Alameda, etc., September 29


Bike rides are piling up faster than I can write about them.

I remember this dilemma from writing: every experience has so many facets. How do you choose the most salient ones, and lavish your energy on them and not the others?

What were those thoughts you were having on your bike?, you ask yourself. They were so vivid, so urgent, so pure.

Yesterday we took a 70-mile ride with the GPC. The first 50 miles were a group ride in Alameda, and the last 20 were the two of us returning home via Redwood, north and west over the hill and back to Berkeley. The ostensible purpose of this adventure, and of last weekend’s long ride, was to see whether I’m ready to really consider something tempting but crazy—to ride in the San Francisco Randonneurs’ Winters 200k next weekend. The distance is almost certainly too long for me. I haven’t ridden 100 miles yet, 70 is a challenge, and 126 would probably be just foolhardy. Yet I am infected with Randonneur-itis, an infection all the more powerful because I don’t fully understand the reasons for it yet. This brevet would be the last of their events I would be able to do until the season starts up again next year. I’m told the course is pretty flat.

Today, my legs are sore. Yesterday, I felt exhausted by the end of the ride. Too exhausted to go home by the steeper, longer route of Pinehurst. I bonked a little in the last segment, and while I want to blame it on Sports Drink Fail (we mixed too much sports drink powder into our water in Castro Valley, resulting in something that tasted like bilge and felt more dehydrating than the opposite), I think a good part of the truth is that I was simply exhausted.

Maybe 70-ish miles is just my upper reach right now. Or maybe, with smarter nutrition and hydration, on an easier course, I’d be amazed what kind of mileage I can make happen. I’m going to think about it for a day or two.

The ride yesterday took us through the Southern Alameda hills, from the Fremont BART station, up a famously aggravating hill called Calaveras, through about 15 miles of beautiful rolling hills to the west of the Calaveras Reservoir, through the tiny town of Sunol, and up a long (but, for whatever reason, satisfying to me that day*) hill called Palomares.

Then our little group—two men and six women, a highly unusual ratio for a group ride in my experience, and very welcome for a change—discovered that the pizza joint where we’d been planning to eat lunch after our 50-mile excursion had closed for good. We found a Mexican restaurant instead, a cavernous place where they let us sit on their patio and keep an eye on our herd of bikes through the wrought-iron fence.

One thing I’m secretly fond of about these rides is the strip malls in which they often start and end up. They remind me of the place where I grew up. To my surprise (in my family, “strip mall” was an epithet, a symbol for everything we were against and did not value), the echo that they offer of home and of childhood is comforting. The Ross Dress For Lesses and the Trader Joes, the chain coffee stores and the occasional ethnic restaurant or cafe trying its best to create something unique in these aseptic spaces. I spent years trotting after my mom in shopping centers like these, dawdling, daydreaming, fondling products, checking myself out in striated plate glass windows. Maybe they make me feel protected and prepared. I know how to interact with a strip mall.

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What Makes a Good Sports Story?

I’ve been hopping around in The Only Game in Town: The New Yorker Book of Sports Writing, edited by David Remnick.

It’s the second sports book I’ve picked up, after an unskillfully written but completely engrossing book on ultra-long-distance cycling.

To my knowledge, before two months ago I have never so much as cracked open a book-length work about sports or games.

But now I’m thinking about doing a little sports writing of my own. So I am reading this compendium in hopes of trying to figure out what makes sports writing interesting, if and when it is interesting. Why is sports a compelling topic? How do writers approach it?

So far, I have read six pieces. Some guy on open-water surfing off San Fransicso’s Ocean Beach. A profile of marathon swimmer Lynn Cox. A piece by Malcolm Gladwell about why athletes fail. A layered piece by Adam Gopnik about an influential art-history teacher of his, who later coached his eight-year-old son’s football team while dying of cancer. A piece by Nancy Franklin about ping-pong. Haruki Murakami’s personal essay about writing and running.

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Swimmer’s Shoulder

I made a list of any number of ways I could start this blog off, from thematic (deep thoughts on the nature of physical activity), to chronological (first moments I became aware of my body, or thought about exercise), to stylistic (a smattering of disconnected yet crystalline vignettes, adding up over time to an organic whole). Then I sat there, produced a lot of sentence fragments, wrote the word “fuck” a number of times, and watched the cursor blink.

So much for the lofty notions. I will have to start with what’s easy and let this thing find itself if it can.

What’s easy? After 21 years, writing diary-style comes pretty naturally.

Yesterday, we swam. Someday later I will describe the pool. It’s a wonderful, peaceful place, the kind of semi-secret spot I’m almost reluctant to tell people about, lest it become better attended than it is. It is outdoors, six lanes, standard size. 1960s architecture, a wall of round quartz pebbles on one side, simple with an old clock, tall adn leading straight to the sky; on the other side, the same wall but lower, and behind that a row of pines that catch and spread the late afternoon sun.

It belongs to a local high school, and is open for public lap swim between five and six p.m. each weekday. I like this limited window of opportunity. You have to commit to going, and then you go, and then it’s all over before you’ve even thought it through.

I never swam before this summer. I knew how, from childhood, kind of, but I’d never liked it. I associated swimming with lack of agency (being dragged to the pool), with vulnerability and with social awkwardness (having to take my glasses off, not being able to see anything). The pool was shrieking kids. It was a reminder that I didn’t feel at home among my own kind—and having no clothes to cover that sense of alienation. It was loud whistles, and a dressing room full of larger, naked female bodies, with painfully nubby rubber mats underfoot and a faint whiff of something like cheese.

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September 21, 12 p.m.

Mile 1.

Here I am in California, casting around for something new to write about.

I often joked, while working on and finishing a book about antidepressants and depression, that my next book would be about rainbows and unicorns—noteworthy spas—fine dining locations. Orgasms. Something fun.

Mile 2.

I was standing somewhere in the house the other day when it occurred to me that sports is the one thing in my life I feel unequivocally good about.

Mile 3.

I don’t mean that to sound maudlin or self-pitying. Life is complicated. Biking, running, and swimming are not.

Mile 4.

The goal, for now, is to write about sports and have fun. I want to describe things. Things in the real world. For too long, writing felt like something that was taking me away from actual life. That’s not what I want. I want writing to make my experience of actual life more deliberate.

Mile 5.

Here are some other things I want with this site:

• To stalk the S.F. Randonneurs
• To write about California, before the flood of NYC/California comparisons dries up
• To choose a cycling goal and keep track of my progress toward it
• To get better at having that impulse in the moment: I should write about that!, and then really doing it

Mile 6.

This is my training blog, then, two ways.