Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Sports I Don't Understand: Running

During an attempted ride on Sunday, I got stuck behind the end of the Des Moines Marathon. Don't get me wrong -- I'm thrilled that Des Moines has a marathon and a major triathlon, since both events make us look more like a "real" city, possibly moving us past Topeka and Peoria in the "Least Dull Places to Live" rankings. (sorry, Steve K.)

However, I simply do not get running. Exhibit A: Look at any runner's face while he/she is participating in this activity. 94 times out of 100, you'll see a grimace of pain (the other 6 fall into the "rictus of agony" category). To look at a runner in action, you would think that the sport is just a socially acceptable way to engage in a self-punishment fetish. Granted, I've had some unpleasant moments on a bicycle -- sore hands, tired legs, numbness in places where I'd rather not be numb -- but most of the time, when I'm on wheels, I can (and do) smile. Good friend Elroy "Uncle E" Wylde had it right when he said, "Running is like hitting myself with a hammer. I only do it because it feels so good to stop."

Exhibit B: Chapped, bleeding nipples. Enough said, I hope.

Exhibit C: Shoes. My late-dad was a runner for most of the 80s, and he relentlessly (nay, obsessively) journaled the experience, actually writing down some sort of narrative about each and every run rather than just keeping a mileage log. And while that journal is one of my most treasured possessions, it bores me to death on the subject of shoes. "First run in new Nike Air Max today." "Not happy with the Nikes, trying a pair of Adidas." "Orthotics fit poorly in Adidas, going to try New Balance 990s." "990s good, but apparently out of production. Not sure what I'll do when these wear out." Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera. Bikers certainly aren't immune to equipment obsession (he says, writing a ridiculously self-indulgent blog packed with bicycle equipment minutiae), but at least we have equipment to obsess about. Brake pad compounds. Chain lubes. Gear ratios. Crank lengths. Handlebar shapes. What's to obsess about with running shoes? Tie them, and go abuse yourself.

Exhibit D: The inability to coast. I ride a fixed gear about half the time, so I've voluntarily abandoned my coasting capacity for a lot of rides. Note, however, that I said voluntarily. Runners get no choice. Downhill, uphill, it's all the same. No rest for the wicked. Just keep slappin' the feet down. No wonder the runner's epic, be-all-end-all event is only 26 (pardon me, 26.2) miles long. If you guys could figure out a way to rest while moving, maybe you could cover more distance.

Exhibit E: That extra .2 miles on the marathon. Yes, I know, the distance run by Pheidippides from Marathon to Athens was PRECISELY 26.2 miles. I'm that big of a nerd. But round down, for Pete's sake. You just ran 26 miles. Isn't that enough punishment? You really have to tack on another .2 in honor of a Greek guy who, if the legend is to be believed, immediately DROPPED DEAD upon finishing that last point-two? I'd be inclined to take that as a lesson: "26 miles is a fine stopping point." (The cyclist's corollary is, "Don't take amphetamines and climb Mount Ventoux in the heat," a rule I have steadfastly followed all my life.)

I think I've made my case, so I'm going to close up and go for a ride. If for some reason I'm found dead with New Balance and Nike tracks all over my body, just look for the grimacing guys with shin splints and bloody nipples.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

It Was 13 Years Ago Today...

October 11, 1995. A day that will live in whatever the opposite of "infamy" is. "Famy"?

I was playing racquetball with my roomate Edith (we had a whole "Three's Company" thing going on with third roomate Christine). Edith had been playing matchmaker for months, unable to mention her friend Carla without the postscript "... who's single!" Meanwhile, I was "Jason... who's single!" whenever she talked to Carla.

Racquetball game ends, and Edith says, "We're meeting Carla for pizza tonight." I don't even have time to shower. All I can do is throw on my cutoff jean shorts, a ratty t-shirt, and my Doc Martens -- I was in my grunge phase, sorry.

We meet the mythical (and single!) Carla at an Iowa City bar, order up our pizza, and proceed to play a cutthroat game of "name that tune" with everything that comes up on the jukebox. There are conflicting reports regarding the outcome of that game, but I hold firm to my recollection that I was Supreme Ruler of All Things Musical and Trivial that night. This mythical Carla was unlike anyone I'd ever met, not to mention dated. Ridiculously funny, incredibly smart, took no crap, and could dish it back out with the best of them.

A week later -- after I've plied Edith for an assurance that I won't be shot down in a blazing fireball -- I get up the courage to ask this amazing woman out. And she says yes! (It was years later that I actually learned how Carla described me to Edith: "Cute, in an Aryan sort of way." Perfect first impression when you're meeting a nice Jewish girl, right?)

Abridged version: Just short of two years later, we were married. And today, 13 years after the fact, I can't believe how much good is in my life thanks to that one impulsive pizza run.

Happy meet-iversary to the person who changed everything, from your big Aryan-looking nerd.

Pondering Pedals

I confess: I am a pedal polygamist.

I've tried 'em all: Clips and straps, about a dozen flavors of clipless, and even plain, flat pedals. Just when I think I've settled, dropping the coin to convert the entire fleet to whatever my pedal du jour happens to be, my eye starts to wander again, and suddenly I'm digging in the parts box for the pedals I took off in order to put on today's pedal du jour, or yesterday's, or the day before that.

With all that experimenting, I think I've learned one basic thing about pedaling. Feet need support. They shouldn't have to work against being bent or smooshed in directions they were never intended to go. With my extra-wide feet (shaped more like shoeboxes than shoes -- thanks for that little genetic gift, Dad), I'm hyper-aware of this flexing/smooshing issue.

That leaves two choices: Big pedals (so your feet can't hang off the edge) or super-stiff shoe soles (so your feet can't flex even if they hang off the edge). Most modern clipless pedals approach the problem from the second direction, concentrating pressure on tiny cleats and Tootsie Pop-sized pedals, relying on the stiffness of (expensive) carbon-fiber soles to keep your feet where they belong. Then, there's the opposite extreme: Huge, flat, BMX pedals that support the width of your foot regardless of the stiffness of your shoe.

For me, today's pedal du jour is the latter, a cheap as all gitout pair of BMX flats. It's hard enough to find any shoe that fits my paddle-feet, much less a cycling shoe. I'd rather be able to ride in whatever ridiculously wide tennis shoe or sandal I can find without worrying if it takes a SPD or Look cleat -- the Windows vs. Mac of the clipless world.

(Note that I'm completely avoiding the issue of being attached to one's pedals for either safety or efficiency. That's a religious war, and neither side's convinced me to follow their crusade to the death just yet.)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Riding Scared

About ten years ago (when I was suffering through grad school at THE Ohio State University), I went out for a late Fall ride along the Olentangy Bikeway in Columbus, OH -- a fairly mellow, scenic (for Columbus) trail that wound through the north side of the city.

I don't remember much about the early part of the ride, but as I was getting out to the more suburban neighborhoods, I overcooked a turn on wet leaves and went down hard. I popped up (the automatic "I meant to do that!" reaction), spat, and only then realized that I'd spit out something chunky. Sure enough, the reflection in my sunglasses showed a gashed-up lip and bloody gap previously occupied by two teeth. My rear derailleur was shoved into my wheel, making the bike unrideable.

So, in the Age Before Ubiquitous Cell Phones, I did what anybody would have done on an isolated trail: I started walking out. After about a quarter mile, I was surrounded by a nice suburban neighborhood -- the benefit of trails within city limits. I picked a door and rang the bell.

"Ma'am, as you can see, I've had a bit of an accident, and I was wondering if I could use your phone to call for help."

"I'm... I'm not comfortable with that." Door shut, end of conversation.

At the time, I was stunned and more than a little ticked. But looking back (and looking at myself in a mirror), I can't blame her. If you don't know me, and all 200 pounds of my bald, goateed freakshow self is standing on your porch bleeding from a toothless maw, I'm probably scary as hell. If you're a woman home alone (or maybe with just your kids in the house), ratchet that up another notch. If my wife were confronted by such a sight, maybe I'd be comfortable with her calling 911 for the scary stranger, but I'd rather she do it from behind a locked door, thanks.

I think about that day a lot when I'm out riding the trails in Iowa. There are a lot of women who ride around here. I find that simply awesome, such an improvement over the "let's compare Lycra bulges" brand of masculinity that so often marks our sport (usually by peeing on it). A lot of those women can ride my sorry butt right off their wheel with nary a pedal turned in anger. But every once in a while, I start to catch up to a female rider who's out there by herself on an isolated trail (sometimes after dark), and I'm suddenly gripped by Sensitive New Age Guy paralysis. Does she see me as just another rider back here, or am I a Big Scary Threat? The last thing I want to do is wreck someone's ride, so what next? Say hello? Hammer past with an "on your left"? Sit up and drop back?

I've ridden in some scary places (not in Des Moines, thankfully) -- neighborhoods where my Spidey-sense was constantly a-tingle -- and all I wanted to do was hustle out of there. I should probably feel more like that on my daily commute, with gargantuan SUVs passing within inches. But I don't. I'm comfortable in my skin, on my wheels, in my surroundings. If I didn't feel safe, if something as simple as a rider just a few lengths off my back wheel were enough to make me tense up, I don't know if I'd keep riding. It just wouldn't be worth it to me. I ride to make those kinds of feelings go away.

I'm probably over-thinking it, as usual. And the fact that I've been an awkard, almost-mute nerd-boy around the fairer gender my whole life probably doesn't help matters. But it bothers me. I hope my presence -- or the presence of any freaky-looking male rider like me -- doesn't trigger fight-or-flight, or an involuntary twitch toward the pepper spray. I hope I'm just underestimating the bad-assedness of our local wheeled women and that they don't give a second thought to ol' tubby-and-slow back there. If that's not the case, if I've ever spooked someone out there, I sincerely apologize -- and next time, I'll say hi.