Friday, 14 March 2014

Be my hero!

There's been quite a bit of getting on my bike when I'm not quite in the mood lately. Once I've launched myself into the wet, the cold or the dark (and sometimes a combination of all three), I've had time to think about the people who overcome their circumstances, and in some cases, themselves. My heroes.

I'm lucky to have grown up with a couple of genuine, copper-bottomed, real-life heroes. The kind of people who make heroism sound really quite everyday. My Dad tried to escape from Cold War East Germany; succeeding, after several audacious attempts, with sheer, unadulterated, nerve. My Mum's blithe oblivion to temporal and topographical realities and her constant refusal to bow to political realities or the space time continuum made us a family, on this side of the Iron Curtain.

I've known many more - both in life and sports. These are there the people I meditate on, wonder about how they see the world, how they do what they do. There is one single unifying feature; strength of spirit which defies the set of circumstances.

Preparation is one thing but it's the nerve, the audacity and the sheer belief that pushes us beyond what we're sure we can do into the realm of uncertainty and amazing achievement. Where we're both fragile, vulnerable and awe-inspiring.

I was lucky to have sat at the knees of the late, great, John North, drinking in stories of the Three Peaks Cyclocross race, racing in Belgium; the Paris Roubaix and the local 'cross scene.
'Well, I looked round at the top of Ingleborough and the three Swiss chaps were still hot on my heels, so I had to go to plan B'
'What was that John?'
'Well, to run up Whernside as well'.
He was talking about running up the near vertical side of Simon Fell, dropping down the other side and running straight up to the next summit. With a bike on his shoulder. No wonder he won. And the question 'what would John North do?' still prompts an extra mile or an extra push out of us whether training or racing.

Sporting heroes are wonderful (and I have glowed with joy at the achievements of the British women's cycling team) but it's the amazing things my friends and contemporaries do that truly spur me on. Some of their achievements are world-class. Others may seem more everyday. But they're still important. They make me picture myself trying that bit harder. Reminding myself not to be narrow, not to stop considering new challenges and absolutely definitely not to give up.

Jane, who trained and prepared meticulously to ride the famous deep winter Arrowhead endurance race, completing all 135 miles of the trail in extraordinarily cold conditions (down to -55ÂșC!). Tiny and slight, she had to do a series of 10 second sprints just to keep warm. Her description of her ride terrified me, but she rode, and trudged for 34 hours to be the first European lady ever to finish the course. A ride in which more people failed to finish than actually completed it.

Jane's one of a crazy crew of people who think that racing on mountain bikes for 24 hours (or longer) is a perfectly normal weekend activity. I bow to her - and other 24 hour racers I know - like the redoubtable Amy,  irrepressible Jason and genially stoic John Pitchers who recount their tales of racing through long nights, deep mud, hard rocks and all weathers.

They almost make it look too easy though - easy for people who inhabit a world apart. It's the people like Lisa, a woman I normally know as a beautiful and well-dressed customer, devoted mum and supporter of her 'cross riding husband and son, taking on her first 24 hour mountain bike race who make me think. Seeing her standing, make-up-less and full of fear on the handover line but absolutely determined to do her lap, instantly made her into a hero to me.

My business partner, Nicola, is a crack road runner who has juggled her children, our business and her own fitness. Getting back into form after the birth of her first son was such a challenge. Fitting in training and especially achieving a racing weight. But after a few attempts (and still not clipping below the goal she'd set herself) she won a race for the first time in her life at 31.

They're all there to remind me not to limit myself. Fear and self-doubt are there to be overcome, and it's amazing what you can achieve.

Then there are the people who don't let circumstances stand in their way.

My first landlady, Bridget, in my 20s, who as a teenager recovered from polio to resume training and become a professional dancer. The doctors told her she'd never dance again and would always walk with a limp. If you were very perceptive, you might still notice her slight limp, but dance she did. John Pitchers, the 24 hour racer, who has repaired himself, mind and body, after being thoroughly broken by a driver not paying attention. Another friend Liz, not giving up on life when struck by a severe mental illness and inching her way back to reality and happiness. Lately, my friend Sarah who has got back onto her mountain bike after a severe rupture of her shoulder joint. We ride together with Kat, who wheezes her way up every climb, asthma inhaler in backpack, just in case.

And a friend who only just held onto life after he broke his neck when he fell awkwardly during a bike ride; Michael Bonney. He lives on a ventilator, unable to move from the neck down. Yet he's not given in to despair. He has kept on adapting technology until he can use voice operated computers to work, keep up with friends and squeeze every possibility out of the limitations which have been set for him.

We need these people around us to show use the way to do things - the people who face adversity and deal with it. When every day is a struggle, finding the strength to believe that things will get better and to persevere. That's inspiring.

And closest to home, the person who doesn't crack under pressure. My partner Chipps never loses his head or his sense of humour no matter how hard the circumstances. He seems to draw on special reserves when the going gets tough, cheerily fixing broken things or shepherding broken-spirited people off hill sides.

The people around me set examples - none is perfect but between them they grab life, defy gravity and  push frontiers. A conspiracy of trying, keeping going, keeping smiling; everyday heroism.

As I pedal along, I meditate on this human thing, this glorious web of endeavour and aspiration that provokes one step after another, all our achievements spurring better out of each other.  Each one reminding me that there's a point to keeping on. They all say 'don't give up'. And every little thought that keeps me going past that point or this is important.

I need them, that is you, all of you with your stories, your triumphs and heroics - to help me stick to the plan, persevere and believe that if you all can do it, then I can do it too.

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