Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Flailing and awkward

It was a gorgeous day on Russian Ridge. I was out for a 10-mile run, soaking in sunshine and searching for wildflowers that haven't yet emerged. I veered down the steep trail toward Coal Creek and quickly developed the side-stitch that I often suffer from when I run downhill. I realize this is likely caused by too-shallow breathing, but running downhill honestly frightens me a little and I almost can't help myself. I slowed down and took deep, long breaths, concentrating on the rhythm of motion as the sharp pain stabbed at my rib cage. While I was locked in focus on steady steps and breathing, I planted my foot in a deep mud puddle across a particularly steep slope and slid forward. Leg kicked up, arms flailing, and just like that I was lying sideways in the mud with yet another bloody elbow, scratched leg, bruised hip and skin coated in brown sludge.

After I arrived at home, I had to explain to Beat why I was yet again coated in mud and blood. He just shook his head. "When you slide like that you're supposed to ride it out," he said.

"Well when that happens to me, I fall," I protested. "That's how I roll."

I thought back to a friend I used to hike with in Juneau, who was constantly criticizing my walking style as we picked our way down 45-degree slopes covered in mud and moss. "You need to keep your feet forward," he told me. "Keep your weight back. You always walk like you've been sitting on a bike for too long. Why do you stick your hips so far out?"

I thought even further back to rock scrambling in the canyons of Utah's redrock deserts. I'd cling precariously to some craggy ledge, frozen in place as the blood drained head and my arms and legs slowly went numb. "What's wrong?" my friends would ask. "This is an easy pitch. Class 3 tops." I could never explain; they just didn't understand what it's like to not trust your body, to truly believe there's a measurable time delay between your brain circuits and motor functions. You never really know when your body is going to do something completely erratic or clumsy and send you plummeting into the sand far below. It's scary, and that fear helps perpetuate the physical awkwardness.

I don't think it's a coincidence that upon discovering cycling at age 22, I instantly latched onto the activity with an almost obsessive zeal. It wasn't just the ease and quickness of movement that most beginner cyclists experience. I also found a method of motion that felt natural and comfortable — which, up to that point, was an almost foreign sensation. I had spent the first two decades of my life accepting the seemingly unbridgeable divide between poor coordination and an innate desire to explore the outside world and participate in intense physical challenges. Through cycling, I discovered a way to span that gap. Bikes just fit me, literally. I can ride all day on other people's bicycles and not feel even slight discomfort. I can wear big backpacks and switch from platform to clipless pedals without even noticing a significant difference. I can appreciate full suspension but I don't feel out of place riding rigid or singlespeed or fixed. I don't get saddle sores, or back and neck soreness, and even my weak knees have adapted to the strain of thousands of pedal rotations. Unlike the criticism I've received for my walking style, I've actually been complimented on my riding style — straight back, flexible arms, steady legs. I am, truly, a cyclist.

But there's still that other side of me, the side of me without a bike, the side with the weak ankles and soft feet, the side who's prone to flailing awkwardly all over the trail and sometimes slamming into the ground at the seemingly most random spots. This makes her quite bad at running, but all those years of self-discovery through cycling have also made her the kind of person who refuses to accept this. There is freedom and satisfaction in removing a heavy dependence on wheels, and finding new ways to move light and fast through exhilarating spans of open space. I want to be free; I want to run, even if my body doesn't quite cooperate, and even if I'm realizing that a large base of endurance just makes the learning process that much more difficult — because it's actually not all that difficult to run 20 or 30 miles; the difficulty lies in doing so without hurting myself.

I won't stop riding bikes. I am, after all, a natural cyclist. But I'm also a glutton for a challenge, and running long distances is truly a challenge. Full training for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 has begun. If I can make it to the starting line without a cast or crutches, that in itself will be a satisfying success.