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Fifteen Miles and a Killer Soundtrack

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Esther Bergdahl photo

I'm not usually the one who posts the stories about inspirational athletic moments. That's not really my thing. But records were made to be broken, so here's my own personal '80s training montage. It goes like this: I biked to and from work yesterday. That statement becomes a lot more interesting when I point out that I work in the Loop, but I live in Lincoln Square, almost seven and a half miles north.

A few weeks ago, JUF hosted a lunchtime information session with the Chicago Bicycling Ambassadors about bike safety and biking in the city. They got me all jazzed up to try commuting by bike, but I thought the best course would be taking a test run on a weekend, to time myself. Of course, who wants to go back to your office on a weekend? There are always other things to do. So I kept putting it off.

Until yesterday. On Tuesday night, we at the Center for Jewish Genetics ran a screening program in Northbrook, and I got home late. I had the opportunity to come to work a little later in the morning, and the weather was inexplicably pleasant and cool. I wasn't planning on biking to work… until I was. Why not? I thought. When else am I actually going to try it?

It seemed like the perfect plan: leave after rush hour traffic, go at my own pace, and stop if necessary. So what if it was the longest I'd ever biked in one go? So what if I hadn't been working up to that kind of distance? I knew that if I knew what I was in for, I'd chicken out. So off I went, still trying to figure out if my helmet was fitting correctly, feeling a little like an unsuspecting hobbit in a Tolkien adventure epic.

Chicago is, in this, blessed by its flatness; if I'd had to contend with actual topography, I might have gone no further than the nearest bus stop. But I chugged along—harder than I predicted, but I thought I made pretty good time. I did it in an hour, through some of our fair city's fairest neighborhoods, and was giddy (and thirsty) for most of the rest of the day.

Esther, Esther! you say. Where is your inspirational athletic moment? Please tell me this isn't a story about what you did for a shower or how you drank two quarts of water after you got to work. No, it's not. I promise I'm getting to the payoff!

The ride back was, in some ways, more revelatory than the ride downtown. Rush hour traffic wasn't as intimidating as I'd feared, and I began to understand why bicyclists feel so invincible in traffic—an easy, addictive trap to fall into. There's something fantastic about happening on a pack of fellow bikers at a stoplight and pulling up beside them as you wait, even if they all zoom past you without a second glance. They'll also helpfully point out that your back tire is nearly flat, which is why the going had been so tough on the first leg of the trip.

The emotional peak of my training montage came somewhere in River North. I'm naturally suspicious of sports: I was always in love with A League of Their Own and the slew of kids-on-teams movies that came out in the mid-'90s (The Sandlot, The Mighty Ducks, Rookie of the Year), but beyond two summers on a rec league softball team, gym was never my favorite thing, and I tended to write off athletic activities that weren't a means to some other end. Some of it was resentment that the arts at my high school never got the funding that our consistently losing football team did, but mostly it wasn't something that my family valued, so it never became something I sought out.

I knew why people loved them, though: from endless movies, TV shows, stories about Olympians and fitness articles, I heard all about the runner's high or the thrill of achievement or the pride of accomplishment. That's always been mostly abstract to me: I get those things from finishing a piece of writing I'm really proud of, or something else more intellectual than physical. But I felt it in River North, as soon as I realized I could see Merchandise Mart. I had done it. I wasn't tired anymore. I felt weightless, just on the verge of flying. I had done it! The cliché was true: I really wanted to pump my fist and crow, or spread both hands and glide over the river, magically avoiding colliding with a parked car or a pole.

We'll see if that happens again. I hope it does: I have every intention of biking to work more regularly now. I know better to check the whole bike before heading out—no more flat tires and loose helmets next time. Diving in feet first and discovering this experience turned out to be the right course of action. I feel totally inspired by athleticism again. Now comes the really hard part, which is—of course—choosing my theme song. Wish me luck, Oy!sters. (And I'd love to hear your suggestions!)

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