Sunday, November 18, 2012

Why in the world would anyone choose to "climb the steeps?"

Logan Street - Bottom
Goal setting. It's a part of cycling. It's a part of life. Each week, there is the inevitable to-do list, and it keeps you on track. In work/research, the goal is to always move forward, "move the chains," to use a football analogy (I am in Pittsburgh after all). So since getting back on the bike and into a regular routine, I decided to start training for the steep hills of Pittsburgh. "What better way to kick oneself back into shape than try training for the 12 steepest hills of Pittsburgh?" (This is rhetorical, as there are potentially many other ways, especially in 8 weeks, but a piece of me is pure "meathead.") The Dirty Dozen, a Pittsburgh tradition, is less than a week away. It will be the first time I participate in it, and I can't wait to ride with my friends and the cycling community's climbing crazies. But I also have to say that training for it, going from the couch/easy riding to actually lifting my heart rate ceiling higher than it has been in a long time and setting up workouts to pick off the hills (thank you, Gene!) - has been fun and an experience maybe even a little more profound than I'd imagined.

You see, climbing the steeps for me is actually like living a metaphor. These past few weeks I have found that a while lot of it is physical strength, but even more of it is mental toughness, I suppose. You can train to build cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength, and you can drop pounds to get close to race weight (in hill climbing weight can make a huge difference), and but at the end of the day, when you get to the hill, and look up and see it looming before you, it's how you attack it mentally and physically that matters most. It's having the belief that you can get up it, and pacing yourself and giving it your all for 1, 2, 3, 7 minutes, however long the hill takes. It's learning that the key to making it up a climb means focusing sometimes just on the few feet in front of you, because looking too far ahead may make you tell yourself the climb is too long or that it is a wall, seemingly insurmountable.

Logan, like many of these hills, is so
steep that the sidewalks are stairs
About a month ago I met Logan Street for the first time. It's a steep hill in Millvale that starts off nice enough, cobbly at first, and increases in grade towards the top. My first time up it, I hit it hard, aggressively, overconfidently and ran out of gas. Foot down. (On the steeps, putting a foot down means you're done. You have to go all the way back down and start over because the angle is too great to start from a standstill.) Okay, so this became my nemesis, and I decided to hit it during the week one day, driving to Millvale after work, pulling the bike out of the car, and trying it again. I got a little further, but then... foot down. Done (and no time to try it again that day). You see, a lot of climbing these things comes down to how you distribute your weight, whether you sit or stand, and if you stand, how do you stand? Stand and lean too far forward and the rear wheel spins - foot down - done; weight too far back and the front wheel will come off the ground, and you lose momentum - foot down or fall over - done.

Finally, the next weekend, when I hit this venerable 5th hill, something clicked. I realized I had to focus on what was in front of me, and not way up ahead. Sure I was aware of what was coming, but in power climbing I have discovered it is important to focus on right now and just a few feet from right now. It was at that moment I figured out how to center my weight over my bike's bottom bracket (where the pedal cranks are attached), and pedal stroke by pedal stroke, slowly made my way up Logan. The beast was slain, and a little piece of me felt this sense of satisfaction, just for getting up a single hill. Not to mention the endorphins and this sense of pleasure that come when one experiences the view from the top of the hill afterwards.

View from the top of Logan
Hill climbing on a bike is living a metaphor. Why? Because in life I think we all have these hills before us, these goals for which we strive or challenges we have to overcome. For those of us in research it may be understanding what causes a disease on a cellular or molecular level to find a new treatment, and the amount of troubleshooting of even a single experiment to strengthen one's science can seem endless. For those who have been newly diagnosed with an illness like pulmonary hypertension, it may be learning to live with new medical regimens and routines. For people I see living pre- and post-transplant, taking medications several times a day can definitely bring its own set of challenges. And when you look at it, sometimes the pile of tasks seem overwhelming, maybe even almost impossible. But maybe at these moments success comes when we focus on what's in front of us, and go at it piece by piece, experiment by experiment, task by task. We pick our path, and go for it, step-by-step or pedal stroke-by-pedal stroke. Sometimes it takes multiple attempts, and sometimes one has to put a foot down and try again another day, but eventually the challenges are there to be conquered.

So when I climb hills on my bike on the weekends, it reminds me in a very tangible way to focus on the present moment, and go for it, and I carry that reminder with me into the week. Because at the end of the day, while we may have to study and look up at a hill for a long time, there is nothing like the view from the top.
View after the climb looking across the Allegheny River: This is my Pittsburgh

Postscript: This weekend introduced me to another - Canton Avenue - the steepest hill in Pittsburgh (37% grade), and cobblestoned, no less. This is the famous hill where people quite literally grind to a halt and topple over (you can find it on YouTube.) After 6 attempts on Saturday and another 3 on Sunday, but still this one eludes me.. for now. My mind is having a hard time on several levels wrapping around just how to climb it. (And not having yet figured out how to climb it, I honestly don't know what will happen next weekend when I hit the 8th hill of the DD.) But what I do I know is I'll likely dream about it during the week, give it my all, and hopefully someday soon (in fact hopefully on the day of the DD) something will click and I figure out how to pull myself up this sucker. Why? Because it's a steep, just sitting there to be conquered. 

Addendum: The day of the Dirty Dozen brought snow, and given the events this past season, I pulled the plug that day. So Canton remains, but will be conquered someday. 


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