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Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Means to an End

As I was riding my bike the other day, it occurred to me that there are many good reasons for one to be a cyclist, but if cycling is among them, then that one should quit.  Save the money and road rash, and just quit now.  You should not be riding your bike or running because you have convinced yourself and the world that you are a cyclist or a runner.  This probably holds true for most pastimes, but I can certainly speak firsthand about those two.

Hobbies, sports, projects: They often get started as a means to an end.  I'm bored.  I'm overweight.  I'm interested. I'm lonely.  And then you're not bored, overweight, or interested, or lonely anymore.  Except now you own all of that gear, have friends in the sport, and have added another layer to your conscience.

I find myself in that position periodically, and realize it's time to give the sport or pastime a break.  And that's what I did with cycling after I crashed twice in 48 hours.  Ok, so the crashes might have had something to do with it too.

So 6 months later, my first ride back on the road bike was going well.  I rolled through the accident scene without event - the scene of my first of the two.  I'll admit, I breathed a little easier when I passed that intersection at the bottom of Shell Avenue and made the left onto Alhambra without any new road rash.

The importance of this ride weighed heavy on me.  I'd still been running and mountain biking, but getting back on the road bike was, in a psychological sense, monumental.

But my psychological malfunctions are not the point of this article.  Let's ride a little further up the road.

I was climbing away from Highway 4 on Cummings Skyway with the wind in my face and the long familiar burn creeping into my quads.  As on the last long burn climb, I was debating whether this was a training ride or an, "I'm just out for a ride," ride.

The weather literally could not have been more pleasant.  The breeze out of the southwest was mild as was the air temperature, around 75 degrees.  The sun shone unabated from a cloudless sky.  I would say that the birds where chirping happily and the tall grass waved as if a golden tide was coming in - but I can't, because I don't really recall any birds and I didn't notice what the grass on the surrounding hills was doing.  But those things were not unlikely.

What I do recall was the guilty feeling that arose from the mediocre effort I was putting into my ride.  I was reasoning that since I had been off the bike for so long, it only made sense to ride hard and make up for lost time.  But on the other hand, since I had been off the bike for so long, it only made sense to take it easy for a few rides.  This was, alas, typical of the ridiculous debates that we, who spend a little too much time alone with the wind in our faces, tend to have with ourselves.  It probably tends toward insanity, but I tell myself that it's a healthy sort of insanity.

Unable to arrive at a decision between low gear or high, I continued up the Skyway at a moderate pace - possibly listening to the birds and smelling the sweet licorice scent of the wind as it caressed the hillsides.  Then I almost ran over a monster dragonfly, upside down on the shoulder of the road.  The debate raged into the fore again: To ride back and check out the large green bug, or soldier on.

The previous afternoon I had passed the baby's room en route to the laundry room and had stopped for a moment to listen in on a science lesson being taught by my 11-year-old daughter.  In attendance were the neighbor's little girl, and our 4-year-old daughter.  My audit of the course made a total of 3 plus the teacher.  The subject that day was bugs, and the textbook was the large bug book my daughter had picked up and devoured some years ago.  Dragonflies had been chosen, and I recall listening with interest as the structure of eyes, wings, and legs was discussed in remarkable detail.  I recalled this as I pushed on up the hill.

Back there on the asphalt lay a sublime specimen, and I was worried that my VO2 max might get annoyed, or that my lactate threshold might do whatever lactate thresholds do when you're not paying attention to them. I made a decision, looked for traffic, and made the U turn taking 2 lanes and the better part of a shoulder to do it.

A few cars whizzed by as I stood pondering my Insecta, Odonata, Anisoptera.  It still lay at my feet, because it wasn't yet deceased, and I was at an impasse again.  Finish him off?  Pick him up still flapping and wriggling?

Now that I had done the damage to my VO2 max and altered my lactate threshold I was, in a way, committed to follow through, but hesitated to just scoop him up.  Did that book say anything about stingers in that long pointy rear end?  And there he lay, upside down, beating his wings and trying to fly.

I felt it my duty to first attempt a rescue, so gently and carefully, I toed him and flipped him in an attempt to set him at liberty.  He flopped onto his feet and I watched as he continued to beat the pavement and make no progress - other than to catapult himself upside down again several feet down the road.  It became clear that since he could not be saved, my purpose to deliver him up to the pursuit of scientific knowledge was just.  But how?

I thought about him beating around in my back jersey pockets for the next hour and cringed.  My small saddle bag was already packed with a tire, tube, and a handful of tools.  I looked around and again considered letting him stay right there.  I spied my water bottle, and there it was - the solution.  I swallowed the last half of the water in the bottle and then shook out as much residue as I could manage.

The critter's wing span was greater than the opening of my bottle, so it took a bit of work to nudge him into the damp cavern.  I used the bottle lid to push while scooping with the bottle - avoiding if possible breaking any legs or wings.  After several failed attempts, unaided by a stiffening breeze, he finally skittered down to bottom of the bottle.  Safe.  And the dragonfly would be safe in there too.

I rode away very pleased with my decision, and resolved to remember to not drink from that water bottle.  The dragonfly's reception into the halls of learning was appropriate for an insect of such majestic quality.  The bug book re-emerged and the previous day's lesson began again - this time with a half-dead visual aid.
(The bug was full dead within a few hours - in spite of the best medical treatment our ad hoc medical facility had to offer.)

A few weeks later a large yellow and black butterfly found a spot in my hydration pack, and was similarly embraced at the completion of my run.  The windshield that had intersected with this insect's flight path had been more efficient, and had left this specimen in a sufficient state of demise to permit my handling of him with my fingers.

So has my purpose for running and cycling transitioned from my fitness and health to entomology?  No, not exactly.    But I have realized that I only enjoy these activities as they serve me in the capacity of a means to an end.  As I climbed that hill and chided myself for not riding faster, I realized the foolishness of it.  I was pushing myself, to ride better, so that I could ride more, and perpetuate the cycle.  To what end?  Cycling to be a better cyclist - was that it?  Hardly justifiable.  But, in turning around and lifting a prize dragonfly from the shoulder, I snatched purpose from an otherwise meaningless ride.

There are many great reasons to be a runner or a cyclist - but if running and cycling are the reason - then I should quit.  That day's ride was a short one, but it was long enough for me to begin applying this concept to other aspects of my life.  What other burn-out might I be risking by treating as an end in themselves, things that should actually be the means to a greater end?  It didn't take me long to think of a few.