I’m pretty sure it’s genetic. Or maybe it was my father’s chain smoking while I was young, but I have never been particularly athletic. To prove it, this year I am giving a try at finding out just how much of a wimp I really am. I’m running and biking regularly and keeping track of it all to see if there is any improvement. It’s good for me to be fit either way; it will protect my squished spinal disk and strengthen the probably weak heart I inherited from my father. Six-pack abs would be a bonus. An extremely unlikely bonus, sure, but a bonus.
I hear lots of talk about conditioning and training. How much is too much, rest days, progress plateaus and on and on. For my part, I am glad I have been keeping track of all this activity. I wouldn’t be able to notice any improvement at all if it weren’t for the last decimal point change in some insignificant statistic. But there it is in bits and bytes, damnit! Improvement!
After the 100 mile ride a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of an often overlooked improvement in performance that comes, not from from training, but from overcoming the fear of the unknown. I first noticed it back when I was a lot less wise (read: more idiotic) about hiking. I remember setting out too late on a day trip in the German Alps. It’s gorgeous country and I enjoyed the strength of young legs propelling me from one view to another. Eventually I grew tired and decided it might be time to return. Waiting until you’re tired to turn around seems logical, doesn’t it? A few hours later I was slogging down the mountain trail is fast as I could in the half light of the moon through the trees, doing everything I could not to trip over rocks in the dark and to forget how thirsty I was.
I passed landmarks that I remembered from the ascent and now they were only grim reminders of how much further I still had to go. My ‘strong’ legs were failing me, I could barely see the trail and I was shivering, thirsty, and hungry but there really wasn’t much choice except to keep going. Eventually I returned to my car and started to realize what an idiot I had been.
Except I didn’t learn quite the right lesson the first time. I distinctly remember that I repeated this lunacy a time or two before I gained the experience necessary to plan my trip and bring enough food, water and proper clothes. I did learn something from that first mistake though: that, when faced with the choice of freezing in the night, it turns out I could go much further than I thought!
Since then I’ve found that frequently what limits in physical (and perhaps many other) endeavors isn’t conditioning, but rather just knowing what’s possible. When I finished the century ride and uploaded the data into the computer it was clear that I never really pushed myself that hard. My heart rate was rarely all that high, and yet during the ride, I was wondered at each rest stop whether I was even going to have enough energy to finish! Next time I start a long hike or an endurance ride, I’ll be more prepared for it simply through my experience that, tiring as it may seem at the time, there’s nothing to worry about. I’ve done it before; I ought to be able to do it again.
I’ll know more after a few more months, but so far, the statistics don’t lie, I’m no elite athlete and even some honest to goodness training (no really, I can prove it…I am not that lazy) won’t make me one. But it’s not for nothing. Next time I’m riding 100 miles, or hiking a bit too far, I don’t have to be afraid to keep pushing. Just knowing I am not going to die trying can be pretty inspiring.