Last November, I wrote a post outlining my goals for the 2009 ride season. They were ambitious but reasonable, focused on building my horses’ athletic foundations on plenty of moderately-paced miles. I remember sensing, as I gave the post a title perilously close to the famous words of Robert Burns, that my hopes for the year might be too high. I called it The Best Laid Plans.
Indeed, 2009 has proven a year of schemes gang aft agley.
One evening in March, mere hours after an exhilarating conditioning ride that left my nerves singing, I found Aaruba colicking in his paddock. Thus began a week-long ordeal that culminated in the wrenching decision to retire my young, talented partner — the horse with whom I’d bonded deeply over years of training — from the sport we both love.
I turned my attention to Consolation, believing that I could at least have her trained and fit for several races throughout the season. But it was slow going. Our relationship, never smooth, was further challenged by my grief over Aaruba. Switching from faithful Aaruba to willful, balky Consolation felt much like adopting a puppy too soon after Ol’ Jake dies in your arms. I struggled to remain patient, consistent, and hopeful for my new endurance prospect.
And then, just as it looked like Consolation and I would be ready for her first race in May, I tore my right hamstring in a bad fall. Ten weeks, said my physical therapist. Then maybe you can ride again. And so, hours in the saddle were replaced by hours of icing and stretching, coaxing my damaged muscles back to health. Finally, at the beginning of July, I was ready to mount up. The ride season was half over and Consolation remained green and unconditioned — but have you noticed that there’s never anywhere to start but here? We began again.
Meanwhile, however, other plates were shifting in my personal life, setting off earthquakes to distract me from my goals. Most of you have either been the one, or been close to someone, to walk into the courthouse and sign the papers that say we made a mistake or I’m not who you thought I was, or even I love you enough to let you go. You know that even when the attitude is amicable, it’s never easy.
No, never easy — but sometimes, it’s for the best.
One of my favorite things about endurance conditioning is that it gives a person plenty of time to think. Rhythmic hoofbeats, steady physical effort, open space and air. Endless trail spins spins out before us, mile on mile, freeing our minds to connect the dots in our lives, linking high points of pleasure and pain to form a picture worth posting on the walls of memory.
Life, after all, is not so different from endurance riding, at least for those willing to approach it with energy and enthusiasm. Most of the time, it’s full of fun and companionship, brilliant with adventure, a ceaseless exploration of what it means to be alive.
But there are hard times, too. Stone bruises. Tumbles. Training problems. Mistakes. Times when, despite our best efforts, the trail just seems too long. Sometimes, the last twelve miles are almost more than we can bear. And yet, we keep going because we know the loop will end and when we finish, friends will be waiting to clap and cheer and throw their arms over our shoulders, press energy bars into our hands, to ask us how it went and what we learned.
And because the race was hard, we will have something to tell them.
Endurance is about pressing on when it would be easier to quit, when there’s nothing to make you finish but sheer commitment and the knowledge that you will only be satisfied with yourself when you’ve done your best, and a little more, and even more than that — whatever it takes to do what you promised. It’s about remembering, when the trail seems endless and your knees ache and you swear you’ll never do this again, that most of the ride is about speed and breath and bonding, spectacular vistas, thrill and timing, glistening sweat and pain that serve to sweeten the evening’s rest.
Ultimately, who wants to get to the end of the trail without a story to tell? If it wasn’t a challenge, it wouldn’t be endurance. It wouldn’t be life. I, for one, am determined to embrace the hard times. Without them, I wouldn’t know what triumph really is.
Photo by East End Portrait Photography
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