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.