Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Why I ride

I was climbing out of the small valley where the Soos creek trail runs, and my legs were burning. My breath seared my throat as it rattled past my teeth, and I pondered the replacement of my front chainring with something a little more reasonable. Only another 50 feet of climbing, I tell myself. Only another 40.

It's times like this that I remember my childhood. I remember the running, especially.

The first time my family moved to the US for any substantial amount of time, I was 10. That seems incredibly young to me now (no, really!) although my math is definitely correct. I remember it so vividly. We had the good fortune to be living in Connecticut, fairly far from civilization, in the beginnings of the Adirondacks. Connecticut is a beautiful state, neither flat nor featureless, as the Midwest often manages to be. The seasons are vivid, and distinct, the entire valley changing color in a matter of days. The area we were in made poor farmland, and was mostly covered in secondary deciduous forest.

I had one particular teacher who was obsessed with fitness. He was in great shape, and loved to run everywhere, and couldn't understand why we didn't want to do likewise. I just wanted to build go-karts out of lawnmowers and electric wheelchair motors and play games on the 386 in the library. Thinking back, I just wasn't old enough to get it. I liked sports, and was reasonably good at them, but had no desire to go running for no good reason other than burning calories.

Frankly, it hurt too much. I'm just not built for running. I'm fast over a short distance, but on anything longer than a few hundred meters, physics and genetics both dictate that I will be experiencing serious pain in short order. My legs aren't particularly long, and I'm not particularly slender. I've already complained about how the BMI system consistently rates me as 'overweight' (and probably always has). I was blessed with a fair amount of childhood fat, and nothing I did seemed to make any difference. I remember swimming specific strokes for tremendous distances one summer as part of a contest - by this same teacher, of course - with fitness components. I swam 2 miles of crawl without stopping. It took all afternoon. I racked up tens of miles of sidestroke in half-mile or mile increments. I was still fat.

Still, I loved swimming, and since that part of Connecticut is dotted with small bodies of water, I had ample opportunity. There were plenty of things that I enjoyed doing that burned calories, although I didn't think of them that way. I could (and did) swing a ax or a maul for hours. Boiling thousands of gallons of maple sap into syrup requires a fantastic amount of firewood. I learned to ice-skate in Connecticut, and when the local lakes froze over you could skate for miles over a glassy sheet, frozen plant life flashing past beneath your blades.

I still had to run. I guess the idea was that once you were forced to do something you'd come to like it. It didn't work. The neighborhoods of Norfolk are seared into my memory along with the soundtrack of my rasping breath. Staring at the houses as they go by, ever so slowly, desperate for something to distract me from the pain. Just another few hundred feet to the top of this hill... Just another couple hundred...

Sure, there are moments on the bike I wonder why I'm doing what I'm doing, usually once the gradient gets much steeper than 10% for more than a few hundred feet. But even at it's worst, the pain doesn't compare to running. The scenery, the smell of the tree leaves as the year turns to autumn, the endorphin rush after the climb - that's all still there.

So I ride because it's everything running was supposed to be for me, and everything running isn't.

I'm sure my teacher would be proud.

No comments: