The first time we went road biking together, I was chock full of suggestions and hot tips for how to ride with your feet clipped in. As we rolled out of the Lander, Wyoming driveway, I demonstrated proper form: “You see, you want to think about putting an even amount of power thoughout the full rotation to be most efficient. Don’t just push down on the pedals.” And when we could see a stop sign 400 yards ahead – “be sure to unclip well before you absolutely have to – trust me, I’ve been riding for five years and even I got in three crashes this spring!” And what would turn out to be the least relevant: “don’t be embarrassed to ride in the granny gear up big hills – cycling takes getting used to!” Oh, how I would soon eat my words, along with his dust.
Giving unsolicited advice to your partner may be a risky (if not flat out bad) idea. But I genuinely wanted to help. I had crashed so many times trying to learn, once waking up in a Cambrige, Massachusetts, hospital unable to remember what classes I was taking. Heck, two months prior I crashed in my own driveway and nearly fainted when I saw the chunks of gravel embedded in my elbow. And my ego certainly wanted to flex its road-cyclist-shaven muscles. After all, I was the expert. I’d raced in half Ironman triathlons and trained for a full distance. I’d ridden 6,000 feet up Tucson’s famed Mount Lemmon and spent countless hours circling Manhattan’s Central Park loop. And I had the lingo and the little Bianchi cap and the fancy red and black bike to prove it.
Within 20 minutes of our first ride, I knew I was in trouble.
Within 20 minutes of our first ride, I knew I was in trouble. As the rollers started to get bigger, so did the distance between us. At first, I noted how fast he could descend – ah, the benefits of weighing more! Then I watched him climb, effortlessly leaning into the hill, accelerating even, while I huffed like Puff the Magic Dragon in my lowest gear. Oh don’t mind me, I’m just staying in Zone 2!
Running was no different. I think of myself as a runner – I’ve run marathons, ultramarathons, an eight day stage race, and 50 days in a row. Our friend Felipe runs ultras in Chile and wins, clocking seven or eight minute miles over a mountainous 100k. He’s no joke. When I was at work one day, the two of them decided to go to for a run in the Chuckanuts, mountains just outside of Bellingham, Washington. Ten to 15 miles, they said before leaving. “How will you keep up with him?” I asked my man incredulously. “I might not, but I’ll try hard.” He laced up his dumpster discovered sneakers, at my urging filled my Camelbak backpack, and hopped into his Toyota Tacoma. A few hours later they returned, tired and muddy and happy. Felipe handed me an IPA while I flipped them some coconut-buckwheat pancakes. “Dude, your boyfriend is fast. I have no more energies in my legs.”
With rock climbing, I knew I’d be the weak link. And I was fine with it, up to a point. I’m a novice and he teaches climbing for a living. For a few months we climbed together and he led everything and I happily followed, laughing at my “hands free” moves and top rope whippers. The excitement of getting a kiss at the next belay station overrode any thoughts of self-doubt. But then my lesser ability started to feel like a burden. As I sat in my harness six inches off of the ground aimlessly flailing my arms at the Sink’s Canyon limestone, my insecurity grew. I hate this. It must be so boring to climb with me. In my frustration mid pity party, I asked to be lowered, which was probably unnecessary since my feet could touch the ground. He patiently asked if I wanted to keep climbing? No way, JosÃ©.
Later that evening, I worked up the courage to ask a question: “Honest answers only…is climbing with your friends more fun than climbing with me?”
He looked at me sincerely. “Sometimes, yeah. It’s a different kind of fun.”
It was truthful and it stung. I wilted like a dried up daisy, opening my eyes extra wide and displaying my top and bottom teeth in a plastered smile to show my sincerity. “Cool! Great! Sick! That makes sense! No worries! You should totally do that! I’ll make like a banana and split!” I replied quickly, shakily, and three octaves higher than normal. I guess I wasn’t ready for honesty.
He will always be quicker, faster, and stronger. He will always be better at basketball and will climb harder. He will always walk faster uphill with a heavier pack and move more gracefully down steep, unstable terrain. He will always be better at pingpong and skiing and chugging beer. But that’s okay. It’s not a race or a competition. He certainly couldn’t care less. We’re not opponents, we’re a team. It’s not about better or worse. It’s about doing things that we love and doing them together. My trying hard will never yield the same results as his trying hard, and that’s fine. In fact it’s great. It challenges me in ways other hard work doesn’t. I can grit my teeth and bury my head and endure a whole lot of physical pain. I pride myself on that. But can I sit with the objective fact that I am less athletic than he is? Can I let go of a need to “keep up” to feel adequate? Can I surrender to and find peace with reality? Can I quiet my ego and simply have fun adventuring and playing with the person I love? Yes. I sure hope so. That’s where I need to try hard.
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