Friday, November 13, 2009

Natchez Trace XII: Training Days

On the map day six did not look challenging. Rather than try and make it 77 miles to Florence, Alabama in a day, I booked a cabin at Tishomingo State Park, just 45 miles from Tupelo. I needed every last pedal stroke of my training to not break down on the ride.

Seven weeks earlier, I wrote my friend Adam before leaving Colombia, “Can a guy without much cycling experience train for a 450 mile ride in a month?”

Adam is one of those guys with the fancy jerseys. He is on a racing team and regularly rides a 100 miles in a day, a century, the insiders call it.

“Absolutely,” he replied.

I should have remembered sports enthusiasts are the most incorrigible optimists when it comes to the realm of the possible.

To his credit, he kept the instructions simple. Train as much and as hard as possible before the ride. Don’t train in too high of a gear; better to keep the legs moving at about 90 rpm. He recommended that if I couldn’t train on a real bike the next best thing was spinning. Spin bikes more closely imitate the pedal action on a road bike than regular exercise models. Just as importantly, they have real bicycle saddles. Sure enough, after my first workout a sore butt became the weak link in my training.

If I didn’t find every spin bike between Barranquilla and the Rio Grande, I came close.

I figured I could sneak in 25 training rides to get into shape for the Trace. This regime would shaped the course I took to get back home. I had a few more days in Barranquilla, and Rosita told me there was a gym just around the corner from our apartment building. I thought I had understood her wrong. I had lived in this place for 3 months without noticing a gym not even 50 yards away.

There it was, opposite the concrete park, a dusty little storefront with aluminum grilling over the windows. I had never noticed the Atlas figure on the rectangular sign above the door, or the spin bikes looking out the front windows. It was just a single room with some free weights in the back, and a few worn exercise machines sprinkled around the place. The ten spin bikes were well worn, the resistance knobs were rusting from the years of sweat and humidity in a room without air conditioning. The gym was run by a short body builder with the strut of a silverback gorilla. He’d occasionally stop near the wall opposite his counter for no apparent reason but to steal a glance in the mirror at his biceps.

I bought a weeklong membership to the Atlas. This was my first gym membership, a good place as any to make some novice mistakes.

The first five minutes of my first ride were interminable. I checked the minute hand on the plastic clock above the counter about once every thirty seconds, regulating my rpm, I convinced myself. There were no fans to stir the oppressive tropical air. I thought if I took off my shirt maybe it would be slightly more tolerable in the 90-degree room. There were no women around, just a couple muscle junkies on the bench press.

As soon as I had peeled off my dripping shirt, the silverback bounded over from his habitat near the free weights, one set of knuckles almost scraping the concrete floor, while his other arm wagged a stubby a finger. Next to the bike, he started pantomiming, even though I had negotiated the membership fee in a more than passable Spanish.

I knew what he was telling me, though if I hadn’t, the sign language would have just confused the issue, his bulky arms were not meant for painting pictures.

I gave him a blank stare in hopes he might continue the show. If this were charades I might have guessed he was a studio ape ripping off a tuxedo near the end of a trying day on set. The gesture became more convincing with repetition, two hands grabbing in front of his washboard abs and violently lifting up and out over his head. Then he wagged a finger close in front of my nose.

I’d learn it was a universal gym protocol I had violated—do not remove your shirt. Still, I imagine most gyms are built less like pizza ovens. At least my soaked shirt felt cool against my skin. I’d make some more faux pas on my gym hopping up the isthmus, but I’m glad I learned the basics in Barranquilla

In Monteria, I spun with the wives and girlfriends of some of the most terrifying figures in Colombian paramilitary. This ranching capital is the last seat of power for the AUC, its higher ups protected by President Uribe himself, as he is the owner of a sprawling hacienda north of town. One can guess how important a person is based on the strength of their bodyguard. Collectively, my workout partners were important enough to merit one half dozen AK 47 toting guards at the front door and another half dozen out back. If I had been in some nowhere town other than Monteria, I couldn’t have felt as confident these weren’t just drug henchman. Paramilitaries, mafiosos, and left wing insurgents are all involved in the drug trade, and they largely agree on their assault rifles of choice, the durable and cost effective Kalashnikov. Colombians have told me the only reliable way to know the difference between Paras and the FARC is by their jungle boots. The right-wingers wear leather, and the lefties sport cheaper plastic footwear. Cartels stick to the concrete. Government troops, who could also be anywhere, are easier to distinguish, just look for their Israeli designed Galil rifles.

This wasn’t the kind of gym where one needed a lock for the lockers. It was just me, another silverback trainer--this one probably a eunuch--and a dozen kept women, spandex clinging to their surgically enhanced bodies.

If there was a spin bike in the Darien, I missed it.

Panama City was like an extension of Miami, the athletic clubs notwithstanding. I am surprised they let me enter with my grungy black shoes and bathing suit. It’s amazing what a gringo can get away with sometimes.

In San Salvador I found a gym near the University that would only let me ride if I joined a spin class. They rode like they were always in the mountains. The only reward at the summit was asphyxiation, gulping down San Salvador smog was like jumping into a trench fogged with mustard gas. The air was darkened by eternally gridlocked second-hand American school buses puking black clouds of diesel smoke. The city somehow smelled worse than the diesel fumes; it stank of burning garbage. When I hit the streets after a workout my eyes watered and my lungs burned and I wondered what the hell was the point in exercising in a city where breathing might prove unhealthier than smoking. At least cigarettes come with filters.

Guatemala City might have had a gym, but I’d prefer a week in San Salvador to a night in that cesspit of urban agglomeration gone terribly wrong. The villages around Lago Atitlan were gym free. One of the expat hippies I met there suggested an astral projection class, where, for 40 bucks, I could visualize the challenges of my coming bike ride on a higher plane of consciousness. I opted for a massage instead.

The gym owner in crumbling downtown Veracruz took one look at my black shoes and told me to come back when I found something decent to wear. This exchange came after I had paid the cashier. Oh, and No Refunds.

I found a gym on the back streets of old town Monterrey, where a leathery man outside in a rocking chair let me in for a dollar. The dusty hall had a few weight machines and four rusted bikes directly across from a boxing ring. The instructor was teaching a lesson in counter punching to a teenager. Each time the teenager jabbed the instructor deflected the blow with a target glove and smacked the boy in the face with his other glove hen shouted “again!” After a while he looked frustrated with his pupil and started yelling in my direction, beckoning me to step into the ring. Glass Jaw Wilson knows his limitations. I declined, and rode for an hour one and twenty minutes while the lead-footed kid took a beating. I got off that bike in as good of shape as I’d been in my entire life.

I managed 17 workouts before New Orleans, where I tried my new bike out on the levee. I chose a hybrid, the narrow tires on road bikes made nervous, and though the upright position on my Giant Cypress meant less efficiency, it also meant less leaning over day after day for 450 miles. I figured my back would appreciate it.

The day before I got on the Marty Baskerville I learned that road miles really were different than time logged on a spin bike. After 12 miles, I felt my thighs tightening, so I prescribed myself a beer. I spent the rest of the afternoon alternating riding and drinking. Twenty-five miles and five beers later, I felt pretty good. I was ready for a week on the Trace.

Turned out the 45 miles to Tishomingo would be the most challenging ride of the trip. The undulating hills got steeper, the ascents longer than anything before Tupelo.
Three miles from the park, within sight of the highest point in Mississippi, a hundred yards from the top of the last hill before the park, I surrendered. I got off my bike and walked it to the top.
My legs weren’t broken, so the defeat was mental. Next time I’ll take the hippie class.

My Wal Mart bought dinner was delicious, a bachelor’s recipee I call the Calorie Bowl, baked beans topped with sliced almonds. I ate the last of the French Camp loaf, and ignored my only dinner companion, a deer mounted on the wall across from the bed. I slept for 10 hours untroubled by my insomniac roommate’s disapproving glare. At dawn I was ready for my last morning in Mississippi, my only day in Alabama, and a delicate spring afternoon in southern Tennessee.

No comments: