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An Evening Ride on the C&O Canal, a Ride of Mindfulness

written by Thu Tran, MD,FACOG
on Sunday, 9th April ,2017

Are you bored with your exercise?  Do you find yourself not motivated enough to get to the gym?  To stay fit, are there activities that you would rather do than working out in a gym setting?  A recent Harvard health blog “Find Your Exercise Style,” addressed the issue of exercise modalities in different people.  In this blog, Madhuri Kale, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital advised people to change their exercise routine if they do not like it. Try different activities and find those that you like, she advised.  She cited the pros and cons of each activity to help her patients find what exercise suits them the most.

I love my gym’s Tuesday cycling classes, especially the one with Gina leading the session.  She is a tough and energetic spinning instructor who shouts and hollers at us cyclists as she herself spins vigorously on her bike.  The songs she chooses for her classes are loud and youthful, including the Irish dance tune at the end of some classes, the “coming home” song after 45 minutes of intense cycling on our bikes.  My legs are always sore, my body aches, but I know I burned quite a few calories that I needed to burn to accommodate some sweets I might have consumed earlier in the day in the office.  Besides, intense classes like Gina’s can boost my endorphin levels and keep me happy and energetic.  A New York Time’s blog recently reported a study from the Mayo Clinic showing how older people need intense “interval” training like cycling to help our mitochondria, the “powerhouse” in our cells, work more effectively.  Interval training, or short bursts of intense activities, have been found to be the best way to exercise as we age.

Last Tuesday, I decided to drive home and went for an evening ride with my husband.  The sky was too sunny for me to imagine cycling in a dark room with no window.  Part of me was yearning for the adrenaline rush through Gina’s class.  It’s early spring, and the wild flowers seem to change weekly.  What if I miss the Blue Bells this year? A whole day inside the office made me want to be outdoors.

We rode our bikes to the Swain Lock entrance, a short block from our house.  The traffic on River Rd always makes me nervous, as it does not die down until after 7pm.  We crossed River Rd and rode down the steep hill leading to the canal.  From there, we turned right and rode along the canal. 

I might never have an intense ride on the C&O canal, as the scenery is too stunning for me to ignore and keep my eyes on the path.  We spotted many wildlife and plant life including two turtles sunbathing on a log, all sorts of flowers and plants, and saw beautiful shadows and reflections on the canal and Potomac River.  It is a ride of mindfulness or a ride of conflict.  If mindfulness means to keep one’s eye in the same direction and not being distracted by other stimulants in the environment, then I have failed badly during the runs or rides on the C&O canal.  However, if mindfulness means one should absorb every element in the finite frame of life in front of her, then I have mastered the art of mindfulness.  I could hear the quiet rustling water through a little stream connecting the canal and the river as I passed by a small wooden bridge, while differentiating it from the softer sound of the wind against my face.  The constant humming sound of some insects and the birds calling out to each other reminded me how lively nature can be.  I saw the dead leaves on the side of the dirt path, from which clusters of phlox in different shades of purple had bloomed from a mild winter.  I thought I saw a violet phlox somewhere in a bed of lavender. Nature can be the greatest magician. 

As the sun was setting, my husband warned how our bikes did not have headlights and darkness was about to descend upon us.  Worse, we realized we were no longer alone on our bikes.  I could feel hundreds of tiny insects fluttering their wings against my face.  One landed somewhere in my throat while the other was almost in my right eye.  David kept telling me how he could see their tiny black bodies.  I wish he was not so descriptive!  Where were these insects on our way to the canal just an hour before?

I should have been wise like my husband who always wears sunglasses and warns me about potential eye damage by the sun.  The rapid speed of my spinning on the dirt path made it even more obvious that I was swamped by all the insects around me, as I could feel them colliding against my cheeks.  I used my left hand to shield my face while pedaling as quickly as I could.  I finally achieved the rapid speed in Gina’s class because of the insects.  When leaving the house, I was determined to have a ride of mindfulness, so I left my iPhone behind.  David became my reluctant photographer.  He confirmed how the Phlox were very beautiful, but asked how many more times we would need to stop to take more photos of purple Phlox?  

When David walked his bike uphill on the path leading to River Rd, as we often did because of its steepness, I decided to stay on my bike.  I knew my legs and my bike would not be able to keep up with such a steep hill if I rode it straight up.  Instead, I started riding my bike back and forth toward the sides, reducing the sharp angle of the hill and allowing me to bike all the way up.  It’s a reverse maneuver as a skier often has to stray laterally to get down a steep hill. 

I did not miss a good workout from Gina.  Instead, I witnessed again the beginning of spring and the order of our world, with one season following another.  I did not smell the sweat all around me in the dark gym room, or hear the loud music from a recorder.  Instead, I experienced the scents and sounds of multiple lives around me, those of nature.  You should leave your gym one evening and venture like us into nature.  Your gym will still be there when you come back, but the Phlox and the Blue Bells might not be there in a week or two, and you will have to wait for another three seasons before they come back.  They, like the rest of us, have their finite moments.  Your ride on the C&O canal is more than just a cardiovascular ride.  It’s also good for the soul.

Beware, however, of the lively insects.  It’s not a bad idea to bring your sun glasses at least for the way back, if you want to ride until the sunset.  Also, do not forget to bring a photographer, even when you want it to be a ride of mindfulness.  You may want to share with your friends all the beautiful things you had seen on the canal, as I did with the photos attached to this blog.






Tags: Bike Ride, C&O Canal bike ride

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