Two weekends ago I laid on a table, knees dangling, back arching for seven hours to get my knees tattooed. If I wasn’t a cyclist, I don’t think my body or my mind would have had the stamina to last. In seven hours, I can ride 100 miles unassisted. This was a different pain but it took the same techniques: breathing, focus, and determination.
Cycling has taught me to breathe through every challenge. Watch racers. Watch their mouths. The way they breathe is entirely different from how a recreational rider breathes. Their breathing technique is learned. It’s not inherently known. The whole point is maximizing their intake of oxygen.
Two Sundays ago, getting my knees tattooed, I was trying to maximize my pain threshold. I repeated to myself over and over and over again: this isn’t going to last forever. I counted to five breathing in, held my breath for another five, and exhaled. Not even finished with the right knee, I began having second thoughts about the left knee.
It reminded me of the first I competed in a time trial. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. My legs and knees were sore, my lungs burned, and I was racing against an unknown time. And I had to force myself to keep going; to forget the exhaustion and burning and riders passing me. I wanted to stop, give up, get off my bike, and spew all my insecurities on the grass. But I didn’t. Maybe it was pride and perhaps that’s why I didn’t tell Jessica to stop.
I knew though, if I quit, I’d regret that more than if I just endured.
I was smiling and chatting away with Chris and Jessica as she drilled the needle into my patella. I even laughed a few times, which probably shook my knees a little and made Jessica’s job tougher.
Talking is a great and often forgotten tool for distraction.
The Double Triple Bypass is a two-day bike ride covering 240 miles, 6 mountain passes, and gaining something like 20,000 feet in elevation. I could have done it alone, sure, but it was better with Jared. We talked enough through the 16 hours to distract me from my worn legs, aching arse, and swollen lungs.
I learned that if I talked enough and distracted myself enough with words and laughter that I could get through and over any mountain pass.
So I talked and laughed and grinned while Jessica grinded her needle around my kneecap.
Pearl Izumi’s motto is “endure and enjoy.” They’re a sport apparel (run, cycling, triathlon) company, but I use them for cycling jerseys, chamois, shoes, and well, anything that I find. Once, in an order, they sent me this, well, plug looking thing that is screwed on to the top of the headset where it meets the stem of the bike with the words “endure and enjoy” imprinted on it. It laid around my house for quite a while until I finally took out the plain black one and screwed in the inspirational Pearl Izumi plug.
As I laid on the tattoo table, I thought to myself, “I have to endure the pain to enjoy the result.” When a course or route is challenging on the bike and I look down, almost in defeat, I see my “endure and enjoy” plug and remember that I’ll enjoy looking back on the ride. There’s never been a ride I regretted. Many a time I’ve fought with mental exhaustion and defeatist thoughts, but I’ve always endured. Again, it could be mostly pride because I refuse to be considered a quitter. Even the first time I rode 100 miles, I refused to quit. Even when I’ve had bike problems, crashed, ran out of food or water, I’ve continued. I’ve endured. Then I enjoyed.
As always, us cyclists wish each other to keep the rubber side down. Should you find yourself flying over your handlebars, veering off course, climbing a 10% grade, or getting a tattoo on the top of your knees, remember to stay determined and keep breathing.