When I was a teenager and into my so-called “cycling phase” — as a fledgling professional, I refused to refer to it as bicycling, or even bike riding: the chosen terms for rubes and recreational enthusiasts — I meandered along the back country roads outside of town, huffing this way or that depending on mood or traffic. In one direction, I could make it to the lake. In another, I’d sweep through rose-bordered vineyardlands, fighting the wind.
On the way home, however, I had only one route — a route that welcomed me back to our quiet suburb and took me right past the home of a girl I was infatuated with. I always liked that word, infatuated. It sounded like such an innocent, schoolyard term for what would probably now be considered stalking.
Although I never did see this girl as I had always wished — outside, maybe washing a car or dashing naked to the mailbox — I was always prepared for a chance meeting. My cycling wardrobe was well considered for such an occasion: pink or neon blue cycling shorts, clip-in pedal shoes, a real team racing jersey, pink helmet and pink Oakley Razor Blade sunglasses. It occurred to me later that I probably looked like a billboard for Miami Vice, if you had replaced cool, tropical-clothes wearing cops with an awkward teenager who hoped the confines of Spandex would conceal that which made him an awkward teenager in the first place. What I mean is, I was cool. And fully prepared to be “discovered” outside her house, casually racing by.
“Oh,” she might have said, mail in hand, “Were you out bike riding?”
At this, I would have removed my glasses.
From there, it would have only gotten better.
“Hmm,” she would say, “Pink shorts, pink socks, pink glasses — did you have to put pink tape on your handle bars or did they come like that?”
“I did it myself.”
“Mmm hmm,” I would say, “I thought it went well with my neon blue bike.”
She would nod her head in agreement, unable to conceal a wide smile.
“Oh yes,” she would say, “That whole ensemble is just … special. Yup. Real special.”
And I would smile too. Because I would feel it deep down, our connection.
Of course, this never happened. For years I cycled around our neighborhood and this chance meeting never materialized. I grew older, lost interest. Someone stole that bike. And the dreams of professional cycling faded away. Fortunately, I took up high speed in-line skating and noted that not only were the streets around a certain house particularly smooth and fit for training but that my pink uniform was good for just about any sporting activity.
It’s remarkable now, to consider all this exercise. When I was a teenager, I wrestled briefly, and was on the swim and water polo teams for years. I played outside all day, every day: basketball, football, baseball, hide and seek, Bloody Murder, whatever the neighbor kids happened to be up to. Then topped it all off with professional cycle or skate stalking.
If I tried all that now, at 35, I would probably die. Or wind up on a list.
I’m finding it more and more difficult to exercise without constant aches and pains. The hypochondria doesn’t help. Whereas the normal person might jog for a couple miles and consider excess breathing, leg cramps or sweating the usual side-effects of continuous effort, I consider them the early onset symptoms of stroke, heart attack or something potentially bubonic. Fortunately it’s become normal for joggers to monitor their heart rates every now and then, as if even weekend warriors are in serious training, so I don’t feel so out of place while jogging down the sidewalk with one hand swinging to a natural runner’s cadence and the other lodged firmly at my carotid, wondering if the Big One is just another block away.
But the flip side is even more depressing. Whereas real exercise leaves me battling phantom ailments at every step, the lack of exercise leaves me battling real ones. If I take even a week off, my blood pressure rises like one of those county fair strength-testing hammer games, the little metal ball shooting skyward to ding the bell and produce an aneurysm. My back is sore almost all the time, my hamstrings pull themselves, my jaw sets itself into stone each night from stress and grinding, and I’m pretty sure I have exercise-related asthma.
So why, I wonder now, did I enter the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon?
If you’re a lazy, couch-potato hypochondriac who hears about people running marathons and then immediately thinks of all those poor guys who drop dead from heart attacks just yards from the finish line, then signing up for a grueling triathlon doesn’t seem like such a good idea.
And yet … I entered anyway.
Six years ago, when I found out Emmeline was on her way, I pressed the reset button on my life and started exercising. I knew I would be staying home with her, and I wanted to work off an excess of forty pounds I had built up after years in Cubicle Town so that I could be ready to play with her, so that I could be ready to have the energy required to deal with her. In the process, I lost the weight, lowered my blood pressure dramatically and found the energy to play every day.
Fast forward six years. I’m still exercising practically all the time. I still have the energy to play, to run, to throw the baseball around or kick the soccer ball around the park. But you know, there’s something about hitting your mid-thirties that both forces you to watch horribly cheesy television programs about people who have reached their mid-thirties (oh don’t mock me; it’s clearly generational) and to think about the future, about yourself, your family and about … being around.
As a teenager, I used to exercise for fun, or other reasons, but as I’m taking to our city roads more and more for training, I’m finding now a touch of something deeper in these miles beneath my feet — a desire to ward off personal demons and stick around a little while longer and to see new milestones pile up: birthdays and graduations, weddings and children.
On the road one morning, while stretching a routine run into a few more miles and hoping that shortness of breath didn’t automatically mean blood clot accumulation in the lungs or maybe, just possibly, dysentery, it occurred to me that despite the intervening years between the wild abandon of teenage activity and the slow, aching decline into middle age, it’s possible that I’m still exercising for a couple girls, just different ones and for new and better reasons.
P.S. And speaking of health, please check out my efforts this Movember to raise money to fight cancer and ultimately humiliate myself.