Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Hero Machine Wants You to Train Harder

© 2016
About nine years ago, I returned to road biking hoping to regain fitness lost in many years of desk jobs and grad school. I bought a quality entry-level road bike and started riding a few times a week, relishing being outdoors and feeling my body work. I finished rides invigorated and satisfied.

I soon turned to the Internet and cycling magazines to help me gain knowledge of what basic equipment to buy and how to ride more efficiently. There was so much to learn, and such a wealth of advice and information. It seemed natural to take advantage of it.

I can’t tell you at what point information turned to opinion, pissing contests, and marketing. Lonely, bitter souls tirelessly aired their black-and-white beliefs on Web forums, or bragged about (and exaggerated) their epic rides and expensive new equipment. I lingered over articles about what top-level bike racers eat for lunch. I bought the books by the trainers of those famous riders.

Gradually, what had started as an exciting pastime morphed into an obsession. I didn’t believe in riding anymore; I believed in training. And for what? Vague goals. To keep up on the next group ride. Maybe to race some day.

It didn’t matter. “Training” gave me a sense of mission and worth that I felt lacking in my everyday. It provided an organizing principle in my life. In the U.S., endurance athletes are framed as inherently worthy; I wanted me some of that aura.

I changed to clipless pedals. I started craving a different bike. (Mine was only months old). I started eating differently, bought a heart-rate monitor. Most of all, I intensified my riding.

It wasn’t long at all before my first overuse injuries appeared. First, it was my knees, which developed Tin-Man creaks and pains I’m coping with to this day. When the knees felt better, I started over-exercising as a way to cope with stress—and ended up exhausting myself. One year I got pneumonia and three long head colds in just a few months.

Through all this, I persisted; I believed it was all part of the heroic struggle to bring out the best in me—meaning the fastest. Those two ideas were inextricable.

All the while, the sense of easy joy I initially got from riding faded steadily.

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American culture glorifies achievement. Our founding narrative is that the country was settled by people who could tolerate hardship and produce results. Persevering pilgrims, enduring pioneers, and rock-hard cowboys rolled up their sleeves and built the country.

Nowadays, that image of strength and accomplishment has been transferred to athletes—ultramarathoners, base jumpers, and football players undergoing unimaginable difficulties and danger. This time, it’s not Carl Sandburg or Louis L’amour making the myths; it’s the Hero Machine.

Olympic athletes’ biographies on television. Basketball players’ names on sneakers. Tour de France winners’ pictures in bike ads. Absurdly talented and dedicated people are being paid very well to have their image flattened, glamorized, and leveraged to promote a system that profits dizzyingly thereby.

When we “normals” feel a little of those day-to-day blues, a little of that insignificance (which the Hero Machine itself spreads) the good folks at Nike or Bicycling Magazine then turn around and sell us the idea that you can be just as special as your hero. All you have to do is buy—buy, buy, buy! Bury your worries in those new climbing shoes, the new crankset, a more waterproof softshell jacket.

And when the glow starts to wear off--when you still can’t keep up with the whippets at your local weeknight race or the Sunday morning ballers on the parquet--just do the American thing and double down. Buy another magazine with a better training plan. Get up earlier and run further.

Whatever you do, don’t give up. That’s not American. That’s French.

We pay the Machine dearly, we normals—not only in dollars, but in mental and even bodily health. Physical activity is a unique opportunity to experience the world beyond our screens, to enjoy our amazing bodies, to build companionship.

When we buy in to the shame, though, it becomes just another way to beat ourselves up and drive ourselves broke.

*     *     *

Over time, I’ve been working my way back to outdooring in a way that brings me health and pleasure. It’s been a long road; I still push it too far now and then.

I try to be kind to myself, to push toward my potential and also mind my limits. I’ve never gotten as fast or ridden as far as I thought I would. But health and satisfaction are—in a quieter way—more rewarding. Beyond the delusions of grandeur lies freedom from someone else’s image.

These days, I don’t feel pangs when I’m out for a ride and some local stud whizzes past me (inevitably without warning; apparently it affects your power output to say “On your left”). I’m just grateful to be able to put together a couple hours outdoors on a great bike without injuries getting in the way. I ride the way I feel and am inspired by the sights, sounds, and scents around me, and that’s more satisfying than mileage stats or moving up a notch on a Strava segment.

Oh, yeah: I also spend less, and I don’t get pneumonia.

1 comment:

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