Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Palette of motion

My friend Jan offered two great suggestions for our morning ride today: Mountain biking along the sandy ridges above Pacifica, or road ride to the top of Mount Hamilton. At first, mountain biking seemed to be the clear choice. With the exception of two routine hill climbs near my house, I've been actively avoiding road biking since my friend Keith was hit by a motorcycle while we were riding in Yosemite National Park last May. It's not a fear or protest type of avoidance; I've ridden plenty of pavement on my mountain bike and commuter since then. It's just that much of my excitement for road riding tapered off when the harsher realities settled in. Put yourself on skinny tires and you're always at the mercy of vehicle traffic. There's no escaping it.

Still, I'd never ridden Mount Hamilton before. At 4,200 feet, it's the highest peak in the Bay area, accessed on a solid 18-mile road climb (and descent) with 4,300 feet of climbing (thanks to a couple of rollers.) There's a domed observatory at the top, and on clear days, huge views of the Diablo Range, the Silicon Valley, San Francisco, and even the Pacific Ocean. And I'd never been to the top of Mount Hamilton. I couldn't say no to that. The method of travel didn't matter to me as much as the destination.

As we pedaled up the winding road, I pondered the origins of my current palette of activities. I began to wonder if many active or outdoors people ever consider what life events sparked their preferred methods of motion. What makes some people avid skiers who sulk through summer and others identify as cyclists and claim complete disinterest in anything that doesn't involve wheels? Why do some people live for running while others would rather push tacks into their feet than pull on running shoes? Why did I dislike cross-country skiing so much during the one season I dabbled in it? And why did a friend of mine, an otherwise nonathletic, stay-at-home-mom, develop such a passion for ice climbing, of all things? Why do you do the sports you do?

I clearly remember the moment when I decided to become a cyclist. It was several years before I cared much about fitness or even dreamed that competitive events would someday become a big part of my life. No, I was 22 years old, and gripped by wanderlust. My palette of motion at the time was backpacking, day hiking, snowboarding, and more backpacking. One day, I saw a man pedaling up a canyon on a bicycle loaded with panniers and camping gear. And I thought, "Wow, what a great way to travel!"

Because I'd effectively not ridden a bicycle since I was a child, I actually had to re-learn simple bike handling before I could become a bicycle tourist. After a year and two big tours, my travel ambitions morphed into road centuries and commuting, then a brief period of barely dabbling in mountain biking, before my bike passion suddenly and inexplicably swung toward extreme forms of endurance racing, namely long-distance snow biking and self-supported bikepacking. By 2008, I was a single-track-minded cyclist, logging 9,500 miles in one year on dirt, pavement and snow, and aspiring toward ever-bigger and more-difficult bike adventures.

In 2009, that trajectory came crashing down. I'd lost a long-term relationship and finished the Tour Divide. I was heartbroken and burned out. I desperately needed a change of scenery, so I returned to my first passion — hiking. But now, with all that endurance experience behind me, I carried a strong new desire — distance. So it only made sense to try trail running.

That, in essence, is why I became a runner. Not because it felt good, or even natural. In fact, I was an awful, awkward runner, and I still pretty much am (although I have learned a few techniques to better control my awkwardness.) But I loved the way running increased my ability to travel longer distances in the mountains, in less time. A hundred miles on foot in 1.5 days? Check! Now how can I apply what I've learned to backcountry routes where bikes can't go?

But it's not just about travel anymore. Somewhere in those wanderings, I did fall in love with trail running. I enjoy pounding out my routine trail runs, even though the scenery is the same and all the loops eventually go nowhere. The simple motion makes me feel alive. Maybe someday I'll be so in love with this newfound fluidity of motion that I'll even be willing to take my running to the road. But not yet. Biking on pavement is still enjoyable enough to trump the drawbacks. But running? Not quite yet.

And I still love cycling, both as a fun and fast way to get to a brand new place like the top of Mount Hamilton, and as a satisfying motion on the same old hill that I've already climbed many dozens of times. But I wouldn't choose to go back to the days when I was solely a cyclist. Not only did I grapple with a lot more little injuries back then, but I also had fewer destination options overall. Monotone palettes are limiting. I sometimes meet cyclists who tell me they'd never be interested in running and I think, "You should try it! You really should."

Think about it. Why did you become a cyclist or runner? It's likely a lot of us just fell into one or the other through the randomness of life circumstance. Personally, I've enjoyed expanding my palette of motion. Maybe someday I'll even give cross-country skiing one more chance.


  1. I'd never really thought about why I do the sports I love. For me, it's surfing, windsurfing, and skiing with occasional outbreaks of mountain biking, but I don't get a lot of time so I only dabble. Why I love them is easy - they take me out into environments that make me feel happy and peaceful - the grand space of the ocean and the mountains thrill me and put everything in perspective - life's woes are insignificant when viewed through nature's beauty ... or something like that. Then there's the thrill when everything comes together (very occasionally) for those blinding moments of perfection ... when you and your environment are in perfect harmony and you're blasting along with a zing of adrenaline - heaven. Like you, I'm innately clumsy, and I never expect to be the best (or really particularly good) at my sports - I aspire for competency and as long as in having a great time and enjoying myself, then that's reason enough to do my sports.

  2. Interesting question. One morning in Berlin, many years ago, I woke up early. Too early. I couldn't go back to sleep. Besides that it was the longest day of the year. The morning summer sky was begging for some outside attention.

    I spontaneously strapped down an old tent and a rambunctious smelling sleeping bag to my bike and started pedalling. North, without maps or phone or anything at all except some cash. I'd only bought the bike new a week before as a way to save money versus riding the subway.

    After riding all day and camping in a field off the side of a country road, I crossed the next morning into Szczecin, into Poland. Riding the train back to Berlin, I was surprised at how far I'd been able to travel.

    I hadn't set out to ride and ride and ride, but that little realization - achieving something I hadn't previously considered possible (or desirable) made me hungry for more. More fresh air, more freedom, more spontaneous adventure.

  3. I'm a road cyclist, mountain biker, cross rider, hiker and trail runner, but skate skiing is the most engaging form of exercise imagineable.

  4. Can't really say why I got into cycling...other than I love the feeling of travelling much longer distances than I can on foot, and it gets me outside. Running isn't really an option (20+ yrs of volleyball and my knees have had a lifetime of pounding).

    And even tho I ride both road and trail, I MUCH prefer the dirt side of the coin. Seeing various wildlife up close and personal, the thrill of victory as I crest a difficult climb, the SWEET heaven of a fine singletrack-descent, the feeling of accomplishment upon cleaning a brutal technical section...and the quiet serenity of being hours away from anybody else (as far as I know)...those are the moments I long for.

    I also truly enjoy backpacking for much of the same reasons...only I don't get to do near as much of that as I would like (that pesky job thing is always getting in the way...if I didn't mind not being able to retire someday I would certainly be out biking/hiking all the time).

  5. Ha ha. My husband sulks through the summer because he is a skier! I sulk through the winter because I love hiking and trail running. I started running at age 14 because I saw my dad doing it. Back then it wasn't that popular. I started swimming because I got plantar fascitis from running too much. I started biking because I was tired of hiding the secret that I never learned to ride as a kid.

  6. I was a runner in high school, then quit for many years and lived a pretty unhealthy life. One day I saw a book on running and realized,I'm not someone I recognize anymore. I bought the book, got some cheap shoes, and ran a quarter mile. That was 11 years and nine marathons ago, and I feel like I'm the person I was meant to be. I just got lost for a while.

  7. Thanks for sharing your stories. I wanted to make a comment for any cyclists who believe they need to avoid running because they think it will wreck their knees. I always believed I had bad knees. They've been a source of pain since my early 20s, but seemed to really take a turn for the worse during my cross-country bike tour in 2003. In 2007, I developed chondromalacia patella and couldn't bend my right knee without significant pain, for four months. My doctor looked at my MRIs and told me I likely had chronic cartilage inflammation— essentially arthritis — and that it would probably haunt me for the rest of my life.

    Through physical therapy I managed to bring back a level of mobility. I stayed just above the edge of pain during my aggressive bike training in 2008 and 2009, mainly by constantly wearing knee braces and keeping up with my PT exercises. Again, I just assumed I'd have bad knees for the rest of my life, and any day now they'd probably force me to quit endurance racing. Then, late in 2009, I started more dedicated mountain hiking and trail running. Since then, my knees have felt stronger and pain becomes less of an issue every year. I don't even bother with knee braces anymore, even on 100-mile mountain runs or 400-mile bikepacking races.

    My theory is that the motion of running strengthened the muscles and tissues that support my knee. Before, when I was solely a cyclist, my legs were a lot more "wonky," strong in places and weak in others in a way that pulled unnaturally on my joint and wore down the cartilage. I know everyone's build and experiences are different, but I am now a strong advocate of "cross training" for any avid active person.

  8. For me it's not about biking or running. As I pondered this question before I decided I like movement and speed - but I hate noise. So I like any form of what I call "quite movement" through nature. Biking, running, skiing (Nordic and alpine), sailing, soaring (flying gliders), anything (as long as there is no roaring engine)...

  9. It is great to see how Jill sparked this online discussion on various outdoor sports. I'm completely with Clemens and others who like human powered or forces of nature powered sports. I would just add that today's technical sports require lots of commitment and investment in both time and money to take any activity from leisurely level to mastering it. I can say for myself, I found that flying gliders and paragliding required too much time to master and practice, in order not to experience too many moments of terror. Skiing black runs and off-piste terrain is OK, but alpine touring in a backcountry is quite another. Even with cycling, which I think I got a good hang of, I still get scared in many situations. So I guess our individual levels of voluntary risk taking differ and each of us will take our sports as far as we feel we need to. It is all good!

  10. I am an avid road cyclist and bicycle commuter logging >5k miles on an annual basis Used to mtn bike on a regular basis but we recently moved to FL and there are not many trails around. I've always been active- I can't really think when I started bicycling.
    Every time, and I mean EVERY time I get on a bicycle I feel like a kid. Something about moving pedals around and around helps to unwind the insanity in my brain.

    Mary from NC (now FL)

  11. Hi, Jill, thanks for this post. I started as a marathon runner who took up randonneuring because of a problem with my plantar fascia. I now do both, both primarily on pavement. I don't do the distances you do, but I do find that both offer their own issues to my body. I think you have a point that only cycling leaves some muscles underdeveloped, which I notice if I've been riding more than running, and then switch it up. I hope the running helps me be a less injury-prone cyclist, though I do other cross-training to help with that as well.

  12. You're one of the lucky ones who can do both. I was a runner first. Then, I destroyed about a third of my spine. Contrary to my docs' predictions, I have managed to be a cyclist for many years despite my spine (I can even mountain bike, and I feel grateful for that). However, running is impossible.

    If I could run, I'd do it for the same reasons as you do - I gaze at the mountaintops deep in wilderness areas, and I wish that I could run to them. I'm jealous!

  13. I rediscovered cycling as an adult because I wanted a way to get around Boston in winter without buying a car and without having to try to ride a motorcycle; I figured wrecking on black ice would be less catastrophic on a 30lb bicycle at 15 miles an hour than on a 450lb motorcycle at 45.

    I got hooked on road biking, then on mountain biking, and on the fitness they gave me. I got particularly hooked on mountain biking. Four times I road-tripped from the east coast to Colorado or Utah for mountain biking.

    I love bikes, and I enjoy working on my bikes. But I envied runners for their minimal gear and gear-maintenance requirements and the many places they had available to run. So I tried to take it up. Repeatedly. Each time I got sidelined with knee pains no matter how cautious I was to avoid too much too soon.

    A couple of years ago I tried again, this time with some minimalist shoes, and things started working; I'm not fast, and hesitate to call myself a runner. But I run a couple of times a week, and like you, I actually find that it actually helps my knees. And where I used to go out and ride centuries, now I'd usually rather go out and do a 25 or 30 mile all-day hike. I still bike -- it's my primary means of transportation, and I get in a recreational ride every week or two.

    Cross-country skiing fits in here somewhere, too; I spent about 12 years in the Northeast, and for half the year the roads and trails are too snowy to do much riding. So I picked up skis as a way to quickly cover ground through the woods in winter. I don't long to ski in the summer the way I long to bike in the winter. But I do love XC skiing.

  14. Great comments!

    I've never stopped turning pedals ever since my first tiny red tricycle so I've truly been a biker for life. I ride the roads and biketrails, mtb and recumbents and commuting. not for competition but just for fun.

    That said, variety really is the spice of life. I also like camping, hiking, alpine and cross country ski, archery and other shooting sports and motorcycles.

    What it boils down to is just being out in nature enjoying the change of the seasons and every beautiful sky or sunset of which every one is different and never ceases to amaze.

  15. It started with hockey. I fell in love with it the first time I ever saw it - the smoothness of the motions, the complexity of the patterns. There was no hockey to play locally, though, so it was nearly 20 years later before I could strap on skates. I fell in love with it even more - the intense focus, complex patterns yet pure simplicity in what you are trying to achieve. The sound of the puck. The smell of the rink.

    Ten years later, I took up rowing. You see the world in a totally different way in a boat. I love how strong I've become - the definition in my arms, the core strength, the endurance. I like the way an oar feels in my hands and the way my whole body feels when I pull it.

    With hiking, it's different. Hiking is deeply relaxing in a way that nothing else is. The sounds of the outdoors - the birds, the wind, the crack of branches under my feet - it's music you don't hear anywhere else. I love the way colors blend into each other outside. I love the way I fell more connected.

  16. Road cyclist at heart since a teenager. On the backroads of central wisconsin, it gave me a ton of freedom. Road racing is the most fun you can have on a bike if you are the competitive type. And bike commuting ever since is a huge part of my identity. I hope bike touring is in my future.

    I love to hike, backpack, and scramble peaks. The best way to experience the true peacefulness of nature.

    Dabbled in mtn biking for a few years but was terrible at it and have the scars and broken bones to show for it.

    Trail running has really helped my overall core strength and should help offset bone density issues that could arise for people who cycle solely.

    I thought about getting some sea kayaks but with kids, can't find the time to fit that in too!

    It's good to go extreme and immerse yourself in an activity. That is how you get the capabilities to push your limits. And it's great to have other interests to fall back on to keep things fresh.

  17. It's your blog Jill. If you continue to write about what inspires you, be it mountain biking, running or whatever, I am sure you will still have plenty of followers.
    I am all for cross training, it is just that MTBing lights my personal fire.
    Thanks for blogging your experiences.

  18. I'm a runner, love it more than anything, don't know why. Sometimes when I'm out running in the mountains I wonder: Why do I love doing this so much? And really, there's no answer. I just do.
    I ran competitively in high school and college but never enjoyed it; it was just something I was good at. Then I quite for years and years, had a child, swam because I could do it lying down and I was exhausted most of the time.
    I started running again five years ago, in order to compete in the Mt. Marathon Race, and I haven't quit since. What I love is distance, and rough trails, and lots of mud.
    I also bike and swim. I've tried cross-country skiing but it isn't my thing. Every so often I feel guilty and try it again, and it still isn't my thing.
    Oddly enough, while I love running I don't much enjoy racing. To me running is about solitude and reflection and small joys, and maybe I'm selfish but I really don't like to share that with random others.
    P.S. Great question!

  19. I love the concept "palette of motion." I grew up hiking Black Mountain, cycling, and running in and around Los Altos. I was the kid people recognized on the road by my pepetual grin. Later I learned to ski, and have trouble choosing between classic, skate and backcountry (both kinds). Strangely, classic skiing soothes me like nothing else. Now before it snows I spend a couple of months chasing the ephemeral black ice of eastern Sierra lakes. Which leads to another dilemma--should I take the tour or the hockey skates? There is no wrong answer.
    Steve Parmenter

  20. Interesting post, and interesting discussion. I mountain bike because it's fun. That's it. I feel like a kid when I ride screaming downhill. It's invigorating and exciting and fun. And it doesn't feel like exercise, or at least it's worth it for all that fun...


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