The summer of 2008 I learned something about athletic tapering. And about spirituality. My friend Bill Dunn is an active runner. He gave me some old copies of Runner’s World magazine. RW has many articles about training for a marathon. One of their tips is to start tapering two weeks before the race. The idea is to reduce your training runs to far fewer miles, and the last couple days before the race not to run at all. Common sense seems to dictate that going so long without exercise, you would lose your conditioning in the interim. But the expert coaches say your body will keep its conditioning for those two weeks, it will heal of any minor injuries and will save up energy.
In early July I ran 6 miles at a 10 minute / mile pace. It was not planned – I just felt good and did it. That is obviously no great athletic feat. I am not a threat to make the Olympic team. Will McElwee could probably beat me running backwards. But it was my personal best; I had never run that far, that fast. Then for various reasons I did not get to run, or hardly any other exercise, for over the next two weeks. [Okay, I paddled my canoe 10 miles on the New River on Saturday, but that is a different story…]
Then, yesterday evening after work, I had the bright idea to pedal the 7 mile mountain bike Over Mountain Victory Trail at the Lake, the full length out and back, for a total of 14 miles. That distance is not a great amount of road bike mileage, but on a mountain bike trail, it is a major workout. Business kept me at the office until 6:45 p.m., which left only 2 hours until sunset – about ½ hour less than my normal time for this route. I would have to go fast and press hard to finish in daylight. Remembering the over-two-week gap with little exercise, I expected to finish by walking my bike the last couple miles in the dark. Being a good Boy Scout, there was a headlamp in my backpack.
I don’t have a way to measure my speed while biking, except for the gear my bike is using. The first 15 or so times that I biked the trail, the average was ¾ of the time in 1st gear (the slowest) and ¼ of the time in 2nd gear. After 6 months or so, I had worked up to about ½ the time in 2nd gear. A couple months ago I progressed to ¼ of the time in 3rd gear. Like any other athletic endeavor, faster is harder. You have to exert more pedal power, concentrate to stay on the trail, not to slide or bounce off, and avoid hitting trees or sliding down embankments.
On yesterday’s trip, my pace surged!! This ride was head-and-shoulders above my best prior time. I averaged almost ½ the time in 3rd gear and a few stretches in 4th gear. Woo-hoo!! There were occasions when it felt like my bike was flying. Other times, I had to stand up in the pedals to absorb the pounding of the bumpy trail shooting by underneath. It felt like I was carving a wave on a surfboard…riding the slope of the mountain downhill.
Not only was the tapering working, but a necessary component of the speed was the need to beat sunset and the desire to do so. I would not have attained this level if I had started earlier in the afternoon. When several positive factors come together, it is a wonderful occasion!
Truthfully, there was another component of the trip. As the ride progressed – as I got tireder and sorer, and the daylight grew dimmer - I had a number of strangely up-close and personal encounters with a wide array of wildlife. Rabbits and deer strangely did not move away from the trail, but just stood and looked at me. Fireflies swirled around me. Beautiful, tall, bright-white mushrooms lined the trail – like the lights that people install beside their walkways. As it got darker, these mushrooms reflecting the last bit of daylight seemed to glow, and literally lit up the trail to show me the way.
There were long stretches of darkness under the trees, followed by short bursts into slightly brighter sections crossing open fields. Eventually, I could not see the individual rocks and roots in the trail. That is dangerous, since a biker has to see the rugosities to know where to lean, swerve, brake and accelerate. To keep up my speed, I got to the point of relying on subconscious knowledge of the trail and trusting that it would be safe. I felt that I was exercising some kind of spiritual faith. Everything felt more connected to nature and creation, calmer, sweeter and more fun. There was a paternal, protective presence. I felt like God was saying, repeatedly, happily, joyously: “Hi, Bob! Here I am! Isn’t this cool!” And it was…