Friday July 27th, 2007: Race report #14, Downer Avenue, Milwaukee: Suffering
Conventional wisdom has it that athletic minds and their finely trained bodies are completely in tune: that the discipline of training creates in the cavity of the diaphragm, heart, and sinews the same rich resonance that is produced within the oiled wood of a fine cello when rubbed to resonance by fibrous strands of the horsehair bow.
Yes, during those magical moments in training or a competition where forces align and the moving parts become orchestrated with some semblance of harmony, a low hum begins, that understated harmony, that resonant frequency which keeps a metronome on an ever shortening interval – the pace increases, lento becomes andente, andente becomes moderato, moderato becomes allegretto…
However, for a majority of scores the music is freeform dissonant jazz: a “bitches brew” of piercing notes out of key and out of synch with the untrained mind, a raucous cacophony twanging the nerves, jangling the sinews and muscles. Contrary to popular belief, one of the main disciplines involved with being a high caliber athlete is learning to tune out and manage the confusing jumble of noise and pain the body shouts to the brain. The learned response is to ignore many of the most obvious biological responses to trauma – pain, soreness, nausea, swelling etc. and continue to drive the beat, to perform.
In the summer of 1991 I was living with a pair of brothers from Minnesota in a run-down apartment complex in Menominee Falls outside Milwaukee, and training with Peter Mueller – the top coach in the world at the time – and training along side Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, and a small number of other handpicked speedskaters.
John Albrecht, my roommate, was a Stradivarius of an athlete: powerful shoulders, a six pack of abdominals, massive thighs tapering gracefully to tuning fork knees, and then a pair of thunderous calves – all muscle and power.
One late morning after a particularly tough session running hills at the Milwaukee lakefront, John quizzically asked me, brow frowning only slightly, “Do you think it’s bad if I have blood in my urine? It’s only been a couple of days now but… what do you think?”
The halls of pain echo for an experienced athlete. The suffering is nothing and yet is everything. The pain is white. It is black. It lacks color or sibilant sound – just reverberations reflecting off the porcelain tiles of the stony discipline of the psyche. But blood, glittering red-black blood, pulses through hidden rivulets in the gutters of the mind.
Thursday, July 26: After the pro race in Kenoha I followed directions and drove the creaking RV to Lake Geneva and the the cul-de-sac drive fronting the abode of our friends Gary and Monica for the night. After dinner with friends, I stood up in the cool moist evening air and, for a brief moment, the stars swooned. When they swung back into sight, vertigo turned their winks to streaks as they flit left and right like flock of tiny metallic sparrows before re-settling in the tall oaks surrounding the cul-de-sac. Regaining balance I returned to the RV and climbed the stairs like an 85 year old – each step requiring effort followed by rest and controlled breathing.
I had forgotten, somehow - completely forgotten - the effects of heavy training & racing – of day after day of grinding physical effort. I had forgotten the subtle ribbing of the sky, the bricking in of the landscape, the rising gray tiles of the floor. Through suffering, life becomes a tunnel – a turbulent passage from the torrents of one storm grate to the next.
Like stops on the subway, regular life events - a dinner, a conversation, a book, a nap – become passing glimpses into the outside world while, ever elusive, the light arcing down the curving tunnel is an ever receding goal. Sometimes even that glow disappears and all that remains are the halls of pain, the passing outlines of real life outside graying in shadows.
The discipline of the mind is iron, it is stone: it surrounds. If my mind had momentarily escaped the confines of discipline I would have realized that I was exhausted. I would registered and considered the implications of the “leg sweats” taking place each night, where despite normal body temps, my legs would glisten, uncovered, with perspiration most of the night. I would have been daunted by the “jerks” – neurons randomly firing in muscle groups in my legs creating momentary “fight or flight” responses like gunshots, repeatedly waking me up. I would have noticed how hard mundane daily tasks like standing up (headrush again – whoah), climbing the two steps into the RV, or even reaching over my head had become.
Suffering? No – not really – most of those regular body feedback mechanisms had already been switched to “off.” In fact, it was once again “normal.” Like the second week of a bad cold – only the healthy symptoms became notable, “say – I can breathe through my nose!” the counterpart after a good rest, “say – I can stand up without a headrush!”
Friday, July 27th - The Downer Avenue Pro Criterium: The bike is an amazing contraption for suffering. Marathon runners are incredible athletes who suffer all kinds of agonies on route in the 2 hours or so it takes the best to finish the 26 miles. But marathon runners have one crutch that we don’t – they require balance, coordination and consciousness to finish the race. Not so the cyclist.
A 100Km, 62 mile bike race in the Pro 1-2 division takes a little over 2 hours - approximately the same amount of time as a marathon run by a top athlete. At the end of a marathon, runners may stagger, and sometimes fall and then either get up and finish, or are taken away by the medical crew. In cycling, the rotational inertia of the wheels on the bike keeps the cyclist upright long after power ceases to flow to the pedals and there is very little coordination required to keep a bike level at speed: hence a cyclist can still continue forward on inertia with almost no consciousness. What this means is: a cyclist can literally race until the point of losing consciousness - and beyond - before forward progress stops.
I’ve only passed out 4 times from bike racing and only two times while actually on a moving bike..
The first time I lost consciousness from racing I was 11 years old and attempting for the first time in my short career to climb mountains and deal with the affects of altitude. Despite a weak aerobic constitution I managed a 4th place finish, falling over just after the finish line still strapped into my pedals. I came-to a few moments later with a white rim of dried lactic acid spit all around my lips that would not come off despite the repeated scrubs of my forearms.
The second collapse was right after the 90 miles of the Michigan State cycling championships in 1985. I had run out of water well before the finish of the long race and after the sprint where I came in second, the dehydration hit me and I passed out while still coasting past the finish and went into a ditch.
While comatose, the muscles in my hands, and one of my calves decided to spasm and when I came to, both hands were clenched into claws, the talons of my own fingernails digging into my own flesh, the leg belonging to an alien except for the incredible pain coursing through my body. A family came to my rescue and gave me water and helped to unclench my hands and release my leg with the result of 4 half circles diced neatly into each palm, bright blood welling up to fill the crescents, and my right calf virtually unusable for the rest of the evening.
I began my warmup for the Downer Avenue pro race. The breeze was off the lake and the sun was starting to set over the hill to my left as I began the climb back up from the beach area on Lakefront drive. I worked hard as I knew from the stories that the Downer Avenue course was a study in pain, and that the pros would be out for blood. I did not want the lack of a warmup to be an excuse for getting dropped. If I was going to get dropped tonight, it would be only because I could not see for blindness from pain, could not steer because I was comatose, could not pedal because my legs were bleeding. I dug tunnels for my suffering. I built walls for my agony. I capped it all with self deceit: I was not going to get dropped.
The warmup was useless – we sat baking in the sun on the start finish line at Downer Avenue for more than an hour as the sponsors and referees and announcers talked on and on. Finally an hour later they sent us on our way.
Suffering. What a generic term – and it is hard to describe really – like a nightmare, the reality of suffering, those horrors, pains, fears, those empty chasms of thought and thoughtlessness slowly dwindle with time and all that is left are the empty words that fall flat in describing the event…
“It was really hard…” What does that mean?
We hear stories all the time about suffering. It is something to talk about, but more often that not the empathy is missing for real suffering - not because the listener doesn’t care - rather the storyteller fails to effectually muster up the true images of what he or she was feeling at the time.
It is so easy to relate the story of the surly waitress, the missed flight, the smashed finger. The true elements of these stories were accurately remembered and can be accurately relayed.
But real suffering – of the kind where a miasma of pain clouds the perceptions, alters memories, displaces consciousness - with real suffering, something happens. the stories start with the same energy, the listeners lean in with the same attention, and then it fades - the storyteller, disappointed, suddenly realizes that he or she no longer contains the memories of those harrowing moments – of the fear and hollow spikes and pangs and dread that they suffered. They realize that while the lingering echoes of those moments remain, that the actual memories themselves are missing, or are censored – a chalk outline - the violence, death, fear and blood and profanity missing. They suddenly trail off and end with a few uninteresting stats…
The worst suffering transcends rationality and hence becomes almost impossible to describe using the vocabulary of the rational mind. The emotional imprint – like a footprint on the grass on a humid day – remains for a brief period, but then it too is gone and inevitably the blades of grass resume their prior reach for the sun, and when shadows are recast on the same indented perception, little remains to describe what had transacted except what is reinvented.
Here is the coroner’s report of the Downer Avenue race. After a slow lap behind the Saturn pace vehicle, the race began in earnest. The Downer’s course is a bit unique: a triangle with three long straightaways, each followed by three 120 degree corners. Unlike most criteriums, this created a uniquely painful series of intervals: approximately 30 seconds on, 15 seconds off for each 2 minute and 10 second lap.
With over 215 riders, the pack was like a gigantic slinky. In the middle and rear of the pack where I spent my time, the corners became jammed with riders and soon we were consistently slowing below 5mph in each corner before a full out sprint back to 35, 37 mph to keep pace with the professionals setting the pace at the front. More than 100 of these riders would be dropped over the coming laps…
This was purposeful suffering…so I could stop anytime. And, unlike the hot surface pain native to the untrained athlete, where muscles give, and blisters rent, the well trained athlete has developed hardened muscles and calloused skin. The lacerating pain is deeper, closer to the bone, and the damage done is gathered in invisible places.
Within a few laps I began lying – “one more lap”. A straightaway later and I began the nearly invisible internal cry that kept me in the race, “Just one more straightaway and then you can quit.”
Again and again I entered turn one, raised joints of concrete rippling through my forearms, shaking my biceps, my body balanced overtop the wheels to absorb the vibrations. I began pedaling a stroke earlier than most competitors, and then jumped out of the saddle, standing on the pedals to make the small rise early in the first straightaway and then smoothly lowering to the saddle as the rise receded behind me. I calmed the shrieks in my head, lungs and legs and pedaled smoothly preparing for second 120 degree corner of the course.
Braking started 100 feet out, and paths through the gigantic 200+ rider peleton were rare. Most times I end up in traffic and slowed to a near stop and then had to sprint with every single ounce of energy just to maintain bearing on the wheel in front of me as we headed down the dark backstretch, towering trees and their skeletal reaches blocking out light overhead.
The whips of those accelerations ripped my legs down to their core threads, my lungs fraying like an ancient flag, snapping, gasping croaks for air. I followed the thin red line of the pacing riders, and the skin around my skull shriveled, my eyeballs bobbing in their vacuous chasms, floating and dripping in blood, painting the world red. Empty with the jarring, the reddened orbs bounced down the white porcelain hallways of the pain. As we approached each corner my sightless body ambled up to collect the bloody globes, coasting for those few critical moments to regain sight and sound. But then again like a nightmare it repeats: 30 seconds of the whip, teeth clenched, paroxysms of fear, 15 seconds of the dripping cooling, burning sweat trying to find a line through the corner, hands on the brakes.
The reality of the race expanded time during the effort like few other events I have ever participated in. Each corridor beneath the trees became an odyssey – an expansive journey into the deepest reserves of my aerobic capacity, of my musculature, of the strength of my quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, forearms… of my beautiful wrists glistening as they held true to the handlebars, tendons standing out like razor blades as my ever thinning skin revealed the bones below.
During the 62 lap race of 186 corners, I actually faced down about 170 individual thirty second sprints where I was quite certain my race would end. Meaningless numbers I know, but I can remember training sessions where the workout would be 2 sets of 3 times 30 seconds and dreading it, dreading it, and then being exhausted after the effort. Here I performed the same thirty second full-on sprints with slightly less than half the usual rest – over one-hundred-eighty times.
Several times, as my soul shriveled with the repeated failures of my legs and lungs, I decided to actually quit – and my “one straightaway more” lie became true. But as I reached the corner coasting, with riders passing me left and right, I found myself in a situation of danger where the compression of the riders behind me was greater than that in front of me and I “pedaled 2 more strokes” to be able to cleanly get through the corner.
A few seconds later, and I found that the peleton had re-embraced me and here I was – on a wheel, and traveling at the requisite speed to finish yet another straightaway. So I lied again and decided “one more straightaway.” I failed to intentionally quit the race 3 separate times.
The mind creates a portrait of the past, but memory has a paintbrush, not a camera. As such it is inherently inaccurate. Is it any wonder that there are few descriptions of “harrowing victory” in the annals of competitive history? In the same way is it any wonder that there are few memories of a “brilliant, jubilant defeat?” The pixels of light and darkness captured in the mind’s eye are filled with the pallet of color of the results – hence the memories of winning somehow pull from the yellows and golds, success and color implying a relatively easier effort, while the losses are inevitably painted with the charcoals of those chiaroscuro efforts – blackened, brutish, pain and disappointment closely linked.
I choose to repaint this race differently. No – I didn’t finish in the money (26th of over 200 starters) – but I did finish. And in so doing what I did accomplish was a unique mastery of the instrument of my body. For over two hours, I played it like the first violinist – drawing out of it with every lash of the straight bow every possible note, every emotion, every tremble of resonance the space of ribs and air and bones was capable of producing. In the end was it all meaningless? A black deep hole – a fissure to the worst unknowns? Or was there transcendence in the agony I endured? Did I learn something so raw and true about myself that I’ll be describing it for decades? I don’t really know to be honest – more than two months later as I write this and I still feel as though I’m clawing my way out of that black crevasse, that hallowed and horrifying yet blindingly brilliant 2 hours and 10 minutes I spent at the edge of sanity and consciousness.
I remember making the halfway mark and having not the least sense that my suffering had changed or that I might possibly finish. I remember seeing 3 laps to go and having no change in my race posture – no thoughts of moving up, of positioning myself for the sprint – just the thin red line of riders and the pain. 2 laps to go and it is the same – I didn't even look up.
With one lap to go, nothing about me changed, but suddenly riders were sitting up. They didn’t care anymore – the race was up the road… And I, I had one silent, tiny reserve left, and as I made my way down the backstretch dodging the bodies of the riders going backward, I found that one last pure emotion of anaerobic ability left. I swung through the crowd of riders to release every single thread of my existence to the bike and ridiculously throw it at the finish line for an unimportant 26th place – one place out of the money, but passing 70 riders in the last lap. Not a victory in the traditional sense, but still I had a still, silent pride…
As I stretched out my bike at the finish line, my right hamstring convulsed and whipped my right pedal into the uppermost position like a steel band pulling my heel into my glutes. The contrast of this cutting, active retching pain against the steady lacerations of the preceding 2 hours caused me to scream but in the noise of the crowd my anguish went un-noticed.
I used all my remaining strength to force the leg to extend and stood upon my right leg, heel down, out of the saddle – even through the first right turn as I entering the gloaming of the brightening night and the throngs of spectators…
I drifted around the backstretch, suddenly noticing the crowd of 20,000, hearing the call outs – hanging in the air “Great race!”, “Hey Dude!” “Wow – that was incredible!” “Hey want a beer?”. For a while I didn’t realize that I was one of those racers – one of those elites they were talking to as well. When I stopped and a bunch of 20 something guys slapped me on my sweaty back and filled my water bottles – one with water, and one with beer I was confused. What did I do that was good or noble or strong that they could know about? Did they actually recognize that this was suffering? Of course they did. I smiled for the first time in hours. And, carefully keeping my right leg in check, circled the course.
I found my daughter Katelina, my wife, Shannon, and her parents, and her aunt and uncle near the start finish line, and I drifted into the barriers listening to the vibrations of the throng and the calls of the announcer. The deep lines of the grimace holding my face still held a little, but there was pride in the eyes of my family – real pride. After hugging my wife and listening to the sparkling words of my little one and her relatives for a moment I suddenly swayed, like a brown-out, the lights suddenly dimming, my balance failing, and I nearly collapsed. The noise dissolved into a buzz and I clung to the barricade, clinging to the bright droplets of the glistening words of my daughter. I kept my right leg straight, and began drinking the water forced upon me, and in seconds the bass drum of life returned and I smiled back at my little girl, still carefully clutching the grey aluminum of the vertical ribs of the barricade.
Windex smell – the smell of muscle burning – the combustion of muscle proteins when other energy sources fail results in the byproduct of sweat that contains ammonia – when you really work hard, you actually smell clean… The night had been rent open, I had fallen deeper than ever, but I had returned… and now, the night was yet young, and there was an RV, friends, music, pasta, and a glass of Sangiovese waiting for me… But I was determined to remember this suffering this time.
I remembered, at that moment, a line from my favorite book by St. Euxpery,
"I swear that what I went through, no animal would have gone through…”
I lifted Katelina on my bike and rode with her on my seat the 400 yards back to the RV – her hair whipping out in the blackness, her shrill screams marveling at our speed… Another night to be remembered at Downer Avenue…