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Bike Privilege: A Runners Parable

By Queen Sheba

It is rude to startle someone out of their sleep. Most people would get clobbered for it–and recently, a woman, almost did.

Training for your first marathon (or your 50th)   is hard enough. No matter how many groups you run with or how much advice you solicited—running is a self-motivated sport.  If you have any sort of life or a demanding work schedule – when your mileage starts to increase, the more discipline you have to garner to stay on track. Someone once said,  “It’s not the race that is the task, it’s showing up to the starting line, injury free,”.

I chose a winter training program to prepare for my first marathon because it fit my schedule, and  I was tired of putting off joining in the 1% club—the small group of runners who have completed a marathon. I had relocated permanently back to Atlanta from splitting a dual residency in Charlotte, NC, and had recently hit a milestone birthday, found new love, landed a position in my career field that had flexibility and growth. I had experienced an overwhelming number of positives and decided to add the Publix Marathon to my running resume, because… Why not?

It was a Tuesday morning and my training schedule said I should run 9 miles. I ate my rye toast and honey, took my vitamin regime: 2 B-12s, a multi-vitamin, D for bones, Biotin for hair, skin & nails, chondroiton for my joints and knees that have aged way before I have, downed a Gatorade and took a shower. (I like to be as clean as possible for a run. It warms up my muscles and wakes me up.)

After my shower came what I like to call, the ‘Lather Up’ routine—or risk coming back with less skin than you started. I squirted out a dime size of Biofreeze for the knees, Tiger Balm for the calves, cocoa butter and/or body glide and/or Aquaphor for the chaffing areas. It sometimes feels like the prep-time is longer than the run, itself. Anything over six miles is a long run for me.

I was almost ready. I checked the weather on my iPhone (Atlanta, cold and clear. Extremely clear. The sun was shining a 45 degree midmorning). Good. Only one layer of clothes and my favorite South African beanie to keep my ear-buds in place.

10 leg swings sideways. Right leg. 10 leg swings – sideways. Left leg. 10 leg swings pangolin. Right leg. 10 leg swings pangolin. Left leg. Bring up the Nije app. Choose my Power Play List. Pull my beanie over my earbuds. Nine miles. Here we go. Finally. 3…2…the NIKE app counts down – my anticipation builds as if I am paralyzed until the 1 comes across and disappears from my screen and the animated voice releases me to run. 1… ‘Beginning workout’. I always feel behind the buzzer.

I have the nine-mile route memorized from my three previous races and training programs. Nine miles from the corner of Edgewood & Boulevard in Old Fourth Ward, east up past Cabbage Town, past Thumbs Up, past new boutiques, the second City of Ink – the Atlanta famous tattoo shop to countless celebrities and local heroes, past a huge church with a brass bell in a brick tower that chimes, without fail, on the hour, past a MARTA station I couldn’t name if my life depended on it because I’ve only taken MARTA twice in my tenure in Atlanta. A right on Euclid, down hill with Grant park unfolding on my left, up the hill through Little Five Points, Horizon Theatre and WRFG standing strong for more than 30+ years on my right. 2 miles. Starbucks, Freedom Parkway, up to the light on Ponce De Leon. 3 miles. Right on Ponce, down half a mile, up half a mile by the Fernbank. 4 miles. Rest and stretch at the light, turn around and retrace my steps back to my house.

I feel fine even though I’m barely breaking nine minutes-a-mile. I start to pick up speed and feel like I’m whizzing back through Little Five Points. People are awake, now. Homeless people, and their dogs, singing along with a boom-box in the square; I make eye contact with them all. It lets us know we are both alive. We are present and we matter.

I stop at the Starbucks in Little Five, ask for water. I never run at the same time, of day so there is always the anxiety of the resistance of the barista when I ask for water. I’ve come to feel like it’s a waste of plastic and since I’m socially conscious – I stopped asking for one and just cup my hands under the faucet in the bathroom.

On the way out of Starbucks I notice, the homeless man posted in the chair by the door: computer open, but not on, or plugged in, eyeballing me on my way out—giving me that questioning look. Wondering if I’m going to snitch on him. Nope.

I unpause my NIKE app, check the time—an hour before I have to be to work and 3.5 miles to go. I feel fine. Out of the coffee shop, flat, then downhill, then up past the park, MARTA station, church and another downhill.

I’m starting to notice my mileage won’t add up to nine by the time I reach the front of my security gate. I have to adjust my route on the fly. I’m feeling good and averaging 8:30 a mile. I’m not a fast runner. I know this. I am well aware the winner of the marathon will be home, counting their purse, soaking in Epsom Salt hours before I cross the finish. I am comfortable with this.

Crossing Krog street marks what, normally, would be my last mile to deliver me to my own doorstep. Not today. The downhill on Edgewood is always a relief. A reward to my muscles pushing past their comfort. A ‘Thank You’ to a job well done.

“Only four laps.” I say out loud to no one in particular.

The relief starts by Sound Table and The Department Store – two popular nightclubs making their mark in the Atlanta independent music scene. Lately, on seven out of ten days, you’re likely to run into a few film crew and end up an extra in the TV show Power or Fast and Furious 17.

By now I was in what is known as ‘The Zone’ or ‘Runners High’. I don’t even feel my feet on the ground. I steal energy from the onlookers of cars passing by. I imagine they are trying to guess my distance, or my pace because I always do it. Every time I see a runner, I assess their form, the amount of sweat beading on their brow, their level of effort and fatigue to guess how far and fast they are going. I’m naturally competitive, even when I’m not competing.

By then I became aware I was at the bottom of my beloved hill and I needed one more mile. I wasn’t particularly tired but I was ready for the run to be over. I had never mapped out a 9 mile route from my house and I’was making this one up on-the-fly. It was my personal Tour De Atlanta.

I cleared the underpass and crossed 4 lanes of traffic and made a left on the next street. Grady hospital and McDonald’s were on my left. I was relieved to clear the last hill for the day but reminded myself hills would pop up every single mile of this marathon so I had better settle in and get used to it.

One step at a time, I passed the mouth of the hospital and caught eyes of a woman with a cigarette bouncing off her lips while she squawked on a cell phone, “Stop smoking!”, I blurted out at her. I smiled but meant it.

“I know, baby,” she replied.  “I need to do what you’ doin’. ” Everybody always says that. Some, in secret (or in the light) actually do.

I made a left on Decatur St. and Georgia State University surrounded me. A few students were making a beeline to class, so I hopped in the bike lane. I thought nothing of it except  I’ll be home in .75 miles…I’ll probably have to run past my start to my stop sign and back. I picked up the speed, slightly, again.

My ear-buds were blaring successive, random artist—from the insulting, objectifying lyrics of hip-hop to Adele’s songs about being so much of a loser she can’t keep a man. I thought, Get it together, Adele – you’re a billionaire – make them bow to you. (I’m not saying I don’t love her songs. I’m just saying I can only take so much low self-esteem while trying to convince myself to find new challenges), and this battle of the bands happens in my ears every run.

As I approached my last half-mile in the bike lane, I saw a cyclist approaching and I politely moved as far as I could to my right; teetering towards the edge of the traffic line. As my memory serves me, there was no traffic to threaten me on this day.

What I do remember happening, next, woke me the fuck up (I’m not going to ask for forgiveness for my language. I don’t typically curse in my writing, but it happened). Just. Like. That. I woke THEE fuck up.

For whatever reason, I didn’t look her in the eyes as I had all my previous passers-by. I knew she was there and I gave her enough space to pass effortlessly, and safely.

This didn’t happen, though. The effortlessly part, anyway.

Have you ever been at a party and someone says your name in a sea of murmuring and you hear it clear as day? It was kinda-sorta- something like that.

All I know is, a woman wearing regular street clothes (not cycling gear) on a bike—a cruiser at that (the kind of bike where the handle bars are right below your chin) started spewing something vicious at me. And angry!

I turned around and stopped. Dead stopped. With less than half-a-mile to go on my made-up last mile of this niner route that had taken all of my self-motivation and concentration (did I mention I’m not a morning person?). I turned to survey her entire existence. A skirt. Black. An oversized hat. Boots.

She looked like a Puritan.

She was yelling, “Get out of the street! Get out of the street! GET ON THE SIDEWALK…YOU HAVE THE ENTIRE SIDEWALK!”

What? Bitch have you lost your mind?! I didn’t say ‘Bitch’ because I’m a woman and she’s a woman but I did say, “Move the #$&* out of my way! You get on the #$*@! Sidewalk! There’s enough room for both of us!”

She had stopped by this time, and had propped one foot up on her bike like she was in a Captain Morgan’s commercial, yelling from about 10 short feet away. I started to walk towards her. Ripping K Camp’s misogynistic hip hop lyrics from my ears (maybe if it was Adele, I would have been calmer. Probably not). I was totally startled out of my “sleep”. Yanked out of my zone. Pushed out of my meditation by wailing horns at the end of this stranger’s lungs.

Was it really that serious? Was she really that serious? Why did it mean that much to her? Was it just a matter of control? Is she an A-type personality that needed to boss someone around?

I kept replaying the entire .17 second instance in my head. Did I touch her by mistake? Did she have enough room to get by? Did she almost fall and just needed someone to blame? Why was she taking ownership and/or entitlement over this bike path?

When I started to approach her, (I really had no intension other than to see what hers were and  why she was so angry). Her level of hostility seemed extremely escalated for this situation. Did she yell at all the runners on the bike path? I’m sure I’m not the only runner in all of Atlanta who runs on the bike path. Just as I started walking towards her, she hopped her Captain Morgan’s leg down and peddled off.

I thought so, bitch.

I was pumped, and ran my last half mile in one-and-a-half minutes. Not really, but I was angry. And curious.

I like to be in the know. If I’m going to be spewing out profanities at cyclists who challenge my running in the “bike” path, I want to know if I’m in the wrong. If I am – I won’t run in the bike path any more. Actually. I probably will but, I’ll make sure to get out of the way when I see a cyclist. The bike paths are better than the sidewalks. In some neighborhoods, there are pot holes on the side walks as big as the ones in the streets. The bike path is even, new and clearly marked. I feel safer on the bike path. I don’t fear twisting my ankle or getting clothes-lined by a low hanging tree. Since I am typically, training for a road race – I like the feel of the road.

I would also like to note that this was the first time that has happened to me. Ever. Most cyclist share the path and keep it moving. Literally.

I want to honestly say that for some reason I thought and maybe just assumed that the “bike” path was for everyone. It’s mostly on the Greenways around Atlanta and I though it was for walking, cycling, and running.

Maybe I was wrong.

So I decided to ask my friend who is a genius and knows everything. I call him Google.

I find out the city has started to connect over 22 miles of greenways and bike paths and they are funded privately by some corporations like Bank of America and McDonalds and by city funding. Even a small percentage of our Georgia license plates contribute to the greenway developments, in Atlanta.

According to www.advocacyadvance.org:

“There’s no single go-to funding source for protected bikeways. Within a given community – or even within a single project – several sources will often be used. The choice depends on the availability of particular funds, the nature of the projects, and expediency.”

For the cyclists who still want to argue that these paths were made with taxpayer and privatized monies as a “protected” bike lane you may get your spandex in a bunch when you find out there is a proposal to have all cyclists register their bikes and pay an annual registration tax, much like a car’s license plates.

Still don’t want to share the road? Either you’re a “vehicle” and your vehicle should be registered to the city/state to help pay for your newly green-bricked road, or you’re not a vehicle and you politely share the space. Which would you prefer?

There were pages, upon hundreds of pages of information on the beltline and the bike paths. Who started it. What stage of development Atlanta is in, how it’s affecting housing, rent along these pathways and creating jobs; which companies have paid how much, which are private and which are corporate and how much the city of Atlanta has allocated and over what time period. Who’s in charge of the planning over the next several years, the construction team(s) and the managers. There is a ton of information out there. I encourage you all to rev up your search engines.

Atlanta is taking on an initiative that several other cities around the country started decades ago. I’m no city planner and don’t want to pretend to be an expert on the subject although, after spending quite a few days reading, I could probably jump in the conversation and contribute intelligently.

The thing that stood out to me most, after finding out how this growing project is being funded is this: “The Atlanta BeltLine has the potential to not only achieve physical connectivity among Atlanta’s neighborhoods, which is a significant accomplishment in itself, but to also break down economic and cultural barriers.” www.beltline.org

Looks like the beltline and bike route is for all people, so let’s make room for everyone!

Dear, Rude-Woman-on-the Bike; thank you for waking me up! I am much more informed, now, and the next time I spew profanities (in self-defense) I will have factual data to back up my vulgarity.

Maybe there was a larger lesson to be learned that day: I was almost home at the end of a long, tiring journey when I was confronted by someone who had no idea how far I’d come, or what it had taken for me to get there. She didn’t know about the South African beanie or the bevy of vitamins or the various gels and ointments. She was unaware of the time I spent stretching or the handful of Starbucks bathroom water. She hadn’t seen the lady at the hospital or the homeless man on his computer. She was just annoyed because I was in her way. I had not taken anything from her or infringed on her right to go wherever she was headed, but she was just annoyed because she thought she was entitled to it all. She thought it all belonged to her. Little did she know it was ours. The path belonged to all of us.

Maybe the Captain Morgan Puritan Cyclist was an evil, confrontational entitled woman…

Or maybe she just didn’t know.

About the author

Queen Sheba is a two-time NAACP Image Award Nominee. Her works have appeared in numerous anthologies, Queen Sheba has two books: "From Foster Care to Fame" short stories and poems too long for three minutes and "Run Ugly!" A motivational book for runners. With a Masters in Poetry from Queens University the spoken word artist, motivational speaker, comedian, and bathroom concert singer tours internationally and has conducted performances and workshops at over 200 colleges and universities domestic and abroad. All Queen Sheba's social media can be found at @TheQueenSheba

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