Food For Thought

Risk, Patience, and the Isle of Man TT

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A breeze sifts through the soft grass upon which I lie.  Large white clouds drift in a big blue sky. I’m tucked into a groove on the side of a hill. There are a hundred of us scattered along the doglegged road. Only my hands and face are exposed to the cold air.

I’m waiting.

A tram rattles up the hill. I see it round the side of the valley. It’s rammed full of people like a line for a show. Except none of us have paid entry. The Isle of Man is free to roam, as is the spectacle we’ve come to see. The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy (TT) is a bi-annual motorcycle race around the isle located between England and Ireland. The numbers are theatrical; top speeds of 332 km/h, the average speed over the 60km course is 210km/h. There are on average two deaths per year. Motorcycles built for race tracks are raced millimetres from walls, kerbs, and men holding beer. The riders of the TT risk their lives while spectators watch in relative safety. Here on this island I’ve discovered that risk is omnipresent in the actions we take and those we don’t. In either case waiting in the discomfort is part of the process.

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Tucked into the hill I’m drifting in and out of sleep. That is until I catch that distinctive sound of a screaming engine in the wind. It’s the sound that stops any rider, mid-conversation, on any street in the world. For one moment nothing else in the world matters but to see what’s making that noise. It resonates deep within us. I can feel it approaching, the sound vibrates furiously in my ear. Then I see them; man and machine flash into view. Grabbing gears before the corner. The engine barks and the rider tips the bike over. The throttle is reopened and the air is alight. They are out of sight as quickly as they came. The silence returning only for a moment before the routine repeats. The cold, the cider, my breathing now forgotten in the rush of oncoming racers. They are not chasing each other rather they chase their own time. Each rider has set off ten seconds apart. Each rider takes their own risks for the reward that is measured in tenths of a second.

The TT is a ritual. The pilgrimage of riders. The preparations of the circuit. The gathering of camps on football fields. We are not just an audience but a part of the ceremony. We each take a seat on the side of a hill, the edge of a wall, or a spot in the grandstands. We assume a level of risk. We are present for the risk these riders take.

We often forget the role we play in being present for the risks others take. Whether it’s sitting on a hill in the middle of the Irish sea, or sitting with a friend or family member who needs to be listened to. Just sitting, waiting, and being that audience is our best course of action. When we rush the whole world goes against us. That goes for rushing through a challenge. As I sit here I watch close to sixty riders complete lap after lap of dangerous riding. With each lap they tackle their fears while trying to make marginal improvements in their time. I see those same improvements in myself and in the men who choose to take the risk of sharing their problems. Day after day, week after week. The challenges of completing each lap are as individual as the people experiencing them. The challenge for us, as the audience, is to wait. To hold the space.

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The Isle of Man is a unique place. It’s a place where we openly consider and bare witness to risk. It is part of many conversations discussed between men with beards in pubs. I find myself listening, asking, and responding to ideas of bravery, stupidity, or the adequate size of a man’s man parts in order to take such risk. The power of the TT crowd resonates. I’m never alone or lonely too long before a conversation is struck upon which motorcycles are the hinge of discourse. We wait together between bouts of rain and rounds of drinks.

Then the procedure of course closure begins. Road blocks are locked down. Cars urged onto side streets. Pedestrians rush to find seats. The twelve Travelling Marshals rocket down the road to their designated checkpoints. The quiet comes. We wait. We bare witness to the risk these riders take and the challenges they face. Each screaming machine. Every jump, wobble, and bump. We hold our breath. ‘It is at the margins where dangers and opportunities we are not paying attention to lurk’ (Norman Doidge). These racers are pushing margins of risk on two-wheels beyond many of us could comprehend. But the approach of each rider is to improve slowly. Lap by lap, day by day. Holding the throttle longer, hugging a line tighter, or braking a little later. This is what I’ve learnt watching these riders. That my margins, the boundaries of risk, are best approached with practice, patience, and a little help.

I wander back to my tent silently considering my own boundaries. I settle into my sleeping bag. The cardboard I pilfered from the canteen has stopped the leeching of my body heat into the ground. I lay here considering the risk I have taken and those I haven’t (yet). Not so long ago, I would have tumbled into that abyss of imagined fears. As the rain pelts against the tents I focus on the opportunities that pushing my boundaries has afforded me. The rain falls, and I wait for sleep.

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