a sense of the wind. It was mostly coming from the side and I still felt pretty fresh, so not too bad.

Then at one point, for a short time (maybe about 10 km or less?) we had a glorious tail wind. That is something from heaven, truly. It’s totally calm, you ride along side one another chatting and laughing. The blazing fall colors take your mind off your cold feet.

When David told me that this feeling of lightness and wonder (we were zipping along effortlessly at about 30 km an hour!) is an actual thing in the bike world, a thing called a “tail wind,” it did occur to me, if only in a fleeting way, that it wouldn’t be like this forever. That home was the other way. That there must be something opposite to a tail wind.

Yes there is. It’s called a “head wind.” And the wind is not the only opposite. Take that light, zippy, effortless feeling of a tail wind and reverse it. The result: a heavy feeling, like you’re putting in maximum effort and getting nowhere. I’m not sure about anyone else, but my mind started to really want to defeat me right then and there, when we turned into that fierce and freezing wind, and everyone else was waiting for me up ahead (and I was conscious of the fact that they’d be much closer to home if not for me), and I was running out of fuel.

In a word, I was suffering. And suffer I would, all the way home. David, Eaton, and Samantha took turns trying to help me out by drafting. It did help a bit but I had trouble keeping up sometimes. Eaton, also small (cycling is the only context in which I have repeatedly been referred to as small and light), explained that I probably needed food. So I downed some of his home made electrolyte replacement drink (thank you, Eaton!) and a fig bar, and suffered on (trying to smile).

Hills (which apparently we don’t even have around here–something else I am assured I will change my perception of in time) started to appear like mountains in the distance. At one point, as we approached a hill that Sam was already over the crest of, I said to David, “I don’t think I can do it.” He said, “Just try and see how far you get.”

The hill was short but (to me) fairly steep. On my right, along the side of road, a bank covered in fall leaves sloped upwards. The leaves looked soft and inviting. I hit my gear shifter to switch to an easier gear. Nothing left to go to. I picked my spot and let myself fall to the side, both feet still clipped in, and landed on the leaves, which by then felt like a warm blanket. My thighs seized up (Eaton tells me that’s my VMO muscle and that once I improve my technique it won’t happen quite as easily). I lay there for a couple of minutes before clipping out, dragging myself to my feet, and then staggering up the hill with my bike beside me (Sam and David couldn’t even see me; Eaton had already said his good-byes because he had to be somewhere that he’d never get to if he went at my pace!).

My next source of defeat came with a second hill, more gradual but longer, and without the cushy option at the side. I had a small victory this time: I ran out of steam, yes, but I clipped out without having to topple over. My thighs cramped up again, and I threw myself down on my back onto someone’s front lawn for a couple of minutes to gather my energy for the rest of the ride.

We rode through an industrial area on the east side of town where Sam gave me a quick tutorial about what to do if I got chased by a junk yard dog. Sprint. If you can’t sprint away fast enough, keep the bike between you and the dog. But, she assured me, most of these yards have electronic fences around them. Several demolition yards later we were in the clear. Dog encounters gratefully averted.

I haven’t mentioned the wind for awhile. It continued to howl at 40 km or more as we rode dead into it. I know the northwestern wind well from sailing. It’s the one that brings with it the more serious storms and high seas as it builds from the north corner of Lake Huron, gathering force as it roars down the lake.

Anyway, I split from David and Samantha when we approached downtown on the bike path because I wanted the shortest route home. After I waved good-bye to them I leaned my bike up against a guard rail and foraged deep into my pocket for the last fig bar. I took a sip of water. With about 15 minutes of riding left, I clipped in and headed home. To a bowl of cereal, a handful of nuts (I couldn’t muster the energy for more), a hot bath with mineral salts, and a delicious and satisfying afternoon nap.

Okay, so now to the question: Suffering may not be fun, but is it good? I can attest for sure to the first part. It wasn’t fun. Not at all (other than the tail wind). In lots of ways, it was humbling. But there were a few things good about it.

For one thing, I did it. Part way through I began to reflect on people who climb Mount Everest (I know, I was being a bit melodramatic) and how the people you’re with–whether aiming for the Everest summit or trying to finish the Belmont short loop on a cold windy day–can only help you so much. When the rubber hits the road (or the sleet starts to fall on your new bike and the wind screams in your face and it feels like someone dropped ice cubes in your shoes), you’ve got to finish what you started. Yes, there was one point (on the second hill) when I felt like packing it up and calling a cab, but I didn’t do that.

I have a cycling war story already, and I’ve really only been out for two rides! I think this has a lot to do with what’s good about suffering. We love to talk about it when it’s all over.

I learned a few things: about what I need to eat (something along the way), what I need to wear (my cold weather gear is great except I definitely need those shoe covers!), that I have some technique to work on, that my more experienced riding friends really will not leave me even when they’re cold and probably wish they could just blast on home (thank you!), that I can suffer, give up, and then get right back on the bike and keep going.

It’s hard to imagine worse conditions. Sam said that it’s the windiest day she’s ever been out for a ride. So that’s good to know. It’s only going to get better from there.

It’s bolstered my enthusiasm for my winter commute. Twenty minutes? No problem! I can suffer for twenty minutes.

So there is some good that comes of suffering, though I hesitate to say that it’s good in itself. When we teach about the theory of value called hedonism in our ethics and value theory classes, the students always say stuff like, “no one can truly appreciate what’s so great about pleasure without also experiencing what’s awful about pain.” They offer this as a way of countering the claim that pain is always a bad thing–an assumption that a simple hedonistic theory (which says that pleasure is the only thing with intrinsic value and pain has intrinsic disvalue) embraces.

They’re questioning whether we would want a world free of pain (as some hedonists claim we should want) because might that not deprive us of certain pleasures–like those “wins” I just listed that came from my Sunday ride of suffering? It’s true–the bath, the nap, both felt more wonderful and luxurious than any bath or nap I’ve had in recent memory.

So I think the real question is, I feel good about having made it through, but would I feel as good if I hadn’t suffered as much?

Sam has written a couple of times about suffering and painful workouts. See here and here. I think I have to disagree with her idea that painful workouts are “fun.” In my case, I really only feel good about them in retrospect, not at the time. I know there is quite a bit of research that shows that it’s the mental battle that usually gets the better of us. The body can actually withstand a lot more than we allow it to, most of the time.

And there is a certain kind of bonding that occurs among communities of athletes, much of it having to do with suffering. In Michael Atkinson’s research paper, “Triathlon, Suffering, and Exciting Significance,” he identifies triathletes as members of a “pain community” and interviews 62 of them, documenting their narratives of pain and suffering.

Chances are, and Sam has noted this, athletes wouldn’t do a lot of what they (we?) do if there wasn’t some suffering involved. Pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone is a huge part of the attraction. It’s what motivates us to do more, try harder, go further, hang in there a little bit longer.

It snowed yesterday. That prompted Sam to say, “looking at the snow on the ground now I’m still glad we got out! That’s the thing, you rarely regret the decision to ride.”

So for all the agony on Sunday, do I regret the decision to ride? No, not at all.

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