My mother doesn’t remember it but I do. It was 1972 and we were living in a Westport, Connecticut where the parents smoked like chimneys, Nehru jackets were worn without comment and physical fitness meant a game of doubles on Saturday afternoon. Forty three years old when she had me, my mom smoked and drank through all four of her pregnancies including me, her smallest and last baby. I weighed in at a scrawny 8.9lbs. Aside from the occasional tennis game and a swim at the beach, my Mom didn’t do much in the way of regimented exercise but she would always get up and dance, work around the yard and walk anywhere you wanted to go.
When I was six, I wanted to walk a mile and so she took me to the local track and the two of us briskly covered four full laps. She forgot about it pretty quickly but it burned a lasting impression in my mind. To know in my bones what that distance felt like, to understand physically the truth of that measurement made me feel as though I belonged, to what I do not know.
This winter, I asked Drew to write down a couple of things he would like to accomplish in 2009. At the top of his list was “Ride 33 miles.” Last year, on a warm summer day, we’d done 22 on the Cape Cod Rail Trail: 11 miles up to Marconi Beach from Nickerson State Park and back. For the months that remained of that year, this event was most frequently cited as his favorite.
With what looked like my last weekend on the Cape for the summer, I decided that Saturday should be the day Drew nailed his goal. The closest parking lot to the trail put us 18 miles from Destination Marconi, I thought if we took it slow enough, he could handle the extra 3 miles.
Onto our saddles, we banged out 8 miles with hardly a thought. Riding by cranberry bogs, saltwater lakes and long stretches of shaded straightaways, we kept up a decent tempo but never fast enough to get breathing heavily. A quick break for some Gatorade and a call to Mom, who was meeting us with Nona at the beach, and we got back on our way. When asked, Drew said the pace was “fine.” I decided to make things a little more interesting.
The mile markers on the trail are cause for celebration. Drew and I took great delight in shouting their numbers as we neared them, “9 miles to go!” “8 more, Buddy Boy!” I didn’t see much of Drew. The trail was fairly crowded so he tucked in directly behind me and hung on my wheel like a regular Tour de Francer. Instead of studying his body and face for fatigue, I listened to his breathing and heard very little in terms of exertion, the pace was easy for him.
“Here’s what we’re going to do” I called out, “we’re going to keep our legs awake by giving them a little pick-up. You hang on my wheel and we’re going to sprint every once in a while.”
“Okay” he said.
And I took off. Dropping my gears as quickly as I could, I mashed down my pedals and leapt away from him. For a moment. Then he was right back on my wheel, I could hear him breathing now but when I turned to look over my shoulder, he had a savage look on his face, there was no way he was letting me get away.
For the remaining ten miles on our outward bound leg, we dropped in one of these sprints around every passing mile marker. On the last one, no longer content to ride my wheel, Drew pulled up alongside me and would have passed me by, if I hadn’t hit the gas. We rolled up to Marconi Beach, smiling big and a good ten minutes ahead of schedule.
Major waves, a little lunch with Lulu and Fiona, some more swimming and we were ready to head back.
“How do your legs feel?”
“Pretty good” he said, “I don’t think I can do any sprinting.” He sounded a little nervous and so I asked him if he was.
“I’m a little nervous I might not be able to make it back” he confessed. He’d played very hard on the beach and 36 miles is a long way for a little guy to ride.
“Well, I’m afraid we don’t have much of a choice, Bug. It’s the only way we’re going to get home.”
He didn’t say anything else. Just tucked in behind me with a little bit of a smile and we started to pedal. The pace was easy, 6:00 minutes a mile. He asked me to slow down once but when I did, he quickly asked me to pick it back up. With my back to him, I tried to imagine how what I was feeling translated down into a little nine year old body. My legs were pretty fresh but it wasn’t as though I couldn’t feel them. They felt like they were working, what must that mean for him? The last thing I wanted to do was make this an unpleasant memory.
I’ve written here before about putting a little extra pressure on Drew in certain moments. There is enough evidence out there that points to the benefits a person derives when they actually find a way to succeed under duress. Responding to unexpected challenges leads to good habits, a mental toughness that can separate an athlete or a person from the crowd. With 6 miles to go, I put a little extra pressure on the Bug.
Waving him up alongside me, we coasted along the sun dappled trail for a moment as I took full stock of his appearance. His form was great, his cheeks were flush but he wasn’t sweating a whole lot and his breathing was good.
“Drew” I said, “most guys would be happy just to finish a ride like this.”
“Yeah,” he said with an acknowledging laugh.
“They’d be happy to just hang on, finish out the ride and go home”
“But we’re not going to do that. We’re going finish this ride with a bit of a push. We’re going to close it out. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to hurt a bit but some day, you’re going to be in a race and you’re going to be the strongest man because you did things like this.”
My son looked at me with what I choose to believe was faith. I’m quite certain there were other things he was hoping to hear from me at that moment. And if he had a choice, he probably would’ve kept on at our very respectable 10/mph pace. But all he said was “Okay.” And with that, we dropped the hammer. A couple of miles passed away in the low 5:30s, and I could hear him start to breath. With four miles to go, we stepped it up 4:40, then 4:20, an uphill had us back at 4:30 and then he smelled the barn. Only a mile from the car, he was now pushing the pace, not me. We made a right hand turn and faced one last uphill climb to the car, it was about 100 meters. Standing on his pedals, his muscular shoulders whipsawed the front of his bike back and forth in a furious charge to the finish.
Rolling into the parking lot, I was plump with joy. His flushed face rippled in an ear to ear grin. “Yessss!” he yelled coming to a stop. “I did it! 36 miles” Without a hint of exaggeration I looked him in the eye and told him, “Drew, you’re incredible.”
“Thank you so much, Dad. Thank you for taking me.”
In the August evening, we stood there astride our bikes. The light was golden, epic, cliché if it had been a movie. But it was better than that, it was absolutely real. As my mother had once given me the gift of knowing a mile, I’d passed on to Drew the power of knowing 36 of them. At 9 years old, what a frame of reference. “Take a lap” will never intimidate this kid.
I packed up the bikes and we headed back to Centerville. In the passenger seat, his blonde curls dripped with effort and in minutes, Drew was asleep. His resolution fullfilled, his world a little bigger than it had been that morning.
For those of you that read this and take umbrage, I leave you with this final tidbit as I think it speaks volumes about the “abuse” I put my little boy through. When we got home, he asked me if I wanted to go out for a paddle in the canoe.