The second half

From where I left off, the trip got slightly worse before it got better. Bookending two races during a month-long trip was not the best of plans, especially since we didn’t know what our home base conditions and the terrain for training would be like along the way. Unfortunately we only ended up doing six or seven super short rides during the month, which zapped a lot of the fitness Adelaide had prior to our departure. Despite that, Adelaide finished the Vineman full in 12:14, coming in 4th in her age group and 7th female overall. How she did that with so little training leading up to the race I’ll never know. I had ridden a little under half the course the day before her race and was utterly destroyed by it. When you’ve been off the bike that long, it’s hard to do even zone two.

Most of our stress from the trip was from attempting to train and getting shut down. I had trouble sleeping at times as well, which didn’t help things. But the more we stressed about not being able to train properly, the less fun we had, the more frustrated we got, and the less energy we had to train with the terrain we did have.

Instead of doing a long write-up of the second two weeks of our trip, which would take hours of my precious time, here are some pictures with captions. Since the internet is essentially a picture book for adults, I assume you’ll all enjoy this more than a 3,000-word essay anyways.

IMG_0696We drove down to Walnut Grove the day after my race, which is about 45 minutes south of Sacramento, to stay with my cousin Chris for just under two weeks. It was about 100 degrees every day and ample black berries hung ripe from vines for easy picking. The three of us kayaked, played Monopoly and pingpong, made some great dinners, and ate out on the patio every night. The only thing missing was the riding, which was non existent in that area. And I can’t seem to stress how important being able to ride is to me for mental well-being. Even more so for Adelaide, who had the race quickly approaching and legs that needed to be moving. However, the river was a mere five minute walk away. So we swam as much as my shoulders could take, and got some good runs in too.

IMG_0697 IMG_0688This was one of the worst rides we’ve ever been on. After an hour-long drive to get to Antioch in our attempt to find good roads to ride on, I got three flats and ran into a parked car. And that was just the first 45 minutes. At least we got Dairy Queen afterwards. (And then spent an additional 45 minutes driving through town searching for a place to get cash after being turned back at a toll bridge).

IMG_1325 Though, Maybellene was content, with a large yard to run around in and watermelon rinds galore.

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IMG_1329 My aunt and her dog Buddy are top competitors in agility training, so we thought Maybellene should try one of the obstacles in the back yard.

IMG_1338We had zero success.

IMG_1342Sushi making with my cousin Chris.

IMG_0676Adelaide doing some studying for the CSCS exam on the dock.

IMG_1344We headed south the the bay area to spend a few nights with one of my old friends Mike. Snaps was the third cat Maybellene has met. The first scared her so badly she peed on the floor. The second she chased up a tree, and I had to climb up and rescue it because it got stuck at the top. This was a happy medium.

11752478_10153525720019292_7164225932515759016_nThe pre-race dinner with our friends Krista, David, and their friends, almost all of whom were racing. I ate more than anyone else by about four magnitudes and all I did the following day was watch them exercise while I sat in a lawn chair feeling like a fat tub of rancid lard.

A few days before, we’d picked up our friend Lindsey Knast (sitting behind Adelaide in the photo) from the airport and driven up to the Motel 6 in Santa Rosa. I finally had some roads to ride on and our spirits did a 180 after being around Lindsey, who was excited and upbeat since she hadn’t been living on the road for a month.

IMG_0704 Finally. Race morning with a bit of fog.

IMG_0706 Somehow this was the best picture I could get of the two of them. My photography skills are renown as my knitting abilities.

IMG_0709IMG_0713A few seconds from the start.

IMG_0735 Fast forward 7 hours later to T2. Adelaide was the third woman out of the water but lost some ground on the 112 mile bike leg. Now just a marathon to go. Easy as pie.

IMG_0742 - Version 2 I think this face was, “Holy fucking shit this hurts.”

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IMG_0746 Sprinting past some fool with 100 feet to go.

IMG_0747 - Version 2 IMG_0750 It might not have been the time she’d hoped for but I was super proud to see her finish it off. She was just 30 seconds behind 3rd place in her age group, which was sort of a blessing in disguise since that meant we didn’t have to go to the awards ceremony the following day.

IMG_0752That’s a wrap. She curled up in bed without puking and managed to eat some fries before falling asleep. We visited the beach and then my grandparents the next day, then spent two days driving home to Boulder. It’s good to be back.

Van Life

Frigid air conditioning blasted me in the face and zapped the outdoor heat from my skin. I felt a wave of depression wash over me as I pushed my bike up the stairs of our office building, back my desk. It was a beautiful day outside, yet I had only ridden for 30 minutes instead of the planned two-hour-long ride. I was at the breaking point. For months I’d been stagnant: unable to train at any real capacity, unable to enjoy life, and in a constant state of depression. Adelaide, who works (worked) approximately two feet from me at the facing desk, saw how upset I was when I came back from yet another failed ride attempt and already had a message waiting for me on g-chat by the time I sat down:

Want to quit today?

I immediately replied:

Yes.

We’d been talking about leaving for over a month but had been planning to hold out until next February. It was a great job but unsustainable with our current mindsets. June is pretty close to February. Close enough.

Neither of us have recovered from the crash last October. I think at this point Adelaide has recovered more than me actually. One of the issues is that there has been no break in our lives to restart, or whatever you want to call it. There hasn’t been enough time to mentally recover. We both jumped back into regular life with full time jobs and me trying to train and race full time as well. That, of course, left almost zero room for Adelaide’s surgeon and dentist appointments, therapy, phone calls with our lawyer, and more importantly it didn’t give us the time to rest and recuperate. (Not to mention a vacation sitting on a beach somewhere).

We’d been discussing what could be taken out of our schedule to remedy this lack of mental health days. The only things we have going on are:

1) sleep
2) work
3) training
4) racing/travel
5) down time
6) time with friends

Decreasing time with friends wouldn’t add up to anything, taking out down time would screw us up even more than we currently are since it’s down time that we need more of, I’ve already drastically decreased time spent bike racing and traveling, not training anymore isn’t even an option. Same goes for sleep. That leaves us with work. Bills be damned.

We gave our two weeks notice that day, with plans on a three-week-long road trip out to Oregon and California to kick start what would become known as van life. The following week we began moving out of our apartment since our lease was ending in mid July and by then we’d already be gone on the trip. The condo we bought this winter, which we’ve been renting out ever since, has a detached garage that ended up easily holding all of our belongings.

The trip so far has included seeing my old teammate Sam Johnson on our way through Boise, visiting my parents in Oregon for three days in Corvallis, and camping in Guerneville, California, where I “raced” Vineman 70.3. The race was a last-minute decision and one that I ended up regretting quite a bit.

IMG_0621IMG_0618My dad, Adelaide and I rode in Mac Forest on trails that my dad helped establish 30+ years ago.

11143505_1064130120264184_7415316933932449416_nMy mom, Adelaide, and I tried paddle boarding. I highly recommend it for a workout and/or mega chi points for relaxation.

11227639_1064130123597517_2075642251520130207_nWhile a Speedo is preferable, a drag suit will suffice. I didn’t lose any tan lines by the way. They seem to be burned into me permanently.

IMG_0628 A highly caffeinated and sugared Adelaide makes a happy and alert Adelaide while driving. Gas station cappuccino stops are a necessity on long road trips.

IMG_0643 Down camping in Guerneville, I was unable to sleep for roughly three days.

photo 1The Hound on Hound duty.

On to the race, which was last Sunday the 12th:

The long days of travel, the stress of moving out of our apartment and quitting our jobs right before the trip, and an ear infection coupled with antibiotics all paled in importance to not being able to sleep the nights leading up to the race. Despite feeling pretty shitty during my recent training, I was confident that I could get into the top eight. One of my only weaknesses, aside from my incredible degree of modesty, is being a super finicky sleeper. I hadn’t been sleeping well at the campsite in Guerneville so Adelaide and I crashed my former teammate Nick Bax’s hotel room the night before the race. Somehow that was even worse for me and I was only able to sleep for 45 minutes that night. The 4:30AM wake up call came way too soon. By the time I lined up to start the swim at Vineman I had already lost.

40 ounces of coffee and a 100mg caffeine gel were barely holding my eyes open when the gun went off. I was dropped instantly and even passed by the lead group of women just after the half way point. Swimming is by far my weakest sport but this was just plain pitiful. I struggled on at a sluggish pace, barely even moving, for the last few hundred meters. By then I had resigned to pull out of the race and skip town. All the other male pros’ bikes were long gone from transition before I trudged my tired bones out of the river in shame. Finishing wasn’t even worth it. I decided I might as well save my legs the 10 days it takes me to recover from a triathlon, sleep if off, and start training for the next one.

photo 1 (1)Contemplating whether or not it was even worth it to start. I was that tired. (It’s always worth at least starting).

At times, it irks me to read (and write) a race report that tells a tale of a race gone wrong but strays from the truth at the end to leave the reader with an uplifting note of positivity–something the author took away from the difficult experience. You know what, sometimes you don’t learn anything from failure. Sometimes you just fucking fail.

Adelaide helped console me as we packed my gear in the van by proclaiming that she’d taken a desperate dump behind someone’s car. For Adelaide, when shit happens, shit happens NOW. We left Guerneville with my tail tucked between my legs, eyes glazed in fatigue while Adelaide drove us to Nevada City to stay with my uncle for a night and let the Hound run free in the woods surrounding his cabin.

Okay I’ll buckle a tiny bit here. I don’t want it to sound like I’m utterly crushed from the DNF. The fact is that we aren’t out here for me to race. My 70.3 was thrown in as an afterthought at most. We came to see my family, get out of Boulder, mentally recharge, and for Adelaide to race the Full Vineman, which is in a week and a half. She’s been training for it since last winter and this whole trip has just been tacked onto it. So other than my race being a fiasco, we’ve been having a blast. Now we’re staying south of Sacramento with my cousin Chris, swimming against the river current every morning, and running or riding in the heat of the afternoon. I’ll post an update in a week or two.

Becoming one with the heat

I’m sick of reading all the stupid, lazy “How to beat the heat in your next race” articles written lately so I’ve decided to write my own. My problem with the mainstream ones is that they all to touch on the same, already-known bits of useless advice like “make sure to drink a sports drink with plenty of electrolytes” and “stay hydrated the day before.” They all say almost the same thing, and although what they tell you is true, they need to go into more depth to really do any good. Without an explanation of why something works, what’s the point? So here’s my shot at it. All of this is firsthand knowledge. Triathlete readers: some of this will only be useful to bike racers.

  • Don’t be fat. I’m not trying to be funny or mean; the fact is that being lean is the single-most important thing you can do to race well in the heat. Fat is insulation. It hinders conductance of your muscles and blood by hiding them deep beneath fat instead of transporting body heat outwards to your skin where it can be cooled via convection by blood and conduction by tissue. When it comes to racing in the heat, the leaner you are the better. Adversely, being super lean in the cold can be a detriment.photo 2My legs aren’t always vascular, but when they are they look as gross as the backs of a 98-year-old’s hands.
  • Train in the heat. Even two weeks out from race day you can make huge adaptations by submersing yourself in the heat. If you know your race is going to be really hot, don’t purposefully train when it’s cool at 7AM, unless you live in Tucson or somewhere stupidly hot. Training in the heat forces your body to store extra plasma. This increases your blood volume and lowers your hematocrit (without getting rid of those invaluable red blood cells of course) so your blood is less viscous and easier to pump. Training in the heat also increases capillary density so you can dissipate heat better through your skin. Capillaries are essentially tiny veins that carry blood, water, oxygen, and other stuff from to the tissue they surround. (If your race isn’t going to be super hot, purposely training at the hottest time of the day may not be necessary or even worth the risk, since you can’t produce the same power in the heat and training in hot temps can lead to overtraining).
  • Don’t just train in the heat. Become one with it. This can only be done in the sauna. Sauna training, which I’ve written about before, is one of the most crucial things I do to prepare for a hot race. Like training in the heat, sauna training drastically increases capillary density and plasma storage. It’s super painful and draining though. 20-30 minutes in 180 degree heat, post ride with no water, is more than tough. It’s brutal. But worth it if you can stick it out for a week. For the full protocol on sauna training, scroll to the bottom.
  • The days leading up to your race, begin drinking extra water. Liters of extra water, not cups. Along with that extra water, pound the sodium. Note how I didn’t say “electrolytes.” The only electrolyte you lose in significant amounts during workouts and races is sodium. You have plenty of potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, etc. stored in your body and they can easily be replenished with regular old food, assuming you eat fruit and vegetables somewhat regularly. When it comes to sports drinks, the only electrolyte you should care about is sodium. And you need a lot of it. Not 50 or 100 milligrams. Shoot for thousands of milligrams. Skratch Hyper and OSMO Pre Load each have over 1,500mg per serving. Leading up to a hot race, or when I’ve been training a lot in the heat, I take a serving or two a day of one of those. This helps your body hold onto extra plasma and saturates your tissues with water, which can be sweated out later when needed. If you’re too cheap for expensive magic bags of salt, Top Ramen works well. You can just drink the broth and chuck the noodles if you want. Be careful when just loading up on regular sodium though. Continue reading below.
  • Skratch, OSMO, and Clif use sodium citrate, which is easier on your stomach that sodium chloride (table salt). Typically, you’ll find sodium chloride in low-quality, sugary sports drinks like Gatorade. Too much sodium chloride (or any type of sodium for that matter) will give you the shits. So don’t overdo it the morning or day before the race, since diarrhea and vomiting tend to cause dehydration. And if you can, stick to the stuff that works (OSMO, Skratch, Clif, and other hydration formulas that don’t just use sodium chloride. You can even just buy sodium citrate by the pound online. It’s not very expensive.
  • During exercise, regular Skratch, OSMO, and Clif hydration mixes have 250-350mg of sodium per serving. One liter an hour for a hot race should be the bare minimum, and should be easy enough to do on the bike. That would be around 700mg per hour. For a four-hour race, that’s just shy of 3,000mg. Considering you can easily sweat out 1,000mg an hour during a cool race, you’re still going to be in a deficit for the next day so hit the sodium hard after the race if there are more stages to come.
  • Before your hot race, don’t do a big warmup unless you’re racing a TT. Staying cool before the race is important, because every minute your body isn’t overheating is one more minute you’re competitive in the race. Once your core temperature goes above 102 degrees, you start losing massive amounts of power.
  • Stay out of the sun before the race. Another duh. Line up somewhere close to the start in the shade. I see people chat in the parking lot directly in the sun all the time when it’s 90+ degrees out. It’s stupid. Don’t start the race already hot and in a deficit. Pound water and stay out of the sun, preferably somewhere with AC as long as you can.
  • Use ice socks during and before the race. Put them down your back or chest during the race (obviously), and your groin before the race (not obviously). Putting ice or ice socks (a pantyhose filled with ice) down your groin hurts like a mother, but that region of your body has more blood flow per square inch than anywhere else on your body that you could reasonably put an ice sock. I use the word reasonably very loosely. Also, building yourself an ice vest out of duct tape and sheets of plastic ice pockets (the kind that look like a sheet of ice cubes) works well and is way cheaper than buying one. They keep you cool for about 30 minutes standing around at the start before on a hot day.
  • Dunk your jersey in cold water before the race. Dunk your bibs and shoes/socks too for that matter.
  • Assuming the team car or feed zone is readily accessible (Elite nationals not included), dump bottles on yourself, especially your legs, as often as you can. The plus side of going back for bottles during a hot race is that you’re probably going to be the best hydrated guy on the team.
  • Shave your entire body and buzz your head. It works. Even small arm hairs trap heat. You’ll feel the difference and you’ll thank me. Plus you’ll look better. Shaving your armpits and groin makes a difference, though it’s not comfortable by any means. I just shaved our dog Maybellene so she could be more competitive at the dog park this summer. Is my dog more committed than you? Probably.
  • Unzip your damn jersey. Seriously, I don’t understand why people don’t do this and then later complain about cramping out of the lead group. That extra breeze could have been the ticket. Unzip your jersey all the way, and if you don’t have to carry bottles for anyone, tuck the ends of it behind your back bib straps before the start so your jersey isn’t flapping annoyingly against your sides for hours on end. It should look something like this:

1044336_10100778653589018_837631576_nTry not to make that face though.

Sauna training

13 days before your event, begin the dry sauna training, which is pretty miserable after riding for five hours or however long your workout was. Sit in the sauna for 20-30 minutes right after each ride for 7 days in a row. Go as soon as you can after your ride. I just park my bike at the rec center, grab a towel on the way in, shower off, and I’m in the sauna within five minutes of finishing my workout. Don’t rehydrate before going in though. Counterintuitive? Yes. Only consume enough liquid to get your recovery drink down.

Sit high up in the sauna (which should be between 170-180 degrees) for as long as you can, only coming down to the lower benches if and when you have to. It’s pure torture to make it a full half our at 180 degrees when your body is already depleted of liquid and energy after a hard workout. Go as long as you can. You might only last 15 minutes the first time.

When you get out of the sauna, don’t take a cold shower. Take a warm one. More importantly, don’t consume huge amounts of water at once when you get out. Don’t chug the water. Slowly sip to rehydrate for the next 3-4 hours so the heat stress you just put yourself through doesn’t go to waste. You want your body to suffer and adapt to the suffering, just like in training. This is crucial and miserable as well. Remember, you only have to make it through a week of this. Make sure to take in a LOT of sodium during this week, and you’ll have to drink extra liquid throughout the day too.

Stop five days before your event to let your hydration levels bounce back and your body super-compensate with extra plasma stores, more red blood cells (in theory), and increased capillary density. I recommend doing a practice run of this protocol during training a few months before your target race, just to make sure your body can handle it, similar to how you shouldn’t use new equipment for the first time on race day.

Boulder 70.3

This post will contain many disgusting moments. Prepare yourself.

It was a restless night of sleep filled with nightmares for Adelaide and rolling around in sweat-soaked sheets for myself. I haven’t been sleeping well or very many hours the past couple weeks for some reason. Even turning the AC on in the evening didn’t help put me to bed the night before the race. For one thing, I was nervous. Super nervous. The kind of nervous that only a cat 5 gets before a race. I haven’t been nervous for a bike race in nine years. So being this excited again to compete feels….good.

Pancakes and a mason jar of death-strong coffee brewed by Galen jolted me back to life at 5:00 AM on Saturday, the day of the race. Adelaide and I got on our bikes and coasted most of the 10-minute ride to the Boulder Reservoir, where the race was held. It was pretty awesome being able to roll out of bed and be at the race start 17 minutes later. None of this 12 hour drive nonsense.

While prepping in the transition zone, I looked around at the other pros to see how they positioned their gear. I also noticed that we had our own porta potties, which had seat heaters, triple-ply toilet paper, and cappuccino machines at waist level inside the door for our convenience. I shat thrice before getting in the lake to warm up. I’d been filling up on extra rice the day before, but most likely it was my nerves that were making me so void of shit. The last one was mostly liquid, and foretold of horrible things to come.

IMG_0563
Confused about the race belt.

The start horn went off and the madness began. There were less than 30 of us but the instant fight for positioning meant we were bumping, slapping hands on feet, and churning the water into a violent froth. I was getting passed left and right and unable to get onto anyone’s feet for a draft. Unknown to me just a week prior, you use 25% less energy by drafting during the swim. Depending on the conditions, of course, that’s akin to the draft you get while riding a bike. Huge. I knew I had to make it onto someone’s feet but before I knew it, almost all of the guys had vanished ahead with an insurmountable gap. I had gone out hard but not hard enough to make it with the leaders, so I was left with the shitty swimmers. I let two guys come around me and I sat on their feet for 10 or more minutes, swimming super easily in their bubbles. After a while it felt so easy that I decided to ditch the group and go on my own.

I spent the next 10 minutes swimming hard while they drafted off me like I’d been doing to them, then with a few hundred meters to go we got passed by two women, who’d started five minutes behind us. My heart sank to the bottom of the lake, past the water weeds, and settled into the thick mud at the bottom to be pecked at by tiny fish and lobsters.

The swim was over. I slogged out of the water panting like an obese child chasing an ice cream truck and got through the transition zone without too much confusion.

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Getting on the bike felt good and things were right with the world once again. I passed half a dozen guys (including the two women) within the first two miles. After that, I was in no man’s land. I was confident I’d catch plenty of people though, since my power was decent and my average speed kept going up, eventually maxing out at 27.8mph by mile 20. I knew that 27mph was a good time for this course so doing 28 would be fantastic.

And also unrealistic.

My glutes went to pieces by mile 30. My power took a nose dive too. An hour later I took a wrong turn, caught the mistake just in time, and narrowly avoided riding up on the sidewalk as I locked my brakes up and screamed a nasty curse word. Over the next half hour I became increasingly fatigued and disheartened as my legs failed to produce more than zone two wattage. I forced down more food and water.

I don’t know if this happens often or if this was an unusual occurrence, but the 70.3 distance race was put on at the same time as the Sprint distance triathlon, so that when I came onto Diagonal highway with about four miles to go, I suddenly had to share the shoulder with a long line of age groupers that had merged from a side road. No worries. I was fine riding out a bit to the left, but did they mind? Yes. At least one woman minded, I’m certain of that. I’d just chugged half a bottle of water too quickly and it came back up almost as fast. I vomited it mostly all on my own legs but a fair amount splashed over onto the lady that I was currently passing.

I ended the bike with a super pathetic 275 watt average. A power, in the past, that I’ve been able to sustain for nearly seven hours. Obviously it was on the TT bike so that instantly drops the power quite a bit. But still, I was not happy with such a weak performance in what should be my strongest discipline. So I peed my shorts just before entering the transition zone. “That’ll show em.”

The run instantly hurt like hell. I was out of breath and gasping for air by the top of the first tiny little climb at mile 0.2. Only 12.9 to go! Thoughts of not finishing or packing it in with a brisk jog went through my head. There was no way I’d make top 10. Not a chance. My pre-race dreams of making it into the top five were now laughable.

The course was mostly flat, but hot. 80 degrees and predominantly on dirt trails. It was only a little over three miles long, meaning  we had to complete two out and backs. At one mile in I took a glimpse at my watch and saw that I wasn’t doing quite as terrible as I thought. The initial shock to my system was gone and I was only breathing slightly like a catfish at that point. And up ahead there was prey.

I came upon him quietly, then surged hard to kill his moral. I didn’t want company in my misery. And after three hours of really hard exercising, I mean racing, moral is easy to extinguish.

My fellow competitor put up no resistance and I set my sights on the next guy up the road, who had about 45 seconds on my at that point. As I approached the turn around I counted the people ahead of me as they doubled back on the course. I was 12th. A top 10 was possible after all.

I caught the next guy a mile or two later, then felt all hell break loose down in my large intestine. My pace went from low 6:00s to 6:30 within a quarter mile. I prayed for a porta pottie. Three appeared around the next bend and I held it in for dear life. This was going to be messy.

Before the door even had time to swing shut I had my shorts at my knees, squated, and let the demon roar. The violent explosion was over within two seconds and I was out the door instantly. From entering the porta pottie to exiting, the whole ordeal only took 8 seconds. I did not wipe.

The cheering squad of friends and family that Adelaide had assembled near the finish area would get me through the next lap. I heard Adelaide say, “I’m so proud of you,” which guilted me into having to really kill myself for those last 6.5 miles. I chased down another guy and was in 10th by the final turn around.

Just three miles to go.
Now two and half.
Two.
One and a half.
One.

I kept the self-torture dialed at level 10, not thinking I could go any harder or catch anymore people. It was well over 80 degrees at this point. My lungs were gasping for air, legs screaming, stomach knotted. Despite the endorphins, I could feel the skin on my feet disintegrating within my shoes. I was content with 10th at that point. I was averaging 6:03 pace, which was pretty decent I thought. No, wait. Shit. I spotted one more guy ahead. I had to try or I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I increased my pace one last time.

With 300 meters to go I kicked and came by him hard and heard him whisper “ahh fuck” to himself and I knew I had him. I kept the pressure on and crossed the line a little under a minute later.

“This isn’t the finish line!” is exactly what I did not want to hear. But it’s what someone behind the barriers yelled as I came to a stop. In my defense there were multiple blow-up sponsor arches that spanned the road, and for some reason I assumed this one was the finish. I set off again and went another 150 meters around the bend and collapsed just after the real finish line.

I finished 9th, a minute and a half behind 8th place, which was the last to get paid. Just 90 seconds faster and I would have been $500 richer. That would have bought a lot of canned herring.

I was a little ticked off about the swim until I remembered it was my second race and I should shut up and enjoy the rest of the day…if you can enjoy anything about walking around on feet like these:

photo 4

photo 1

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Winston-Salem UCI 1.2

I heard a loud carbon crunch, followed immediately by the gut-wrenching, soul-depleting hiss of a rear flat tire. I’d just been consumed by a pothole’s deep, race-ending teeth—one of the millions that littered the course. There were just three and a half laps left out of 14, and I’d suffered every minute of the race to get to this point. For every single lap I’d been hanging by a thread, on the verge of popping an uncountable number of times. All that agony only to flat out with 20 miles to go. I let my sailor’s tongue fly loose and loud.

I threw a hand up and pulled off the road, almost getting squashed by the caravan since I’d been on the left side of the road as I flatted and had to make my way to the right in order for a wheel change. The SRAM neutral car appeared out of nowhere to give me a quick wheel change. I was calm and cool as a pickle. I’ve learned to adopt an aura of peace during mechanicals, in order to give the mechanic steady hands and a clear head. Once I was going again, I resumed my earlier conversation: FUCKING FUCK YOU FUCK! AGHHHHHH FUCK!

Nick paced me back up to the caravan after I got rolling again, with me crunching and miss-shifting through a cassette that my chain wasn’t accustomed to; my drear brake was even more useless, failing to grip against the older style thin rim. I swore again as loud as I could, which helped fuel some extra adrenaline, not that I needed it. I swerved through the caravan with typical reckless abandon, knowing that my race was over but refusing to give in without one last push. There was little chance of catching back on after a mechanical or crash on this course at the pace that we were doing, especially this late in the race and with the shit legs that I had.

A tiny blossom of hope bloomed a minute later when I got a glimpse of the peloton up ahead, which was 50 guys at that point, down from 170 starters. A moment later I was on the back end, slightly confused as to why they’d finally slowed down—and just at the right moment no less. 30 seconds after that I was off the front, solo.

I was in no-man’s land between the break and the peloton—but off the front nonetheless, and with rekindled fire in my legs. I realized that we had finally given up the chase, but a top 15 was still on the line so I gave it everything I had left, which wasn’t much.

I superman tucked on a winding descent approaching 50mph, came back up to rest my forearms on top of the bars in the TT position for a couple hard pedal strokes, and saw my life flash before my eyes for the 99th time that day as a squirrel ran between my wheels. From that flat until now, it had been an action-packed five minutes. Although, not unlike the previous three and a half hours. Just a typical, chaotic, masochistic, incredibly dangerous, disturbingly painful bike race.

The Winston-Salem Cycling Classic is held in North Carolina in one of the cigarette capitals of the world, which is actually fitting, seeing as how out of breath the course leaves you. It’s an 8-mile loop through city streets, littered with potholes, steep climbs, and dozens of corners. It’s my favorite style of course, and one that I would have counted myself to be a podium contender had I been on previous years’ form. Today? I was just chewing my stem for dear life, punching tickets at the back for the first couple laps as rider after rider dropped away in the sweltering heat and equally blistering pace being set at the front while attack after attack launched up the road.

My teammates Michael Burleigh, Chris Winn, and Josh Yeaton had been slaying themselves at the front, getting in moves and being aggressors early in the race. Unfortunately the larger move got away just after Josh had been brought back from being up the road. George Simpson and I didn’t have the legs or positioning prowess to be of much use for the first five or six laps, and it generally takes more than three guys being active for a team to make the move.

But the race was not sealed up at that point by any means. Attacks continued flying as guys vied to bridge. Optum set a brutal pace on lap five or six. Then the pace duties were taken up by UHC a lap later. I won’t say that my legs ‘came around’ by lap seven; I think it’s more accurate to say that, compared to how I felt earlier, I was just slightly less fucked over than those who were still left in the field. Even that might not be accurate now that I think about it. I was actually on the verge of getting dropped, which meant that I needed to attack.

I went half a dozen times, countering myself until I finally got away solo after the feed zone on lap 8. My intentions at that point were to just get most of the way over the KOM climb before being caught, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the front split (or chase back onto the front split) even once more.

Max Korus of Team QCW came across to me. He’s got a huge ass and is as tall as me so he makes for a great draft. Despite that, it was still hard to hold his wheel. I told him how fucked I was and that I’d only been attacking because I was about to get dropped. He admitted the same thing.

If you’re going out the back, you might as well first try and go off the front. We got to within 50 seconds of the lead breakaway and had a decent gap to the field. Screw getting dropped, the race was on!

We worked together and made it almost all the way up the climb before the pack caught us. My teammate Chris and about eight others blew by at twice my speed with a big gap 75 meters from the top of the climb. The final pitch is the steepest section, averaging about 15% if my memory serves correct. My legs were gone—as weak and dead as toothpicks at that point. I was gasping for air. But I made a snap decision. I was going all in to make it back onto that group. I let out a roar and sprinted as hard as I could to regain the wheel and make it onto the back end of the group just as they crested the climb. I was totally blown at the top, having just done a race-finishing effort, but I made it. This was the selection. It had all the strongest guys left in the peloton and the right teams. Then we sat up.

Max and three others kept riding when someone let their wheel go. They were never to be seen again. We were absorbed by the remnants of the peloton as Max and the others pushed on up to the break, catching them shortly after the finish with three laps to go.

Josh had been on the sidelines for over an hour helping out in the feed zone after getting an early flat. During his frantic chase back on with Nick in the team car, a police officer had nearly caused disaster when she stepped out into the road in front of Nick, who was driving 50mph. Luckily Josh swerved out from behind Nick in time but he never regained contact with the peloton.

Winston-Salem-Criterium-2015-3-1024x697Josh attacking in the crit the day before  (Photo: Bob Simpson)

Michael had nearly died of heat exhaustion and was in the feed zone too; both he and Josh were doing what they could to give us a hand, which is always awesome to see because I know how upsetting watching a race from the sidelines can be.

Winston-Salem-Criterium-2015-6-606x1024George in the crit the night before (Photo: Bob Simpson)

George had held on as long as he could, chasing back on lap after lap (with me in tow many times) after the climb. But he was out now as well, handing out bottles. It was just Chris and I left in the race and we’d just been soooo close to both making the winning move. In some other universe…

Well, there’s always next time.

Ha. I kept attacking. I flatted eventually, which brings us back to the starting point of this post. I was off the front solo with two and a half laps to go and had just avoided death by squirrel. My legs were losing power with every pedal stroke, but I could no longer see the peloton behind. They’d pretty much sat up since the winning move totaling 14 guys was long gone up the road with a three minute lead. I went as hard as I could for the next lap and a half before getting caught with one to go. There would be no more attacks from me. I followed wheels and suffered every minor acceleration, just like everyone else at that point. Our group shattered on the final climb. Chris, who suffered a slow leak on the final lap, came in 31st and I came in 39th. It was a shame he wasn’t in the position to put good legs to use because he was on a killer day. I on the other hand, was satisfied. I could finally feel my old self coming back to life and I was pleased with how hard I pushed it. It was by far the hardest race day I’ve done this year and seeing my form come back, even just a little of it, has given me some new motivation to race bikes this year.

photo-1-4-e1433354727998-768x1024I was awarded the team’s Hulk Hands for the race. An honor and a privilege.

St. George 70.3

I stood in my underwear and grew increasingly light-headed as electricity pulsed through me, causing painful contractions in my upper legs. I had two, four-inch needles in my inner thighs, sticking out just below my balls…almost a little close for comfort, but not quite. Four more needles pierced my quads, plus one in each calf, which entered just behind my fibula. The needles were hooked up to wires, which ran to a small box that I held in my hand, which was used to control the power of the muscle contractions. I’d hoped that once I started the electricity, it would shock me back to reality. But the faintness and blurring vision wouldn’t go away despite turning the power as high as I could stand. Now my hearing was fading too.

I grew more and more dizzy and loopy as time went on, which is the opposite of the normal black outs I get from standing up too fast. I reached out to put a hand on the wall, fearing an inevitable unconscious crumple to the ground, which would be embarrassing. Though, not as embarrassing as admitting weakness in front of Brent Apgar. So I turned up the voltage.

I’ve seen Brent half a dozen times for dry needling and I have to say, he’s fantastic. Not only does he have the most experience out of anyone I’ve been to, but he sticks you five times more than anyone else in the span of 60 minutes, and he also lets you control the pain via e-stim. I ended up having to sit down, but he reassured me that it happens to him too, and the faintness is a nervous system thing, not a weak stomach. After all, I felt perfectly fine earlier when he’d let me push one of the needles up against my femur. Tap, tap, tap. Yep, that sounds and feels like a bone to me too.

This was last Tuesday morning (the 28th) in an attempt to get put back together following the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas. I wasn’t that sore before the appointment but I could hardly walk for a day following it. In hindsight, I should NOT be in control of my own electrical stimulation. I admit, I over did it. At least my legs were knot-free, and if nothing else the inability to walk correctly only prepared me for what was yet to come: the pain of my first triathlon.

This winter I signed up for a half-distance (70.3) triathlon with Adelaide in Palm Springs. The race wasn’t to be held until December, which was almost a year away at that point. Usually I wouldn’t get excited about something that far off. But after a few weeks of kid-like dreaming and interneting, I decided I wanted to become a professional triathlete. Or an astronaut. Or the President of the United States. Or a dump truck driver. Triathlon seemed the most attainable so I stuck with that.

Anyways, we both signed up for the St. George 70.3 North American Championships a few weeks into January, in part so I could hopefully earn a pro license and race professionally that fall after the bike racing season ended. The licensing process is much different than cycling. In short, it’s results-based and if you do well enough at a big event, you can get a pro license after just one race. Needless to say, it’s quite a bit easier than cycling since there are zero politics involved.

Adelaide and I packed the van on Tuesday night and took off the following day after work. We pulled into Monument National Park on the east side of the Rockies at around 9:00, which has become one of our go-to mid-trip camp spots. You drive up the side of awesome, sheer cliff walls and get spit out on top of an immense plateau. The view looking down on the city far below gives you a sense of superiority that any triathlete can appreciate.

The next morning we finished off the drive to St. George, Utah, which is hot and geologically spectacular. The town itself is bustling with huge, jacked up pickups and quite a few strip malls, but the surrounding area is magnificent. Since there’s no vegetation, the jagged landscape almost looks like something from another planet. Gigantic rock formations, jutting cliffs, sloping plateaus rising from the ground, all in shades of red, orange, and even white. We camped in Snow Valley, which gets its name from the white-striped cliffs, not the abundance of snow. It was 90-95 degrees every day.

IMG_0523Thursday night, settling into Quinn (our van) with a good book and a warm breeze outside.

I’ll cut straight to the race since this is already getting long.

Saturday: Our morning began at 4:15. It was dark. We dressed in Quinn, took off from our camp spot, drove downtown, found coffee at a gas station, and merged with the other zombies to drop off our run bags and catch a school bus shuttle to the swim start. Parking wasn’t allowed up at the lake since there were 2,500 racers and parking was limited.

After plenty of waiting around in our wetsuits, Adelaide’s wave took off at 7:35. 10 minutes later it was my turn. I lined up near the front, shivering while treading water before the start horn blared. I’d never done an open water swim before, but I knew it would be chaotic. And it was. I was quickly passed by half my group, and wondered if I’d even be able to swim the whole thing without having to rest on my back. I’d gone out too fast. It took 10 minutes for me to find a good rhythm and realize that I needed to crane my neck farther up to the surface to get a full breath of air, since the lake was choppy and a pool is not.

My group caught up to the slower swimmers from earlier waves and I began fighting for position and swimming over the top of people. By then my confidence was back up since I saw that there were slower swimmers than me. I took no prisoners and gave no courtesies, since none were given to me. If someone started drifting into me I swam over them. If I couldn’t go around someone because another person was blocking the way, I swam over them. It was chaos. Imagine a school of fish, except all the fish are blind, terrified of a shark behind and ramming into each other in panic, and all of them are out of breath and can’t swim straight. Looking back on it, the swim was my favorite leg.

I finished in just over 31 minutes (the swim is 1.2 miles), which I didn’t know at the time but would have been ecstatic about. I was hoping for 35 minutes and would have been pleased with that.

Transition one took me forever. Almost four minutes. I have plenty of room to improve in the transition zones, which is good news? I felt like I was in a daze, going in slow motion and not able to think of what to do next. Anyways, once I was on the bike I felt at home. My goal was to average just over 26mph or 310 watts, whichever came first. That didn’t happen, in part because my legs had felt like shit for the past three days, and also because there were over 1,000 people ahead of me. I was burning through them by the dozen per second but they just wouldn’t stop coming. After each rise or bend I hoped that I’d passed the majority, but it was three to six deep the entire first 40 miles of the bike. Braking in the corners, slowing on the descents, and riding on the outside of every curve to make my passes was killing my time and becoming increasingly frustrating. I tried not to get too close to anyone since I knew they weren’t used riding in a pack, but I definitely raised some goose bumps of other riders when I went on the inside or got just a little close.

When I got to the main climb of the day at mile 40-something, the crowd thinned out and I put the gas pedal down for good. The climb was about 15 minutes and fairly steep. And hot. It was already in the 80s, even at 11, and the temperature was rapidly rising.

I’d always thought that a triathlon, even the half distance, was primarily just tempo and you never go into threshold. The swim was threshold, the bike was in and out of threshold, and the run was dipping in and out of it too, depending on the gradient. There’s not quite as much for a full-distance, but by the top of the climb at mile 46 I was feeling the old breathing muscles growing somewhat ragged. I settled into a nice tuck and tried to conserve on the predominantly downhill 10 miles to the finish.

A few miles before I got back into town I came upon a group of five or six riders who were blatantly drafting off one another, going so far as to start a rotating pace line. I came up on them fast and screamed some nasty insults, contemplated putting my rear wheel into the first guy’s front, thought better of it, and took off in a rage. To me, that’s essentially cutting the course. Who knows how long they’d been at it. I didn’t see any officials during the entire bike leg, so I’m sure it’s super easy to cheat like that. I just hoped none of them were in my age group.

I came off the bike at two hours and thirteen minutes (25.2 mph), which I was not pleased with. My power wasn’t very high and I’d been confident that, despite it being a fairly hilly course, I’d go a full mile per hour faster than that.

The second transition didn’t go much better than the previous one. First I had a rock in my running shoe so I had to take it off right away. Then I forgot to tighten the laces on my shoes. Then I dropped a gel. I couldn’t get my pace watch on my wrist, then it wouldn’t turn on. Then the real agony began: running. Triathlons are pretty much 100% uncomfortable. You spend the whole swim in a state of near-drowning, the transition zones are stressful, the bike is actually okay, though still sort of tiring, but then the run is just the worst. Pure torture.

After the bike I felt like I should roll through the streets to find the team van, sit in a lawn chair, drink a coke, and talk about the race with my teammates with my legs spread out in front of me and my shoes off. Instead, I set out for 13.1 miles in 90+ degree heat over even hotter pavement, with no shade, and almost no run fitness, or at least almost no runs off the bike fitness (brick runs). I’d done two. And one was that previous Sunday after the crit at Joe Martin. To make things even more fun, the run started with three miles of uphill. My legs were immediately shot. I was glad that I hadn’t been able to get the watch going and didn’t know my pace, because whatever it was, it was sure to be depressing. I pissed my shorts within the first mile, filling my shoes and kicking up spray at people as I passed by. When you have no shame that early on in a race, you know you’re in for some serious suffering.

Thankfully there were aid stations every mile with cold water, ice water, red bull, Gatorade, gels, Otter Pops, you name it. The volunteers at this race were out in force. I heard that there was a ratio of 2:1 volunteers to racers, meaning there were over 5,000 volunteers. Each aid station had 50 people handing out the goods. I went through them dumping the water down my legs, back, head, groin, and arms. Each aid station was a moment of peace within a nuclear blast, if such a thing can exist.

Everyone was really spread out by the time I reached the run. I was passing people but not that often. More time for self-reflection and thoughts of walking.

At mile three the damn hill finally ended and I picked up speed on the descent. At mile four another hill came. I’m not sure how, but I’m confident there were three to eight times more uphill than down, despite it being an out and back.

Actually, it wasn’t quite an out and back. There were multiple little side loops and figure eights that spat you off the main road onto paths. So after the turn around at mile 6-something, I thought I was heading straight back the way I came. Instead, the route forced you back heading away from the finish line multiple times.

I was holding strong over the final climb and rocketed down the backside towards town when I saw Adelaide. She was three miles into the run and looking good. We waved and smiled at each other and I felt a huge sense of relief. I’d been worried that she’d have to walk or wouldn’t finish. Like me, her training hadn’t been very consistent due to the stresses of her crash last fall. It was her first triathlon back, and just six months out of a coma.

With two miles to go I finally got passed by someone. I hadn’t been passed by anyone (outside of the swim) and my initial sense of dread turned to anger when I saw that it was some young guy (everyone’s age is marked on their calf so you can see what age group they’re in). Plus he was someone who’d I’d passed a few miles before.

He pulled away from me over the next mile but I kept him within striking distance. It didn’t matter at all if he beat me to the finish line since he’d started 20 or 30 minutes before me that morning, but the killer instinct in me took over. With half a mile to go I came by him, striding long and picking up speed, hoping to see the finish line around the next bend. It was farther away than I thought but there was no slowing down now. I’d look like a fool. I continued on and crossed with a time of 4:12 and a run time of 1:23 (6:20 pace). I doubled over right away, not from being out of breath, but because my legs were so weak I thought I might need to sit down. I thought better of it, since there would likely be no getting up afterwards.

I crept my way to a children’s fountain, hobbling at a quarter mile an hour. My legs were truly fucked. Every muscle in them had died. Not just died, they’d been savaged by a hoard of lusting sumo wrestlers, then slain with a rusty, dull guillotine dripping with lemon juice that moved at one millimeter per hour.

I hunched over in the middle of the fountain as dozens of kids screamed and played around me and the announcer blared in the background, calling in the finishers names’ and home states. The water felt amazing. Not running any more felt amazing. I took a few steps and my legs barely budged. They’d never been even close to this bad before. I could hardly walk.

Upon returning to the van, which took me half an hour despite only being a few blocks away, I realized what that strange flapping thing hanging off my shorts had been. Earlier during the race on the bike I’d looked down at my shadow a few times to see what appeared to be a Clif Blok package stuck to my ass, or possibly the leg gripper of my shorts unraveling. I now saw what it actually was. It was a tag. A long white tag from the inside of my shorts. This means exactly what you think it means.  I’d put my shorts on inside out, with the chamois on the outside. I am now a true triathlete.

Post Script

I got to see Adelaide finish and beat her spoken goal (her real goal had apparently been about 20 minutes faster). But to see her finish made my eyes all misty-like. She’d almost died six months before and she was already competing again. Not only that, she finished 13th in her age group. To ask for anything more would have been quite simply unreasonable. As for her wanting to do better? Good. That’s what some races are for: stoking the fire.

We hung out in the expo area (more accurately the massive food tent) and I pounded down sandwich after sandwich, waiting for the results and later the podium. I’d won my age group by eight minutes, as well as all the other age groups, meaning I was the best amateur. I also finished 17th overall, beating 10 of the pros. I was quite pleased, though not hugely surprised. It was sort of like my first bike race way, way back. I had expected and hoped to win, despite not knowing anything about bike racing, and told myself that if I won I’d take on the challenge of making it to the pro ranks no matter how long it took. If I lost, then I’d continue being a rower. Today I’d adopted the same approach to triathlon, so to win the amateur division and earn the pro license on top of it all was a huge relief.

I’m keeping my head from growing too much though. After all, I’d had my pants on inside out all day.

IMG_0532She even had a smile after the race. (Note the guy behind with the neon shoes about to fall on his face).

IMG_0547

IMG_0535 Can’t walk. Can’t move. Can’t even get up to go pee in the porta pottie.

IMG_0557 I got a sweet red plaque for winning. I was hoping for a sandwich, then I remembered that there were UNLIMITED FREE sandwiches in the food tent.

IMG_0561

Joe Martin Stage Race 2015

(Written for the team’s website, hence the lack of curse words)

It was still dark but birds were chirping loudly just outside the open window, which let in a cool breeze scented with fresh rain. I heard The Sheriff (Michael Burleigh) stir in the bed next to mine. He’d been restless for the past two or three hours, yet his previous snoring was a sign of contented sleep that I’d jealously coveted the past seven hours while staring up at the ceiling. I hadn’t slept one single minute that night and it was now 5:08 AM. Almost time to get up and pack the van for the drive home to Colorado from Fayetteville, Arkansas.

I heard a groaning sigh as Michael got up and started stripping the sheets from his bed for the laundry. Screw it, another 20 minutes of lying there wasn’t going to make me feel any better, so I got up too.

“I didn’t sleep at all,” I said.

“I slept like shit too. The meat sweats. I had them baaad,” groaned Michael.

“Yeah, same here,” I replied. The hot room’s scent agreed.

We’d feasted on a half dozen different kinds of smoked, roasted, and grilled pork the night before during a large barbeque that our hosts had thrown for us. I’d say I ate a conservative six pounds of meat that night.

“You know what the really messed up thing is?” I asked. “I’m still hungry.”

“Yeah. Me too,” Michael agreed.

I ate pulled pork that morning and a long side of ribs that afternoon, wondering what was wrong with me. The mental agony of forcing down that meat and the havoc it was wreaking on my intestines was not lost on me. I guess eating mass amounts of pork products is a lot like bike racing. You enjoy the deliciousness of the moment, try to forget about the pain, and focus on the next few pedal strokes (or mouthfuls) to victory, all the while attempting to regret nothing and block out the knowledge that something bad could and probably will happen around the next bend. I take my pig-eating very seriously.

Last week we competed in the second NRC event of the season, the Joe Martin Stage Race. I’d say it’s one of my top four favorite NRC stage races, with its rolling hills, long stages, and difficult final day crit. I for one could do without the uphill time trial on day one though.

Our top guy for Thursday’s TT was guest rider Emerson Oronte, who placed a respectable 6th, just 8 seconds back from the winner, Jamis’ Gregory Brenes. Chris Winn put in a good time as well to finish 21st, while Josh Yeaton came in a respectable 34th out of the 165 starters. The three of us draft horses Jake Deuring, George Simpson, and myself), came in a few pages down on the old results sheet.

That brings us to the Sheriff, who we’d all secretly thought could take the win. His strategy was a bold one, vying for either first or last; no middle ground (for him, 50th might as well have been last). He set out guns a blazing but ran out of bullets half way up and went out in a flame of glory. Alas, he’d live on to fight another day. I could continue with these war-themed metaphors but I don’t have that much time to kill.

The second stage was a 108-mile jaunt through the Ozarks, which are considered “mountains” by east coasters and mid-westerners. With a GC rider to protect (Emerson), a sprinter to shelter (Josh), and three or four hard men to battle for the breakaway, I set out to fetch bottles and help position the guys as best as I could.

The first 30 or 40 kilometers were fast, with nothing able to last out in the wind for long. So far, my job had mainly been left unaccomplished. I’d done zero positioning for the team and I had only attacked twice. Instead of playing a part in the race, I was wallowing in self-pity near the back of the peloton. I’d received some difficult news from home a few hours before the start, and my futile attempt to put it behind me while we raced had come to an end. The roads turned slick with rain and my mood continued souring right along with the weather. When you’re suffering emotionally, it’s incredibly hard to muster up the mental focus needed to slog the old legs into action.

I drifted off the back on a short climb, not from exertion, but from pure uncaring. I was done. Done trying to deal with everything. For those readers who aren’t aware, my wife was struck by a car while riding her bike last fall and was in a comma for five days. The aftermath of that crash still follows her and I with every step we take, and dealing with it during training and racing is virtually impossible for me. That brings us back to that hill I was drifting backwards on in the rain. At that moment, I was done with caring and done with wanting to even try. I envisioned quitting the sport right then and there. My eyes welled with tears at that thought, because bike racing is my life and without it I’d just be another regular fool working a 9-5, pissing my years away behind a computer screen like I’m doing right now. Just ticking off the days of my pointless, boring existence.

We got to the top of the hill. I saw a couple other riders who were actually suffering, physically. Mouths agape, legs pushing agonizingly slow cadences, bodies rocking. Jesus, these guys suck, I thought. Can’t go off the back with them. That would be embarrassing. So I sprinted around them and caught back onto the pack, thinking that I’d drop out a few moments later.

Since I was already at the back, soon I found myself in the caravan taking a feed from Nick and Faith. Can’t drop out now, these bottles need to be delivered. I handed out the bottles, giving the last one to Emerson, who was near the front of the peloton. Since I’m already here, might as well attack. I followed one guy off the front, and we quickly caught two more up the road. I pulled through, weakly, and another rider came up from behind. Soon the five of us were rotating through and for a fleeting moment I thought this could be it. The move. Seven minutes ago I was about to drop out and ride back to the start by myself. Now I was off the front. Hope shimmered, temporarily. We were caught. It didn’t matter. I’d lifted myself out of the funk I was in and from there on out I was present in the race.

The real move got away a few kilometers later. Our boys lined up near the front behind Jamis and Orgullo Antioqueno to keep Emerson safe. Ha. There’s nowhere safe in a bike race. During a slight shuffling from another squad moving in on us from the left as we approached a downhill curve, Jake touched my rear wheel and went down hard, breaking his collarbone and taking out 30 guys with him. One moment was peace, the next was chaos. The worst part about at teammate crashing like that is that there’s nothing you can do to help. What other arena in life do you watch a friend smash to the pavement at 30mph, hear utter carnage and guttural curses, get word that bones have been broken, yet continue along without so much as a rearward glance? I’d gone to the back of the pack to wait for him in case he got back on, just in case. It didn’t account for much.

An hour later the final climb began. I wasn’t feeling great, but had enough oxygen in my brain to look up and take in the view and store away the moment in time as we crested the climb. We rose up into a thick cloud of fog. The bright colors of the peloton vanished 50 feet ahead of me in the suspended water droplets. As we began the descent, small rocks and grit flew into my eyes, which were uncovered by glasses since they were now too dirty and dark to see through. Brakes weren’t working at their finest, due to the slick roads and carbon rims. The bold blazed past and the meek continued grabbing brakes. I was among the later.

The 20-mile run-in to the finish was long, wide-open, packed with cars that were stopped on the left side of the road, never under 30 miles an hour, and terrifying. Trains moved up on the left, the right, and straight down the center. Riders began taking more and more risks to position for the final series of 90-degree corners in the last 1.5 kilometers. You have to be in the top 15 leading into that section if you plan on contesting the finish or getting the same time as the lead group. Everyone knows this.

I couldn’t seem to move up and regain contact with my teammates no matter where and when I tried. The pace only got faster as the finish line approached and my worthless meat pistons only grew more leaden. I entered that crucial left hander and was forced to jam on the brakes from a pile up in the middle of the road. I hoped up on the sidewalk to bypass it, but soon found myself stopped once again after seeing Michael go summersaulting over the pavement with his bike flipping over his head like a leashed surfboard flung high into the air after a big wipe out.

All at once, all the adrenaline, pain, hope, and excitement of the previous four hours vanished into the air. The race (our race) was over. I caught my breath. Still alive. George rolled up from behind and we helped Michael mount his battered steed for the final 500 meters. We rolled across the finish line and Michael went straight to the medical tent to get his wounds scrubbed. We regrouped with the rest of the team, bid farewell to Jake, who had been riding in the back of the race ambulance with a shattered clavicle for the past 2.5 hours without any pain meds or food, and began the short ride home.

Our somber mood lasted for an hour back at our host house…until Faith came home and started cooking. Food cures all, almost. Late that night we found out that Emerson had been docked 17 seconds for being held up in the crash, despite the 3K rule and despite his position in the top 20 when the crash happened. Our GC contention was essentially gone in the blink of a disgruntled official’s eye.

Saturday’s race was a complete turnaround, for me at least. The sun was shining, I’d resolved the personal issues from the following day, and my spirits were soaring. The course consisted of a lollypop out and back section with four 23-mile loops of a hilly circuit. We were in for another long one again, at 110 miles. Emerson was riding in a blind rage for the first half lap, trying to initiate a break since his GC prospects looked grim. The rest of the guys had good legs as well and Chris was following dangerous moves at the front. The break got away on the descent, of all places, so I was once again very content to do what I could in order to keep the rest of the team near the front and as fresh as possible.

That, of course, included a lot of time spent back in the caravan with Nick and Faith, loading up on bottles. My time with them wasn’t limited to bottles though. I got a mechanical on lap two and had to do a furious chase back onto the group before lap three’s climb, then I crashed and broke my bars a lap later.

I was uninjured but fuming mad. A couple stupid, ignorant, son-of a bitch, dumb bastards didn’t heed the warnings of the rest of the peloton when they signaled the parked cars on the left. So when the pinch came, they rode into each other and caused a mini pile up. I had to get a neutral bike from Shimano and by the time I was rolling, the peloton was five minutes up the road. I did the last 35 miles solo, going hard enough to make the time cut by a safe margin.

Later, I heard that the finish was once again sketchy as usual with guys riding off the road into ditches and being carted off in the ambulance. Another big crash within sight of the finish line caused carnage in the 80-rider pack, but Chris, Josh, Emerson, and Michael all stayed safe and finished in the same time as the leaders.

The final day of JMSR is always my favorite. The 85-minute crit is somewhat technical and includes a hard climb that shatters the pack in the final laps. Our goal was to get off the front once and for all, since there wasn’t much to lose at that point. Instead, we managed to ride in mass between 20th and 50th wheel, missing out on the break and not getting organized enough to position Josh for the uphill sprint. To be fair, it’s a hard course to accomplish an organized train. I for one was just holding on for dear life during the last two laps, and should have made a bigger effort to move up with five or six to go when it was still manageable.

Chris, Josh, Emerson, and I all finished within a few lengths of each other, coming in between 20th and 30th, which isn’t ideal. It shows an obvious strength in depth when you have that many riders finish just outside of the guys sprinting for the win. But to not catapult one of those guys into the top 10? That’s a bad performance.

My big take away from the stage was that despite how your teammates might say they feel or how they look like they’re riding, if your job is to help them in the finish, you might as well burn yourself with four laps to go in order to make sure they’re set up for a fighting chance.

Despite not landing the GC or stage result we’d hoped for, we ended up 5th on team GC and were once again the highest-placed amateur squad in the race. Emerson’s 15th GC at the end of the race is nothing to shy away from, even though we all know it was a top 10 in reality.

That night I had too many beers (four), too many pounds of meat (who knows), and just enough laughs to cancel out any negatives of the week. Jake’s collarbone will heal, Josh, Chris, and George will all get another chance to sprint for that elusive NRC stage win later in the season, Michael will bounce out of the slight funk he’s in to re-earn his title as The Sheriff, and I’ll keep taking baby steps towards my old self. The steps of an ungainly, freakishly large 9-foot tall baby that is. Above all, I re-found a bit of forgotten passion for this crazy, amazing lifestyle. It’s not wise to take it for granted. Appreciate the moment. Your next could be in the back of an ambulance, off the back of the race in emotional turmoil, or hunched in agony over the toilet three days after an over-indulgence in BBQ ribs, hoping and praying for the smallest trace of a bowel movement.

Face of said attempted bowel movement:

jmsr

Photo courtesy of Bill Stephens