Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Fighting inertia

After another "but it's only for fun" mountain bike ride on Sunday that ended with dead legs and nap-time fatigue, I made the unprecedented (for me) decision to take the rest of the week off from exercising. I admit I'm beginning to feel nervous about the possible onset of mild burnout, because some of the symptoms feel similar to my post Tour Divide physical malaise: Molasses muscles, mild but persistent soreness in my quads, rapidly shifting energy levels, sugar cravings. Experts have a label for all of these symptoms — "overtraining."

While the reasoning makes sense, it's harder for me to accept the simple explanation. For starters, my activity volume, while relatively high, hasn't changed all that much in the past year. I don't train like most athletes, in peaks and valleys of hard effort and recovery. I stick to a mostly even plain of effort because it's what I enjoy most — having the ability to go out day after day for long efforts if I choose. Athletes call it "long slow distance," and usually scoff at those who practice it, because athleticism is generally perceived to be the pursuit of speed. But it's fine with me, because it's who I am. If I was a true vagabond I wouldn't be the athletic type who travels from race to race; I'd probably be the frumpy tourist pedaling a loaded bicycle around the world. A perceived ability to pedal — or hike — all day, every day, is an important part of my physical identity.

When I have a slump that disrupts this identity, I consider the physical explanations but also look for mental and emotional reasons as well. A few days ago I was discussing my physical concerns with Beat, and a few questions from him shifted the topic to my current creative frustrations. For the past year I have been trying to pursue the long, often difficult slog of writing as a (mostly) full-time profession. For every personal triumph there have been many dead ends. I have quite a few unfinished projects and ideas strung in threads across my computer screen. I'm currently focusing most of my time on two specific book projects, one that's nearing the final editing stages and one that I'm basically just beginning. This second project is one I'm excited about, but it's proving difficult in execution. I buzz with anticipation when I'm out for a ride, thinking about what I want to write. But when I actually sit down to write, I'm stifled by uncertainties about all these supposedly great ideas. I spend more time staring at blank Word pages, scrolling down to prevent myself from re-reading the same sentences over and over, and diverting my attention to banal tasks and Web surfing. Meanwhile other projects, which could at least add to the salmon wheel trickle of my income, sit unfinished.

I keep telling myself I'm going to develop a real routine, set goals, and get away from the Internet, and somehow that will make a difference. But I continue developing excuses as to why I can't cement a better routine — traveling to Nepal, spending much of the winter in Alaska, training for the White Mountains 100, preparing for the Stagecoach 400. The truth is I'm afraid to devote more energy to writing. My most successful days can be so mentally consuming, the failed days so frustrating, and I fear that the only thing I'll find on the other side is failure, or worse — indifference.

If you asked me right now if I honestly though I could make a living as a writer, my answer would be no. Content is abundant, most of it is free, and the economic climate is only going to make it more difficult for those who create content to generate income. My current income comes from the sales of my two books, a few small magazine contracts, and the occasional editing job that I pick up from the community of people who call themselves "indie authors." Based on these experiences and my past in the newspaper and magazine industry, I believe authorship of books is the best avenue for me, with the highest potential for both income generation and personal fulfillment. But I also recognize that to actually achieve financial independence through writing, I am either going to have to simply get lucky or write and market a whole lot of different books. When I'm struggling, as I am right now, I find myself browsing journalismjobs.com and wondering if the newspaper industry will take me back. Sadly, things are pretty sparse over there these days. Never mind the return to 60-hour workweeks, the giving up of adventure time, the death of dreams.

If you asked me right now what I want to make of my life, that answer would be simple. I want to tell stories. I want to tell my own stories, and I want to tell the stories of others — in other words, personal narrative and biographical writing. I enjoy interviewing people and writing profiles, and hope to do more of that in the future. Still, my most natural inclination is to write through the lens of my own experiences. In olden days I might have called myself a memoirist. My memory is my most influential intellectual asset, and written words one of my most fulfilling means of self expression. Another is movement — physically drawing my presence across the contours of the world. I recognize that these things are not always economically practical or even possible, but I am happiest when I am able to do both.

I wonder if creative inertia contributes to my physical inertia, and vice versa. A kind of vicious cycle. Which brings me back around to the Stagecoach 400. I'm nervous about this trip because of what feels like less-than-optimal physical fitness, but at the same time believe I'll likely extract a richer experience from this ride because of a penitent mindset (after all, I have only myself to blame if I am indeed "overtrained.") My plan is to (hopefully) manage my food and water better than I did during my last bike tour, enjoy the scenery, take breaks when I am tired, and just ride. I don't have a goal time. Four days and change would be hopeful. The race has a limit of five days, which is a bit tight in my opinion, based on what I know of the course. It's good, though. I believe a few good days of the raw existence necessitated by endurance bikepacking are just what I need right now — mull over some of my ideas, test the true status of my physical state, and fight the inertia.

The race starts Friday morning. I'm planning to write a more in-depth gear post before then, but one encouraging bit of news is new bags from Revelate Designs arrived just in time. I now finally have a new seat-post bag to replace the well-worn prototype that Eric made for me in 2007, a fitted frame bag and an awesome handlebar bag. The innovations Revelate has made in the past few years are impressive — better materials, waterproof adaptations, simplified straps, and an impressive amount of volume in small and stealthy spaces, so I can carry all my overnight gear and still "get rad" on singletrack. Eric (who wrote a fantastic race report after the White Mountains 100) went to a lot of trouble to send this stuff in time for Stagecoach, and I owe him a huge thanks.

At least the Moots is fully awesome and ready to eat up miles, even if I am not. 


  1. Your comments about wanting to write make sense your writing makes for compelling read in a field where there isn't enough good writing. Please Please follow your dream for you and your readers.

  2. As a writer who also has to have a job to pay the bills, if you can get away with not working at a real job, do it! I also know what you mean about staring at blank pages. I can blog all day for free for three blogs, but when it comes to my actual writing I am having a really hard time. And my time is so precious that it almost makes me cry when I can't do it. Hang in there. You are a great writer.

  3. we love your writing! It doesn't matter what you are writing about you always find a way to make it interesting. You also inspire me to get out there and spend more time on the bike. If you write it they will come.

  4. This post is heartbreaking. I've been reading your blog for over a year and like OrangeCreamCycle, you, personally, have been the spark for some of my more crazy biking adventures (they are tiny in comparison to what you do, but crazy for *me*). I imagine the same is true for many of your readers. We OWE you, big time, for enriching our lives. My apologies if you've written about this issue before (I haven't read all the archives) but could you put a paypal donation button on your blog? I am frantic with the desire to DO SOMETHING to help, even if I can't personally contribute much..... Please tell us how we can help! Do you have a kickstarter page? Do you want help setting one up? Seriously, I don't know you personally, but in an abstract sense, your predicament makes me deeply anguished about the state of all writers everywhere, and I want to DO something. Don't sell yourself short. Your writing is not just good. It's not just entertainment... more people need to see the world the way you do.

  5. It occurs to me, since overtraining is a common theme for you, that maybe you're not overtrained at all, just undertrained in other aspects of fitness. Strength training and other types of fitness training can really help overcome the symptoms you refer to in your post.

    I find that strength training also forces me to take days away from biking, skiing, or whatever I'm currently obsessing over. If I do a heavy leg workout with weights, I really can't follow it up by telemarking all day, so it forces me to *shudder* rest.

    Maybe try adding in some other types of workouts? Taking up climbing? Crosstraining and all that.

  6. Pentalith — I appreciate your comments. I'm certainly not in a financial predicament right now, just trying to figure out if I can make a go of it. But I do appreciate your willingness to contribute. Thank you.

    Jill — Good points. It's just strange to me that I can do the same thing for a couple of years without issue, and suddenly have an issue. In truth the symptoms could trace back to a lot of different maladies — allergies, virus, mental fatigue, etc. I've had many friends recommend "core" work to improve not only my strength but also my balance, confidence, and speed. I have tried but admit I am not good at sticking to such programs. Even when I had a chronic knee injury and a physical therapist to assign daily exercises, I still managed to slack off on the prescribed routine. After Stagecoach I need to start focusing my attention on UTMB training. If things are still not feeling right I'm going to start taking this a lot more seriously.

  7. Hi Jill,

    I've just finished reading your "be strong ..." book and i'm absolutely thrilled by your writing. I've seen the tour divide movie before twice, but reading your book was much like riding the tour myself. Great writing and of course great riding. Keep up the great work and please DO NOT STOP WRITING!!!! I do a lot of riding/trail running myself here in Greece but since I have a full time job and 2 kids I am not able for many multi-day bikepacking trips throughout the year. Reading your book about the divide inspired me for a great project to start. The "Greek Continental Divide Tour" with many many high passes to get through. Probably it will take quite a long time to prepare and execute such a project as there has been no such attempt yet in Greece. But it will be a quite challenging task to take for the next year.

  8. Your writing and your lifestyle is hugely inspirational to me. It's making me seriously try to find a way to get out of my office more and basically just get outside and be in motion. I wasn't even aware that bikepacking was a thing until I read your books but I can feel that idea digging into my brain now.

    I rode through part of Anza-Borrego last weekend, it was a beautiful area. The scenery here around San Diego should help keep your mind off overtraining a bit at least, I think you'll really enjoy it at the Stagecoach.

    I'm incredibly jealous of all the other places you have experienced and I think you are very talented at giving a personal account of it all. Basically if you do keep on writing (pretty please?) I'll definitely keep on reading.

  9. It's good to remember the old adage attributed to some grizzled old pro turned coach: "Most riders easy days are too hard, and their hard days ae too easy". I suspect your training sometimes falls into this category. One has to have the guts to take days easy or days off. Persistent fatigue is one of the symptoms of this syndrome.

  10. You have picked a tough professional path but luckily you have the support you need to see it through. You will be successful but like all big things it will take time and patience. Good luck riding forever!

  11. Jill..I'm 43, been riding MTB for almost 20 years..lots of miles, never really taking time off, as I get older my body is letting me know that it's tired, it needs a different plan. I never liked to do cross training, strengthening, PT, or take rest days, etc..I just wanted to ride my bike. Now I'm listening to my body, I have to. So I do the stretching every morning, the strengthening, the core work, all of it and it's working, I want to ride until I'm an old lady, well an older lady. Our minds always age so much more slowly than our bodies. So in retrospect, I would tell my younger self, do some stretches, take some time off the bike, rest and recover. I only write this because I see myself in your words.

  12. I have read both your books and recommend to every biker I talk to. I read your blog all the time and think it is one of the most interesting ones out there. If you wrote another book, I'd be the first to order one. In fact, I'd pre-order it before even knowing what it is about that is how confident and impressed with your writing I am.
    I can't wait until your book is published.

    Ironically, this is the first post that drew me into finding your blog and it was about blowing off your writing to go for a ride.! :-)


  13. I ask this question of every one and haven't gotten an answer yet- when bikepacking with the giant seat twinkie, how do you get your arse behind the seat to descend? I've not bought one specifically because when I look at a picture, I cannot imagine descending down tech singletrack and having fun with that set-up (I use panniers).

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  15. "I have tried but admit I am not good at sticking to such programs. Even when I had a chronic knee injury and a physical therapist to assign daily exercises, I still managed to slack off on the prescribed routine."

    Bahahaha! Me too. I am destined to fail at any sort of PT. I really can't do anything that has a prescribed routine to it. I'm with you there.

    Forcing myself to do strength training for a few weeks is hard if I've taken time off, but the results are so amazing that I want to keep going and going with it. So maybe come up with whatever your own motivation for crosstraining might be? And be aware that you may have to force yourself for a certain time period before it becomes a habit.

    In my experience it's normal to be "fine" for a long time with one sport and then suddenly develop issues and have to compensate with crosstraining. I think that's called "aging". Ugh.

  16. Jill, I've been reading your blog for a while and I have a new motto to justify my training, and I thought you might appreciate it. Procrastination - There is no limit to what you can accomplish when you should be doing something else. :-)

  17. Writing is such a tough gig, but you're super talented and have great stories to tell.

    As someone who enjoys your prolific blog writing, I'm happy to pay for the stuff you publish, and this post reminded me to do just that by buying your second book. (And using the amazon link at iRunFar.com so they get paid too.) Perfect taper reading to get me fired up for my next race.

    If anyone hasn't read Jill's books, you're missing out!

  18. I admire your faith and strength to write and support yourself financially while still going on amazing adventures. I'm too chickenshit to even give it a try.

    Keep going, you're just heading up a tough hill right now.

  19. Jill, Please get this book --The War Of Art by Stephen Pressfield. I would buy it for you but I don't know your email. Inertia---resistance ---it will resonate with you and I think you will find it helpful.

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