First Win!

I’ve been competing in endurance sports since I was 14-years-old. It’s been 30 years. Those years have certain highlights and plenty of low points. I have never been exceptional. I can definitely beat the guy who never toes the starting line. Other than that, I’ve mostly been a mid-packer. I’m okay with that. Though I have always had my goals, I’ve never expected moments of athletic brilliance.

I got my start as a competitive cyclist. For years I competed on the road and at the track. I was dropped, lapped, and pulled out of more races than I care to remember. Ultimately, what mattered to me was my ability to maintain my passion and my desire to line up again for another fight.

I started running in 2001. I was living in Manhattan at the the time. I always associate my entry into running with 9/11. Though I begain running months earlier, I remember looking at the city differently on my runs after that day. I also ran about 10 miles of the New York Marathon that year as a bandit, supporting a friend who was a legit registered runner. The race had a strong consciousness of 9/11 that year.

Five years later I was first plagued with what would become chronic lower issues. I had surgery at end of August, 2006. Several months later an orthopedic surgeon told me I would never run again. After a few weeks of feeling bad for myself, I dusted off my old road bike and started getting myself back into cycling shape. Within the year, I was competing again, and it felt great. I was living in Rochester, NY at the time and I discovered some truly beautiful roads in the area. I learned that Western, NY is a remarkable place to live if you are a cyclist.

In 2010 I lined up for a Friday afternoon criterium race. It was after school and work, so my wife and daughters came to cheer me on. I started the race as strong as I ever remember racing a crit. I was riding comfortable in a top 5 position as I dove hard into a sharp corner. Just before the apex of the turn the pedal of a rider next to me clipped the spokes of my front wheel. While to those observing, the crash happened in a flash, from my point of view I am conscious enough of exactly what is happening to feel the dread what is to be and to brace myself for impact. Once my body stopped sliding across the pavement, I took stock. Nothing hurt yet. I’m in shock. Am I alive? Check! Did my head avoid impact? Check! Do I appear to have avoided any broken bones? Check! Is my bike still alive? Not so much…

That’s when my location on the short circuit course occurred to me and suddenly I felt a wave of panic. Still sprawled on the ground, I rolled over, looked to the right, and no more than 50 yards away witnessing the whole thing were my horrified wife and two young daughters. At that moment, instinct took over. I forced the biggest fake smile I could muster and gave them a double thumbs’ up.

Somebody helped to to my feet and handed my my broken bike. I threw it over my shoulder, walked to the starting line where my family stood, and handed my bike to the organizers of the race who happened to be from my local bike shop. I asked them to take the bike, assess the damage, and told them I’d call them on Monday.

I walked over to my family and tried to hide the pain, which was starting to set in, as much as possible. They looked concerned. And I was bleeding. A lot. Everywhere. I had terrible road rash, I ended up shattering my bike’s carbon fiber frame. But I was fortunate to have walked away without serious injury.

My family was a bit traumatized. About 3 weeks later I was in a local training race when I started to hear my oldest daughter’s voice in the back of my head ask, “Are you going to fall again, Daddy? Are you going to get hurt again, Daddy?”

At that moment I asked myself, “Why the fuck am I doing this to myself and my family?” At that point, I pulled out of the pack. Once the other riders passed, I turned around, rode back to my car, and said goodbye to road racing for the rest of my life.

The next week I bought a mountain bike. Rochester, NY, I learned, is also an amazing place to live if you love single track. The trails are extensive and they are fantastic. Though I had spend most of my life as a serious cyclist, up to that point I had never done any real mountain biking. There are not too many nearby options in Chicago, where I grew up. And so I began to explore, cautiously.

As I characteristically do, I registered for a local mountain bike race before I was really prepared. It was one of a 3-race series. I arrived early and I was extremely nervous. I was completely out of my element. I decided to explore the course. It was maybe a 3 or 4 mile loop through an absolute roller coaster of single track. I took it all very slowly and cautiously. That is, until the very back of the course when I found myself on top of a short, steep chute. And I panicked. Quite simply, I didn’t know how to get down on two wheels, and I was still pretty squirrely from my crash a month earlier. When other riders, also warming up, approached from behind, I got off my bike and pretended to be fiddling with the gears. I was embarrassed. I couldn’t ride my bike down the hill. It was too steep. I was afraid. I waiting until I was certain nobody else was nearby, and I carefully walked my bike down. Again that summer I found myself riding back to my car and packing it in.

After my first attempt to line up for a mountain bike race, I managed to fine a local mountain bike coach. I emailed him. I hired him, not to coach me, but to teach me how to technically ride a mountain bike. He taught me to ride serpentine trails. He taught me flow. He taught me to ride steep inclines and tackle drops with confidence. He taught me to navigate logs and rocks, and by the fall I was absolutely in love with riding single track. It brought me joy like riding on the road never had before.

I committed my winter to training hard for my first season of mountain bike racing. Riding through a Rochester winter can be challenging and I spent more hours on the indoor trainer than my sanity could handle, but I came out of winter strong and confident.

Obviously, my primary goal was to return to that same race. As it turns out, that 3-race series had both a spring and a summer edition and I registered for the first spring race at the earliest possible date.

The day came. It was help on a weekday afternoon. I left work early so I could arrive with enough time to ride the course again. I’ll admit, I was still afraid of that steep drop on the back side of the course. As I approached that point of no return on my warm-up lap I did exactly what I was taught. I slid my weight back, threw my ass over my rear wheel, loosened up on the bars to allow the front suspension to work its magic and I went for it. I got to the bottom and immediately thought to myself, “That’s it?”

Maybe 45 minutes later I found myself at the starting line with the others in the men’s Novice class. I was nervous. I sized up the competition and I decided they were all better than I. And before I knew it the starter’s pistol was fired.

I held back. At that point, I did not have the confidence to try anything brave. Or stupid. 3 riders went off the front. I settled in behind the second group of riders for a minute or two until I felt like I had more to give. So I thought, “Fuck it! What do I have to lose?” I took off and bridged the gap to the early leaders.

The course had a lot of sharp turns, and it was peppered with short steep inclines and declines. It was mostly narrow single track, so, except for the open field at the start and a few other short open areas, passing was not simple. At this point I was in fourth position with a growing gap behind us. The rider immediately in front of me struggled up a short steep incline and was forced to unclip from his pedals. I took the opportunity to power up and around him. Third position.

We were soon motoring through a few hairpin turns and I held my position. As we reached the back of the course and approached the “cliff” that scared me away the previous year, I had no trepidation. There were a few manufactured turns through a field before we crossed the line for our first lap. Entering the second lap, we would have to pass through the open field once again. I was feeling strong and confident and knew that this was my opportunity. I did what I’ve never done in a race on the road in all my years. I made a move off the front. I waited until we were almost past the open area of the course and back into the forest and I jumped hard. I wanted a gap of at least a single bike length before hitting the woods, By the time I entered the single track, I had built a gap of two or three bike lengths.

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For the rest of the race I rode afraid. Leading a race was not a position that was familiar to me and, though I felt strong, I expected to be passed until I built enough of a lead that I could no longer see any other riders behind me. It was my first win and it began my most successful season of competing in any sport. I ended up winning the next two races in the series and was promoted from Novice to Sport class. I had four other victories on my mountain bike that season and gained enough upgrade points to seek promotion to Expert class but I was advised against making that move so quickly.

I now live in the suburbs of Chicago and I don’t even own a mountain bike anymore. The truth is, I cannot tell you the last time I went for a real ride of any sort, though I miss it. But I’ve found myself at home back in my running shoes. I don’t anticipate winning any races or age group awards, but I celebrate the small victories when they come, be it a strong workout, a transcendent trail run when I truly leave my burdens behind, or hopefully this season, completing my first 50K and 50 miler. I’m just happy that my body puts up with me and everything I put it through. As I head into the back end of my 40s, every day that I find the time, the strength, and the drive to keep it up is the greatest win!