Interesting Times: Everyone needs a challenge

What I learned from five days on a bicycle

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
I'm not a jock. I must begin with this disclaimer because it is hard to write about a personal accomplishment without unseemingly tooting one's own horn. My point is the opposite: If I could do it, then it shows that just about anyone can, or something like it. Last week I joined the "challenge" route of the five-day charity bike ride for Alyn Children's Hospital in Jerusalem ( The previous two years I had participated in the "regular" version of this ride, but none of us are getting any younger, so it seemed as good a time as any to go for the longer-faster-harder challenge route. This was quite an intimidating prospect because I remember, last year, the riders from the challenge route walking into the hotel at the end of the day with a somewhat glazed look that seemed to say, "Don't ask; you'll never understand what we've just been through." The challenge ride, after all, was created to siphon off the riders for whom riding "just" 400 km. over five days, with a fair amount of hills thrown in, was not enough. The organizers were speaking to them when they kept insisting that the ride was "not a race." I'm not 20 anymore (I'm 46), and I don't ride or exercise every day like those fitness-obsessed challenge riders seemed to do. Besides, I didn't get into this to compete, but rather to help raise money for a good cause and because, eventually, everyone has to do something to stay in shape. Looking at the planned route didn't help either. We were starting in Tiberias, then seemed to seek out every mountain along the way back to Jerusalem in order to climb it. Nor was the buildup before the ride limited to my own mind. During the ride, we spoke in awed tones about the planned climb up Mt. Tabor on the third day as if it was Mt. Everest. The truth is that none of this came close to what professional athletes, or those into extreme sports, do on a routine basis. If anything, poking around on the lower slopes of the mountain of fitness gave us an appreciation of just how superhuman the professionals are. Outside professional sports, we are implicitly taught that there is something crass about indulging our competitive impulses, which seem to represent the opposite of human equality and solidarity. Actually, I suspect that great athletes are driven not just to beat others, but are essentially competing against themselves. Nor is it just athletes; everyone needs a challenge. CHALLENGES, of course, need not be physical. But there are great advantages to physical challenges that I would recommend to anyone who has not experienced them. The first is that physical challenges are easily measurable, usually in tiny increments, so they are great for providing positive feedback. While learning a piece of music or a language might provide similar reenforcement, few endeavors lend themselves to showing improvements, however slight, immediately and consistently - and particularly toward the beginning of the process. People, particularly men, like gadgets, but that's not the only reason that so many riders measured themselves in so many ways. Just like tourists need pictures almost as much as they need the actual experience, we all needed to know how we did based on reams of data: heart rate, speed, distance, cadence (pedal revolutions per minute), gradients (of the hills), calories burned and even power output (measured in watts). All this sounds like overkill, particularly to those who don't want to spoil the fun with too much of a competitive atmosphere. But as I trained I found that the more data I had, the better I could measure progress of different types. Measuring heart rate, for example, is not really, as some imagine, the precaution of a hypochondriac but a way of directly monitoring whether you are working too hard or not enough at a given moment, and how you are becoming more fit (producing the same result with less effort) over time. SO HERE are some simple tips for beginners: * Find something you like doing. Though I normally like getting away from paved roads to experience the outdoors, for some reason a bike, for me, belongs on a road. Others swear by off-road biking. Running, for those whose knees can take the pounding, is great because you can do it almost anywhere, with minimal equipment and preparation - and usually in less time. Swimming, aerobics, spinning and games like tennis and basketball are great too. * Find a framework. Self-motivation is tough, especially in the beginning, as the treadmills gathering dust in so many homes will testify. If you take a regular class or have exercise partners, that will help greatly in making sure that you consistently carve out the time. * Ramp up the intensity. Walking and jogging are fine, but you can end up spending a lot of time without progressing much. If you are going to invest the time, better to press harder so you can see more impact. * Use a heart rate monitor. It acts like a coach, telling you when you've got more to give, urges you on, and guides you toward the most efficient zone for your goals (weight loss, cardiac capacity, etc.). * Enjoy the results. Your heart rate monitor will likely also give you an estimate of calories burned. You'll see that you can burn off a day's worth of food in a few hours of intense exercise. This means that you can either eat more and maintain the same weight, or lose weight while eating the same amount. What a treat! THE RIDE ENDED, after a dramatic climb into Jerusalem, at Alyn Hospital, where we were reminded that the privilege of a body that can exercise normally should not be taken for granted. Raz, a young boy almost killed in a car crash that killed his sister, started his way back by moving a single finger. Almost five years later, he is still on a breathing machine and paralyzed in the right half of his body. Raz doesn't have to invent challenges, and overcoming them involves incredible pain and effort. It is not easy to challenge yourself physically, professionally, or in your family life. Sometimes we have more challenges than we need, or at least it may seem that way. The advantage of tackling physical challenges, however, is that they help us contend with the other challenges we have, and can even inspire us to take on new ones. The main obstacle to taking on challenges, even more than inertia, is a fear of what seems unconquerable. Giving yourself a real but conquerable physical challenge might even give you the courage, confidence and energy to change other parts of your life as well. By the way, most of those challenge riders with the glazed looks came back to do it again this year. And I'm already looking forward to joining them next year, too. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11