2011 Race Reports 1, 2, 3 & 4: The End of My Youth… I lived my 50’s in my twenties (thanks to the heavy training for the Olympics that left me so exhausted I constantly craved sleep and avoided stairways.) Then, I lived my 20’s in my thirties (where I had seemingly endless energy and required very, very little sleep.) Last weekend I confirmed I’ve solidly entered my 30’s in my forties…
Why again, do I race? It is a question worth repeating. In full disclosure I hate most of it: the monotony of training, the pre-race gymnastics – loading up, driving, registering and paying, the pinning of numbers, warming up, lining up… I hate all of it. Even worse is my hate for the first half or even ¾’s of the race – an agonizing, lung shredding celebration of all my weaknesses and incredible pain and lethargy against faster, stronger, and younger men than I with their chrome plated legs bulging with muscles…
But time, time is flexible, and for the sprinter, there comes a few moments where light penetrates the gray haze of the mind numbing training days and racing hours. For a few moments a brilliant pulse of energy comes to neurons, blood, bones: muscles align to provide a glimpse of hope and opportunity. Today – today could be the day where I win, despite the odds and the haze of pain. And in those seconds, we the dormant, we the feeble, encased in the shell of the peleton suddenly thrust through the shroud of the chrysalis and life, color and hope returns to feed the unfolding of our flight.
The end-of-season races in Grand Rapids included the U.S. Pro Championships and a series of highly competitive categorized races both downtown on the bricks and then in East Grand Rapids in the gentrified “gaslight district.” My plan was to “double up” each day, which would mean racing 4 times in 21 hours.
It was in those 21 hours that the evidence ending my extended youth piled up. It all started with an innocuous phone call “Coyle, want to bunk up for the races in Grand Rapids?” This from Ray Dybowski – the “Godfather” of Michigan cycling and heir apparent to Walden’s coaching legacy. Ray turned 50 today and is still tough as nails often doubling up or even tripling up at races, completing 50 to 60 competitions each summer.
In my mind I pictured a leisurely dinner after the first day of racing, a glass of wine, a luxurious hotel with two queen beds, and a good rest prior to the second day of racing. Then Kroske joined in the group – another Master’s level racer with a strong sprint, great sense of humor, and a ubiquitously available camera. Fantastic I thought – “let’s order a roll-away.”
Then team members “the Rodds” entered the picture – a pair of brothers in their young twenties known for winning races, flashing irresistible smiles to the ladies at every opportunity, a high tolerance for post race libations and little requirement for sleep. This is the beauty of bike racing – age matters nothing, only ability. “I’ll bring my inflatable bed” said Ray. Just like old times…
The day dawned gray-blue and lugubrious and the 4 hour drive to Grand Rapids featured varying speeds of windshield wiper the entire way. Oddly I actually felt a quiver of nerves as I approached the race course, partly due to the inherent danger of racing on wet cobbles, and partly due to built up expectations of delivering results: I had won the last two times racing this event and wanted to do so again.
It was about an hour out from Grand Rapids when the realization that another driver of the empty feeling in my stomach was simple hunger – of course – I would need to eat lunch prior to racing. I swung off the highway and looked at the fast food row dismayed by my options. I tried Wendy’s, pulling through the drive-thru. No, nothing there I can eat. I then followed the signs to McDonalds knowing I could get a yogurt parfait and maybe a grilled chicken salad. The McDonald’s was in a giant Walmart. This Walmart was in the middle of no-where in western Michigan. As I entered the sliding doors to Walmart I had a sudden jolt – everywhere, padding along in flip flops and ill fitting stretchy waistbands were rotund families and individuals who were either eyes down looking into an electronic device, or shoving something unhealthy into their mouths – or both. As I waited in line at the McDonalds it was overwhelming – the sizzle of the fat, the massive sugar laden drinks, the mottled skin, stretchy outfits, and instantaneous entertainment befitting the lifestyles and girths of kings – these were now reserved for those without the money or education to realize what the 24/7 passive entertainment, 2000 calorie, 2000mg of sodium meal was doing to them. I was in an earthbound version of Wall-e and it was no joke.
Chastened I ordered only a yogurt parfait, (king sized, of course w/ a superfries and 64oz Coke), and headed to the car feeling holier than thou while texting Randy and checking weather.
I managed to arrive in time to see the end of the pro race, register, change, AND warmup. It was weird.
It was pure luck – the pro race had been delayed 45 minutes due to a storm that had rolled in and taken out half the field and a number of the barriers. All the extra time made me nervous. Ray remembered to give me a plaque from a few years prior - we thought about replacing my hood ornament:
Race 1: Elite Cat 1/2/3 Temp 68 – 75 degrees, light winds, average speed 27.2mph, Finish speed 37.8 mph
It was a good thing I warmed up – 100 riders on a still puddled course with 2 sections of cobbles. The pace was high much of the race and I wandered the peleton looking for a comfortable position, suffering immensely. Mid-race the pace was particularly tough and I moved up 20 or 30 spots. A few laps later and I found myself at the back of the pack again - without dropping position - the pace had dropped a number of riders.
As the miles added up and the laps counted down I began to feel a glow of power in my legs and mastery of the bike in the corners that Csikszentmihalyi would describe as “Flow”. With confidence and control I rotated up through the corners, purposely fell back on the short straightaways, and then hit the afterburners down the long homestretch in order to stay connected to the stretched-thin core of the peleton. Each lap we hit 32, 33mph into the slightly uphill stretch on cobbles against a mild headwind. Each time the effort put me at the edge of my aerobic capacity, but instead of fear of getting dropped I recognized in the open mouths and agonized pedal strokes of those around me that for once I wasn’t the one “on the rivet.”
Three laps to go and it was “my time” and I began that odd dance through the swaying peleton that has come to characterize my racing career over the years. Like a highly choreographed dance routine on a ship experiencing high seas, the peleton tends to be predictably scripted in its patterns, with the occasional lurches flashing changes like shoaling fish when a predator appears.
Six men off the front, I read the patterns and flashed left and right when the signals suggested panic and in the space of 2 laps I found myself in the top ten readying for the sprint with much younger, stronger and faster men than myself.
Things then peeled and surged and I lost position again but notched my way back up against ever rising speeds, never falling below 30. On the backstretch of the final lap I burned a match to position back in the top 7 and then followed the leadout machine around the final corner and into the uphill, upwind finish. The resisting elements caused a fanning of riders up front and I rode the drafts and waited, finally hitting the afterburners directly in the slip stream of super-strong Panther rider and former Wolverine Ryan Cross who surged toward the line. I had the advantage of the draft and timing and had hopes of breaking through and winning the field sprint when a breakaway rider appeared directly in my path hurtling backward. I came across the line coasting, hands on the brakes and finished third in the field sprint, 9th overall. I was happy.
Race 2: Masters 35+: Temp 76– 80 degrees, light winds, average speed 26.0mp, finish speed 36.6mph
The lactic acid burden had reached its climax just as I coasted to a stop at the line w/ the Masters. I was in miasma of pain and could barely speak when I found Kroske and Dybo and they unpinned my old numbers and repinned the new ones as I heaved over my bars, finishing the job only seconds before the officials sent us off for race two.
F-ing Masters racers! Never content to settle smoothly into a race, they hit it hard right from the start and it was everything I had to just stay tacked onto the last wheel of the peleton for the first lap. Same for the second. By lap three I started recovering from the intense effort of the prior race, and then things slowed up and I began to enjoy the dance, trading places with Ray on several occasions as he made bold moves up the inside to try and force a breakaway.
Things moved to their inexorable conclusion and I moved up into the top five with one to go. Surges put me back to 12th so I again used a match on the backstretch to slot into 4th – as it turns out, right onto the race winner’s wheel. As we wound around the snaking final corners, I considered an attack into the final two corners, and then watched it happen to me – Switlowski hitting it hard just prior to the final two back-to-back corners. I tried to match and then found myself taken to the barriers by a racer shooting up the inside. Braking into the final corner, I tried to retrieve my speed but found myself only able to hold onto 5th.
Then, the true test of endurance began….
Kroske, Ray and I planned a nice dinner at the bistro across from the hotel and for a while the older crew held sway – risotto, paella, shrimp and varied libations at an outside table. But Randy and Ryan brought their own energy to the conversation and moments later Randy had convinced the waitress to spoon feed him his food, sitting on his lap.
From there were a series of visits to various Grand Rapids eateries and bars where we watched the younger crew expend their endless social energies.
At one point we tried to lock Ryan in a Port-o-Pottie but he escaped and tried to force us on to the next stop.
Kroske, Ray and I threw in the towel around midnight and it was only upon returning to the room that I had failed at one of my golden rules – 2 glasses of water for every glass of wine, AND there was a huge inflatable bed between me and the sink to get more water. Chugging some tap water before bed and leaving the 10 oz cup lonely on the bedside table I crashed only to be awakened much later by the returns of Ryan and Randy.
It was a night of awakenings – 5 guys in one room, 2 stragglers returning, and then the need to get up and head to the races.
Dehydration and fatigue are familiar friends – despite feeble attempts to hydrate enroute to my first morning race, I actually felt too tired to drink water. I wondered how I could possibly race feeling hot and dry with a pounding head and queasy stomach, but knew I could – and would.
Cat 3: Temp 74 degrees, light winds, average speed – I forgot to check, finish speed painfully fast.
After arrival at the course came an agonizing tiring string of events – parking, registration, changing, number pinning, and lining up for the first race – sun glaring. After 3 laps I wanted to quit, not unusual. With 3 laps to go I was chugging the rest of my water and wanted still wanted to quit – highly unusual. Still, as a chessmaster I knew what to do even if my pieces didn’t want to comply and pushed my pawn into position for a checkmate, coming around the final corner in 5th and finishing… 5th. Nothing to give.
Masters: Temp 76 degrees, light winds, average speed – I forgot to check, finish speed painfully fast.
The beauty of pre-registration is that it creates a dialectic between laziness and frugality: I had already paid so of course I’d have to start my fourth race in 20 hours. Some additional hydration helped with my motivation as well as energy and despite a faster pace I navigated the laps with little difficulty. In the final sprint I struggled despite a leadout from Kroske and only managed 10th.
After the race I hooked Dybo up with a “5 hour energy” vial and then jumped in the Jaguar for the long drive home.
As always, there was something about the darkening reach of the trees and the end of August light that suggested the closing in of time – that the summer solstice and height of the racing season was well behind me and that try as I might, races to try and win would be far and few. Still, I smiled – what a weekend of intensity, fear, pain, suffering and joy.
I remember reading in one of the many books on “Happiness” about a study on joy. I believe the book was called “Satisfaction”. Specifically, the author entered an experiment where he was subjected to some extended and extensive pain (ice water over his extremities). The interesting outcome was that the neurological response to the end of this programme was exactly identical to that of happiness – and indeed the author experienced a “high” following his ordeal that could only be described as joy.
I guess this is why I race: the extended periods of suffering required for limited periods of joy is a tradeoff I’m willing to make. Corollary: choose your suffering – don’t let it choose you.