Going for Gold

April 26, 2014

You know, I wasn’t planning on competing for a gold medal when I woke up this morning, I think to myself as I stretch my hamstrings and roll out my calves on a squishy blue mat in the stretching room of Fitness SF. I checked my gym schedule last night. I saw the 10:00 am spinning class slated for Saturday morning. I had tried spinning once–four or five years ago. It seemed like it might be good.


When I walked into the work out room and mounted a stationary cycling bike, the last thing I expected was to really be put through my paces, to flush pink then turn red as sweat streamed down my face, my runner’s legs turning the pedals as quickly as they could. Quicker, in fact.

Salsa class had just finished, and as a sweaty spandex-clad entourage made their way out of the room, a handful of spinners congregated in the corner. I joined them as if I knew what I was doing, raising the seat and then sliding it forward; adjusting the handle bars but not really knowing what I was going for. None of it was second nature. None of it felt comfortable. I hopped on the bike and began to ride, pressing buttons and tweaking levers as I attempted to figure out what they did.
“Good morning champs,” called a voice from the back of the room. I turned my head to see a sporty, dark-skinned woman make her way toward the front of the room. Her black hair was woven into tight intricate braids and tied back in a ponytail. She wore black leggings, black Keens, and a tight black short-sleeved shirt unzipped just low enough to show cleavage when she bent over the lead bike in the front of the room. “We’re going to start warming up those legs and then I’ll meet you to start a steady seated climb.”
I didn’t know what this meant–seated climb. How was I supposed to set pace with the rest of the class when I didn’t even know if my bike seat was the right height? “You can adjust your resistance to whatever level you need,” she stated. “I’m not here to tell you what to do. I’m not your trainer. I’m just your coach.” Great, I thought. I guess I’m on my own to figure this out.
On the bike in front of a me, a shaved-headed man in a Cal Berkeley cycling jersey was cranking a red knob in the center of his handle bars. His quads bulged beneath navy blue cycling pants, chiseled calves pushing the pedals. I turned the knob on my own bike and felt a change in the resistance level. Too far right and it felt like I was biking through cement. Too far left and I was treading air. I suppose everyone has to start somewhere.
Our instructor plugged in her iPod, cranked the volume, and adjusted her headset. “Can you all hear me?” she asked. We nodded. “We’re going to start with an eight-minute climb,” she said. “I want you to find a cadence that works for you. Somewhere between 60 and 80 RPMs.” That, I could measure. Resistance was a matter of feel, but the rotation per minute showed up on the little square screen fixed between my handle bars. It was the only means I had of tracking my workout.
Midway into the climb there was a shift in the music. “Ok, champs,” called the Coach, “You’ve been riding on your own for a while. In one minute I want you bring up the speed and break away from the pack. Set yourself apart and really push it to the top. You have three minutes to the summit. I want you to kick it.” Ok, I thought to myself, forgetting that I was seated on a bike that wasn’t actually going anywhere, I can do this. I let the intensity of the music sink into my legs. I watched Cal’s quads push harder and harder and tried to do the same.


Back in the stretching room I watch a couple walk in and take their stances on the mats in the back corner. They are wearing black shorts, sleeveless tanks, and white sneakers. They don’t speak a word, but stretch in unison–first their calves then their quads, moving seamlessly through a routine that looks almost like a dance. I cross my ankle onto my knee, pulling at my hip flexers. They are tight from too much work and not enough cool down. I tend to jump from stillness to high intensity and back a little too quickly these days. It isn’t always a good thing, as I learned earlier this morning.


“You’re almost there,” cheered the Coach. “Push it harder, all the way to the top, now.” This is as hard as I go, I thought. I’ll never make it for the full hour if I burn out in the first ten minutes. But I wanted so badly to prove myself to the dark-skinned stranger in the front of the room. My legs pushed to 100 RPMs without my even telling them to.

“Great job!” she called, as if directly to me. “Now ease up on your speed and we’ll begin the descent.” I cranked down my resistance, not realizing that going downhill would be equally challenging, that the climb and the descent were two sides of the same competitive coin. Two minutes in, the coaching returned. “I want you to fly down this hill, now,” she instructed. “Spin, champ! Spin!” And with that I started pushing, harder and harder, faster and faster, until I had to up my resistance to keep from falling off the bike.

It was like that for the next thirty minutes as my body responded to the music and the management; seated climbs and standing climbs, recovering on a plateau and then flying downhill. The music changed to match the pacing. “Can everyone hear that okay?” the Coach asked. No one had the breath to respond with more than a nod. “The young people always say they want it louder.” She paused. “I’m waiting to hear from you, Green Shirt,” she said, addressing me. “It’s good,” I puffed between breaths. “Alright!” she said. “Good.”

The Coach called out commands and encouragement, rang a cowbell (yes, a cowbell) and warned me of the bikers on my left and the ones coming up from behind. “They’re gaining on you,” she said. “And I want you to pull ahead. I know your legs are burning. You just ignore that pain. Come on, champ, come on! Pull out another hammer. Every time you think you’re done, you just keep pulling out those hammers.”

What surprised me the most wasn’t what she asked of me, but that I found myself capable of doing it. One challenge after another and still I kept going. “This the last hill now,” she called 45 minutes into the workout. “It’s a six-minute climb to an uphill finish. This is for the record. The gold medal. You’re in third place and you need to pass those last two riders. Can you do it?”

This is not what I signed on for, I thought to myself, my stomach anxious at the mere mention of the words “record” and “medal,” the two reasons I never participated in competitive sports as a student, because there was always someone better, because I knew I wouldn’t win. I didn’t believe in myself enough for that.
The stretching duo have finished their legs and moved on to their upper bodies. In unison they reach their right hands over their left shoulders, pressing the right elbow with the left hand, providing the resistance to stretch out the right shoulder. She turns for a moment and catches his eye. He smiles. She smiles back. They release from the stretch and switch to the other arm.
“The conditions aren’t good, champ,” called the Coach as I cranked up my resistance. “It’s starting to rain, so you’ve got to stay focused. Four minutes to the top. There’s a bike on your right and I want you to make a break away as hard as you can in 30 seconds…20…10…go!” For the next 60 seconds I pushed with strength that came from somewhere in my gut, some deep place I hadn’t unlocked since I ran the 400 in my grade school track meet. I passed the biker on my left. Shoot, I passed the biker on my right too.”You’ve got to hold steady,” called the Coach. “You’ve pulled ahead, but you need to stay there. Just two more minutes. Pull out that hammer, champ! Do it!”

The thought crossed my mind, in those last four minutes of spinning, that the woman in the front of the room had no way of knowing how high my resistance was or how fast I was actually going. It was really up to me to determine my level. But as quickly as they came, I let the thoughts leave, deciding to listen to her confidence instead of my own doubts. At the end of the race, there were cheers all around. “Now don’t you go huffing and puffing,” the Coach said. “Everyone has their cameras out. They don’t want to see you looking all tired. You smile for them.”

I shift on the blue mat, switching to my other leg. The Coach struts in and takes a seat opposite the couple in the corner, who have finished their routine and are now engaged in quiet conversation. The Coach pulls out a blue foam roller, stacks her right leg on top of it, and slowly begins rolling back and forth.I think back to spinning. I think of all I did that I didn’t think I could do, that I never would have done on my own without someone pushing me on, encouraging me to do what I came to do all along.

I think this must be one of the beautiful things about marriage–to have someone in your corner, someone who knows your strengths and weaknesses, ambitions and dreams; who can push you to succeed without pushing you too hard; who shares in your triumph and takes part in your pain.I watch the stretching couple walk out of the room and I wonder where they are going, if they are rejoicing or resting; if they realize that they can do either and that it is a blessing to share such things. I want to tell them they are lucky, that good companions are hard to come by, but I don’t. I stay seated on my mat, reaching my fingertips over my toes as far as they will go.