Note: #4 in the BABWTR Series – my quest to become a Bad-Ass Back-Woods Trail-Runner. Each stands alone, but it is helpful to read them in order.
I commute to work every day on my bicycle. I ride a mile! A half-mile in the morning, and a half-mile back home in the evening. Sometimes, when I have a doctor’s appointment or a meeting downtown, I’ll ride a total of two, maybe three miles – a big day! When the weather is nice, I might join one of my kids on a fitness ride. These rides usually top out at about ten miles. If I accumulate seven hundred miles a year, I’d be astonished.
In Gettysburg, my smallish town, I’m known as a cyclist. This is a myth. Seven hundred miles per year doesn’t make a cyclist. It barely makes a commuter, except I am one. I was even interviewed in the local paper for bike-to-work-week. One of the locals who rides every day, come hell, snow or high water. But from my perspective, that interview was about the environment, not cycling.
I don’t think I do anything to intentionally further this cyclist-myth, it’s just an assumption people make. Frequently, people ask me about my routes, my mileage: I admit I rarely go for rides. People ask me for gear or bike advice: I tell them anything I ever knew is twenty years out of date. But people still ask. Sometimes it’s the same people over and over.
The myth goes on. I’m seen at my work-place locking up my bike. It’s a community center – hundreds of people per day come by to exercise or to drop off their kids in day care. They see me walking to my office with my helmet in hand. I have a decorative chainring tattooed on my calf – and I wear shorts seven months of the year; there’s a bike poster on my office wall, and cycling bumper-stickers all over pickup truck. OK, it might be reasonable to assume I’m a cyclist, but really, I just like bicycles.
At one point, I had cycling cred. My commute was longer – sixteen times longer. My weekends were spent on a mountain bike. Either riding trails in distant DC exburbs, or shredding staircases, curbs and swaths of parkland on and around the National Mall. I once spent four months bicycling around the United States. But I’m done with this. Bicycling is too time-consuming. If I have a couple of hours for exercise, I’m going for a run.
By far, the majority of my pedaling is on a spin bike. I instruct two classes per week. Each class is an hour long. There’s no warm-up or cool-down, we’re “on” the whole time. Each class is a monstrous workout, at least it is for me: a thousand calories burned; a puddle of sweat on the floor; come home and soak my clothes in vinegar; fight a headache for the rest of the day. If I was actually on a bike, I’d be knocking out an extra fifty-some miles per week.
But I’m not on a bike, I’m on a spin bike. And spinning isn’t cycling. To me, spinning is just an extension of my running program.
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When I graduated from college, bored and broke and not overly fond of TV, I ran to kill time. I laced up my high-top Converse All Stars, and I pounded my night-time neighborhood streets – four to six miles a night. I ran cross country during my senior year of high school, but it didn’t stick. I was slow, a back of the pack runner. College was about beer and pot and staying out all night. The three or five times I went running while at college, I was stoned. So it wasn’t until after graduation in 1984 that I became a runner.
My form sucked. I was a long-strider and a heel-striker. Shoes became more cushioned through the eighties and nineties, reinforcing my horrible form. Those popular air-filled soles were designed for my running style: launching from the toe; a moment fully in the air; crashing onto my heel. Running partners always complained about the noisy slap each foot made as I rocked back to my toe for the next take off. By the time I was thirty, I was a marathoner, a sub-seven 10-miler, and I was chronically injured. Knee-bursitis – an ailment I couldn’t shake, an ailment I needed to baby. I could run, but not much. My weekly mileage was limited. When I overran, my inflamed bursa would leave me limping for weeks. At its worst point, a big running week topped out at four or five miles.
For ten years, cycling filled the void. Where a five mile run hobbled me, two hundred mile weeks on a bike never gave me any trouble. Biking kept me fit – fit so I could run when I wanted to run. Despite the reality that I almost never ran, I was always a runner first, and then a cyclist.
Having children shook things up. Commuting to work included stopping by day care. I suppose this was possible on a bike, but it was too much trouble to be worth the effort. And those long, rambling weekend rides were too much time away from my family responsibilities. Short intense workouts – hard tempo runs – fit my lifestyle, but that bursitis was constantly in the way. By the time I moved to Gettysburg, I was all but done with exercise. A runner who didn’t run, a cyclist who didn’t ride. I was still reasonably fit, but only from urban walking.
Five years ago, with my running “career” in tatters, I became an indoor cycle instructor. Spinning is the only activity that approximates the adrenaline surge I get from a hard run. My class was the graveyard shift, which at my fitness center isn’t late at night, but early in the morning. Twice per week, at 5:30AM, I instructed a class for just one or two people. I didn’t mind the empty room, because what I was really doing was making sure I pushed out a pair of hard-cardio/HIIT workouts each week. These sessions were a viable running replacement. When I actually went out for a run, usually a 5K or an 8K race, I was still capable of knocking out a respectable time.
I’m persistent bastard. I just don’t give up. I felt like running was my lost identity – I wanted it back. I tried a variety of shoes, I purchased orthotics. I iced my knee beyond the point of frostbite. I did yoga. I even went through a phase where I put Preparation H on my bursa twice daily. None of these remedies worked. Finally, I rebooted my form. I got off of my heels and started running like a runner. A clean mid/front sole strike. High cadence. Textbook posture. And I finally got results. My speed took a huge hit, but my mileage slowly crept back up.
Foam rolling and diet changes (cutting out three-quarters of my alcohol intake) did the rest. Now I run as long as I want… well, as long as I’ve wanted. For a while that was up to a half marathon. Then it was a 25K. Now I’m gunning for a 50K. I’m back into a base building phase. A longer and longer long-run each weekend. This winter, running mileage consists of just that long run, but as the weather improves, as the snow melts, I’ll add a second weekly run. A quick six miler to remind my legs that something more is expected of them.
And that’s my goal, become an ultra-marathoner on one and a half runs per week. Spinning is still my base. Those two hard early-morning hours create the majority of my stamina. They teach me to close my mind to suffering; to slow my heart and regain my breath after intense anaerobic intervals; to get the most out of my limited exercise hours; to use every single workout as a device to toughen me up.
I’ll still bike to work. I’ll continue to ride with my wife and kids. I might even head out for a twenty-five mile spin across the countryside now and again. But I won’t do this for exercise. These are an excuse to be outdoors, wind in my hair, sun on my arms, all that crap. No, I’m not a cyclist, not any more.
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Something New: Flash non-fiction for the bike geek:
I have four bikes in my garage. Three of them are hanging from hooks.
My commuter: A fixed-gear Specialized Langster, I bought as a present to myself. I earned it with three years of commuting on a twenty-five year old bike. My thriftiness and gas savings justify the purchase. My Langster leans against the wall by the door. I ride it every day.
My road-bike: It’s a bad-ass hybrid, a Giant Seek, built for urban riding. It’s got mountain-bike geometry and 700cm wheels – fast and agile. I bypassed the traditional road bike. My shoulder injury makes drop-bars unappealing. Plus, I want the option to screw on panniers and tour. The handlebars were too wide, so I cut off six inches. It’s a comfortable bike, but it has a mushy seat. I should really buy a decent one.
My other two bikes? They’re garbage. A pair of fixies cobbled together from trashed bikes and various parts boxed up in my basement. One of the bikes is that twenty-five year old commuter I just mentioned. It was a Trek 1200 before I started ripping it apart. I pulled off anything that wasn’t necessary for propulsion. Derailleur, brakes, extra chainrings, and all the cogs but one. Now it’s a single-speed fixed-gear. It’s a joy to ride, and it fits me like a custom build. But I can’t keep the chain on. It flies off at inopportune times, like when I have a car on my ass.
The other bike is a 1970s Sears Free Spirit. I bought it from the United Way for five bucks. It’s a thing of beauty. Sparse and clean. Totally stripped and repainted. A hand built thirty-two spoke wheel tricked onto thirty-six spoke hub. Flop and chop handlebars. Nothing purchased except an eight dollar lockring and three cans of spray paint. But I can’t ride it. It’s a piece of shit. The geometry is whacked. But I can’t throw it away either, so it hangs in my garage, waiting.