Anticipating the need for Grit: Planning my first post-lockdown bike trip

I’m leaving this afternoon on an airplane. To fly across an ocean. To a totally different country. One I’ve never been to. That has a different alphabet. To ride a bike. Far. By myself.

Riding bikes in foreign lands is a thing that I do — or at least a thing that pre-Covid Cate did. But usually, I train a little bit more than I have this time. Or a big bit.

For a whole bunch of reasons — work, rainy days that lined up too closely with the few days I’ve had fully available, trying to see people who’ve been far away through the endless months of lockdown — the furthest I’ve ridden outside since last summer was 70 km.

Starting Monday, I’ll be riding across Bulgaria — which has a lot of mountains. And every day of the riding looks like this.

Note that little marker in the middle that says “BALKAN MOUNTAINS.” And the little gradation thing that shows a day of nearly 1000 m of climbing over 84km. That’s an average day — one day is nearly 1400 m of climbing.

I’m trying not to psych myself out — this is just me and a hired bike, no van to pick me up, places to sleep booked along the way. I have friends in Bulgaria, which is why I picked this country, but they won’t be riding with me. I’ll see them once on the route and then at the sea after I’ve finished riding. BUT THOSE LITTLE GRAPHS WITH ALL THE HILLS. A FOREIGN LAND WITH VARIANTS RUNNING AROUND.

So I’m taking a deep breath and thinking about grit.

I’ve written about grit before, when Susan, Sam, Sarah and I did a cold, rainy trip in Newfoundland a couple of years ago. Coincidentally, Mina mentioned grit in a post about mountain biking yesterday.

I love the word grit, because it perfectly conjures up the idea of “I feel so uncomfortable, like there’s a damn piece of sand in my eye or a stone in my shoe, but I’m hanging in there anyway.” I know I know how to do this — I rode nearly 3000 virtual kilometres in Zwift over the winter, including a 4.5 hour marathon Uberpretzel; I’ve run actual marathons; I’ve ridden through heat and hypothermia. I am old enough to have experienced a fair bit of emotional turmoil that requires grit to get through. I’m strong. I know how to do this. I just have to remember.

In our Virtual Superhero workout on Tuesday, I had another opportunity to explore grit. Alex gave us a challenge of holding a plank for “2 minutes or as long as you could.” I put myself into the pose until, at 3+ minutes, I thought I should let go, since there was more workout to go. I was fully present to the sensation of galvanizing my whole body into the hold, all of the quivering and girding and breathing. It wasn’t comfortable, but I could sink into it. And just be with it. I could have stayed longer.

Afterwards, Alex and I had a sprawling conversation about what it means to be with that kind of discomfort, and how we learn endurance. We ended up in a super metaphysical conversation about Buddhism, the inevitable pain of living, the importance of distinguishing between pain or discomfort that you can live with, soldier though, by being deeply present — and actual harm, that you should not try to grit your way through. Simone Biles, of course, is the glaring avatar of this right now — there’s grit (pretty much everything she’s ever done, including stepping onto the beam earlier this week), and then there is the wise, brave choice of knowing your body and the circumstances around you well enough to know that gritting your way through something is dangerous. Which is, of course, a different kind of grit.

So here I go, masked, vaxxed and armed with a negative PCR test. Sunscreen and a good 2 L hydration pack. And a lifetime of knowing that I can put my head down and keep going — and that if I do need to say “nope, that is going to hurt me,” I can flag down a passing driver. It will be okay. It will be transcendent. It will be hard and it will be perfect.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who has is grateful for the privilege to ride in many countries.

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