My longest bike ride was in June 2012. I'd gone riding with a new cycling friend and we'd planned to ride about twenty miles that morning.
Instead, we got lost. By the time I arrived back home, I'd ridden thirty-seven miles. I was exhausted, but exuberant. If I could ride thirty-seven 37 miles then I could ride fifty.
Fifty miles was halfway to my goal of riding a century — one hundred miles on the bike. I’d aspired to ride a century when I started cycling regularly in 2010. Back then, I could barely ride for four miles without stopping to rest every few minutes.
I couldn't have known that my ride that day, nearly ten years ago, would be one of the last rides on my road bike. 2012 was the year my 11-year-old daughter was diagnosed with cancer.
In fact, the morning I took her to the emergency room for stomach pain (a few weeks after that very long ride), I’d gone riding with the same woman in a small group of female riders that I was, frankly, astonished to be a part of.
I remember telling them how worried I was about my daughter, how she’d been complaining of stomach pain ever since she got home from a weeklong trip with her grandmother.
It didn't seem like a normal pain. Her stomach was distended and she had no appetite. It was August and she’d been losing weight all summer. I had a sick feeling in my gut that morning. I cut my ride short when the rest of the group decided to keep going, breaking off from the pack and heading home.
I started riding my bike ten years ago in 2009. That was the year I joined Weight Watchers without telling anyone. I weighed about 168 pounds and, at 5'1" and 38-years-old, I felt frumpy, weak, and and completely out of shape.
My girls were five and eight and though they still consumed most of my waking hours, I discovered that I had a little more time to focus on me.
A few weeks after I joined Weight Watchers, I began walking on the rural streets around my home, but walking the same two mile radius quickly got boring. My older daughter had recently learned how to ride a bike and I’d thought, “Why does she get to have all the fun?”
So, I got a powder blue hybrid bike for $200 (a birthday gift to myself that May) and started riding each day on a lovely road that followed a creek for five miles until it came to a sleepy town called Rosendale.
I lost thirty pounds that spring and summer. My success with weight loss and with getting increasingly stronger on my bike are two of the biggest achievements of my life.
By the end of the summer, I'd exceeded my goal of riding five miles a day. By September, I was riding 10-12 miles a day. I had to stop riding in October because I couldn’t tolerate being on my bike when the temperature dropped below sixty degrees, so I joined a gym.
By November of that year, I’d reached my goal weight of 119 pounds and was taking an indoor spinning class three days a week, preparing myself for my first outdoor ride in April.
I thought I would ride forever, stay thin forever, and be one of those wiry older riders with rock hard calves who can consume sixty miles on a Sunday morning and barely break a sweat.
I set a goal for myself — I would do a hundred mile ride by my forty-second birthday. I bought a road bike a year or two after I started riding and worked with a riding coach to strengthen my core and learn how to ride in a group. I was in the best shape of my life.
I was already gaining weight when I did that thirty-seven mile ride with my friend in 2012. I’d quit Weight Watchers because I was constantly starving. After doing the math, I realized I was only consuming about 1100 calories a day.
The road bike was designed to take on a lot of the work I’d been doing on my clunky hybrid bike. It was half the weight of the old bike and had twice the gears. This also contributed to my new weight gain since my rides (even the twenty miles rides) didn’t burn as many calories. Even so, I wasn’t worried. I believed riding would be part of my life forever.
At least, that's the lie I told myself. The truth is that I rode with something akin to desperation. I'd never been a particularly active person and I didn't know how to regulate my workouts or my diet to a moderate level. I was afraid if I slowed down, I would stop completely. So I pushed myself hard to a level that was not sustainable in the long run.
I tackled being healthy and fit with a kind of the relentless frenzy, afraid that if I stopped my grueling workout and diet regimens, I would go back to being sedentary (my default setting).
By 2012, on the morning of my longest ride ever, I had achieved some level of moderation to my diet and exercise routine. I was comfortable on my road bike and starting to see myself as a rider worthy of joining some of the local cycling groups for B-level rides. B riders are experienced, but not elite. We averaged about 15 or 16 miles per hour on a flat road and took some challenging hills which was tough for me, but nothing I couldn't handle.
I looked good. I felt great. I didn’t see the storm coming until it was on top of me. So, I rode that summer until the morning that I took my daughter to the hospital after an anxious twenty-mile ride and learned that she had a malignant tumor on her liver.
Then, I stopped riding. I didn't get back on my bike for two years.
During the course of her illness, which lasted just under five years, I made a few attempts at getting back in shape and back on my bike.
These attempts were thwarted by more bad news about my daughter’s cancer progression which almost always came with more hospital stays, more treatment, and more emotional trauma.
In short, I gave up. I was depressed, anxious, and perpetually terrified at the progression of her illness. I was losing her and I knew it. My weight crept up. My activity level dropped to nothing.
I lost my daughter on March 22nd, 2017.
I now weigh nearly twenty pounds more than I weighed when I started Weight Watchers ten years ago.
Last year I bought a trail bike — it has wider wheels and is more rugged than my road bike so I can ride it on rough surfaces. I was scared to get on my road bike again, terrified of getting into an accident. None of my biking clothes fit anymore, anyway. I took the trail bike out four or five times last summer. It hasn't seen the light of day this year.
My road bike is hooked up to an indoor trainer in my office. I can ride it anytime I want, any day or season.
Sometimes I get it in my my head that I can get back to riding if I just stay focused and train regularly. If I do this, then I can work towards my goal of riding a century. I always start training with the best of intentions, then give up after about two or three weeks.
The same is true for my diet. I keep starting new diets, trying to get back to the same focused mindset I had the year I lost all that weight. Then after a week or two when I've only lost a few pounds, I get discouraged and I give up.
The truth is, I might never ride my bike again. At least, not the way I used to. It might be time to sell the road bike. It might be time to stop thinking of myself as a fit senior taking on fifty or sixty mile bike rides every weekend.
That might be the truth, but I'm not ready to accept it (yet.) I know that grief is sabotaging me. I know that it's easier for me to be sedentary than to push myself to feel discomfort.
I'm using all of my energy to bear a kind of deep aching pain that is astonishing in its persistence. I miss my daughter — every day, every minute, every moment. When I first started riding as a young mother with young children, I didn't realize how exhausted a person's soul could feel. I was tired from the day to day chaos of parenting, but I had the energy and enthusiasm to ride each day. I had both my girls, after all. They were strong and healthy.
The kind of fatigue I’m experiencing now is something new to me — it’s a crisis of the spirit.
It's bigger and heavier than any kind of emotional pain I've ever experienced before. It's not something I'll ever get over, so I must learn to carry it in a way that doesn't destroy me and the other good things that remain in my life — including riding.
I began writing this with the intention of admitting to myself (and to the world) that I'd probably never ride my bike again. But now I realize that while I have changed significantly from the person I was ten years ago, my desire to ride my bike hasn’t changed at all. I want to find my strength again — riding is my strength. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to flying and that’s worth working towards.