Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

Epic

March 15, 2009

This article has nothing whatsoever to do with design. I’m a designer, but I’m also a human being like any other. In this article I’m writing about the regular human part. Human beings, as some of you may know, have a body; a physical structure that carries the brain around (“…to meetings,” as Sir Ken Robinson once described). Anyway, since we have this body and all, we have a responsibility to be very physical on a regular basis and to maintain that body. Otherwise, the brain suffers and doesn’t get around so well.

I wrote in my last article about how you already possess a capacity greater than that which technology might offer you in many contexts, though technologists will lie to you and work to convince you otherwise. Well, writing that article and thinking about it got me to reflecting on examples of extraordinary human capacity, including some personal ones from my own experience. And so I was moved to write this article.

I have no idea if it will interest you or provide you with any value, but here goes.

As some of you may know I’m a cyclist, which means I pedal a bicycle on the roads for 100 to 200 miles each week. Because of this, most people would consider me to be a total friggin’ nutcase. Who, after all, wants to ride a bike for 100+ miles a week? (Answer: total friggin’ nutcases.) I ride solo; cycling is not a social endeavor for me. I’m not out there on the road to visit with friends and have conversation. I’m out there to work my ass off and come home half dead.

It’s a sad fact that I have no sense of humor when I’m training. On the roads or in the gym, I have no sympathy or remorse. I am not a fun man to train with.

Those failings aside, I do thoroughly enjoy riding. Some rides are better than others. Every cyclist has had one or more of what we call “epic rides.” These are rides that feature significant, surprising outcomes to what were supposed to be normal training rides. Among my epic rides, standouts include the one that, unplanned, went on for more miles than I had ever ridden (or have ridden since), and the one I’m going to recount here. Sometimes an epic ride will simply have some interesting event in it and sometimes it’s epic for the effort required or the puzzling results. This story is about the latter.

It happened last year (in 2008). It was raining. It was raining before I got out on the road and I knew it, but I needed to get some miles in and rain is never a bar to training. Comfort is the only compromise and comfort is not something an athlete thinks about very much. In fact, comfort has nothing at all to do with training so it really never even occurred to me that rain was an issue that day. It had, however, been quite a long time since I’d ridden in the rain.

I had long since decided to ignore the rivulets and drips of water on my face, but my riding glasses were covered in droplets, further diminishing visibility. Yes, I thought, I’m in for a crummy couple of hours here.

I started out as I always do; just some lower-gear spinning for the first 30 minutes or so to get warmed up so that I could begin training. The rain cooled things down a bit and provided a nice respite from the 100+F temperatures common on June afternoons here in Texas. So rolling over the small hills at and easy 16 to 20 mph was actually pretty refreshing. The rain was light as I started out, but it got heavier as time wore on. After my warm-up it was raining pretty hard and visibility, even at my low speed, was not very good.

As it was time to kick the real training into gear for the next hour and a half or so, I began to get a bit agitated. I was, of course, soaked to the bone. My waterlogged socks made my feet uncomfortable. Being wet is one thing, but soggy shoes and socks just take things to another level. I had long since decided to ignore the rivulets and drips of water on my face, but my riding glasses were covered in droplets, further diminishing visibility. Yes, I thought, I’m in for a crummy couple of hours here.

Like most cyclists, I have a bike computer mounted on the handlebars. It keeps track of things like speed, time, distance, and cadence (pedal revolutions) and it tracks averages for all of those measures. It works fine wet or dry so the weather was no problem. That was until I rose out of the seat to sprint up a hill and my cleat came unclipped from my pedal, knocking my cadence sensor out of position on the frame. So while my speed, distance, and time were still being displayed for me, my cadence was now a mystery.

Like many cyclists, I work to maintain a minimum cadence of 90 (90 pedal revolutions per minute). Most of the time I’m working something closer to 100 to 120, but most cyclists find it important not to slip into the 80s or lower for more than a few revolutions. Now I’m pretty accurate at perceiving my cadence, but without a reading on my ride I’d not know precisely where I was with respect to my target and I’d not have an average cadence reading to record at the end of the ride. Yes, I could have simply stopped and adjusted the position of the cadence sensor and I’d have been back at 100% computing capacity. But it was raining. Hard. And by then I was mildly pissed.

I tried to race cars that were passing me. I raced up hills instead of just working to endure them. All in all, I had a wonderful time and probably had a silly grin on my face the whole way.

I think most of us can remember being in a distasteful situation when after some significant point it becomes easier to simply push through to the end and get it over with than to stop. That’s where I was. Hell, I’m just gonna go for it, I thought to myself. I snapped my cleat back into the pedal clip and put my head down and rode.

At first I sort of wallowed in my discomfort and misfortune, and just pedaled like a brainless machine down the wet road. But after a few minutes the ridiculousness of my behavior and the normality my situation got the better of me. I had done this many times before—ridden in the rain. This was nothing “unfortunate,” this was just a rainy day. Coming to terms with the inanity of my mood, I started having fun. I actually laughed out loud. I decided to throw myself into the ride and see what I could do.

An experienced cyclist doesn’t really need a speedometer or an odometer to know how long he has been riding and at what speed. You develop a clear sense of these things with time. But on this particular day, given the weather and road conditions, I really had no sense whatsoever of these things. My bike computer could tell me, but I decided to just ignore it and ride. I was not going to set any records anyway, stupid rain. I just wanted to gut this one out.

I did things on that ride I normally wouldn’t do. Going up hills is a terribly taxing endeavor and riding into the wind is a cyclist’s ever-present nightmare. I rode over many hills and into awful wind that day, but I did so without holding anything in reserve. I went full-bore the whole way and I found that I was simply not getting tired! I sprinted where I normally would recover. I maintained speed where I normally downshifted. I tried to race cars that were passing me. I raced up hills instead of just working to endure them. All in all, I had a wonderful time and probably had a silly grin on my face the whole way. Two and a half hours after getting on I stepped off the bike.

On a normal training ride, after warm-up I typically roll along at between 20 and 35+ mph. I don’t generally worry about top or bottom speeds, but I do use average speed as a barometer to compare rides in my training diary. On this day I was sure that I was going much slower, as that would explain how I didn’t get tired and how my legs felt fresh the whole way. But what the heck, I had a blast and I got my miles in despite the awful weather.

Referencing my bike computer after the ride I was shocked to discover that I had just posted the highest average speed for any of my training rides up to that point. And in the rain! To this day I still find it all a bit perplexing; why I didn’t get tired and how I was able to motor along so fast for so long. What’s more, I have yet to equal that average speed for any training ride of more than an hour. I guess it was a fluke, but it’s a cool memory to reflect on once in a while.

While I don’t fully understand all of what happened that day, I do know what allowed it to happen. Instead of training or simply trying get through a couple of hours on the bike, I just had fun. I lived in joy for those two hours; not training, not working, not trying to be technically correct, not monitoring every nuance of speed and cadence, exertion and recovery. I just enjoyed riding my bike.

In the rain. With waterlogged shoes and socks and with water running into my eyes and droplets covering my riding glasses.

Indifferent.

When I think about that, it reminds me of a quote, attributed to Krishna, that I used to keep in mind back in my karate tournament days:

“Indifferent to pleasure and pain, to gain and loss, to conquest and defeat, thus make ready for the fight.”

Indifference is a good way to describe my approach that day. I was indifferent to everything except the joy of riding the bike. In this case, indifference seemed to make quite a difference.

That was a singular episode on the bike for me, but as a 20-year martial arts student I’ve had many experiences where I “threw my life away” with indifference and realized a clear difference in the experience or the results of an effort. This refers directly to that amazing capacity we all possess that I wrote about last time. Much of that capacity is quiet, omnipresent, and automatic for us. We just have to get into the habit of paying attention. But some of it is revealed only within great agitation or discomfort (I sometimes wonder if I might benefit from working on a design while balancing on the back of a flatbed truck taking a mountain road at 90 mph. Ha!).

Though too few “smart” people I know would hold with such a notion, I’m convinced that no significant human capacity can be realized without great physical effort and in the midst of distress. Thoughtful consideration in comfort and quiet solitude is great and all, but it uses only a portion of our being. It is therefore greatly deficient.

The cliché says that an artist must suffer. I don’t believe an artist must suffer in order to be an artist, but I do believe that suffering is a significant component to superhuman creation. No, it’s more than “believe.” I know it. But it’s not the suffering that is important. It is our response of indifference to the discomfort and then transcendence that allows us to bridge some gap and make some connection to release some spark. Sometimes that spark ignites a blowtorch, sometimes fireworks. Sometimes it ignites a powder keg.

Or sometimes the result is just a joyous, fast ride in the rain. And it’s epic.

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