New Math: Juggling Equation of the Month


For all the complaints...About spring rains...

I knew...

the momentary inconvenience...

would be worth it.

Oh, the Places You'll Go!
Get Out

Pushing Your Edges

Thermodynamics is the science of the relationship between heat, work, temperature and energy. We human beings are on some level thermodynamic systems. A calorie is a unit of heat, and we take them in to replenish the ones we burn. An ‘open system’ is one which exchanges energy and matter with its environment. Science does a pretty good job examining the physical and chemical aspects of this (for example, we take in food, water and oxygen and we put out fertilizer, water and carbon), but we all know that we exchange a lot more with the people in the world around us than just the physical. As much as we might try to pretend we can be “closed systems” emotionally, we are affected by others moods, emotions, spirit, in other words: energy. In recent years, we’ve become more and more aware of the “Carbon Footprint” our emissions leave behind, and the effect of this on our environment; I think we also leave another set of footprints behind--Energy Footprints--and perhaps we need to pay more attention to the ruts they make and where they lead to.

A couple weeks ago I was in South Haven, Michigan, and I embarked on the longest bike ride I’ve ever taken in a day--82 miles roundtrip from South Haven to Kalamazoo (and Bell’s Brewery) and back.

The Sunday I left for my trip I woke up with a sore throat and a general feeling of malaise (somehow, the French have captured that run-down-ughness in a word better than any English equivalent).  I was a bit worried. I planned to do the ride the next day, and as I was biking solo, and undertaking a ride thirty miles longer than my longest ride so far, the idea of anything not being exactly right made me nervous.

I awoke Monday feeling a bit tight in the chest; there was a noticeable wheeze to my breathing. I sat up in bed in my cozy B&B room and surveyed myself and came up with meh. I didn’t feel great, but I didn’t feel ill either. I got dressed and slathered the heck out of my bike shorts with chamois creme. (Yep, it’s exactly what you think it’s for, and if you plan on doing long rides, remember two things: water and butt creme.) I ate a couple hard-boiled eggs, some fruit and a bagel with jam before hitting the Kal-Haven trail, which was about a half mile from the place.

At the start of the trail I noticed the wheezing again. I stopped to take a picture of the trail sign and thought about what might happen if I suddenly got full blown asthma. Would there be help near the trail? Of course I had my phone and GPS, but what ifs began to sneak into my head. I tried to ignore the voices, started my Map My Ride tracking, and took off, stopping a few miles in to take a few shots of the trail.

And it really was a perfect day for a ride. Upper sixties moving into the low to mid seventies. A canopy of green with supernatural shafts of sunlight poking through lit the limestone trail. I passed the very occasional jogger or other cyclist and everyone said good morning. I spied fields of blueberries off through gaps in the forest, smelled the scent of pine and a whiff of manure near some farms. An industrial sprinkler system washed the fields to my right as I passed a field of soybeans. In short, a beautiful day.

And I started thinking about my tires. Of course I’d filled them to 90psi before I left, but the tires themselves had some nicks in them from a summer (and winter) of city riding. At the bike shop, I’d asked Doug how he thought they looked. “Well loved,” he said, and I asked him if he thought I should replace them. Had I been having a lot of flats? he asked. No. In fact, I hadn’t had a flat all summer. “Well, then wouldn’t you rather spend that money on your trip?” he said. Of course I would. You’ve gotta love a shop that talks you out of spending money there.

But now, here in the middle of the most gorgeous ride, the kinetic energy of wondering what could go wrong was slowly spinning in my brain like my tires were on the limestone path. The energy of the thoughts weighed heavy. I remember noticing my legs during the first half hour of riding, feeling that initial leaden burn of the lactic acid, and thinking that the limestone, of course, had a bit more drag to it, but then thinking of that limestone, crushed white bits flicking up at my ankles and my tires and my tires. Maybe some limestone was wedging in my tires, and what if they drove a bit of glass that was already in the tire further in? And...


I started talking aloud. “Stop thinking bad thoughts,”  I huffed. I hadn’t had a flat all summer.

So I’m due, right?


I was busy trying to deprogram the negativity about 7 miles in (and thinking how that first ten miles is like the first ten minutes in a run--you feel a bit heavier, and the body is questioning you with every pump of the legs “How long can you keep this pace up, ya think?”) when Tom and Mark caught up to me. A father and his adult son, riding from South Haven like me, just going to about the 20 mile mark. I offered to let them pass, but Mark, a sixty-something administrator at a large Michigan university turned his kind cornflower blue eyes to me and said, “Pass you? We were trying to catch up with you! You’re setting a pretty good pace. Mind if we join you?”

And like that, there was a shift in my energy.

There’s a reason cyclists and other sports train in groups. A group pace pushes everyone’s edges. We talk about “pushing your edge” a lot at the Pilates studio, and I often think of it very literally--being inside my body, as if it is a large costume I inhabit (light coming down through the eyes), and can push and stretch to be what I want. In Pilates, in exercise, in writing and in art it means finding where your comfort level is in each activity and not settling there. Over the past two summers I’ve begun tracking my speed and distance when I ride. Perhaps it’s something about being in your forties, but I seem to want to find new physical challenges, see how far, how fast my body can go. Doing this 80 plus mile ride was how I was pushing my edges as a cyclist. But when it comes to most physical activity, I tend to be a “closed system.” I have a bike group but have been much the Lone Road Biker this summer, and although my colleague Rose and I try to work out together when we are able, more often than not I find myself gravitating toward solo workouts, even though I know I get better feedback on my form and push myself harder when I’m part of a team.

As I rode with Mark and Tom I felt a collective energy forming that made riding smoother, easier. I likely would have been fine on my own--that’s part of my comfort zone too--being independent--maybe, at times, too much so. Certainly with the addition of Mark and Tom riding along I was getting more endorphins and past that initial warm up phase, but there was also different energy affecting me; the energy I felt them pass on to me was like a double-shot of chocolatey espresso.  My nervous fears suddenly melted and my excitement about the ride returned. We chatted about the administrative shakeups at Columbia, about our bikes, about Tom’s job in Denver and Mark’s hobby of fixing up houses, and my dad’s woodworking background, and I watched the beautiful scenery too--loamy green woods and wooden bridges over streams and ravines hiccuped the trail-- and I realized we were keeping a 13 mile an hour pace, which was what I hoped was an ideal on the limestone (I generally can keep a 15mph up on asphalt for two plus hours). At some point Mark said something about hoping they hadn’t interrupted my ride.

“God no,” I said. “You saved me from worrying myself into a bad place.”

We parted at the twenty mile mark, they took a picture of me on Emmy and wished me a good ride. And I had a good ride. A great ride. Other than a small map snafu outside Kalamazoo when the Kal-Haven merged with the Kalamazoo River trail, I arrived under ridiculously perfect blue skies at Bell’s Brewery in about 3 1/2 hours, ate an amazing reuben sandwich, had two great beers and some water, met a cool couple dropping off their daughter for her first year at Notre Dame before they drove back to Colorado collecting beers from local breweries on the route back, and had an amazing return journey in which I actually beat my earlier time.

And yeah, I can talk all the feel good goo about the huge bushes hung heavy with ripe elderberries along the trail, or the surprising gang of chickens that crossed my path, or about how it feels to be reminded of how very very very big the sky is when you can see miles and miles of clouds that are towering and white and so perfect that you think maybe you are in an episode of the Simpsons. But I don’t think anyone needs a reminder of how great it feels to get energized from the great outdoors. What we may need to remind ourselves of is how we can get that same positive infusion from the people we pass everyday on the way to work, that we order coffee from, that drive our busses, that sit at the desk next to us. It’s so easy to stay inside our edges, and not make an effort to connect with others until we need something (cue angry anxiety-laden call to Comcast or AT&T), which can result in a smattering of sticky Energy Footprints that the other guys spends all day trying to wipe off or, unfortunately, passes on to someone else. What if we all made an effort to put out something positive to others every day? A random smile. That extra effort of some eye contact to acknowledge the existence of that person you pass every day and take for granted.

It will take a willingness to get outside our comfort zones, particularly us City-folk who are so exposed to so many people and vibrations we often put blinders on to protect ourselves from the overload, but imagine what the overall results could be for the world we live in? And me? I’m taking another long ride next week, but this time, I’m gonna invite a friend along and see if I can push my edges to include some new riding buddies.

***More next week and through September on Energy Footprints, protecting your personal Tuning Fork, and my friend the Fairy Dogmother.