#Isuck: On the Heart, the Vulnerable, and Listening

“You must listen to me.”
Muhammad Ali

The 2015 Assault on Mt. Mitchell was the 40th anniversary of a challenging cycling event that begins in Spartanburg, SC and covers over 100 miles to the top of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River.

Mount Mitchell State Park, Mount Mitchell Tower. Edward Farr (2014-11-11)

Including this year’s event, I have been riding the Assault since 1988, entering about 18 times. As I lined up a few days ago, the 6 AM temperature was already over 70 degrees, and heat is my kryptonite. So despite my hope otherwise, within fewer than 15 miles, I knew my day was going to end well short of the top of the mountain.

About three or so hours later, I rolled into Marion, the 75-mile mark, and abandoned.

When I uploaded my ride to Strava, I labeled it “I suck.” In part, the label was a typical effort to deflect, to mask among those of us with low self-esteem—self-deprecating humor. The numerous “likes” this received on Strava was interesting, and funny: Were my friends “liking” that I suck? Were they confirming that I suck?

With a cumulative 10,000+ feet of climbing, the Assault route is very hard, rolling and challenging hills throughout the first 30-40 miles, and then a short mountain climb, Bill’s Mountain, at about the 50-mile mark.

During the 2015 Assault on Mt. Mitchell, I stop at the Bill’s Mountain rest stop where good cycling friends Kelly and Steve treat me kindly.

The ride from Bill’s Mountain to Marion, the campground where all riders are brought after ascending Mt. Mitchell some 30-plus miles farther on the route, includes rolling and steep grunt hills.

This year, I dropped from the front group at the 12-13-mile mark—although in 2014 (and many years in the past), I stayed with the front group past Marion and onto the challenging first extended climb (3-4 miles) along Highway 80 leading to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

My 2014 Assault has proven to be even more significant after this year. Despite being with the top riders after almost 80 of over 100 miles of the event, I nearly quit in 2014. I became increasingly depressed as I climbed Highway 80, and then creeped along the next 12-plus miles of the Parkway, concluding with the hellish final 5 miles in Mt. Mitchell State Park.

However, at the age of 53, I discovered once I finished in 2014, I have achieved my highest placing ever, 58 out of more than 800 participants and over 600 finishers.

Endurance cycling is often as much psychological as physical, and especially for me, the competition is primarily with myself—pushing myself when I am on the edge, surpassing what I have accomplished before, performing along with cyclists much younger and much more gifted than I am.

Age—I struggle to admit—becomes a terrible weight on this self-competition, the realization that my best efforts must begin to always fall short of my younger self. This is a cruelty of sport that is humbling at best and demoralizing at worst.

My early life as a serious cyclist was spent often with two riding partners, Don and Dave—both were older and much stronger cyclists. On most rides, they dropped me, and often, they berated me.

On Tuesdays, we went to the Donaldson Center near Greenville, SC to do a practice race around a 7-mile loop. The practice race began with a warm-up lap, but I was typically dropped quickly in the first race lap (practice races were about 3-4 laps early in the summer, expanding to a 10-lap race on the longest daylight of the summer).

Dave was adamant in those early years that I was just quitting—that all I had to do was push myself and I’d discover I could remain with the main pack. I was certain Dave was wrong, that these cyclists were just better than me.

That was well over twenty years ago, and not long after Dave admonished me in those first several weeks of doing the practice race, I discovered Dave was right. I held on, I finished the practice races, and I discovered a hobby that continues to teach me the value of pushing myself.

In many ways, despite my advancing age, I have been a much better and stronger cyclist throughout my mid-40s and into my mid-50s than when I was racing in my 30s.

Once I was dropped from the front group during this year’s Assault, I had to confront that my heart wasn’t in it. I think in part, that is the result of growing older and wiser, and a large part has to do with what now occupies my heart.

My daughter and granddaughter certainly have recaptured and captured a significant amount of my passion. As a serious cyclist for 30 years, I have put cycling before many things, but in the last year, I have set aside riding, happily, to see my daughter and granddaughter (my longest drought away from the bicycle was when my daughter was young and I spent a large amount of my life supporting her being a soccer player).

I don’t believe our hearts are finite—we can love deeply people and things without having to choose what things and people receive our love and what things and people do not.

But as the heat of this year’s ride intersected with my heart being strongly drawn to people I love and not my own cycling, I was both open to simply stopping the ride early as well as at peace with that decision.

Nonetheless, while my heart wasn’t fully in the ride, my heart also hurt at having failed me.

Those painful miles between psychologically abandoning the event in the first hour and then physically abandoning the ride in Marion were travelled by a vulnerable man.

Periodically, I found myself in groups with my cycling friends, some of whom were also struggling mightily.

On one the hardest hills before reaching Marion, I saw a friend and said, “It’s hot.” He immediately said, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.”

Matt Bruenig has recently explained and shown graphically that over 80% of the poor are “vulnerable populations.”

As a white male with a lucrative and stable career, I am certainly not among the vulnerable, but my cycling hobby (one I can pursue because of my privilege) often renders me vulnerable—stressed, overwhelmed, depressed, and distressed.

The unintended consequence of this hobby, for me, includes those moments when I am forced to consider those who have no choice about being among the vulnerable.

A poor child cannot abandon that poverty—although I was allowed to abandon with almost no consequences this year during the Assault.

As well, while in a self-induced vulnerable state, when a friend did not listen to me (“It’s hot” was a genuine and all-too-real expression of my reality) and immediately imposed his view over mine, I was further deflated.

That mostly inconsequential moment has remained with me especially since I am now teaching a May course on educational documentaries and asking my students to listen to perspectives (of the poor, or racial minorities) that are often different from their own, and that directly challenge beliefs they have never questioned.

My students are facing how documentaries choose whose voice matters, whose voice is allowed—but they are also being challenged to listen while setting aside a perspective they prefer, a perspective that keeps them from listening with any sort of empathy for how another person’s life is.

My #Isuck tag for my athletic failure, I believe, is a way to embrace a humility that is necessary for my own recognition of my humanity and the humanity of everyone else.

Arrogance has a way of appearing to pay off in sport and life, but the consequences of that arrogance are tremendous because in our arrogance we are denying our human dignity, and the dignity of others.

There must always be room in our hearts for allowing the voices of the vulnerable, of course, but we must also be eager to listen to stories of others or the Others as if they are our own because they are.

From #Ferguson to #BaltimoreUprising, voices are being raised, demanding they be heard.

In the web of those tragedies, Tamir Rice, too, has had his life reduced to a hashtag—and is mostly forgotten while those in power seek to rewrite his story in his absence. But his story lives in his family members—who are we if we are willing to listen with open hearts.

Those of us fortunate not to be among the vulnerable are bound by our privileges to listen with empathy and then to act—but the vulnerable should not have to demand that we do.

Mostly in the U.S., we the privileged have abandoned that responsibility, and when we do, we must admit #Wesuck.

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