χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά. ‘Hard are the good things.’
I remember the day my beloved Greek professor, Jerry Hawthorne, taught us that the Greeks had understood ‘No pain, no gain’ long before it became a truism of our culture. Decades ago at Wheaton College, Jerry warned us that life’s achievements, improvements, and ennobling experiences—learning Greek, for example—would not come easily.
Gasping for breath, lungs and legs searing on yet another climb on a rented Trek Madone, the truth comes home with all the concreteness in the world.
John and Todd—fellow journeyers, breakfast-table philosophers—have been at this biking thing for a while. I have known for a year that I must join them, even before we covenanted to ride together twice a year for as long as body and mind remain intact. Yet I have dawdled.
Not the dawdling of inaction but the frenzied dilly-dallying of too little focus and too much to do. So I arrived at Asheville, North Carolina’s charms unprepared for the physical and mental challenge of this first time out on the road with the guys. And knowing it.
The guys would have a little mercy but hardly any sympathy. The first ten miles were a delightful afternoon cruise along even terrain on the east side of French Broad River. Pausing for coffee at Marshall, North Carolina’s Zuma Café, I entertained the notion that if the guys continued to take things in relaxed form, I’d be able to keep up with them. At the moment, the thought had all the comforting qualities of a long, warm bath. From the vantage point of this morning after, it seems a vain, even villainous delusion. ‘Keeping up’ were to prove risible words, a kind of echoing, cackling mockery on a gorgeous afternoon.
Crossing over the succulently-named French Broad, I met my first hills. We don’t have hills in Indiana. Not hills like these.
Todd and John soon became dots on the horizon, then dots that used to be on the horizon.
I pedaled and pedaled, determined not to step off the Madone. Delightful small farms stood roadside. Dogs lolly-gagging in yards turned lazily to view my gradual passage and wonder at its near absence of motion.
I pedaled on, lungs and thighs screaming for more reasonable treatment.
From time to time, I’d come upon Todd and John, waiting for me by the roadside and assuring me that I was doing great, that they hadn’t expected this much, that surely I must feel good about all this.
I did not but, having been schooled by life and circumstance to become a small-time master of postponed gratification, knew that in time I would.
On the worst climb, John pedaled beside me, yelling at me to slow down my pedaling and let my legs do the work in order to slow my heart down. Briefly, I hated him. He’s a life-long friend and one of humanity’s finest exemplars. But I never deserved this at his hand.
When my thighs cramped up and my legs went rigid, I briefly bailed. ‘Electrolytes’, Todd calmly explained. ‘Every biker eventually cramps up like this. Eat an electrolyte bar and in two minutes you’ll be fine.’
Now the word ‘fine’ under these conditions is patient of unusual connotations. I conclude that it means ‘able re-remount and pedal towards your imminent death’.
However, the final downhill sprint came before death did, then another soft cruise along the French Broad (good grief, I like the name of that river), then Ledge’s Park, our cars, some photos, the ride back to the hotel, a shower, a shave to remove the five-years-worth of facial hair that had appeared on my sunken visage over the previous four hours, a steak, and some planning for today’s ride and the ones after that.
χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά. The good things are difficult. Yet they are good.
I’m going back out there.