So, when sister, Joey suggested a bobsleigh ride at Canada Olympic Park in Calgary I thought it would be just the ticket. Reaching 120 kilometers per hour and pulling 5 G’s while careening down an ice-covered track in what resembles a tin can on skids? Just reading the on-line advertisement made my stomach turn and my skin crawl. But, I knew that Noel’s reaction would be just the opposite. And it was. He told everyone about it and that usually led to discussions about some of his other rather daring ventures. He loves to recount his experiences of hang gliding over Rio de Janeiro a few years ago, diving into the Blue Hole off the coast of Belize, sailing his very small sailboat in lightning storms on Flathead Lake or skiing off cliffs. I think these all provide the adrenaline rush he loves through what he calls “pucker power.”
One of our first dates, he picked me up on his motorcycle. When he asked me if I wanted to wear a helmet, I said no because I thought we were going on a leisurely ride around town. Big mistake. We ended up half-flying down the interstate at 135 miles per hour. I could hardly see because my eyes were tearing up so badly, and when I did turn my head to look at something, I couldn’t turn it back. I sat on the back of that thing, willing myself to hang on. I promised myself that the minute I got off I would tell him, “Thank you very much for the ride. And I never want to see you again.” So much for promises.
Well, he was so excited for this bobsleigh ride this past weekend. I willingly accepted my role of support person. I made the arrangements for the ride, found a superb bed and breakfast in Calgary (more about that later), and made sure that my camera was charged and ready to go. As we entered Calgary it started to snow and the temperature began to fall. The next morning we were amazed to see that eight inches of snow had fallen overnight covering the ground that was perfectly bare when we entered the city. So, after breakfast we figured we’d better head up to the Olympic Park to make sure that we had enough time before his scheduled ride time. I figured that there would be just a handful of hardy souls at the starting gate and we would be able to slip in earlier than his appointed time. But, I was amazed when I opened the door of the warming house to see that about forty pairs of eyes turned to look at me as I entered. As it happened, most were waiting for their rides and only a few were in my role as chief cheerleader. I couldn’t believe it. There are this many people in the world who like this sort of stuff? Men, women, young, old, older…all were waiting patiently for their turn.
But, as I settled in and surveyed the crowd I noticed that not many folks were talking. Instead, most gazed at nothing and I wondered if they were mentally preparing. And yes, there was the unmistakable note of fear in the air. And as we all waited for the track to be cleared of snow so that the rides could commence, the room got quieter and the tension increased. Finally Sarah, one of the drivers climbed up on a bench and announced, “Okay gang, we’re ready to start. I just want to remind everyone that this is not a ride…it’s a sport. You’re going to go almost as fast as the riders in the Olympics. The person in the back experiences the most G-force and has the wildest ride. There are fourteen turns and I want you to hold on, shrug your shoulders as we go through the turns and try to relax. And if the sled turns over, you’re still going to end up at the bottom of the hill. Just try to stay in the sled, because that’s the safest place to be. Not that we’re going to go over….but, just in case.” Well, now the fear was palpable. I looked at another woman whom I knew was going to stay behind like me. We gave little nods and sly smiles to each other as if to say, “Yep, we’re the smart ones.”
And then, helmets were fitted and the first group took off for their sixty second ride as the rest of us watched with rapt attention through the window. But, the track is covered and we could only see for about thirty feet. After that, they disappear. After a few groups had gone, the first group and their sled were hauled back up the mountain. Noel, loves to do what he calls “chatting people up,” so he greeted the group with questions, “How was it? Did you love it?” He came back over to where I was sitting and said, “I think something’s wrong. No one is saying very much. They look a little dazed.” And again, I congratulated myself on my sane decision.
Well, it came Noel’s turn. Sarah asked who wanted to be in the back, and of course, Noel said, “I do, I do!” He’s always the first one to take the front seat in the rubber raft to get the most splash, so it wasn’t surprising that he wanted the craziest ride possible here. And then they all climbed into the tin can like sardines, the pushers did their thing and they were off.
I said a silent prayer for his safety and went inside to await his return. I sat there remembering his hang glide over Rio. When he got down, he was jubilant. The wonderful Brazilian men who owned the kite were amazed at his ability to handle it and the way he read the air currents to circle higher and higher. He had an adrenaline rush that took days to come down from. I figured this would be the same.
I met him at the door after his ride back uphill expecting a high-five or a “Woo Hoo!” Nope. Instead he just took off his helmet and I saw the raspberry on his forehead. “How’d you get that?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, “my head was snapped back and forth so many times I didn’t know what was happening. I have a knot on the top of my head, too. And I think I might throw up.” Wow. Fun.
Well, we drove down off the mountain and he drank a little water and started to feel better. After an eternity of driving on horrible roads (they don’t seem to have snowplows in Calgary) we found the Limerick Pub and pulled in. He’d been pretty quiet the entire trip.
I waited until he’d downed about half his beer before I said, “So, I thought you’d be talking non-stop about the ride. You’ve hardly said anything.”
He took another gulp of beer and said, “Well, it was brutal. You can hardly lift your head up, the G’s are incredible. I tried to count the turns, but lost count at…I don’t know…4. I had to close my eyes at one point because my stomach was in my throat and I thought I was going to lose it. It started out pretty rough and then got rougher. It looks so smooth on the Olympics. My head snapped back and forth as we went up the sides of the track and then I thought we were going to turn over, but somehow we didn’t.”
Frankly, I was stunned. Noel is up for anything. He loves the adrenaline rush and will take any opportunity to ski fast, dive deep, sail with the rail in the water or make hairpin turns in the speed boat. So, I wondered at his answer to my next question, “Would you do it again?”
I had been thinking all along that it was about the adrenaline rush. I thought he would almost be high with excitement and ready to rush up the mountain again and again. I thought that he would be slapping the backs of the other riders and hugging Sarah, the driver. I couldn’t quite understand it all.
But, then he said something that made me wonder if it wasn’t just too scary. He said, “I was sitting there crammed into the back of the bobsleigh saying, ‘I will not be afraid. I will not be afraid. I will not be afraid’ and then after we got going I thought, “Okay, maybe I should be a little concerned,’” and he chuckled softly as he shook his head.
I thought, “Maybe, this day was all about confronting a fear square on and simply getting through it.”
But, then he continued in a half whisper, “You know, I really do think I’m invincible.” He took another sip of beer and again, came the little chuckle. Then he started recounting his near-death experiences: nearly crashing an Ultralite airplane, flying to Great Falls in his airplane when the engine stalled, almost drowning in the Gulf of Mexico while sailing, skiing and kicking loose an avalanche, just about drowning while whitewater rafting on two different occasions, barely making it out of a do-or-die situation while rock climbing…
I finally said, “Okay, that’s enough.’
But, he continued, “I know on a rational level that I am not invincible, but I’ve lived through so many dangerous times that I think God wants to keep me around for some reason. So, in my heart of hearts I feel I’m invincible.”
So then, I think I finally understood. He really did intend that the bobsleigh ride would be another fix of adrenaline. But somewhere along the way between “the sled may tip over” and turn fourteen he was confronted by the sobering truth of his own mortality. I had witnessed his reaction to a situation that exceeded even his high threshold for adventure. No wonder he was subdued; no wonder it took a while to get him to talk about it.
I am reminded of a query I read once: “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” The possibilities opened before me with just the thought. So, I ask myself now, “What would you do if you knew you were invincible?” Well, I guess I wouldn’t mind careening down the highway at 135 miles per hour or skiing off cliffs. I wouldn’t hit the brake; only the accelerator. Just maybe I understand a bit more about his drive to experience the extreme.
And through it all, I’m very proud of my husband. When others are kicking back in their Lazy Boy recliners, he’s eager for adventure. When some are thinking of retiring, he says, “I think I’m just getting good at the game.” When others slow down, he seems to speed up. Now, I won’t say that I don’t worry about him and I won’t say that he never gets hurt. But, he’s alive and he shows it.
And maybe I should be out there more often myself, but honestly, I think I’m just wired differently. In my heart of hearts I know that I am mortal and certainly I don’t feel the need to push to extremes to find joy. So, for now I watch him push his body to the limit, I share in his glory when he makes it to the bottom of the hill without crashing and I rush to his side when he does crash to help pick up the pieces. And at the end of the day, he often says, “I know sometimes I scare you. But, admit it, this is why you married me.” I know he’s right. I mean, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be married to Superman?