It seemed we would never reach the top. The winding mountain road in central Slovakia would pose no problem to a motorized vehicle, but after seventy miles on a bike, I was wondering whether we could make it. My wife — then only my girlfriend — probably felt the same way. The journey, even if we made it to the top, couldn’t be considered a success; it was a question of brute survival.
We’d started off in the morning in Poland. The plan was to ride through Slovakia, into Hungary, and spend several days in Budapest. We were a little behind schedule due to rain and an unexpected break as we waited out the cloud burst. For most of the day, though, the road had been easy going: fairly flat, some downhill portions, a climb or two. Nothing serious.
That was before we hit the mountain. It sneaked up on us, really: we felt a gradually increasing incline, and like two frogs in boiling water, we were in danger before we realized danger was approaching.
On two packed bikes, we were struggling fairly quickly after the realization that we were riding up a mountain, not a hill. Each pedal stroke became a battle, and the veins in our temples bulged and quivered as they tried to carry our blood at the furious pace our heart was beating. Our lungs began to burn, then simply went numb as the heavy, post-rain, damp air practically strangled us. Our legs followed suit: first a tingle, then a burn, followed by flames and complete numbness.
With every switch-back, we were sure it had to be the last; time and time again, we were almost knocked off our bikes by the sight of another uphill stretch concluding with another switch-back. “Maybe that one is the last one,” I said to my girlfriend. When it wasn’t, I’d repeat the speculation on the next one, often following it with a skeptical laugh.
What we both knew we couldn’t do was stop. It wasn’t some kind of macho, push through the pain nonsense. No — the simple truth of the matter is that stopping only makes it worse. Muscles cool down and the pedaling becomes more painful after the break. There’s only one thing to do: be macho and push through the pain.
After a while, though, cyclists climbing seemingly endless inclines stop thinking about reaching the top. Goals become short term: “Just make it to that twig that’s lying in the road twenty-five meters in front of me.” The instant disappearance of pain when stopping is tempting, but one makes an honest effort to go a little further: “Before I can possibly consider stopping, I have to make it to that tree.” And once the goal is accomplished, one thinks, “well, perhaps a little further.”
At that point, a strange thing happens: the pain becomes enjoyable. There are all kinds of physiological explanations for the euphoria athletes feel when the pain becomes pleasure, but at least part of it is mental. The surety of completing short-term goals and the realization of how many such goals have already been reached transforms the pain into a sure sign — symbol, if one wants to get metaphysical — of one’s ability and a confirmation that one’s self-confidence is not misplaced.
It’s something we can apply to life: a series of short-term goals adds up to a large accomplishment. Focusing on the here and now, concentrating on getting through the present pain, we find ourselves enjoying even pain.
We finally made it to the top, and just to the right was a hotel. “We’re staying here,” I said, knowing we were still fifteen miles from our planned stopping point. “I know,” said a voice behind me.
If you’d asked me that night, I would have said that success is indeed a destination. Success is finally lying down on a bed after climbing a seemingly endless mountain. Two days after that, I would have said that success is finally walking down a street in Budapest, looking for a cheap restaurant.
But when I recall the whole trip, I think back to that mountain, and how some part of me wanted it never to end.