When I was 13, I went on a month long trip riding a bike across France and Spain. That’s a bit of a grandiose description. We rode 10 days out of 30, and covered a total of about 250 miles. We started in Paris, and then took the train to Orleans, from which we rode about every third day through French countryside. I saw Chartres, and Chenonceau, Ambois. It was beautiful. Then we loaded the bikes up for an overnight train across the Pyrenees and rode again through little towns in northeast Spain. Santiago de Compostela, and Sanxenxo are the ones I remember now.
I had a terrible time. I was not quite pubescent, and I was the youngest kid on the trip by almost a year. I didn’t fit in. I still don’t fit in, of course. But I really didn’t fit in. I wasn’t in good enough physical condition. I rode only once – for ten miles – prior to leaving. On the trip, we averaged a 25 mile day while hauling all our luggage on pannier racks. I was in pretty decent shape at the end. I made an ass of myself regularly just by being too immature for the group. I ran out of spending money. I called my mom, to ask for more. She said, “They won’t let you starve to death,” and hung up on me.
And I found other ways to humiliate myself. At the age of 13, still not quite pubescent, I had never worn deodorant. I didn’t know it existed. And I was lazy about washing my clothes on the trip. One day in Spain, everyone was joking about “smelling something”. But no one would tell me it was me. I, of course, didn’t smell it. But I wanted to fit in. So I pretended I did. And I pretended that I didn’t know where it was coming from, just like they were. Only, I wasn’t in on the joke. Later, one of the leaders took me aside.
“Dude, can I tell you something?” He said. He was in college. I admired him. “You peef, dude.”
I’m still humiliated. I wish I could find them. Let them know how different I am now. Am I different? I’m still immature. I’m still socially clueless. I still struggle to be popular, to fit in. And as a drunk, when I didn’t care about myself, I even went without deodorant again, often. Alcoholism traps us in adolescence. I’m still emerging.
But I discovered, on that trip, that I loved to travel. And I loved to ride a bike. Riding a bike is a lot like flying. I rode a lot throughout high school, and some in college. But after about age 22, I stopped. I owned a couple of bikes thereafter, and rode very, very occasionally. But I bet I haven’t ridden 20 miles in the past 15 years, total.
Until yesterday. This weekend, BB worked all weekend getting her two bikes into working order. She’s handy and know how to do things like that. I’m not, and I don’t. And frankly, I’m not that interested in learning. But luckily, in this modern day, one can hire other professionals to do things like fix bikes. So I don’t need to learn if I don’t want.
I bought a bike. It’s a halfway-decent, point-and-shoot bicycle. Push-button shifting, etc.. Nothing fancy, nothing special. Just two wheels and a derailleur. And yesterday I took it out for a ride. I rode home from the shop, of course, and then on the path where I usually run. I rode 7.8 miles in 45 minutes. And I just kind of sailed the whole way. I can’t even begin to describe how wonderful it was. I felt myself nearing tears several times.
I have a complicated history with bicycles. They evoke shame and humiliation. Adolescence. I broke my arm while riding a bike when I was 16. But they are also about growth and freedom and exhilaration and joy. And I have a different relationship with myself than I did the last time I rode.
My fitness is in an entirely different place now. I hadn’t ridden a bike for more than a mile in a decade. Probably more. And yet I got on this bike, my new bike, yesterday, and rode joyfully for 45 minutes without being tired or suffering in the heat. Without much in the way of effort. It was easy and fun and liberating. I felt like a 40 year old boy. It’s exciting to be able to do that kind of thing. For my body to work the way I want it to, instead of me being subject to its inadequacies.
Things stay with me. Old pain. Old fear. And bicycles.
I’m not running today. I’m not running today. I’m not running today. I want to, because it’s been two days since I’ve run. But my calf isn’t getting any better and I need to let it recuperate. I can’t go in to a three month marathon training season with a sore, tight calf that bugs me for months. Last year, my lower abs strain took months to heal, and left me with a lot of anxiety and fear about hernias. I don’t want to repeat that with my leg. So I’m resting it another day.
That doesn’t mean I’m doing nothing, of course. Wednesday was 30 minutes of 40/20 sec intervals on the recumbant stationary bike. Yesterday was my day with my personal trainer, and he absolutely ruined me. Lots of lifting, and conditioning type work. I’m a little sore now, but I’m going to be a lot sore in about 12 hours. I jumped rope for the first time since high school. Holy monkey powder, Batman. Three 1-minute sessions were absolutely brutal. I’ll have to do more. But the major thing that’s going to really hurt are my forearms. Lots of carrying 45# kettle bells yesterday.
BB is often telling me that if I’m not getting sore, it means I’m not doing the right kind of work. I’ve come to agree. While it’s nice that I can run a long time without getting sore, what that also says is that I’m not challenging my muscles to improve. When I work out with my trainer and feel deeply sore for a couple of days, that means I’m building real strength. I think.
The really hard part is controlling food intake. I just ate a doughnut and several doughnut holes. Of course, part of the reason I exercise so much is to be able to eat without quite so much fear of metabolic collapse, or whatever. But I’d be doing better if I could be happy eating nothing but healthy fresh foods. Wouldn’t we all.
But the truth is that I’m doing pretty objectively well. And I’ll rest this week and get back to the running on Tuesday, or so. Meantime, I have some beautiful data and I’m going to write it up for a publication. I think this will be nice and easy to get out there. And I’m excited by it because I get to make my co-worker the first author, for her first publication. And this is one that should really help her move her career forward. I like being able to help people accomplish those things.
This weekend I went on my first stateside trail run. It was 9.8 miles, and really only about half of it was on trails. paved bike paths comprised the rest. But I enjoyed it. I hurdled a fallen tree! I climbed difficult dirt paths, steep enough that stairs were cut into the path! It was a fun run on a well-traveled path. I can see immediately the appeal of trail running: it’s more technical. It requires care and attention to decide where to plant your feet; you have to think about two steps ahead. And it works all kinds of little muscles that straight-ahead road running doesn’t.
We ran with a guy from BB’s Monday running group. He’s in his early 50s, and has a similar fitness history to my own: in midlife he decided he was tired of being obese and started running, biking, and swimming. He lost a bunch of weight, and looks fabulous. He does short and medium distance triathlons regularly. On our nearly 10-mile run, he literally didn’t even break a sweat. That gives me hope. Not that I’ll stop sweating, of course, that’s probably a genetic thing. But that I will be able to be fit and vigorous throughout the next decade and beyond.
I really am tired of not having the body I want. I am just constantly surprised at how much work it is to get to where I want to be. A little more than a year ago, when I was training for my first half-marathon, I had these visions in my head of what a half-marathoner looked like. What I imagined I’d look like. But the truth is, you don’t have to be lean or especially fit to complete a half-marathon. It’s a race within reach of nearly anyone, I think, who is willing to work consistently at it for about four months. It does make huge changes in you. But it’s not a challenge that requires excellent or athletic fitness.
Now that I’m training for a marathon, I find myself entertaining the same thoughts about how I’ll look, what a marathoner looks like, feels. But I’ve seen people running marathons, faster than I’ll ever run a marathon, who don’t look like my narrow imagination once thought marathoners had to look. Everything is harder than I thought it would be. The body I want, the fitness I want, it demands more effort than I thought it would.
That’s ok. Part of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is “taking life on life’s terms.” I can do that. The fact is, I need to do a better job of food and of exercise if I am going to get where I want to be. I have to find another way to work a little harder. Go a little further. I am very fond of saying I’m willing to put in B+ effort for B+ results. Well, I put in what I thought was B+ effort, and I got B- results. So I have to work a little harder.
I don’t have much talent. Not physically. I’m bad at sports, and always have been. I tried to ski and failed. I tried to play baseball and failed. I’m just not an athlete capable of the fine-motor type movements required to be really good at sporting activities. But I can run. Not fast. But for a long time.
I like to do things that not many people will. I don’t say “can”. I think most people can do what I do. I’m not special. But I like to do things that not many will. I don’t have talent, but I think that I have the right kind of hard-headedness for distance running. I’ll never be fast. I’ll never be great. But I can finish things I start. And I’ve discovered I like starting races. My next one, at the moment, is the Marine Corps Marathon in October. I’ll start that race. And I think I’ll be able to finish it. And then from there, we’ll see.
I find myself feeling like I am supposed to apologize for what I want out of running. Like I should ask forgiveness for being proud of what I can do, and what I’ve achieved. Survivor’s guilt. Maybe I’m vain. Maybe I’m egotistical. Maybe I don’t care. My running is about me. About my sense of self. About my relationship. About my health. About my fitness. My body. My time. My strength. My drive. I’m not sorry about it. I don’t feel ashamed. I worked to get where I am. I’m not yet where I want to be. I’ll work harder.
At my men’s meeting last night, the chair mentioned “returning to the man [he] was.” It struck a deep chord with me. I talked about how I didn’t really start drinking until I was about 21. I had some time as a young man before I was a drunk. And so I thought I knew something about who I was and what I stood for and against. What I wanted in life. Now, like just about every early 20-something, I was wrong about must, perhaps most, of that. But I had a self I had developed.
Then came the drunk years. I lost myself in some really complete ways. My ambition. My confidence (such as it ever was). My eagerness to learn. The education I’d cultivated. All went down the memory hole.
But when, at the age of 33, I gained my sobriety, I felt that I was returning. Returning to the life and vigor that I had once had. I was startled and dismayed by what I had become: obese; smoking; sedentary. It took me a year and a half to quit smoking. I gained more weight. I sat.
But I worked. The first thing I did was get a job. It was a post-doc like position working as a concierge engineer for the chief of staff of a local hospital. It was a good job. It didn’t pay much, but it was enough to give me direction. As a sober man, doing something I was trained to do, I excelled. I was rapidly promoted. I felt like I was getting my life on track. I’d just wasted about 5 years worth of time. I should have been starting my career at 29, not 34.
My wife decided she didn’t like me. That was ok. She had married and entirely different man than I became as a sober person. I won’t speculate as to why she didn’t like me sober. She didn’t. That’s enough. We divorced when I had been sober a little more than two years. I haven’t heard from her now in about four years. I hope she’s well.
But despite the fact that I felt I was returning to being someone I had been before my alcoholism hijacked me, I don’t know that that’s really true. Because I am that alcoholic. Just as much as I am an engineer. A scientist. A runner. A piano player. A romantic partner. A traveler. All these things are me. I don’t get to exclude alcoholism just because I don’t like who I am when I indulge it. I am a drunk, just as I am a sober man.
I am a drunk. But I don’t do drunk anymore. I have new paths forward. In AA, we talk about “trudging the road of happy destiny.” There’s a lot of discussion of that word, “trudge”. I don’t think it’s a depressing word. I don’t think it’s a difficult word. It’s about moving forward through whatever terrain we find, slowly and surely. I have trudged a long way. And I trudge on in many venues in my life, discovering who and what I am.
And somewhere along the way, I discovered I can run.
Like anything worth doing, getting and staying in shape is a major pain in the ass. Every time I see significant progress, I tend to backslide. I think, “Oh! I’m losing weight! That means I’m operating caloric deficits. I can up my intake!” And then I over compensate and gain. Or I add miles, and then kick up the carbs because I’m famished, and then I don’t make any real progress on my fitness. It’s disappointing. I wish it were easier. In the past month, all my key indicators went the wrong direction.
I say that. I say I wish it were easier. But you know, the truth is I’m kind of glad it’s hard. I’m glad it takes effort and sweat and dedication and time and willingness to endure. I’m glad for a good reason and an ugly reason.
The good reason is, I feel good about myself when I do difficult things. I gain a sense of accomplishment, and perseverance. I feel healthy when I do things for my body that require extraordinary effort. Accomplishing easy things isn’t as satisfying. There’s personal satisfaction in knowing that I’ve trained my body to do difficult things. I feel more confident when I feel like I’m fitter and better looking. I feel more secure in the future of my health.
The ugly reason is, I like being able to do things that not many people can do. According to Running USA, there were about 2 million half-marathon finishers in 2013. But it’s not clear if that means unique individuals, or total race finishes. I think the latter. So, if someone ran three races, they’re counted three times. Realistically, many fewer than 2 million people finished a half-marathon. I like being in a group of achievers that includes a very small percentage of the population. As ugly as it is, I like having a pedestal from which to look down on people.
I’m not proud of that. I work at not being like that. And I hope that I am very positive about supporting people who are striving for fitness too. Much like sobriety, I believe that fitness is there for nearly anyone who decides to reach for it. Not Olympic-athlete-level fitness. I’ll never have visible abs or finish a marathon in under three hours or be 9% body fat. But I think that general fitness is within the reach of almost all of us.
I guess my spirit of kindness and generosity needs as much work as my body. I’m taking steps to improve that. Finding that the way I was interacting on twitter was leading me to be nasty, and cynical, I’ve stepped away from my dr24hours twitter account. I’m going to try to contribute to different communities and be positive. I’ve instituted some measures which will help me improve the way I contribute, and keep me sequestered from people who I think are disruptive to me being the person I want to be.
Much like I cannot drink alcohol and still be a normal, kind, positive, contributing member of society, I am discovering that I cannot engage with cynical, sarcastic, angry people and still be the positive and peaceful person I seek to be. And to be sure, not all of academic twitter is that way: in fact only a small percentage is. But the cynics and agitators are interstitial to the matrix. There’s no way to exclude them from my community, because I don’t get to decide who is in the community. I only get to decide if I am or not.
So I’ve made changes to my online presence. Changes that I hope will change my surroundings, and therefore the way I behave. People, places, and things. I have to say goodbye to some people in order to build the environment I want to live in. That’s sad, maybe, but it’s just the way the world is. I set the parameters of my own interactions. I cannot expect others to change to make me more comfortable. In fact, the relentless externalizing of expectations – the demands placed by the academic twitter community upon everyone to adhere to community orthodoxy – is the main reason that I can’t be there anymore. I am uninterested in enforced, monolithic, echo chambers.
So I find a new way. I move forward on a tangential path. I don’t know where I’m going, right now. Maybe I’ll go back to that place. But only if I can find a way to do so that preserves my sense of positivity, and my ability to contribute elevating things.
We had a good race in Providence. It was a lot smaller than the last, well, all of my half-marathons. Probably 2500 people running it. A lot of times, only one lane of the road we were running on was closed for us. Our intention for this race was to take it easy and enjoy it running with my friend Goldlust, who was running his first race. My calf has been barking at me for a few weeks now, and BB’s leg has been bugging her too. So we were planning on a straightforward run of 13.1 miles, and then omelets and massages.
And that’s exactly what we did. The course had a lot of long rolling hills, including some challenging ups for me; hills that, while not steep, felt like they lasted a LONG time. I’m glad I did some hill training. We finished in 2:25:36, and I am very pleased with that. It was a gorgeous day to be running. And they handed out a really snazzy medal.
When people make pointed effort to remind you that you don’t fit in, it’s ok to be gracious and agree with them. I don’t need to fit in to every place. I don’t need to be a member of every group. I don’t need to wedge myself into places I’m not welcome, or that are just generally unwelcoming.
When we first get sober we are often told that we need to change all the people, places, and things that associated with our drinking, our desires to drink, and our generally toxic behavior. Trying to fit in where I’m not welcome is one of my toxic behaviors. It’s vain. It’s self-centered.
I find myself changing my behaviors and modifying my nature to try to achieve stature in groups that are manifestly hostile. I don’t know why I do it, other than to feed my ego. I like to be seen as an important member of the community. I often don’t focus on whether that community is a positive place for me. I often don’t consider if the person I have to be to fit in is a person I admire and respect.
Being sober is so much more than not drinking. It’s recognizing what things represent intoxicants in my life. What do I do to pursue them? What does that cost me? And when I recognize that I’m participating in a toxic environment, what am I willing to do to stop? What am I willing to do for serenity?