by Louis B. Shalako
On May 8, 2009 I learned a sharp lesson in humility. Setting out twenty minutes before twelve p.m. on a mild and sunny spring day, I pedaled my over-sized mountain bike out of the city. I followed Sarnia’s Howard Watson Trail, heading north and then east in the direction of Bright’s Grove and ultimately Camlachie, a small, rural, beach-front community at the south end of Lake Huron.
If it got too much for me I could turn around and go back. Within an hour and a half I was turning up the driveway. I had promised someone that I would come out and look at a small basement renovation he had on the go. We sat outside on the patio and had a Coke, and a cigarette. After an hour or so it was time to go.
The trip is about twenty-three kilometres each way. After two kilometres of pedaling homewards, I was in trouble. Deep trouble. I had no energy, and worse, the pain was burning in the large muscles of my upper thighs. My heart was okay, but it simply wouldn’t go any faster. I could feel all of my torso moist and wet with sweat, and my lungs didn’t seem to be providing enough oxygen. I kept slowing down, and cursed the developing blue band of low rain clouds on the horizon. The wind was straight in my face and gusting, but blowing at an average speed of about thirty kilometres an hour. My wrists hurt, my elbows hurt, my shoulders hurt…the trail is nothing if not level, yet even the gentlest incline seemed beyond me.
And I still had twenty-one kilometres to go. You could say I learned a little bit about suffering out there. The temperature had fallen to twelve or fourteen degrees Celsius, just enough to make the sweat uncomfortably cold. My legs burned with pain all the way home, all of it self-inflicted. The trip took about one hour and forty-two minutes.
I must have gotten off the bike a dozen times, I was so tired I couldn’t ride it. I’d walk a hundred metres while my heart slowed down, and my breath caught up to me. But as soon as I got on again, it only took fifty or a hundred metres for my energy to burn out again. I'm lucky my friend filled up my one-litre water bottle for me. The amazing thing is that I managed to average a whopping thirteen kilometres an hour, or about eight miles an hour. Twice walking speed. God, I thought I would never get home.
That last kilometre, I walked at least half of the way. It was a kind of death-march, out there. Yet I managed to ride up my own street, and put the bike away, et cetera. There was one cold beer in the fridge, in answer to all my prayers.
I learned a few lessons out there. I have more grit and determination than I often give myself credit for. I guess you could say that the margin between victory and defeat can be razor thin—although I was competing against my own stupidity. On any given day, the winners probably hurt more than the losers. The winners were the ones who dug deep, and scraped the bottom of that barrel until they came up with some spongy and discoloured oak shavings, making fuel for further efforts.
I was totally unprepared. A month of proper training might have helped. That was an Olympian ride, for me. I was walking funny for about a week. The pain and stiffness eventually went away. I can’t remember the last time I really hit the wall. It is a profound learning experience, one I won’t forget any time soon. There was just no way I was going to lay down beside the trail and patiently await rescue by passers-by. There was no way I was going to walk up to someone’s door and ask to use the phone. I just couldn’t allow myself to be humiliated like that.
Ego is not necessarily an unhealthy thing. It was my ego that wouldn’t let me quit. But that day, my ego wrote a check that just barely cleared.