An experiment in bike commuting

When I was in high school, I rode my bike everywhere. I had saved for and purchased a pink-and-gray Huffy 10-speed for about eighty dollars. I loved that bike. In addition to riding it 2 miles each way to school most days, I often took weekend excursions with my friend Suzie. We had a Monmouth County map, a few favorite destinations, and a host of delis along the way for re-fueling (Snickers bars). Of course there were no cell phones, but we always carried a patch kit and a couple of dimes for pay phones in case of emergency. Those were the days!

Century ride after

Hilarious #tbt, after my first and only 100 mile ride in Princeton, NJ. You can see my pink Huffy on the left. I didn’t have a water bottle cage nor cycling shorts. My cycling shoes were Keds. And yes, I’m eating Jersey tomato.

College wasn’t much different—I didn’t have or need a car there. I rode less frequently, but still didn’t think there was anything unusual about hopping on my bike for routine errands. When Andrew and I graduated from South Carolina, we’d been dating less than a year, and I’d replaced by battered and vandalized Huffy with a Specialized Crossroads Cruz. We took our bikes to Europe for four months, rode about 1400 miles from London to Genoa, and fell in love.

Life has changed. Now we live in the suburban wilds of North Raleigh. I drive my Civic nearly 20K miles a year. And I rarely think about hopping in the car—to go to the grocery store, to meet friends for a run, to go to the YMCA, to shuttle kids, to eat out—most trips less than 2 miles. Sometime after college (and after I got my first car), I fell out of the habit of riding everywhere. It seems like too much trouble, and as with most people who have complex lives (mine includes work, business, kids, activities), too much time.
All this is to say that I recently decided to sign up for the Tour de Cure. I’d been considering it for a while, actually, wanting to support my friend Diane’s Team Cheetah, but the timing had never worked out. Now Ann was signed up, and it seemed like too good of an opportunity to miss. Awesome!

bike team cheetah

I’m joining this awesome team of real cyclists, Team Cheetah, to raise money for diabetes research. I’d love your support! Donations can be made here:

People who know me were, to put it mildly, surprised. No one knows me as a cyclist, and I refer to spin classes derisively as the “Bike to Nowhere.” I like riding alone on a stationary bike even less than spin class. Maybe it’s because I grew up riding as my primary means of transportation that sitting on a bike going nowhere fast seems like an appalling waste of time.

Here’s another thing: I’ve become terrified of being hit by a car. Sure, Suzie and I had plenty of close calls, riding Route 537 past the horse farms in Colt’s Neck and the place where they make Laird’s Applejack when we were still too young to drink it. When Andrew and I were riding in Italy, a man once opened his car door about 2 feet in front of me and I crashed my overloaded bike into it (arm-waving and shouting—in English and Italian—ensued, ending with smiles and hugs). Still, I didn’t think much about it. The term “road rage” had not yet entered the daily lexicon.

So I despise riding nowhere, but I’m not thrilled with traffic. Still, I need to get myself used to the saddle again, so I began toying with the idea of riding my bike to work. Not every day, or most days. Once a week is the small goal I have set for myself.

I don’t know a lot of people who bike commute. I have only one friend who does it regularly around here. However, the concept isn’t new, lots of people do it, and Raleigh boasts an amazing greenway system—unparalleled, really, for a city its size. It’s been exciting to watch the planning the last few years especially, as different sections are connected. You can now ride 27 miles along the Neuse River Greenway from Wake Forest to Clayton, and soon you’ll be able to ride from Wake Forest past Crabtree Valley, through Umstead, and onto the American Tobacco Trail, which will take you all the way to Durham. I have one word for the forward-thinking leaders in the 1970s who dreamed up our greenway system long before it was in vogue: Visionary.

bike commute

My route, most of it on the fantastic Raleigh greenway system. East Mine Creek greenway goes to Shelley Lake greenway to Ironwood greenway to House Creek greenway to Reedy Creek greenway to Rocky Branch Creek greenway. And then I’m nearly at my building at NC State.

I have a number of factors in my favor for bike commuting once a week:
1. It is 13.3 miles from my house to NC State. A bit long, but a good workout—worthwhile.
2. Incredibly, less than 4 miles of the route is on roads traveled by cars.
3. I have access to a shower in my building.
4. My work schedule is flexible. I work from home a couple of days a week, which buys me more commute time on the days I go in. I can choose good weather.
5. NC State has an emergency ride service, if the need arises.

I picked this week to give it a try because it’s Spring Break and I had fewer meetings and commitments. Stay tuned…

Joy and laughter at the Medoc Spring Races.

Overheard yesterday:
“Jon’s at the Starbucks in Brier Creek. He’s as bad as Gordy!”
“Why would we all want to ride in one vehicle?”
“I can’t wear a hat anyway. I have chia hair. I had it in a braid this morning and it exploded.”
“There is a SWORD as a prize? No one told me there was a sword.”
“For some reason I thought my #200 bib number meant I had to start first with 199 runners behind me trying to catch me.”
“Check out that pond, Mom. It looks very froggish.”
[Why won’t this guy pass me?] “Heh heh…hey Steph.” “OMG, if you want to catch Steve you better hurry up. He passed us ages ago.”
“This is the farthest I’ve ever run!” “WOOHOO! THIS IS THE FARTHEST HE’S EVER RUN!” “Mom! Be QUIET!”
“And the 50th runner, the final winner of a coveted hat…from Raleigh, Jon Armstrong!”
“Hey Steph, your hat looks a lot like mine…only yours doesn’t have a number. Ha HA!”
“And so it begins.”
“That was awesome. Who’s in for next year?” “I know at least two…me and Steve.”
“Actually? I don’t think I want to see Dad in a tutu. Now Mr. Steve…well, that’s different.”
“This will be a great running joke. Get it–running–what Jon wasn’t doing this morning. Bwahahahaa!”

It felt good to laugh on Saturday.

It’s been a rough week. Bombs going off at the finish line of the Boston marathon shook our faith in humanity. Add the drama and heartbreak at the TX fertilizer plant explosion, plus the bizarre ricin terrorism scare, and I felt like crawling under my bed and hiding there until the week was over.

At our pre-race dinner and social at Milton’s on Friday night, forty-plus Peeps came together for fun and fellowship. Although conversation was lively, it was hard to feel celebratory as the drama of the bombers’ capture in Boston unfolded on TVs above our heads, while sheets of rain buffeted the windows. I was relieved to see an end to the chaos, but the bewildering question of why a malicious few would cause so much heartache and loss remained.

Saturday morning came early in our house. Andrew left quietly to join 20+ Peeps in Chapel Hill for the Tar Heel 10 Miler. And Stephen and I dropped Simon off at fellow Peep Will’s house at an o-dark-thirty hour so we could catch the carpool for the Medoc Spring Race.

It was a perfectly beautiful morning, calm and chilly after the storm the night before. I was excited to see Stephen tackle his longest-ever race, a trail run, no less, which was 7.4 miles. He was excited, too, but a little apprehensive about the distance.

We met Becky, Mimi, Kellie, Steve, and Jon at Starbucks and piled into Becky’s minivan to head to Medoc. I’d never been there before. We arrived and headed to packet pickup. On our way back, we found our other peeps, Shellie and Debbie. Caught a group pre-race photo, shivered a little, and headed to the start for the pre-race meeting.


Peeps at Medoc Spring Races!

Medoc, I’d heard, is just a little bit different. And when I’d interviewed the race director, Michael Forrester, for an online write-up for Trail Runner magazine, it was easy to catch his enthusiasm as he described his vision for this new race. Basically, the race was modeled on the famous Dipsea Race, where the playing field is leveled by staging runners by age and gender at the start. The top 50 finishers receive hats with their finish number and have the chance to choose a prize from the prize table. Among the free race entries and gift certificates were a luxury toilet and a sword. I said it was quirky, didn’t I?

There were many personal touches that made this race special. One volunteer had spent hours making Boston ribbons for runners to wear, using blue, yellow, and black ribbon. There were several runners wearing Boston jackets, some of whom had run on Monday. The race director’s daughter sang the national anthem, and there was a moment of silence to honor those who had been affected by the week’s events.

Stephen started a minute ahead of me, and I caught up with him and we ran together. Stephen is keenly attuned to the natural world—so we scoped out likely spots for salamanders and pointed out wildflowers as we ran along.


Lovin’ the trail mojo! (photo by Shannon Johnstone)

Because of the format, there was a lot more passing than usual, as we caught some runners, while others flew by us. The competition was stiff—among the competitors was the guy who’d posted the fastest race time at Dipsea four years running, the women’s Umstead marathon winner and course record holder, and last year’s US 10K Trail Champion. It was going to be fast and furious race once all those runners hit the slightly wet and muddy course.

And yet…

The encouragement and goodwill out on the trail was outstanding. Faster runners called out “way to go!” and “great job!” as they passed, especially to Stephen. He got into the spirit as well, cheering those he passed and those who passed him. Our friends came by and we high-fived each other. Runners are a great group, and trail runners are even closer-knit, with smaller venues and familiar faces at every race. Lots of laughter and jokes along the way, and the course was beautiful.

Stephen did great, holding a strong, steady pace of sub-11 minute miles for nearly seven and a half miles. He had enough kick for us to sprint across the field toward the finish, high-fiving his buddy Steve along the way. He was thrilled and I was thrilled with him. It was cool to see the mix of ages and genders who placed in the top 50 (equally interesting was that the sword was the second prize chosen and the toilet third). Our friends Kellie, Steve, and Jon had all placed in the top-50, and we were a happy, silly, smack-talking crew when we hit the road for home.

steph and stephen finish medoc2

Can there be a better feeling than running the home stretch of a trail race with your child? I sure don’t think so. (photo by Ron Fleming)

For me, the Medoc Spring Races illustrated how runners come together form a strong, solid, and supportive community. One that draws together in sympathy during tough times, one that cheers each other on, one that celebrates accomplishments big and small. The running community is like a big family, one that has the power to restore hope and overcome tragedy.

I’m proud to call this running family my own.