F#*! Skinny Jeans: a Saga of Cycling Legs

The thing about being a girl who likes to ride bikes is that it puts me in the unfathomably small minority of women who don’t judge their sense of self worth by how small their thighs are.

Note: impressive thigh hypertrophy after riding 4,000 miles from Rhode Island to Seattle.

Last week, I had the honor and pleasure of meeting up with one of my favorite people, Lisa, in our hometown in Connecticut. Lisa has known me since elementary school. As if high school was yesterday, we found ourselves at one of our old haunts in town, recognizing that, despite the both of us having traveled far and wide and gleaning global experiences left and right, there we were, back in West Hartford, seemingly relatively unchanged from our 16-year-old selves.

Everything was the same, except for one thing: my cycling legs.

One of the first things Lisa did when we sat down next to each other was put her hand on my leg. “Flex it! Come on Scheppy!”

Apparently my decision to wear spandex was a bad one; suddenly my quads were the elephant in the room.

I did a lot of cycling this summer–it was the first time since my cross-country trip that I was regularly clocking rides over 40 miles. As such, my cyclist self came out in full force this summer and fall. And along with her came my cyclist body. And “cyclist body” pretty much just means all thigh.

When I first started cycling, I threw any semblance of what I had of “skinny jeans” out the window. You see, cycling requires sacrifices of many kinds, and fitting into tight pants and skirts is one of the first things to go. Spend enough time in the saddle and you’re pretty much writing yourself a prescription for L.L. Bean’s “Relaxed Fit” for as long as you keep it up. I have wondered aloud whether or not my most opaque and loose-fitting pair of spandex could pass as a pair of those über-fashionable black jeggings; my coworkers assure me this is a terrible idea. And so I have made peace with the fact that fashion these days just doesn’t understand me.

After a long day of cycling, it is not my belly, but my quads, that dictate what, when, and how much to eat. Yes, it is my cycling thighs that are fully responsible for cajoling me into eating a half a jar of peanut butter in one sitting.

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Going in for the kill.

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Mind you, for size comparison, that is one of those XL jars of PB.

“Just one more banana smoothie!”they plead, and I dutifully comply.

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Poor bananas had it coming.

My cycling legs have a mind of their own, and when I’m in cyclist mode, I readily cede to their demands.

But cycling is worth it: skinny jeans, or any fashion for that matter, could never replace the fun and freedom of coasting along down a mountain pass, surrounded by spectacular views, or the thrill of riding momentum to power up and crest a seemingly insurmountable hill, or the joy of being out in nature–or even cozy and comfortable inside my apartment, perched on the bike trainer while simultaneously watching Battlestar Galactica.

So, F#*! you, skinny jeans–because my bike riding life is so much cooler than you.

Feeding our quads. Somewhere in Big Sky, MT.

Feeding our quads. Somewhere in Big Sky, MT.

My Split Personality: Runner vs. Cyclist

I have a confession: I am at complete odds with myself.

You see, I have this problem. And it stems from the development of what may very well be multiple personalities.split-personality

The thing is, I am both a runner and a cyclist.

For me, these two disciplines are in direct opposition to one another. And so I go about my days ill at ease, thoughts clouded by a sensation of cognitive dissonance.

Now I understand this may not be true for all multisport lovers, but for me, my “runner self” and my “cyclist self” simply cannot be left alone together. If my cyclist self met my runner self–well, let’s just settle with saying that my passive, flighty runner self would be lucky to make it out alive–but she’d probably preach some pacifism before daintily flitting away.

It all stems from, well, the very root of my brushes with endurance sport: high school cross-country. That good, old, salt-of-the-earth discipline that involved trudging through muddy fields in rainy, autumnal Connecticut while wearing candy-striped short-shorts. Running, therefore, was my first love–my high school sweetheart, if you will. I spent a good six years honing my runner self before any bikes came along and got in the way. But you know what they say about first loves–while sweet, they usually aren’t soul-mate material.

Enter Trek 1000, my first road bike. This steel steed, a “base model” donated to me by Trek prior to my cross-country ride with Bike & Build in 2007, was the bad boy who swayed me to change my ways. My love affair with running was shelved for a few years, and I traded in my Mizunos for a fancy pair of stiff-soled Shimano cycling shoes and clipless pedals. The allure of sleek and seamless speed lured me in and held my attention for quite some time. My body adapted accordingly.

Re-enter running, gradually throughout late college and more regularly during my first two years of medical school. I found myself bicycle-less when I moved out to California, and took up trail running. Suddenly my memories of cycling were characterized by the patina of the past. I was a runner again.

I distinctly remember thinking, during those days, about how “stupid” cycling was. At the time, I was fully embracing the addictive and pure trail running culture of the North Bay, and on long runs up Mount Tamalpais I could think only about how euphoric it felt to be so close to nature. I was, of course, also convinced that I was “so much stronger” then than I could ever have been as a “bike rider”. Such is the nature of the human mind–we usually bias toward favoring ourselves, and overestimate our naïveté in the past.

More recently, I’ve embraced the two disciplines simultaneously–cycling some days, and running on others (and even doing one after the other on occasion–someone call a psychiatrist!). This has made me keenly aware of the distinctive personalities I’ve harbored as both a runner and a cyclist, and, quite frankly, the vacillating nature of my personality on a daily basis is starting to perplex me.

For one, there’s the complete clash between the cultures surrounding the two sports. With the exception of the more recent “marathon madness” that has swept the nation, running events tend to be more minimalist. Running is pure and simple. As a runner, I actually feel almost puritanical of sorts (weird, I know), and identify strongly with the concept of “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.” Running is primitive. Running is straightforward. You just put on your shoes, and go. My runner self is relatively unchanged from the 14-year-old girl who laced up her first pair of Brooks trainers some 12 years ago.

The cycling culture could not be more different from the running culture–at least in my experience (although anyone who pays attention to news about professional cyclists would probably agree with me on this one). There is nothing simple or primordial about cycling: it’s this odd, completely man-made practice that contorts the body into all sorts of unhealthy shapes and postures to mold it into the most efficiently-positioned power source for an impressively-engineered classical mechanics experiment. Cycling culture is technical. There’s technique, there’s jargon, heck, there’s a whole new lexicon associated with cycling that completely trumps any sport-specific vocab running has to its name. There’s talk of gear, components, parts. What kind of frame is that? What material is that? What model derailleur is that? Aero this, dynamic that. Layer on top of this unique culture the fact that I was first introduced to cycling in a highly social environment, and you’ve created a monster. My cyclist self shuns the frivolous self-indulgence of “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”–heck, rides are just a gateway to socialization, and of course extreme speeds and competition. My cyclist self jives well with who I was at the time that I first encountered cycling culture: a wannabe-badass college kid who was suddenly enamored with going fast and flashy things.

And then there’s the biomechanics of it: cycling and running place alternating and often oppositional demands on opposing muscle groups, forging an even greater divide between my runner self and my cyclist self, and making the relationship between them all the more tenuous. My cyclist legs demand that my quads get as beefy as humanly possible, while my runner legs shriek at lugging around all that extra muscle mass. While my cyclist body is perfectly content keeping all parts other than thighs as immobile as humanly possible, my runner body dies a little bit inside every time I crouch over handlebars in a C-shape. My physical therapist friend says I need to develop a stronger relationship with a foam roller, but she just doesn’t understand the deep-seeded psychic complexity of it all.

So where do I stand today? Completely at odds with myself, a split personality, a multisport misfit. The truth is, I mostly enjoy wearing multiple hats. It keeps life interesting, right? While I have found myself pondering which represents the “true” me, the reality is that both do. Running was my first love, and will forever hold a special place in my heart. But cycling was that catalyst that introduced the concept of change, nudging me to shake things up and take a step away from familiarity. Today, I feel more like a cyclist who also runs–but tomorrow, it’ll probably be the other way around.

As for my “swimmer self”–well, let’s just say she’s beyond help.

Confessions of a 20-something social pariah.

Conforming to the status quo is boring, but forging one’s own path can be full of adversity and loneliness.

It can also be quite an adventurous trip.

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Jogging in the Grand Canyon.

Thankfully, I don’t get lonely very easily. Here are 20 ways that being a vegan endurance junkie has made me a bit of a social outcast amongst my peers.

  1. I love, love, LOVE to go to bed before 10p and wake up before 5a.
  2. I’m not much into drinking (although a post-run “shower beer” is definitely one of life’s simple pleasures. It’s just carb replenishing, right?).
  3. I’m not much into coffee or caffeine. Yeah, I’m that loser who orders a plain chamomile tea at Starbucks.
  4. My idea of a romantic date or fun meetup involves several hours of cycling in the countryside. Restaurants bore me.
  5. While my friends are making plans for marriage, I am making plans for upcoming races and globetrotting.
  6. While my friends are talking about babies, I am dreaming about becoming a crazy dog lady and living in a cabin full of huskies.
  7. I think brunch is stupid.
  8. If it’s not made from plants, I won’t eat it.
  9. I wear workout clothes everywhere. Even to work sometimes. I don’t understand fashion at all. Help.
  10. I would almost always rather be going for a run.
  11. I blend copious amounts of fruits and vegetables several times a day, and my neighbors have therefore come to assume I’m Jack LaLanne‘s weirdo protégé.
  12. I can’t give rides to people because the backseat of my Subaru is full of smelly old running shoes, bike parts, and dog hair.
  13. I spend inordinate amounts of time poring over nutrition journals on PubMed.
  14. I have precisely zero opinions on the latest TV shows, movies, or pop culture gossip.
  15. TV? What’s that?
  16. TV is used for propping up my laptop at eye level so I can watch footage of simulated bike rides while pedaling on my bike trainer.
  17. BodyGlide and Un-Petroleum Jelly. All over. Enough said.
  18. The front desk folks at my apartment building can’t believe that my weekly medium-sized Boston Organics CSA box is for me, and me alone. Roughage power!
  19. Endorphins. They make me do awkward things in social situations. Whatevs. Everyone else is just missing out.
  20. People just don’t seem to understand when I say, “Sorry, I can’t hang out today, because I literally can’t walk.” I swear, I’m not lying!

So there it is–20 reasons my vegan endurance lifestyle has turned me into a “crazy person.” But you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Anyone up for a multi-hour cycle in the countryside?

Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.

I came across a quote today that made me smile. Admittedly, it was on the underside of a bottle cap–but I like to think this only adds to its charm.

It read: “Example is not the main thing influencing others; it is the only thing.” -Albert Schweitzer

This is a delightfully idealistic idea, really and truly, but Mr. Schweitzer, I have to vehemently disagree. Every day, each one of us is bombarded by a plethora of influences: media messages, biased blog posts, pop science, hearsay, the New York Times, medical journals, internal biochemistry, what we ate for lunch, what we didn’t eat for lunch, how much sleep we got last night, Jungian archetypes, whether or not we played outside as children–to name the most important ones, at least. What a pleasant thought, though, to think that leading by example is enough to influence others. It is not.

I much prefer this quotation–an Emerson classic that has haunted me since I was a teenager: “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”

What if that someone was yourself?

What would it take to reach that point?

Many of us have at least a vague idea of who and how we want to be, but how many of us are actually actively pursuing our dreams on a daily basis? How many of us harbor true passion?

Would the high school version of you approve of who you are today?

I have not met many people who genuinely harbor passion. It’s pretty easy to tell who they are–it’s infectious to be around someone who’s jazzed up about something, and these people are usually bubbling with excitement. Those I have met have almost invariably come from within the endurance sport community. It takes a certain type to wake up at 4:30 a.m. and put on compression socks and BodyGlide, only to hoof it around city streets before the sun rises. It takes an especially certain type to maintain focus during 8-hour long slogs on the bike, let alone embrace the inevitable “hitting the wall”. These people are living out their dreams on a daily basis–and usually before most people even wake up each morning. The most remarkable thing I’ve noticed about this cohort, though, is their uncanny ability to translate what they’ve learned from their “Trials of Miles” into other aspects of their lives. Resilient, persistent, fearless, and enthusiastic to pursue new adventures without fear of failure. “It’s Not About the Bike,” as Lance Armstrong once said. There’s a bigger, global process going on–a brain change, of sorts–and it spits out some of the most inquisitive, curious, optimistic go-getters I have ever met.

Every day, we endurance sport weirdos have our asses handed to us by the trail we’re running on–and it simultaneously humbles us, and reminds us that we don’t really have much to lose. Honing my physical endurance has unquestionably cultivated a heightened sense of mindful awareness, carved out increasingly higher levels of mental clarity and focus, and perhaps most importantly, sent feel-good neurotransmitters coursing through my veins. Paradoxically, showing up for work every morning ravaged by a crack-of-dawn multi-hour run or ride gives me life. To quote Steve Jobs, “Things lead to their opposites.”

What would it take for you to be the person who inspires you?

Do you push yourself to be the best possible version of you every day?

Yeah, just another vegan training blog.

In 2007, I began experimenting with a 100% plant-based diet.

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Navigating the produce departments as a newly-minted vegan while studying abroad in the most veg-friendly of countries, Spain.

I rode my bike across the United States that summer, logging anywhere from 50-120 miles per day. I quickly “discovered” that my speed and endurance were much better on days when I stuck to fruits and vegetables.

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Just after climbing Teton Pass.

In early 2008, I ran my first marathon on virtually no training. I felt great. I knew I was onto something.

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Barcelona, March 2008.

I am not naturally athletic.

By 2010 I began logging anywhere from 10-20 miles per day on foot in the trails of Marin County, 7 days a week. At the time, I was also studying full time as a medical student. Between 2008-2012, I ran a “running streak” of 1,812 days.

Athletes and nutrition experts such as Brendan Brazier, T. Colin Campbell, Rich Roll, John McDougall, Douglas Graham, Dean Ornish, Joel Fuhrman, Matt Frazier, Scott Jurek, and Mac Danzig have been my inspiration.

This is my candid, raw, no-frills account of my foray into Ironman triathlon and ultra running.