Holding My Breath Till It’s Over

I love bike riding.  It would’ve killed me if this COVID crisis had stolen riding from me, because it’s something of an addiction.  I would’ve gone through a bit of a withdrawal, feeling like ants are crawling on my skin and such.  I would’ve felt like I weighed 300 pounds.  I would’ve had mood swings.  Fortunately, it looks like bike riding is okay.

So around 5 pm today, I took my regular bike ride.  It’s my usual time, more or less.  It’s strange that riding your bicycle for an hour counts for self-isolation.  I don’t touch anyone.  I don’t get close to anyone.  I just ride and sweat.

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My regular bike ride is about 50 minutes long.  If I don’t run into any interference from cars or pedestrians, I can usually make it to the first major intersection in 4:20.  Today, I made it in 4:15, so I felt pretty damn good.  At that point, I usually hit the WALK button, but today, I didn’t.  Seriously, who wants to touch a WALK button these days?  I just straddled my bike and waited for the light to change.

Since I live in the suburbs, I make most of my ride on the sidewalk.  Nobody walks on the sidewalk out here.  But today, at the 7-minute point, I began the steepest incline of the ride, and that’s when I saw him.  He was a germ-carrying human being.  He was walking towards me with a truculent insistence.  It wasn’t a wide sidewalk, and I shuddered to think of passing within his airspace.  The CDC, after all, says that you should maintain a 6-foot distance from other people.

So I jumped the curb and rode in the street.  As I passed him, I wasn’t exactly six feet away from him, maybe 5 feet, so I held my breath.  Then, after I passed him, I kept holding my breath.  I was envisioning germs that he had shed floating in the air behind him like exhaust.  I didn’t want to breathe in his exhaust.

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Further on, I spotted two young women and their dog on the sidewalk.  They were truculent and insistent, as well.  I held my breath passing them, as well.

If I’m working hard, I can usually make it to the top of the first hill by 12:00, but today, I made it in 11:10.  It was my version of a 4-minute mile; I was elated.  Once you get to the top, of course, you can top the crest and speed to the bottom.  I upshifted and gained speed.  The wind was whooshing against my face and Beck was pounding in my earbuds.  There was wild hillsides to the right of me and to the left of me, nobody around, and I was in heaven’s county, if for just a few moments.

When I got to the bottom, I immediately spotted a young homeless woman sitting on the curb.  Although I was traveling at high speed, it looked like she had a bicycle and a Sparkletts bottle with her, which didn’t quite make sense, a disheveled young woman sitting on the curb in the suburbs with a Stingray bicycle and something you shouldn’t carry on a Stingray bicycle.  With homeless people, I guess not making sense is the point.  I held my breath while passing her, too.

At the 12-minute and 13-minute points, I passed two other people walking.  It struck me as odd, because usually, I hardly pass anybody on my bike rides at this hour.  Gradually, I began to realize what was happening.  All the gyms are closed.  Ah yes.  Fit people everywhere are hankering for somewhere to work out, and they’re suddenly realizing what I realized many years ago, that riding your bike on the road is free, man, it’s free!

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At the 22-minute point, I reached Ralph B. Clark Park, where I usually veer in and ride its picturesque streets for a few minutes.  It’s quite pleasant.  There’s a lake, geese, tennis courts, baseball diamonds, hares, and gently sloping hills.  But to my surprise, today the park was closed.  People were walking in and out of it, but there were barriers set up in the roadway and park rangers standing nearby.  I guess parks qualify as dangerously social.

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By the 31-minute point, I had exerted myself quite a lot, which pleased me immensely.  Then I jumped off-road to my favorite part of the ride.  It’s a trail that gives me the joy of riding on dirt.  There are trees, uncertain footing, and tree roots to maneuver.  At the midway point, there’s a steep hill, and I looked forward to it.

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When I got there, though, I encountered something that began to really annoy me: more people.  This was starting to really piss me off.  It was a smiling young Asian couple and their two toddlers, who were riding little toy cars.  I slowed down, smiled at them, and held my breath as I rode past.

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A minute later, I ran across four different people taking their walks.  I passed within only about a foot of one of them, holding my breath all the way.

When the dirt section of my ride was over, I hopped onto the sidewalk and crossed the street.  It was getting on towards sunset.  I was listening to Beck’s first big album, Odelay, in my earbuds, which seriously rocks.  It’s weird, loud, and sprawling, and it makes me ride harder and faster.  I pushed my body even more.  Then suddenly, I passed three young women walking together.  I smiled politely, but held my breath.

At the 41-minute point, I encountered my local shopping center.  I veered off to take a look at the local gym.  It was a sad sight.  The parking lot was empty.  There was a sign on the door saying that it was closed indefinitely.  So that’s where they all came from.  I took a picture, shook my head, and rode away.

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When I returned home, I knew I’d gotten a good workout, but knew that I wasn’t going to bicycle at 5 pm anymore.  From now on, I swear, I’m switching to noon workouts.  Too much breath holding.

Update, 3/24/20: A doctor gave me further advice on airborne exposure during exercise today, and told me that “you’re not being paranoid.”  He continued:

“People diffuse the virus when they breathe and it can travel in aerosolized droplets forward as far as a few feet. If they are breathing forcibly because they are exercising then they will aerosolize more frequently with their breaths and perhaps the spread will be diffuse further away. It is very unlikely but I can imagine a cyclist passing at the wrong time, in the wrong place and inhaling deeper (they are also breathing more heavily).

“There are two solutions:

Option1: Mitigate risk. There are less cars around and so you should indeed consider riding at safe distances from pedestrians. If you are never passing pedestrians within a certain radius you should be fine. Roads are eerily vacant here in Chicago. Just don’t take anything for granted when it comes to motorized vehicles.

Option 2: Ride with a bandana covering your face. I know this is not perfect but it is a barrier protection that reduces exposure. It shouldn’t be license to ride too close to people but it will give you added protection. The down side is that it might be uncomfortable. The bandana will significantly reduce exposure but it will not drop to zero. After a certain amount of time and if you encountered many pedestrians you might want to clean the bandana. Perhaps change it for a second one half way through the ride.”

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Denial, My Only True Friend

When I was seven, I wanted to be a professional baseball player when I grew up. I wanted to play third base like Clete Boyer. I wanted to bat cleanup like Frank Howard. I wanted to be decent like Lou Gehrig and my father.

Age 11 swinging a bat in our backyard

Age 11 swinging a bat in our backyard

When I was 14, I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer. I watched the Olympics and wanted to break records by not just tenths of seconds, but by full seconds. I wanted to stand on that platform with a gold medal around my neck, like Mark Spitz.

David Groves as a swimmer

When I was 21, I wanted to be a world-renowned author. Hemingway was my guiding light, and like him, I wanted to have four homes: in Idaho, Cuba, Spain, and Key West.  I wanted to write in the morning and go out on my fishing boat in the afternoon. I wanted to put on boxing gloves and fight with other authors, as he did. I wanted to drink fine wine and know what it was that made it fine.

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I have not achieved those goals.  And in the ensuing decades, I must confess that I’ve had many more unfulfilled dreams. I would tell you about them in detail, but the closer we get to the present day, the more it would hurt. At the moment, it seems that the best solution is to deny that I’ve failed at them, because I tell myself that achieving them is still a possibility.  Denial often seems the most rational course these days.  I deny that I will fail at my now ridiculously scaled down dreams.  I deny that my life is over. I deny that anybody has beaten me. I trust in denial.  It is my only true friend.

Take one small example. I can’t take a large one because that’s too personal. In the late ‘90s, I invited a magician I admired and his wife to my annual birthday party. He came and had a great time. His wife suggested that my girlfriend Debra and I get together with them as couples.

“Great,” we said.

But Debra and I were just about to break up, and it’s not the same with just three. The following year, he had a significant role in a Tim Burton movie that you all know. Then he became a third banana on a popular TV series, and then another one, and now, he’s not just a TV star, but a major luminary in the magic world.

When I see him around, he says hello, but we don’t get together for dinner. He doesn’t invite me to his fabulous home.  He doesn’t pass along my script to Steven Spielberg. I missed that train.

These days, I strap on my bicycle helmet and ride. I know what 100% exertion is. At 7:00, I start pedaling up the big hill. At 13:00, I start pedaling down it. At 25:00, I pedal up Hill 2, and at 30:00, pedal down it. I consider that level of exertion 100%, which amounts to 47:00 for the full course. And while I’m swimming inside that pool called exertion, it’s all about the metaphor, it’s about goals and successes. I’m pedaling to succeed where I’ve failed so often in the past.

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But then one day, I surprise myself.  I suddenly remember that I can push myself beyond what I thought was 100%, and at the end, red faced and panting heavily, I clock in at 41:00. That’s 110%. Then I go out and hit 41:00 every day for weeks. I consider it a challenge that I have to meet.  Claire says that I seem perkier and more energetic around the house. When I push my body harder, it responds with more energy. I feel I can do anything, that there are no limits.

My high school friend Chazz (not his real name) has gotten old. He had a kidney transplant and he almost died three times while in the hospital. His most simple dreams, like performing magic at a downscale restaurant every week, are now gone like the road behind him. His wife died of cancer. In his condition, he could no longer do his job selling computers, so he sold his house and now lives with his mother in Atlanta. He walks with a cane and she has Alzheimer’s. But every day, I do 41:00, or if I’m ambitious, a 51:00 course that I used to do in 57:00. Because for me, the game isn’t over.

Sometimes, I play games in my head. Before I hit the road, I put myself in a dire situation.

“You have to make it in 30 minutes or you and everybody you love will die,” says God or somebody like him, somebody who has ultimate power.

In my head, the roads are cleared. There’s no traffic. I hop on my bike and start my wrist chronometer. I start pedaling. From the very beginning, I push push push.   Every push of the pedal is 110%. I push hard because otherwise, nothing else will matter. As I pedal, I suddenly discover increasingly deeper levels of exertion, levels that, in my mind, seem like caverns, exotic and unexplored, grottos that I never knew existed, plains that stretch into a beauteous skyline, beautiful visions of the future that are my familiar optimism.

As I pedal, I don’t glance at my watch because that could lose me half a second. I look out for traffic, but in my mind, the traffic is all gone because, after all, everyone else is dead. As I approach the final hill, I push even harder, up to what might be 111% or higher. First, there’s pain. As I push harder, it’s impossible to hold a complex thought in my head. As I get up to 112%, it’s like all my thoughts are gone like a film peeled from my eyes, and all that’s left are the sealife of my unconscious swimming by. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a sitting wolf. Perhaps he is guarding me, or perhaps waiting for me to fall, I can’t tell. Below me, the road rushes by, and two seconds later, I wonder if I’ve been pedaling seconds or days. My ambition is all stripped bare

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I log in another 41:00. If I were actually given that ultimatum, though, I know I could chisel my 41:00 down to 31:00. Okay, I didn’t make it to the Major Leagues, or to the Olympics, or to Hemingway’s level of fame, but I know that I could, if I just pushed hard enough. That’s just the way my mind works.