The Virtues Of Suffering


By Joe Kurmaskie aka the Metal Cowboy — Let’s talk about slipping into something a little more uncomfortable; a no holds barred bike ride. Don’t look at the forecast or your schedule, just roll that rig out the door and go.

I’ll make the case for ending more of your days tired, sweaty, hungry, wet, grease covered, maybe bloodied in a few places, parched, legs like two bags of wet cement, but a grin so wide and lasting it’ll take weeks to wipe it off your face.

Joe Kurmaskie on a recovery ride. Photo by Matteo Kurmaskie

Why would I want to help you find this redemption through sweet suffering? Because, as a travel adventure writer seeing the world from atop a bike saddle, that’s my calling. But more so since a life threatening genetic disorder rode shotgun in my life the past few years, steering me right up to the brink of death. But it couldn’t close me out. This has made me appreciate every sore muscle, headwind, hill, sideways rain and the baptismal cleanse of a 100 percent humidity ride.

Funny that the first words in my first book were:

Oh to be young… and go very, very fast.
Today I’m thrilled with my new mantra:
Oh to be anywhere, and get to go at all.

The genetic disorder? Hereditary Hemochromatosis, the world’s most common deadly genetic disorder – that few have ever heard of but 1-200 are walking around with undetected. It causes the body to store dangerous amounts of iron in organs, leading to well over 100 presenting, end stage illnesses include 12 cancers, liver and heart failure, diabetes, arthritis and heart attacks – it took down Beethoven, Hemingway, Steve McQueen and Patrick Swayze.

But it’s hard to kill a guy who’s pedaled 200,000 miles on six continents; out sprinted charging elephants ( in Botswana, been hit by the smallest car in Ireland, and lost all my possessions playing darts in an Outback bar…only to win them back in a mountain bike race.

The good news, when caught it in time it’s treatable, without drugs and offers a normal life expectancy. Following a year of hospital visits and treatments that included weekly bloodletting/phlebotomies, I was made whole and put my whole self back into the ride; the delicious, delirious suffering, seeing the world at the perfect pace. I’ve also put my efforts into saving others from the same fate

Just as I was beating the odds, another cyclist, one I held in high esteem, lost his rhythm and left the race for good.

One of the best perks of being a contributing writer and columnist for such publications as Bicycling Magazine, Men’s Journal and Outside has been that once in awhile you’ll get a dream assignment. Mine? Interview Robin Williams for 10 Questions About The Bike.

It was time out of mind and something of my own Make-A-Wish Foundation moment, when I heard that familiar voice on the other end of the phone.

I opened the conversation explaining that we’d already met. At least I’d met part of him once. What followed was an awkward silence on the other end of the line. I sputtered on about standing behind a man at Toyboat Ice Cream shop in San Francisco, circa 1988 when a hand so hairy I mistook it for an Amazon rainforest spider reached out for some napkins. I handed the papers goods in question to him.

“So, you see, I’ve met your right hand!”

Williams shot right back with, “You know, I’m on intimate terms with that hand as well!”

This was followed by a half dozen, rapid fire masturbation jokes volleyed back and forth. Both ends of the phone crackling with laughter. From there we were off and running.

We got on like peas and carrots. Riffing with the always on, helium based version of Williams, I was downright giddy about fulfilling a lifelong dream – doing a two person, virtual stage act with a genius for an audience on none. Then I realized in horror that I had only a few journeyman, garden variety answers about cycling… and the allotted time on the phone was almost up.

A little frantic now, I mentioned that for the adventures I wrote about in Metal Cowboy, I thought of my bike as a magic carpet that could take me anywhere. I half expected Williams to do an Aladdin voice and riff in that direction, but there was a long pause…

“You wrote Metal Cowboy?” And everything changed. It was as if he came down off the stage he kept himself protected on and was sitting beside me now. Just two guys on the stoop who liked to ride bikes and make people laugh.

We talked beyond the 30 minutes. Finally, I asked him what the bicycle had come to mean to him.

“No question, Joe. The bicycle’s extended my life. When I ride, everything inside goes quiet. I’m 10 years old again and anything is possible.”

Good journalist trick for expanding a piece is to put the words you like best into other people’s mouths and hope they will agree with it. Then you can go with it as a quote.

“So you’re saying the bike saved your life,” I said.

“No…no I’m not. I’m saying the bike has extended my life. See, nothing in this world can save your life, Joe. Cause life isn’t to be saved. It’s to be spent…but here’s the thing, only you get to choose how to spend the rest of it.”

A flesh on bone moment, something straight out of the film Good Will Hunting that should have made the cut, but didn’t on account of me being the poor man’s, face fit for radio Matt Damon on the other end of the line.

When we hung up I was shaking with gratitude, exhaustion and a little tearful wondering how to spend the rest of mine.


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