Continuing Education

The Daily Grind

My gruelling bike ride up a mountain strikes me as a metaphor for life

By Curtis Gillespie, ’85 BA(Spec)

Sometimes a life philosophy is clear and logical. When it works, you feel it, you live it, you can describe it and, just as importantly as you get older, you remember it. But sometimes that philosophy is a hairball you pull from the shower drain in your kids’ bathroom. There’s no point trying to untangle it because, even if you could, the only thing you’d get out of it is a different kind of mess.

So rather than trying to unravel a hairball for you, I’m going to share some recent observations and hope they add up to a column. Hey, this is continuing education, not applied math. Nobody said the edges have to line up. Although now that we’re on this line of inquiry, I do wonder why it’s called continuing education? That term implies there’s a customary point at which we discontinue learning. What has always struck me about the phrase is that not only can we potentially learn new things in life — a skill, a talent, a love — but we continue to uncover new insights into things we thought we already knew. This might explain why I feel as if I’m still an apprentice, while friends in other careers are thinking about retiring. I feel like I’m just starting to figure this gig out! Does that mean I’m open to new experience and insight or a bit slow on the uptake? Or both?

But let me tell you about something I’ve been doing for five decades, and that I continue to rediscover: cycling. Is there anything more wonderful? Our COVID-19 days, awful as they’ve been, have nevertheless sparked a cycling renaissance. My friend Cliff, who owns and operates a bicycle sales and service shop in Edmonton, tells me that 2020 was possibly the busiest summer in the store’s two-plus decades. Why? Simple. Because there is nothing more perfect than cycling, and being forced outside is helping people remember that. You get to explore your landscape under your own power. And look at the machine. A design so elegant, so suited to its purpose, that the bicycle’s essential structure has not changed since its invention roughly two centuries ago. At times cycling can be hard, exhilarating or relaxing. For me, cycling is at its most poetic when I lightly freewheel down a very slight decline, maybe a one per cent grade, and the effort feels effortless.

I was pondering both of these things — the beauty of cycling and the question of whether I’d continued learning through my life experiences — while I was mid-climb up the steepest section of Apex Mountain near Penticton in the summer. I was there on holidays with my family. Our friends Rich and Charlotte joined us, and I set out with them one day to ride Apex, a climb of almost 30 kilometres, most of the last 10 of which are at a 10 per cent or better grade. It is a genuinely punishing ride. Canadian Cycling magazine once deemed it worthy of the Tour de France.

We were a third of the way up the hardest section, about seven kilometres from the summit, when I had a sudden urge to quit — though it wasn’t truly sudden, in that it built the same way you feel pain increase in a muscle before it tears. My psyche had been under strain for an hour or so prior to that moment. A climb like this is a massive physical effort, a brawl between weight, fitness and gravity with your brain as the referee. And if you weigh a bit too much (ahem), it’s often not a fair fight. I could see Rich and Charlotte trundling away ahead when I started to think things like: You’ve already been climbing for a couple of hours, surely that’s enough of a workout. I’m on holidays, not at boot camp. If pain is weakness leaving the body then I’m happy being weak. Did I just see Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the woods, or am I hallucinating?

But then I did something that I have since attributed to an aspect of character.

I put my head down. I started grinding. I started telling myself different things, hopefully not too loudly. Just turn the pedals, the top is coming. At one point, I was so zoned in that I cycled past Rich and Charlotte, who had stopped to get some water and wait for me, though the word “past” implies a speed that was non-existent.

This is not a standard tortoise-and-hare fable, so the metaphor isn’t quite as obvious as you might think. Anyway, if tortoise-and-hare lessons were that obvious, we’d all apply them, but we don’t. This is why the crash diet to lose 10 pounds in two weeks is more popular than trying to lose 10 pounds over two years. It’s why get-rich-quick schemes proliferate and Ponzi schemes always find another sucker. It’s why we fetishize love at first sight instead of attributing true value to building a relationship over time.

The insight I gained from the metaphor wasn’t that I’d managed to overcome my doubts and climb Apex by just grinding it out, putting my head down and pedalling, even if the pedals were turning so slowly at times I nearly toppled over from the lack of forward momentum. No, the insight came later, after a couple of craft ales and a nice meal. It hit me that what I did that day on Apex was more or less how I’ve got through life. I put my head down and don’t stop until I get somewhere, even if it takes forever and doesn’t look at all impressive while I’m in the middle of it.

Just about every good thing in my life has been the result of application over talent, including most of my relationships. When I write, it’s slow, tedious and painful. And rewarding. When I work out and play sports, it’s usually slow, tedious and unexciting. When I cook, I like to let things simmer for hours. Even when making a cocktail, fussing over detail and belabouring the process somehow always seems the right way to do it. I recently fixed my mum’s old Pfaff sewing machine. I had to take the whole thing apart to figure out that the motor pulley needed replacing. I had to order the part from Germany. It took many hours and I loved every single minute of it. I’ve been working on a new book for years and it’s basically done, but I don’t want to let go of it because I like working on it. I guess I might as well just admit it — I’m a plodder, a grinder, a tortoise.

There is a school of thought that society’s great ideas and achievements have emanated from a creator’s intense burst of energy and focus. It’s a theory that partly explains our love of the young genius, the phenom. The younger and more talented, the more our awe and amazement. But is it really the greater achievement? It makes me think about the connection between talent and perseverance.

When I was in university, a friend of mine was the star of stars. There wasn’t anything he wasn’t good at. He got brilliant marks and played on a couple of varsity athletic teams. He was an excellent amateur musician. He could write and cook. He was handsome and witty. You’d think I’d have avoided him for fear of developing an inferiority complex, but he was also fun and generous.

But here’s the thing: he never became prime minister or a rock star or a famous athlete or a brain surgeon, all of which might have been foretold by the early promise of his embarrassment of riches.

I have often wondered why, always reaching the conclusion that he was simply so gifted he never had to work that hard to win a race. Maybe he was just so good at everything he preferred not to focus on one thing. Musician, academic, athlete: it was like he didn’t want to choose between them, so he never had to put his head down and grind for a result.

I, on the other hand, knew all about grinding. It was all I had. When I left high school, I was short, round, spotty, unathletic, had barely scraped into university, couldn’t play an instrument, thought cuisine meant ketchup with my Kraft Dinner and believed Hogan’s Heroes to be high art (actually, I kind of still do). I was, to put it kindly, late developing into my career. I’m not suggesting that what I do is more or less valuable than other occupations, but I know for certain that wherever I am in life and career, it has been the result of grinding it out. It has taken an Apex climb nearly every day to put my head down and hope something good happens.

But, as I said, this isn’t a true tortoise-and-hare story. Because I eventually got to the top of Apex, turned the bike around and, man, did I fly! The bliss of downhill freewheeling kicked in and I loved it all the more because it was the grinding that got me up there. I knew I’d get to the bottom soon enough and have to start grinding all over again, but for a while I just pointed the bike downhill and let gravity be my friend for a change.

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