Day Six: The Riders

Today has arrived. I’m here in St. John’s to welcome the Tour du Canada riders as they climb Signal Hill and complete their cross-country trip to the tune of 7600 kilometres. These cyclists are my heroes.

I’m sitting in the Bagel Café, a few blocks from the start of the climb. I have my lawn chair and my feet are ready to go. I’ll talk to you at the top, or earlier if I’m pooped.

***

At the top! Complete with a pounding heart. It’s so humbling to be far less fit than I was two months ago … oh well. It’s still a fine life.

I’m pretty sure that Webster, when he was doing research for his dictionary, found the definition of “steep” on Signal Hill. An old gentleman, not from the tour, was riding his bicycle up the 10 to 15% grades. Later I saw him descend and I tried to warm him with applause. He didn’t acknowledge me at all. Once I was settled beside the ancient tower at the very top, I glanced over to the parking lot and saw him again. My goodness – he was doing laps!

On my way up, I passed lots of folks walking down. I decided to say the same dumb thing to each one of them: “You’re not even breathing hard!” Most of them smiled. That’s the thing about people new to me: they’ve never heard my silly lines before.

A few minutes after plunking my lawn chair down out of the wind, I see two more bicycles crest the parking lot. And these ones have the telltale TdC reflective triangles under the seats! I hurry down the path to the smiles and handshakes of Tony and Chris. So glorious to see them again. Neither has words yet for what the tour has meant to them. That’ll come.

Jim from Colorado is the next rider to top the hill. I head out into the wind with my hood up and sidle up to him. “Nice day to finish riding across the country.” “Yes it is, Bruce.” So much for surprising him. We stood on top of the tower and talked about the journey and about how very much Jim longs to be back with his wife Margaret. A little smile.

An hour later, there’s a whole string of cyclists climbing the hill. As they reach the top and dismount, the world is full of smiles and hugs and handshakes. I join in. “So happy to see you.”

The wind whips letters off a poster that family have created. “Congratulations, Carolyn” becomes “Con ratulatio s, arolyn.” A great family portrait ensues.

Then there’s Paul’s crew, all the way from Nanaimo, B.C. Large orange signs laud the achievements of “Paul/dad”. Three women are beaming at the man.

Soon it’s time for the group portrait. Nineteen cyclists, Bud our tour director and Grant our truck driver pose in front of the tower. I look on from afar, bittersweetness filling my mouth. Congratulations, my friends. May your monumental achievement touch the rest of your lives. I was part of your family for awhile. In fact, I’ll be part of your family forever.

Tonight’s the Tour du Canada banquet. I’m going. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.

Sleep tight.

Athlete

I’ve been worrying about my cross-Canada cycling trip. The same old refrain: “Too old. Not strong enough.” Happily though, in the past few weeks fear and excitement have switched places. I’m far more in touch with the thrill of it all.

Still … I’m scared.

A month ago, my doctor asked me to have an EGG done. The results showed some “irregularities”. So Julie prescribed a treadmill stress test. Sure, why not? Cover the bases.

I talked to a few friends about the test and their basic response was “No sweat. You just walk slowly.” Didn’t sound like much stress to me.

It happened yesterday. Shorts, t-shirt, running shoes, electrodes on my chest, leads running everywhere. I looked like a member of the Borg, a sinister race of machines/humans on the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” TV show.

And then the fun began. This was no walk in the park. Speed increased, as did the tilt of the machine . Sweat made its appearance, in large quantities. This was the MAXIMUM stress test. After 15 minutes or so, the deed was done. I was winded but doing fine. The doctor had engaged me in conversation about my bike ride the whole time and I had no problem keeping up my verbal end.

Now the results: “It took you 12 minutes to get your heart rate up to 90% of maximum. This is very unusual [i.e. good] for a 69-year-old. It’s more like what I’d expect to see with someone in their mid-twenties. You’ll be fine on the ride.”

Well …

I’m fine. I’m strong. I may even be amongst the fittest of the 20 Tour du Canada riders. I’m pleased and shocked.

The mythical “they” say that achieving any great result is 90% mental. And my mental just zoomed through the stratosphere.

What’s true? I am an athlete. Like all my fellow cyclists, there’ll be times this summer when I’m exhausted. But I can do this. I am doing this. See me fly!

Exhausted

That’s what I am.  Everything is heavy and slow, and yet I’m happy.  Because the stress is physical, not emotional.  My body is saying “rest” and I choose to obey.  I’m enfolded within a cozy reclining chair at Landmark Cinema, ready to see Black Panther.  My day so far has been a cauldron of fatigue.

I’m training to ride my bicycle across Canada this summer.  While the snow is on the ground and the temperatures are cool, I’m indoors at the gym, loving the elliptical.  I’ve figured out that an hour on the machine burns about the same number of calories as an hour on the bike (600).  And since I ride approximately 20 kilometres an hour, I’ve told myself that I’m doing 20 k every time I move all my body parts on the elliptical.

The challenge today was simple and daunting: ride the equivalent of 80 k.  Stay atop my steed for four hours, with breaks between.  After hour two, I was pleasantly tired.  Not so pleasant after three hours and downright painful after that.

My breath started coming in big pants and my calves ached.  With 15 minutes to go, I was desperate for the end and wondered whether I was about to fall off the machine.  I thought of the people who care about me, old and young, and silently asked for their help.  The kids at school knew what I was trying to do and I felt waves of energy coming at me across the miles.  Thank you!

And then it was over.  I did it!  So pleased with myself.  I sat comatose in the locker room and texted my triumph to Jayne and the kids.  The congrats soon appeared in blue on my screen.

I then proceeded to take 20 minutes to change out of my sodden t-shirt and shorts and into street clothes.  I was fascinated with my stupor and how hard it was to pull on my socks.  Other club members were changing near me.  Usually I’d engage them in conversation … but not today.  How strange to exclude them. It was not like me, except that today it was.

After a teriyaki pig out at Subway, I headed to the mall to find a battery.  I drove safely but I had to concentrate like anything.  Other cars seemed to be in slow motion.  At the mall, which I’m very familiar with, I had to pee.  For the life of me, though, I couldn’t remember where the washroom was.  A Tim Hortons employee pointed the way.  How humbling, but I didn’t beat myself up about it. “Bruce, you’re really tired.  Be gentle with yourself.”  Definitely good advice.

It’s now after the movie.  Too much “shoot ’em up” for me.  I’m mentally dull with heavy eyes.  Stiff.  And my body feels like it’s sliding to the floor.  But I produced the result!  I need to accept the consequences of giving everything.  I bet there’ll be plenty of evenings on the road this summer that will feel just like this.  Bring ’em on.

So Tired, So Happy

I told the Grade 5/6 kids at school yesterday that I planned on riding the elliptical for three hours today – 11:00 – 12:00, 12:30 – 1:30 and 2:00 – 3:00. I said I’d text “Jayne”, their teacher, to report on my progress.  Nice to have an audience.

Fifteen minutes before showtime, I was at the gym’s water fountain, ready to mix up my electrolyte drink.  I bent down to get the bag of powder from my backpack.  When I started to stand up, I schmucked my head on the corner of the fountain.  Woo.  Dizzy.  I was staggering a bit and a woman asked me if I was all right.  “Sort of.”

A few minutes later, adequately recovered, I began to laugh.  My great athletic day … off to an inauspicious start.

Once I had gathered my essential life forces, I put on t-shirt and shorts and texted Jayne.  In response, she shared how the kids laughed at my predicament.  I’d told them that I was fine.

The first hour, I went slow, in the spirit of a marathon rather than a sprint.  I told the crew afterwards that I was “pleasantly” tired, not an adverb I usually associate with fatigue.  The response from Cyberland?  “Go, Mr. Kerr, go!  You can do it.”  That felt good.  And I was proud of myself, schussing along at a moderate pace, keeping my heart rate under control.

Hour number two was far more of a grunt, and the breathing was heavy. Plus pain behind my right knee.  I waited to see if it would mellow, and five minutes later it did.  When the second 60 minutes were up, I felt “unpleasantly” tired, but happily still vertical.  Once the bod had returned to some version of normal, I texted Jayne and the kids, in advance of my 2:00 pm relaunch.  “What will happen if I’m completely pooped at 2:30?  I’ll do what comes naturally – I’ll think of you!”

And the response: “You can do it!!  They’re all cheering!”  I wasn’t so sure I could do it but you gotta go with what those young people say.

The third hour was a slog, but strangely and wonderfully, I didn’t once think of quitting.  Twenty-five young humans, and one older one, were cheering me on.  Around 2:45, I really needed the support.  Everything was slowing, except my heartbeat.  The breath was a gasp.  But lo and behold, 59 minutes turned into 60, and I’d done it!  The equivalent of 60 kilometres, 15 more than I had done before.  Yay!

It’s three hours later now and I’m sitting in a London library.  I feel slow and weak.  “Well, Bruce, what exactly did you expect?  You’re not a machine, you know.”  True.  And whatever I am, having a lot of kids pulling for me got me over the top.  Thank you.

Strength

I like myself a lot.  I think I’m kind and compassionate.  I’m working out on the elliptical in the gym and soon with the bike on the road.  So cardiovascular health is coming my way.  But there’s one aspect of life where I’ve always defined myself as “less”: strength.

In 1980 or so, I lost an arm wrestle to my 11-year-old niece Diana.  And yes, I was really trying.  Growing up, I related to that skinny kid on the beach who had sand kicked in his face.  I go the gym now and see the huge weights that some of the men and women are hoisting.  And the “less” starts to grow.

I’ve dabbled in strength training over the past few years, even hired a personal trainer, but I would always find reasons to fritter away my expressed commitment.  During some sessions I was fierce in my determination to do all the reps but then injury or illness always seemed to derail me and my progress returned to zero.

Today I began again.  Light weights but I did my full Day One program.  And oh, it felt good.  I see the opportunity right in front of my nose – to be strong, not with big, blocky muscles, but still, able to grunt my way up hills on the bike, climb stairs with ease twenty years from now, and have my body support my spirit.

One version of spirituality focuses on the sweetness beyond this physical round, on epiphanies of the soul, feeling the depth of the present moment.  Another emphasizes the glory of the senses – the body moving through space, the pleasures of a soft breeze or a fine meal.  But there’s more: the chance to embrace both.

I can be more than my heart and head.  I can include my biceps and quads.  No need for the V-shape but lots of room for a different type of meditation – the intensity of contracting muscles can be in partnership with stillness.

It’s possible that physical fitness can allow me to reach more people with my caring.  I’d like that.

 

Day Five: Wrong, Strong And Speedy

I woke up bleary-eyed this morning and recalled a horrible story I’d heard a few days ago.  A man was found dead in his Cuba hotel room, cause unknown.  His sister flew down from Canada, and was taking a light plane to her final destination when it crashed, killing everyone onboard.  So sad.  I had thought yesterday I’d write about this tragedy but then I became enthralled with a triangle.  Now we’re one more day removed from the accident and I don’t want to break my rule about having my writing stay in the present.

All these muddled thoughts came out of me as I rolled in bed.  I imagined writing the story.  But I couldn’t remember it.  Confused, I realized that I couldn’t even remember the death and plane crash happening.  I tried to bring forth my cognitive capacities in the shower … but nothing came.  My brain made it up!  Nobody died.

What a fascinating organ of the body.  Tricking me like that.  Creating a dream that felt so real.  I’m going to have a good talk with this brain of mine.

***

After lunch yesterday, I looked at myself and saw that some energy had returned.  Maybe I could strength train.  It had been a week since I’d lifted weights.  So off I went to the gym in the village beside my hotel.  A hot walk.  But such ecstasy when I opened the door to a flood of air conditioning.  I sat a bit and let it flow over me.  Guess I’m just not a tropical flower.

Since food was a very recent memory, I decided to do yoga first.  What a marvel to stretch slow and easy, sometimes feeling my vertebrae settle in.  My left hip has been tight for as long as I can remember and my work with it felt just right.  What sacrilege that I ignored stretching until well into my thirties.  (And strength training until well into my sixties!)  Now I was lying on my back with my arms out to the sides.  My head goes left and my legs right.  Oh sweet twisting motion.  A transcendent human being would no doubt just be revelling in the present, but I have to admit I was thinking golf swing.

Now for the machines and free weights.  I’ve memorized the terms so I can sound authoritative: leg press, leg extension, torso twist (golf again!), tricep extension, bicep curl, pectoral, omni raise and hammer curl.  What a hunk of muscle I am.

I had to figure out the subtleties of the machines since there were differences from home.  Let’s see … one kilogram equals 2.2 pounds.  It was all a part of the process and I enjoyed being “on the mat”, a martial arts phrase praising the virtues of simple participation in the act, with no performance thoughts intruding (except for sometimes).

[Interlude:  It is so hot today with virtually no breeze.  I’m exercising my digits in the shade, fortified with coffee, but I’m sinking slowly in the west.  I thought part of my title was “Strong”.  Oh well, Bruce.  Keep going.]

Aided by my superstar headband, I was giving ‘er.  Not quite the weights I was using at home but close.  On some machines, the last few reps were tough but I turned on the fierceness to get the job done.  Waydago, guy!  Air conditioned sweat was pouring off me and I knew I was pretty much the king of the world.

Today, the heat-filled weakness has returned but my path is clear.  I want to be strong for the present and the future: climbing stairs, walking eighteen holes, making love.

***

Two hours before sunset, I was on the beach, without my Speedo.  No, I’m not talking nudity here.  Just happy to be in the shade wearing t-shirt and shorts.  Small thoughts percolated in my head.  “You’re here for a beach vacation, Bruce.  Get tanning.”  “Real men are brown.”  “Dance down the shoreline.”  In the here and now of yesterday, I said no to them all.

I was under a thatched roof that had to stretch a hundred yards, affording a clear view of the water and wildlife.  Animals fitted out in skimpy bikinis drew my immediate attention.  Some local species, no doubt.  But soon my gaze lifted to the gulls flying by.  Heading to the right, my elevated friends were bucking a hurricanal headwind.  They were staying close to my structure to cut the breeze some.  I wondered at the wings and muscles working furiously.  The birds had their own gym, with no membership fees.

The coolest, though, was right to left.  Gulls blasted by at warp speed, their wings folded back.  Oh my goodness … one of the wonders of the world.  They took turns doing a sprint in front of me and I was the better for it.  I celebrated the joy of the world.

Right now I’m withering in the shade.  But the fronds of the palm trees across the garden from my writing spot have just started to stir.  Yesterday the dance was rich and full, arms waving in a glorious flow.  If that’s not to be today, maybe I’ll retreat to my air-conditioned room after I upload this blog post in the lobby.  Hey … sometimes retreat is just what the doctor ordered.