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Riding on self-confidence (13 days till “The Ride”)

June 10, 2012

   How silly did I look today, trudging along on the incline headed toward Aqua Lane Park, chanting audibly, “I think I can. I think I can”?

   At this point, I didn’t care. It takes a lot for me to NOT care about what others around me are thinking. In this case, it took a successful, 8.5-mile, no-falls-whatsoever trek from Aqua Lane Park in the Town of Tonawanda to Niawanda Park in the City of Tonawanda and back. Patrick and I hit the bike path at 10:20 a.m., which is extremely early for me on a Sunday. We wanted to pedal out and back before the temperatures climbed into the mid-80s. It was already close as we began, and by the time we returned, I was drenched in sweat, gasping for breath and begging for water. I earned the right to not look perfect.

   As I prepared for the journey an hour earlier, I dug through my closet to find an outfit that would say “cute exercise enthusiast.” While I realize that I’m not expected to look like a beauty queen as I exercise, I still insist upon maintaining a certain degree of care in my appearance. The first order of business was to find a shirt that would not put my sweat on display but that also would complement my black sweat pants. I found a cute, pastel purple tank top with tiny, white polka-dots, which also would ensure that I did not end up with a “farmer’s tan” if my sunscreen decided to give out before I did.

   Dealing with my hair is the worst. Its texture often reminds me of torn cotton balls, and there is no controlling the frizz on humid days. Luckily, I had the helmet to temporarily hide this flaw. It’s amazing how much time I save in my day’s preparation when I don’t have to worry about fixing my hair. I jokingly blame the obsession and gallons of hairspray used on my mother, who always sported a silk scarf over her head before we ventured out into the windy world when I was a young girl. I sometimes feel defeated when looking in the mirror, until I remind myself that the image of what beauty is touted to be is the product of daily hair salon treatments and a makeup cases the best clown would envy. That makes me feel better.

   I know childhood bullying is the source of my insecurities today, and it takes a great amount of strength and will to get myself back on track. It wasn’t until college when I finally realized that the labels – especially ugly – forced upon me since elementary school simply weren’t true, but when one hears this day in and day out for several years at such a young age, one tends to begin to believe the critics. Sometimes I think that is why I ended up having children at such an early age. Once boys noticed me for something other than hideous, I craved the attention and would have done anything to keep that attention on me. I shake my head in frustration even today when I realize how down I was by the time I hit middle school. The feelings of uselessness and insecurity were so intense that I hid myself underneath layers of clothing, even in the summertime.

   While I continue to fuss during my hour-long morning prep sessions and have even tossed a comb at my mirror in frustration, I know my worth today is high. It is truly a shame that it takes decades for most of us to realize our true value and that most of that value should be based on what is gleaned from our own reflection and not on the ideals projected upon us by others.

   One source of pride, however, is that I apparently appear younger to those around me. How excited was I a week ago when I was out with Billy, and one of his friends approached with the exclamation, “Your sister looks just like you!” I never will grow tired of being mistaken for someone half my age.

   That feeling was nowhere to be found as I mounted the bike today feeling more 50ish than 40ish. I have been sleeping and eating well to keep my energy high, but I overexerted myself on what I thought would be a great stretch yesterday morning, pulling my right shoulder and causing myself not to be able to turn my head all the way to the left. Not good when you have to watch for other riders around you. This concerned me as Patrick and I approached the path, but my range of movement had improved and the pain had eased, so I was hopeful it would not cause a problem. As we headed out, I anticipated the dip in the pavement from a few days ago, and I took it with a loud “WEEEEE!” This riding thing was becoming more exciting and less work.

   Sure, that was easy to think during the first mile, but with seven more to go, I decided to pace myself a little better. With the plan being to ride about four miles, rest at Niawanda, and then turn around and head back, I knew I had to temper my excitement so I didn’t spend all my energy on the ride away from the car. It would have been so embarrassing to have my body just give up, forcing Patrick to ride back, retrieve the car and cart my sorry butt home. We set a plan of resting every two miles so we could take in some much-needed water and enjoy the scenery once we passed the industrial areas.

   As Patrick and I approached the second mile, I attempted to switch gears because the inclines were becoming a challenge. This proved frustrating because I was set at 2 on my left handlebar and 5 on my right, yet moving one more notch up or down on the right dial either slowed me down more or made me feel like I was flying too quickly. No happy medium could be found, so as we came upon inclines, I crawled. At one point, one was so bad that I thought the bike would just stop, but I pushed along and screamed, “I can’t do this!” toward Patrick, who was sailing away in front of me, until I got past the obstacle. It turns out that the yelling provided a little extra motivation to move me along.

   Sound effects also move me, it seems. Between me humming the “Wizard of Oz” witch’s theme; offering an audible “bump, bump” every time I go over a curb, pothole or other uneven surface; or screeching “UH OH!” when I lose my footing or balance, I’m surprised Patrick hasn’t rolled off his bike in a fit of laughter.

   Around mile two, we pulled over at a river overlook, which I never noticed while speeding by in my car at 55 mph, and it offered a gorgeous side view of the South Grand Island Bridge. I didn’t feel like I needed rest at the moment, but as I dismounted my bike, I realized that my legs were more rubber than bone. It was the perfect refresher, and the next two miles to Niawanda melted into the breeze. Four miles in about 45 minutes – not bad for a beginner. Once there, we spread some beach towels out along the water and let the cool winds dry up the sweat as well as the water we threw at each other from our canteens.

   The ride back was torture. OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it seemed that it was mostly uphill. No wonder the first four miles seemed so easy. The fact that I couldn’t adjust my gears to a comfortable setting on inclines was becoming upsetting, and I could feel myself stiffening my arms and clinching my hands harder around the handlebars. I hadn’t planned to stop after the sixth mile because I felt if I did, I wouldn’t start again, but I was forced to pull over when my right hand became numb, the death grip cutting off circulation. Around mile seven, Patrick decided to pull over to rehydrate, but I knew at that point, if I had stopped pedaling, I’d be walking the bike the final mile. That would have devastated me. If I could power through pollen flying into my good eye, a spider web hitting my face and a bug flying down my shirt, I could make this last mile without a final rest.

   Thank goodness for the last half mile and its decline on which I could just coast and catch my breath. I remembered this portion of the path from a few days ago, and then I recalled that the final stretch included another horrible hill. I just wanted to cry and let the bike drop, but I instead pedaled quickly on the decline so I could increase my momentum. I began to chant, “I think I can. I think I can,” even though I wasn’t thoroughly convinced that I actually could. As the ground evened out again, I felt as though I was crossing a finish line, of sorts. We made it farther than the Ride for Roswell requires us to ride, I didn’t fall once and I got over what others might think of that sweaty chick laying in the grass next to the path. (As soon as we returned to the starting position, I dropped my bike to its side and flopped on the ground).

   I’ll keep saying it – Patrick is a saint for coaching me through this. I’m not the easiest person to teach because I despise doing the wrong things in front of others. And while I’m fussing over my look – whether it’s for a day of sweaty exercise or a night on the town – he teases me with, “Who else are you trying to impress?” because he’s already hooked. That makes me feel great.

   He also reminds me often that the mirror doesn’t tell the full story on true beauty, as he points to my head or my chest and says, “It’s what’s in here.” What a perfect world this would be if everyone just understood that from day one.

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