There is a strange power in the events that test our limits, a power that extends beyond the events themselves, not only in the ways they change our sense of what we can do, but also in the ways they inhabit our imaginations before and after.
There was a time when, every time I rode my bike, I envisioned myself on the tilt of Patten Hill Road on the Deerfield Dirt Road Randonee (D2R2), a precipitous, sandy climb in Colrain, Massachusetts. There is nothing on this stretch of road, no store, no house, no place to rest. There is only struggle. The moment I first rode Patten Hill, I was not aware of my heart rate, even as it blared in my ears. I only thought maybe I could make it.
Patten Hill runs off of Rt 100. You cruise down 100’s paved surface and then veer right up a ramp that disappears around a corner. It’s when you make that corner that the challenge presents itself. You lift your head from your bars and see nothing but hill, long, straight, and forbiddingly steep. Your heart breaks. You put your head down again. And work.
It’s a red zone effort. It’s a year defining moment. There are longer climbs. There are harder climbs. I know there are. But Patten Hill fixed itself in my mind and came to me as a vision throughout the next year, the focus of my hard work. I wanted to rise to that moment. It’s not a thing I ever decided. It decided itself.
In September, I’m supposed to run an ultra-marathon in Georgia. I have not been to this part of Georgia before. I’ve seen a few videos that hint at the terrain. But it’s in my head, too. Anytime I find myself running over soft pine straw, it reminds me of high school cross country back in Alabama, and my mind assembles a composite sketch of Georgia. I can see myself there. It’s vivid, and yet also probably wildly inaccurate. It doesn’t matter. It’s another vision that’s planted itself, that comes to me randomly but frequently as I run in my local woods.
It doesn’t seem important whether these images exist in the past or the future. They’re all likely apocryphal. What they seem to indicate is what drives me, the crystalline moments in which all the work comes together with the hardest part of the challenge, and everything ripples off the moment, fear, motivation, joy, and the decision to keep going.