A week from Saturday, I’ll be racing the Leadville 100 for the tenth year in a row. Which means I’ve been biking for about twelve years. Which brings up the question: what did I do for exercise before that?
Well, I’ll tell you.
Age 10 – 14: Pole Vault
Watching the 1976 Olympics, I—like most kids, I think—idolized Bruce Jenner. Specifically, I loved watching the pole vault.
Unlike most ten-year-old kids, though, I had a mom who Got Things Done. When I said I wanted to be a pole vaulter, she immediately got to work arranging for me to train with the Junior High track team.
I remember it was a couple months before I became good enough to clear the bar even when it was set at the lowest rung, but I loved it.
Two years later, when I entered seventh grade and was therefore allowed to start competing, I had much more experience than any other vaulters in my age group. I walked away with first place in pretty much every competition.
I was a short, light kid though, and stayed that way, which meant that by the time I was in ninth grade, other kids were able to get some spring out of the pole, while I could not.
I stopped winning. I stopped placing.
So in tenth grade, I dropped out of track altogether and did not do anything athletic for the next ten years.
Age 22-25: Raquetball
I don’t remember why I started playing racquetball, but it probably had to do with Robert Raleigh, a guy I worked with at WordPerfect. Once a week or so, we’d reserve a court at lunch and see if we could give each other nasty welts on the back.
There were several things I loved about playing racquetball:
- The Serve: Having a lethal serve is a very satisfying feeling. I’d sometimes reserve a court on my own and just work on my serve for an hour. I had a nice little serve that hit the front wall, the right wall, the floor, then the back-left corner, where it just kind of rolled out. Done properly, it was pretty much an automatic point.
- The Kill Shot: Raquetball is an interesting sport because there are so few variables. The playing area is small, the ball moves predictably, and the player positions are finite. So, when a ball comes to you in just such a way, you can almost always hit it so it just rolls off the front wall.
- The Slam: When the ball comes to you at knee level, about two feet away from you on your forehand side, you can hit it with such force you’d think the ball would explode. This serves no strategic purpose in the game, but it feels great and makes an immensely satisfying sound.
Why did I stop playing racquetball? You know, I’m not sure. I moved to Indiana and didn’t have any playing partners there, and I’ve just never picked the game up again. I wouldn’t mind, though, especially during the winter.
Age 23-28: Rollerblade
This exercise-via-commute thing I’m doing on my bike is not new to me. For about five years, I commuted to work—8 miles, each way—by rollerblade. I developed Eric Heiden-esque quads, which have never exactly disappeared, and I got to the lowest weight I’ve been in my adult life: 148 pounds.
The thing is, I never even considered learning to do tricks on my Rollerblades. I was strictly a distance guy, focusing on as powerful and efficient style as I could develop. I never learned to skate backward, but I frequently passed bicycles on hillclimbs.
I also had one of the most painful injuries of my adult life while rollerblading. I was going downhill, tucked to be as fast as possible, when I came to a curb I needed to hop. I hopped, but not quite high enough. A wheel or toe caught the edge of the curb and I went down on my stomach, hands and arms, the road cheese-grating my skin off until I came to a stop.
I have never been such a bloody, skinned up mess, and that includes a lot of falls on my bike. At least when I fall from my bike, I tend to roll a bit, so I don’t take the full slide on any one part of my body.
And I still had five miles to go. That was a slow five miles.
Age 28+: Bike
Once I started biking, pretty much every other sport has fallen by the wayside. I’m a one-trick pony (two tricks if you want to be generous and consider road and mountain biking as separate sports). I’m not at all well-rounded.
On the other hand, since I’ve started riding, nothing else has come close to catching my heart and mind the way the bike has.
At endurance races, I often see guys in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, still riding strong. The way things are going, I expect it’s only a matter of time until I’m one of those guys.
I sure hope I will be, anyway.
PS: The hypothetical guy who was trying to decide whether to race, has in fact decided to race. He has told me he will be happy to reveal his identity and how the race goes once it is over.