This year is the 45th overall Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, but only the fourth that matters, because it’s the fourth time that I’m participating. I’ve grown to love every bit of the annual Iron Horse tradition—the pre-ride pasta dinners, fretting over the weather forecast, griping about how the finisher T-shirts aren’t as good as that one year.
The actual butt-in-saddle time has become stagnant, though. It’s as if completing a repetitious movement over and over for fifty straight miles is an ingenious idea for a special sub-circle of Hell. I call it Monotony. (Not to be confused with the much brimstonier circle called Monopoly.)
I sorely needed a way to spice up my training this season. And I had no shortage of ideas. Too bad most of them stunk. Steroids? Too expensive. Unicycle? I don’t have an appropriate mustache. Fresh new routes? Nah. I don’t like change.
Then it hit me. An idea so radical, so counterintuitive, it could run for President. If some percentage of cycling is mental, then I could train my mind. And if I could do anything I put my mind to, then I could train for the Iron Horse WITHOUT EVEN RIDING A BICYCLE.
So that’s how I did it.
Now I’m not saying I sat around all lazy this spring, deluding myself into thinking I could climb friggin’ mountains without practicing. Rather, I meditated.
If you’re like I was four months ago, you may think you know what meditation is. But it ain’t all humming and sitars. And it ain’t all you-can-walk-on-coals-because-you-feel-no-pain either, which put a real damper on my post-Iron Horse party plans. I found out what meditation was really like when I signed up for a beginner’s class at the local Dharma center.
From the get-go, the class made it clear that this was no get-enlightened-quick scheme. We beginners were dedicating six whole weeks to our burgeoning practice. At one class a week, 90 minutes a class, that’s more man hours than I gave to graduate school. Plus, this time, I had to do homework.
Oh yes, homework. We learned all about basic meditation in the first class, and our homework was to practice at home for five minutes a day. Five minutes of being present with our bodies, our breathing. Five minutes of accepting ourselves. Five minutes of being in the moment, not in the past or future, neither here nor there, not anywhere but wherever we had seated our butts.
But—and I cannot stress this enough—five minutes is shorter than any productive bike ride. So I gave myself over to the practice. I cleared my mind of questions and judgments. Breathe in… breathe out… breathe in… breathing feels nice… I should really breathe like this more often… like in the checkout line at the grocery store… that would be zen af… milk—I should get milk, since it expires soon… or did it go bad already? Man, I suck. I can’t even feed myself like a basic human being. Oh, that reminds me, I need to—
DONGGGgggg goes the singing bowl app on my phone, and five minutes are poof, and I take one last deep breath after the timer, the meditative equivalent of flossing to fool the dentist.
It is incredibly challenging to sit for five minutes without thinking about things other than your present experience. In fact, pretty much any thought you can think of is shinier than just sitting there. But if one is planning on riding the Iron Horse, one must realize that the Iron Horse takes one considerably longer than five minutes. The ability to exist in the moment, without a care for all the beer one is going to drink after one survives, is a handy skill to hone.
I wrestled with meditation for weeks. Like many great heroes of the collective human consciousness—Hercules tackling the minotaur, Beowulf tussling with Grendel, Mario bouncing on Bowser—I strove to bend meditation to my will and make it bring me superpowers. Five minutes, ten, twenty at a stretch. Yet all it brought me was laundry lists of other things I could be doing.
I gave up. And that, dear readers, is when it worked.
The meditation practitioners have nicer ways of saying it. “Let go,” they say. “Be with your practice.” They use words like “invite” and “welcome” and “accept” and “allow.” Really, all they are saying is “Throw in the towel! Quit trying, and you might actually get somewhere.”
That meditation was one of the transcendent experiences of my life. I now understand getting ahead by giving up. So keep your eyes open for me this weekend—I’ll be the rider in nirvana. Stop and say hi! And then… maybe give me a lift?
This Fool’s Gold originally appeared in The Durango Telegraph and Four Corners Free Press.