Ask any endurance athlete why they do the century rides, marathons, ultra runs, or ironman triathlons, and you will typically hear how rewarding it is to test one’s limits and summon all the physical and mental strength to get through a course. Often times, the everyday athletes achieve goals that they didn’t think were possible and find this extremely rewarding. They expand their horizons and the limits of their inner strength in the meantime.
For me, while endurance rides and runs have given me the mental toughness that translated into other areas of my life, there is another aspect of endurance training that has been just as rewarding, if not more. That is the unique precious friendships that come from going the distance together. Your ride buddy whom you meet at 6 am while others are sleeping… Your running partner who doesn’t cancel on you just because it’s cold and rainy… The conversations that get you through the stress at work, tough spots in your marriage, and the problem-du-jour with your kids.
There is something about endurance friendships that tear down the boundaries of other adult friendships. I am certain that endurance athletes are the one group of people who discuss bodily fluids — of all sorts — nearly as much as parents of newborns do. Bathroom breaks behind bushes? Commonplace. Bloody blisters? Spit up sports drinks? These conversations wouldn’t even phase an endurance buddy.
I still remember the ride I did in Princeton, NJ one February nearly 15 years ago with my friend Colin. Uncharacteristically, it had been a solid 3 week stretch with temperatures well below freezing and one day we decided we had enough of the trainer and by god we were going to do the 70 miler we had planned on, no matter the weather. Despite all the clothing, my toes were frozen solid by mile 50. I could pedal but was slowing down. He literally pushed me with a hand on my back on and off the last 20 miles and rubbed my toes with cold water until feeling returned to them when we were finally back.
I was training for my first triathlon that winter. When Colin took me and my husband on our first ride when we had first moved to Princeton, I still had my $250 hybrid bike that I had used for commuting through grad school. Colin, who was a very high level cyclist, with regional records and years of training cycling teams, didn’t tell me I couldn’t possibly do a triathlon on that piece of junk. He didn’t once act bored on our group rides when we averaged 13 mph. He encouraged us; he introduced us to better gear; he helped us train. (And that Christmas, my husband left my first road bike under the tree — a beautiful red Trek that I still have). My cycling, and our precious friendship, developed over the many miles we rode together for several years.
I always knew I could never pay Colin back. But my heart sank when he was diagnosed with an advanced and very aggressive cancer a few years ago and I felt that slim opportunity slipping from my hands for good. We were living in Tucson by this point, he in California, and we weren’t going to be able to go for one last ride together.
It was during that time that a good friend in Tucson told me he had registered for his first half-ironman race. Nothing unusual about that, except that this friend, whom I’m going to call John, was about 50 lbs overweight, had never run more than 2 miles in his life, didn’t own a bike, and wasn’t much of a swimmer. And had 6 months to the race he had chosen. The logical reaction would have been “You’re crazy. There is no way”. But just like Colin never once said that, we didn’t tell him that. Instead, I sent him training plans to increase mileage as safely as possible. Gave the name of a swim coach he could work with. And we invited him on our group rides, starting at 30 miles and extending to 75+ by the end.
At first we were slowing down, waiting for him at the top of climbs, showing him how to draft. John hung in there… and slowly started to catch up. Still, it was as much a testament to his willpower as it was to those months of training that he finished the half ironman respectably under the cutoff time in Oceanside that spring. He was very proud and so were we.
More than feeling pride, I was grateful that John gave me the opportunity to pass the beauty of an endurance friendship forward. We lost Colin the February of that year. We went on rides to honor him. We dealt with the sadness in the one way we could think of: talking about cycling and remembering our rides. And still, every single time I am at the top of a tough climb and want to just coast down to catch my breath, I hear his voice in my ear: Don’t let up! Change your gear! Pedal! It is as vivid as if he said it yesterday.
Since then, I shared the joy of endurance cycling and running with more friends, newcomers to the sport. One friend ran her first marathon recently. Another did her first triathlon. Through our training, we will keep on sharing the aches and pains and miles and laughter and troubles as we always do… in enduring friendships.
Image credit: Regan Day Albert