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The day the smile wouldn’t leave my face

Blood, sweat, rain, and a totaled bike couldn't put a damper on a joyous ride for a good cause

Alyn Bike Ride diary, Day Five. Another 5.20 am start. I can count on one hand how often I’ve been up anything close to this. The hotel we are in is nice, but I have barely slept. We are three men to a room and I landed the pullout, inches from a hairy snoring back. I squeeze into my double lycra tights, splash my face and waddle off to morning prayers. Soon we get to pedal our soft in the middle-aged bodies up to Jerusalem, a 1400m climb. And I can feel a smile creeping onto my face.

As a poorly controlled Type I diabetic, the ride is not without its challenges. I need to be acutely aware of my sugar levels. My fingertips are punctured with more holes than the tires we’ve ridden on. I am constantly shluking glucose and calibrating the insulin pump attached to my body. Alyn, the orthopedic children’s hospital we are riding to raise funds for, is never far from my mind. I’m spurred on by the generous contributions from my community, as well as the kids’ thank you posters at each pit stop. But even as I ready my bike, I’m mainly checking that my bike pouch has the glucometer, needles and sweets I may need along the way. I gobble down yet another Skippy peanut butter sandwich. And the smile is glued to my face.

The road to Jerusalem includes the toughest climb of our journey, a 15km stretch with 900m rise. It’s aptly called the martyr’s forest. I am prepared for it. I practiced in the weeks leading up to the event. But today is different. I mistimed a downhill jump, lost my balance, and the teeth of my pedal snapped into my right shin. I cannot stem the blood flow and my once white sock is now a reddish brown. Not to worry, I tell my riding pals. We can stack this up with the rear-end bee stings, ambulance rides and other war stories we’ve gathered along the way. Smiling, I wave them on.

The climb begins in earnest. Rain buckets down. My anorak, a glorified plastic bag, is coming apart. So too my bike. Each time I change gears, the chain falls off, or jams. I lose count of the number of times I need to stop. I flag down the road mechanics, but they cannot fix it. I am restricted to riding on one cog. I am grinning from ear to ear.

Halfway up the hill, mud clogs up my left pedal. Each rotation, I need to raise my foot off the pedal and push down. If I forget, and occasionally I do, my foot slips forward and the it rips into my calf. I am battling another hypoglycemic episode. I eat and ride through fogged up glasses flecked with mud and raindrops. I am far off the back of the group, grinding my way up the endless hill. Wet, muddied and alone. The only thing I can rely on is the smile.

Finally, I make it to camp. I drop my bike off at the mechanics’ corner and delightedly rush over to wet welcome hugs from my friends. I am so late to arrive that the soup is cold. Of course, they cannot fix my bike. I will have to make the final slog into Jerusalem on broken pedals. No problem (it goes without saying, I’m still sporting a toothy grin).

I scream down the next hill, and the pedal finally flies off the gearless now totally unrideable bike. My race is run, insist the support crew, and I reluctantly load my bike onto the vehicle, only 7 km from the finish line. We ride into Jerusalem in silence. A raucous reception party greets us as we enter the hospital grounds, but it feels unearned. I jump out of the car, muddied, bleeding, exhausted and smiling, asking to borrow a bike from anyone, anyone. Eventually I corral an ill-fitting child’s bike and cycle back with glee to where my friends are entering the city so that we can all ride into the hospital together. We meet up and ride in singing. The brave young patients, waiting in their wheelchairs, hang our medals round our necks, and the smiles threaten to explode off our faces. I have found my happy place, and I never want the feeling to end.

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The relatively new science of Happiness psychology says that, in order to generate consistent pleasure, we should strive to plan our lives so that whatever we do has the following features. First, it should be something we regard as important; next, it should be something we enjoy; and finally, it should be something we feel that we’re good at, or at the very least are able to achieve.

Was the ride important? We got to raise a lot of money for a tremendous cause. When we were greeted at the end, I was filled with a sense of purpose, and overcome with gratitude. Grateful that I am able-bodied, that I was not badly injured and that my being diabetic is not a serious hindrance. Was the ride fun? Only if you regard hanging out with amazing friends as you get to ride through the raw and natural beauty that is Eretz Yisrael. Lastly, was I able to achieve it? The inspiration provided by the kids in the hospital, the challenges posed and overcome from the previous four days, wanting to come in with my mates, and my refusal to not complete it meant a resounding Yes!

It’s not often that all three elements converge in a single activity, but when they hit that sweet spot, as they did last week, we welcome adversity, we soar in that rarefied air where pain becomes pleasure, and life is at its most beautiful. May we all be blessed with such moments.

About the Author
Yochai is a South Africa educated clinical psychologist living and working in Ra'anana Israel.
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