What I’ve Learned Completing My First Fitness Challenge

I think I just completed my first fitness challenge.  I’m not sure, because I’ve never done a fitness challenge before.  In fact, I I have a tendency to really dislike fitness challenges.  Why do we have to make fitness more of a challenge?  Does that really make you feel more alive, or is it toxic masculinity at it’s finest?  Come on, bro.  I digress.

My preference is for slow-and-steady type of fitness.  I’ll take 3 workouts per week for a year over 6 workouts per week for six weeks, and then months of sitting on the couch for months.  It’s not the short-term where we see progress, it’s the long term.

Unfortunately, in our world of instantaneous Instagram results, slow isn’t sexy.  Slow doesn’t get people excited to get off the couch and make a change.  Slow doesn’t have the sex appeal that fast and furious has.


Let’s look at the underground street racing scene in Los Angeles, circa 2001. ( If you’ve never seen The Fast and The Furious, recall your last cab ride.)  You can’t race from Point A to Point B to Point C to Point Dume all the time.  Flooring the gas at every green light and slamming the breaks at every red light is going to beat you up big time.  A more casual acceleration is far more sustainable for the longevity of your car, which is currently serving as a metaphor for the human body.

This is where you’d expect to see a motivational quote about marathons versus sprints, over a background of the beach and a peace sign emoji.  (I just Googled that and actually found it.  I love the internet.)


What’s useful to remember is that unless you’re running your marathon in a particularly flat part of town, there are hills to climb, and specific segments to attack.  It’s those moments, the races-within-the-race, that serve as unique challenges within what is relatively consistent work overall.

We’re drawn to those specific challenges, but it’s the consistent effort that’s so important.

I’m no different from the normal excitement seeker.  I too am drawn to specific challenges.  When I ride my bike those challenges, those moments of excitement, are the descents.  It takes a lot less time to come down the hill than it does to get up it, which means the majority of my time is spent pedaling.  It’s not my preference, but it’s something I’ve been actively working to get better at.

I’ve always tried to emphasize skill practice since I got a mountain bike, almost four years ago. In 2014, it was literally about staying on the bike after not riding in almost 10 years.  In 2015, I got excited about learning how to jump.  In 2016, I focused on my trail riding.  I’m looking forward to putting it all together in 2017, and focusing on my overall pace.  That need for speed certainly requires me linking those skills together, but there’s also a big fitness component to it.

For the nerds:  I’ll need a good deal of alactic power to power through the hardest pedal strokes at the beginning of a sprint, anaerobic power to sustain short sprints across the trail, and the aerobic capacity to recover and do it all again.  Low intensity aerobic work has never been my favorite, but I’ll put in the time if it helps me get better at the other stuff.  It’s a time investment, after all.

Last week I found myself pedaling at a smooth cadence on a mountain bike that was definitely not designed for pedaling up the Henry Hudson Greenway.  I was riding from Mark Fisher Fitness, on 39th ave, to Inwood Hill Park, some 10 miles away. After a stop at Tread Bike Shop, I returned home to 145th in Harlem with 13.4 miles behind me.


Squinting as I pushed through the wind on that ride, I had a moment of thinking, “This would probably be easier if I had a road bike.”  That was quickly followed by me asking, “Who have I become?”

I was someone enmeshed in a fitness challenge.  Here’s the back story:

At the beginning of the year, I got an e-mail from Strava to see my year in review.  Strava is a website/app that you can use as GPS when you run, cycle, or swim.  Strava let me know that in 2016, I went on 80 bike rides lasting 104 hours, covering 767.3 miles, and gaining 82,139 feet.  I tend to think of my bike rides as one-at-a-time activities, where I just get to go outside and ride.  It’s not about the numbers for me.  It’s about exploring a new trail, or ripping down an old one.  It’s about the jumps, drops, and rocks along the way.

As I watched the automatically generated video, I was surprised to learn that those 80 rides totaled 767 miles.  That’s a 9.5 mile average, which isn’t very long in the mountain biking world. Those 10 mile rides added up to more than I expected; 767 miles.  After the Strava video finished, the gears in my head started turning. “I wonder how many miles I could ride this year?”

“Gears in my head.” Please pause for a moment to recognize that as the worst pun I’ve ever written. Now let’s carry on.

Moments later, I was calculating predicted annual totals based on different average miles-per-week predictions.  Can I ride 25 miles per week?  That’s 1,300 for the year.  What if I pushed that to 1,500? Perhaps I’ll double 767 and make it 1,534 miles.  That’s 29.5 miles per week.  Definitely a possibility.

If you’re into cycling, you may be thinking that 30 miles is a smooth 90 minute ride for a road bike on uninterrupted bike paths.  I’m not going to be riding at 15-20 miles per hour on the tight, twisty, rocky, and rooty single track we have around NYC. It’s going to take quite a bit more time.  That being said, I’m definitely interested in bringing up my average speed for those miles of dirt. To get there, I’ve been pushing the pedals across the pavement.

While I’m uncertain of what’s a reasonable distance, and really time commitment, for riding in 2017, I was sure about a challenge I set out for myself:

I wanted to ride 100 miles before my birthday.

My birthday is February 6th, and if you checked the date, you know that’s today.  (Thanks for the birthday gift of reading this piece.)  When I first considered what would go into riding 100 miles in 5 weeks,  I quickly realized that I did not have the time to make all of that riding on dirt.  Alas, I’d be relegated to flipping the lever on my shock and taking my baggies onto the tarmac.  Do you know what happened?

It’s made me so much better.

I’m a stickler for skill.  I love technique in every and all forms, and I’m drawn to improving technique when I ride.  As a lover of skill-based fitness, and I’ll take the technical execution of a Turkish Get up training with a machine any day.  With my riding, I’m realizing that fitness is the skill.

Here’s my Strava record of my ride on Saturday:


What you can’t see here is that over the 2-and-a-half hours of riding, my average heart rate was 139bpm.  Sure, I spent a good deal of time getting off my bike to set up my phone to make a movie, but that is low for me.  Comparing segments that I’ve ridden time and time again, I rode at similar speeds and lower heart rates.  That’s an improvement in fitness, friends.

On Saturday, I smoothly cleaned a few sections of trail that I’ve had to work at near maximal intensity to get through before.  Glancing at my GPS, I realized that my heart rate was lower on these sections than it’s been in the past.  I wasn’t as fatigued when I reached these challenges, and that made them easier.  While I don’t love the miles of asphalt, I do love that how they’ve improved the quality of my time in the dirt.

Ya know what else I love? I love that I set a goal for something that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to accomplish, and I accomplished it.  On Sunday, I rode miles 94-107 for the year.  Here’s a little movie I made from the day.  I hope you enjoy it:

It was absolutely fantastic to spend Saturday morning in the woods, enjoying some of my best riding and enjoying the fruits of my labor.  I’ve ridden 107 miles since the beginning of the year, something I wasn’t sure I’d have the time to do.  Now that I have, and I can see how that time investment is already helping out my progress, I’m excited to link this challenge to the next one.

What’s the next one? I’m not quite sure.  I have a few more weeks of longer, slower pedaling ahead of me before I make any big changes, but I’ll be pushing the tempo of those rides coming up soon.  For now, I’m going to celebrate this success, and celebrate my birthday with friends and family.

Enjoy your day, and I hope we talk soon!

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