Softening my completist personality: biking in Bulgaria

I went to Bulgaria in August, for three weeks. It was supposed to be a fairly epic solo bike trip, with some sprinkling in of time with my friends who live there. After two nearly impossible days of riding, I realized I had to flip the script — it became a train and seaside trip, with some riding. And that turned out to be perfect.

Here’s the thing: I’m a well known completist when it comes to physical activity. When I go out for a run, I run the distance I set out to run. I have ridden across entire countries by myself, and am the one who always has to set (and complete) a target like “150 km for the 150th anniversary of Canada.” I spent the pandemic winter grinding through nearly every route in Zwift (a few more await me for when the darkness settles this year, but I still have my little paper record I’m crossing off). Every time Sam adds a kilometre or two to a bike ride to get to a milestone number, she tags me. It’s a thing I’m known for: persistence, and doing what I set out to do.

And yet? When I realized that the bike trip I’d planned on paper (with the help of a local guy) in Bulgaria was, in real life, a painful, overheated slog that had actual risk of injury or heatstroke, I pivoted. I did the first two days as planned, and then, while sitting at a table on the cobbled street of a medieval town and eating an excellent breakfast, rethought my plan. I could keep doing it — but why?

So instead of riding far into the mountains on days 3 and 4 to meet my friends, I took a train. (Which was no easy task in and of itself! — loaded bike, stairs, sudden changes of train I didn’t understand? Not exactly chill). We rode through a delightfully flat city, ate lunch, then drove to the base of the mountain and J and I took this cunning, rickety chair lift up. (Also dangerous when my jacket got caught as I tried to jump off and I nearly got dragged back down). For the weekend, as planned, I hung out with my friends and a gathering of their friends in a covid-indifferent world, slept deeply in the thin air of the balkan mountains, hiked with little kids, watched the sun set over layers of peaks with my friend, thought about what to do about the remaining 10 days in the bike trip.

In the holiday village at the top of the mountain, there was a ropes course J wanted to do, along with another of her friends. I encountered my new, less persistent self here too. I dived into the course happily, but realized right away that it was harder than I expected. When Rosa got stalled and frightened on the third leg, I didn’t feel impatient — I was grateful for an excuse to move to a lower, easier course. It still took work — and it was fun.

It was a clue to rethink the rest of my trip. Now, I love the elemental essence of a bike trip where I’m alone, with all my stuff, pulling into a simple hotel room and wandering in a late afternoon sun in a strange small town to find some food. I love the complexity and the problem solving and the slowed down time of navigating a new place by bike. I love the kindness of strangers, just as Joy wrote about on Monday. And I love the sense of accomplishment and completion when I finish a planned ride, tick off another successful day, can say “I rode from Riga to Tallinn!” I had expected to be able to proudly say “oh yeah, I rode my bike across Bulgaria!”

And yet. On this trip, the plan wasn’t actually so great. I had decided I wanted to ride in Bulgaria, so I found a guy who does bike trips there. I randomly declared I wanted to ride from Sofia to the sea, then said, wait, I want to also ride ALONG the sea. He suggested a route across the south that he does often; I decided I wanted to ride through my friends’ town, which took me through the hillier north. Then my friend said, oh, come to our mountain village instead, which took me deep into the mountains. My bike guy did his best, but with all of these “needs,” I ended up with a route with very long days and ridiculous amounts of climbing. Because there isn’t actually a route along the sea that bikes can ride on, the seaside route was jagged and long and haphazard. I had decided to hire a bike instead of bringing my own, partly because I worried about successful shipping during COVID and partly because one of the reasons Deyan agreed to plan my trip was for the bike hire. Because the days were so long, he gave me the lightest possible bike, but which turned out to have nothing resembling the gear ratio for loaded climbing.

Oh, and it was also 40 degrees C. And a year of training inside, while going through menopause and lockdown constraint and anxiety, had left me heavier and less conditioned than the last time I got on a loaded bike, two years ago. Simple truths.

Like someone chopping off a mass of untamed hair that got too thick during the lockdown, I took the clippers to my planned bike trip. I looked more closely at the descriptions of each day. 18 km of gravel road? Onto the train. “Sharp long climb?” Skip the monastery and take a shorter route. Dangerous patch into town? Onto the train. Route that took me far away from the sea because there were no safe roads? Onto the train. Day ride to a town we wanted to see but on a route that involved the motorway for 6 terrifying kilometers? Into a cab for the return trip.

In the end, after the mountain hut weekend, I only actually followed the plan as written on one day. I skipped difficult bits in the middle of the country and took a train. I rode half the distance planned to the beautiful Sozopol, stayed my planned time, including some long day rides, and rode back another half-distance to Burgas. 40 km rides with the loaded bike were plenty — the roads were broken and weaving, the days were hot, and there were occasional terrifying forays onto the motorway, sometimes facing traffic. It was plenty. And the place was magical.

The view from my balcony in Sozopol

I stayed in Burgas, a beautiful beach town, for five days, riding around the city, doing day trips with J, going to the beach with the kids, reading diverting novels under an expensive hired sunbrella, going for gentle runs along the seawall, eating things from the sea. Feeding random cats. Taking the kids to the little amusements in the park. Bathing in the “healing” lye ponds and slathering ourselves with black mud.

Then instead of navigating northward on the now creaking bike (everything needed de-sanding), I took a train. The changes were still complicated — at one station, I couldn’t know the right platform until the train pulled in, and there were stairs to change platforms; people stuck their heads out of trains and yelled incomprehensible commands at me where to put the bike — but it all worked out. It always does.

I came home tanned and rested. I came home grateful to have spent so much time with J and B and the kids, and grateful to have had a respite from the constraints of the past two years. I also came home with a cold, just like in the Before Times — but unlike the Before Times, I didn’t power through the cold, didn’t try to do all the things. I let my body recover.

Mostly, I came home with a much more mellow sense of what it means to be persistent. I love my persistence — it’s enabled many many things in my life. But I also appreciate the sense of discernment that is getting stronger as I get older — sometimes, persistence and completion, exactly what I need. And sometimes, it’s enough to ride, to seek, to climb just enough to move your body, see a new part of the world, be with someone who matters to you. Let your body rest when it needs it.

What’s your relationship to persistence and completion?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who is back in Toronto and remembering the sheer indignity and unpleasantness of fighting even the most benign virus.

8 thoughts on “Softening my completist personality: biking in Bulgaria

  1. I was so relieved that you did this! I was following your blog posts and facebook posts and worrying that your persistence and completist tendencies would land you in hospital in a faraway land. My steps were a little lighter once I saw you’d decided to adapt to the heat and the hills by riding less. And your trip looked amazing. You can appreciate sights and people more when you’re not utterly exhausted!

  2. I love that you changed plans! Congratulations on a beautiful experience so wonderfully shared with us in your blog post. And your pictures are amazing. My relationship to completion: I very rarely set out to run a certain distance these days, except perhaps on Sundays, where I commit to 8 or 10K. I didn’t think I could get any more relaxed on my “do less” and “start small” and “just get out the door” approach, but I have. Some days I look at my “almost-closed” rings on my Apple Watch and say “who cares?” 🙂

  3. My version of playing with my completist tendencies happened yesterday. I only had 40 min but wanted to do a 45 min spin. So I did 40 min. It was hard for me NOT to stay for the last 5 min and be late for work, but I forced myself to be OK with not “finishing” the ride.

  4. It is so great to see you making reasonable choices & teaching yourself to be ok with that! As I told you in comments on your own blog, I will set out very soon for a cross country ride and am VERY eager to find the same flexibility in my own attitude (which will not come very easily to me). But with Covid, hurricane season, some family worries that have already postponed the trip a bit…well, we’re out there to see something new & special, right? Seeing it & experiencing it in a way that leaves the best possible sense of its value just has to be the right answer. Good for you, and thanks for the inspiration!

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