How My Bike Saved Me
Posted on October 18th, 2011
By Spring of 2008, going on two years of exercising at least three days a week (often four or five), my weight dropped by another pound or two — for a total of ten pounds in two years.
Looking back, I must have been gaining muscle and other lean tissue the whole time, and dropping enough body fat to balance it out. I stopped wearing size large anything, and the clothes I kept hung looser and drapier. The weights I could lift increased, so, as my trainer Mark said, I had to have more muscle. My face looked markedly thinner. People at work commented constantly over this amazing change they could see, that was not reflected in my weight.
So by summer, I had two years under my belt of weights, cardio machines, Spinning classes, outdoor hikes, and 3-mile walk-jogs. I think that’s important to understand. Because in the summer of 2008, I found the first game-changer to losing serious weight again: my bike. The deepening base of fitness I’d already gained made a ton of difference to how that went (just as, later, the base of fitness and biking led to my success re-entering running).
In May of 2008, I broke up with my boyfriend for reasons that still, I know, are right. But I’d never lived with someone before, never been so close to committing for life, and I hadn’t expected it to end even when I was very unhappy, until very close to the time it finally did. I, who had complained incessantly about living in the suburbs so far from the city, moved out to the most remote location I could find within reach of Chicago, a boating town called Fox Lake, into a tiny, poorly insulated coach house on a peninsula surrounded by three sides of Pistakee Lake.
I dug out my old bike, a decent $400 “hybrid” Trek that was supposed to work for trail or road (it actually works well for neither), and started carting it a thirty-minute drive down to McHenry, where there was access to Prairie Trail on the Fox River. Over the weeks and months, I rode more and more, distances farther than I’d imagined, fifteen then twenty-five then forty miles in a day. I’d be out for two, three, four hours at a stretch.
At first I’d get lost at trail breaks at dusk and not know who to call, so I’d pick my way around the streets of Crystal Lake and pedal home in the dark. I got clipless pedals and didn’t handle them well at first, wiping out four times that summer with serious blood running down my legs. I wouldn’t go home when I did that; I’d keep riding. The last wipe-out was a somersault over the left handlebars that I watched in slow motion, wondering with detachment which bones I’d break when I landed. I landed on my upper back in a bed of leaves and mosquitos with nothing but cuts on my palms and chain marks skidding down my leg, watching a noisy squirrel overhead drop walnuts on me.
I’d never seen myself be so much of an externalizer before, taking risks and using physical pain to deal with loss. (I remember trying to explain to my ex, who was worried, that these were the inherent risks of biking. But they’re not; I bike all the time and don’t do this anymore.)
But my zoned-out compulsion to ride began to benefit me in healthier ways. I liked to wear a heart rate monitor, and I’d come back from a three-hour ride at 14 mph with a number like “1,740 calories” burned. What??? I hadn’t realized it was humanly possible to burn 1,740 calories! At first I thought it was a malfunction.
I knew so little. I remember utterly craving and drinking a 140-calorie can of Coke after a long ride and thinking, I shouldn’t, it’s bad for me. I had to learn later about fueling for endurance sports and why it’s actually the right thing to eat simple sugars after a workout. I had to learn to bring several liters of water in a CamelBak and a sports bar along on a ride so that I wouldn’t end up dehydrated or ravenously hungry.
I couldn’t replace that many calories, and didn’t have the appetite to. Even if I came back and ate a 1,500-calorie pizza, that only replaced my exercise calories, and not my baseline burn for the day. This was the first time I remember ever having to think about replacing calories, about whether I was getting enough calories. And that is how crazy long bike rides began to peel the fat off my body.
Most days out, I would pedal fifteen miles through fields, forests, and an old quarry, down to Algonquin where an old train trestle crosses the Fox River, and small numbers of cyclists of different ages with their different bikes would stop and watch the water and talk in a friendly way. Old guys on recumbents, middle aged couples on touring bikes with cushy seats, skinny dudes in jerseys on time trial bikes with aero bars, somebody with the occasional motorized version — it was like a group you were all in together, with a kind of empathy and respect. I’d learn about other trails in the area, different towns to visit south of where I’d been, gear I should get (with demos!). People gave me their maps. Sometimes the all-day tourists rolled their eyes at my mere 30-mile loop, but the old guys were always impressed, or at least they always told me so.
And the water was beautiful. It was all water that summer, the lake water all around my house, the river water with the ducks and turtles I’d bike fifteen miles to peer at over a trestle. I remember the sunlight on all of it, and how I didn’t know my past or my future anymore, but I still love that frozen moment.