Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Riding vs. Running


My history of running and riding bikes is rooted deeply in my childhood. Like all children, I enjoyed playing. As I've gotten older, I still have that love of playing but the games I play differ now. Instead of chasing lightning bugs around my back yard, I play chicken with cars on the road. I know we can never go back to those wonderful memories of childhood, but we can certainly reminisce about how innocent we all were.

Learning to Ride

My first bike accident occurred when I was in elementary school. I'm not sure how old I was exactly but I know I was old enough to know how to ride a bike but not quite experienced enough to ride with only one hand on the handlebar. I was practicing that "expert" skill in my neighborhood, going down a gradual hill. With a curve. As a novice one-handed rider, I wasn't aware that curves would pose a problem. I became acutely aware of this fact when I steered too hard and flipped over the front of my bike. After I regained consciousness, the story my dad tells me is that he heard me scream at our house. I was only a tenth of a mile away, so that's feasible. But he also says he was cutting the grass when he heard me. I'm not sure I screamed loud enough for him to hear me over the lawn mower, but I have to take his word for it. I don't really remember much. I remember the bike sitting on top of me. I remember my legs were tangled in the peddles and the frame. I remember my head hurt. I remember my dad was there in what felt like an instant. I remember my dad taking me home and worrying over me while trying to finish the yard work. I remember him checking on me repeatedly to make sure I didn't fall asleep.

My last bike accident was about eight years ago. I had gotten my bike out of storage and began riding it around my front yard. My daughter, still an infant, was in her playpen while my wife was doing something outside. I was riding around like a hot shot, attempted to a high-speed slide, hit the front brakes instead, and nearly flipped myself into the playpen with my daughter. Thankfully only my ego got bruised that day. I only have mild flare-ups when my wife reminds me not to be an idiot on my bike.

I've had other run-ins in the past on my bike. Many are too boring or too vague to recount in any detail. One that does stick out is the time I was nearly run over when I was racing my dad in his car. I was racing my dad back to his mother's house in a tiny town in central Nebraska when I crossed through an intersection. I was so excited that I beat my dad until I got a serious scolding about stopping at stop signs and that I was nearly run over by a car going through the intersection. He told me if he hadn't run the stop sign, I wouldn't have made it.

Despite these harrowing tales of my misadventures on two wheels, I've also had some wonderful ones. My favorites are exploring new areas as if I were some sort of modern version of Lewis or Clark. When I was old enough I could ride to other neighborhoods. Or ride around the Boy Scout Jamboree. Or, my favorite, ride down the road, trespass, and discover an abandoned cabin in the woods. A cabin I would love to go back to some day but I now fear it's used by local meth dealers or pot farmers. Or maybe a serial killer. But most likely it's home to my arch-enemy, the snake. Clearly I won't be going back soon.

Loving to Run

When it comes to running, I don't really remember my first fall. Or my second. I'm not even sure I can remember my last fall. I've had quite a few "good" falls since I've picked up trail running as an adult, but again, none that are really worth mentioning. They usually involve me tripping, falling, and looking like a complete doofus. Thankfully I've never been hurt too badly to require my father to hover over me like a nurse. Although, now that I think about it, as a toddler I did nearly lose my earlobe to a sharp corner shelf. I guess even as a baby I was prone to accidents.

My running "career" has recently been reborn. Like all things in life, I'm discovering that life really can be a circle. My first foray into moving quickly over a distance further than the nearest bathroom was again in elementary school. I played basketball for the local recreation department and, other than one single play, hated it. I moved to soccer which I enjoyed for years. I was never talented enough to be the best but I was capable at keeping up with the other average players. My love of soccer ebbed and flowed like all things do with a kid but I stuck with it until high school. I played for a year and hated it. Everyone on the team was much better than I was and they were also older. Factor in my social awkwardness and a strong dislike for my coach and I was done after my freshman year.

Thankfully I had a math teacher that was, well, a dwarf. Seriously, he was. Think of a dwarf from Lord of the Rings, make him a little taller, a little thinner, and with a shorter beard. That was my math teacher. Turns out he was also the cross country coach for the high school. And thus began my love of running. My serious love of running. A love that would ebb and flow like my desire to play soccer, but take note. I never loved soccer. In fact, I've never really loved any sport except for cross country. It is truly unique in that you run for yourself as well as your team. It is both an individual sport and a team sport.

Like most athletic endeavors I attempted, I was an average runner in high school. Our school ran a 5 kilometer (3.1 mile) course about once a week and I'd typically place in the middle of our small team. We had a few runners that would place under 18 minutes and even a few girls that would place under 20 minutes. I never went below 21 minutes. But I enjoyed myself. Our team was an eclectic group of popular kids, head bangers, and snobby girls. Some of us were fast, some were slow, but most were average.

It would take me decades to realize that despite how average I was, I was unique on that team. We all came with our own problems, our own demons and running helped us deal with and defeat them. So even though I was teased because I got lost on our home course just because I was following a cute exchange student, I was still treated like family. Years later, after suffering through new demons and new baggage, I would eventually take up running again.

At first I was doing it for the free therapy. But after a few trips to various doctors, it quickly became a way to stay healthy while I cleared my head. In 2008 I entered my first race after getting back into my shoes and placed in my age group. I got a trophy. I was hooked. After a few years of making a fool of myself, I began to take running a little more seriously. I studied the sport, I found ways to improve my times and myself, and best of all, I fell in love with the ultramarathon.

I completed my first ultra on a wing and a prayer. Or spit and bailing twine. I somehow survived the punishing course and my innermost demons and came out the other side a better person. That same process would occur over and over again. Like an expert blacksmith or sword maker, I'd continue to put myself in the fire of an ultra, get hammered, and become stronger and sharper.

Beginning To Rant

You may be wondering right about now what in the world the point of this history lesson may be. Well, it's a bit of a rant on how runners and riders (or cyclists if you prefer) are treated on the road. As I've taken up more running, I've also taken up more riding. Specifically, I bought a new bike and didn't want to waste the money replacing my old one so I decided to save gas money and ride my bike for a coffee. Plus it made me feel better about getting a calorie-laden iced latte with caramel-vanilla flavor and skim milk. The bottom line is, I'm on the road more on two wheels this year than I have been in the past ten. Maybe twenty.

What I've noticed is that most drivers are completely oblivious to you, regardless of you being on two feet or two wheels. I learned years ago as I took up running again that the brighter the clothes were, the less likely you were to get run over. And while people, including fellow runners, typically chuckle at my outfits, I think the joke is on them. I may look like a roll of Lifesavers on crack but I'll be damned if the asshole that runs me over is going to have a valid excuse for not seeing me. My general rule of thumb is, if you can't see me, then you're blind and shouldn't be driving.

I've carried that same rule into my riding habits this year but they've done little to help. No, I haven't been run over or hit, but the close calls are incredibly more common. As a runner, I typically move at about a 12 minute per mile pace. That's roughly five miles per hour (5 mph). As a rider, I move at about twelve miles per hour (12 mph). Regardless of how I move, I'm always going to go slower than the slowest car on the road. This means that any impact is going to hurt. And if I'm lucky, I'll feel that pain. If I'm not lucky, my life will end before my brain registers that it went through a glass windshield.

As a runner, I feel directly connected to the road I'm running on. It doesn't matter if it's paved or gravel, I feel like I'm one with the environment around me. I don't run with headphones in anymore and when I do listen to music, it's on my phone and through the speakers, not headphones. I want to hear that car coming in front or behind before I see it. When I ride, I don't feel as connected with the world around me and I don't listen to any music. I've tried. But it just doesn't work. Turns out that when you go above a certain speed, the wind makes too much noise going through the hair in your ears. So I have to compensate my loss of hearing with my sight. This means I'm spending half my time looking in the tiny, dentist-like mirror attached to my helmet to see what's behind me. My eyes get tired and I frequently cringe, but it has helped.

The road I live on now had no yellow line until this year. It still has no white line on the edges and still barely holds two cars going by in opposite directions. The speed limit is 45 mph and it connects two major roads in the county. Those roads have all the lines they need and the speed limit is 55 mph. Not to mention the increase in traffic seen by major roads. I've run and ridden on all of these roads, plus the ones in between. Paved and gravel, slow and fast, busy and deserted, I've done it all. They're all the same in how they treat runners and riders.

Maybe a Conclusion

As with any unscientific analysis, there's a large margin for error. Plus there's always an exception. So what I have to say can't really be considered scientific or even objective. It's simply my opinion based on the patterns I've seen in my experiences running and riding in the area I live in.


What I've learned is that when you run on the road, roughly 60% to 80% of drivers will wave to you. The more rural the road and the slower the speed limit, the greater the percentage of waving. When the speed limit is 55 mph, I get 10% of drivers to wave. When the speed limit is 25 mph, I get nearly 100% of drivers to wave. School bus drivers wave 95% of the time, regardless of the speed limit. The biggest exception to this percentage I noticed was after the Boston Marathon bombings when everyone waved at me when I ran for the next two weeks. It felt nice but it also felt like they were fair-weather friends.

When I ride, roughly 10% to 20% of drivers wave to you. As with running, the more rural or the slower the speed limit the higher the percentage. Same goes for bus drivers. I think I know why the percentages are so skewed but you'll need to wait a bit for that.


As I've already said, I wear bright colors when I run and when I ride. I'm also constantly looking for a place to bail out should the need arise. Even when I run, I've hopped into the ditch, or even over it, to remove myself from what could or would be a dangerous scenario. This could mean I'm directly in danger or it could mean that I would be placing the drivers in danger. Usually this happens when I'm running and two cars approach in both directions and based on their trajectory would pass each other right where I happen to be. By removing myself from the road and the general area, they no longer need to worry about me and can simply go on their way. I'm also hesitant and extra cautious around blind curves. I generally use my ears to listen for cars but sometimes look for headlights if I'm running at night. If I do run at night, I wear a headlamp and enough flashing lights to look like a low flying airplane attached to a helicopter.

I do not ride at night. Mostly because my bike does not have a headlight or taillight as required by law. I do follow the same general rules for safety though but take things a bit to the extreme as well. When crossing lanes of traffic I look about eight times instead of the usual three or four. I also wear a helmet, though not required by law. I have a brain and I choose to use it. Not wearing a helmet is just plain stupid. As stated before, I do have a rear view mirror on my helmet to help me see the traffic coming behind me. As with running, I'll follow my instincts and leave the roadway if I feel I am in danger or if the drivers around me would be in danger.


The legal rules for runners, or pedestrians if you like, and cyclists differ by country, state, and even locality. For me, the rules of Virginia and common sense apply. When I run, I stay on the left side of the road. As in, I run against traffic. There are times when I run on the right side of the road or even on a sidewalk, but generally I stick to the left side of the road.

When I ride, I ride as far right as I can. This usually means that thin ribbon of pavement that's between the white line and the grass but sometimes it means I'm taking up half a lane of traffic because the road is so narrow. As required by common sense and the Commonwealth of Virginia, I follow all traffic rules as if I were a motorized vehicle. This means I stop at stop signs, wait to cross through traffic, and signal my turns. Okay, I'm not always signalling my turn but I don't always signal when I drive either. At least I'm trying to follow the rules.


This is where things get tough. I'm a driver. Have been since I was 15 and 8 months. My first experience driving was in my driveway and an empty parking lot. My first real taste of driving though was in the middle of Texas on Interstate 10. I've learned a lot and do my best to not be a dumb ass, an asshole, or just plain stupid. Like most people, it took time for me to get there.

What makes this hard is that I've learned that when I run, most drivers are pretty nice. Even when I'm running without a shirt and my chest hair is matted, my ass smells like, well, ass, and my shorts are so tight you can see how I've shrunk from prunes to grapes. Even when I'm looking like death warmed over, drivers treat me quite well. I've had a few odd encounters where people slow down and stare at me funny, but looks don't really bother me anymore. They used to, but once I decided I was brave enough to run shirtless, they funny looks slide right off my hairy back.

I know that didn't sound like it was hard but it is. Because when I ride, most drivers are complete assholes. Why not dicks? Because while many of them are dicks, nearly all are assholes with dicks inside. Yes, there are exceptions. There are drivers that actually follow the laws and wait until it's safe to pass me. There are drivers that wave to me or, even better, give me a friendly honk. Sounds funny, but I do believe I can tell the difference between a "have a nice day" honk and a "go fuck yourself" honk. The bottom line is, as a cyclist, I have to treat every single car out there like it's going to run me over and not even care.

As a driver, and this is harder still, I've learned that I'm one of those assholes. All too often I find myself flying down some back country road and I suddenly need to stand on the brake to avoid a cyclist. I've become more aware of this since I've started riding but it's still a work in progress. I don't want to be an asshole. I'm not sure I could face my peers, be they runners or riders, if I hit somebody riding a bike. Oddly enough, I don't really worry about hitting a runner.

The End, Really

So where does this leave me? Educated. Like growing up with allergies and having kids with allergies, an education can save a life. My daughter recently showed her classmates her new talking Epi-Pen. Many of them, even though they're all nearly ten, were afraid of it. Seriously afraid of it. But I was so proud of her for sharing with them a vital part of her life. She was the brave one to get up and tell them that if she has nuts, she could die without this shot. She's not even ten and she's changing lives.

I hope I can change your life by giving you this essay as an education. I won't presume to be brave in sharing my story. If I feel brave about anything, it's sharing the road with drivers that shouldn't really be out there. Drivers that are assholes. Drivers that aren't assholes. Drivers like you and I that may be listening to the radio, talking to their kid, or daydreaming about winning the lottery. As a driver myself, I have to constantly force myself to think like a runner and a rider to keep from making a fatal mistake. It's a constant battle that I don't win very often. As a runner and a rider, I have to constantly think that the next car that passes me could be my last. A simple sneeze or bump in the road and I could be gone.

We're all people out there. Think about your parents, siblings, or children. Friends, family, or co-workers. Surely you know of one that runs. Or one that rides a bike. Take a moment or two and ask them what it's really like out there on the road. Ask them what they've seen, heard, or experienced themselves. Ask them if I'm wrong. Sadly, I bet I'm not.

Further Reading:
Virginia State Bike Laws - http://www.virginiadot.org/programs/bk-laws.asp
Cyclists Reflect on Sharing Spaces with Drivers - http://wydaily.com/2013/09/17/cyclists-motorists-often-occupy-same-spaces/

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