A Video About Cycling (and Life)

I’ve been sitting here for thirty minutes thinking of what ideas have shaped my day today, and whether I could write about any of them. It’s not that there haven’t been ideas, and it’s not that I don’t want to write about them. But after cycling over 160km in the past 24 hours, my mind just isn’t sharp enough for that kind of writing.

So I’ll post something else, which in light of not writing today may start to seem somewhat meta. It’s one of those cheesy “take back your life” videos. But what’s not to like about beautiful Italian scenes, Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address, and cycling?

Why Do We Commit To Sport?

A friend once asked me why I spend so much time cycling. He could understand spending perhaps forty-five minutes cycling each day, so as to keep fit and keep a good physique. But why would I bother going for such long rides on the weekends, hundreds of kilometres, often solo? What did I achieve by doing that?

I replied by saying, because I enjoy it. Because this time means something to me. Because it helps me in other parts of my life in ways I’ll never understand. Those were the closest I could get to what cycling means to me, but for this friend, these reasons were wholly insufficient. Again, he could understand time spent cycling (or any kind of exercise) up to a point, but unless one was training to be an Olympic athlete (where there are very clear rewards), he simply could not understand what one would get out of devoting so much time to an activity that in the scheme of things doesn’t achieve anything.

This question of what one achieves through running or cycling or any other sport that takes immense commitment is one that seems to sit behind Haruki Murakami’s brief, autobiographical book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. On the surface the book traces Murakami’s preparation for the 2005 New York City Marathon; it takes us through Hawaii, Japan, Greece and New York City and into Murakami’s early days running and writing in what is written as a personal attempt to understand what running has meant to him.

The obvious summary of the book says that there are certain lessons Murakami took from running that he applied to his writing which allowed him to succeed. Running a marathon is different from running a 10km; the training is different, the body is different, and writing a novel is a marathon, so the lessons Murakami learnt from his training helped him become a successful writer.

“You’ll naturally learn both concentration and endurance when you sit down every day at your desk and train yourself to focus on one point. This is a lot like the training of (running) muscles I wrote of a moment ago…” These kinds of lessons are interspersed throughout the book, and make for one kind of reading. But it is, in essence, the point of view of my friend who couldn’t understand the extent of my commitment to cycling. It’s a view of running that says running serves a practical purpose in our lives, which is why we do it. There is little point in doing it beyond the point where it serves that purpose.

Those practical purposes do exist, but I think Murakami is getting at his deeper commitment in this book. Cycling means more to me than for how it teaches me life lessons, but as my response to my friend showed, I was unsure how to describe that meaning.

I think Murakami comes as close as he can to describing it late in the book, when he talks about driving home from a race and wondering what it was all for.

“After our unpretentious race on a fall Sunday, we were all on our way back to our own homes, back to our own mundane lives. And with the next race in mind, each of us, in our place, will most likely go about our usual training. Even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, or even extremely inefficient, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s some pointless act like, as I’ve said before, pouring water into an old pan that has a hole at the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart. To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. But even activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so.”

Murakami captures the intrinsic side of his sport; it is done for its own sake, regardless of how it looks from the outside. It feels right, somewhere inside, and that’s why we do it, even if it takes up too much time, even if it’s inefficient, futile and pointless. It may be all those things if we look for a purpose it serves; but if we stop looking for a purpose and instead do it precisely because we want to, the time spent running or cycling falls away, and these can be some of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences in life, perhaps precisely because we cannot explain why they were so.

I think that’s what Murakami really talks about when he talks about running. Not how it served his writing, but just what it is in his life, without the activity needing to achieve something.

How We Start Our Days is How We Start Our Lives

I’ll admit I hadn’t heard of Annie Dillard before I came across a quotation of hers. Yet as some quotations seem inexplicably to do, hers bowled me over; made me freeze at the full stop, made me stare out the window at nothing in particular and caused that wonderful zooming-out of perspective that I often think is three-quarters of the reason why I read.

The quotation said, simply and nonchalantly, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Of course! Of course how we spend our days is how we live our lives. Without the “of course” the quotation may not have struck as it did; the “of course” pats us on the back and says, it’s okay, you knew this deep down, but it took a writer to bring it to the surface; don’t take it personally that you’d forgotten about it all these years. Dillard wrote this line in her book The Writing Life, which is a reflection on writers and writing, and which seems the only appropriate place for a line like that to be written.

Of all the people I’ve met, writers seem to be those who daily live the idea. Pico Iyer has embodied the idea for me; he need not say the words, for how he structures his days all points to that larger knowledge that it is these parts that determine the whole.

To structure a life at the outset is an impossible task. I was once in North Carolina on a cycling trip with the Yale Cycling Team, and we were to scale Mt Mitchell, the “highest peak east of the Mississippi”. From our small cabin we could see the mountain stretching upwards interminably, the peak, however, always obscured in a misty cloud. One’s mind could not at once comprehend climbing the entire mountain; once we began, it was only possible by breaking the hours-long climb into each visible stretch of road. I only needed to make it to the next bend in the road, beyond which I could not see, and once I made it there, I could make it to the next bend, and do this enough times and I’d reach the peak.

It is a pleasurable thought that for most of us, our lives are already broken into these neat, short stretches of road. We need only decide how to live today, and then decide tomorrow, and through these individual decisions we will live a life. It reduces the overwhelming. It breaks up lifelong commitments into daily reaffirmations, which seem certainly feasible.

And if, out of respect for Dillard’s masterstroke, even at risk of butchering it, I could offer a slight tweak to her formulation, to break those individual days down into even more manageable parts, it would be this: how we start our days is how we start our lives.

Focus on the start of each day. Get it right, do something you’re proud of in the first hour, and, slowly but surely, you’ll find life itself becomes something you’re proud of.

Twenty Minutes

Start off easy for the first five minutes, they said. Then build up over the next five minutes to see how you feel. And then for the final ten minutes, empty the tank, full gas, don’t hold anything back.

This was my first Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test, a form of cycling baseline fitness testing. 11 of us from Yale-NUS were doing our tests simultaneously, and each of us were coming to the test with varying levels of experience with cycling.

Those who were completely new to cycling had not properly suffered on a bike before. Not knowing what this feels like, and not knowing when the limits are reached, they tried to follow the advice but could not tell what easy felt like. True suffering on a bike creeps up on you, and then hits all of a sudden. They didn’t know when to expect this, and when it hit it hit hard, and they slowed down again to avoid the sensations. They listened to the advice of those with more experience, tried to implement it, but did not know what use to make of it.

Those with some cycling experience thought the advice to go easy was for absolute beginners; having some knowledge of cycling, but not years of experience, they thought they could maintain the same power for the entire twenty minutes. They went out too hard right from the start and at fourteen minutes in realised they’d made a mistake, trying to drop their effort slowly to avoid others seeing their overconfidence. They listened to the advice of those with more experience, thought they knew better, and realised too late the value of experience.

And those with years of cycling experience—those who gave us all this advice—know that the same mistakes are made by everyone almost every time. They put themselves into the position of a beginner, going out slow to begin, because they’ve seen over years that human nature falls into the same traps. The mind, especially when in moments of extreme suffering, will misjudge the body’s capacities. They humble themselves in advance, having seen how they and others were humbled after overconfidence.

If life is a well and we are swimming to the bottom, the reality is we do not know how deep the well is until we are three-quarters of the way to the bottom. But before we reach that point, we cannot stop moving, but must push onwards. How does one push onwards when one does not yet know everything? Either through a form of overconfidence or underconfidence; through arrogance or a form of schlep blindness.

Development of experience in all fields follows what is probably a similar process. The paradox is that advice given is useless until one has more experience; but when one has more experience, one is inclined to think the advice doesn’t apply. Wisdom in this sense is seeing the follies one has made in other fields and areas of life and then escaping those two traps by humbling oneself in advance.