It’s 6:43 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I’m half-awake and hazy as I walk into class.
I didn’t want to come here today. My bed was warm. My pajamas were soft.
But Trisha is saving me a bike. I don’t want to leave her hanging.
So here I am.
The studio at Sarah Fechter Fitness is bathed in red and blue lights this morning, looking more dance club than gym. Shadows blanket the silver Spin bikes. They’re gathered in a gleaming group like a herd of stallions. Pop music plays…something familiar but not exactly memorable… with a sturdy, thick beat.
I feel antsy as I anticipate the difficult and discomfort that awaits me. But that’s working out, I guess. I adjust my white cotton headband—a strategic dam for my forehead sweat—and head toward the front of the class.
People are already on their bikes, turning pedals and swigging water. Some are wearing maize and blue. Others are wearing green and white. I’m wearing neon pants and a purple tank top. The same color as Barney the Dinosaur. I got it for $5 at Old Navy a million years ago.
Oh yeah, I remember. The game is today. THE Game. Michigan vs. Michigan State. Mom has moved from slot machines to sports bets, just waiting for the day when she’s finally won her millions.
“Who would you bet on?” my mom asked my brother last week over sirloin and fried onions at Outback Steakhouse. Ryan shrugged.
“I just don’t know,” she continued. “They say Michigan is supposed to win, but then again, Michigan State always comes back, so…” She twisted her mouth to the side. Her thinking face.
Now, the soft hum of the spinning wheels fills the room. I wonder which team Mom picked to prevail.
“Hey Trisha,” I say as I walk up to the bike in the front row, one off from dead center. “This bike mine?”
“Yep, I saved it for you,” she smiled, adjusting her bike to the left of mine. She’s more hardcore than me. She’s got special cycling shoes and two water bottles.
“Thanks.” I clutch on to my water bottle from Meijer. The cheap plastic crunches beneath my grip.
I look down at the shiny wooden floor. Trisha has set down her tennis shoes on one of the studio’s black foam mats. The words “PERFORM BETTER!” are branded in white letters. The “O” in “PERFORM” is a smiley face.
I sit down on the bike and settle in. The class is full now. I turn the pedals, joining the chorus of caloric burning.
The music stops. Janelle stands in front of me on the small, square stage. Janelle’s bike sits stoic behind her, lone and looming over the room. Waiting.
“Welcome to Saturday Spin, friends!” she bellows. She’s tall and lean, her long brown hair slicked back into a sleek ponytail.
Janelle is an elementary school teacher. You can tell. She commands a room with kindness and authority, her voice ringing clear as a bell. “I’ve got to ask: Who’s cheering for Michigan?” Some cyclists cheer. “And who’s cheering for Michigan State?” More cheers. She grins.
“OK, we’ve got a great ride for you today,” she tells us as she plugs in an iPod to the outlet in the wall. Music pulses over our heads. “Great playlist, great class. Let’s get going.” She hops on the bike and begins to pedal.
Suddenly, the class takes on a focused seriousness that reminds me of church. Janelle stands tall over us like a pastor. The bikes are in line like pews. We follow her every move.
My enemy comes in the form of a small, red knob on the bike. It looks gray under the red and blue lights. The actual name of the thing is the Resistance Knob. Yeah. RESISTANCE Knob. A turn to the right adds tension by adding weight to the wheel. A turn to the left lightens the load. You determine the difficulty.
“Add,” Janelle orders. We turn our knobs. We spin our wheels. The ride gets harder, mimicking an upward climb on a hill. The song switches.
“I’m sweating like a man up here,” Janelle jokes. Um, same. The red light catches the gleam on her face.
“Now I want you to add resistance,” she coaches. “Add enough tension to stand tall.”
I turn my knob to the right. My cadence slows under the new weight. “Now stand up in the saddle,” Janelle instructs. “Don’t fly off.”
I stand up from the bike seat, my knees bouncing like bobbers in the water. My mind wanders. Enough tension to stand tall. Sweat pours down my back. I’m still bobbin’, still standin’, until Janelle tells us to sit back down.
“Take some tension off, grab a towel, get a drink.” I guzzle from my cheap water bottle, gulp oxygen into my lungs, turn that wheel with quiet desperation.
The hollowed, intergalactic sounds of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” begins.
“Okay, we are going to do a strength climb,” Janelle instructs. Her wheels are turning. “It’s going to get heavy.”
Michael wails in his high-pitched voice. “Now, add, add, add, ADD,” Janelle chants. “Now go.”
The song plays. My legs burn. The wheel slows. The mind games begin as my body wails. All it takes is one turn for me to end this misery, to ease up, to let off. To make it, you know, not so damn hard.
But then Janelle chimes in, as if she’s reading my thoughts.
“Come on,” she urges, pulling her fingers toward her palms in a “gimme more” gesture. “Don’t fall off, come with me.” She looks into our faces. I bite my lip.
“You’re uncomfortable,” she says to the class matter-of-factly, “not dead. You’re not going to die.” She continues cycling. “Mind over muscle.”
And I realize Janelle is right.
This is supposed to be uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s hard as the resistance gets turned up, it’s hard as my legs turn from fire to jelly, it’s hard as the sweat seeps into my eyes and Michael Jackson keeps singing, and THIS SONG IS SERIOUSLY THE LONGEST SONG EVER. WHO THE HECK IS DIRTY DIANA ANYWAY?
It’s all hard.
But just as quickly as the difficult comes?
The song ends. The weight is lifted.
“Great job,” Janelle boasts. “Way to finish strong.”
As I wipe sweat from my eyebrow, I think about what Janelle said back at the beginning of class…how we need to add enough tension so we can stand tall. If you don’t have enough tension, you’ll lose control of the wheel. You feel like you’re going to spin right off the bike.
Maybe that’s how life works.
We need the tension in order to stand tall. To rise above. To see where we stand. To maintain control. It’s uncomfortable. It hurts. It’s not fun.
But it’s necessary.
Last week, I visited my friend Cassie after work. She has the cutest 8-month baby boy in the world, and he isn’t a big fan of getting ready for bed. He cries as she lovingly changes him out of his clothes and into his jammies. He shakes his head no. He wants to stay awake and take in the world.
“How do you deal with the crying?” I ask. “Like when it gets really bad?”
She shrugged. “The crying stops eventually.”
Now, Janelle slows her pedals. “Great class today,” she nods as we clap.
I turn the knob to the left. The tension is gone. I sit still. I stretch. I remember Cassie, and her son, and how lovingly she looked at him, read him a story, counted to ten and tickled his toes. He gives the biggest grin and the best giggle, cracking open us all with joy.
The crying stops eventually.
It all stops eventually.
Nothing lasts forever. Including the pain.
Especially the pain.
It’s easy to forgot that in the dark holes of life—in the drippy tears and caked sweat and dirty dishes and missed opportunities and guilt-ridden mistakes— we find who we are. We design—or redesign—our lives. We get angry, we forgive, we let go. It’s a constant turn on the Resistance Knob.
We get off the bike.
Back on again.
And move forward.