September 1st, 2006 18:04 EST
The Secret to Biking an Alp
My husband and I were biking the never-ending incline toward our apartment in Innsbruck, Austria. As I sped up the hill and felt the afternoon sun warm my bare arms, the last trace of old stresses floated away on the push of fresh mountain air against my face. I’d left behind my migraine-laden American life for the relaxed pace of European culture. The car payments, traffic and job that knotted my shoulders and stitched them to my ears were no more. Hoorah, right?
I sat on the hard black seat with shoulders hunched over the handlebars and feet cranking away. A question nagged with each strained pump: why aren’t you relaxed? Why aren’t you relaxed? Why aren’t you relaxed?
“You don’t have to work so hard,” Matt called from a few peddles behind. I’d started off yards ahead but was losing steam. Soon he caught up and rode alongside me.
“Obviously I need to work harder. You’ve already caught up,” I panted. He pointed to the gear shift.
“Switch to a lower gear. It’ll be easier to peddle.”
“A lower gear? That way is too slow. It makes me feel like I’m peddling and not getting anywhere. I just want to get to the top,” I said.
“Slow and steady. You’ll get there” he said.
I was about to let a sarcastic retort rip when the truth sank in. He was right. The exhaustion and stress wouldn’t have set in so quickly if I hadn’t sprinted up the first part. Pain stretched through my legs and up my back until finally I pulled onto the sidewalk and dismounted. Matt pumped ever-so-slowly past. Even at turtle speed, he biked the remainder of the hill faster than I could walk. Could I bike all the way up the monster if I set a frustratingly slow pace? The answer came a week later, without the aide of bike or mountain. It came during my first Pilates lesson.
The sounds of harps and chimes tinked through the room. Concrete fountains bubbled and tulips bobbed in the outside garden that filled the scope of a glass wall. What really caught my attention amid all of that peacefulness were the giant-sized balls filled with air, long pieces of rubber and alarmingly unfamiliar contraptions set on the floor.
Hillary, my instructor, held a plastic model of a spine in her hands and laid it in a cupped “u” against the floor. She then forced it into an arc so that a good portion rose up off the floor. Ouch. Some people actually sit and stood in those unnatural positions, she explained, moving her eyes from the plastic posturing to my very real position on the bench. At that moment I was trying to balance on an air-filled bubble pillow, but the thing kept wiggling around beneath me.
She explained that those who don’t take the time to find and develop their deep stabilizing muscles will strain the other limbs and muscles that end up working overtime to compensate. The props and exercises of Pilates were developed to correct that unbalance, among other things. I tried to inconspicuously reposition myself atop my pillow. We had our work cut out for us.
She rolled a giant blue ball to the center of the mat and laid her stomach on it with hands and feet outstretched to the floor. Slowly, she raised her right hand and left foot high off the floor. It looked like a cinch. She dismounted and asked me to do the same. After a few wobbles, I was securely balanced on the ball. But a funny thing happened when I tried to lift my arm: the ball tipped. How could that be? I rolled off and kneeled opposite Hillary, the ball resting between us.
“That was a good try. Don’t worry, some people don’t even get that far their first time,” she said. “Now do it again, and remember to use your stomach muscles to balance. Your hands should barely touch the floor.”
I tried again and again, but the ball tipped, tipped, and tipped. Finally, I quickly threw both my arm and leg high in the air so that they crashed back down before the ball had a chance to think about wobbling. I smiled into the ball. It had lost. And I’d gotten my limbs higher than Hillary had wanted. She was of a different opinion.
“I don’t want you to force this. These exercises aren’t about how many you can do or how good or fast you can do them. They’re about finding your balance and controlling your muscles. Throwing your arm or leg in the air isn’t going to control them. Find your balance on the ball first, and then slowly lift,” she instructed.
Had I really just discarded balance and control in favor of completing the exercise? The same way that I had pulled and strained my muscles just to reach the top of the mountain.
Other scenarios came to mind as I lay on the ball with forced patience. I recalled nagging European waiters for bills so that I could move on to my next activity, instead of sitting back and visiting with my companions like everyone else. Then there was the half-written book sitting useless on a computer disc because completing it had usurped days of time that I could have spent shortening my ever-expanding to do list. I delighted in scratching off each of those piddly chores. And they needed to be done in a way that my book didn’t. Still, there was something to Hillary’s comment about favoring balance and control over getting things done. The proof was in my overstrained back, and shoulders, and legs.
Pilate’s class ended before I could successfully complete the exercise on the ball. Usually I would have left feeling unsatisfied and even more determined to “do it” next time. But as I walked out the door and down the street that day, my shoulders hung two levels lower than they had in years and Hillary’s music continued to tink in my ears. I told myself that the amount I’d accomplished was good enough.
The hill to my apartment has greeted me every day since. I’m still amazed each time I ever-so-slowly reach the top and my legs remain ready for more peddling. It’s a monster of a reminder that slow and steady may not always win the race, but it certainly makes for a happier and healthier racer.