I’d heard so much about the mystique of the desert, how in its nothingness, it inspires—how the more time you spend in the dusty landscape, the more you see. Dillon Road in Desert Hot Springs is surrounded by the flowers of early spring, and I ride diligently, preparing for my next race. Sometimes I wish I could go back to spin class and just listen in—I miss him—but for now I’ll “stay with my ride,” as he used to say.
The Tour of Palm Springs is not a competition; it’s a ride, albeit a hundred-mile one, and even wearing arm and leg warmers, with covers over my cycling shoes, I still can’t feel my icy toes. There are five aid stations along the desert route, and the first one comes up quick, tables spread across the road. I stop to refuel. Last year, I left the start like a bat out of hell, going way too hard, chasing down entire pelotons of riders. No stopping for me, I was impervious to human frailty, the embodiment of speed. That day I ended cramped and dehydrated, human again.
I remember Gary said he was always freezing during his rides here. He’d said to take their minds off of how cold they were, their focus became internal, and that’s how spinning was invented. And spinning is how I came to know Gary. Today I am surely riding some of the same roads he and Johnny G traveled, powered only by their legs.
“We’re not chasing anything,” he’d say. “What you need is already there, inside you.” Why I needed him to tell me this, I’m not sure, but I chased him, hoping the pursuit would make me faster.
“Anyone can show up and just spin their legs and not really apply themselves,” he’d say. This was not me, I am no slacker, I always tried hard. Too hard maybe.
“You come to class to ‘get something,’ to ‘get motivated,’” he’d say, reminding me of Tony Robbins on a spin bike.
My life became just the time in between spin classes. I bought a second package and upped from two to four per week as we prepared for our indoor Tour de France. I had been getting my triathlon training plans from somebody on the East Coast named Bill, who became too conventional compared to Gary, the trainer and life coach to stars like Jim Carrey, Calista Flockhart, and Will Ferrell. Gary is the sexy guy you meet who makes you think your nice boyfriend is boring.
Before long we’d scheduled a meeting at Revolution before spin class, because maybe I did need a life coach or at least a new triathlon coach or maybe a boyfriend. He was late since he’d come from a movie set or the house of someone who’s famous. I was skeptical, but I can’t help that I live in Los Angeles, where this kind of thing happens, I told my friends back in the Midwest. Gary’s intensity agreed with me, but I’m not sure about the life coach part.
“I’m not going to give you a structured program, but there is no reason it should take you an hour to run a 10K,” he said. I’d made a spreadsheet of all my race results.
“Really?” I thought I was topped out on speed and had amassed a pretty good level of fitness. “I’ve improved,” I told him.
“You could be a lot faster.” I looked into his eyes. “I want that for you,” he said.
Nobody ever cared about my racing this intensely besides me, and I decided I wanted that for me too.
It was time for class to start, and he jumped upon his spin bike, which is on an elevated stage, facing the class with a microphone. He cued up the music to Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up.” Nobody could believe he’d just turned fifty, except for the hip replacement he had done in India last year. He’d worked so hard on his rehab, the pedals appeared in a circular whir.
“Keep your leg speed the same, even though you are adding resistance. Resistance allows you to grow, to get stronger,” he said.
His good looks were still working for him, if you didn’t count that thin spot on the top of his head that showed when he looked down, which he rarely did because he always looked around the room, surveying the mostly hot women and some men, making eye contact, one person at a time, until he stopped at me.
“Add a ton of resistance and follow his pedal stroke.” Nodding his head toward the guy next to me, who was a very good cyclist. I made my hardest effort.
“You have no idea how much power you could have on the bike,” he said. He may as well have just told me that I have no idea how beautiful I am.
“A special guest will be visiting the class on Tuesday.” I hoped it would be Harrison Ford, because Gary did for people what Cesar Millan does for dogs.
I’d been cutting my carbs and eating egg whites and getting very thin, very fast. I felt amazing, like I was standing high on a cliff, but I could fall at any minute.
We e-mailed and discussed my coaching needs. The e-mails were comprehensive: What were my goals for the next year in life and in racing, he wanted to know. I had some serious thinking to do before I completed my response and sent it back to him.
I was training for a marathon at the time, which for an Ironman triathlete—used to swimming, then biking, then running a marathon—is an a la carte experience. Gary thought I could run it in four hours, and I believed him since he’d been an accomplished duathlete, which is like a triathlete who doesn’t swim, and a fast runner who helped Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell improve their marathon times tremendously. In fact, he and Will ran the Boston Marathon together more than once. The second time, Will’s wife, Fiona, ran it too. I pedaled harder, hoping I would somehow get myself closer to fast and farther from slow with each turn of the pedal.
The race was in Death Valley, and I pushed too hard the first half and then blew up the second, had to walk/run and suffer to the end. I was lost and lonely. I was embarrassed about my time, which I told Gary about in an e-mail, asking him not to say anything, and slinked back to spin class.
“I don’t like my marathon time,” he said, mimicking me. Then he became a drill sergeant. “What are YOU going to do about it? So much of life is the story, the story you tell yourself. What story will you tell yourself? Just how will you spin it?”
My instinct was to bolt, but I was clipped into the pedals and didn’t want to draw more attention to myself by leaving in a huff. Instead, I looked at the floor and anywhere but at him, my weakness exposed.
I felt like Paddington Bear when he gets sad and thinks of all the things that make him sad: chairs with broken legs and teapots that don’t whistle. I think about the marathon-pacing disaster, and of the Ironman race I’d dropped out of a while back in Malaysia, where I narrowly dodged a crash between a motorcycle and a bike on the course. There’d been cliffs on one side, open road on the other. I skidded to the open road, and by the time I reached the aid station to tell volunteers to call an emergency crew, I heard sirens. I felt shaky and nobody spoke English, so I took a few deep breaths and clipped into my pedals, falling in near a Japanese man. Up ahead I saw a blond ponytail sticking out of a bike helmet. I pedaled a little harder to catch up. Riders aren’t supposed to draft at the Ironman, but I got close enough to talk. I told her what happened. She said she was not surprised. She was an American. I dropped back and we passed a traffic circle where an official waved us on, but after a while she dropped back and said, “Do you remember any of this?” Green mounds and shacks were on both sides of the road, and off in the distance, I saw the Andaman Sea. I did not remember any of it. With the accident, the first loop had been a blur. We were lost, and she decided to turn back. I kept going, having missed the second loop of a three-loop course, and came in with the pros, only to discover the race official had misdirected us. I was disqualified and back at the hotel in time for lunch, which is not how I imagined my Ironman race day going.
As much as I tried to “reframe” this experience, I’d been unable to let it go, even though it really wasn’t my fault. It had gotten so bad that I’d questioned my identity, being so wrapped up in Ironman racing, and afterward let two races pass me by.
Somehow when Gary told us to “take off some resistance and flush it out,” I was able to let my experience in Malaysia go. Then I went home, watched the triathlon world championship on the webcast, and signed up for the hardest race in the world, called Lanzarote, in the Canary Islands. Then, for backup, I signed up for the easiest one, in Arizona.
Twelve days went by with no e-mail from him, no new training program. I saw him at class, and he said he hadn’t forgotten about me. He was just busy. I tried not to take it personally, but I did and was hurt. I’d spun completely out of control. I fell off the cliff.
Applying a principle I’d learned from Gary called “the best way to change is to raise your standards,” I stopped going to class.
It had been easy to pick something shiny that promised to make me faster, but I’d mistaken promise for passion, speed for resilience. The perfection I saw in Gary was what I wanted to exist in me.
My legs remember the work I did with him, and I try a little harder. There’s a forest of tall cacti on my right, and on the very top of them are blossoming flowers, something I’ve not seen before. He may have been the catalyst for me to return to Ironman, but I hold my own destiny, and it is a more human approach to racing: to embrace the experience more than the result, because like a desert flower, I can adapt in a tough environment.
©2014 by Tamara Adelman