Monday, March 9, 2009

BEYOND THE THRESHOLD: BREAKTHROUGH

Professional cyclists experience repeated emotional and physical challenges and breakthroughs in a 3-week race

SPRING: BICYCLE RACING RETURNS. As spring approaches, professional bicycle racing is ratcheting up. The Tour of California has been raced. Now the focus returns to European spring cycling events--all prequels to the triple crown of cycling: The three-week dramas of the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy), Tour de France, and Vuelta e Espana (Tour of Spain). Cycling in Europe is a bit like NASCAR here. It is followed closely by millions of fans, is a major sporting news story, and is heavily sponsored by major corporations.

I SIGNED UP FOR THIS? One can only imagine what goes through the mind of a professional cyclist in the middle of a pack of 180 riders in the middle of a 2,000-mile race being contested thousands of miles from home. The glory is going to a handful of incredibly gifted athletes. The others cyclists, called domestiques, are jostling to promote or protect or serve the team leader. They must think: “I signed up for this? Why am I spending myself out here in the middle of the French countryside anyway?”

WHAT POSSESSED ME? I think similar things when I am bone weary out on the far end of a long bike ride that seemed like an inspired and glorious idea just two hours earlier. The night before, I am anticipating the glory of the early morning across the fields and hills. The morning comes, and I am anxious to get on the bike and go where I haven’t gone before. Midway through the ride, I am wondering whatever possessed me to wear myself out this way.

HOW MANY THRESHOLDS? Those thoughts and feelings usually subside—or are eclipsed—before the end of my long trek. But my own mid-ride emotions make me wonder about the emotional journey of a participant in a 3-week effort like the Tour de France. How many emotional thresholds does a rider confront in that 23-day grind? How many breakthroughs? How many times are riders confronted with the limits of their physical abilities and begin to question their sanity? How do they persevere? What motivates them endure both tedium and pain?

JOURNALING THE JOURNEY. Some cyclists journal their way through the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Vuelta e Espana, and other multiple-stage races. I enjoy reading their entries online at http://www.velonews.com/ and http://www.cyclingnews.com/. Usually written in the evening after a long day in the saddle, these brief posts get us inside the head and heart of a professional cyclist and yield interesting insights.

INTERNAL BREAKTHROUGH. Many athletes, not just cyclists, live for the challenge of pushing their abilities to the edge of their known capacities. There, being confronted with resistances in their minds and limits of their physical stamina, they often push beyond a barrier into unknown territory. Doubt yields to possibility. Pain yields to energy. Fear yields to courage. They find something on the other side that is akin to a transcendent experience. High athletic achievement may be the outward outcome, but breakthrough is the internal reward.

SOMETHING AKIN TO GRACE. Continuous confrontation with emotional, relational, spiritual, or physical thresholds is not just the stuff of athletes. It is a way of life for all who want to grow. Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, The Different Drum, and other bestsellers, wrote that our challenge should not be to avoid such intersections or crises in our lives, but to see how many we can experience—and learn and grow through—in a lifetime. This runs counter to the static, pain-avoidance posture many people, including Christians, expect or embrace. Those who live forwardly in the face of fear, pain, and limitations often find a buoyancy on the other side, something sometimes described as “grace.”

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