I first saw Usain Bolt run in 2003, although I didn’t really think of enough of it at the time to notice. I was 20, a junior in college, and Bolt ran the second leg for Jamaica’s William Knibb High School in the 4×100 at the Penn Relays. The team won the small schools division in a blistering 42.33, with Bolt—then the World Junior Champion in the 200 meters—grabbing a huge lead in the second leg.
That year, his only mention in The Philadelphia Inquirer was in a feature about volunteers who help coordinate food and travel for Jamaican athletes at the Relays. Still, Bolt had a good quote: “Jamaicans love their own. They do whatever they can to get their food. Jamaican is the best.” By the time Bolt returned in 2010, he was a worldwide superstar. He’d lowered the world record in the 100 meters three times in 2008 and 2009, hitting a 9.58 at the World Championships that second year. He held the 200 meter world record, too; both marks that still stand. That return was a party, and even though Jamaica beat the United States in the 4×100, I had a good time. (That there were plenty of bootleg Usain Bolt t-shirts helped, too; I even spotted one that said “Usian Bolt.” Different guy, but it’s an A for effort. An A-before-I for effort.)
Although he repeated his performances by frequently beating U.S. runners I was ostensibly rooting for many more times after those Relays, I became a fan of Bolt. He was good and had a cool name. He was charming in post-race interviews. He had a cute little victory pose. He didn’t sell poison milk to schoolchildren, as far as I knew. I liked him. I even ran in Pumas, his sneaker sponsor, for a bit. Bolt retired in 2017. Though I am sure he is still famous in Jamaica, he dropped off my radar once he stopped running in races I could watch. He now has three young children, including twin boys born recently. I don’t think I even knew he’d gotten COVID-19 until looking some things up today. He seems to have made a full recovery, and we can all feel good about that.
I hadn’t thought about him recently until I hopped on my house’s Peloton for a quick workout earlier this week. An ad popped up on the screen: At 1:30 p.m. ET on Thursday, Usain Bolt would be doing a Jamaican dancehall-music themed ride with one of their instructors. He wouldn’t be in studio, but you could track your progress against him on a leaderboard. I was not otherwise committed at that time, but more than that I was ready. I was going to race Usain Bolt, if only because I had nothing more urgent to do.
To go back: Yeah, my house has a Peloton now. I’d only thought about the in-home fitness device for the rich when I made fun of its founder, John Foley, for saying he drank water with his paw, like a cat, and did a test to see if his method was useful. (It was not.) But my wife has some friends with Peloton bikes. While their evangelism for the workout didn’t convince her, she did tell me they were both in fantastic shape—the best they’d ever looked, she said. Peer pressure is funny that way. It’s not the direct evangelism, it’s that smoking cigarettes just makes you look cool. Coincidentally, a carton of cigarettes now costs about as much as a Peloton.
I have struggled with my weight for much of my adult life. I was skinny as a kid, although I was a distance runner for most of my life before the age of 18. But even as a kid I knew my bad eating habits and my metabolism would eventually catch up with me. I started to get fat right around the age of 20. In my twenties I tried multiple workarounds—Ripped Fuel and other ephedra-laden pills; the Bronkaid/Caffeine/Aspirin stack when ephedra was banned; actual amphetamines—but obviously I continued to gain weight in spite of it. I even quit drinking and thought a side effect might be that I’d lose weight. Nope! It was a great decision for many reasons, but I didn’t lose weight. That was when I finally realized I would never reach skinny again. It’s hard, and it’s frustrating.
But also whatever. I’m still cute. And it’s being active that’s important, I think, and I’ve mostly stayed active. I still run. It comes and goes, but I have been a runner for much of my adult life. Even at my most lethargic as an adult I’ll run at least a few times a month. In early 2020, I was unemployed (for reasons you likely know) and confined mostly to my home (for reasons you definitely know). I ran a lot during that period; checking my calendar, my high water mark was June of last year when I ran on 28 days. Being active physically made me feel better mentally, even as I was an unemployed slug staring at the ceiling while a pandemic ravaged the country. I lost weight, which was nice, and I looked better and felt better. I like to posture, but I live in this world and I consume way too much media and I have body image issues. I care about that stuff. Everyone cares about it.
For much of my adult life, I have been an in-shape fat guy. I like exercising. I like trying new types of workouts. I sweat so darn much when I’m standing still, I might as well move around and get drenched in it. And I like doing this kind of stuff. I caught the winning touchdown in the 2014 Eagles media game, which was cool. Once I got a medal at a very small 5K. Another 5K I remember getting 25th in. These are not great athletic achievements, but they’re fun for me—I remember them!—and I am always stoked to try new ones.
So when my wife mentioned she might get a Peloton, I was all for it. I probably didn’t need that intro, really, because my excitement for the Peloton purchase really came down to this: I had a new toy I could play with, and I’d get to buy a new pair of shoes to go along with it. I didn’t even have to pay for it. My wife bought it! We were the elite now? (Actual headline from Forbes in May 2020: The Uber-Rich Are Buying Peloton Bikes While Gold’s Gym Goes Bankrupt: The Huge Gap Between The Wealthy And The Rest Of America During COVID-19.)
I’d actually been looking for things to do besides run recently. I had belonged to gyms in the past and used them with varying levels of success. The year I nearly made it back to 200 pounds I was working from 6am–2:30pm and then seeing a personal trainer three days a week, in addition to running. I love running, but I like doing more than just running. The problem is that the doing is hard for me. When I run, I zone out, striding while thinking about a story idea or what I wanted to do that day or nothing at all. I have been running my entire life. I know how to do it, and I don’t really like to focus while doing aerobic exercise. If I’m at a gym, I want to lift and then fiddle on my phone between sets. I don’t like to pay attention, but also I like to be able to say when it starts and stops.
Working out in a spin class, in contrast, demands a constant state of alertness. I have to listen to the instructor. I have to adjust the resistance and jump in and out of the saddle. I have to think about things other than the spare thoughts bouncing around my skull. At least with something like yoga, it’s slow—I can zone out when in downward dog. But having to think while I exercise doesn’t always work for me.
I’ve been testing my mental limits the last four months by boxing with a trainer twice a week. I don’t spar yet, but I have to listen to combinations and hit them before my mind wanders to wondering in the direction of what I’m going to get at Wawa after the gym. I have to remember how many punches I’ve thrown in a 50-punch set; that my trainer counts them out loud for me does not always help me remember if I need to stop or not. I really enjoy boxing—the chunky mental gruel of it is just as fun as hitting bags or mitts or bodies as hard as I can. I’ve only just started to figure out how to get into a groove in boxing when working out alone on the bags, but I’m there. I can even let my mind wander when jumping rope now. All of this may just be a matter of doing things until they become second nature, but that’s necessarily a process. The common thread is that you just have to keep doing it until you get it.
So, back to Peloton and Usain Bolt. This was my new toy, and despite the fact that I got that summer cold that’s been going around, the Usain Bolt ride was my ninth straight day. I’m not entirely sure what to think about it yet; the instructors are chipper and fun but, from what I’ve gathered from watching my wife do them, Bolt-style theme rides sometimes devolve into a listing of fun facts about a subject. (On a Megan Thee Stallion ride, the instructor also said “Wet Ass Peloton,” which I didn’t appreciate.) That said, I have enjoyed my classes so far. I like that there is an exercise bike in the room next to our bedroom. I don’t know how long I will continue doing spin classes in my house, but I hope it’s for a while. It’s not like I’m eager to start doing them anywhere else.
The Usain Bolt ride was hosted by Hannah Frankson, who teaches out of Peloton’s London studio. I had coincidentally done her 15-minute ride the day before, so I recognized her English accent and knew that I would have to pay extra attention to hear her. (This is also an issue with Love Island UK, another thing my wife introduced me to.) Frankson was once a competitive triple-jumper, and I liked the idea of a track person teaching me spin class.
My main goal in this class was, of course, to defeat Usain Bolt. I will spoil the back stretch of this post by telling you right now that didn’t happen. Peloton has a little “leaderboard” on the side of the screen where you can track your progress against others; this was a live class and there were 4,100 people competing alongside me. The technology also allowed you to filter the leaderboard so it just showed you and Usain Bolt.
You might be surprised to know that he absolutely destroyed me. Peloton gives you two numbers you can control: The resistance (how hard it is to pedal) and the cadence (how fast you go). This combines for an output, which is how hard you worked. Usain Bolt beat me, 435-311. I don’t really know what those numbers mean, other than that amber is the color of my energy. But it was fun! It was a stupid gimmick that got me to ride a spin bike at 1:30 in the afternoon, sweat through my shirt, and maybe feel a little better in the end.
Frankson was a charmingly goofy instructor—her comments on Usain Bolt were relevant, heartfelt, and I liked how we did 10-second sprints in honor of his 100 meter times—and the Jamaican dancehall music even included some songs I knew. My mind was loose enough to wonder, “How is the white guy who DJed the parties I loved when I was 22 in this Usain Bolt ride?” but I got back on track. I felt great when I finished.
He was great company on the ride and remains the fastest human I’ve ever seen, but I also hope Usain Bolt is OK. When I looked into what he’d been up to recently, I saw that earlier this week he’d run an 800 meters “going up against a CarMax customer who was getting an instant online offer for a vehicle on her phone while Bolt ran around the track.” The event sounded grim.
At the start of the race, Bolt appeared to be taking it easy, mostly trotting around the track and cruising through the 400m in about 74 seconds. Many assumed he would hit the gas in the last lap, or at least the last 200 metres, but to his fans’ disappointment, he maintained his easy gait for the entire race. While the live feed from his Facebook page did not show a clock, we clocked his unofficial finishing time at 2:40, three seconds behind the CarMax customer, who got her instant offer in 2:37.
Bolt did recently go on CNBC—another debasement in its way—and advised people to save $6 out of every $10 they earn. He said he wasn’t always good with money, but added: “I have to give credit to my team. They’ve really helped me to understand how to save.”
It seems like he doesn’t need the money. Maybe he just needed to get away from his three young kids for a bit? Maybe he just likes doing silly stunt stuff like this? Or maybe, like everyone else, he got on Peloton because he needed something to do, and because there was some vague and unresolved thing in him that he needed to work out.