2007 Race Report #15: Suffering Part II...

Saturday, July 28th, 2007: Race report #15, Whitefish Bay, WI 

Eyes open. Dust flecks flap their brilliant wings in the rays of light escaping underneath the crack of the flimsy plastic window shades. It is morning and I am alive… barely.

I took a moment to register the location – low ceilings, the surround of cheap laminated wood cabinets, the brilliantly glowing eggshell of the plastic skylight, bug shadows on the forward curve: the RV’s awkward charms remained the same.. but, where, exactly, were we?

Synapses flickered and suddenly I realized that like a year ago I was parked behind the same Sendiks grocery in Whitefish Bay, WI – 100 feet from the finish line of the 17th and final stage of the 2007 Superweek “International Cycling Classic” series of bike races.

A year ago this was an opening – the frisson of the new – the proverbial ‘stirring of the pot’ - the entering of the fray. Now it was different. Long gone was the purity of stage one of Superweek – the milling of the crowd - the anticipation of the roll call. Long lost in the “hedonic treadmill” of life was the pleasure of the lineup and the announcements, the colors, the jerseys, the lines and faces of my fellow racers.

I had re-entered the world of the symbolic – where day to day pleasures recede, where the people and faces and cracked concrete and gritty asphalt all became pawns in a bigger game.

Why must we lose the present in pursuit of the future?

Present had reigned at least briefly the night before. Like the year previous I pulled the RV right into the center of the course at Downer Avenue, opened the doors and enjoyed the visits and conversations of the cyclists, speedskaters and friends that bothered to drop by. Missing was Eddy Van Guise, Chris, Jose, & Camie and others but still we had a fine sultry evening of guests in our little rolling home, Katelina tucked in early in the bed in back and Olu, Todd, Brenda, Jon and others swinging by for a bite of pasta or glass of wine.

I was reminded of the year previous – where, after a glass or two of wine, I had spent a good deal of time riding long wheelies on my $4000 race bike up and down Downer Ave and Jeff and I had treated the Milram team to a few extra beers in hopes of slowing their assault the following day.  No wheelies and just one glass of wine last night – and a focus on what was to come in the morning…

Stars, like sparrows, circled my inner eyelids when I finally rose. I felt swollen, full, hot, so I drink water and turn on the fans. Still I continued to feel lethargic, dry, bloated – yet empty. I had hardly slept. The flashes – the sudden startles – the gunshots in my legs, had increased in their frequency and intensity and kept me up most of the night. I started the generator and ran the overhead A/C unit. Straightening up – again the vertigo – it was surprising, unexpected – but not new…

The same old deja-vu.

I forced morning activities into “normal” and with discipline metered out a routine of hydration, food, registration, and a short “pre-warmup” on the bike. In hindsight, these formalities were like reading the music for “Taps” – a prelude for what was to come.

 A month later and in a middle- of-the-night moment of clarity the deja-vu’s were suddenly placed. The shooting stars in my legs, the midnight panicked awakenings, the leg sweats. All these were incredibly familiar – yet distant. These were not constants in my 30 years as an athlete – these memories were concentrated during critical focal points and subsequent failures in my athletic career: The first time was the summer of 1986 after moving into the Olympic Training Center in Colorado in prep for the World Cycling Championships. A few weeks of intensive training later and… 

The second was the fall and winter of 1990 in Calgary – the  first year of full time speedskating training. 3 workouts a day for 4 or 5 months and suddenly nights stopped being restful, I lost muscle mass, I trained better and better and raced worse and worse.  

Then again in the following year in 1991 training in Colorado Springs again – this time for skating – by the 1992 Olympic trials I was slower in the 500m than I had been since I was a teenager living in California…  

Most recently was in Lake Placid, New York, in preparations for the 1998 Olympics where I had my worst finish in an Olympic trials ever, despite working harder than I ever had.  

These were the years where I had experienced these same visceral electrical stimuli and associated exhaustion. These were the years where I believed the most, trained the hardest and had results that… 

The results in those years? So simple to see it now - all of those years had three things in common:  

1) Ever more ‘solid’ and ‘consistent’ endurance training sessions (meeting coaches expectations) paralleled by…  

2) An ever deepening physical and psychological gloom, and… 

3) Solid, consistent, and absolutely uninspired racing results - well below my expectations.  

Psychologically, these years were devastating – lost was that “magic” – that inspiring ability to race well beyond my training. To lay it all on the line and come up with “average,” this was the part that was most heart-rending of all…  

I watched my friend Matt  Dula start his first licensed race – a brutal, large, relatively experienced field of cat 5 riders, all 15 to 20 years younger than he ping-ponging pell-mell around the circuit. Tense, nervous, cautious on the corners, yet he hung on  - precariously, like a raindrop on a vertical surface, struggling to maintain position for a lap only to suddenly dodge backward and sideways and then pause again – swelling – stationary for a moment before another sudden drop to the next section of the peleton until he was isolated into a chase pack after 7 or 8 laps.

I watched and cheered as he attempted to stay safe and finish his first licensed race. I did fear for the worst – that this first foray into the weird dynamics of cycling might result in the horrendous feeling of getting completely dropped and suffering alone against the wind, or worse yet, a crash…

A lap later and suddenly he’s gone. A fall on the far side of the course has lost him his sunglasses, dented his helmet, and left him dazed. I tried to talk him into returning, but he is unsure. First race blues – a fall, no visible injuries, but fear… it grows. Walden would always, ALWAYS demand, “get back on the bike Coyle! Finish the race, or at least the lap!” I failed Matt – and he stayed on the sidelines.

Hours and hours until my final bout of Superweek suffering, so Shannon, Kat, Matt and three of his children made for the beach at the lakefront of lake Michigan. The escarpment overlooking the lake features a dramatic wood and cement staircase with a half-dozen switchbacks leading down the 200 vertical feet to the sand. Despite some evil smelling offal washing ashore it was a picturesque day and we laid our towels upwind of the odors and tried to relax, Matt was quickly horizontal in the post-race peace, and myself just walking, walking, trying to limber up, while ignoring every signal my body was sending.

It wasn’t until the return up the stairs that the dire circumstances of my physical condition truly made itself manifest. The hundreds of steps we had descended in an easy ramshackle file to the beach had to be re-scaled in order to return to the race course.

We passed beyond the amber sands and after a matter of only 5 or 6 steps up the weathered wooden stairs I stopped - a buzzing in my ears, intensifying whites bleaching through the lines of the reflected sun on the wood. The white cement expanded and coursed through all levels of contrast, overexposing everything within my view. A wave of weariness & nausea starting in my ankles washed through my limbs. I was again reminded of how dry and swollen my mouth was.

In agonizingly slow motion I climbed a few more steps. Shannon, Matt and the kids chattering as they swarmed past me. Their sounds seemed to grow in volume and fill my thoughts even while receding in the distance - colors began to fade again, whiteness, heat, dry mouth, sparks and fireflies – then like the blades of a slow motion helicopter, my neck seemed to rotate and the sky throbbed – voom, vooom, voooom.

Like a sailor in a gale I held the railing, head down, white knuckles, riding the roiling disequilibrium. Dozens of steps ahead the voices finally faded. I dreaded sight, I dreaded sound. I didn’t want anyone to see. Then, the inevitable question from above - one of the wooden switchbacks, a strangely familiar voice – like someone I knew… “John – are you OK?”

My friend Matt. The kids were well beyond earshot. I shook my head mildly, downplaying my predicament and made an attempt to resume the climb – stopping every 4 or 5 steps.

The kids were playing at the top of the stairs and only Matt noticed how long it took me to make the trek. “Are you OK?” he asked again with real concern. Again I shrugged my shoulders with a rueful smile, then we piled into our cars and the RV and made our way back to the racecourse.

The race itself is a footnote. I lined up. I read the lap cards: “80” while crowds milled about in the beer tents, announcements were made, and the sun moved westward. I suffered through the usual pain of the first laps despite an extremely hard warmup with Matt that was fueled by a sudden suspicion that the start time was earlier than we had thought.

But unlike Downer Avenue, where the pain was controlled, focused, having behind it the bruising power of heavy machinery running cool and powerful, the feeling at Whitefish Bay was one of heat and disorder and of fear – muscles out of order, knees sloppily rotating, feet pedaling squares, never settling into any kind of rhythm –  my legs were like egg-beaters whipping a bowl full of marbles – the pain was shocking, tinny, abrupt, and visceral.

Like the little steel ball in a Japanese Plinko machine I bounced left, up, right and inevitably back and after 35 laps I finally fell out the back, coasting to the sidelines mouth open wide gasping for air, legs quivering, knees out.

 

The race whirred by eventually spitting out 85% of the starters. Even Ben Renkema – last year’s Cat 2 national champion and Michigan State Champion was dropped – with only 4 laps remaining – how does that happen? Catching my breath I said goodbye to Matt and tasted the poignant bitterness of disappointment - no Superweek win this year. We said our goodbyes to Eddy, Jose and some of the racers, loaded up the RV and I climbed behind the wheel to drive home.

Enroute back to Chicago I cracked the window, feeling the evening air as it cooled, its play on my face reminding me of so many things. I grew still and sad – another summer on the wane. We arrived home late, and the next morning I got up early and returned back to work.

 Flashback: October, 1983. I was sitting on the smooth green padded vinyl bench of a schoolbus, traveling from Ohio to West Virginia – encased in the yellow metal shell, the musty smell, the  dirty black floors and the roar of the diesel straining against the wind, cars passing us. 39 other student members of my high school music band and I were out for our annual “band tour.”

Fortunately I had no conception of the dorkiness I represented: skinny, short, braces, pimples, unfashionable clothes, honor society, and on tour with the high school band playing 2nd French horn. My mind was elsewhere. 

I pinched the double latches, and with some effort pulled down the bus window above my seat, ignoring the feeble protest of another band geek behind me, his papers riffling with the wind.  The yellow raft of light piercing the open window warmed my face as the last wisps of the Indian Summer air swirled through the window.

I remember with clarity feeling a nameless ache I had already begun to associate with this time of year – the melancholy of falling leaves, the crisp fading light, the end of summer and of the cycling season.  Regardless of my personally undetermined state in the high school hierarchy, I had become a force to be reckoned with in the cycling world, and each year I yearned for more warm days, more races, more time on the bike.

Every year I became more keenly aware of the first signs of the changing weather patterns signaling the end of the season. And of course there was the girl back at school – taller, older, an Egyptian carving: beautiful alabaster skin with black pools for eyes and those budding hints at mysteries unknown. She knew my name – but to her I was probably what I really was – a sideshow to the older, taller, stronger, white-toothed upperclassman. I longed for her and for summer, and ached deeper for something unknown. I was nostalgic and mournful in the grandest sense without knowing why.

I was the first and only band geek to have a “jam box” or more accurately a stereo cassette player/radio with a handle and large speakers. It was silver and I had spent virtually all my winnings of bike races that summer on it and it was loud and powerful. On and off I received requests to play tapes, but mostly we tuned into various radio stations as the countryside drifted by and the season changed. 

On this particular evening the sun had set and the rows of seats in the bus had changed from green to gray. Outside the windows all that remained of the day was a glimmer on the horizon that last kiss of the day on the undersides of the clouds. I had the window open and we were thousands of miles from anything or anyone and my pining for something lost and lamented increased and the presence of so many others only amplified my loneliness.

Then suddenly, as I turned the tuner dial – it came – that first piano chord… It was just unaccompanied piano – but it was the perfect capture of this melancholy, this longing, the ghostly cool air, the barren trees.

Instinctively I hit “record” and listened transfixed, turning up the volume. The piano played on and again I turned it up and the bus – full of the usual hum of teenage conversations – grew oddly still. 40 teenagers away from home, disembodied on plastic seats, grew still and listened and the piano played on. Then Bono’s voice came out,  

“October…and the trees are stripped bare…of all they wear… what do I care?”“October… and kingdoms rise, and kingdoms fall… but you go on… and on…” 

As I write this it is yet another October, and again I feel that same teenage melancholy – another summer gone, Fall on its way, and the chill of Winter is coming. The seasons rule and I have to wait another year to prove my mettle.

But at least I have the warmth of my two girls which removes the sting of the cold.

Maturity tells me I need the rest anyway…

-John Coyle, October, 2007

2006 Race Report #8: Downer Avenue, Milwaukee

Non-Race Report, Saturday July 22nd, Superweek Stage 15, Downer Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 62 miles, 75 degrees.  No, I didn’t race this night. Downer Avenue is a “Pro 1/2 only” event. As it turns out, I could have but I wanted to enjoy the Downer Ave. race one more time as a spectator.

Early in the evening I had a conversation on the announcers stand with Heidi, the chief referee –  “After many years,” I said, “I’ve decided to go ahead and move up and race with the pro 1/2’s.”  Somehow I expected her to know who I was, but of course I was just another of a zillion racers… “Well, to move up, I’ll need a race resume, and I’m not sure I’ll have time to review it before registration closes…” 

“No, not for tonight” I said, “For tomorrow – but I can write you a race resume tonight and bring it by later.”   “OK,” she said and we agreed to check in later that evening, where I brought her some of the race finishes I’d had over the last year – more than enough to move up. (In order to move up to the elite categories you need to prove that you’ve earned it by earning points. Basically you can move up with 3 top 3 finishes, or 5 top 5 finishes or 10 top 10 finishes.  

Downer Avenue, 5pm: Gemutlicheit is how the Germans would describe the intangible positive vibe in this wealthy North Shore neighborhood on this evening. Promoter estimates suggest 20 – 30,000 people line the course of this annual event, though it feels like more… The one mile triangular course consists of two tree lined neighborhood streets, concluding with the third: the long finish stretch with the finish line right in the heart of the boutique coffee-house and restaurant lined section of town. The outdoor seating of the cafes, the upscale markets, all accentuated by the elegant lines of the wealthy patrons and their automobiles makes for rather excellent people watching. As the picnicking public arrives, it is not beer and brats – rather wine and brie, steaks and shrimp that they carry in their coolers. 

Jeff and I arrived early enough to get a decent spot for the RV, next to a tiny little green space lining the final corner of the race. We dressed in our cycling gear and headed out for an easy 40 minute ride down the lakefront area of Milwaukee, and then returned and “prepped” for the race. The game plan was for

  • A) me to hit the Chiropractic services as my back was killing me, and
  • B) to walk the course, and
  • C) for us to cook an excellent pasta dinner in large quantities, and
  • D) to deliver some of it to our favorite people – Jose and Todd in the mechanics wheel pit area, Sarah in Chiropractic/massage, and to Eddy and John on the announcing booth. 

As it turned out, that was a rather aggressive game plan, as the grocery shopping, followed by the “back cracking”, followed by the walk around the course put us nearly halfway through the 60 lap, 2hr. race. On the backstretch, we ran into Robbie Ventura’s father and chatted for a few minutes about old times, and Floyd’s amazing success in the tour (Robbie is Floyd’s coach – as well as the coach my friend Jeff). 

Finally, we made it back to the RV and boiled water for the penne pasta  on one propane burner, and began chopping up the onions, garlic, yellow squash, and zucchini to fry in olive oil in the pan next to it. Meanwhile I quickly boiled, peeled, and crushed fresh tomato, and pulled fresh basil from the stems in prep for the sauce. Meanwhile, outside Jeff grilled the chicken on our portable grill and then sliced it.  After finishing the pasta, we added the chicken and fresh tomatoe to the vegetables, and added in fresh basil, and pecorino romano cheese, and only then realized we had no salt! 

We wrapped 5 portions in bowls and aluminum foil, and then headed of to deliver them, stopping to “borrow” a salt shaker from a local restaurant, properly salting the sauce. We delivered dinner to Jose, Todd, Sarah, Eddie, and John and then headed back to serve ourselves. However, by the time we returned to the RV, served up our plates, opened some wine, and retired to our previously placed folding chairs, there was only 2 laps left to go in the race. 

We watched the final laps, and then wandered down to the awards ceremony while still carrying our fresh pasta to watch the medals being distributed. Finally, we broke camp and loaded up the RV to implement the final stage of the plan… Earlier we had picked up a number of bottles of wine to share with whomever came by. We pulled out in the RV, bypassed the barricades and drove right into the center of town, parking right next to the wheel pit and the announcer’s booth.

We unrolled the awning, turned on the interior and exterior lights, broke out the folding chairs, turned up some music, and sat out on the sidewalk under the darkening skies as the bulk of the spectators faded, and the post race rituals for the initiated commenced. 

A little about the RV… well… it is “retro.” Meaning “old.”  It is a 1987, 28 foot Georgie Boy Cruise Air II. It is replete with wall to wall brown shag, mauve couches and seats, and faux wood paneling tables and real wood paneled kitchen cabinets. It has 3 beds and comfortably sleeps… well, 3. The exterior is a taupe fiberglass box with the horizontal ridges so typical of the era. It has a working stove, microwave, TV, AC, generator, hot water heater, coffeemaker, bathroom with toilet and sink, shower with hot water, fridge, freezer, CD player and VCR. The entire 10,000lb vehicle has a blue book value only slightly more than my 16 lb Italian, hand-painted carbon fiber bicycle balanced delicately on the rack on the back.

There is some sort of weird credibility in that juxtaposition… Yes, I get a lot of jealous looks from the other cyclists as they pile into their cramped team vans or other tiny vehicles. Cyclists typically have a keen retro whimsy. I recently added some vintage looking throw rugs from Target to spice up the interior and now it almost looks 1988 – even 1989. Until this year I really didn’t have to do any maintenance, but now I’m thinking of upgrading – but on the other hand, it only has 31,000 miles on it…. I admit it, I love my second home – even though I keep forgetting to deduct it on my taxes… 

Soon Jose and Todd from the SRAM sponsored mechanical support team materialized, and Todd gave me a signed copy of his recently published tome on bicycle maintenance, jokingly suggesting that now I’d at least know SOMETHING about taking care of a bike when he signed it for me.  Eddy Van Guys (the announcer – and former actor who played the “evil Italian” racer in the Oscar winning movie “Breaking Away) and his son came by next and he ended up chatting with Jeff at length while I talked to his son. Eventually Eddy and I talked and I told him of my intent to move up to race with the pros the following day. He said, “John, I’ve had a few glasses of wine, but I want to celebrate this long overdue occasion – do me a favor tomorrow and give me a brief bio, and then wave to me on the start line to remind me OK?” I promised I would. 

Next came the chiropractic/massage girls and doctor and a number of racers, including a couple of the German Milram riders, followed by Chris (the coordinator of the registration, payments and everything in between) and Hillary (a former race coordinator) and several others. Pretty soon we had a good sized group hanging out in and out of the RV and we ended up staying until almost midnight – right on Downer Ave. 

At one point I remember stepping out of my “home” with a bottle of wine in hand ready to pour into the empty glasses of our “guests”, the remnants of our pasta in a bowl for one of the cyclists and I paused to look out at the relaxed smiling faces… and I felt home. For that moment, on that street, with old friends and new, it was though we were hosts to the world and the street was ours, and I smiled and breathed deep before heading down the final step to the curb.. 

The Milram team racers indicated they were going to the “Eastsider” on North Avenue, so we packed it up and joined Dennis Hauweizer and his teammates and a dozen other pros on their last night of the Superweek classic at the Eastsider in Milwaukee. Dennis already had enough points to win the overall title for the series and would soon be heading back to join his somewhat defamed teammate Jan Ullrich. We talked for a little while at the bar and mostly people watched. Jeff and I sipped the last of our wine, said goodbye to Chris, Hillary, Dennis, Sarah and various other racers and support personnel and then finally headed off to Whitefish bay.

As we pulled into an empty lot behind Sendicks, I was happy to discover the air had miraculously turned cool with the proximity of some large storms. Even as I collapsed on the bed in the rear of the RV, I remember thinking, “I need to drink some water….”

It was 2am and I was not exactly preparing properly for one of the most competitive professional races run in the USA… or was I? Dennis and his teammates were still there after we left, and I bought them a round of beer just before we headed out the door…

I smiled before drifting off to sleep.

2007 Race Report #14: Downer Avenue Pro Race - Suffering

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?

Nothing.

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…