The Commute

From - "Stepping Up", by Stu Downs.
Chapter 18 – "The Commute"

"The strangest secret in the world is that you become what you think about.”
Earl Nightingale

I’m usually one for seeing time as being a rather abstract concept. I mean, what are two or three minutes here or there in the larger scheme of things. Is it really the end of the world if something starts a little earlier (or later), or the duration differs to what was expected. At times though it really does matter to us. The reasons for this meaning are often just as important as the event itself, with time being seen for the precious commodity that it is. Whether it is the bus that departed 30 seconds earlier than it should have (meaning you were late for work), or maybe the day you arrived somewhere two minutes earlier than usual and met the person who ended up being the love of your life. Yes, occasionally those intangible fragments of time that sometimes mean very little are worth more than we could have imagined.

An obvious area for focusing on time is sports. Personally, I haven’t paid a huge amount of attention to this aspect of my cycling over the last four and a half years, as greater emphasis has been found in ‘simply’ completing events, with the distances extended in subsequent events to in turn extend myself. There has however been a constant in my life for the last four years that has irked me on more than one occasion. That would be the 30km commute from the Kapiti Coast to Porirua.

It is interesting to note that for someone who has a number of superstitions, (none of which will be elaborated on here!!), I chose Friday the 13th (of May 2005) for my very first commute to work by bike. It was with great trepidation I set off for a great adventure from Kapiti, and hoped that I would make it to the destination in one piece. I did. The previous six months had seen me driving to work scoping the circuit, with great attention focused on every pothole, drain, narrow bridge, or glass strewn portion of the commute to work. I knew the day for commuting by bike would come though. With cycling becoming a larger part of my life I decided to setoff for work with little knowledge as to where the journey would truly take me. No, I would go further than the 30kms each way. Some may say that starting the regular commute to work saw parts of who I was cease to exist, with the rain, winds, dirty roads, and long forgotten discarded rubbish from thoughtless motorists becoming my avenue to work. Commuting no longer acted as a way of staying ‘ahead of the game’, and losing five minutes here or there was never an issue. In fact, my daily highlight often became that (at best) forgettable commute. It would be fair to say that the commute to work slowly turned me into a cyclist.

The rainy days are the best. Sitting at your desk, endorphins buzzing around inside of your head while you take heart in the knowledge that half the challenge is completed for today, and on the way home you’ll do it all again. Then the conversations begin. “Isn’t it awful outside??” “Yes, nasty weather.” “This dreadful run of weather has gone on for days hasn’t it.” None of these comments directed to myself I might add, as the reply, “It’s just water” has ensured I am not explicitly invited into any pointless conversations. In fact, I am sometimes asked, “How do you do it??”

It has not all been happy memories however. It would be fair to say that lycra was not invented by someone who was overweight. It would also be an accurate assessment if I were stay that tight clothing is not particularly flattering for those on the wrong side or 100kg. Or 110kg. Or in my case initially 120kg. So it was, on a day I will always recall, I left my office in full cycling kit, with the style more ‘waddling’ (than walking), and as I reached the door someone gave a wolf whistle. I opened the door and then left the office, never looking back. As the door closed behind me I heard the 20 odd colleague spontaneously burst out laughing. I recalled this moment more than once when training has gotten hard. So when these same people have later asked the question, “How do you do it??” on those rainy, cold and windy days, I have never had the heart to say, “By ignoring you.”

Sitting at my desk then, I looked out the window late in October 2009 and knew that something special could be done this season if I simply believed in myself. Gone are the endurance rides of season’s past, and instead a lifestyle like no other. Triathlon has given me so much since the training started for Ironman back in May of this year. And thus I knew that on this day I would get the rare opportunity to commute home by bike and attempt once again to crack elusive sub-45 minute barrier. For a trip that takes 26 to 28 minutes by car on a good day I had enjoy some tidy times on the way home, with previous attempts at 45 minutes taking 48 minutes and (on two occasions) 46 minutes. However, the previous three days had seen a solo 90km TT ride, a brisk group ride of 20kms, two swims (including a swim over 2kms at pace), and 20kms of running. Oh yeah, the ride into work that morning had been into a strong headwind, and ‘lunch’ consisted of 1,250 meters of swimming. In short, I was tired. No. In short I was pretty much knackered.

As the day progressed the winds died down slightly, but I had a peculiar feeling that this was the day. From my desk at work I surveyed the wind situation, and reminded myself that I was tired, my kit was still sopping wet from the ride into work in the rain, and that it may be best just to cruise home.

The 30kms from Porirua to the Kapiti Coast.

So with legs tired at the start, I ascended a small rise near work and descending down the other side clicked through the gears. A cyclist was ahead. It seemed to take forever to catch him, and I said nothing when I passed him. Looking back seconds later I noted that he was well back and I was sitting on 45kms per hour. I didn’t look back again.

Green lights through the built up residential (and commercial) area of Mana is a must for a decent time. Slowing down and speeding up for a red light wastes time (and energy) on a ride like this, and thus I was fortunate to get green all the way. Despite doing 45-50kms per hour through Mana I was actually holding back slightly, as there was still Pukerua Bay Hill. Additionally, I knew I had a triathlon of sorts in a few short days, so started to think about where my efforts my be best placed.

I had considered that the time needed from work to the top of Pukerua Bay Hill would have to be 17 minutes or less for any chance of the 45 minute mark. Thus reaching the top in 18 minutes I was left knowing that I was now behind the clock. I decided to not push too hard yet however, and enjoyed the winds as I sat on 40-45kms per hour along Centennial Highway, and through to Paekakariki. I reached Paekakariki at 30:06. I had 15 minutes. NOW was the time to push the pace.

The settlement at Pukerua Bay marks 10kms of 30 completed.

In a moment of infinite wisdom I had emptied most of my water (to save weight) going up Pukerua Bay Hill, so none was left. It would now appear I was thirsty, but that could wait. I endured a headwind through to MacKay’s Crossing and over the rail bridge caught the wind once again. Then my mind wandered.

Would this be yet another time I ‘almost made it’?? Was I actually able to finish this off?? Would I ever get this chance again?? Then I thought of how lucky I was for this opportunity. Thoughts of finishing 78th (of 79 starters) for my very first Graperide event just four years earlier. Thoughts of the disappointments and successes that I had experienced on my bike. Thoughts of finding and sometimes losing myself while cycling. Thoughts of the hillside monument I pass on this journey, with a white cross marking the spot where Steve Avery was run over by a truck four years ago. That same spot also marks the place at which I decided to not stop cycling through the winter just because it ‘was cold’.

I thought also about the ‘finish line’ being now ahead of me, and it now seemed that I had time on my side. It always seems easy when you make it, so I wasn’t going to leave things to chance, and ‘squeezed’ between several cars rounding the roundabout and passing through the other side of the roundabout stopped the timer at 44:12. Yes!!!!!

Having commuted the 30kms to work (or back) no less than 451 times now, I knew that this would be the one that will have the fondest memories however. I have thought long and hard about how it would feel. There is, however, nothing glorious about going fast on a bike. It’s hard work. An empty bottle, heavy legs, sore arms, and sweat running through my eyes once again. It is finishing, and not caring about anything (even if just for a few seconds). It is reaching home once again, but this time quicker than the elusive 2700 seconds that I had often hoped for. Most of all though, it is simply...reaching home.

In the larger scheme of things it truly matters to no one but myself what I did on this day, and in a peculiar way I gain some satisfaction from this fact. Like witnessing a sunrise and knowing you’ll never describe it quite like the way it was for those few moments. Yes, this was a special afternoon. Not an outing I will recall forever, but certainly one I’ll smile about while I do.

The Coastal Highway on SH1. (Kapiti is seen in the distance).

Of the 45,103kms I had ridden up until this day, very few of them have seen me thinking that much about others. But this one did. This trip’s struggle, and ultimately my realisation that this ride was about overcoming a mental barrier, was marked by crosses on the 30km stretch of SH1. As I passed each spot where someone had died I was reminded that we all reach our journey’s end, but it is up to each of us to push hard enough to ensure that this also means we reach our desired destinations before time is up. I looked at the crosses, which included the places where ‘Craig’, ‘David’, Hayden Cook, and Steve Avery all reached their end. Regardless of their intention at the journey’s outset, they didn’t get home. They didn’t die in a great battle or in a foreign land defending our freedom. No. They died in our streets and roads of this beautiful country we call New Zealand. They didn’t see Kapiti Island just ‘one more time’, or swim in the ocean one day too far past the warmest part of summer, or (if possible) they never even had the chance to take their lives for granted for another day. As you sometimes do when you live in paradise. This is never forgotten...nor should it be.

I would be lying if I denied having a tear in my eye cycling that last 5kms. Legs aching and the wind now seemingly disappearing when I needed it’s assistance the most. In those moments I became conscious that this may be my one of my last opportunities to crack this intangible barrier. I knew I could finally do it, and wanted to show myself that any thoughts of not being ready were wrong. It was also time to move on. Now I can.

Sometimes it seems life provides clarity to those prepared to look for just long enough to be left with no more than a blurred memory of a moment. Even if it is just an afternoon cycling home from work. Times, efforts, and views aside, as I look back now what I remember the most when I think of that Autumn afternoon is still vivid and has not faded in the slightest. It is that I can achieve what I set out to do. Cycling fast gives satisfaction, but the ‘great journey’ gives meaning to life. On this day then I was happy with the contentment of beating the clock, and thoughts of an epic adventure were not needed.

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