A few days ago, I rode the fastest 50-mile ride of my career. It didn’t end with a ride under an inflatable finish line and there were no volunteers standing in ready to put a medal around my salty neck. Actually, my family wasn’t even home when I finished. As I rolled my bike across the grass and eventually plopped into a chair on my back deck, I felt really good. I logged into Strava to see how I fared on a few segments I had endeavored to get a new record and soaked in the satisfaction of a really great ride. I can pridefully admit that it feels really good when an announcer says your name as you cross an actual finish line and they hang a medal around your neck. However, the best medals aren’t medals at all.
When I was seventeen, I was pretty sure that everyone in the world would be benefited if I were to take my shirt off. Unlike most young men my age, my body had decided not to produce body fat. In the right light, heck in any light, you could count all 24 ribs. There is a picture of me from this time flexing on the beach. It is actually hard to look at. My gaunt features, sunken chest, and knobby limbs could give the casual observer the impression that I was actually shipwrecked on that beach and on the last few laps of a double front battle with scurvy and dysentery. Fast forward just a couple years and I’m married and in the longest eating challenge known to man. Two years of happiness unrestrained, and I had put on a solid 50 pounds. A half decade after that and I was 75 pounds over my wedding weight. That same beach picture would now elicit the full effort of a marine biologist determined to get that poor creature back into the water. About ten years ago I embarked on a race toward fitness and fittin’ in this. I’ve yo-yoed up and down 20 to 30 pounds in couple year cycles and made a couple fly-bys on a weight that most charts, my doctor, and the extra meat hanging on my stomach all agree is right for my build. This is such a long race, and I am driven this year to make it. In fact, I’m only 3 pounds away from the finish line. When I finally reach this goal, I won’t get a finisher medal. Most likely, I’ll be standing alone in the bathroom looking at the scale in disbelief. The medal I get for this race is so much better than a colorful metal trinket. I’ll get to look at myself in the mirror and know that know that I was able to remain committed, even if it took ten years.
When someone tells me they log a lot of miles, but don’t have the tan lines to prove it, I think they are lying. There is something about the razor sharp line between the saddle leather and marshmallow cream tones in your mid-thigh that can only be produced by hundreds of hours in spandex. If you go to a bike race, you’ll see these skinny young men with relatively wimpy upper bodies paired with ridiculously strong legs and some of the most shocking tan lines you’ve ever seen. It is a reasonable conclusion to presume they’ve put in the miles. Every fall my tan lines begin to fade, but never really disappear. And, in the same fashion, every spring they start to reestablish themselves. It’s usually around 500 miles when I walk by a mirror with my shirt off and chuckle. It is a bit of a victory to know that I’ve been finding the time to ride. At 1000 miles my friends and family begin to chide the fact that the middle region of me could really use something besides the mayonnaise glaze I was born with. A 2000 mile tan line is deep, and may even incite a conversation with a complete stranger. When you put in this many hours of pain, it is a small victory to know that the finisher medal branded into your skin was noticed.
It was 2006 when I hit the weight I would never weigh. I remember being at a new years all-nighter with a group of high school kids. We were in an old church that had several flights of stairs. I walked up one flight of stairs (didn’t run, didn’t even walk with purpose, just gallivanted up there) and found myself sucking wind. When I reached the top of this monstrous ten-foot climb I was breathing way too hard. It was that hollow, sweaty forehead, where’s the doughnuts type breathing that is characteristic among fatties…like me. I had noticed that putting on socks seemed to squish my intestines, or something, because I couldn’t really bend over without considerable discomfort. While the extra mass was troublesome, I was disgusted by how out of shape I was. Getting up off the floor required both hands, a deep guttural noise, and considerable risk of flatulence. My body had begun to ache. And, the worst of all, any physical activity resulted in a painful recovery that lasted several days. I was only 30 and it felt like I was on my way out. This was silly to me, but denial was catching up. My mind was barely cresting out of the teens, and my body was starting to window shop the adult diapers. Enough! The year 2006 is a milestone year. It marks the worst I let it get. Now, I don’t even always notice, but I can get up off the floor with no hands. It doesn’t hurt to take off and do something physical. My recovery from significant physical strain, like a six hour bike ride, is often less than a day. My heart is strong, and can be ramped up to 190 bpm and then chilled to 80 in just a few minutes. Nobody is going to hang a charm around my neck for having a reduced groan response when tying on my Chucks, but this victory is huge.
This winter, I was in the pool making laps and a very large man got into the water. He had to be at least three bills, and had way more skin than he needed hanging off of his body. With weights in his hands he began sprinting through the water. His mass and unexpected determination were causing me distress as the wakes were cresting over my head while I tried to breath. On one trip, we started at the wall at the same time. I realized that he was gaining on me, and I began to race. He noticed the same and started chugging to the end of the pool. Even at my fastest swim, I couldn’t beat his pool jog. At the end, while I caught my breath and tried to not throw up, I complemented him on his ability to really move in the pool. A smile overtook his face, “I’ve been working so hard this year, and I’ve lost my first hundred pounds.” This guy was winning his race, and his finisher medal was some loose skin and crazy strong legs. I stopped being annoyed with his wave action, because in that moment I was swimming with a champion.