~Ever since I can remember, my father has spent early weekend mornings either training for or competing in races, triathlons, and cycling competitions. I usually only saw the aftermath of these events—my father napping away the afternoons. I didn’t see much point in Saturdays and Sundays before 11 AM.
Once high school rolled around, I had to face more weekend mornings than I wanted to. I needed to accumulate service hours to graduate, so I accompanied my dad to the races as a volunteer.
“How nice of you to help your dad out! Do you run too? Those long skinny legs must be fast!” was all I heard, in one form or another, from the overly-awake-for-7-A.M. gaggle of my father’s buddies from his running club. Personally, I thought that my long legs were just as well suited to giving the subtlest of cues in the equitation ring. So no, I did not run—at least not in the sense that they meant—the exhilarating adrenalin, the rush of endorphins. I’ve only picked up running recently, and while I have learned to enjoy it, I consider it a substitute exercise for the days when I can’t get out to the farm. After a childhood of mile-long “fun runs” that were anything but, I considered running to be one of the most stupid activities adults had ever come up with.
|Giving in to "normal people" exercise. At least the purple shoelaces are a perk.|
The other volunteers led me to a table of water-filled Dixie cups. My task was to stand with my arm outstretched, offering water to passing runners, and to keep the table filled with cups during gaps. Simple enough, I thought.
As it turns out, it is actually quite difficult to hand water to runners in such a way that they won’t just spill it everywhere, stop, pick up another Dixie cup from the table, and leave not one, but two crumpled paper cups in the street. The table was doing my job better than I was. I took up refill duty.
“Come on, you can do it! Keep it going!” yelled another volunteer.
I stayed quiet. I did not support these people or their ridiculous paper-wasting hobby.
My father was similarly puzzled by my sport of choice—horseback riding.
“Horses are way too dangerous, pumpkin,” he would say.
“That’s the point of lessons,” I would say, and repeated nearly every day until I was 11. Through sheer brattiness, I got myself a riding lesson a week and all of the paraphernalia that went with it—a velveteen helmet, jodhpurs, a crop, and my own grooming kit. I was hooked. My father continues to be skeptical at best, especially after an incident when I was fourteen.
It was the final show of a spring series, and my horse Moon and I had just rocked our first division. We were waiting to be called for the jump class of the second--18 inches, a piece of cake. My instructor opened the gate. Moon and I trotted a circle, picked up the canter—and something was wrong. Moon was really running—something I had never seen the lazy school horse do. We were almost at the first jump. I hoped for the best.
We popped over just fine. I made sure to sit up straight for the one, two, three, four terrifyingly fast strides, and we popped over the second. I looked around my corner towards the other pair of jumps on the straightaway, Moon stumbled, yanked the reins from my hands, and I was on the ground. His strong neck pinned me down, and he didn't seem to be in any hurry to get up. I wondered how long I was going to be stuck there. I wasn’t in a hurry either. This was probably really going to hurt soon.
I don't remember the exact moment Moon stood up, but I do remember a total stranger with a country drawl bending over me, asking me how many fingers he was holding up.
“Three,” I answered, wondering who he was and why he thought that was what people legitimately did outside of the realm of cartoons. My father arrived soon after.
"Hon, do you think you can get up?"
"I don't want to."
"Please, hon, just try to get up."
I got up, no problem, and was surprised that I felt only a dull ache in my shoulder from the impact (it hurt a lot worse the day after, of course). But overall, things seemed fine and I was determined to compete in the next division. I hadn’t woken up at 5 A.M. just to go home whenever some silly horse fell on me. My father led me to my farm's shiny aluminum-sided trailer to get some water (and perhaps to discourage me from what he saw as a reckless plan that would surely result in my untimely death). I saw myself in the trailer's reflection and burst into tears.
The brand-new, hundred-dollar show jacket I had bought myself, my precious velveteen helmet--caked in dirt. I unbuckled my helmet and rubbed at it furiously, which only spread the stain.
"Dad, my helmet is ruined."
"That's okay hon. It's just dirty; you can still use it." He didn't understand--I couldn't continue to show with my helmet in that condition. I was hysterical. And that is how my father became even more convinced that his daughter was slightly insane, and how I learned the importance of being on the right lead, especially in corners on a five-year-old horse.
|This got the stain out easily, FYI.|
I never had any illusions of my father and I being able to ever enjoy a trail ride together without him worrying I was going to die, so during my sophomore year of college, I accepted his invitation to a cycling race in the rolling hills of Carroll County, MD. I woke up early, and suited up in some borrowed Spandex and a blue biking jersey for the so-called “Eat a Peach Ride” that celebrated the fruit’s harvest and was also a fundraiser for brain injury research. I could get behind that--I like my brain. My dad, thrilled that I was finally expressing an interest, rented a professional-grade racing bike for me to use that day. It was the exact model he had, and one used by Tour de France competitors—a lightweight Trek Madone.
I biked most days at school, weaving between pedestrians, up hills, and even down some stairs when they interrupted my path to CVS or Starbucks. I doubted that a racing bike would make me any faster, but I figured it would be easier to deal with than my mountain bike with sticky gears.
I didn’t count on those “rolling hills of Carroll County” being quite so steep. Or on finding that my legs had turned to jelly around mile 6, or that I was so slow on the inclines that I could have probably walked faster. Or the fact that racing bikes have a completely unlabeled gear-switching mechanism. I soon found that I was completely incapable of intuiting whether I needed to move down or up a gear.
After over two hours of my father riding slowly behind me, calling “Upper left! Now lower right!” to signal which gear I should switch to as we rode through the laboriously odious, horrifically steep hills and terrifying drops of Carroll County, we completed our circle back to where we parked at the Agricultural Reserve.
I wanted to collapse. A volunteer handed us both a Dixie cup of water, and a pair of red socks with a yellow bike helmet and the words “Sock Guy” emblazoned on them.
“Good job!” she beamed. I did not think that thirty miles in almost three hours would be considered “good” by any standard, but I took both items politely, taking care to not spill the water.
“Cool, biking socks!” my dad said, examining his pair.
“What are biking socks?” I asked.
“Oh, you know. They’re just specially designed for biking.”
I couldn’t see anything special about them, but the fact that I had my own specialized super-thin socks to make it easier to pull on my field boots crept into my mind.
“Let’s get peaches,” I said. I was not going to leave this ordeal without one of the fruits we were supposed to be celebrating by biking around in a thirty-mile circle. We made our way to the food stand, took our peaches, and sat on the grass next to our bikes.
“So you think you’d want to do this again?” my dad asked.
“Don’t count on it,” I said. I had given it my best shot, but I think I understood the appeal of his sport just about as well as he understood the appeal of large, dangerous animals. I considered my peach, and sank my teeth into it.