By measures of the general population, I was once a fast runner. It doesn’t really matter how fast that was. It’s all relative anyway. There was always someone faster. Even if you’re a world-class runner, there are days when someone will beat you.
It’s true in cycling and swimming too. There is no one on earth that is absolutely unbeatable. Even sprinter Usain Bolt gets dusted when he’s still getting in shape.
But if you’re generally faster than the general population, there is one thing that is more fun than anything else. That is passing people.
Admit it: When you’re out on the bike training, it thrills you to catch another cyclist and pass them by. You see them up ahead and do that cyclist’s algorithm to figure out how long it might take you at your current pace to catch them and pass. It’s an ego boost if they look anything like a serious cyclist.
Of course, half the time, they don’t know you’re coming up from behind. So the advantage is all yours. Plenty of times I’ve been the cyclist that got caught. I hate that moment. A rider goes by with that serious “I’m better than you” look and keeps on going. You pedal on in your humble little air space. Do you catch on? Only if you dare.
Last year I caught some guy at a crossroads who seemed to be waiting for some other cyclists. I said hello because I did not want to give the impression that I thought I was the shits. He clearly looked like a more solid rider than me. His piston thighs and team kit told me he could pound out some pace if he so chose. I turned to head down the hill and pedaled up to a decent pace, probably 30-35 on the downhill. Nothing hard about that. Then I kept up the tempo, probably managing 25-26 the next two or three miles. I was working hard. Feeling decent given the fact that my Waterford was not really set up for the type of riding I was doing.
All along I thought I was riding alone. So it gave me a start to glance back and find that guy coasting along behind me. Not even in the draft, really. Just riding the same pace because he could.
He didn’t pass me, and I wondered what he thought about my riding those few miles. Did he think I was trying to drop him? Nothing of the sort. Such is the strange etiquette of the road.
As a runner, I’ve had far more opportunities to catch and pass people than I ever have as a cyclist. Training in Chicago’s Lincoln Park was always a treat. On summer, spring and fall days the cinder trails and lakefront paths would be jammed with people running and jogging. That gave me plenty of fodder for the old Catch and Pass routine.
I was so fit there were seldom people I could not catch. Yet one day I heard someone approach from behind even though I was trucking along at 5:30 pace. His name was Jim Terry. He invited me over to the track at University of Illinois-Chicago for interval training. And as we ran along together I sensed this was a guy who had no mental limits. He would go as fast as he could for as long as he could. Perhaps he’d die before he’d give up. I both loved and feared the guy.
I also signed up to interview a runner named Mike Buhmann, who at that time was a world-class marathoner living in Chicago. I wanted to interview him for a publication called Illinois Runner (I’ve been at this a while) and he agreed. On one condition. We’d do the interview during a run.
Mike was short and fast. He flew along at 5:00 pace while I tried to engage him in conversation. We passed so many people on the trail it felt like one of those scenes from a B-movie where you’re riding in a train and the scenery is just flying past. And when finished, I had my interview, but the brain in my head was so oxygen-starved it was hard to even say goodbye. I’d set a PR for ten miles and skipped my race that weekend.
And that’s the main thing I miss about being as fast as I used to be. That feeling that you’re living on the edge of a digital dream, where time actually speeds up because you’re going faster than normal people go.
I’m normal again now. And don’t really like it. But that’s something we all have to accept at some point. It doesn’t mean I don’t still pass people. I do. But I also get passed a bit more myself. And frankly, that sucks. Donkey dicks.
Apparently part of being mature is learning to accept that you’re nothing special after all. Just a bag of meat traipsing along with the rest of the bags of meat. That image came to mind when my girlfriend and I were looking through an anatomy book at the bike fitter’s lab. Almost every page was illustrated with photos of cadavers to show what the muscles inside our bodies really look like. And all I could think of at that point was this: “We’re nothing but bags of meat. All of us.”
Sorry I’m being so blunt. But it’s the truth. If I were coaching someone right now, at this stage of life, I would tell my protege: “Guess what? I’m going to make you the fastest bag of meat you can be.” And I’m sure they would be inspired. I’m sure that would get a great reaction.
Okay, I’ll admit. People don’t really think of themselves as bags of meat very often. But when you break it down to skin, muscle and bone, that’s all we really are. Bags of meat with shoes on, an occasional helmet or hat, and some swim goggles or sunglasses.
Yeah. Some of us are prettier bags of meat than others. The Internet and most of Instagram is filled with photos of exceedingly comely (no pun intended) bags of meat standing proud in selfies or carefully posed in pictures with captions such as: “I’m a beautiful bag of meat!”
That’s not really what the captions say. But they might as well. Because if you’re a beautiful bag of meat, or a bag of meat that can pass people on a regular basis, you get lots of followers. Probably 3000 or so. And 430 Likes. Automatically. That’s the average. Because that’s what it means to be a beautiful bag of meat. People follow you. And isn’t that special?
I’m sure you’re going to have a difficult time getting that image out of your head the next time you go out to run or ride or swim. It’s particularly gross to think of yourself as a tightly encased bag of meat when you’re thrashing around in a pool, doing laps and flip turns like a turd in a toilet bowl. But don’t worry, there’s plenty of chlorine, so you mustn’t worry about it. Someone will clean up after you.
It must be Friday, because as you can tell, my brain has been stripped free of artifice. Perhaps this is just a lament or resentment that I’m not as fast a bag of meat as I used to be. But in reality, I’m cool with it. I’m plenty happy to be a bag of meat at all. Love life. It’s all we got.