Apparently “New Bike Day” is a thing in the cycling world, and I got to celebrate it last week.
I never thought I could feel drawn to any other pursuit in the same way that I’ve always felt drawn to running. Even in high school, at 14 years old and a total noob who didn’t own so much as a stop watch, sports bra, or even a real pair of running shoes, I felt compelled to go out for the cross country team the first day of ninth grade. To this day I couldn’t tell you why I felt so completely and utterly committed to go into the athletic office and sign up for cross country immediately following Freshman Orientation. The first day of practice, I made it about 1k before having to stop and walk. I walk/jogged 3 miles that first day, far behind everybody else. After the first week, my shins hurt, I had blisters, I was still slow, I ran by myself every day because I couldn’t keep up with anybody else, at some point in every practice, shuffling and gasping my way along behind the rest of the team, I repeatedly thought, “I’m not really cut out for this.” But somehow, everyday I realized I loved it, and everyday I felt compelled to keep doing it, and 18 years later, that feeling hasn’t diminished in the slightest.
Since last fall however, there hasn’t been much of a choice other than to find a different outlet. Like many, to feel fulfilled, I need a physically demanding pursuit in the same way we all need food and air. An irrational part of me hated the nationally-renowned orthopedic surgeon who last winter looked at the MRI of my knee and detachedly suggested a surgical procedure with a god-awful long-term success rate, or that I “modify my lifestyle.” I walked out of the clinic later that day, wondering if he knew that what he had said felt akin to a death sentence, and that with a few words during that five minute/$2,000 appointment, it felt like my life just changed. I haven’t gone back. Also irrationally, a part of me seethed in fury at my friends, several of whom were physical therapists and runners themselves, who gently suggested that I find other pursuits, because maybe running isn’t the best one anymore.
And everyday, for six months, I’d still go out in the mornings and see how far I could get before it felt like someone was pick-axing away at my medial knee, sometimes it was 100 meters, sometimes it was a mile, on an especially good day it was two, always though, it was hard.
“At least you can do that much,” some well-meaning folks suggested. I wanted to agree, because they were absolutely right.
I was embarrassed, angry, and sad that a 20 minute jog was now an accomplishment, when it used to be a warm-up. It was a strange feeling of being trapped in a body that wasn’t what I was used to. No, I didn’t have a terrible terminal illness, just an incessantly nagging injury that halted me from doing the one thing I cared most about. I’d had plenty of injuries, but nothing that was so unyielding and unresponsive to anything. The void of not being able to pursue running goals was enormous, and in some strange way felt like the loss of a dependable, good friend.
I was bewildered by so many of my running friends who churn out well over 100 miles per week, racing dozens of times per year, seemingly never struggling with much more than fatigue and eating adequate calories. I was bewildered over how all of this just seemed to happen so fast, so out of nowhere. I was bewildered at how much it changed my outlook on life. I felt like an imposter working at a running store, wondering what on earth I was even doing there. I drifted apart from friends whom I had always known through running, partly unintentionally, partly because I realized we often only ever talked about running, because it was what had brought us together in the first place. Many acquaintances would ask about upcoming races, and I’d see their eyes glaze over in disinterest as I proceeded to tell them that I wasn’t sure that I’d be racing at all this year. I understood. Nobody wants to hear about injuries or anything other than PR’s and anticipated wins I suppose, so it goes.
Embarrassingly, I lapsed into more than a few pity parties, and then proceeded to feel even worse with the knowledge that there absolutely are far, far worse problems one could be afflicted with. I was disgusted with the feeling of self-absorption I felt like I possessed, but no matter with what or whom I busied myself with, I just couldn’t shake any of it. When you know what it feels like to draw tremendous joy from something, to no longer have it is made all the worse.
I was finally jolted back into reality one day, when upon hearing about the suicide of one very well-known runner who lived in Boulder, I realized that I was crushed for him because I fully empathized with the feeling of not particularly wanting to stick around in this life; as though the light was somehow snuffed out of everything and a permanent escape seemed like an inexplicably alluring one. That realization was jarring in the same way having a bucket of ice water unexpectedly pitched into your face might be, and it scared the hell out of me. I would love to think that I am at least a somewhat balanced, well-rounded person, but I was suddenly acutely aware of the dependency I have come to have on this for my happiness. I knew that wasn’t right and didn’t make sense, but sometimes what you know doesn’t matter, and how you feel takes over. I do not think I could possibly ever judge or question anybody for being in that particular state of mind ever again, for any reason.
Cheery! I know.
Dramatic as it all sounds, I think most runners understand. The joy that we feel for what we do seems in direct proportion to the loss that we feel when we cannot do it. It is perhaps our worst nightmare to be told, prematurely, that we’re “done.” There is a big part of me, however, that knows, on a very visceral level, that I am not “done.” It is not denial, I just know. I could get microfracture surgery right now and be back running in 7 months. The results would likely only last for a limited time before I’d find myself getting the same thing done again, unlikely to come back from it a second time, but it is an option. However, we are on the brink of having far better ways to address these issues with actual long-term results. I have talked to friends who have struggled with the same issue, to be given the same fateful prognosis, only to find out later that something else was actually injured, that an MRI was read wrong or gave attention to the wrong issue, or some who took a gamble on a surgery and are still running years later. There are ways, and I’ll be damned if I don’t find one.
But in the meantime, I knew I needed something.
As fate would have it, I picked up a side job involving working with a number of cyclists. I became intrigued by their banter, by their talk of racing and lung-bursting hill-climbs and long, drawn out, “gravel grinders.” I have always thought of bikes as merely wheelchairs of sorts for injured and desperate runners. I thought to actually purchase one and pursue it would mean that I was giving in to not running and giving into that bullshit “modify my lifestyle” suggestion, but in a state of desperation one day, I pulled the trigger and went through with it.
Financially responsible? No. Worth it? YES. A thousand times yes.
I did not think I would ever find anything that could rival what I have always felt with running, but after my first ride after leaving the bike shop on New Bike Day–an 18 mile test drive in a sideways snowstorm–I felt like I had after my first run years ago. Totally incompetent, unskilled in every way, yet completely enraptured and strangely at home. The next day was 20 miles, the following day 32, and the day after, 40. I wanted to go further but my butt was so incomprehensably sore from being unused to the saddle that I couldn’t take one more mile. I don’t think I’m going to be able to sit for a week.
As much as I had been able to somewhat effectively keep my head on straight in preceding months in the pool and on the stationary bike, interspersed with short, painful runs, there is something indescribably cathartic and soothing about physically covering ground and becoming tired during the process. Finally being back outside in the open air and grinding along miles of peaceful, deserted, gravel roads with nothing but fields, trees, and cows for company brought the same feeling of tranquility and escape from life’s problems as running always has. I didn’t know anything else existed that could work the same magic. Turns out there is a way to keep the heart racing.
It took some time, but I think it’s going to be okay.
Running, I will see you again soon. I know that it will be hard to watch the mountain running season unfold from the sidelines, especially after feeling so good last year. But for now, I can definitely get down with this. Let’s see where it goes…