It should be obvious that the second fifty miles of a century ride are harder than the first. However, knowing that intellectually doesn’t prepare you for the magnitude of difference. Eight of us began the ride, two of us did the whole thing. Eight people were kind enough, enthusiastic enough, and energized enough to do 50. Two of us were crazy enough to do the full 100. There was something both gratifying and heartbreaking about pulling into the parking lot after riding 50 miles and seeing my friends cooling off and racking their bikes while I stopped, reloaded water bottles, bumped fists with friends, and then rolled out to do the 50 mile course again.
I just finished reading David Shields’ book, The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, a book of facts about aging in the context of the 50 year old author coming to understand his 97 year old Energizer bunny of a father. It’s jammed full of raw statistical data about neuronal changes, bone density loss, cognitive function, and all the physical changes that come from the cradle to the inevitable punch line of birth. Both Shields and his father are sports writers and lifelong athletes, both had their professional dreams of sportsmanship dashed either by injury, accident, or ability. It’s strangely light reading for a book about coming to terms with mortality, which is a compliment to Shields’ writing that he can craft a book about something that terrifies so many of us into a series of jocular essays.
My own death terror is a constant companion, a raw nerve I can reach out and pluck any time I want to palpitate my heart or wake my wife from sleep when I accidentally induce a panic attack. It’s like a canker sore in the mouth best left alone, but still the tongue seeks it out and presses hard delivering pain and pleasure. The masochist’s kiss, the sweetness of sting, a tiny hit of dopamine.
The first fifty years of life can go by in a blur, so focused we become on our goals, our lives, our vibrancy, our emotional peaks. The second fifty are much harder, everything progressively hurts more, and mechanical functions are more difficult working against the breakdown of muscle tissue and connective joints. The wisdom gained in the first half makes you all too aware of what is happening and you spend more and more time recalling the first fifty years with greater pleasure. My grandmother, who is 89, is happy to be alive but she’d be happier if she could walk without pain and read without falling asleep. Her mind is as sharp as ever and, like many elderly, her present tense is a medical litany so it’s easier to talk about her past. The first fifty.
At mile 70 I went off the road. One moment I was pedaling along, thinking about how this northern section of PCH is the best part – mostly flat, nasty winds, but still not the ugly rollers and hills of Malibu. The next moment I was off-road, my tires sliding on gravel, my heart racing. I slowed my pedaling, unclipping my left foot in case I was going to fall, and managed to navigate back onto the road. I clipped back in and accelerated. When my grandmother was in her 70’s she went into the hospital frequently because she didn’t drink enough water and dehydrated herself. She did this because she only had one bathroom in the house and it was upstairs. As she got older it got harder to go upstairs so she simply stopped drinking. I went off the road because I had slowed down my drinking, which was also my source of calories and nutrition. It caught up with me in my 70’s when I came close to bonking. I thought, “I gotta take better care of myself”, and focused on drinking every five minutes. Eat by the clock, not by the stomach. In the second fifty food just doesn’t taste the way it did in the first fifty, and eating becomes a chore not a pleasure.
In my 80’s, I was thinking about the end. Not far now, just push the rest out. 80 is the new 60, find the legs, find the energy and go. Quitting at 80 is just sad – if you can make it to 80 you can make it to 100. The scenery faded away, even the crashing waves and rocky shores of Malibu lost their luster. I’d seen it all before – even for the fourth time that day. Try getting someone in their 80’s out of the house and you’ll find someone who has seen it all and is no longer impressed.
In the 90’s I became my grandmother completely. All my friends were gone, and I was ready to join them. All my grandmother’s sisters lived to 90, and that is her goal. She turns 90 a week after Ironman Arizona and I was game to fly out immediately after to celebrate her birthday. It looks like family has pushed that celebration to December, making the old lady wait even longer to celebrate the one goal she’s had in mind for years. In my 90’s every pedal stroke was a conscious act, ever breath was focused and intentional, each mile was an accomplishment.
When the end finally came it was blissful relief to be done. Which made the act of putting on running shoes that much crazier. Twenty minutes of running around the park while children played little league baseball. Coach Brian and I ran like hobbled over old men, after almost six hours of riding in aero position the lower back does not like being asked to run. To add to this visual, Brian wore a triathlon singlet, basically a onesie for grownups. I was in bike shorts, a giant pad between my legs. There we were, two old men in diapers and onesies running around a park of children oblivious to the fact that we are all, every one of us, dying.
I cannot see death as a transition area. I don’t believe in the afterlife because the very idea of a soul seems egotistical and contrary to how the universe functions. I did not exist for an infinite amount of time before, and I will cease to exist for an infinite amount of time after my death. I find no comfort in seeing death as a transition from one state of being to another because it is the cessation of being me (ironically I’ve spent parts of my life wishing I were someone else). I can only hope that my death comes after a very long life, one filled with experiences and joys, ups and downs. As Arlo Guthrie said, “you can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in”. If my life is the light in the dark around my non-existence, then my end will be my own personal finish line. It may not be the end of a century ride, but more just a period at the end of a sentence.