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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Sunday, November 18, 2018

The Gift of Mortality

A contradiction.

Not large in stature.

Enormous in presence.

Five feet 8 inches tall, perhaps five feet 10 but I suspect the larger assessment to be a product of the energy he put off than in actuality. A lengthy white beard, a bit of dark hair within, but not much. A horseshoe balding pattern but still enough hair that a small pony tail perched just off the back crown of his head.  How old?  I could only guess, and there was a sense that whatever my guess, that it would fall short of his actual years. I wouldn't say he was smiling, however. The joy exuding from the man was palpable and the reason why trying to guess his years would be so difficult. A child like exuberance was his baseline. The years of his body had taken no toll on the life force within. He joked that the years ... and gravity had relocated a bit of his mass nearer to his waist line but there were no doubts in my mind that if provoked or a situation deemed it necessary, that he could still call down both lightning and thunder.

Once before I had sat with him. It had been an introductory meeting, yet still intimate. Many others were in the room, yet somehow there was a sense that he spoke to us all individually. I wonder now if all there that day even heard the exact same words or had he somehow been able to communicate in such a way that we only heard exactly what we needed to. Lessons were taught, interspersed with joke after joke after joke. His laugh was infectious, a real "bowl full of jelly" kind of thing. You got the sense that if not a soul had been in the room, he'd have laughed just as hard. His joy had no need for external validation. I'd made sure that my vantage point for this opportunity was right up front. However, I'm guessing even from the back of the venue, perhaps unable to hear the entirety of every joke, people were still laughing at and with him. Over the course of two days, I'd guess he threw out 20 or more funny anecdotes. I don't remember a one but I remember that laugh. Infectious. You were happier just for having heard it.

17 months earlier he'd found me. Or had I found him? I wonder now if this had really been our first meeting or just the first that I recalled. My mind is opening more and more these days to the space beyond logic and the rational. Perhaps there is more going on "out there" and "in here" beyond the five senses. As painful as it is to admit, I'm not sure I know everything that is going on in this universe and how it all works.

I'd traveled Des Moines, Iowa to  Chattanooga Tennessee, hopped a $70 cab about 60 miles up into the not quite changing colors of the forested mountains. Fall was certainly in the air and my driver excitedly shared that soon these peaks and valleys would burst with color and that people from all parts made the trip to this region every year to watch mother nature set the countryside ablaze in reds, yellows and every possible hue thereof. His words, and the views in all directions, as pleasant and enticing as they were, barely registered.

Sitting cross legged underneath the copper domed massive circular hall, what I'd come for waited somewhere behind the beautifully decorated small stage area surrounded with vibrant plants and flowers with beautifully decorative silks hanging from the temporary backdrop. A very simple, sturdy wooden chair with a white cloth covered cushion waited, like me, for his arrival.

Seeing him, immediately I noticed a difference in the energy versus our last meeting.

The past six months my practice had been nearly perfect in terms of regularity. A couple races had created 2 missed meditations. The homework since our last meeting "required" diligence. If the tools we had all been given were not put to use than what good would they have been. A garden, unworked, bears little fruit. This is all to say that the difference was not simply one way. He seemed less guarded. and I'm guessing the reason being that we had all put in our work to be there. This was not just a "pay your money and your in" event. Described as a 4 day advanced residential program, Bhava Spandana, would become the most intense thing I'd ever done.

There's a scene in the movie "White Men Can't Jump" where Jimi Hendrix comes across the radio and Woody Harrelson proclaims excitedly his love for all things Hendrix. Snipes, instantly rebukes ... "You can't even hear Jimi Hendrix!"

If I were able I would, but I can't so I won't. It's not possible to communicate those four days in Tennessee and do it any sort of justice. Were I at my very best in terms of wordsmithing, like Woody Harrelson, you still wouldn't be able to hear me. Let me attempt to share why.

Try to explain, verbally, the first time you laid eyes upon the Grand Canyon or the warmth of  a mother's hug.

Please tell me so I can feel it ... the first time you held your child. The sunset over the Rocky Mountains or it's rising over the Atlantic. Eventually all these efforts end up in the same place.
Exasperated, resigned to the impossibility of the task, exhaling to the realization that the conveyance of such things is pure folly, you say "some things you just gotta experience to know."

And that, ultimately, is all I too can say about the 4 days spent in the mountains of Tennessee.

The jovial mystical man gave us many gifts during our time together. Nearly all are beyond explanation.

There is one though.There is one gift I'd like to share.

The gift of mortality.

What I love most about this gift is that it comes with unlimited possibilities depending on the recipient.

Look at your watch, your phone, the microwave clock just up and to the right of the kitchen table as you read this. What time is it? Pay attention to the exact time because as of right now you have 24 hours to live.

Soak that in. All the way in.

This ain't no experiment. 23 Hours, 59 Minutes, 48 seconds. That's what you have left on this earth.

Believe it with all you got.

And this is where you either accept the gift or you don't. To accept it, one has to go beyond the mind and put every cell on alert that in just under 24 hours this life as we have come to know it is over.

Sure, you can still dabble and play with this gift a little bit here and there but this gift's real potential will be shown to you if you buy in. All in.

Already the gift has begun giving. At the very least, there has been an awareness in the past few moments, an added value brought to them by the realization that their number is finite.

Are you near the refrigerator? Is a piece of fruit nearby? A favorite vegetable? Once you have it, eat it. But eat it with the awareness that it will be the last banana, grape or juicy red tomato you will ever eat.

EVER.

Don't read further until your done.

When is the last time you ate anything this way? What if every bite of food you ever took from this moment on was eaten with that kind of attention?

Maybe this doesn't find you in the kitchen or near it. Maybe it finds you at your desk. Do you keep pictures of family and friends on your desk? I do. Pick someone out in those pictures ... someone that you know you'll be seeing in the next few minutes or at the very least during the next 23 Hours and 58 minutes. Let it soak in as deeply as possible that this will be the last opportunity you'll have to be with this person. Let your gaze fall upon every one else in those pictures that you'll be seeing during your time window left. How will your interactions with these people so near and dear to your heart now change?

Maybe this finds you just before the sun sets. Perhaps the moon sits clear against the early winter sky as you read this. You might want to go give it a look. Last chance.

When is the last time you made a sunset or a moon rise a priority?

4 minutes have now passed.

23 Hours 56 minutes to LIVE.

How many breaths do you think that is? Are you, like me, guilty of the subconscious belief that these breaths can be counted on to go on forever? This gift still has well over 23 hours to give, but what happens when the timer hits 8 minutes, 6 minutes, 5 minutes? Will each breath start to have more value. Will you be thankful and aware for every single inhale and exhale, their value increasing exponentially as the few remaining sands in the hourglass prepare to fall?

Take a moment to just be with your breath. In, out, in, out.

Just take a few breaths with complete attention and gratitude for the realization that they are not endless....not to be taken for granted. Eyes closed. BREATHE

There's almost a sweetness to it, isn't there?

23 Hours 54 Minutes left.

With all you got, believe this to be true.

Will your hugs be different before going to bed tonight?

Will you spend tonight differently knowing this is the last one you get?

Will you wake up with purpose tomorrow? Will you be up and at em, taking in ... no ... breathing in the sunrise?

Can you live just these next 24 hour hours like they are your last?

Is it possible then that you could live every day for the rest of your life this same way?

If so, than when that last day really does come, you'll greet it with open arms, ready for the next big adventure, knowing you gave this life all ya had. No regrets.

23 Hours 53 minutes.


The Gift of Mortality.


















Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The Conclusion - 207 Miles and Out of my Mind



Waking up in the cabin, the not quite right curtains played both curse and blessing. Not keeping the beams of the three quarters full moon at bay as you roll away yearning for another 30 winks, while at the same time allowing a glimpse of the South Dakota night sky. Unencumbered by the lights of the city nor the heavy humidity of home, the stars, all one million, four hundred ninety six thousand, three hundred and eighteen of them are on full display.

Prone to procrastination, it is easy to leave the bike or hockey sized duffel bag full of post race clothing and calories in the cabin the night before a race. Sleep had been less productive than hoped. A small window air conditioner, typically unnecessary during the cool summer evenings in this part of South Dakota, had either frozen up or had a screw come loose. I’d chosen an irritating clangity clang, clickity clack, letting her run through the night over a sweaty stick to the sleeping bag night in the small wooden cabin. 

Gear for the race was well organized and lay neatly in the empty bottom bunk next to me. All else, bag, bike and cooler were all ready to go ... in the truck. Clicking on my headlamp, preferable to the slap in the senses fluorescent light allowed for a much more Jack Johnson “Wake Up Slow” start to the morning. Before putting on race bibs, long sleeve white shirt that would serve as protector from the sun, socks, shoes or even brushing of the teeth I took a moment to simply sit still, feet resting comfortably on the floor as I sat up in bed, to be grateful. 

I have a theory and a practice of making sure each and every day I “win” the first five minutes. It’s during this time that I give thanks for as many things as possible. “I’m alive!” That’s a great start and one that someday will not be the case. Being aware of our mortality reminds us to live each day to the fullest. “I get to go ride my bike today!” How many people are not able to do so? Much later in the day this thought would buoy me when the bad people (the negative voices in my head) paid a visit. Giving my phone a quick glance, there were no text messages of friends or family that were in any trouble or suddenly ill. This, also, will not always be the case. Continuing down the gratitude checklist, making sure to smile throughout the exercise, the last item ... “Sure am happy I packed all the rest of my shit for once the night before” ... was checked.

The first 5 minutes of the day had been won. Mind right, spirit right, body  right. From this stable base, no matter the challenges faced, perspective was mine. “I’m happy and healthy, my friends and family are all healthy, and I get to go ride my bike.” Whatever life threw at me the rest of the day, it really didn’t much matter. Or as my friend, mentor and retired Navy Seal Brad Nagel would say much more succinctly, “If it can’t kill me, my family or my friends, it ain’t a problem.”

Comfortable. Too comfortable for 4 am. Temperatures were in the upper sixties, maybe even 70. Great for the short term. I dispose being even the least bit chilly. I knew what it meant long term though. 

Cris’ Campground, a favorite of us Iowans who travel to Spearfish to race our bikes sits high above the city and the 3-4 miles down highway into town to the city park, where we’d start and finish the race, allowed for a nice quiet drive. 
Proper planning allowed for two very important final details to be tended to. Ice and poop. One a luxury, the other, any racer will tell you an absolute pre race necessity. Unrushed ... even better.

At 4:13 in the morning, walking into the 24 hour convenience store, there was no line for either. Headlamps and taillights. Both were required. Clear skies and a sun, seemingly in a hurry not to miss the race start hurriedly made its way towards the horizon. A soft welcoming glow, neither headlight nor tail light actually necessary, had fallen onto the valley. 

Perry Jewitt, Race Director, dropped some final nuggets of wisdom and enthusiasm on us before leading us out on a 5 mile “no racing” roll out through the city streets. Well wishes, high fives and hugs were shared between racers. A mutual respect lives in the endurance community. Fast or slow, those are words with much more meaning outside these groups. Inside, it is recognized that the real battle, the real test is in the journey, the mental hurdles all will have to clear, that no one is immune to, regardless of mph. I LOVE that.

Not far ahead, as the asphalt gave way to the gravel, Perry, our two wheeled, human powered pace car pulled off track right and enthusiastically cut his racers loose, hooting and hollering at us all, wishing us well and hoping to welcome all back safely 202 miles later. 

The cool canyon walls rising high above on both sides and imposing forest covered hillsides rising even higher in the distance hid a foreboding truth. Higher than average temps and headwinds would suck dry the life of some who enthusiastically rolled away from Perry, his positive sentiments drifting imperceptibility away as we rolled into the South Dakota country side. Not all would see the finish line later that day, evening or into the early morning hours of the next. 

“The person who eats first and drinks first wins.” It is a mantra I remind myself every race. Each sip, each calorie, early on is a deposit in the bank. Invest often and wisely and hopefully you’ll avoid any overdrafts or worse, physical or mental bankruptcy...better known as a DNF.

The first section was 50 plus miles, all up, to the first checkpoint, a convenience store where each racer signs in, refuels and makes for the next check some 60 miles away that would not enjoy the sheltering walls of the canyon nor the sun shielding canopy of the forest. Section two is where the Mother of Nature lay in wait. Those who had not fueled wisely through the 4-6 hours of climbing in the comforts of the low country would be found making withdrawals much too early in section two. Like dealing with a loan shark, catching up on “payments” at this stage is near impossible.

Far from the front, but happily on my fat bike, not too terribly far, I was pleased with my pace into the first checkpoint and even more pleased that my first order of business entering the store was to the bathroom to pee...a very good sign. Doing my best to leave the checkpoint as close to the same shape as I’d started the race, I made sure to drink more than it felt like I needed and eat as much as I felt I could keep down. All this was done with one eye on the clock because not only was I going to battle Mother Nature on this day, but Father Time also lurked. 21 hours, or 10 miles an hour was the time needed to make an “official” finish. The Garmin, upon my leaving let me know I was at 9.8. Section one seemed from the course profile to be the most challenging and the final 36 miles were nearly all downhill. There was not much fat on the bone but if I was able to maintain the current effort, I’d get home.

The course profile however, had not shared that the decrease in climbing would be met with an increase in exposure. Heat and headwinds became a constant companion for most of the next 120 miles. 

It was becoming evident, some 30 miles into section two that the heat and headwinds would indeed be a factor...and the altitude, the race would remain between 6 and 7000 feet now until the final 36 mile downhill rush back to the Spearfish City park from where we had departed. Higher altitude also meant the need for more fluids...on top of the more fluids the heat would necessitate.

The initial climbing of section one claimed at least one competitor, who, already behind the eight ball realized heading back out into 60 plus more miles before the next respite was not in the cards. 

Some 40 miles into the second section, early signs of a mental revolt were showing themselves for me as well. (See part one of this blog). Hills that were supposed to (at least in my mind) relent were not and downhills (at least in my mind that were to be here any moment) were all too short in both their distance and frequency.  All of this a result of a body being taxed, unable to keep pace with an insatiable hydration need which in turn makes calories tougher to ingest which then puts the brain on notice to “stop this madness before someone gets hurt.” And that’s when the bad people come. 

20 miles remained to the next check point. Water and mental reserves both were nearing the red. Neither would last 2 more hours.  Each little turn off passed, I have a good luck down the lane. An abandoned cabin, a primitive campground, anything that might offer a source of water, my radar was up. Could I make it two more hours? Good chance, yeah. But at what price? Mentally, I’d begun to suffer. Over the last twenty miles I’d passed a few others showing signs of where I was headed soon...the stress of the day’s conditions evident in both their cadence and demeanor.

The cue sheets signaled a left turn, the Garmin confirmed. A large sign just before the left, right side of the road, indicated a lodge as well. “What?!?” Like a sled dog, instantly alive at the prospect of the upcoming feeding, I was at the alert. Not a vehicle of any kind, not so much as an ATV or any other sign of activity made no difference. I didn’t need humans, I needed water. Anything available to all racers is fair game on course. No way was I passing this place by without a thorough once or twice over to find a spicket.

It wasn’t easy to find. In fact an initial lap around the place offered no sign of relief.  No matter. Sometimes ya gotta dig a bit for the treasure. Getting off the bike, tying off my horse at the entrance, I walked onto the abandoned porch. Why it was not in operation seemed odd, based on season and it’s well kept condition seemed odd but not worthy of any real thought. I was of single mind and purpose at that moment. Water.

And then, behind the grill that sat about three quarters down the long narrow porch I saw it. Hastily rolling it out of the way a quick “lefty loosey” and as if it hadn’t missed a day of operation, cool, clear water flowed freely into my waiting, cupped hands, immediately thrown into and over the top of my no longer overheated noggin.

Water bottles be damned, at least for now, like an old ranch hand that might have long ago and still based on the cattle whe ranged free here, call this place home I guzzled, spicket to hands until I risked it all coming right back up and out of me. 
Perhaps 120 miles still lay in front of me but there on the steps of that for who knows why, closed lodge, sun held at bay by the roof overhead, I’d just finished the race.

The bad people were vanquished back to whence they had come. Their departure as quick as their arrival. My core temperature dropped, my appetite rose. 
Figuratively in trons my trusty steed from the outside of the saloon I signaled in a couple other cowpokes too long on the trail. The relief on their faces, once told of the liquid gold found here was evident.

Time stops for no man and at just over 10mph for my moving average there was no time for small talk. Wishing them well, I threw a leg over the old girl and off towards the sunset we rode. 

In the distance I could hear Perry calling. Just barely, but I could hear it. As the day gave way to evening and evening gave way to morning his voice and word of encouragement grew ever stronger, eventually echoing crystal clear off the walls of Spearfish Canyon. The Stars morning prior now audience to a return rather than a morning depart from a cabin, destination both unknown and unsure.  Long ago the traffic of this beautifully downhill, effortlessly now pedaled highway gone, I was Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.” 

Fully present, aware of all things, seen and unseen around me, I was reminded again of the “Why.”

That to live, we have to be willing to die just a little bit. That to taste victory we have to court failure and that there are valuable lessons to learn in both. 

1:33 in the morning. 20 Hours. 33 minutes.



57 minutes to spare.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

207 Miles and Out of My MInd (Part 2 of 3)

Part two....

8 days. 8 days since I’d set off from the sun baked asphalt behind Gravel City Adventure in Emporia Kansas. 


350 miles laid ahead. The task? The Dirty Kanza XL. A gravel bike race/adventure who’s idea was to be the first version of the Dirty Kanza but was seen as perhaps too foreboding and had been shelved for a only slightly more tame 200 mile version traversing the Flint Hills region of Kansas. 

Dirty Kanza has become, from it’s first year start list of 34 hearty souls, to what is now dubbed, rightly so, “The World’s Premier Gravel Grinder”, a test that brings gravel riding enthusiasts, some would argue masochists, from all states of the union and beyond. 

The idea to honor and bring to life the original “Kanza” apparently had become enough of a mental nuisance, recurring with such regularity that it became necessary to make it reality. 

The excitement, as Jim Cummins, race director announced the goings ons to those in attendance, hundreds of racers, family and friends that would be taking on the 200 miler the next day, was as palpable as the most unwelcome temperatures. 90 plus, the thermometer would read, rumor had it, as high as 101 before day’s end. 

What was said, I can’t be sure. Equal parts excitement and concern kept my attention away from Jim’s pre-race comments. 35 of us had the honor to be inaugural participants. I hoped I had the salt for such an undertaking. It turned out on this particular afternoon deep in the overheated belly of this Kansas beast, buffeted by a relentless hair dryer in your face 20 mile an hour wind  headwind and a Louisiana swamp worthy humidity, I did not.

At 6 am the next morning, rolling into town just prior to a thunderstorm promising some relief to relentless conditions that waned not in the evening hours, far behind the imposed time cutoffs the race requires, I all too gladly excepted my fate over a couple Arizona Ice Teas from the Casey’s convenience store cooler. The first it seemed evaporated upon impact with an overheated core. The second, following immediately the first, brought back online a few systems that had shut down in hopes of resurfacing once the coast was clear. Things like rational thought, a remembrance of my name and dare I say, a flicker, a small flicker of joy.

I recently stumbled upon a quote by Teddy Roosevelt where he as much as praised failure ... “Far better it is to date mighty things, to gain glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”

I tasted both during the 14 hours I battled the indomitable hills, heat and humidity of the Dirty Kanza XL. In the end though, it was failure. Not ultimate failure however. For that would be in not showing up, not putting it on the line, being content in the gray twilight, which I am not. 

Show me someone that has never “failed”,  I’ll show you a life spent safely, wasted.

So now, almost exactly a week to the hour that I drowned my sorrows in nearly a gallon of over sugared green tea on that Casey’s curb, winds howling, thunder clapping, picked up, dusted off, I was rolling off to avenge my Kansas defeat. To do so, meant covering the 207 race miles of Black Hills high country gravel known as “The Mother Lode.” 

Heat and headwinds were again forecast. Body, I believed, was ready. Would the mind, the spirit, also rise to the challenge?

I wondered.

Part 2 of 3