Category: Fitness

Bellows. Pistons. Reduced to an Engine.

I had the pleasure of taking a few trips this past summer into the Rockies.  I tend to philosophize when I am out of breath – especially if I don’t have enough breath to speak aloud my philosophy.  I took these notes and wrestled with the following concepts this past July.  Perhaps it would be more poignant had I published right after these trips, but I didn’t.  Here, then, is why I turned into an engine.

Physical effort. The harder I work, the less awareness I have of the world around me.  When I sit in a leather chair, I am free to read books, play computer games, watch TV, debate politics, eat beef jerky, drink coffee.  When I ride my bike, a lot of those things are put on hold for later.  When I hike up a jeep road with a 40 pound pack on my back, I only lust for water, electrolytes, and the cessation of breathlessness.  When I climb a 14,064 foot mountain in Colorado, my world shrinks to the next steps, and finding the next cairn that marks the route.  I do not want to hear how many vertical feet we have left.  I do not want to look up and see the summit – because what if that is not really the top?  This is a question of mental toughness.  In ME.  I am afraid, always have been, that I am not tough enough to finish the task.

Ever since AAU track, way back in grade school, which was way back in the ’70’s, I have worried that the workout would be too tough.  I remember fearing high school cross country because the workouts might make me puke.  I remember puking during the swim season – Docker Hartfield (the coach) had us swim 100 yd repeaters.  As a freshman, I was all in and wanted to make a good impression.  So I swam until I puked.  He came into the locker room, noticed, and said, “good job”.  I readily concede that in subsequent years of swim practice, I metered my effort more carefully so I would not get sick.  Probably better.  But in many ways, I miss that innocent, determined, driven, total commitment of my new athletic field.  A true 100 % effort, with no thought left for “after”.

Dad and I rode mountain bikes in Colorado recently.  We started up a part of the Colorado Trail, which follows the Continental Divide.  The first mile includes a brutal switchback portion to gain a ridge, which then leads to the actual Divide.  We found out later that this section is called “Vomit Hill”.  Neither of us could ride the whole section; we both walked and pushed our bikes.  I panted in astonishment (Was I THAT out of shape??? Was ALL of Colorado biking this hard??? Could ALL the Colorado bikers ride up this???)

It was on Vomit Hill that my body turned into a primal bellows-fueled piston engine.  I stayed aware, in the sense that I knew I was on my bike riding uphill.  But my focus dialed down to a mere urgency to keep churning my legs – like the mighty pistons that drove the Titanic when they called for “all ahead full”.  A mindless – I had no brain space for philosophy, food, drink, people, birds, money – automaton driving full throttle into the breach.  Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs was clearly demonstrated in this instance.  All I could process was whether my legs could keep churning and whether I could steer straight up the trail.

On a different trip, with my backpack on and accompanied by Dad, brother-in-law, nephew, son, and son’s fiancee, I strode forward, my boots heavy on the ground. Declaratively taking possession of the next step on the trail (I know for SURE I have gotten THIS far), and just as quickly ceding control of the ground behind me as a conquered land (I don’t want to turn around and see how far I’ve come; what if we’ve barely started?).  My spirit turns peevish.  It refuses the offer of progress made, miles accomplished.  It only urges forward – knowing only that there IS an end, and we are not THERE yet.  When we are THERE my spirit can take a recuperative breath and seek safety in the surroundings.  Could it be like primitive man pushing through foreign forest, fearing danger? Primitive man reduced to instinct and searching for a marginally safer place to rest for the night? 

God-formed bellows; my chest heaves relentlessly.  God-shaped pistons; my legs drive endlessly.  My vision tunnels; it needs to see nothing but the path ahead.

I am prepared to repeat as long as is necessary to gain the ridge, the campsite, the peak, the checkpoint.  After the fact, I realize the reality of my effort does not match the hyperbole created by my mind.  In my mind, I have conquered worlds as Alexander the Great did.  In my mind, I rolled the rock back up the hill like Sisyphus did.  In my mind, I have gained Mt Doom in Mordor and thrown the One Ring into the fire like Frodo did.  I WAS Reinhold Messner, climbing Everest without oxygen.  I WAS the fastest cyclist up Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France.  

But hey – even if my effort did NOT measure up to those feats of strength, is it so bad to dream of, to believe in, or to revel in a day fully lived? 

I say no.

Test yourself. Take on your world. Raise your arms in triumph when you finish.


Adrenaline flooded my system just before my peripheral vision detected the leaping Dalmatian.  I saw him leap, silent and intent, over the wheel of my riding companion on that night ride.  My co-rider had no idea the dog was coming at me; no idea why the dog had chosen me as a target rather than him.  In the dark, the Dalmatian had completely surprised us.  The cast of our night lights extended in front of us but there was very little light to the sides, and none behind us.  The dog had approached from my companion’s right rear, about 5 o’clock, if the rider’s front wheel is high noon on a timepiece.  I had nowhere to go – no way to outrun a canine 4 feet from me in mid-leap.

The ‘water horses’ that Glorfindel formed from the river at the Fords of Bruinen in Tolkien flashed through my mind.  Those had risen quickly and relentlessly as a defense against the Black Riders.  This Dalmatian had leapt just as quickly and remorselessly on offense.  Complete surprise.  Battle over, then and there.  All the animal had to do is complete the attack.

My legs churned on.  What other option did I have?

3 seconds later, a LIFE time later, I realized this was merely pebbles from the gravel road being thrown into the light.   Somehow, my most primitive brain had created a predator where none existed.  The discomfort of a night bike ride had put my subconscious on full alert.

As the adrenaline drained, gratitude at safety took its place.  I said nothing.

We rode on.


Sometimes life just plain defeats me.  I don’t get so much of why this world is so complex, relationships need so much energy, forward motion takes so much fuel.

I do know all the book answers; I just…

It’s like if you are playing tennis, and your opponent hits the ball way to the other side of the court, for the 50th time, and you didn’t get to the ball the other 49 times.  You know you SHOULD run for the shot, but, well, doggonit, you probably won’t get to the ball in time, and it will be his point.  You know how your feet feel at that point?  Should I run or shouldn’t I?

Or, running in a road race,  and you just gotta walk at the water table around mile 4 with 6 to go.  Why bother making your body start running again?  It takes, sometimes, more mental toughness than our conscious minds have.

So, ignore yourself, and keep working.  It will be worth it.

Whale Oil Lamps or Coleman Lanterns.

Free of charge, here is my summation of exercise fuel sources, their uses, availability.  Different intensities of exercise use different fuels.

First, the low intensity fuel source, what I call ‘the whale oil lamp’.  Think of the way an old whale oil lamp works.  It is unpressurized, smoky, inefficient, but cheap to operate.    It does provide light, but it isn’t a terribly bright light, and it can’t light more than a small area.  This means, then, in exercise physiology theory, you can only use this energy source to perform low-intensity exercises.  Hiking, walking, easy swimming, easy long distance running are good examples of this.

This first source is your body’s stored fat.  It will burn, but it only burns slowly.  You can go a long time on this energy source, because most of us have at least some stored fat.  This source has severe limitations.  It can ONLY provide a slow, but steady trickle of fuel for low-intensity aerobic demands on the body.

The beauty of the human body is that it has an automatic cut-over switch to a more efficient fuel system if the physical demand outstrips the energy supply from fat cells.

 This high intensity source is what I call ‘the Coleman lantern’.  It burns brightly, and will light a large area, but there is only a small tankful of fuel to use.  Pump the pressurization system, and the light will get brighter.  This second source is glycogen, which is energy stored in muscles. This source is perfect for high demand aerobic activities, and also anaerobic activities.  Sprinting, the middle section of most spinning/aerobics classes, mixed martial arts, boxing are good examples.

As you attempt to gain fitness at your anaerobic threshold, you are almost exclusively using the ‘Coleman lantern’ energy system.  The more efficiently this Coleman burns, the quicker you can compete and the quicker you recover.  The downside is you burn very little fat during this type of training.

If you need/wish to lose some weight that you consider fat cells, you must use the ‘whale oil’ system for the majority of your training.  This system, remember, is for use in low-demand but endurance situations.  You must try to keep your heart rate below 55% of maximum (or maybe 60%, but that’s pushing it).  Anything higher, and the body automatically switches to the ‘Coleman fuel’ system of energy supply.

By the way, once you’ve turned on the Coleman lantern, it will stay on for the rest of that exercise session.  If you want to go back to whale oil, stop that workout, rest for an hour or two, and start a new workout.  EASY, this time.