March 17, 2012

Learning How to Suffer (or the Zen of Cycling)

Here is my first guest post, picked up from another internet site, and written by Paul Gerstein quite a few years ago. He is a doctor who often volunteers his time, working for free to provide medical care for people who need it. That alone tells you that he is a generous, kind and large-spirited person. He is also a cyclist, one of the 7 people I invited to ride the 100K brevet with me. I knew he is a far stronger cyclist than I am, but didn't know quite how good a rider he is until I Googled him. He still rides all the time, but perhaps races a little less than when this was written, I'm not sure. But to get to the point, I found this, which I think many of my readers might enjoy. Thanks, Paul!

Learning How to Suffer (or the Zen of cycling)
By Paul Gerstein 

Every aspiring bike racer needs a mentor, and I've had the good fortune over these past ten years to have had two. The first, and more verbal/explicit of the two is Clive Woakes, a 20+ year veteran of track and road both in England and the States. Clive was the one who told me, after a particularly hard effort early in my racing career, that to be a bike racer one had to, "learn how to suffer". Later, he also told me that cycling builds "character", whatever that was. I ended up learning for myself over the years that character, in cycling and in life, is the willingness to suffer for the sake of something beyond oneself.

Steve Toplitz, my other mentor, was the more silent type. He didn't tell me much of anything. He simply made me suffer and built my character by crushing me on climbs and sustaining impossibly difficult efforts on the flats. Like a good Zen master, after a few years of this kind of training, Steve was able to transform me into a decent climber and a pretty good bike racer. Now that things are more equal, I'm finally able to make Steve suffer, too. But he's still my mentor. About 85% of what I know about bike racing comes from these two guys. The other 15% I've had to make up as I go along, and that's what I'm going to pass on to you.

As I see it, anyone who tells you they race for fun, fitness or excitement is lying. The real reason we race is to suffer and, in a strange way, to "enjoy" it. We all do it together, in the cold, in the rain, up the climbs of Westfield and the windswept flats of Ninigret. We share the experience, survive it and feel deeply connected to one another, even though we're all competitors. But just how does one learn how to suffer?

For me it started with finding out how bad I could make myself feel on a bike without actually dying on the spot. Next, I had to really understand that within seconds of backing off the effort, the exquisite pain I was suffering would begin to abate. Finally, I had to make the giant step of becoming "one" with the pain. This last step was the toughest, because we've all learned to look away from pain, ignore it or distract ourselves from it. Something I learned from years of Zen training taught me otherwise.

One of the little known facts of my past and present is my interest in Zen Buddhism and, in particular, "zazen"—the seated meditation practice most people think of as "staring at one's navel." Zazen has taught me that pain embraced turns into a strange energy; pain rejected, sheer misery. This was particularly the case during 7-day retreats called "sesshin"—the Zen equivalent of climbing Mount Ventoux, day and night for a week. When you finally get to the top, the view is awesome, but you're never quite sure if it really is beautiful, or if you're just happy to get off your bike—er, sitting cushions.

So, little by little, during hard training rides and racing crunch-times, I've been practicing intensely focusing on the painful sensations in my body. By not distracting myself, the pain becomes something else, a nameless entity something akin to intensity itself. This intensity, when fully embraced becomes an energy that drives one deeper into the effort rather than backing off from it. This, I'm sure, is the secret that great climbers, the strong silent types of bike racing, know in their hearts. By being fully in touch with the body's sensations in the moment, one can feather one's effort with instant feedback. By putting one's mind elsewhere, that contact is lost and it's too easy to blow up.

So, on your next hard ride, try this a little bit. Just watch the pain with exquisite interest and attention. Learn from it and turn it to your advantage. This is how I understand Clive's words. I'm still learning.

Paul Gerstein, MD, FAAEM Amherst, Mass


  1. Susan, I don't know how you dredged this up. I wrote it probably 20 years ago and it got posted on a racing team's website. The team is long since defunct but the Net lives on. Reading it again, after so many years, I still wouldn't change a single word. Thanks for resurrecting this "exquisite corpse", the byproduct of one too many climbs.

  2. Hi Paul,

    It couldn't be said better, thanks for letting me use it! I found it easily, simply by googling your name and the word cycling. Also found impressive race results. The question is ... why did I do that? Because I've had this lingering notion that you are a way, far more experienced cyclist than you ever admit to in our cycling conversations, and finally, I remembered Google.

    I am intrigued by and don't quite get the suffering concept ... not what it is, but how it is used in cycling. Your article was such an articulate explanation of a helpful use of the concept that I immediately wanted to share it. Thanks!

  3. It's an interesting article but I really don't like the idea of suffering for fun! Gerry Patterson has a sideline in this too ...
    Actually, I know what you mean. It's good when it stops, and to feel tired and a bit achey after a long ride is rewarding, if not exactly enjoyable.

    1. Hi Steph,

      I think I understand essentially what you mean, but I don't understand it as suffering for fun. The usage fascinates me a little, though I'm not sure why. Paul's take on it was the first I've read that is actually a helpful, practical notion for me .... understand that for me on hills. Certainly the notion of suffering is intrinsic to racing, you hear it all the time. Actually, that's true of men's racing, I've looked a little in the women's sport and haven't seen it so much. (Alert readers ... send me examples to correct me!)

      I don't hear it so much in randonneuring or touring. Although there's no doubt riders in 600K or 1200K suffer, the word isn't used so much. Just to be nuisance and a pest, maybe it's like shaved legs, mens or womens ... a racing thing. Hmmm, that's teasing?!? But they do seem to mark differences between subsets of cycling. I'll permit no ranking here!

  4. Paul, I've done one long retreat in Thailand and I remember well the monks telling us to accept, for example, the urge the scratch your nose, note it, then let it go. MUCH easier said than done! I'm at the point in my suffering (i.e. bike racing) where my legs are stronger than my willpower, I think, so this post is timely. Tomorrow is a recovery day, but on Tuesday I will hop on the bike and suffer as exquisitely as I can!

    1. Gerry-- How wonderful that you had a chance to experience a Buddhist meditation retreat in Thailand. I'm sure this was as mind-blowing as it was difficult--something that can be said at times about an epic bike ride or race that many who read these pages have experienced from time to time.

      I would like to put quotations around the word "suffering" in my little essay. An experience that one might (with resistance-mindedness) call "suffering"--that one decides not to reject but rather to embrace wholeheartedly with attentiveness and without comparison--turns into something else. The vicious circle quality of it is gone. The energy of it remains. When we're riding like this we call it "being in the zone", and it often teaches us something that remains deep inside after the immediate experience is over.

      BTW--I checked out your blog site and love it!

      --Paul Gerstein

    2. Hey Paul,

      Good to have this addition from you, thanks! Gerry probably won't see it here, so I'm going to send it to him, am sure he will enjoy hearing from you.

  5. Hi Gerry,
    I don't think Paul reads these, but I'm sure he'd like to see this one, so I'll send it to him with a link to your site.


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