Recycling The Body

On the bike, thoughts come for you. Exposed and vulnerable, distance and landscape bring messages from your past, images of paths not taken, admonitions. Dreams so vivid they seem to almost have vicissitude and all the while you’re just cranking, cranking, breathing, watching, cranking.

Lately the demons are called Sadness and What Ifs; perhaps an improvement, I tell myself, over Anxiety, but they also bring with them their brothers Defeat, Regret, and, the worst of the lot, Profound Self-Doubt. I do what I have learned best—I sit with them in the saddle and ask them what they want from me. Fighting is useless as they are will-o-wisp, hydra, refugees from my own conscience. There is no running away, no defeating them. No pretending they don’t count. I ask them what they want. Often they are silent, more often they show me movie memories, less often they climb up and tell me they’d just like to hang out.

Cycling is far more than exercise or exploration; for this hermenaut, spinning the wheels is about exorcizing the spirits who lay in my bones and muscles and brain cells and riding them double on the handlebars or seat while we have a serious Mano a Mano. Inside me they reek havoc, trash the place, spray paint and defile and ghettoize the palace. At least out here, on the road or trail, in the wind and rain and sun, I can see them. At least out here it’s just the two of us.

***

Trail running has, for years, been my mainstay activity—it is my fitness, both physically and into this world, and where I learned that meditation can move. Long-distance trail running, in particular, has been my saviour, it has given my life focus and taught me about dedication, health, and the importance of excellent friends. And for a 47-year-old dude, those are, I’m convinced, the beating heart of lifelong wellness. So a year ago or so when my foot started to hurt I did exactly what anyone in my situation would do; that is, I ignored it and kept going. Kept telling myself that it would work itself out. That it was nothing. That everything was fine.

But it wasn’t. A small pain became a big one; trips to the chiro, the physio, and the internet all confirmed that this wasn’t going away. That it was time for a break. That healing would require rest. Rest; for someone like me, is a hard one to swallow.

Will Gadd—climber, smart ass, and all around world-class doer of awesome stuff—once said something along the lines that your job as an athlete is simple, to keep moving. That if something hurts, do something else. And so I took what was, up to that point, a thing that oscillated on the spectrum from toy to machine and decided to use it, as Henry Rollins once framed it, to reinvent myself, to carve myself from stone. To move in a new way.

Let’s be clear: while I’ve never been a fully invested couch potato, I was also not one of those stoked mid-’90s rad-dudes who saw the future and headed to the woods the moment Gary Fisher and the boys hit the market with their suped-up stump jumpers. I was too busy getting high, quite honestly. But those guys were my friends and so somewhere in the deepest stretches of my now-adult mind there was an inkling that yeah, maybe riding a bike was more than transportation or something that those working out the penance of a DUI did (which, FYI, fortunately never happened), that maybe the MAMLs were onto something, that perhaps while the bicycle is a toy for kids, and a means to get around for students, it was something else as well. Maybe it was more of an existential machine than I was giving it credit for. Whatever, it certainly beat sitting around beating myself up over a beat up foot.

In addition, I have the great fortune of living in a city that, first, is surrounded by forests and, second, where said forests have been the playground and sacred grove of the cyclists since the explorers of Marin County put two and two together and came up with a new sport. As a runner, I knew all of these trails like the back of my hand and so, naturally, felt that having an intimate knowledge of basically every root, rock, mud hole, and dip that was out there, learning to cycle them would be a snap.

Big mistake.

I also thought that because my cardio was basically bang on and that due to my work as a landscaper my core is pretty strong, my fitness wouldn’t really be an issue either.

Also, big mistake.

And so I managed to score myself a snazzy full-suspension MTB, sussed out a race or two, and hit it just as hard as I could. Low and behold, the demons were right there. As was my lack of skill. As were my inadequately trained muscles. As was the general population of seasoned cyclists. The hoard of Frustration, Desperation, Anger, Hurt Pride, and Self-Pity came rushing in for the party that the neurochemicals were cooking up in my brain and the cocktails flowed like buttery singletrack.

For anyone who has tried to pick up something relatively new relatively late in life, you know what I’m talking about. And doubt, that blood-sucking beast suckled in middle school and only made super strong by feeding it all the reefer and bad decisions any university student can muster, was right there. Who was I kidding? Seriously, mountain biking?

Our man Jens Voigt, he of leg shut ups and the kind of cruel tenacity that marks every noble lady and gentleman of sport, if he were to weigh in might say something like, “Doubt is a small voice, silence it!” And how right he would be. Because you and I both know that the podium is a mental thing, entirely relative to where you are in the great peloton of life (ugh, I’m really sorry about that one), that success really, truly, honestly is something so utterly subjective as to be… utterly within your own control.

A challenge, I often remind myself, has to be two things: hard and easy. In the first sense, it has to carry with it the real possibility that you won’t be able to do it; in the other sense, it also has to be at least plausible. A challenge, an activity that holds within it the potential for significant self-transformation, cannot just be overwhelming or a walk in the park. Take Harry Potter for instance—imagine that he and his friends were to have faced a dragon in the washroom instead of a great lumbering troll… result? Death, series over, tragic ending all around. But the troll presented real and tangible danger for the young wizards and called on all their abilities and few extra in order for them to meet the ordeal and transform individually and as a group. All myths are built on this kind of stuff.

And all myth relates directly to your life, your journey, your long and deliberate meander toward greatness. Joseph Campbell refers to this as the Cycle of the Hero, the drawn out process of self-discovery, fraught with inner and outer obstacles, that brings you, as Henry Thoreau said, “Back to your senses.” These days I may have traded my running shoes for some cool wheels, but the intent is the same: to reach my highest peak, to see the world fresh everyday, to meet excellent people with similar magic and join them exploring the wilderness, and to face down some demons. To reimagine what I’m capable of, to recycle this body over and over and over again till death come and do us.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Is biking catharsis for you, too? Or, what sport (besides running) provides you some headspace?
  • What sport do you do when you are injured from running? Does it offer you both the physical and psychological outlet you need?
Andrew Titus

lives, raises his family, runs like an animal, and bikes like a beast in the forests and valley of the St. John River in New Brunswick, Canada. Surprise winner of the 2013 Wascally Wabbit 50k, he has found himself in this ultra-distance family among some of the finest folk this big, old world has to offer. Father of three awesome and explosive kids and husband to one remarkable lady, he intends to live this life for some time to come.

There are 13 comments

  1. John Vanderpot

    What a well-written and thoughtful piece!

    I generally run too slow to have much trouble with injury, but here in midlife, when I need a break, I took up chess, a fine game, and very easy on the joints —

    JV

  2. mike phoenix

    Awesome piece ! My legs have slowed, I’m 60 now. So from running I’ve segued to climbing ( just keep moving ). And next month I’ll try and trek and climb a 21,500 footer in the Himalayas. Hard and easy .. Never gone this high before. Never climbed before. But I know I can do endurance. Think I can do altitude. Trust in everything I’ve learned from running. Slow Mike.

  3. Renee

    I’m out for at least 4 more weeks with a tibial stress fracture and swimming is my go-to for injured training. The water is a sanctuary the same way the trails are and as soon as I start swimming I can be alone with my thoughts until the end of the swim. I swam the circumference of my local lake today, over two miles, and it left me happy and exhausted.

  4. SugarGlidr

    I haven’t been running since February due to sesamoiditis. I started my recovery with yoga and some strength until the pain was manageable when I introduced more strength over yoga. Aerobic excercise- wise, I took a month off any initially, then got on the road bike for a month and then nothing for another month. After that, I have been cycling as my main sport since the pain doesn’t seem to be going away. I try to keep positive as I am young, but cycling doesn’t tame the passion I have for trail running and often times, despite giving my best every day, I don’t feel satisfied or accomplished whatever I do. One thing that keeps me going is that coming back to running is going to be that much sweeter.

  5. ISM

    Great article. Personally I mix in “non-impact” days that are mainly biking XC skiing and indoor rowing. Staying injury free is a yearly top 3 goal for me and this helps.

  6. Eric C

    This was a fun read.

    I have it all backwards … I was a decent (road) bike racer long before I was a trail runner. I was a downhill ski racer before that. So I’ve always had this ability to call up hundreds of watts of power out of my body for carefully-measured durations. That’s an ability I kind of had to unlearn, pronto, once I started trail running! :)

    “A challenge … has to be hard and easy.” This is a fantastic insight. My definitions of both hard and easy have changed dramatically over the years.

  7. Romanair

    Thanks for sharing Andrew.
    My highest respect for picking up mountain biking and also I’m happy for you that you did!
    I think MTB is not the most natural go to sport for an injured runner. At least not in a sense that you try riding most of the single trails that you use to run. However, if you do, you will find your comfort zone constantly challenged and thus vastly expanding. It’s different from trail running in the respect that you do not so much encounter and push the limits of your cardio-vascular system but rather a whole different skill set involving motor-coordination and mental strength.
    Sure, you have the endurance component when biking or carrying the bike uphill, but the major benefit of picking up MTB is the brain plasticity that is being honed by adapting to an alien body extension with a complete different behavior towards speed, balance and control. The new speed challenges you to make decisions in split seconds and sometimes leaving you to react without thinking. I believe latter results in a similar jet different head space. While in running it comes from a monotonous calmness in biking this effect comes from the circumstance to not having the time to think, leaving you to react almost reflex-like to rapidly changing situations. Sometimes it feels like a power nap or yoga meditation, leaving your mind in a relaxed and regenerated state.
    This combined with the mental game of controlling and redirecting the fear of falling or failing towards a state of heightened awareness entail the benefits of biking.
    There are probably better substitutes for running when it comes to endurance but the described effects of having to adapt and challenge new or forgotten skills is very valuable in general. Getting older I often find myself in fear and thinking about what could happen in all kinds of situations, ending up not doing them. Sometimes it’s out of healthy self-preservation but often it’s because of the fear of looking odd doing it or merely the fear of failing and landing on the butt. IMO, this is a major factor of losing the ease and playfulness of doing and learning new things like children do, leading to the exponential decline in coordination, body awareness and agility with age. MTB is a good way to challenge and slowdown the age-related declines of neuroplasticity and nerve transmission speed, as well as a healthy self-perception of ones capabilities.
    Cheers,
    Roman

  8. Mats S

    Four months ago a troubling leg made me look for alternatives for this almost-50-years-and-30-years-as-a runner body. It turned me into doing weight training and oiling up my MTB. I hate that I can’t run. I love that I now can explore bicycling again. There is light in the tunnel: my once per week test run for five km was almost pain free yesterday. Still I guess bicycling will be the main training activity this winter as it looks like a long way to those 100+ km per week of running. And, yes, it is my catharsis as it keeps me mentally balanced.

  9. JamesC

    For me biking is all about racing a contrast rather than a compliment to running. It is shame I don’t do enough to be much good at it.

Post Your Thoughts