Exercising/Exorcising Your Demons

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Words by Mike Ferrentino | Images by Damian Breach
**This article first appeared in BIKE magazine in July 2012 and the writer and BIKE MAGAZINE have generously let Flow re-print it in support of Movember.**

 

Once upon a very long time ago, I would regularly quit work on Friday, drive a few hundred miles late at night, sleep in the dirt, wake up the next morning and pay a stranger somewhere around thirty dollars, pin a numbered piece of paper onto my jersey, line up with a few hundred of my closest enemies, and spend the next one to three hours in a state of agony. Afterward, I would have a rattle in my lungs, my legs would be jelly, my back knotted, and there would be some varying coexistence of sunburn and gravel rash vying for attention on the exposed parts of my flesh. The immediate pain would be quenched soon after the riding was done with beer and camaraderie, more sleeping in the dirt, and sometimes more bike riding or racing. It was pure catharsis. I would contentedly drive the long drive home, sleep the untroubled and dreamless sleep of the dead, and return to the working week refreshed and fully alive.

Somewhere back then, during an interrogation by concerned family members, I came up with the excuse that I was exercising my demons. I thought it was a pretty clever play on words at the time. I’d wager I was not the first to make that connection between exercising and exorcising.

It is with a mixture of rueful irony and whimsy for lost youth that I can look back at who I was then and realize that the kid didn’t have a clue about what his demons really were. But, to give my younger self some credit, I sure did put a lot of effort into running away from them. The one to three hour races were buttressed with a couple hundred miles a week of riding, which devolved into a couple hundred miles a week of self-flagellation aboard a one speed. The racing itself didn’t really get faster, but the distances grew – 50 milers, 100 milers, 24 hours. Several years later, about when the joyful shine and catharsis had somehow left my racing, and racing was leaving me feeling mostly beaten, my demons began to finally take on forms that I could identify. That was about the same time I stopped racing.

Exorcising one’s demons would be defined as the act of driving them away, of cleansing the body and spirit, getting rid of the damn things good and proper. That never happened. So, in a way, that initially glib pun had been more accurate. I was exercising my demons – taking them for a fast ride, stretching them out a bit, letting them feel the lash – after which they would fall asleep for a little while. Hence the feeling of catharsis. I notice this now with my dogs. If they don’t get a whole lot of time to run around and dig after gophers and bite each other in the face, they will turn to acts of destruction. Plants will be uprooted, kitchens raided, shoes chewed, cats chased, and most of the usually obedient and well-trained stuff goes right out the window. Before I got around to figuring out what my demons are, that is basically how I acted when I didn’t get to ride, only on a more of a fucked up human scale. Riding until I turned myself inside out was how I could get tired enough to not be a self destructive asshole.

I know my demons now. There are a few of them. I have a pretty good idea where they came from, how I built them, where they reside inside me, and what they are capable of. Knowing all that doesn’t stop me from reacting to them the same way I used to, but there is some comfort in knowing where the urge to be an asshole is coming from. And taking the demons for a ride is still one of the best ways to calm them. It takes about an hour to exercise any one of them sufficiently to get it to back down and stop messing with me. Most days, that’s about all I need. A good hour of cross-eyed pain, after which I can relax and enjoy the rest of the ride, or I can turn around and go home, and sleep easily. At the end of that hour, words will not have meaning anymore, and all my well reasoned arguments against myself will have been reduced to nothing, leaving a sweet temporary clarity. Every once in a while, there might be three of them at once (for the sake of definition, common repeat offenders in this case could be the “I hate my job” demon, the “I am lazy and stupid” demon, and the “ghost of ex-girlfriends” demon), all petitioning to derail me. Those days demand somewhat longer rides. An exercised demon is a healthy, content, well-rested demon, less likely to induce me to tear up the furniture or chew the toe-box off a Sidi.

Once or twice a month, depending on how noisy it is in my head or on the home front, I see a man and talk about my demons. He charges me $150 an hour. He listens without judgment, pushes me to describe my feelings with honesty and lucidity, and offers nuggets of advice that seem really straightforward and simple and the kind of things that we should probably all be able to figure out easily, except they’re not that simple and we don’t figure them out that easily. I never feel like the cost of those sessions is wasted, because I always come away from them with some new kernel of knowledge that I might not have otherwise figured out. So I generally leave with good thoughts percolating in my freshly lightened and shrunk head.

One of those thoughts, and it bubbles to the surface every single time I walk out his door into the late afternoon light, is this: I really would like to go for a ride right now.