Sunday, October 15, 2006

Bike Therapy

So a couple of years ago, I got fat.

I don't mean, hugely obese, I just mean, kinda chunky. Like, 20, 25 pounds more than I should be. Or more than I'm used to being, at any rate. I'm not sure. I was sort of in denial about the whole thing, so I never went out of my way to check.

It happened for a number of reasons. Encroaching middle-age, a growing fondness for yuppie wine and cheese, dating. No, really. Because dating frequently involves going out for dinner (I rarely eat dinner). I decided to stop doing that, but by then, the damage was well underway. The final blow was home ownership. Not because I am doing anything like, fixing up my home to the detriment of fitness. But my old place, the apartment where I lived for many years, was right by the beach. Thus, no parking. So no matter what else I did during the day, regardless of whether I went to the gym or sat on my butt, every day I drove my car, I had to go find it (forgetting where I parked was especially good for exercise purposes). And every day I parked it, I had to walk home.

It's not like I became a slug when I moved. I've gone to a gym and done weight-training for years, and I love to walk. But that daily, incremental exercise really made a difference. It's easy to get lazy and hardly notice it.

At the end of last year, I decided Something Must Be Done. I'm not sure what triggered that realization - perhaps trying on a pair of previously baggy pants and not being able to button them. Also, I have a long-standing, chronic back problem. I've always looked at this as a mixed bag. On the one hand, I'd rather not be in pain and unable to move, or be limited in my physical activities. On the other, my bad back has kept me somewhat honest. I know if I don't get enough exercise or if I get too fat - if I don't take care of myself - I'm going to pay for it.

The last time my back went out was November, 2004. I couldn't drive my car and walked with a shuffle, which was how I'd make it to my chiropractor, who thankfully is located about a fifteen minute walk from me (25 minutes when my back was out). I'd hobble down my very scenic urban artery, past the 99 Cent Yoshino Bowl and the methadone clinic, with a metaphoric sign on my back reading, "Mug Me!"

On the other hand, it was a blessing to be on heavy narcotics when the election results came in.

Anyway, like I said, around the end of last year, I decided that I needed to get into a serious fitness program. I even made a New Year's Resolution. It was vague, something like, "I gotta lose some weight, okay?" Because I'm not a New Year's Resolution sort of gal. I figured if I didn't get too specific, I wouldn't put too much pressure on myself, and I'd be more likely to succeed.

I should have realized that this was a bogus construct. Had I not finally come to the realization that discipline has its place? That though I had few rules about writing, one of them is to set clear goals? To write every night, two hours, two pages? And how much this helped my productivity, even when I didn't always manage to hit those goals?

What got me on the Road to Fitness was happenstance. I work at a film studio, and one day, this Pilates "spa" came to the lot to demonstrate their services. I decided to check it out. One five to ten minute session on the Pilates reformer (that's the basic bench-like machine), and I was hooked. I could tell how great this was for my back and how good it made me feel.

Luckily (in a perverse sort of way), my back problem is not obscure or controversial. It shows up very clearly on an X-ray. It's the sort of thing where orthopedists tell you, "well, at some point you'll probably need surgery." So, since I'm one of the rare inhabitants of the Planet of Good Insurance Coverage, I could sign up for Pilates/physical therapy sessions, courtesy of my healthcare plan.

I'd like to feel guilty about that, but I don't. My back was getting worse, and though I hadn't missed much work because of it in recent years, I could easily see more missed work in the future.

Besides, the chronic pain was making me cranky.

So I started doing three Pilates sessions a week. They were scheduled, so I always went. I worked with trainers and physical therapists, who told me what to do, which I did. What an incredible experience. You don't always know how out of shape or weak you've gotten until you suddenly get a lot stronger.

While I'd do my exercises on the Reformer, catching up on all the latest Spa gossip (and let me tell you, this place could be a reality show - "As The Spa Turns"), I'd also spin my theories about how to reform health care. I have it all figured out. Some sort of single-payer system to eliminate waste and unnecessary paperwork. Huge incentives for wellness programs. Like, we could train some of these soon to be out-of-work insurance company employees to be personal trainers. Because everybody who wants to get fit should have access to a trainer to help them do so. It's so much easier when you're working one-on-one. And everybody benefits. A more fit population uses less healthcare. Big Business and Government benefit. Former insurance company salespeople get out from behind those desks and help people get healthier. We all feel better and are less cranky and look cuter in our clothes.

The next thing that happened was, I bought a bike.

God knows why I never rode bikes around the beach before. Maybe because where I lived, it was so easy to walk everywhere (especially after we gentrified out of the "Mug Me!" era). I'm not that much farther from the beach or restaurants now, just far enough where walking doesn't always feel like the automatic option it did before.

But this is such an amazing place to ride a bike. I've always loved Venice, the diversity, the odd details in unexpected places. The Venice bike path, not so much. It's too crowded, and it's full of clueless people — I mean, entire families, standing on the bike path, mouths open, holding their babies fer crissakes! Riding on the Venice bike path feels entirely too much like my daily commute.

Then I discovered the South Bay and Ballona Creek bike paths.

You go through Marina Del Rey, a place I always associated with "swingles," and the bike path takes you through an outdoor fitness course, past a library, and then, in and around the docks. Piers, slips, and boats, with seagulls and the slap of tackle in the wind. You go a ways, and there's this place called "Fisherman's Village," a sort of vaguely tacky yet nostalgically appealing tourist attraction, a series of restaurants and ice-cream stands along the docks. There's a big sign that says, "Cyclists Welcome!" I keep thinking, dang, I want to stop at the El Torito and have a beer and watch the boats. Haven't done it yet, but I will.

You pass that, and there's a Coast Guard Station tucked away in a dark, leafy alcove, this almost random apartment complex dating from the sixties or early seventies, and then, the entrance to the Ballona Creek Bikepath. Go east, it takes you to Culver City. I haven't tried that yet. West, you bike towards a causeway that connects you to Playa Del Rey. Along the channel are boaters and pelicans. It's incredibly beautiful, and surprisingly unpopulated. When you make the turn into Playa Del Rey, even more so. There's an arched bridge that connects in a hard right angle from the Ballona Creek path. The times I've done this, I've seen cyclists hanging out at the bridge's arch, leaning against the thick, cement rails, drinking water and resting. They generally wave at other cyclists who pass. I'm not sure what that's about, other than general camraderie, but I like it. I've always liked suddenly belonging to a club, I don't mean something exclusive, but where you realize that you like something, and other people think it's cool too, and you can just sort of enjoy that together.

Heading south through Playa, it's just so gorgeous and so unexpected. The beaches are huge and empty. So is the bike path. I've only gotten as far as Dockweiler Beach. That's the one in line with LAX, where you can have open fires on the sand. It too is beautiful and relatively empty. And you can watch jets take off, count the rivets on their bellies as they pass overhead, heading out to sea.

I really want to go further. All the way down to Redondo Beach, maybe Palos Verdes after that. I'm realizing there's something addictive about the activity. I do it, and I want to do it more. I've always had a restless personality, but I didn't realize I could feed it this way, through something as simple as hopping on a bike (generally my coping mechanisms are way less straightforward).

I want to ride to work, a day or two a week. I used to think that would be impossible. Too much traffic. Too many distracted drivers yakking on their cellphones. Stuff that drives me crazy when I'm in my car.

Then I looked on a website that maps bike routes and thought about it some more. I could see some options that might be okay, even kind of interesting.

But now I want a better bike! The one I'm riding is a Diamondback Wildwood, which is a rugged sort of "comfort" bike. I'm enjoying it a lot, but it's heavy (really heavy) and not the most nimble thing out there. I still need a bike that can cope with bad streets (can I tell you about potholes in Venice?), bikepaths and the vagaries of the urban commute.

Any suggestions?

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