The incredible heaviness of other people’s training

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I used to have a friend in real life who vanished from Facebag one day. “Yo, dude,” I said. “What happened?”

“I couldn’t stand all the happy people.”

“What do you mean?”

“Everyone was surrounded by a loving family in a beautiful home with a new bike and a cute dog. My life felt like shit.”

“It did?”

“Oh hell yeah. I was like ‘There’s no way that all 1,500 of my Facebag friends are that happy.’ You know? Divorce and suicide and drunkenness and jail and cheating on each other and debt and getting fired and loneliness and you know, reality. But even though I personally would see a friend at AA, there he’d be smiling on Facebag as if he weren’t on the knife edge of suicide and collapse.”

“People want to be happy.”

“I get it. But it made me feel like a loser. So I’m out.”

“And?”

“I feel great. No more time spent looking at other people’s happiness. I can focus on my own miserable fucking life and how to make it better.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. So for someone on Facebag it may not mean a lot when I get through Christmas without having a screaming match with my parents, but for me that’s progress. Feels great. My success is mine. Don’t have to compare it to some dude’s Ferrari that his wife bought him for the holidays so he can drive the fucking twins to Harvard en route to cashing in their billion-dollar winning lottery ticket.”

After that, every time I ran into Friend, he really was happier, and each time I asked him if he missed social media.

“Oh sure,” he’d say. “Like I miss having my big toe gnawed off by a pit bull with rabies.”

So I recently joined my club’s Strava page. On Strava I don’t follow anyone because I only use it to keep track of mileage. I don’t ride with a Garmin or a power meter or a heart/jock strap, don’t know how fast I’m going, how far I am from home, or when I’m getting back. I don’t give a fuck how far anyone else has ridden or how many KOMs they’ve harvested or how many miles they rode this week or month or year. Why not? Because crappy though it may be, my training plan has remained the same over decades:

  1. A little > nothing
  2. Ride with people when you can
  3. Go hard

As you’d expect, the results haven’t been spectacular, except in the one simple metric that matters, i.e. I’ve kept riding all my adult life, with almost zero interruptions. As people I used to ride with and race with have fallen off the radar screen and gone over to the dark side of Cheesecake Factory, unlimited servings of alcohol, or even triathlons, I’ve kept plodding away. Without any goals, without any targets to hit or to miss, and with nothing but the pleasure of riding a bike to keep me going combined with congenital meanness, it’s kind of worked. I’m hardly the last man standing, but many have come and gone and I’m still at it. Wish I had a nickel for every cycling enthusiast who was going to keep riding until he died and quit after five years with a quiver of bikes, a closet full of kits, and a garage turned into a professional indoor training space-cum-mechanic’s lab.

In other words, just plodding the fuck along, immune to the awesomeness of everyone else, works for me.

So when I joined the Big Orange Club Strava page I got a huge shock. Like, I suck. Not just the usual “Oh well, I suck,” that I accepted long ago, but the “Man, you are probably the worst cyclist in history and should donate your bike to an underprivileged fixie rider.”

The reason I suck so bad is that the club’s leader board is astounding. People ride 300+ miles a week and climb more hills than a Sherpa. It used to be satisfying to knock out 150 or 190 miles and think “Great week! Way to rock it, Wanky!” but no more. That won’t even get you up to the middle of the club scatter graph. Dude, if all you got is 200 miles a week, YOU SUCK and why are you hanging out with us?

At least that’s how it felt. And the following rationalizations, by the way, don’t work.

  1. My rides are quality, not quantity.
  2. Most of the people ahead of me on the leader board don’t race.
  3. Miles don’t equal speed.
  4. I dropped him and him and him and him and her and her and her last week and wasn’t even pedaling hard.

Those rationalizations don’t work for the same reason that my buddy’s observations about the imperfect lives of his Facebag friends didn’t work. When you see more miles and more climbing, it automatically makes you feel slower and less fit and more like a worthless slug. What’s worse, looking at some college kid with 389 miles makes me want to compete, even though it’s that very type of obsessive competition that I have never done and the avoidance of which that has allowed me to keep pedaling my bike for 35 whole years.

In fact, I even had it summed up in a little aphorism: “If you ride to achieve you’ll eventually quit. If you ride for fun you’ll ride for life.”

The huge challenge with cycling, especially as you get decrepit and your wife gives you birthday cards that gently make fun of your erectile dysfunction, is forcing yourself to roll out–not out of the house, out of bed. Once that battle is won, a fierce life-and-death struggle that begins and for most people ends with the gravitational pull of the warm pillow, everything else takes care of itself. But when you think that you’re already behind the 8-ball on Wednesday morning because you’ve only got 51 miles for the week and the club leaderboard has a dozen people already knocking on 150, it makes you want to give in to the siren song of “sleep more, ride later.”

The later, of course, never comes.

The other problem is that our club’s Strava leaderboard seems to feature people who are at completely different points in their cycling lives from me. Maybe they’re new or new-ish riders who are still on fire for all things bicycling. Maybe they have a coach. Maybe they are in their 40’s and doing their first athletic activity since high school. Maybe they’re trying to upgrade in 2017. Maybe they have one of those things, what are they called? Oh, yeah, goals. I’ve heard of those!

Whatever they’re up to, they’re doing something different from me, which is struggling simply to keep riding because nothing looks fresh and rosy and pink and fluffed when it’s in its fourth decade. I’m not fired up by having big miles or lots of climbing or racing or the Donut Ride or anything. My fire was doused in ice water years ago and all that’s left now is a 53-year-old bag of skin trying to slow the inevitable skid off the edge into the abyss.

Sure, I get fired up when I’m finally on the bike and pedaling, but that’s like saying I feel good when I win the lottery. Any fool can be happy when he’s doing something fun. But the trick is to get fired up beforehand, because without that you never make it out the door, and igniting the spark at 5:00 AM when you’re only seven years younger than a dead Princess Leia, two years younger than a dead Prince, the same age as a dead George Michael, two years older than a dead Michael Jackson, and eighteen years older than a dead Mozart, striking the flint is harder than you think.

And since the club leaderboard makes the battle with the pillow exponentially harder than it already is, I finally succumbed and hit the “leave” button on the club leaderboard. No offense, but I feel better already.

END

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