"You are so strong!"
I came down with a cold last weekend, a nasty throat infection that left me sore and raspy and without much energy. Too weak to enjoy the increasingly clement whether that's been creeping up on Ottawa this week — until today.
Throat still a little sore today, I nevertheless felt well enough this afternoon to head for the airport by bicycle instead of bus — nevermind the rain clouds that chased me the whole 12 kilometre ride. (The sky began to weep about 10 minutes after I locked up my machine.)
Despite the layoff, I pretty quickly fell into a good groove. Maybe a little too good because, a couple of kilometres shy of the Ottawa International Airport, my front tire bit gravel and I had to work to keep my balance on the rough.
Disconcerting, but I kept control and soon glanced back behind me for the merge back onto the pavement.
There were no cars in sight, but there was another cyclist, coming up fast. But not so fast as to keep me from signalling my intent to get back onto the pavement. Once on blacktop, I pushed hard to regain speed in hopes of not my pursuer too much before they had a chance to pass.
We were closing upon the off-ramp to Uplands Drive. I toed the line of the main road and so did my trailer. When we reached the point where the ramp fully split, I pulled right and and waved the other bicyclist — a woman, I saw now — passed me in full training regalia: tight bike shorts and top, arms and (especially) legs bulging with an athlete's muscles.
She returned my wave with a smile and startled me mightily, saying, "You are so strong!"
"What do you mean?" I shouted as she nosed ahead, "You're passing me!"
"Sure," she said, looking back at me, "but your bike isn't stripped-down!"
And as she settled in before me, I realized it was true.
Her bike consisted of a frame, wheels and a plastic water-bottle strapped its main pillar. Mine? Well first, I was wearing work-boots and long pants, along with not-at-all aerodynamic safety-vest. My bike is saddled with fenders and a 70-kilogram capacity carrier, to which are attached two metal paniers. Those, in turn, were laden with a bags containing a couple of magazines, my (very small) laptop computer, a notebook, two litres of water (in stainless steel bottles), a change of clothes and a few other random odds and ends. Not to mention, that the bike is more than fifty years old and made of steel, not some lightweight modern alloy.
And I wondered: was she in training? Was it a real athlete who had admired my strength? Without really intending to, I found myself pushing harder; she had been pulling away, but I kept pace, maybe five metres behind, the same competitive instinct taking hold that saw me, a couple of winters ago, straining to keep up with some guy who'd passed me on a bike hauling a child-carrier trailer (sans child), even though I was only going to work.
A kilometre or so on, she took the right ramp to the airport's departure level, while I went left. Arrivals, where my office lurks at the far end of the terminal. We waved to each other and went our separate ways.
The funny thing is (and I really hope all this doesn't sound like bragging, because that's not my intent; I save that for Facebook) I really don't feel "strong", let alone "so strong."
What I feel is a middle-aged, is ex-smoker, is (yes) too fat. Sure, I play soccer with kids 20 and 30 years my junior, and maybe — objectively — I'm not doing too bad at resisting the hideous depredations of Father Time, but I am (or think I am) usually one of the worst players when I take to the pitch, belly jiggling more than I'd like it to when I "bounce across the field".
Reason tells me I'm doing pretty well, I guess, in comparison to most other 50 year-old men, but in my mind's eye I ought to be Batman. Or at least, Guy Lafleur in his prime.
No, not Guy Lafleur in his prime; rather, I am comparing myself to Batman or Lafleur. And so, always come up on the losing side of the equation.
So thank you, unknown cyclist. You looked like you were in serious training, and your words made me feel pretty good, even if also a little confused. And they helped to remind me that I really am grateful (as I think I've said here before — I've definitely said it elsewhere) that I'm doing as well as I am. As an ex-smoker and long-time heavy drinker, I marvel with more than a little humility to be able to do the things — cycling, soccer, even — recently — jogging for a block or two or three just for the hell of it (or to catch a bus) — but I still can't shake that picture of myself as the second-cousin to the class Fat Kid, as the nerdy (and chubby) teenager too shy to tell a girl he liked her.
And how stupid is that? Truth is, in the five or six(ish) years since I met Raven, quit smoking and (not at all coincidentally) cut way down on my drinking, I've gotten into the best shape of my adult life, whether or not my belly still jiggles a bit when I hound an opposing player the length of the pitch. Why is it so hard to shake the pictures of ourselves that develop in our youth?
Well, maybe for the same reason that the first reaction of nearly every old person who spies a long-lost acquaintance is to wonder why that old person looks so damned familiar.
I dunno. What do you see when you look in the mirror? Yourself as you are, as you once were, or some gross distortion of one or the other (or both)?