The Great Bikening

I’ve mentioned it on Twitter a few times, but I purchased a used bicycle about two weeks ago. My reasoning for this decision was because I’d cancelled my boxing gym membership and I needed something to provide a measure of physical activity. I’d loved boxing, but after moving five miles in the wrong direction, suddenly a 30 minute drive just to get to the gym didn’t seem so appealing. Not to mention, I’m trying to get financially squared away and a $45 monthly gym membership just didn’t fit with that goal, especially after I’d picked up a poor attendance habit and was only going about once a week (I’d been hitting the gym three times a week when I first started).

I’d been reading on a few blogs (Mr. Money Mustache and the Art of Manliness) about how rewarding it is to commute to work via bicycle. I checked the distance between home and work on Google maps and discovered it’s just a hair under 10 miles one-way. Shit, I thought to myself. That’s doable. Yeah, I could do that.

The math worked out. Google estimated the time at 50 minutes. My normal commute right now via motorcycle is about 25 minutes. But since I was already spending two hours on fitness when I went to the gym (and only getting one hour of actual exercise out of it), this scheme would allow me to spend my time more effectively since I was turning commute time into exercise time!

So I went out and purchased a used bike. It took a few tries; I looked into BICAS first but they didn’t have anything comfortable for my height. Bookman’s Sport Exchange had a very reasonably priced, very stylish looking green bike that I fell in love with after one test ride.

I rode it home. It was about five miles. I nearly died of exhaustion.

I recall lying on the carpet, gasping like a fish and wondering two things: first, how the hell was I going to do twenty miles a day and second, how had I let myself get this out of shape?

Because I used to bike a lot as a kid. And as a kid, I was able to go on my bike forever. It isn’t until you revisit things in adulthood that you loved in childhood that you realize how much slower and heavier adult bodies are if you don’t keep them in working order.

After that humbling experience, I spent a week building up my stamina. I took a long ride to get some miles under my belt. I tested the commute itself on a day off, reasoning that if I collapsed in a heap on the road somewhere, at least I wouldn’t have to call in.

The commute itself is lovely. I’m really lucky. Around 7 miles of it are on a dedicated, bike-only path that runs the length of a dry river, because in Tucson, rivers don’t need to have water in them to be considered rivers. Even the few miles I do spend on the streets are mostly well designed with generous bike lanes. I only hit three stop lights in ten miles. It’s amazing.

Today is my second day biking to work. I make sure to give myself an hour and a half, even though the commute itself is just about an hour. I have accepted the fact that I’m basically the slowest person on the entire bike trail. Senior citizens zip by me at roughly 1 million miles per hour and politely do choose not to mock me.

But I’m getting better. I’ve improved my commute time by almost ten minutes from the first time I rode it until today. I didn’t need to stop and catch my breath at any point.

I still feel bad when I see how much faster everyone else is. But it makes me really happy to feel the improvements already. I’m getting better. I don’t think I’ll ever be as fast as the senior citizens on their carbon-fiber super bikes, but you know what? That’s okay. Because I’m doing this for me. I’m getting healthier again. I like that.

Thoughts On Boxing

About three months ago, I made the decision to get back into serious working out to get in better shape. This realization was predicated both by the horrifying experience of seeing pictures of myself and realizing I wasn’t quite as thin as I used to be and realizing that the combination of “sedentary job + sedentary hobbies + majority of my 20’s behind me” was starting to equal a slide into squishy-ville.

My first effort was the usual effort I think we all make when we experience this realization. Grab the trusty water bottle and hoof it down to the gym, or in my case, the little exercise room in my apartment complex. Such efforts always last for about a week before I get bored and quit.

However, due to some other life events, this time I was resolved to really get serious about this effort. I needed something to keep my interest level up.

In my teenage years, I was really into karate; I trained for about five years before the combination of moving away from home and going to college made continuing unfeasible. I never did get my black belt, which is one of those things I mildly regret, because telling people “yeah, I have a red belt” isn’t nearly as impressive.

I decided getting back into something martial was a good way to keep from getting bored. Also, it solved my self-motivation problem. I’ll be totally honest here; when I’m working out on my own, I’ll go hard right up until I hit that first mental wall. Then I’ll coast. The problem is, of course, that it’s working through those mental-walls that really get you in shape. I only manage to do that when someone is yelling at me, it seems.

I asked my brother for advice since he does amateur mixed martial arts, which never sounded impressive to me until the first time I watched him fight and realized my little brother could thoroughly kick my ass. He suggested I start boxing at the same gym where he was training.

It’s been about three months now. I’ve dropped about eight pounds, which doesn’t sound like a lot but considering that I managed to do it without going on any kind of diet (still drinking beer, woo), I think that’s pretty good. I’ve also learned quite a bit in these past three months and I’d like to share some of those thoughts.

I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time I walked into a boxing gym. My background was a karate dojo, which meant everybody was barefoot, everybody wore a gi, everybody had a belt showing their level of ass-kicking ability, everybody bowed before entering the floor, everybody called the instructor “sir.”

In contrast, the boxing gym was filled with a motley collection of individuals. There were tattoos. There was swearing. The smell of sweat was omnipresent. Nobody bowed to one another or to enter the mat. You couldn’t tell the experts from the newbies, at least not until you saw them grab their gloves and get to work. Then you could tell very quickly. But at a glance? Impossible to say.

Looking back, I wonder about those things. I know that at the time, I loved that stuff: the belts, the uniforms, the patches. It appealed to the video game nerd in me to test for a belt, as though I was leveling up. It felt cool to learn “advanced techniques” that couldn’t be handled by a lesser color belt.

I know that, at the time, I looked down on boxing as a martial art. Boxing was so stupid, I thought. What kind of fighter only uses his hands? You have feet! Feet are very powerful! Seriously, my kicks were crazy strong; once, I knocked my friend on his ass while he was holding a bag for me.

I could try to explain the difference in my thought process now, but I’d rather share it with an anecdotal comparison:

  • Karate instructor: Today, you’re going to learn the jump spinning crescent kick.
  • Boxing instructor: Today, you’re going to get punched in the head until you learn how to duck.

Boxing lacks all the elegance and style of karate. There is no ceremony, there is no uniform, and there are no rituals. You walk in, you grab a jump rope, you get moving. You throw a medicine ball until you want to throw up. You practice punching. A lot of punching.

Seriously, there are exactly five different punches. Their names are the jab, the cross, the hook, the uppercut, and the-hook-with-your-other-hand (that’s my best guess, usually the instructor just shouts out “five” and we know what to do). That’s all. I learned the entire move list on my first day.

And then you practice those five punches until they’re perfect. You practice until you can snap off a crisp, clean jab a hundred times in a row. And then you go for two hundred. Five hundred. A thousand.

I’m not saying boxing is a superior fighting style to any other. There were guys at my karate dojo that were fast, focused, and likely very good fighters. I’m not even denigrating my younger self for liking what I liked. It was important to me. It helped me develop a lot of confidence. I know that if 14-year old me had walked into the gym I’m at now, I would have taken one look at the posters of old pay-per-view fights and the general motley-ness of the place and said, “yeah, no.”

But there were things in my karate training that I was missing. I never really got to feel what it was like to get hit. Even sparring was always “50% speed, 50% power.” If I ever took a crack to the head, it was accidental.

It’s been only three months. In those three months, I’ve been hit in the face and pushed beyond the limits of exhaustion more times that I’d care to admit. And I know that for all my efforts, I’m never going to get a cool belt. Anybody who joins the class won’t know by glancing at me whether I’ve been there for five years or five weeks. But you know what? I feel good. I feel stronger than I have in a very long time.

Most importantly, I’m starting to feel like a fighter.