Praying on a bike

Our loving neighbour Sister Alice was another person who disapproved of my participation in the Across Canada cycling tour. It was during our buffet lunch before Christmas that I told her about the tour and my intention to take part, and she echoed my wife in suggesting that I shouldn’t, saying that the tour would be too much of a challenge for me. It was perfectly understandable that the 81-year-old senior would have concerns about my wellbeing should I embark on the long journey which she considered hard and risky. It would have been reassuring to have her endorsement, but I appreciated that the disapproval was out of love and concern.

It was heartening that when I told Sister Alice in April that I had signed up for the event despite her well-meant advice, she said that she fully respected my decision and was happy that I committed myself to something that obviously meant a lot to me. I was even more grateful that, a couple of weeks later, she gave me a copy of an article called Praying on the run, on which she wrote “on a bike” under the words “on the run”, which clearly expressed her meaning that what the article says about running is applicable to my biking trip. I also saw this as a gesture of her support to the trip.

I read the article and found it to be an excellent piece. The central idea is that the “great-to-be-alive” feeling that comes with regular, vigorous exercise stimulates the brain centre and determines our spiritual receptivity to God and our fellow humans. As per the title, the “regular, vigorous exercise” the article focuses on is jogging, but the message applies to other kinds.

According to the article, there are three main reasons why a regimen of jogging can be beneficial to our prayer life:

1. It is helpful for the total disciplining of our lives. 2. The astringent effect of physical exertion provides a stimulus to our intellectual and emotional faculties, resulting in a more perceptive and warmer devotional spirit. 3. A great deal of pleasure is derived from jogging, leading to the general sense of well-being that accompanies the conditioned body.

The writer argues that our “spirit, soul and body” are interrelated aspects of our being. The weakness of our body is the cause of our inability to meditate and lift our hearts in prayer. Despite a thousand lovely thoughts, we often fail to act. The point is supported with the following quotes:

“The spirit is willing, but nature is weak,” said the Lord. (Matthew 26:41)
“Hell is paved with good intentions.” (Samuel Johnson)

So we need to move from the good intentions to the real starting line of physical and spiritual fitness. Rejuvenating the body through physical exertion will invigorate the soul, bringing us the created closer to the Creator. Such effort is necessary for, as these lines quoted from The Kneeling Christian says:

“God will not do some things unless we work. He stores the hills with marbles, but he has never built a cathedral. He fills the mountains with iron ore, but he never makes a needle or a locomotive. He leaves that to us. We must work.”

The close relationship between spirit, soul and body and how the improvement of the body leads to that of the others are ideas which dawn on me these days when I physically exert myself every day to get ready for the cycling tour. Very often, I pray on a (stationary) bike and reap the benefit of it.


Training is hard, but also joyful

Earlier this morning, I heard a 70-year-old Nova Scotia man called Chris Anderson, who has been running in 29 consecutive Boston marathons and looking to do his 30th, say on TV: “We marathoners often joke that ‘running a marathon is easy; It is the marathon training that is the hard part.’”

What he said definitely strikes a chord for me who now undergo hard daily training so as to be ready for the 7,515 km bike ride in a few weeks’ time. According to the principles of training overload and progressive overload, for the training to be effective and beneficial, one has to keep challenging himself to do something he presently cannot do, then give it time to recover and adapt. Naturally, such training is hard because one is constantly pushing himself to face and overcome new hardship. I can definitely testify to that. Very often, the overload introduced in my training, which is beyond what my current physical condition can handle, leads to breathlessness, discomfort or even pain so tortuous that it takes tremendous willpower to resist the temptation to give up.

Paradoxically, though, the hardship is also where the pleasure of the training lies. I do not mean just the outcome - of seeing progress made, of being able to go beyond previous ‘limits’. Such triumphs are, of course ,the source of sheer joy. But the process itself, with (not despite) all the sweat and blood, can also be joyful. To allow capacity to enjoy the process, I have to screen out the feelings of fear and doubts, the mindfulness of the challenge, and the sensations in the forms of discomfort and pain. Then, and only then, will I be able to focus on the effort and repetition and experience the joy. I find it useful to pay attention to my breathing. I also find it useful to recite prayers. My favourite is the following Taizé lyrics:

Jésus le Christ, lumière intérieure, ne laisse pas mes ténèbres me parler. 
Jésus le Christ, lumière intérieure, donne-moi d’accueillir ton amour.

Its message about not letting my darkness speak to me and enabling me to welcome the love of Jesus is very relevant to the situation of hard exercising.

So, yes, I agree with Chris Anderson that training is the hard part, but I have to say that it is also where joy is. He did not say it, but I am sure this is also what he has experienced.


I was wrong about fitness centres, and the people using them

I used to detest and despise going to the gym, thinking that it is the most boring form of exercise in the planet. When I was in Hong Kong, whenever I walked past the glass windows of fitness centres in commercial buildings, I would privately sneer at the people I saw running on treadmills. “Do they have a problem? Are there no better things to do than trapping themselves here running like caged mice on wheels?” Surely, exercising outdoors, be it jogging, biking, tennis or whatever, is a whole lot more fun.

Now that I am going to the gym almost on a daily basis, I can see how prejudiced I was. I see this change of views as having anything to do with cognitive dissonance, Leon Festinger's social psychological theory which posits that humans seek to adjust their attitudes and actions to ease their mental discomfort caused by internal psychological inconsistency. It is just that, eventually, after my firsthand experience, I am able to see what an interesting place a fitness centre really is.

Given Charlottetown’s small population, it is rare that one would find a place with a lot of visitors. But the fitness centre is definitely one such place. Regardless of which time of the day or which day of the week I go there, there are always quite a lot of people. And very different people, too. People of different ages, sexes, races, size and shapes. They do different exercises and engage themselves in different manners. While they may or may not have specific goals like myself, what is obvious is that they are looking to make physical improvement through their physical effort. And a fitness centre, with a full range of equipment, workout data, programs and personnel, is the perfect place to achieve that. That is probably why this gym I go to is one of the most visited places in small Charlottetown.


Reading and getting ready for «Distance Cycling»

Since coming back from Hong Kong, I have undertaken to prepare for the Across Canada charity cycling tour (and, as a by-product, tackle the expanded waistline). I have joined a local gym as a member. I have also been re-reading the excellent book «Distance Cycling» by John Hughes and Dan Kehlenbach. I am under no illusion that the ten-week tour will be easy and certainly do not underestimate its demands on my physical fitness. The last thing I want is to be a burden to the group so I have to get myself 110 percent ready when the event starts in June.

Based on my reading, I realise that the training is to be targeted at improving both endurance and power, enabling me to overcome long rides and steep climbs. For these, the body has two different energy systems to tap into: the aerobic system (metabolizing carbohydrate and fat for energy) and the lactic acid system (metabolizing carbohydrate to form lactate and regenerate adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP)). Both systems have to be improved.

Obviously then, I need to do aerobic base training to build the necessary endurance and resistance training to enhance muscular strength and power.

Among other things, the aerobic base training is to enable:

  • the muscle and liver to store more carbohydrates 
  • the respiratory system to bring more oxygen to the circulation system 
  • the heart to pump more blood to the workout muscles 

The resistance training will be targeted at the specific strengths required for cycling, namely, core strength, leg strength and upper body strength.

For the training to be effective, there are different principles to follow. To me, the three most important ones are:

  • Training overload – When asked to do something it cannot, the body adapts so it can handle the new workload. 
  • Progressive overload – The body adapts best when the overloads (both in volume and intensity) are introduced progressively. 
  • Stress and recovery – Most adaptations occur when the body is resting, not during the training. Recovery is an integral aspect of conditioning. To keep improving, the body needs time to rebuild. 

In sum, in the next two months, I am to undergo a strict and specific training regime to achieve the goal of improving my endurance and power so that I may survive the 7,515 km trip across Canada in summer.


Never far from the madding crowd

Just as people who have not seen each other for a long time are able to detect physical changes of each other at the moment of reunion, when I came back to Hong Kong after being away for a year, I was able to make observations about the people that I had taken for granted my whole life.

What struck me most was Hong Kong people is that there are such a lot of them. This may sound like truism, but coming back from Prince Edward Island, the population density of which is only about 1/250 of Hong Kong (and the island is already Canada’s most densely populated province!), I couldn’t help notice that I was always among a crowd of people.

Having so many people around is likely to make one feel they are too close for comfort. This may be the case even in the countryside where one is supposed to be able to get away from it all. In two or three hikes I did during the trip, I had to adjust my pace because there had been other hikers close by walking in the same pace as me and the hiking partner(s) I was talking to. I just didn’t like sharing our conversations with strangers or disturbing others with our speech. 

With so many people around, one cannot be bothered with etiquette. In a sparsely populated country like Canada, people do not cross path frequently. And when they do, they are quick to give way or apologise if they do get in the way of each other. Not in Hong Kong. The large number of commuters, most of whom are in a hurry, always strive to get a step ahead of others. It always happens that one commuter cuts across another, just six inches in front, and neither has an issue with it. Just don’t bump into each other or step on each others’ toes.

Not only are most people in a hurry but also they look cheerless or wear a long face. Knowing this birthplace of mine well, I am guessing that for some it may be a sense of self-importance while for others it may be the burden of life or whatever business they have to handle shortly. It is obvious from these people’s faces that this is a city which, for all its affluence, does not have much capacity for happiness. This observation is in line with the findings of the latest Smiling Report released by Better Business World Wide. Based on the investigation of Mystery Shopping Providers in 69 countries, Hong Kong is fifth from the bottom in terms of smiles offered by service providers in different industries.

They say that money cannot buy you happiness. Just ask the people of Hong Kong.


Out of the comfort zone, into the tires

I would be lying if I said I jumped at the chance of taking part in the Across Canada charity cycling tour. The truth is that it was after quite a length of internal struggle that enough mental hurdles were removed for me to muster the courage to express my interest to Michael, my friend and one of the organisers of the event.

The whole idea, for all its appeal, was simply overwhelming. The physical challenge itself sounds mighty formidable. Cycling Across Canada, in the wilderness, rain or shine, for ten weeks, covering a distance of over 7,500 km, averaging over 120 km of trudging per day. It simply doesn’t look like something I would be able to do. My previous ‘greatest’ daily biking achievements were all under 100 km and attained with total exhaustion, dead muscles and sore butt. Naturally, I had great doubts about my ability to achieve this mission impossible.

My wife’s initial response when I tested the water by sounding out the idea to her was far from encouraging. She made it starkly very clear that she thought the challenge would be too much for me and she didn’t support my participation. My hope of getting her endorsement to this grandiose commitment was immediately dashed.

The financial commitment is no less daunting. Apart from the CAD4,000 registration fees, which would cover some expenses for the trip, such as accommodation and some meals (which means one has to pay for the others), each participant has to raise CAD6,000 for charities. Any amount one cannot raise, he has to make up for it himself. Not taken to lobbying others for support, I had no confidence in securing donations anywhere near that amount, meaning that a big hole will be burnt in my pocket. I could also imagine that a lot needs to be spent on the gear and supplies to enable me to survive the ten weeks in the wild and being exposed to fickle conditions. That certainly would enlarge the hole in the pocket even further.

But commit myself I did, after much struggle. The opportunity was just too tempting to turn down. I have always admired people who have the courage and toughness to take long journey on a bike. And while I don’t think I will ever be able to emulate those who do it on their own, such as the Hong Kong young man who took 209 days to cycle 14,000 km from Germany back to Hong Kong in 2012, at the back of my mind, doing something similar, even remotely similar, remains a pipe dream that I secretly harbour. When I learnt about this event in which ten participants will cycle across Canada together, including some who have the experience of doing it before, and there will be a vehicle to support the trip, I knew this would be as close as I can ever get to achieving my dream. It is certainly going to be challenging, but what better way is there to push myself to new limits and get me out of my comfort zone than to take on this monumental journey?

There are other benefits, such as being able to see a lot of Canada on two wheels and raising money for charities, but they are just icing on the cake. Committing myself to pursue a dream, no matter what, in the hope of becoming a stronger and braver person, is a goal that tops it all.


How long to stay, and what to do

“One month is good. Two weeks are too short.”

This was the comment of the Korean driver who took us to the airport, upon learning that we were going home for a visit.

“After three weeks, you begin to think that you’ve had enough and it is about time to go,” he added.

It remains to be seen whether we will feel that way, but he has lived in Canada for fifteen years and returned to Korea a few times so he definitely knew what he was talking about.

*     *     *     *

“People, food, sauna.” The Korean driver named these as the three things he looks for when visiting his home country.

Hong Kong is, of course, not a place known for sauna. But I share his other reasons for going home. I miss the people I left behind.

I miss the different cuisines I was able to enjoy in Hong Kong, especially dim sum. In fact, my calendar has been filled with lunch and dinner appointments with friends and relatives, which naturally is my quest for having the two purposes fulfilled.

If I were to give a third reason for going back, it would be ‘activities’. Three weeks is not a long time, but I do hope to be able to do some hiking, play a game or two of tennis, or maybe go hiking with friends.

And nostalgia would be yet another reason. I certainly would like to revoke memories of this land which is my birthplace, which I left and which is likely to change beyond my recognition in the years to come.