How we get there
I was always a reluctant cyclist. Part of this was political — I worked in a college basement backpack co-op adjacent to a bike co-op, and we reviled them and their more popular resource, their fixed gear smugness and their adoring women looking for air pumps. Part of this was tribal. I am a runner, damn it. Cycling is too easy, or too fun, or something. Part of it probably had to do with having a shitty bike.
But there was more there, too. However exhilarating riding a bike can be, it could never for me quite match that particular rhythmic ecstasy running can, at its best, achieve, the much-discussed flow state where effort and pace and landscape merge into something where moments no longer have definite duration, only presence. That was a big part of it. And that you never had dirt under your feet — you had metal, and rubber, and asphalt, an interface that could provide a thrilling sensation of union with a deeply personal tool, but ultimately reminded you humans like to seal the earth up beneath them out of convenience and perhaps fear.
Eventually I converted, not for exercise, necessarily, but for getting around, as people had constantly told me bikes are good for. Running can be politics, and no matter how mud-splattered and rosy you were after a long December Sunday on the Wildwood, driving there in a station wagon getting maybe 25 miles per gallon seemed a guilty pleasure. It was not fine style. And at some point, as I am not paid to run and not quite competitive enough to have too much riding on it, having fine style started to seem more important.
Portland’s M/U/T runners are usually westsiders, sacrificing access to the city’s throbbing creative heart to live against the rolling verdure of the Tualatins in an insurance policy against the gloomy motivational lows of trying to make running the same contrived sidewalk loops exciting. Living in Southeast Portland, I couldn’t run to the trailhead. But one day, while tapering for Capitol Peak 50, it struck me that this was exactly the reason bicycles were useful, and so I rode an inoffensive 45 minutes to the park through beautiful leafy bungalow-lined neighborhoods, ran for a couple hours, and biked home again, thirsty enough that Hefeweizens suddenly made sense. I was more spent than usual, but it was satisfying, and so a streak of sorts began, where as long as I was running alone (running with company is an altogether different endeavor, and makes the whole thing seem less inherently selfish), I would bike, not drive, to Forest Park.
Now, living in San Francisco without a car, it’s an easy streak to continue. I live, not for much longer, but for a moment that might as well be forever, in a neighborhood a handful of blocks from the ocean and the rocky bluffs above the coast of the northwest part of the city. It’s not far from the Coastal Trail, a hilly ribbon of dirt and bike path with lovely views of the moody Pacific which makes for fine running but can’t quite get you away from the claustrophobia of a million people on a small peninsula.
By bicycle, though, it’s less than half an hour to the Marin Headlands, via a route hilly enough to make you lactic way earlier in the day than you’d like, and that makes you dodge the uniquely oblivious bike-tourists of the Golden Gate Bridge, but is all in all a short ride to beautiful switchbacking singletrack up into chaparral covered hills that go on for miles and miles. It’s not always something I want to do, or particularly glamorous, and I’m probably a worse runner for it, at least as long as work and life keeps me in big cities a bit farther than I’d like from real open space and a geologic horizon. But in the end, little, repetitive things carry more weight than the grand gestures, as crucial as those gestures are to making life exciting. It’s as Annie Dillard so beautifully puts it: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
More often than not, these are my days.