2013 Race Report: Birmingham Bike Festival

2013 Race Report: Birmingham The drive from Chicago to Detroit began a structure of energy and feeling that emerged like a fractal: it started with the frenzy and stress of the busy suburbs, frequent merges required to traverse the ant trails of the city, my right foot a hummingbird between the nectar of the accelerator and the threat of the brake, bright sunlight from above burning twitching limbs and blinding eyes.

The transition to Indiana began with a ribbed series of long, straight, tarred concrete boulevards surrounded by a parade of ugly billboards pimping everything from hardware to strip clubs and then finally, the curve to the north and the relief of the Michigan border. The transition came quickly its first relief from the afternoon heat found in dappled wood-lined bends, shadows stretching in the late August sun. With the cruise control humming, calm emerged and I grew thoughtful, leaning into the curves.

As usual it was a “race to the race,” but this time merely to join members of my team the Wolverine Sports Club for a simple breaking of bread the night before the actual event. I arrived with ample time to spare and sat in the parking lot of my old grade school / middle school / high school in Southfield marveling at how it was both novel and natural to park the same parking spot of my 17 year old self and gaze upon the bricks that enwombed and entombed me for 13 years as a child, teen and young adult. Egg shells and dripping yolks by the high school entrance reminded me of a series of senior pranks including cementing the doors shut and painting handicapped symbols in every single parking space. Good times.

Pulling into Birmingham I felt the easy embrace of my cycling brethren: the graceful green intellect of Kelly and Jay, the joyful banter of the Rodd brothers and their ladies Chelsey and Sam, Sarah’s competitive curiosity and Kroske with his camera and quick humor. The night was warm then cool, conversation transitioned and groups reformed and I stumbled into Jay and Kelly’s house near midnight, content yet missing my family.

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I slept in the dark basement without setting an alarm never questioning the notion that I’d awaken in time for an 11:20am race. Wine and time zones conspired and I awoke at 10:20am and faced the usual mad scramble to make the race: eat, shower, dress, pack, lockup, drive, get money a the ATM, register for the race, pin the number on the jersey, assemble the bike, pump up the tires, and then, with 7 minutes left, “warmup.”

The race started fast and strung out quickly. For two laps I stayed in 5th position before folding and tucking back behind the draft of the larger peleton. I had forgotten to fill my water bottle and only had ½ bottle for the 50 minute long race and had to ration my sips. The first ten laps were difficult but eventually the pack settled in and I rode the eddies and currents of the rear of the peleton. I felt the newfound power of a clean drivetrain coursing through my veins and into the pedals and determined I would have a shot at the win. I could hear twice that my friend and competitor Paulo Eugeni won two primes in a row. Good for him.

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Then the pace picked up again and the pack slinkied out single file with 10 laps to go as a break of strong riders went clean. I danced inside and outside the turns with Ray Dybowski and had glimpses of fellow Wolverines Jay, John and Kroske for a few laps and then heard from Tim Finkle the announcer that Ray was putting in his signature move of a late break, but to no avail. There was already a break up the road and the peleton was determined to bring it back.

The sun was now heating the pavement and limbs. Families were lining up in advance of the kids race. Tires were grippy and risks could be taken on the tight yet smooth turns and I spent 10 laps enjoying the mastery of efficient pack surfing, gracefully pedaling through corners on cruise control. With 5 to go we gained sight of the breakaway and began to reel it in. The pace was high and the peleton single file – 200 yards from tip to tail. I was sitting 2nd to last and waited for the pack to hit the inevitable lull so that I could move up for the sprint. It never happened.

We caught the break with 2 to go but another surge happened and finally I realized I had to play the hand I had been dealt. On the backstretch with 1 ½ to go I surged up the outside, asking John Sammut for permission to move out. I jumped from 60th to 30th and then followed wheels through the turbulence and then heard the bell for one lap to go. Again on the backstretch I lit a match and jumped up the inside from 30th to 10th before entering the chicane, but now, with only 400m left I realized that my efforts were too late and that my weakness from the accelerations and the single file line ahead of me would not present any opportunity for the win. I skipped a few wheels and finished a reasonable but unsatisfactory 8th – in the money but hardly fulfilled.

Nostalgia reigned after the race as voices and faces from my youth emerged as the kids race and then the Pro race were sent from the line. My great friend Kirk had arrived and we meandered the course, I talked with Ray, cheered Randy and Ryan and Ryan and Ray, ate with Kelly and Jay, talked with Kirk, saw TJ and Duane and the Andreau’s and Stechkines. The sun angled early and I got back in the Jag and pointed the smoothly humming V8 west at 80mph for for the ride into the setting sun.

Something, many things stuck with me. Most of all what I recall was Kelly and Jay talking about their exit and return to Michigan. They had moved to Wisconsin, and then faced adversity. They looked for community; they cast hooks and reeled in empty lines. They realized, she realized, that they were lonely. The defined loneliness and I sat and listened in rapt attention. They realized that they missed their friends and the sense of belonging of Detroit’s cycling community. One year later they moved back. Despite the economics, despite the city’s woes, despite the climate they moved back and were once again happy.

I have been a Wolverine since 1976 and in some way part of that community since I was 8 years old. I always look forward to seeing anyone from the club or cycling community including previous members – Ryan Cross, the Rodd Bros, Ray D., Frankie, Jose, Sarah, Brett, TJ, Duane, Jason, John Sammut, Cullen, Duane, Mark, Scott, Kelly, Jay, Danny, Jamie, Tim, and dozens of others. Other than a brief stint with 7-11 I have always had a Wolverine cycling license despite many offers to switch to teams when I lived in Arizona, Wisconsin or Illinois. To be honest I didn’t give it much thought – I liked being part of the “club of champions” and flying my colors in remote regions.

The sun was setting as I turned off the cruise control and crossed the Indiana state line with a line of cars blocking my way as I headed west. I was having an unnamed feeling, one that I had felt on and off for a few years. The sun was lighting up the worn stones in the concrete like gold coins. I tried to thread my way through traffic but lapsed into the single file queue towards the border. The feeling grew stronger and I avoided naming it. I tried the radio, flipped stations but the sun dipped lower and lower and avoided my visor and lit up my retinas with its brilliance and eclipsing descent towards my current home.

A rush of nostalgia for the previous hours returned. Perhaps my feelings had a name. Perhaps I too am “lonely.”

Perhaps I too need to head “home.”

The Sprinter's Margin: 36 years and 18 seconds

The Sprinter’s Margin: 36 years and 18 seconds A recent conversation:

Ray Dybowski: Hey did you hear? Alan Antonuk won that road race by 7 minutes. 

(Me) 7 minutes!? I don’t think the entire margin of victory from every race I’ve won would total to seven minutes!

(Ray) Laughs, thinks I’m kidding. 

As it turns out I completely overestimated my prowess as a bike racer. I truly was disciple of the Walden mantra, “win it at the line.” After this conversation I did a little math, totaling the number of races competed on a bike over the last 36 years and the rough percentage of those that I won and by how much and then estimated the average finish speed to calculate the average total time between my front wheel and second place. Finally I added up those races to calculate the minutes… or seconds that those margins added up to.

So guess… Guess the total margin of victory for a somewhat accomplished cyclist, who won 400* out of about 4000 races over 36 years? Alan Antonuk won one single race by 7 minutes – surely it must add to more than that, right? (*Includes heats, semis, finals etc. in BMX and track racing – perhaps not as impressive a number as it might look.)

Wrong. 18 seconds. Count it out: one one-thousand, two one-thousand… Get to 18 one thousand and you’ve counted the entire impression of my cycling career across multiple formats: road / velodrome / cyclo-cross / criterium / & bmx.

Here’s the math, complements of excel:

Value Metric Description

5280

feet # feet in a mile

3600

seconds # seconds in an hour

37.5

mph average sprint speed

55.00

ft/s average sprint speed  (in ft/s (5280*37.5/3600) )

2.5

feet typical margin of victory: 1/2 bike length = 2.5 feet

0.045

seconds time to travel 1/2 bike length at a sprint speed of 55.0 ft/s

4000

races # of races (including heats, semis & finals) entered over the last 36 years (road, track, crit, cyclocross, bmx)

10%

win ratio percent of races won over the 36 years (used to be much higher…)

400

wins approximate # of career wins over 36 year career at an average span of one-half of a bike length

18.18

seconds total margin of victory for 400 wins with 1/2 bike length lead at 37.5mph (=400*.045)

Really? My entire cycling career boils down to 18 seconds?  ½ second a year?

Yes. This is a fact. So also is the fact that these victories weigh heavier than the chronological time involved in completing them suggests.

I embrace this conundrum – that time is inherently flexible and that, perhaps, “really living” is found at the margins, at the pendulum swings of the hours, days and weeks of suffering condensed to prepare for a race, meeting, or test, and then again in the expansion of that invested time through the seconds those long hours deliver: a dash across the finish line, a flash of insight, or a compelling soundbite at the right moment in a meeting. The math of the mind is logarithmic and paradoxical: investment measured in years often results in outcomes measured in seconds or lesser intervals (sprinters are the “comedians” of the peleton for a reason). Yet, in the timeless continuum of the human psyche they are equals.

What is the value of those 18 seconds? How many hours, days, weeks, even years would I trade for that tiny slice of ever expanding time? Contained within the long yawn this moment comprises is series of unforgettable moments burned into my retinas and into the fibers of my legs and lungs. That first churning, panic-stricken race in the rain at age 8 with Frankie Andreu, Paul Jaqua and Jamie Carney around the Dearborn Towers. Hundreds of perfectly anointed sprints from 5th wheel and 150m to go to win as a junior and then again in the Cat 3’s. My largest margin of victory at Downer’s Grove when a 160+ rider peleton crashed in my wake in the final corner and I coasted across the line alone. The bike throw against Jamie Carney on the track to win a spot to the world championships in North Africa. Flinging across the shiny cobbles in the rain downtown Grand Rapids year before last to finally raise my hands in celebration.

The wins matter little, but there are synapses built in the process that are separate from pedaling: wires bent toward confidence, towards persistence, and inclined to treat the heat of battle as enjoyable. These connections made in the heat and pressure of the race stay melded together long after…

I’m a terrible bike racer in the grand scheme of things. A non-factor surfing the waves of the strong players forever relegated to the vagaries of the field sprint on easy courses. Yet in 18 seconds over 36 years a great deal of my character has been formed. In the early days a quiet standoffish confidence resulted – when asked to predict my results I would say, “I think I’m going to win, but we’ll see.” In more recent days a willing recognition of all my weakness and failures surrounding a tiny little jet engine of a strength – and hope.  “I hope to finish – and if I do, then I have a shot.” Hope, perhaps is the source of all good, all energy, all tenacity. It is irrational, hope. It specifically is designed NOT to meet the facts. Facts represent the past and carry its inertia. Hope represents the eventualities of the future and provides a trajectory that necessarily includes uncertainty and the possibility of humiliation, or glory.

Bill Strickland, editor of bicycling magazine, wrote a compelling book called “Ten Points” that anchored much of his life and his pursuits, failures, and successes to a Wednesday Worlds local bike race.  Bill Strickland was also abused, severely, as a child and the reverberations of this horrible past had begun to creep into his present. Earning “ten points” in the local series for his daughter was less about beating his significantly challenging rivals, and far more about the magic provided by a “point” earned through suffering for a noble cause.

Bill never did earn his ten points.  But he did end up exorcising some of his demons and becoming a good father and the editor of the nation’s largest cycling publication.

I’ll likely never increase the span of my wins from 18 to even 20 seconds much less 7 minutes. But, on the margin… it doesn’t matter. It was worth it.

Race report 2008 #1: Beloit.. And why cycling is the greatest sport in the world

2008: Race Report #1: And…why cycling is the single best sport in the world.

 

Race Report, Sunday, April 6, Burnham Racing Criterium Masters 30+, Beloit, WI. Team - 60 degrees, 20 mph winds, 26 miles, 35 riders, average speed – 25.4mph, average pulse 161 bpm, max pulse 190 bpm. Sprint speed 37mph.

 

April. Nearly two months before I usually hit my first race, my friend Matt encouraged me to join him at this little race in Beloit held on a race car track. It was a small pack of riders and it was windy and I was not exactly in racing shape but I decided to race the master’s race on my way to Madison to do some housecleaning and yardwork on my former residence there that is still for sale a year later.

 

The pace moved in fits and starts and the wind came from all angles as we moved through the curvy race car track. I stayed in the back and as the effort increased, coughed the dust of winter out of the crypt of my stagnant lungs, and felt that uncertain burn of untrained legs. Nonetheless I warmed up and approached some level of comfortability surfing the pack.

 

Near the end of the race two small breakaways got away – 5 men in total and the rest of us were sprinting for 6th place. I was pleased to feel that despite my lack of fitness, my sprint had returned after the heavy efforts of last summer and I began to feel that glow of confidence return – I knew I was going to be a contender for the finish line.

 

The final turn was about 450m from the finish – a long way by any standard – but also with a 20mph tailwind.

 

I made my decision midway through the race – I would take that corner on the outside and see if I could hold the advantage all the way to the line.

 

My plans worked out beautifully and I accelerated on the inside of the pack using the protection of their draft prior to the last right turn to the finish, and then swung on the outside of the two lead riders just at the apex of the turn with a full burst of hyperspace speed, seeing some shocked looks from the leaders as I slingshotted into the lead – 450 m to go, maxing out at 37mph.

 

With 300m to go I had about a 100 foot lead on the burgeoning field. With 200m I still had 90 feet. With 100m to go my legs began to lock up and the field began to surge. 10 meters prior to the line, the first rider passed me, and right at the line another rider swung by as well and I ended up 3rd in the sprint, 8th overall.

 

Nonetheless I was pleased with my relative fitness in April and ecstatic to have my sprint back after destroying it last season with overtraining.

 

 

So… why is cycling the single greatest sport in the world?

 

Three ages and three scenarios:

 

One: 35 - 75: Let’s say “you’ve arrived” – after switching jobs and questioning your career, finally, in your 30’s or 40’s or 50’s you have come to that weird and sudden realization that money suddenly is no longer the end goal – that you “have enough” to satisfy your needs – though not necessarily your wants. Meanwhile the questions pile up: “Am I really as old as my age says I am?” (How did that happen?) And then a little more subtly, “yes, where did my energy go? - and my waistline?” or, “How can I stay healthy?”

 

Two: 20 - 35: Instead, maybe you are in your 20’s or 30’s - finally ‘growing up,’ finally got a real job and doing well, thinking about career & family, moving up and moving out, fulfilling your potential - but wanting to stay in shape… how can I do it?

 

Three: 10 - 20: Finally, lets imagine you have a grade school or junior high school kid – band, drama, national honor society, soccer, football, track, baseball – so many choices - what activities should they choose?

 

Let me propose that the activity that the best answer – and I mean “best” in all its objective and subjective senses – is cycling.  Riding your bike is the best sport in the world.

 

I can prove it.

 

“Sure,” you immediately conjecture, “you must be some kind of cycling fanatic, aiming to convert the masses to your biased way of thought. Besides, who wants to cavort around in spandex and risk their lives in traffic?”

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRnxEZJCey4

 

Possibly – possibly true – though I hardly fit the hard core, die hard fanatic persona. Lets instead examine each of the 3 examples above to determine whether there is any truth to my potential fiction.

 

Let’s work backwards from Three: the junior high school kid. Nominally, soccer, track, football, baseball, or academic pursuits are the typical achievement oriented activities for this age group. And rightly so – all of these have a teaming aspect and bring about important developmental opportunities of balancing individual performance against team gain. For most of these activities, true celebration and victory comes about from that of the group rather than the individuals.

 

Team sports are a mainstay of youth development programs the world over and provide many valuable lessons. There is just one huge, glaring problem – team sports for these kids tends to end as soon as high school ends. For some smaller percentage, it ends in college. And for that incredibly rare few it means a few years as a professional.

 

Regardless, the fundamental flaw of these team sports remains the same – they end. Joe Montana isn’t playing adult league football somewhere and for 99% of these talented (or untalented athletes) the result is the same – ‘retirement’. There is no extended ability to create a healthy routine from these kinds of team sports.

 

With the waxing age of the players comes a waning availability for opportunities to play them – the requisite leagues, fields, locker rooms, schedules, referees, coaches are in relatively short supply versus the “golden high school/college years” and the associated infrastructure and funding. So for a majority of team sports players it all just ends… and hence the legions of former football, basketball and baseball players the world over are now become couch potatoes, lounging and snacking - watching the games they used to play.

 

Indeed – what to do if there isn’t a league near you? Run, bike, swim, walk, hike, climb…Several recent studies concluded that grade school and high school participants in individual sports – swimming, running, cycling etc. were considerably more likely to continue their sport – for life – versus these highly acclaimed team sports. Further they discovered that with the corresponding continuance of physical activity comes a correlated decrease in weight, heart disease and other ailments. Indeed for many of the team sport individuals, they find themselves mid-life in need of finding a “new sport” and masses of these sports minded individuals join softball, running, cycling, and triathalon clubs each year.

 

Want to help your junior-high school student have a full, healthy, active life? Consider individual sports… in particular cycling…

 

Now lets consider Two: the twenty/thirty-somethings. Work lunches, late nights, travel and the associated fast foods, Friday night beers and cocktails – all without the physically active lifestyle associated with walking across campus or intramural Frisbee.

 

Witness the arrival of the second ‘freshman 15’ weight gain. Team sports may still be an option – and if you are single – might still be the best option: find a league dominated by the opposite sex and you’ve got a sure fire way to potentially ensure continued health (and the motivation to manage it.)

 

But sooner or later odds are you’ll settle down – and suddenly 4 hour softball games a couple nights a week with single girls in shorts and tight t-shirts, and post game rituals of pitchers of beer after the game may not fly so well with your fiancé – and definitely not with your pregnant wife unless you are both part of the league. And, seriously – is swatting an oversized ball and jogging a few bases really an equal balance to the beer, shots, hamburgers and brats?

 

At this point, running might seem the best option – easy to do anywhere, no equipment other than shoes and shorts, and even city living presents no serious obstacle. That is, until the first injury… Lots of 20/30 somethings decide to train for marathons – often a doubly noble goal of getting fit, accomplishing a difficult task, as well as raising money for charity. However, there is a significant downside. According to several studies running a marathon and similar extraordinary pursuits can create irreparable damage to bones and tendons. Even if an injury isn’t serious, a sidelined ‘occasional’ runner may well lose weeks or months of activity while recovering, and will likely be more cautious in the future.*

 

(*sidenote – in 31 years of cycling I’ve never had an injury that kept me from riding, and indeed, all injuries were from crashing – not from the actual activity of pedaling)

 

Finally, One: the productive 30/40/50+ year old. No longer in the full bloom of youth where muscle pulls are rare and bodies recover quickly, these maturing adults: professionals, teachers and production workers, working mothers and fathers etc. still need exercise. Indeed it is more imperative than ever for success in work, family – in life, to reduce stress and increase productivity, as well as to manage weight and blood pressure – with heart disease being the number one killer of adults in the USA.

 

Running remains a temptation – but becomes more and more fraught with injury perils with the exception of those naturally birdlike lightweight runners whose frames can withstand the pounding.

 

Now those other team sports – softball, racquetball, tennis, football etc. become more and more untenable – either from a schedule standpoint – or from an injury standpoint. In the modern office workplace it seems that a majority of casts and splints are a result of one of these sports – the sudden twists, sideways movements, stops and starts – these begin to push the limits of the aging musculature and thinning bones.

 

So… whats left? Swimming, cross country skiing, walking, and cycling. All of these are low impact sports and tend to be relatively injury free. Each has their limitations – lets start with swimming. For some dedicated few water rats that don’t mind being in a liquid habitrail with no sights and no sounds, swimming may be the perfect addiction – safe, all muscles used, aerobic, no impact – an excellent choice assuming you live near a gym with a pool that has lanes available and you don’t mind all of those other limitations.

 

How about cross country skiing? Potentially the ‘perfect sport’ for winter – scenery, low impact, all muscles, strength, power, speed, and aerobic conditioning – it also requires… snow. Not exactly year round.

 

So we are left with walking and cycling. Walking is amazingly healthful – a long walk burns fat, strengthens muscles, improves coordination, and gets oneself outside (weather permitting) to bring in that other significant contributor to health and reduced stress – nature.

 

That said, walking feels a bit mundane for many – and because it limits output, is necessarily a low aerobic exercise – very difficult to approach aerobic thresholds or test oneself.

 

Finally – we are left with cycling. An interesting sidenote here: guess what, according to a recent poll, is the number one preferred leisure activity for adult Americans? No – it’s not cycling, running, skiing, swimming, baseball, golf, soccer or football.

 

It is ‘going for a drive.’ Americans love their roads and their native invention the automobile.

 

Cycling is low impact – the smooth rotation of the pedals causes few injuries. Cycling is both aerobic, as well as anerobic – the body is naturally stressed to accompany the needs to accelerate, shift gears, climb hills. The fat burning characteristics of low aerobic efforts like walking are enabled during flat steady efforts. But this is complemented by the muscle and bone building strength exercises caused by accelerations, stop signs and hills.

 

So… there you have it – for teens, an individual sport like cycling creates a lifelong skill and interest that will increase their lifespan and happiness. For twenty-somethings it can replace time consuming team sports or injury prone activities like running, and for the rest of us 30+ athletes, provides a low impact sport that burns fat, builds bone and muscle and serves as a surrogate for the #1 US pastime of ‘going for a drive.’

 

But all that is a lot of data – let me end with two stories:

 

Story 1: When I was growing up – as a young teen – there was a guy in my cycling club named TJ Hill that led a lot of the rides where I grew up in Detroit. He was sort of ageless – lean, muscular, and incredibly strong. On club rides he would take the lead for long stretches and we would all draft off his strong legs and amazing endurance.

 

I went to college over 20 years ago and never moved back to Michigan. Nonetheless a couple years back I joined the email newsletter of my old cycling club in Detroit – the “Wolverine Sports Club” and lo and behold, TJ was still leading rides and a key figure in the club.

 

For the last couple of years I continued to read about his exploits without much thought – “that’s TJ” I thought.

 

It never really occurred to me that TJ could have aged in the process.

 

It wasn’t until I read a ‘race result’ from a 100 mile tour/race in Northern Michigan a couple summers ago that it brought home the legacy I had always observed but never comprehended growing up. Those ‘ageless’ guys leading the rides? They weren’t 20 or 30 something athletes – they were 40/50/60 something studs continuing to practice their craft.

 

The race result I read? 1st in the 70 – 75 year old category – TJ Hill. 100 miles: time? 4 hours and 17 minutes.

 

70 something years old and he averaged over 23mph for 100 miles. TJ is now 75 and rode 12,313 miles last year (yes – that’s nearly 40 miles a day, every single day). He just got back from a two month training camp in Alabama where rode 58 days straight and averaged 67 miles every day.

 

Sure – he’s a freak – an anomaly of nature to do so much and do it so fast. But do this – go to a century ride or charity cycling event – you’ll be amazed at the number of healthy older individuals out making their mark and helping others.

 

Story 2: This one is simple. Think back to when you were a teen or maybe young twenty something. Remember how you used to skip stairs, or bounce down them? Sometimes you’d take them 3 at a time, and with a good rhythm seek to skip and reach for the 4th stair? Remember sprinting all out to chase the dog or a Frisbee or having the control to leap off a stump or curb? Remember that confidence, quickness and coordination?

 

I am 39. I’ll turn 40 in August. I’ve been a cyclist for 31 seasons. Today I skipped 3 stairs (and considered a reach for the 4th) on my way chasing my 7 year old daughter up the stairs. Sometimes in the winter, when work overwhelms and riding in the gym becomes a bit boring, I’ll start to feel my age, walking heel-toe when barefoot, clearing the cobwebs from my back when bringing things up from the basement – but I’ll tell you this: with the cycling season back in full swing and being back outside riding and enjoying the spring air almost every day – my youth is still here. I pad lightly around the house on the balls of my feet with a spring to my step no different than when I was 19, and when I tense my legs to chase my daughter or my dog out in the lawn – it is still with a burst of furious speed when I pursue her giggles and flailing tresses.

 

Its hard to describe, but after a good hard ride, you’ll never feel more alive. THAT’s why cycling is the single best sport in the world…

 

…because you can experience runner’s high without running.

 

To really living,

 

John

On suffering...

Why does comfort breed distance?

Men and women all over the world toil away neatly in their climate controlled offices. Slowly and surely, like the awards on the wall, they become plated, year by year, by an insular coating of chrome and dust. Is there ever a moment where they realize that the light within has been trapped? And even worse, that it reflects away the lights of others?

 We “polished professionals…” has the combination our analytical approaches to business problems, combined with modern comforts of quiet cars, humming air conditioning, and the gauze of TV, Advil and carpeting – has this insulated us from the human features, strengths and flaws of others? Have these comforts so reduced our highs and lows, our smile and frown lines, such that we can no longer read each other?

 Designed by God and nature, the human body is capable of physically working at relatively high intensity without food or water for long periods, with the notable and needed side effects of hunger, thirst and suffering providing reminders of what the body needs in order to continue producing. Has it now become so muffled by the platinum sweater of decent living that its capabilities for “really living” are compromised?

 But suffering – nominally this awful thing to be avoided – it more than anything else strips away the plating – like an acid wash it removes this layer of chrome and dust and allows, for a brief moment, a glimpse back at our humanity, that human grip of flesh upon flesh – all the warm sweat of it.

 It is always amazing to me – the dirt of a race. Every exposed wrinkle becomes black with dust – upon inspection the suffering of the road becomes a fine tracery of black veins delineating the fold of the inner elbow, the creases of thumbs, eggshell folds of the ears and underlids and the worry lines of the forehead. Like a patina added to the contours of our modern life, humanity again becomes obvious and for those brief post race moments we ignore the normal formalities that add distance between us and use the memories of our common suffering to cleave to one another.

Here's to "really living,"

John 

(snippet from 2007 race report #11 - the post race vibe)

Day Three of the Short Track Worldcup, Salt Lake City, Utah

Men's results: Apolo fans got and eyefull and earful on this final day of racing here at the Utah Olympic Oval. Wearing the usual red bandana under his helmet, Apolo led the team in overall results by winning the men's 1000m final in a finish that can only be described as "typically bizarre" - with 2 of the four skaters going down with 4 laps to go, and then a cat-and-mouse between Apolo and Lee from Korea.  Apolo led as the "mouse" in the final few laps, zigging outside the lane markers and slowing up - luring his prey to take the lead, and then when Lee failed to take the bait, he put on the afterburners and easily made it home to the line in first. Despite the fact that Ahn - Apolo's main nemesis from Korea - was not here, I don't think I've ever seen Apolo skating better - and today he didn't mess around in the back like yesterday - leading out his quarter and passing earlier in his semi to easily qualify.

Rumours of the supposed visit of his dancing with the stars partner Julianne swirled right up until the moment when the national anthem was played by my partner in the booth, Paul "Gain Master" Helms.  Oh, a funny aside - starting day 2, I demanded that every single time Paul Stanley from Great Britain stepped on the ice, that Paul queue up "I Want to Rock and Roll All Night" by Kiss. I'm not sure he ever noticed, but we got a good laugh out of it. Paul was a lot of fun and we got to a point where when I would announce the race results we would have a seemless transition back to the music by using the key word, "Unofficially" - e.g. "...finishing in second, unofficially" - (queue music.)

Jeff Simon continued to wow in the men's 500m - that is until hitting the boards hard in the 500m quarters after taking over the lead, and proceeding to break his collarbone. Talking with team doctor Eric Heiden after, Heiden suggested it would only be a few weeks before Jeff could start skating again - unsure of whether he'll be able to skate at the world championships in March.

Simon Cho and J.P. Kepka skated well, ultimately ending up 3rd and 4th in the B final. Kepka's blades continue to be a problem.

Ladies Results:  Reutter - the young prodigy on the women's team continued to impress, skating probably the single best 1000m race I've ever witnessed on our ladies team in the semis. As things heated up, Katherine displayed a precocious sense of presence, decisively moving into 2nd and qualifying position with several laps to go and then "sensing" movements up the inside and outside, heading them off, while spurring the Chinese lead skater to pick up the pace. To an outsider it was probably a fairly straightforward race,  but as an insider, I can tell you that few have that 'gift' of being able to read a race like she displayed. The fact that they both broke the old world record (unofficially) was another indication of her rising talent.

Again in the final Katherine was tenacious, again following world cup leader Meng to a second place finish - her second silver medal of the competition.

Relays: In the relay finals, our boys went down early (again) and Kepka seemed super tentative. Apolo was working it really hard but they were unable to catch back up to the other teams.

Our ladies team fought well and finished physically in 4th, but earned a podium spot after Canada was disqualified.

 Afterparty:

A large number of the teams, skaters, and ex-skaters met downtown at "Squatter's Pub" before moving on to "The Cove". My teamates from '94 and I had dinner at Macaroni grille and then moved on to Squatters. There we hooked up with the second best U.S. relay team of all time - Rusty Smith, J.P. Kepka, & Alex Izychowski (a no-show on Apolo) and started down the usual path of ever-devolving story telling.

I love that a by-product of the vagaries of the sport of short track speedskating inevitably leads to a balancing act of off-ice pranks and general mischief that continues to this day - despite the increasing professionalism of the events, the training and the athletic regime.  At one point we captured a photo of the 14 years ago silver medal team, with the 2 years ago bronze medal relay team - with a little Scott Koons mixed in the middle (member of the 1998 team)

(picture (left to right) me, J.P., Bartz, Izychowski, Flaim, Koons, Gabel, Smith)

old-and-new-relay-teams.jpg

For me personally, the evening had several "golden moments" - perfect moments of time where time stopped and where the rhythm of the conversation bypassed the usual niceties and turned deeper - first with my teammates at dinner as we discussed our respective contributions to the team, and then later in conversations with Mike Koorman about retiring.

It was 3am by the time I closed my eyes, and 4:30am when the phone rang for my wake up call and my return to the airport for the flight back to Chicago and a full day of work.

Suffering? Yes - of the 'chosen' variety.

Worth it? Absolutely.

 -John

Day Two of the Short Track Worldcup, Salt Lake City, Utah

The racing last evening was fantastic. To the tune of a sold out crowd, every American qualified in their first rounds (500 quarterfinals and 1500 semis) - Jeff Simon, Apolo Ohno, Katherine Ruetter and Allison Baver - and moved on to the next round. Quarters & Semis: The first heat of quarterfinals of the evening set the tone as the women set a new world record time, taking 2 tenths of a second off of Evegenia Radinova's long standing (since 2001) record in that event.

Jeff Simon looked fantastic, winning his quarter with a blisteringly fast time not far from the world record - only a few hundredths off. JP Kepka cranked out a fast one as well and both guys moved into the semis where Kepka moved through to the final, but Simon was disqualifed after a risky move up the inside with one lap to go despite winning his semi.

Same great story in the women's 1500m semis where in a race that when from the gun - a Japanese skater setting a blistering pace as USA (Baver) and a Chinese skater followed at a careful pace closing the gap only with 4 laps to go. By the time they finished, they had surpassed the old world record by over 2 seconds, with 4 of the 6 skaters beating the old record. Allison Baver set a new U.S. record and displayed some significant fitness boding well for the finals.

Katherine Reutter - a young, fresh face from Champaign, Illinois also skated very well in her 1500m semi taking the lead multiple times to secure her spot in the finals.

Apolo hung all the way in the back of his 1500m semi, slotting up one spot with 5 laps to go and then taking the rest of the field an an easy burst of acceleration to win his semi and move into the finals.  He looked smooth, confident, powerful - but I couldn't help but wonder why Apolo doesn't play it a bit safer - perhaps he's practicing for the traffic that will likely always be a part of the finals where the skater's abilities are more even? It certainly creates suspense and is exciting but...

Finals:

In the men's 500 Kepka appeared to be having skate trouble and finished 4th.  The women's 500m had Chinese skaters in lanes 1, 2 & 3, which is also the order in which they finished and also their respective placing in the world cup overall - incredible dominance.

In the women's 1500 m final, when all was said and done both Baver and Reutter skated an amazing race - at one point leading the race 1 and 2 - something I can't remember seeing in all of my years of skating - American women in a distance event leading in a world cup. Things mixed up with about 5 laps to go and Baver got caught up on some traffic that led to a disqualification but put her out of contention for the win.

Ultimately I called to the podium Yang Zhou from China for the gold, Katherine Reutter for the silver and Allison Baver for the Bronze - two Americans on the podium.

 The crowd was very very loud and I think our announcing was lost much of the time - which is fine by me. But it only got louder as Apolo took to the line for the 1500m final. There was a lot of movement throughout the race, with Apolo playing his following act while the Korean skaters Lee and Lee (Seung-Hoon & Ho Suk) moved up earlier and ended up on the front of the race. Apolo was undaunted and waited until less than 2 laps to go, sweeping into 3rd position easily. As the bell rang Apolo set up wide for a double pass on Lee-squared and at the last minute he shut down, drifting back into 3rd and finishing there at the line. On the replays it actually looked like he had the speed to complete the pass - and either way, he was clearly the fastest man in the race and again it calls into question his tactics. Something for Jae-Su - U.S. team coach - to sort out.

Awards Ceremony: Announcing has become easier and more natural - except for the awards ceremonies. Hardly ever paying attention to the ceremony - even when I was in them - I was only given a brief outline of the order of events and was unsure of exactly what to say, or how it was orchestrated - was I calling the shots? Or were there cues I was supposed to be picking up on? I was flying solo on this one as Carl was wrapping up a puck-throw contest sponsored by Samsung.  I didn't want to screw things up and undermine the recognition and rewards for all the hard work of the skaters.

 I seemed to sort it mostly out - only getting one name wrong for the ISU representative (miscued on my cards) and establishing a rhythm to the awards - announcing the award giver, then the winner first, wait, then second, wait, third, then the flowers given by the sponsor and then, "here are your champions!"

I was nerve wracking though and I looked forward to the end of the evening and a chance to hang out - yet again - with my teammates and friends in downtown Salt Lake.

-John

Day 1 1/2 of the Short Track Worldcup, Salt Lake City, Utah

I managed to get a decent amount of rest last night despite being out on the town with all 3 of my teammates from the 1994 Olympic games - the first time in probably 10 years that we had a chance to spend more than a few minutes together.  The evening was filled with good natured insults, stories from the road and a series of toasts.  Underneath all the verbal horseplay though, was a mostly silent acknowledgment that the bonds of this sport had forged between us. Like all great friendships it was exactly as though no time had passed, and even though the group dynamic had not happened in more than 10 years, it might have been yesterday.

Joining us were Liz & Paul Marquese, Rusty Smith, and Ian Baranski. As the lone female, I suspect Liz learned a lot more about life on the road than she probably every really wanted to know.

 Back at the rink this morning and we announced our way through all of the repechage rounds - basically "second chance" opportunities for skaters eliminated yesterday to gt in some additional races and grasp at the two spots that would lead them back into the official meet this evening.

 An interesting rumour is swirling around at the meet - that they are attempting to bring in Apolo's "Dancing with the Stars" partner Julianna in to sing the national anthem tomorrow night. No idea of the validity - but it would be good for the sport.

 I'll post again tonight after the races are over - we are skating the 500 and 1500m finals tonight.

 -John