Wednesday, June 07, 2006

At the races: on cycling

I've been riding in a series of races every Tuesday night for the last three weeks. They are held less than two miles from my house, so on Tuesday evenings my husband and I will roll out of the house on our bikes and ride over. When people ask me how I did, I have to find some way of telling them I'm happy with my performance, even though, in truth, I didn't do very well. "I did pretty well -- for me..." "I did badly, but better than the week before..." "I'm happy with how I did ..." And then we have this discussion of how what really matters is how I feel about the results, that I'm having fun and am getting in great shape. Yeah, yeah.

Last night I actually did pretty well -- I finished the race with the pack for the first time. The previous two weeks I stayed with them for 2/3 and then 3/4 of the way (they ride for about an hour) then had to drop out because I couldn't maintain a 25-mile an hour speed and an average heart rate of 173 bpm or so. But this time I was with them up until the very last bit of it.

When I arrive, I look around at the other racers and see all these people, almost entirely men (the first two races a couple other women rode but last night I was the only one), who look so strong, and I think, no way. This is silly; I can't compete. It must be something about seeing all those men with their low body fat percentages and their obviously rippling leg muscles that intimidates me. I've got big leg muscles, all right, but you don't see them unless you look really closely, covered as they are with my feminine layer of fat. But you really can't tell how someone will ride based on how they look. People who look a bit overweight will end up having some super-powerful muscles and they will leave you behind, or the scrawny guy who has the tiniest-looking muscles will fly up the hill like you wouldn't believe.

I dread these races every week. Every Tuesday I think, really, I'd rather just stay home and read. I think, oh, I'll just take it easy this week. I really don't feel like riding hard. My day was too stressful and I just need a rest. I warm up for a race and have no energy; I'm sluggish and can't work up speed. But something happens when I get really warmed up and the race begins -- I get energy, and by the end of the race, I have a lot more energy than I did at the beginning, even though my muscles are very glad I've stopped.

When I did training rides with my old cycling club, I'd do this obnoxious thing where I'd say to everybody, oh, I'm going to take it easy today. I'd get that lethargic feeling, and I would know it was going to be a slow ride. But then I'd get energy from somewhere, start riding faster and working harder, and people would get annoyed with me because I'd be pushing the pace when I'd promised not to. Actually, I'm not the only one who did this -- our conversations before the race would be about how everybody was tired that day and was going to take it easy. We may have believed it in the moment, but everything changed once the ride began.

All this tells me that I probably shouldn't listen to those feelings of dread and weariness when they come. Or maybe I should listen to them but not believe them. I feel that dread before a lot of difficult things I have to do -- it's similar to the sense of dread and weariness I will often feel before I teach a class. But once the class begins, I get energy from somewhere and I end up having fun.

Difficult things like bike races don't sap my energy: they create it. There is nothing worse for me than sitting around all day reading a book. I will feel weary and disgruntled by the time I go to bed. A perfect weekend day is really something like riding a race or doing a hard training ride in the morning, and then coming home, with new energy and the feeling I've accomplished something, and then sitting down and reading for as long as I like.

Speaking of reading, I recently finished Muriel Spark's novel Aiding and Abetting, which I will post on soon.