'A middle-aged guy trying to stay fit'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wyoming County clerk David "Bugs" Stover rode his mountain bike about 85 miles this weekend, from Mullens to Charleston, to attend the West Virginia Association of Counties' "Healthy Counties" conference that starts Monday.
"I'm 57 years old, carrying a bunch of extra pounds, but I'm still plugging away and enjoying myself," he said. "I'm coming to a Healthy Counties conference, so why not come in a healthy way?"
He covered the hard part of his trip Friday. Pedaling up a steep Wyoming County mountainside on narrow, winding Route 54, he sometimes had the road to himself, sometimes not. Often he hugged the edge as logging trucks, FedEx trucks, coal trucks and SUVs whizzed by.
"The law says I have the right to occupy the lane, same road, same rights, but I'm not crazy, and I'm not unreasonable," he said. "I let cars and trucks go by in a friendly way. But that often makes it hard to ride."
Off the hard road, he has to contend with rocks, holes and the ditch and loses uphill momentum. "A professional mountain biker might not be bothered by that, but I'm just a middle-aged guy trying to stay fit," he said.
There's a point to be made here, he said. "As we try to encourage West Virginians like me to get more healthy and fit, to fight our obesity epidemic, biking is a natural possibility. It's a good way to get around every day. It's cheap. It keeps you in shape. The ride's often beautiful. And we can encourage that as we plan roads."
If West Virginia is to lower its high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and obesity numbers, he said, "we've got to think ahead in many areas of life, including roadways." He knows the state is creating a state biking plan, but so far, not much planned for the coalfields. In many areas, he knows, bikers can avoid roads entirely by riding on former railroad beds. West Virginia now has more than 375 miles of rail trails, and it's possible, for instance, to bike from Parkersburg to Clarksburg or Elkins to Parsons on them. "We're hoping to get something like that in the coalfields," he said, "but railroads are tough to negotiate with."
"A few years back, Joe Manchin had the Department of Transportation pave roads from guardrail to guardrail. That was great for bikes," he said. "If they keep doing that, it could cure 80 percent of the biking problems in the state.
"I don't know if Manchin was thinking about bikes when he did it, but now Wyoming County has 18 beautiful miles between Pineville and Twin Falls State Park that are safe to bike."
Stover rode those 18 miles daily for months earlier this year while working on a Twin Falls project. He has five heart stents, "and I'm knocking on the door of diabetes, so I've changed my lifestyle," he said. "I spent 30 years being around 140 pounds, then spent the last 27 trying to get under 200 pounds after I maxed out at 273."
"My doctors told me, 'You have heart trouble. The more you exercise, the better it is. It will keep you from getting diabetes. But don't be an idiot. Pace yourself.' So I take frequent breaks as I ride."
A teacher for 28 years and a local historian, volunteer, and storyteller, he is the first Republican to be elected to Wyoming County public office in 30 years. "Republican or Democrat, we have to be concerned about this epidemic of weight and diabetes," he said. "As an elected official, I try to set an example. People see me struggle with my weight. They see me riding my bike."
Stover is no stranger to expressing himself by walking or biking. Last year, he protested the Legislature's redistricting plan by walking to Charleston. He walked from Wyoming County to Washington to protest the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty. "Bad for coal," he said.
He worries about his county's health. In 2009, 31 percent of Wyoming County fifth-graders already had high blood pressure, as measured by West Virginia University, compared with an already-alarming 24 percent statewide. About 28 percent were obese. And 37 percent of Wyoming County adults had high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"It's gotten to the point where it's no longer just a concern for doctors," he said. "We want to make this a healthier county. We've set up five 5K races a year and one 10K, underwritten by the Visitors Bureau and the County Commission. And there are at least 40 walking and riding trails in Twin Falls State Forest alone. We get more than 200 runners at most races. More local people are taking part every year, and that's exciting.
"Now the question is, how do we get more people out walking and biking all year, not just for special events? How do we get them to see that can prevent diabetes and heart attacks?"
"We need to target young people," he said. "We've added track and cross country to both high schools in the past five years. That's going to make a difference.
As he rode, he thought of ways to get people to bike. "We could get bike racks around town -- at groceries and so on, for instance," he said.
"My dad and grandparents were coal miners, and my mother's family were lumberjacks," he said. "We live in an extractive industry state, and the unfortunate fact is, extractive industries are not necessarily good for your health. But that doesn't mean you have to make bad health choices for yourself. Maybe I live near a slate pile, but that doesn't mean I have to smoke. If I walk up a nice holler that's not so nice anymore, it doesn't mean I have to be 80 pounds overweight.
"There's another way to get people out: friendly competition," he said. "Maybe involve the churches in walking or biking teams."
"The man is constantly trying to think of things that will make life better in his county," said Patti Hamilton, director of the West Virginia Association of Counties, sponsor of today's conference.
Stover walked his bike along Raleigh County's Coalfields Expressway ("no way am I trying to ride on that"), then cut off on Paint Creek Road, which he took into Charleston. "From there on, it's smooth sailing, with very few cars," he said. "I've never biked inside Charleston itself before," he said. "I hear it may not be entirely easy."
He looks forward to Chris Danley's conference session. Danley, CEO of Vitruvian Planning in Idaho, will discuss ways cities and counties can encourage citizens to walk, bike and move more.
"I'm ready to learn," Stover said. "I'm looking for ideas."
The Healthy Counties conference starts at 11 A.M. at the Embassy Suites and continues through noon Tuesday. For information, see www.wvcounties.org.
Reach Kate Long at (304) 348-1798 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The Shape We're In" is supported by a Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism fellowship, administered by the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.