Monday, March 17, 2014

Winter is Going

Summer friends will melt away like summer snows, but winter friends are friends forever.”
George R.R. Martin

Even a snowman would admit that this winter has been abominable; it is all the more frustrating for the fact that we apparently set so few all-time records. There have been days in the past that were colder, snow that was higher, wind chill  that was chillier. So we don’t even have the distinction of having survived the coldest, snowiest winter since they began keeping records; just one of them.
Statistics aside, though, no one will dispute that for pure orneriness, the past three months have taken the prize. My friend Pam from the U.S., normally an upbeat, no-nonsense type, has lost all patience, and is raving about nightmares with fictitious drunken uncles. If it’s too much for her, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Closer to home, people in Toronto are as sick and tired of this winter as they are of our mayor, and that’s saying something.
In the spirit of making snow cones when life hands you a blizzard, I have made friends of my indoor equipment this year. I have fallen half in love with my trainer and treadmill, if you want to know.

I spend most days of the week going nowhere on my bicycle trainer. Coach Troy Jacobson leads me though my sessions with his Spinervals videos, of which I own more than a dozen. Each one features an opening legal disclaimer with a grammatical error so appalling that it always gets my blood flowing enough to start turning the pedals, no matter how lazy I feel. It’s not Death Valley or Ironman, but I am on a bicycle and I am pedaling. And smugly grammatical.

On my treadmill I have found that I can run 10K in the time it takes to play a recorded episode of Mayday, a TV series that re-enacts plane crashes. Mayday is not a show in which the dialogue is subtle (“we’re going down!!!”) so I can easily hear and understand what they’re saying (and screaming) above the sound of my feet hitting the rubber. To help me forget about the wind chill outside and pretend I am running along the beach in Laguna Phuket, there is a heating vent just above the treadmill that somehow cannot be turned off.
Indoor training is a necessity in a northern climate, so the best thing to do is to get the most value from the time you spend on the equipment. It’s possible to perform a bike workout with an efficiency that isn’t possible when you are outside observing stoplights, swerving around potholes, and dodging the gloating victors in my city’s War on the Car (we cyclists are their spoils). And of course the treadmill surface is much kinder to my aging feet than the streets are. I have formed a comfortable friendship with the equipment in my little basement gym.

Is that the sun?

Too comfortable. It is time to get out and breathe some air that is not filtered through the dust bunnies in our heating ducts. Time that my efforts moved me forward across the earth. And I will do all that, as soon as I can get down the front walk without slipping and falling into a snowbank.

Environment Canada forecasts above freezing temperatures for most of the coming week. The best thing about the dying of this cruel winter is that anything spring can throw at us will be welcomed like a wealthy relative to a family funeral. Look for cyclists slithering through the sleet of April and runners skating happily along the trails as soon as the current patina of rock hard ice has softened.

Bring it on. We’ll be there.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Over the Hills

You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.
George Burns

When I was in my early thirties, I had decided that my life was pretty well over. Not my actual life—not my professional life or my social life—but my physical life. I had determined that after someone reaches the venerable age of thirty, it was pretty much downhill as far as one’s body was concerned. Muscles would deteriorate; heart and lung power would degrade; bones would snap, crackle, and pop. I would never run a marathon or climb a mountain or bike across a desert, because it was too late; I was too old to get any better at anything physical.
Never mind that I had never come close to doing any of those things anyway. By the age of thirty-two I was a heavy smoker and an epic drinker. I had never run around the block, let alone imagined finishing a marathon. And now here I was heading into my declining years. My thirties.

What happened was that instead of lying back and enjoying the ride to decrepitude, I detected a very faint interior voice urging me to change tacks, and for some reason I still don’t understand, I listened to it. The voice was telling me that I could be more than what I was. Readers of my blog know that, inspired by Terry Fox, I started running, quit smoking (in that order), and became an endurance athlete.
In the past thirty years, under my own power, I have travelled the equivalent of the distance from my house to Tierra del Fuego—farther than I could ever have dreamed. I have pushed my body hard, but I have also assumed stewardship of it in a way that I could never have conceived when I was a younger man. It is as if I spent the first three decades of my life living inside someone else, only discovering my own physicality just before it was too late.

Next week, the body I once thought was ready for the scrap heap will be sixty-two years old. Once again I find myself asking whether I have peaked; asking whether it is downhill from here; asking what I can get better at; what is left.
I can’t run as quickly or easily as I once could. My muscles take longer to recover. I am not controlling my weight as effortlessly as I used to. When I am on my treadmill and feel twinges of tiredness after only 45 minutes, I idly wonder if I am about to become the opening teaser on Six Feet Under.

And then I think of my father, who is now 92. When he was 80, my brother and his family invited him to go with them on a trip to Scotland. There would be a lot of hiking and climbing involved because this is the type of family my brother’s is. They don’t sit on a tour bus to be driven around when they travel; they go out and find the country.
My father knew that the physical demands would be great. In the months before the trip he began walking, a little more each day, gaining fitness, and teaching his muscles to carry him places that would daunt people half his age. He got better at it. He made the trip and thrived. One of our family’s prized keepsakes is a photo of him standing on the summit of a mountain, arms outstretched in victory, with Northern Scotland spread out thousands of feet below him.

On top of the world at 80.
This week, as my body and I complete our sixty-second circuit around the sun, I feel like I am finally getting it. In my optimistic moments I remind myself that I am most likely fitter at 62 than I was at 32.
When I think about being over the hill, I try to embrace the idea that there are many hills, each one a little different, a little more demanding than its predecessor, but each one eminently conquerable. Not barriers but challenges.

Maybe in terms of than swifter, higher, and stronger, I am now a little less of each; but my goal is not to be what I was, it is to look up the next hill, to see what I can be. To step off this path would be truly to get on the tour bus, and to stay there for the duration; there is no way that is going to happen, now or ever.