The Obstacle is the Way
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was at a crossroads. When a niggling pain in my left knee became a full-fledged running injury, it precluded me from running and hiking for at least a few weeks. With my two primary modes of movement on hold, how could I continue my endurance training? I was worried I’d lose all of my fitness if I missed more than a few days of heavy-duty workouts. My anxiety increased exponentially.
Right before I departed for my last pre-COVID marathon-and-retreat extravaganza, I decided to purchase a bike, since I would be home in Vermont for a while after I returned. (If you don’t already know, the Green Mountain State is very bike-friendly!)
As the next few months of shutdowns, quarantines, and stay-at-home orders unfolded, I found out that the bike I had test-ridden at my local outfitter and bike shop, Onion River Outdoors, would not be available until September. It turned out that many of the Americans who were able to work from home suddenly had time to be outdoors. Everyone was buying bikes and actually riding them. (See: national bike shortage!)
Fortunately, the lovely, generous owners of Onion River Outdoors allowed me to borrow another bike for as long as I needed it. Enter the Salsa Journeyman Claris 650, a bike that transitions beautifully from road to dirt/gravel.
The idea of getting out to ride was also fraught with confusion – Can I be outside? Should I be outside? I started riding, very tentatively at first, because I really didn’t know how and when to shift gears, the most appropriate positions for different types of riding, or even the hand signals that I had learned once in driver’s ed.
I asked Jen, co-owner of the store, if she knew anyone who could teach me the basics. She knew the perfect person.
Enter Max. Max is an elementary school physical education teacher at the local school. He is also a HARD-CORE bike enthusiast and former competitive cyclist, who is wont to say, “I used to be THAT cyclist, all decked out in flashy kits, with pointy aerodynamically designed helmets, and fancy cycling shoe covers.”
We agreed to meet the following week for my first lesson.
In the meantime, I continued to get my bearings on the bike, riding further and further up a local road, regaining the confidence I had once had as a child on my starter bike with pink streamers and a very long seat. Remember those?
I practiced braking on busy roads, speeding up, making what I thought were tight turns without wobbling or falling, and playing with the gears even though I didn’t really know when or how to use them. Perhaps most importantly, my rear end slowly became accustomed to the very small, hard seat, without me needing to avoid chairs at all costs.
I loved it.
Max arrived for my first lesson, and like the expert educator he is, he talked me through the parts of the bike: the fork, the handlebars (flat bars in my case), the top tube. Then the rear brake (right side), front brake (left side), derailleurs, the gear shift thing, spokes, and saddle.
I was riveted. We got into even more technical stuff, and I relished being a student again. I took mental notes, repeated new vocabulary, and showed off my ability to memorize new words and utilize them in appropriate contexts. Because even as a beginner, I’m a show-off.
“Max, I don’t even know the best way to mount a bike. Can you show me?”
“Oh, OF COURSE!” he said, with the same enthusiasm he would show later on for hills that would “suddenly” sneak up on us during our rides.
“The way I’ll teach you today is this little two-step method to get some movement and then you hop on. It’s easier when the bike is moving with a little speed ¬– this way there’s more stability.”
It worked. Wow, at almost 45 years old, I was re-learning how to get on a bike, intrigued by the seeming difficulty of a process that was once second nature to me.
That day we eventually went on a six-mile ride, Max chatting cheerfully and quietly pushing me to ride more miles (this would become a trend), addressing my positioning here and there, talking me through some of my fears of making left turns, checking for cars behind me, and navigating around protruding bushes – Vermont has a lot of these.
Fast forward a few weeks, deep into the COVID-related shutdown. I thought that all I needed was a lot of rest and less racing (I did need this!) and fewer major events (I needed that, too) to calm my very conversational left knee and Achilles tendon.
I didn’t run much and instead I ramped up my hiking, because TRAINING CAN’T STOP WON’T STOP, right? (Intellectually, I know this is bad. We all know this. As a coach myself, I am well aware of the need for rest and recovery. But my legs were almost itchy with the need to move up and down mountains, or at least up and down the street.)
One day I went on a steep, low mileage hike on Pine Mountain in Western Massachusetts. I took pictures and delighted in being on the trail, even though I worried constantly about descending. I knew it would hurt some, and that I would probably not be able to hike again the next day. And that evening, my entire left leg was stiff, and this time my lower quad was swollen, as well as much of my lower leg.
This was out of character for my body. I hadn’t had any major injury since the avulsion fracture in my left foot nine years ago. Any other injuries had been minor, or deal-with-able.
After not having been to a doctor for over two years except for the required physical for Marathon des Sables, the next day I went and got an x-ray that indicated an out-of-whack patella and the beginnings of arthritis. I immediately started physical therapy to encourage the pesky patella to relocate itself. I was given the green light to continue cycling. I would be allowed to hike short distances again within a few weeks as long as I wasn’t in pain.
But a few weeks later, the pain was still there. An MRI discovered the culprit of the remaining swelling and tenderness: a torn medial meniscus.
“We’ll need to be aggressive,” said the PA. “OK, let’s be aggressive,” I said. “I do this for work, so I’ll do what I need to do in order to be able to run and hike again, PLEASE.”
We decided on arthroscopic surgery to repair the meniscus. It will happen in a few weeks. I’m a bit nervous, but I’m excited to be able to run and hike long distances again without pain.
In the meantime, I am allowed to cycle as much as I want to, weight-train, and swim. So, I’ve upped the ante with Max, asking for as many lessons as it would take to get me up to speed on all things bike-related. I also asked Coach Mike to turn my hiking and vert training into cycling training, which he did, ALMOST TOO HAPPILY.
“Listen,” he said. I knew he was about to drop some knowledge and wisdom, so I listened.
“This is actually a good thing. You get to do it all, and it ends up being good for your body and spirit. Have you read Ryan Holliday’s The Obstacle is the Way?” Coach Mike asked. “Well, it is. The obstacle is the way.”
That’s right. My pain and injury were obstacles to what I thought I needed to be doing. And they still are. But actually, they have opened up my world even further. I’ve gained an appreciation (bordering on an obsession) for everything BIKE. I seek opportunities to ride. I take up ALL of Max’s time because I have SO MANY QUESTIONS. I’ve signed up for an actual cycling event and am now planning a bike-packing trip. I even have SEVERAL cycling jerseys.
WHO EVEN AM I?
I look in the mirror and for a moment I don’t recognize myself with my slightly pointy bike helmet, cycling jersey, BIB SHORTS, and cycling socks. Did you know they have socks JUST FOR CYCLING?
But then I see that familiar glint in my eyes, a glimpse of excitement and eagerness to be outside in the sun, welcoming the familiarity of wind on my face, just like running, only faster and with more bugs.
I think I like it.