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Motivation Has Two Faces: My Daughters’

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Sep 2, 2016

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With the heat descending upon us in July and August, we headed to the hills with family. We would be able to relax and get out of the usual routine.  Good goals at the end of a summer, before school starts. But then, for some reason I still do not fully understand, I also decided to enter myself in a 50-kilometer mountain bicycle race.

I thought entering the race would not only let me do something fun with my brother, who is an avid mountain biker, but also demonstrate the value of trying something difficult. They seemed to get into the idea; my 5-year-old focused on naming my bike (Sven) and talking to it like a playmate. But my older daughter could grasp that her not-at-all prepared father was trying something hard and hoping to live to discuss it with her later.

This idea sounded well and good – noble, even — until we began driving into the mountains. That’s when the terror took hold. I looked ahead at the looming peaks, some still covered in white in July, and thought: I have made a big mistake.

I felt the thin air as soon as we pulled up to the hill station lodge. This may not have been a peak in the Himalayas, but to go from sea level to 2500 meters is not a good situation for a person like me. To adjust, my brother and his friends went for a quick warm-up ride.

I went for a beer. In the past month, with the girls home on holiday, I had spent approximately zero days training while attending to their innumerable interruptions. It was a bold strategy, I admit. But I was counting on having enough in me for 50 kilometers and nothing more.

  I gave them the hug of someone who was never going to see his children ever again.

The next morning, the girls saw me off at the starting gate. Other, more obviously prepared riders were checking all sorts of fancy equipment and monitors, but the girls seemed supremely confident in my abilities. (Aren’t children wonderful and naïve creatures?)

I gave them the hug of someone who was never going to see his children ever again.

Halfway into the race, it became clear this hadn’t been an overreaction. For three hours, I had been dodging rocks, trees, branches, furry creatures, scaly creatures, more branches, more rocks, heat exhaustion, and many other things that should generally stop any sane person from riding a bike – or even walking – for this length of time.

But every time I thought maybe I had hit my limit, I also thought of the girls. Being a relentless pessimist, I approached it from the idea of disappointing them. I guess you’re supposed to visualize the experience of crossing the finish line, but that felt so far away. Instead, I visualized my children laughing and pointing at me.

The race had one quirky feature. The race’s route curved in a way that, at the 27-kilometer mark, there was a way out; you could just ride your bike across a short, 100-meter road and back to the starting point.  It was an escape hatch that beckoned, as I — very sore and somewhat delusional – approached it. I thought “Why not? Who cares?” and was this close to turning down it.

But then suddenly a vision of the girls rose up, disappointment all over on their faces . So, I just peddled up yet another hill and out of sight. Only 23 kilometers to go.

Six hours after I set out, I reached the finish line, in some kind of delirium. For the last 22 kilometers, I had been muttering, cursing and generally wishing I was doing anything other than biking. I could barely move any muscles at this point, not even to stand up after I sat down. I kind of rolled off to the side so no other bikers would run over me like a speed bump.

But then the girls ran over. Asked excited questions about the race. Hugged me. And hugging them back was easy. The happiness on their faces was worth the pain that roared back as soon as they let go.

We often worry about how to motivate our children. (I’ve actually written about it before.) We spend so much time trying to encourage them to achieve new heights. It’s fascinating, and a bit overwhelming, to see the process play out in reverse, when our children motivate us to push beyond our limits.

It’s possible they do this all of the time, we just don’t notice it amid the daily grind; this particular death race just happened to make it impossible to ignore. (I still ache.) Without the psychological push of seeing the girls at the finish line, I probably would have left the race halfway and gone for another beer – or just lived in the woods for the rest of my life, given my inability to move post-race.

With it, I think I did show them the reward of trying something difficult, of hard work and perseverance. I know – it surprised me, too.

Not that they noticed. My 5-year-old’s first question was how Sven was feeling.

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Written By Rajat Soni

Rajat is an Indian-American stay-at-home father of two girls, aged 7 and 3, one of whom was born in India. After working as a lawyer and raising his girls for several years in Mumbai, he moved to the U.S., where he became the primary caretaker for his daughters while his wife started a new job. He’s interested in exploring the role modern fathers play in the lives of their young children.

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