Riding in Circles

A few years ago, I used to ride a stationary bike at the gym on a weekly basis. I’d get on for an hour, before approaching a litany of weight machines and embarking on a quest of futility. Most of the time during the cardio, I’d watch the flat-screen they had smartly positioned in front of the rows of bikes, ellipticals, and stairmasters. Being Saturday mornings, however, the pickings were slim, and it didn’t help that the remote was nowhere to be found. So I’d catch a little SportsCenter on a good day, and a little Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on most days. Anyhow, there were other ways to amuse myself as I pedaled mindlessly and somewhat furiously – music and podcasts, a couple of magazines, staring at walls, and so forth. When you’re firmly planted in one place, an hour can feel a pretty long time.

I started biking again for exercise a few months ago, mostly to make up for a shorter commute after a move across town. This time, without the benefit of a campus gym membership, I took it to the streets.* I live pretty close to this reservoir, and it seemed an ideal spot for a weekly ride. I decided to scout the location one day, and packed a book, as well as a snack or two. But once I started in, I figured I was already there, and decided to just go with it. The roads around the reservoir comprised about 1.7 miles (according to Google), and over the course of that first day, I came to favor it over the busy and gravelly 1.5 mile path directly on the water. I did about six laps, I think, and went home exhausted. It had taken a little over an hour. I had found my spot.

*The irony of riding outdoors in 35 degree Boston when I rode indoors in perpetually 70 degree Southern California is not lost on me.

The first few times I returned to the route, it was a lot of fun. Even though I was going around in circles (almost literally), I found it difficult to get a sense of the route’s full topography. I’d remember features on the path only when I came upon them again – in my mind, they were all scattered about, lacking a cohesive blueprint. The fact that weather conditions varied only added to the novelty of each ride (except for the one day it poured rain, which was downright miserable). I felt like I was processing everything slowly, and as a result, each ride felt busy. This was the case when I was there for six laps. And after I went ahead and bumped up the number the third week, it was the same when I was there for seven laps, and eight.

I was spending more time on these reservoir rides every weekend. After about a month and a half, I pretty much came to know the route inside and out. I obviously remembered the few turns that were necessary, but my familiarity went far beyond that. I knew the spots when I needed to shift to a lower gear, the bumps I wanted to avoid when no cars were around, even the places rainwater would gather in slightly larger puddles. Sure, there were times when I needed to be quick on my feet, but the ride was becoming mechanical, almost second nature. There was nothing wrong with that, of course – the routine was the point. Still, firmly planted on a bicycle seat for an hour and a half, I started having a not insignificant amount of time to fill.

Of course, I couldn’t resort to television on the road, and I didn’t have the capability to read magazines either. I considered earbuds, but was uncomfortable with the proposition of having cars threaten my existence while I rocked to Taylor Swift Jay-Z in complete ignorance. My weekly bike ride thus became thinking time.  It was actually something I was less than enthralled with. It’s an understatement to say I’m not a thinker; I’d like to think that my shallow nature, for lack of a better descriptor, contributes to a sense of detachment, perspective, and humor, which in turn accounts for some semblance of inner peace. That sounds a bit much, but basically, not overthinking things was a calling card of sorts. But in this situation, I couldn’t exactly shut it down for an hour and a half.*

*Words from Homer Simpson come to mind: “Okay, brain. You don’t like me and I don’t like you, but let’s get through this thing and I can continue killing you with beer.”

It was pretty easy to fill the mind for the first few weeks, with eight or nine laps. I engaged in a bit of introspection, some of it healthy, some of it not. It was on a ride that I confronted my dissatisfaction with my personal life, and became somewhat determined to address it (turning to online dating, a subject for another post). On another, I tried piecing together the structure of an article I was working on, but to no avail. The problem was that I was often interrupted – to maneuver between cars, to silently curse a wrong-way jogger on the road, hell, to pant and get my water bottle. The thoughts soon came in shorter spurts, and ironically, without much thought. I decided to run away to Canada. I wanted to run instead of bike. I dismissed the value of Sunday brunch.

That’s how it was for a while. But the laps increased, and correspondingly, so did the amount of time I spent on the bike. After I got into double digit laps, I started breaking the ride up in my mind. The first two were warm ups. The last two comprised the home stretch.  But the in-between, that was the hard part. And it was difficult to fill that time. Reverting to my preferred state, I consciously decided to avoid heavy introspection. I was out of topics anyway. So instead, I’d count the pedal strokes for a section of the lap. I’d go as far as I could with just my left hand gripping the handlebar. I’d try to calculate how many miles I had gone at a particular point in time.* But after a couple of months, I was on the bike for two hours each go-around. That’s a pretty long time.

*Multiplying 1.7 by anything other than 10 is quite a task when you’re pedaling.

I probably reached a breaking point when I devoted almost the entire duration of one particularly uneventful ride to running through every scene of the 1985 classic, Back to the Future. Not every piece of dialogue – that would have been a bit much. But I played the entire movie in my head, struggling to remember every significant action in every scene. Marty in Doc’s lab. Strums electric guitar. Blows out speakers.  Flies backwards. Phone call from Doc. Meeting at the mall that night. Clocks are all slow. Marty’s late for school. He takes off. That’s Scene 1. And on it went. I was surely losing my sanity. Still, I returned to the reservoir every week, rationalizing it with benchmarks. I hit 20 miles (including the 1.4 total to and from home). A few weeks later, I doubled the length of my original six-lap ride. A while after that, I was at 25 miles (14 laps).  And that was when I decided I needed a change.

With winter on the horizon, my regular bike rides were nearing an end. I figured I might as well take advantage of the remaining fall weather to check out the Minuteman Bikeway, an 11 mile trail that began a few miles from where I lived. So on the day when I was due for a 15-lap run, I headed north instead. I was a bit apprehensive as I made my way towards the trail on city streets; after just a few miles, I was on territory that I had previously traversed only by car. Bike lanes seemed to begin and end indiscriminately, while every intersection was a new and potentially hazardous experience. The features on the path were a blur, paradoxically both vaguely familiar yet completely novel. I had no benchmarks for progress, and so, I just kept pedaling. Eventually, I got there. The lively feeling remained.

The bikeway kept me busy. The path itself was consistently well-laid* – save for the few bumps that warned you of an upcoming intersection. The landscape was vast. A football field appeared, later a baseball diamond. There was a beautiful meadow. A chapel with an overhang that extended over the bikeway. Plus, a countless number of farmhouses, plains, trees, and everything else. I even crossed over a freeway at some point. It was overall an overwhelming visual experience, even visceral in a sense. I kept wondering if I was nearing the finish, stopping a couple of times to check on my phone and see where I was relative to home. Eventually, I reached the end of the bikeway. And then, after sitting for a little bit, I headed back in the opposite direction.

*That’s what she said.

I stopped briefly a couple of times to take pictures. Once closer to home, I stopped for brunch with friends. The ride had taken me three hours. After an hour or so respite, I started the last stretch home. But my legs had stiffened, and when I reached the final half mile incline, the pain in them was so excruciating that I had to get off the seat. Eventually, I walked my bike up the hill and home. I had gone 28 miles before I stopped for brunch – the equivalent of 17 reservoir laps, a full month ahead of schedule. But it had been a lot of fun. And so, the next weekend, I decided to forgo the reservoir again. The bikeway was a little less fuzzy this time, but it remained a novelty. Again, the ride was a challenge. Again, it kept me occupied. This time, I made it all the way home. 30 plus miles, three plus hours.

I’ve been on the Minuteman three times now. I’m starting to know its features, inside and out. And when you’re firmly planted on a bicycle seat, three hours – well, that’s a pretty long time.

Postscript: On my fourth trip to the Minuteman (and possibly the last for a while, as subfreezing temperatures are due to kick in), I had to hit the ground to avoid getting run over by a car. I escaped with a scrape on my knee, but the incident occupied my thoughts for the remaining two and a half hours. I would have happily opted for boredom, perhaps even introspection.

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3 thoughts on “Riding in Circles

  1. I’ve never really enjoyed going to a gym to exercise. I’ve gone to a gym more frequently the past few years as I play less sports, but it always seems like I force myself to go. Unless something really entertaining is on (like the Olympics), even the TVs or music don’t do much to alleviate the sheer boredom that I feel inside a gym. I ran outside for the first time in the summer of 2011, and I started regularly running outside this past spring. I’m still getting in to running outside, but it amazes me how much more enjoyable running outside is compared to using any cardio machine at a gym. I’ve always been a walker because I enjoy looking at houses, trees, people, flowers, cars, birds, shops, and whatever else I come across during a walk. I can take the same route over and over but still notice new things over time. Now I’m starting to appreciate running as a slightly faster version of the same experience, which also happens to burn more calories.

    I sometimes have deep thoughts while walking or running, such as career planning or introspection on the purpose of life, but more often, I think about trivial things like favorite sports memories. I also end up not thinking for much of a walk or run. I just look around me and search for new things. I do try to change my route occasionally or look for new routes, and it’s usually fun to explore a new area.

    I think that what I like about walking or running outside is that it’s one of the times where I don’t have to think. I spend much of my days looking at a computer, books, or journal articles, and I sort of bombard myself with information throughout the day. To have some time that doesn’t require deep thinking or gives me a chance to think deeply about something other than my research is refreshing. I suppose that exercising at a gym could provide that time, too, but there’s something about a gym that doesn’t provide quite the same rejuvenation.

    I’ve never really thought about why before, but I think it’s because a gym is indoors and inherently less stimulating and unnatural than being outdoors. If I watch a TV at a gym and then work in an office, it’s like my day is spent inside either sitting and staring at a computer or running in place and staring at a TV. The latter doesn’t seem like much relief from the former to me.

    I haven’t joined a gym here in Tokyo because they’re expensive and have odd hours (many don’t open until 9 or 10am). I’ve found a few running routes in the neighborhood around my apartment, and some days after work, I’ll walk to a farther subway station before getting on a train home. I also started learning aikido. The classes are held inside a small dojo, but at least I’m learning something and meeting new people. I realize that I’ll probably join a gym again at some point in my life, but I feel good that I’ve added outdoor running to my non-gym exercise options. Now I just have to figure out how to gear up for winter.

  2. Jim, I think you’re spot on. We spend an obscene amount of time in front of screens, and even in the exact same spot (our chairs, offices, rooms). I agree that the gym can still feel like a very sterile environment. But I don’t necessarily get the same kick that some people do when I bike, or when I used to run, which can make exercise feel like a chore, and thus boring if I do the same path. For me, I think the key is to shift locales and do different things once in a while. This applies to exercise, but I would also say in general, like, going out to a museum or going for a drive or something. I was pretty bad about that last winter, staying confined in the house, so it’s something I’m more conscious about this time around.

    P.S, in terms of winter gear, what’s worked for me is a base layer (a synthetic long sleeve shirt), a middle layer (a thermal undershirt), and then a track jacket. Two layers for the legs, something to cover the ears, and wool socks. I’ve biked in 30 degrees with that, and with potential adjustments to the middle layer, I could probably handle colder weather.

    1. Thanks for the tips on winter running gear. I’ll see if I can hold out until Christmas and then go shopping with my parents in Michigan.

      I should start changing things up a little bit here. Our bodies need various exercises to stay in shape (not that I necessarily follow this advice), and our minds are no different. I used to regularly go to the Smithsonian museums and other more “touristy” places in DC. The museums here aren’t free, but I should take in the different things around me.

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