The apartment my best buddy and I shared (way back when) on 1764 N. Clark Street had a view overlooking the south end of Lincoln Park in Chicago. Three seasons of the year it was the best place in the world to live and train. There were lakefront trails on which to run, and hundreds of runners to join in the fun.
But come winter. It got rough. The early 1980s were a particularly cold period in the city’s history. Temps dropped down to -27 degrees and the snows were deep and slushy for weeks on end.
To combat these challenges, I trained when I could on indoor tracks. But there were times when I wasn’t able to get there and faced the prospect of going out to run on a wickedly cold night. I did it quite often. But there would be nights when the idea of going out the door was stupid and frankly abhorrent. So I just said Screw It.
To make up the lost training time, I’d purchased a MagTurbo cycling trainer. I mounted my super-heavy Columbia 10-speed on that trainer and sat on that thing spinning and pumping for an hour or two at a time. It was inefficient and loud. Sweat would stream off my body as I pedaled in front of the windows overlooking Lincoln Park. I’d watch the callgirls climbing out of limousines and the taxis picking up drunken patrons out front of Giordano’s Pizza.
It was warmer inside than out. But not by that much. Our stingy landlord ignored almost every code about heating the building. He refused to turn up the heat in our building. I later learned from him that he also refused to come inside his lover because he felt it gave her power over him.
So it was cold as snot in that apartment when the weather got cold. Some nights it dropped under fifty degrees in that apartment.
Well, the idea of cross-training with indoor cycling was new in the running community at that time. Triathlon was just gaining traction across the world. The likes of Dave Scott and Mark Allen and Scott Tinley had just made their marks. I was curious about triathlon but was too busy training for pure distance running to add any more hours to the workout schedule. Triathlon would have to wait. The pure sport of running still called.
That MagTurbo trainer that I used back then still sits somewhere in my basement. Over the years it has been put to use at times. It is somewhat unique and functional in its design. The front wheel forks are mounted on a front bar and spindle. It was really a stable setup.
I used that indoor trainer all the way through 1987 or so. But by the time I was through competing in all-out distance running, I’d gotten married and our first child was on the way. That made me decide to back off training in general. Plus I needed to concentrate on what the world demanded of me, and for some strange reason, it did not seem to care that I was something of a sub-elite runner. In fact, many a world-class runner from that era can tell you, it wasn’t even easy (or barely practical) for the real elites to make a living in the game.
I did work in a running store for a year or two. That part of my running career felt like I was part of something special. The store sponsored a team. We got free Nike gear and deeply discounted shoes for racing at least 12 times a year. I raced 24 times and won twelve of those races. So I did my time the right way.
And that’s why I was pedaling my ass off in our Clark Street apartment in the thick of winter in both 1983 and ’84. I felt there was something to prove, and the only way to keep the training up was to raise the heart rate the best way possible.
It helped to be obsessed in those days. In 1981 or so, I’d read the John Irving book Hotel New Hampshire. There was a wrestling coach in the book whose advice to his athletes was, “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed.”
Easier than it sounds, yet my obsession was complete. But it did not make life any easier. I was late on the rent payments a few times while trying to scratch out a living and protect time for training. There was a Don Quixote-like quality to jousting with athletic success beyond college. When I said that to my mother several years later, she corrected me. “You were focused. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Three decades later I still get up on the bike in the middle of winter to train. My ass still hurts at first like it did back then. I was forty pounds lighter then, and a helluva lot faster at my athletic peak. So while I’m not as obsessed as I once was about fitness, I still care a lot. It’s still fun to push and compete at whatever opportunities I choose, or that come my way.
But I’ve learned a few things about pedaling in place. It doesn’t get you anywhere, but it can take you out of a funk and keep you in the game of life. We were ahead of the times a bit back when we bought those MagTurbos. There’s nothing super-new under the sun, for things like that have not changed much. The bikes may be better these days, but it’s still a human being that needs to turn the pedals.
That’s worth reminding ourselves during every pedal stroke on a cold winter night in February. It’s all about moving even when you’re not going anywhere in particular. Ride on, folks. And may the Pain Cave be with you.