This time of year brings a series of choices for those who run, ride and swim. There are days when weather dictates your run or ride. If it’s a blasting spring wind, the idea of getting out in the open on a bike is not so appetizing. So you run. If it’s pouring rain, you might as well go inside and swim.
As if those choices are not difficult enough, we actually have other things to do in life than keep our fitness up. That can make for a tricky day. Work. Family. Other hobbies.
Love of nature. Nature of love.
As a birder (ne: birdwatcher) there are mornings when I get out on the bike and am positively torn about not having binoculars on my person. An April or May morning can be an absolute treat when southerly winds dump a pile of birds in a “fallout.” That can mean dozens of warblers singing in the trees. The color and activity is mesmerizing.
Birders do much of their work by ear. When riding or running through a spring woods it is often possible to hear 20 or 30 species. That makes it all the more tantalizing, especially when you hear a species that you know is beautiful. You want to pair the bird’s song with the bird. But you’re riding or running. Stopping every 30 seconds is not what you’re about at that moment. So you ride or run on with the promise to return to that spot and find those birds.
In the moment
Of course that doesn’t happen sometimes. The days whip by and the mornings where conditions are perfect for birding can be rare, depending on the year. You must be wise and opportunistic to catch the “waves” of birds coming through.
Yet the same holds true for training on the bike and running. Those April and May mornings are precious opportunities to build fitness. So choices must be made.
That’s not an unfamiliar dynamic. I took up birding the exact same year I became a serious runner. That year I also began painting birds, selling my work. That carried on through high school, college and beyond college into the professional world.
At one point headed into my senior year in college it was evident that training for running would need to trump all else. By chance that summer I found a dead red-tailed hawk along the road. Illegal as it was, I scooped up the bird and brought it home to do
drawings and mine it for feathers and even the claws. Again, that’s illegal as hell. Hopefully the statute of limitations have run out since 1978. But as a bird artist, you have to get close up to the subject at times, and my experience in college biology and taxidermy gave me insight on how to handle the specimen.
One of those hawk claws I took to a jeweler and had it turned into a necklace. I wore it with the promise that when all the intense training was done, I would get back to nature and birding and painting. Running 100 miles a week did not allow much time for anything else. But it did allow me to be a key part of a team that placed second in the nation in cross country. That was rewarding and fun.
10 years ago while out birding on an early May morning, my brother called me by cell phone to ask if I was watching the opening time trial of the Giro de Italia, the bike race featuring a pink jersey and some of the wildest stages imaginable in a grand tour.
I explained that I was out birding. Undaunted (being a fellow birder) he quickly proceeded to share the excitement of the team time trials going on. I promised to watch the action on the later broadcast that day.
Then I went back to birding, tromping through the fields, marshes and backwoods in the annual Spring Bird Count. It was a good morning for birding, as I recall. A dozen or so scarlet tanagers, orioles and mixed flocks of warblers were moving through the trees.
That year, along with my newfound love of cycling, I took swim lessons with thoughts of taking up the triathlon. During my first swim lesson I lost a contact lens in the pool and was given a set of soft contact lenses to wear by the optical shop while they ordered a replacement.
So I was feeling kind of weird and changed by the whole enterprise. I loved those soft contacts yet the optometrist insisted I was better off in hard lenses.
Advice like that is frustrating. A few years before I had met with my family doctor to get a referral for physical therapy because of pelvic and knee problems. He branded PT a “bunch of fluff.”
A month later I tore my ACL because of weakness in my knee. That injury required surgery and physical therapy, work that which strengthened everything below the waist. I learned that my instincts were correct. Had he allowed me to do physical therapy before the big injury, life could have been considerably different.
Back in the pink
After the surgery to fix the ACL I went back to playing soccer, running and riding. But then some even trickier events came to pass.
During the Spring Bird Count two things happened simultaneously. I got bitten by a tiny deer tick and at the same time picked up a wicked case of poison ivy. The deer tick bite formed a target rash indicating possible Lyme disease. That meant taking oral medication for two solid weeks to battle the tick bite and swabbing all kinds of pink goo on my leg to stave off the poison ivy.*
The poison ivy turned the entire left lower leg into a pink, bubbly mess of itchy skin. It was really gross and kept returning despite the calamine lotion I was using for treatment. That meant I had to stay away from the gym to do any strength work. Even while wearing pants the itching was intolerable and I could not justify going to the club at risk of turning the equipment into a poison ivy factory. That would be so, so wrong.
The month of May turned into a ridiculous mess of medical itchiness and popping pills. It wasn’t just a tricky day. It was a tricky month in all the wrong ways.
When early June rolled around I had signed up to play outdoor soccer. The second match of the season was bitch. It had rained the night before and we only had 8 guys to put on the pitch. By halftime the field was a greasy, slick mess and fatigue was setting in from head to toe because playing forward against a superior team meant lots of work trying to get open for the ball.
Finally with 1:00 left in the half the ball came to me in an open position in the box. I trapped the ball with my left leg and planted to shoot with my right. A defender came in from my left and I heard a “snick!” as his weight lurched against my knee and the repaired ACL was gone. I blame the lack of strength work coming off the deer tick bite and the poison ivy for putting my knee in a compromised place.
So there really is such a thing as a tricky day. Even when you’re out doing something you love, an activity that seems innocent and joyful enough, you cannot always predict the outcome. Just when you think you’re “in the pink” in all the right ways, things can blow up in your face.
I’m guessing that’s what makes big bike races like the Giro de Italia so fascinating for the rest of us to watch. Those bike racers put it all on the line, every day. Things can and do go wrong. When some rider finally emerges with a pink jersey they obviously symbolize the ability to overcome adversity. We can all identify with that. Even when we’re doing the things we love, it can be tricky knowing when and where the next challenge might come along.
*I now recommend TechNu for treatment of poison ivy. It’s a homeopathic medical scrub that knocks poison ivy dead. I’m not paid for this endorsement. It just works. Invented by the military I hear. Seriously. It works.