A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, July 1, 2013

Exercising my point


A few weeks ago, a friend (I’ll call him Falstaff -- not for his own protection, but because I’m whimsical, and also a jerk) remarked that he’d had a really crazy idea. Maybe next year, he – like me -- would sign up to race in the Sluicebox 100.  A hundred miles of mountain biking!  Over every hill Fairbanks has to offer, including some you didn’t know existed!  Bonus swamps, mosquitoes, ruts, rocks, roots, and forest-fire smoke! 

“But Laura soon brought me back to reality,” Falstaff added. (I’ll refer to his wife as Laura because her name is Laura.)  “She said, ‘But then… you’d have to exercise.’ ”

Ugh.  Exercise. 

I don’t have oodles of willpower. And I hate exercise. That’s why I never do it.

Whoa.  Whoa.  Wait a minute.  You can’t deny it, Nancy.  We’ve seen you at it. Repeatedly, blatantly, apparently shamelessly, and we might add, totally publicly. 

Yeah.  I know, I know.  I’m the one who runs to work when it’s fifty-four degrees below zero.  And yes, I’m the one who owns the only double-tag-along bike in Fairbanks, and pedals around town on this bicycle-built-for three, panniers bulging with library books and kids singing an out-of-tune duet of the Alaska Flag song. Yes, I’m THAT woman.  I also hike rather a lot.  I ski a fair bit.  I even brachiate across the monkey bars whenever the mood strikes me – which is pretty much whenever my parenting duties lure me onto a playground.  Mea culpa, mea culpa.  I do every one of these things.  But I don’t exercise.

Um, Nancy, that’s a ridiculous claim.  You mountain-biked a hundred miles yesterday..

Oh.  Right. I mountain-biked a hundred miles yesterday.  As a result, I’m facing a few challenges today – such as thinking, walking, and typing. (If you don’t understand the typing part, you’ve clearly never spent 17 hours and 54 minutes rattling over assorted rocks and tree roots, fingers locked desperately around the handlebars, clutching at the brakes.) 

I admit all this.  But I do not, I repeat, exercise.

The word “exercise” is freighted with meanings and connotations.  Merrian-Webster has a lot to say about “exercise”.  The definition that most people seem to have in mind when they sigh that they “ought to get more exercise” is 2(b): bodily exertion for the sake of developing and maintaining physical fitness.  Then again, 3: something performed or practiced in order to develop, improve, or display a specific capability or skill and even 4: a performance or activity having a strongly marked secondary or ulterior aspect resonate, too.  None of these definitions is really something I want to take up in my free time.  None of them sound like something it would be easy to stick with, via self-discipline alone.  None of them, in short, sound like much fun.

Out of curiosity, I typed “exercise…” into Google, and let Autocomplete do its magic.  The first item on the dropdown list was “exercise in futility”. Well then.

I tried “exercise is…” I found that “exercise is medicine.”  I also learned that “exercise is good for you” – and, immediately below that, “exercise is bad for you”.  Finally, for those who like their Google responses wordy and directly cribbed from Public Health Reports, “exercise is a subset of physical activity that is planned, structured, and repetitive.”

Planned, structured, and repetitive?  Oh, heavens, Google.  Indubitably, I enjoy activities that drive my heart rate way up.  I can have fun doing things that make me sweat.  I frequently thrill to the challenge of hobbies that require enthusiastic muscular activity, balance, control, or interesting bodily positions.  (If you can think of activities that combine the best of all of the above attribute, especially if your name is Falstaff, please exercise decorum in the comments section). However, my enthusiasm for all these endeavors notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure I don’t like anything that is “planned, structured, and repetitive.”  Nor do I want to undertake “bodily exertion” solely for the sake of physical fitness.  Or, if I did, I wouldn’t have the strength of mind necessary to persuade myself to do so.

I do, however, want to “undertake bodily exertion” for plenty of other reasons.  I want to get places, using simple forms of transportation that don’t burn any gas, don’t break down, and don’t prevent me from seeing and smelling the details of the world along the way: commuting as exercise, shopping as exercise, and errands as exercise.  I want to roam and explore, feel the wind in my face, and find solace in solitude and wonder in wilderness: hiking and skiing and canoeing as exercise.  I want to use my body as a tool, to lug our water, build an outhouse, and haul the wood pellets that heat our house: life as exercise.  I want to challenge myself, pushing the limits of how far, how fast, how long I can go, and finding the space inside myself that comes from movement and exhaustion: racing as exercise.  Last but most certainly not least, I want to play, chasing my kids and lurching them skyward, rolling and tumbling, laughing with movement and blatant bodily fun: joy as exercise.  I want these things.  I revel in them.  No willpower required.

So, yes – you’ve seen me out there.  Much as I’d like to think some sort of penumbra of invisibility protects me from the embarrassment of public recognition (even as I chandelier myself in blinking LEDs all through the 17-month-long Fairbanks winters), friends, acquaintances, and amused-at-my-expense strangers are fond of telling me that I’m a local landmark. I can only hope that I’m a familiar character in the manner of the charismatic produce guy at Fred Meyer West, and not in the manner of the woman with the paranoid persecution complex who keeps running for public office.  However, whatever you think of my idiosyncrasies, and whatever you think it is I’m doing on Alaska’s roadsides, trails, and trackless yonder, I’m certainly not exercising.  Not even when I’ve been rattling along from seven a.m. until well past midnight.  Did I mention that my legs aren’t obeying me terribly well, and my hands are a bit unwieldy today?

The Sluicebox was conceived, organized, and mapped via hours of toil, paperwork, and painful logistics by some of my more selfless, over-committed, and insane friends -- such as, for example, my husband.  The work of putting it together is so Herculean that it may not occur again in its current form.  Moreover, not everyone’s dreams of challenge and adventure require an event long enough to listen to an entire George R.R. Martin audiobook (although some people’s dreams are long enough for the whole series, and then some).   However, I have confidence that other opportunities will rise up, Phoenix-like, from the smoke of a hot, dry Fairbanks summer. 

Like its winter equivalent -- the White Mountains 100 -- the Sluicebox is an over-the-top endeavor.  It’s ridiculous.  It’s numbing.  It’s astonishing.  And it does not, I still maintain, require exercise. 

As such, Falstaff should shake up his terminology, reclaim “exercise”, and get out his bike.


  1. Your absence of exercise must be a bit maddening to all the people you are passing on your 100-mile tours. Others call it fantastic.

  2. Like me! I exercise, dammit! At least I beat Nancy to the finish line--barely. You're an animal, Nancy, and it was fun to ride (and push) with you for a while.

    1. If you'd been a bit slower, we could have discussed more books! But hey, we could get together some time for a ride. It wouldn't be exercise, you see; it would be socializing while enjoying a bike ride. Totally different.