Relentless Progress In Basically All Directions But Forward
Fact: I rode my bike 150 miles across northwestern France, with all my touring gear, in order to reach a ferry to take me to Ireland.
There came a moment, 130 miles into my bike ride, in the wind and the rain and with darkness falling rapidly, when I realized that I wasn’t having fun anymore. Boy, this sucks, I thought to myself as a seemingly endless stream of cars roared past me in the filthy wet, and it felt good to say that. Normally I don’t let myself be negative. I don’t have bad days, just less-good ones, and I don’t dislike people, but choose to spend less time with them. In the mountains, being negative isn’t going to help any bad situation, and being negative in the rest of life just brings other people down. So I was going against a personal principle to say that I wasn’t having any fun, but it felt good anyway because it was true. Being honest is another personal principle, which has a way of being at odds with some of my other principles, like being nice. I’m full of principles. I keep their broken pieces in my pockets and try to glue them back together when I have free time.
Sticking to principles is the principal purpose of the trip I’m on. (He he.) The primary principle right now is to be as environmentally friendly as possible, which for me begins with an acknowledgement of respect for distance. I’m not going to get into the whys and hows or the things that I know are still wrong with my efforts, but the result is that I took a boat across the Atlantic and am now traveling primarily by bicycle while in Europe. This is a great idea that has turned out to be a real bitch in reality. Take, for example, the fact that my cargo boat, which I was told would take me from Philadelphia to Antwerp, Belgium, took an unexpected detour to North Carolina and spent FOUR ENTIRE DAYS floating in the water five miles off the coast. Or the resulting fact that I then had much less time to get to the Cherbourg ferry and had to bust ass across Brittany in horrible weather so that I wouldn’t have to keep my friends in Ireland waiting. Also, turns out it rains pretty much all the time in this part of the world in the springtime, and finding a place to camp isn’t as easy as you might think. I started out with the idea that I would travel slower, see more, and appreciate the scale and shape of the world. But I’ve found that you can ‘appreciate’ something without liking it.
Opinion: Bike touring should be a good substitute for exploring the world on foot.
Let me back up and mention that I began running in the mountains so that I could have adventures in wild places and explore the world. That was several years ago. Now I’m an old man with a bum foot who has had to experiment with other forms of exploration while that foot heals up. So instead of running mountain ultras, I have put everything I think I’ll need for three months abroad into a small duffel bag and strapped that bag onto my bicycle with some old bike tubes. I saw the ocean while pedaling in place for two weeks (which, in fact, was a real metaphorical microcosm of the whole frustrating situation), and now I’m coming to terms with the gritty reality of trying to stick to what I believe in. That means being wet and tired a lot, and trying to convince myself that I’m doing a cool thing while sharing the road with speeding vehicles. I keep my gaze on the road, unable to see much farther than the next bend or two, and try to believe that the sky will clear and the road will slope downward soon.
Bear with me here:
Jose Rhian Mandario was the third officer on my trans-Atlantic cargo boat. He lives in the Philippines when he’s home, but really he lives on sea-faring vessels. For eight to 10 months every year he sleeps, eats, and works on these boats, talking with the crew, keeping watch for obstructions, maintaining the ship’s course. He watches documentaries in his free time, and misses his girlfriend back home. He is 29 years old and has worked on ships for more than 10 years. “This is my career,” he says when I ask him if he likes what he does. “It’s just what I do.”
In the evenings I would go up to the Bridge to chat with him and look out at the sea. The Bridge is the command center of the boat, where all the computers that manage its operations are laid out in a graceful arc below a wide swath of windows giving views 180 degrees around. At night they keep the Bridge dark to maintain the night vision of the officer on deck, but they don’t really need to see out the windows. The computers see much more than the eye ever could, and after charting the course at the start of the voyage the officers are really only called upon to make sure nothing goes wrong while the boat drives itself. Everyone calls Mandario by his middle name, which was pronounced “Ryan” (or, which made me giggle every time, “Turd,” which was the Philippine-accented way of saying “Third,” which was short for “Third Officer”), and he told me a lot of things about his life. He has eight brothers and sisters, a mob of nieces and nephews, and is ready to have kids of his own. He spent three years at some kind of boat university where he learned how to work on these ships, then another year onboard a vessel apprenticing. After that he was an Ordinary Seaman, then an Able Seaman, and now for the past year he has been the Third Officer. He hopes soon to rise up to Second Officer, then Chief Officer and finally, someday, to Captain. When I asked him how long that might take, he shrugged. “I hope before I have 50 years,” he said with an accent and an endearing smile. I looked at him curiously.
His calm captivated me. He was very honest in answering all the questions I asked. “Do you like what you do for a living?” I wanted to know, and he responded with a wag of his head, “It’s just what I do. But if I could go back to when I started, and if I knew what I know now, maybe… well maybe I would do something else.” Yet he continues on the course he charted 10 years ago just like the boat he oversees continues on the course charted for it at the start of the voyage. He can imagine that there might be a happier life he could lead, but he doesn’t know what that would look like. And whereas I change my course daily in search of the best way, he sticks stolidly to the course he knows, and is happy with what he has. Ryan has smooth dark skin and black eyes and he wears shirts that say things like “DOPE” and “RAD” across the chest in big letters. He walks with a fluid roll of the shoulders.
The obvious takeaway here is that I should be as happy with my path as he is with his. That’s what I thought about during my long bike ride in France, especially when the weather got bad and I didn’t want to be riding anymore. Rhian spends his life on a boat and will likely continue to do so until he can’t. I spend my time traveling nearly as much as him for very different reasons, charting a course based on completely different principles, and living a lifestyle based on whim that could come to a screeching halt at any moment. It’s hard to understand exactly how these differences affect the people we are. For a while there on that boat, our courses intersected and we shared looks of wonder at the exotic aspects of each other’s lives. And you know what makes all the symbolism even more perfect? We shared a birthday. We share a birthday, I should say. We were born on the same day four years apart on opposite sides of the planet.
“You run?” he asked me in wonder. “How do you make a living from that?”
“Well,” I replied, humble, embarrassed, awkward, “you can make money from races and sponsors. And I do some writing too, and I direct a race. I manage to piece it together with lots of different things.”
“Do you run marathons?” he cocked his head, an amused grin hinting the corners of his mouth.
I shrugged, “Well, I actually usually run longer races, like 50 or 100 miles. And I run on trails. I like to run up and down mountains and explore wild places.” As I said this it became clear that my way of life was as novel and unbelievable to him as his life onboard ships was to me.
“That’s really cool,” he said honestly. “You are always exploring.”
“You are, too!” I countered vehemently. “You will circle the planet on this boat before you go home again!”
“But I’m not exploring,” he said calmly, and grinned again and gestured at the computers. “The ship takes me there.”
Thought: Perhaps my course is as charted for me as if I were onboard that boat as well.
Only a few days had passed since I left Rhian and the boat when I found myself 130 miles into a bike ride and miserable. The rain was pouring down on my back and the spray from my tires was freezing my feet. Wind gusted hard from the left and forced me to slow down so that I wouldn’t lose my balance. My vision was fixed on the white line ahead, with the glare of headlights in my peripheral vision to the left. To the right blurred the French countryside I had dreamed of exploring while at home, bored, in Colorado, scheming of adventure. Rolling green pastures and old churches and lines of tall poplars leading to stone houses next to creeks. Boy, this sucks, I thought to myself. And it did. And I kept moving because stopping would have been worse. And eventually it was over. The next day the sun rose and I tried again. Now I have written about it, to tell you all of my grand adventure, to allow you to experience vicariously my discomfort, to gain your respect for my perseverance. And I’ll do it again.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Are the challenges of endurance sports actual life metaphors? If so, what are some principles you’ve applied across sport and the rest of life?