Monday, October 19, 2009

Finding my hero...

As many of you know, I have recently taken up indoor cycling as an amazing way to crank up my cardiovascular training. Things were getting a bit boring on the elliptical machine at the gym, so I went to a spinning class, and got hooked instantly. I wrote about it in a recent blogpost, and since then have grown more and more excited by the prospects of getting stronger and better at this new activity. I suppose that one of the reasons why I get such a great kick out of it is because I feel like I'm part of a community of sorts. I know that many people participate in exercise classes, go through the motions, and don't necessarily feel any sort of connection to the people around them. But there are many people who do... so let me tell you about why the people who sweat by my side are such an important part of my journey.

In my previous post about spinning, I talked about what it's like to do a ride with a group of other spinners. The energy is palpable, and sometimes the shared sense of dread can be kind of intense. But at the end of the hour, you take a look around and see the satisfaction and pride on everyone's faces that you had accomplished something -- that somehow today, you worked harder than you did the day before, and you're a better person for having done so. That's such a huge part of what drives me to go to a class 4 or 5 days a week now -- yes the workout is fantastic, but the sense of community is close to spectacular.

Over the past year or so, I had also taken up a kickboxing class -- a weekly meeting of some people at my gym who hammered out some amazing kicking and punching sequences on a couple of WaveMaster bags. The class was fantastic, but over the past few weeks, I haven't been totally feeling it. I've gone, I've punched, I've kicked, I've sweated. I've done everything the instructor told me to do (and then some), but I wasn't feeling that great at the end of it all. And it is only in reflecting upon my spinning classes that I have begun to understand why.

Sebastien and I were talking about this very topic this past week, and we both realized that to a great extent, this journey has been a pretty solitary one for me over the past 18 months. Yes, I have tremendous supporters and people behind me every step of the way, but most times I am alone for a few hours at the gym cranking out my weightlifting or hammering through a run on the treadmill. It was only in the past few months that I started working out with other people -- my weekly runs with Alison and Lisa were not only a wonderful way to train for our 5km road race, but also a wonderful opportunity to shift the paradigms of some of my relationships. My friendships over the past year are no longer centred around social connections that focus on dining out or going for drinks. In many ways, my social connections happen more in the context of physical health and fitness, and that's a very empowering way for me to no longer feel so alone in this battle.

Where does spinning fit into all of this? Well, I have learned that I am at a point where the physical challenge of indoor cycling is defined by two things and two things alone: the extent to which I can crank up the physical resistance on the bike, and my mental/emotional willingness to actually do so. And there have been days (like today) when all I want to do is go to a class, take it easy, and blend into the background. But when you get a group of people around you who are cranking their dials, hopping out of their saddles, and grunting and cheering -- you can't help but get motivated by that. And at Legacy Indoor Cycling, having Andy pounding out the routine on his own bike to the music pumping from the speakers, you cannot resist the urge to crank up the dial and try to win the race -- the race between you and your body.

But last Friday, I was reminded how this is more than just a race between me and my body. As much as Andy challenges us to 'break the bike' and hammer it out as hard as we can, indoor cycling is about more than just pushing the actual limits of my physical capabilities, it's about continuing to push the limits of what I actually think I can do.

And winning the race against my own mind is often the toughest one to win.

You see, part of why I started indoor cycling is because my friend Jonathan has challenged me to join him on the 2010 Friends for Life Bike Rally -- a 600km bike ride over 5 days from Toronto to Montreal. I told him I'd do it, but shortly thereafter began to freak out about how I was going to train for it. Enter indoor cycling -- and Jonathan has now started joining me at spinning classes, along with another rider friend of his, Andrew. Jonathan also promised (tonight in fact... so note the date) that he would join me for the half-marathon next October if I rode with him next July. Perfect. And to be honest, observing the training that John did last summer, along with how he used the experience of the ride (which raised close to $1-million for programs/service for people living with HIV/AIDS) to connect himself to one of the most significant health issues facing not only the gay community, but people everywhere... well, watching all that happen was pretty inspirational. And my spinning class last Friday night helped me remember that fact.

Last Friday was a bit of a special day. Normally I would do two of Andy's classes back to back (incredible workout of well over 1500 calories!). But last Friday, James Gekko (a Schwinn Master Trainer, and a bit of a spinning guru) was teaching the second class. So I went to Andy's class at 5:30, which he claimed was the 'fluffer' class -- a warm up for what James had in store for us at 6:30. And he promised us that what we would experience in James' class would be pretty spectacular.

And it was.
But not for the reasons that I thought it would be.

Physically, it was challenging. But again, the extent to which I challenge myself in a spinning class is determined by my dial, and my desire to crank it up. The instructor is the coach -- encouraging you on, and helping you visualize what it's like to take it to the next level. But the 'work' happens on the bike.

On Friday evening, a lot of 'work' happened in my head.

James started the class with a great warm-up (I was already warm from Andy's class, which in keeping with his reputation, was not at all easy) and then took us through three different rides. Rides consist of a series of terrains (hills, steep climbs, flat road, mud, rapid declines) that are simulated by how you position your body and how manipulate the resistance on your bike. Now, I don't recall the physicality of the terrains -- because again, it wasn't the physical experience that resonated with me most. It was what I visualized along the way that was indeed the most powerful.

On the first ride, James (whose soothing coaching style instills great confidence in you as a rider) asked us to close our eyes and imagine riding with our best friend -- riding with someone who you enjoy being with, and whose presence was going to bring you joy. My mind raced through a number of different people who I consider among my closest friends -- some of whom I've never been on a bike with, and others who were in fact by my side that night. But it wasn't them I was thinking about. I began to think about one person in particular. And then I started to feel a bit overwhelmed. So I focused more on the ride and less on the person and hoped that we would quickly move on to the next stage.

Shortly thereafter, James asked us to think about riding against our greatest rival -- the person who was most competitive, who would rub it in our faces if they ever won a race against us, or who would never let us live down the fact that they had pulled ahead on a steep climb. Again, I thought of many people in my life who I have considered rivals -- some of whom I would even consider enemies. And I tried to visualize them riding by my side, each with his/her own sinister look on their face, as they pulled ahead of me, and I powered through the ride to catch up. I overtook every person I pictured in my mind's eye. Victory! But then another rider -- another rival who I never expected to be in the race pulled up behind me, met me shoulder to shoulder, and then powered on ahead of me. This rider's skill, speed and endurance drove me to push harder, pedal faster, and find the desire somewhere to beat him. Eventually, I pulled ahead -- however, feeling even more overwhelmed to the point where I thought I actually had a few tears in my eyes. So I pulled my cap down over my face, and thankfully, James moved on to the next stage in our ride.

In the third stage, he dimmed the lights and described riding at sunset -- at a time when dusk was upon us, and we had to try to make it home before nightfall. It wasn't going to be easy, but riding beside us he asked us to visualize a person who has inspired us -- who has been supportive, encouraging, and who has always been there. Again, I thought of many people -- my friends, my family, my trainer, my spinning instructors, my fellow spinners. I was at no deficit here. I have been surrounded by so many fantastically supportive people over the past 18 months, yet none of them seemed to 'fit' for this last leg of the ride. And then I pictured someone in particular -- riding closely by my side as night fell and as the air got cooler. And having him by my side gave me tremendous confidence... great happiness... tremendous peace. And I'm glad my hat was pulled over my face because at that moment, amid the grunting and sweating of the ride, I really did begin to cry. Not tears of sadness. They were tears of joy. No, I wasn't sobbing... but I had a moment of incredible emotional release when I came to experience great peace about this ride -- about this moment -- about the past 18 months.

Why? Who were these people? Why did they provoke such an emotional response in me?

In all three cases, the other rider was me.

The past 18 months have helped me to grow more close in my relationship with myself -- to better understand who I am, what's important to me, and why I matter. In the past 18 months, I've learned to be my own best friend... and it has helped me be a better friend to those around me.

The past 18 months have helped me to overcome my own self-rivalry -- to appreciate that I need to focus on challenging myself in positive ways, and discourage myself less. I have learned not to rub my face in my own failure, but instead learned to create opportunities for me to experience success.

And finally, the past 18 months have helped me to draw a tremendous amount of inspiration from deep within me. I am surrounded by so much encouragement, support and love that at times, it is indeed overwhelming to imagine. And the energy and inspiration I draw from my fellow spinners each day goes unmatched by any other group fitness experience I've ever had -- and for their energy I am tremendously grateful. But at the end of the day, I have learned to rely more upon myself. To find motivation from my failures, and inspiration from my possibilities. To take the time each day to think about what I am doing and how I can do better -- in every part of my life. I've learned to be my own hero.

And I've never felt more at peace.

At the end of the ride with James, we did our stretching and cool-down, and I quietly went to the locker-room to change. Once back in my civvies, I made my way out of the studio -- and I normally take a few moments after each class to chat with Andy and thank him for a good class. But on Friday night, I threw on my coat, tossed on my hat, gave a quick wave to those who remained in the studio and made my way home. I wasn't yet in a place to begin to truly articulate how important that class was to me. I knew it had been a powerful experience, but I couldn't really describe why. So, I didn't get a chance to thank Andy or James right away. But I hope that what I've described in this blogpost conveys how grateful I am.

Andy and James

At each class, Andy tells us that this is a race between us and our bodies. After Friday night, and at every class since, I am mindful of the fact that it has the potential to be a bigger race than that. Just like my 5km run, this experience of personal transformation is a race against my physical, emotional and cognitive self. And it's a race I know I win each and every day. Because after every workout -- weight training, kickboxing with Sebastien, running on the boardwalk, walking the dog, or spinning at Legacy...

I know I've won because I smile the whole way home.
Doesn't get much better than that.

Kia kaha.
Stay strong.