It’s just after 8:00 a.m. It’s 32 degrees outside on this early December Saturday morning and I’m battling a lovely combination of dizziness, dehydration, and general malaise otherwise known as a mild hangover.
My warm bed sings its siren song—sweet and pleasing, but one that will surely lead to the untimely demise of my goals and higher aspirations.
One reluctant leg emerges from my tangled nest of blankets. It’s cold. I’d rather not be awake. My two cats snuggle closer as if to lure me back. I am cuddled against their warm little bodies and comforted by their satisfied purrs. It almost works.
But my other leg breaks through our cocoon, followed by the rest of my body and my very unhappy mind. “Perhaps we can sleep in tomorrow?” asks my brain. “Perhaps,” I silently reply, “but not today.”
It’s a familiar dance, this age-old push-pull relationship between the devil and angel sitting on my shoulders. The comfortable safety of lethargy vs. effort, risk, and discomfort of striving towards a goal. The angels have been winning lately despite the demons’ best attempt to sway me. I fear that one misstep could shift the balance.
Two bottom layers, three top layers, one hat, one bicycle helmet, and one giant bowl of oatmeal later, and the swirling circles of my frosted breath envelop my head as I swing my right leg over the bike saddle and am ready to roll. “Am I crazy?” I wonder out loud, but an icy breeze hits me before I can answer.
I’m in motion, a joyful and fantastic fusion of human and bicycle. The sun peeks through the clouds and the only things that matter for those first ecstatic moments are the rush of flying downhill and the thrill of movement.
Once I’m on the safety of the bike path, my mind has freedom to wander, as my legs, through the wonders of muscle memory courtesy of countless hours and miles of riding, propel me forward without conscious thought. I’m taking in the absolute stillness of the river and the way the sunlight creates silver and white-gold sparkles across its surface, and it’s almost too beautiful to be real.
The path is covered in brown and gold fallen leaves, some of which are partially frost-covered and adorned with crystalline flecks. Birds begin to sing, oblivious to the current cold, my only companions on this morning until I pass another rider. His face is pale and cold-stung with red cheeks and nose, but he grins and wishes me a hearty “good morning.” I wonder if I look just as cold and crazy?
A runner passes by soon after, similarly frozen-looking but somehow still happy. Several more cyclists and runners pass during the course of my ride; all with the same look of chilled discomfort but smiling and collegial just the same.
We greet each other with wide smiles, noses running, tears streaming from the corners of our eyes as the cold air assaults our tender faces. It occurs to me that we’re part of a community. Not just the fair-weather fitness enthusiasts, but members of the die-hard, willing-to-freeze, “I need to get outside!” club.
Are we indeed crazy?
I had a friend who once asked me, “Steph, why do you run? Are you being chased? Is your car broken?” Another friend asked why I went to the trouble of bike commuting to work and that I must be crazy for wanting to complete a 100 mile century-ride. These questions popped into my mind as I contemplated the sense of community I felt amongst complete strangers on the D&L towpath that morning. Explaining the answers to those who find no joy in movement is difficult indeed, but it’s worth a try.
Why do we wake up early, often grumpy, sleep-deprived, or even hungover? Why do we leave the comfort of warm companions, be they human or animal? Why do we head outside despite heat or cold to run, walk, hike, or bike? The exact answer is slightly different for each one of us, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it comes down to a few similar reasons.
We do these things because we must.
Because a part of our soul withers and dies when stuck inside and motionless. Because there is a joy and freedom that comes with pushing your body beyond its comfort zone and attempting to be just a little bit better today than we were yesterday. Because hitting your optimal stride during a run or achieving that perfect pace while biking gives us a taste of being temporarily airborne and weightless; as if we can, for a few glorious, fleeting moments, experience the closest thing to flight possible for us earth-bound creatures. We live for the challenge of being faster, stronger, riding longer or running farther than we once thought possible. Because being active outside allows us to reclaim the ancient and oft-neglected union between man and nature. Because all of these things teach us about ourselves.
Are we being chased? Perhaps we are. Perhaps we run/bike because we seek to outpace the voices of those that told us we were never “good enough,” “smart enough,” or just “enough” in any sense. Maybe we try to outrun baggage from past relationships, stress from work, the noise of daily life, or the critical voices that we’ve internalized so much that they chide us in our own voices. Sometimes we try to escape stagnation. Sure, it’s easy to be exactly as you are, but it can also be a trap. Feeling “stuck” is something I fear even more than spiders and heights (and that’s really saying something). Pursuit of fitness goals is a way to avoid the comfort trap and keep improving, or at very least, keep moving.
It could be that we try to outrun the uncertainty of the future. All we know is that for the minutes or hours we are on the road or on the trail, no one can touch us, find us, disturb our peace, or steal our time. This time is our own—a precious gift of freedom in the moment. A magical bubble where we can digest and process thoughts, experience epiphanies, and, if we’re lucky, come to a place of peace where thoughts subside and we are free to just “be” in the moment. Those reasons are more than sufficient for me.
The sense of community and belonging is also fairly compelling. Armed with the knowledge that you’ll always encounter other smiling, friendly, supportive faces on every bike path, hiking trail, and running route, you feel a sense of being part of something much larger than yourself. If you’ve ever participated in a race, you’ll know that the sense of community is strong. The collective anticipation and energy before the start that can only be matched by the feeling backstage right before the curtain goes up. The vibe of friendly competition and conversation, the knowing glances and comments as you get passed by a person pushing a double stroller—uphill, or the genuine appreciation and applause as the elite runners pass you at a course turnaround. The fun thrill of spectators cheering you on and the innocent delight of children along the course screaming out for you to give them a high-five as you pass. Yes; all of these things.
Perhaps most personally compelling for me is that fitness gives me a reason to live. All of the aforementioned things keep me going. It’s well documented that regular exercise is an effective tool in managing depression and anxiety, both of which have plagued me throughout most of my adult life. So in addition to the challenge, the joy of motion, the beauty of nature, the thrill of competition, the mental peace and clarity, fitness keeps me alive. The darkness of depression nearly consumed me in 2006 and finding my way back to fitness (and music) helped me keep my head above turbulent waters.
All of these reasons are what get me out of bed and to the gym, the park, the trail, or my yoga mat most mornings. We have a startlingly limited number of hours on this planet, and I’d like to spend mine striving to be the best version of myself that is humanly possible. Because joyful motion keeps me moving forward; there’s no time for going backwards or in circles. As one of my literary heroes, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake,” and I choose to be awake. I chose to be awake on that December morning: cold, frozen, tired, but blissfully moving, and vibrantly awake, knowing that each run, ride, hike, or walk brings me closer to being fully alive, present, and as joyful as possible.
Author: Stephanie Kotz
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Jazz Guy