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.