It’s not about the bike, or the running shoes. But then what is it about?
I pulled my old 1993-94 running log off the shelf this afternoon. It was the first year I ran, and I bought the “Runner’s World Training Diary” to keep my mileage. I have all my old logs, along with my George Sheehan running books and my beloved “Lore of Running” on the top shelf of my bookcase with my dad’s World War II diary.
The first log still gets used, because every race I run still goes in the “Racing Results” section at the back. In recent years, it’s been one race a year, my annual Thanksgiving Albuquerque Turkey, so the log’s kinda dusty, but it’s a fine record of something. But what?
It for sure records my slow physical decline into middle age, from my 20:34 5K on April 17, 1994 (I still remember the exquisite suffering of that day as I passed the two-mile mark, the guy next to me asking what our split was and me gasping it out) to the 25’s and 26’s of recent years. I look on that decline with cheerful equanimity — it is a comfort and not a pain.
See, I am really not an athlete. I am never the fastest. I do not mind. But there are moments when the suffering is exquisite, and those are the moments worth living for.
I pulled down the 1993-’94 log to add today’s time trial. I’ve pretty much switched to the bike, only running sporadically (aging ankles being what they are) so I figured the old log would be a good place to start adding bike races.
Paging through the old log, I had an epiphany.
Back in the day, I used to jot notes about each workout, and they became a sort of shorthand for my life: “2 mi Tempo, 7:50, w/ 1 mi warmup, 1 down, headache, never felt good. Job stress?”
‘Round about the first week of August 1994 there is this terse entry: “sick, lump in throat. worried, sore throat.”
Next day:”4 miles at park – middle two @ 8:30-8:00 felt weak but empowered – my body is my friend and ally, not my enemy.” (the actor turns to the audience here, breaking the fourth wall to say, “Don’t believe him for a minute, the boy is trying to convince himself of something….”)
Then this, two days later: “Rest – doctor stuff – thyroid scan today”
Then a bike ride the next day – “felt good to get out” – followed by this: “Bosque run – raced my lump for a mile on twisty trails – felt strong and powerful”.
The short story is that there was a tumor, surgery, it was benign, I didn’t die. How many thousand runs in my life, but I will never forget that day in the bosque.
At the time, I was runing at least once a week on the dirt road atop the levee along the Rio Grande. (Today it’s been paved, and I’m down there on the bike now at least once a week.) On that particular day I dipped down off the levee and into the woods along the river. The trails there twist and turn, woods so thick you’re lost until the trail emerges at some other end. That day I was flying, full of scared rage at the tumor in my throat, racing it as if I could somehow defeat it. Which is silly, obviously. There were statistics, some 90+ percent chance that it was benign and the rest that it was a killer, but my statistics had already been decided, like dice that had been thrown but covered up before I had a chance to see them. At that moment the dice either were double sixes, and I would die, or they weren’t. From a statistical point of view, of course, that’s comfortable odds, but the prospect of double sixes left me frickin’ terrified.
So I ran, and in those moments, suffered and reclaimed my body.
The bike has largely replaced the running shoes, and the feeling of that Saturday in the bosque is now replaced by the exquisite suffering of slamming into a headwind, trying to get onto Jaime’s back wheel before he slips away, or standing up out of the saddle, mashing the pedals and watching my heart rate peg as I climb. There’s life in those moments.
Being a realistic guy, I had two goals for today — a modest goal of breaking 21 miles per hour (33.8 kph) and an ambitious goal of 22 (35.6 kph). The Big Boys and Girls all break an hour, which would be 24.8 mph (40 kph), and the Big Boys and Girls all show up for this race. To be clear, dear readers, I am not Big. (see above: Fleck not athlete).
I had in mind that my fastest sustained ride, hourish in length, was 20.3 mph, but Moriarty is dead flat and dead straight so busting the old PR seemed doable. I had aero bars on the bike. I was 1337.
I got off to a weird start. They have two start lanes, with riders off 30 seconds aparts – left lane, right lane, left lane, right lane. The guy to my left, before me, popped his chain at the last minute, and there was great commotion getting it back on, so I was completely distracted with all my mental planning out the window. But then it was go, and I was off, and this thing settled over me in the first five minutes that was an almost preternatural calm.
I cannot tell you what was growing in the farmers’ fields on either side of the road, but (cyclists will understand this) I sure was happy to see the first farm house flying a flag. You can’t calibrate heart rate and bike speed without some understanding of wind, but with the flag-borne information in hand I just settled in an pumped. The speed was slower than I’d hoped, but I knew I’d have a tail wind coming back, so I just gritted and bore down.
‘Round the turn and heading for home, I kicked it up a gear, sometimes two, and watched the digits on my average speed indicator creep up. I realized about 10 minutes into the return that I would be able to break 21, and that 22 was probably out of the question.
There are a bunch of technical things that I’ll need to understand for the next time ’round – my legs wore down before my heart and lungs, which means more speed work (maybe some climbs?). And I really need to learn more about how to maximize my start without slipping into the anaerobic zone too early. I was intentionally cautious, didn’t want to go out too fast after really blowing that part of the other time trial I rode two weeks ago.
But the technical doesn’t matter. What really matters is that it was a beautiful cool late summer morning, with lovely wild sunflowers lining the roadside, and pounding down that final stretch toward the finish tower, my heart rate pegged, I felt very much alive.
My time: 1:09:16, spot in the middle between 21 and 22.