THE LONG SUCCESSFUL ROAD TO REDEMPTION
In 2007, I was training quite vigorously with the goal of winning a national cycling time trial championship at the National Senior Games (aka Senior Olympics) in Louisville. I had only recently recovered from a broken neck suffered in a time trial event in late October of 2005 when an official stepped in my path as I raced towards the finish line. I was racing very successfully every month, and a week prior to leaving for Louisville, my training was vindicated when I won the USA Cycling Florida State 20 kilometer time trial championship setting an age group record. I was ready!
Upon arriving in Louisville, I checked out the course and found a very challenging, technical (lots of turns), hilly course. The day prior to the event, the organizers set up the cones on the course and I went out for a practice session. I noted that at every spot on the course where a rider could conceivable go off course to the right, there were cones blocking that path.
Race day finally came, and I felt that my training had brought me to a very successful peak, and I knew that I would be the best that I could possibly be in the race. The National Senior Games is a very large event with the state champions and runners up in various Olympic sports vying for national titles in 5-year age groups commencing at age 50. I was in the very competitive 65-69 year group, which contained a bevy of national time trial champions, and of course many state champions from the various states. Our age group was one of the largest with 59 competitors.
The distance of the race was 10 kilometers set on an out and back course with each competitor starting in 30-second increments. The winner would be that rider who had the lowest elapsed time on the course, and the timing was done with very accurate electronic chips attached to each competitor’s bicycle.
I warmed up for a solid hour and a half and I felt great when I came to the line as my starting time neared. Finally, I was the next rider. One person held my bike so that I could clip into my pedals (they are similar to ski bindings), and an official started my count down, “five, four, three, two, one, GO!”
I was out of the saddle accelerating with a fury. I finally settled down into my aerobars and looked down at my computer which revealed that I was doing a very fast 30 mph. As the race continued, I looked down at my computer and discovered that I was running a very high heart rate of 185 which is pretty much in the red zone and typically quite painful. I felt no pain – just elation. I noted that I was closing rapidly on my competition and I could see that I was doing better than two of my main competitors who were both national time trial champions. I was in the zone!! Rather than describe the rest of the race, here is an email that I sent to a friend that night describing what transpired on that ultimately very frustrating day:
“Here is what happened at today’s 10K time trial championships.
I knew I was coming to the line in peak form, and in spite of the very
technical, hilly course, I wanted that national championship badly. I
took a good hour and a half warm-up and with a start time of 11:28,
I arrived at the line just four (4) minutes prior to liftoff with a nicely
warmed up engine ready to do battle. I came off the line, and after
accelerating up to about 27 mph, I settled on to the aero bars and
started working. I hit 34.3 mph on the first down grade, and literally
flew up the first hill. I sensed I was in the zone, and the smile that
formed on my face did not agree with my heart rate monitor which
was indicating over a 170 clicks per minute. I, however, was feeling no
pain, and I just knew that no one in the 59 man field in my five-year
age group could take me today. I almost bought it on one turn when I
came in too hot, and in my tunnel vision state not realizing how sharp
of a turn it was. I almost took out a concrete bridge abutment, but that
simply plied my body with a well-needed shot of adrenalin.
My 30-second man was a great racer from Texas. I was well aware of
his capabilities, because I had checked out the Texas state results with
the intention of going there to win their state championships during
a visit to my and Rosie’s sons and her daughter. I caught him just prior
to the turn around point. I noted that I had closed on the defending
national champion, and I knew that it was going to be a great day. I
started back to the finish line with no lactic acid, and even though my
heart rate was apparently touching the red line, I felt no pain – I was in
Every street that intersected the course had barricades across the
roadway to preclude racers taking the incorrect route. I came flying
around one turn at about 30 mph, and was suddenly confronted with
a street full of red cones, two officials standing there gazing at me,
and a roadway to my right with no barricade. I went flying down that
steep roadway only to discover the ultimate nightmare – at the bottom
of this steep road where barricades blocking the street. I had gone off
I had not only gone off course, but also had to do it on a steep roadway
necessitating some serious braking, and the subsequent climb back
up the street (again, very steep), put me in not only severe oxygen
debt, but severe mental debt. I quickly overcame the latter, because I
knew that even though I had just wasted probably 30 seconds going
up and down the street, and the time that I lost by not going down the
proper route (a double penalty when you do something as stupid as
I did), I was still running a very fast time. Unfortunately, a place where
I had been doing 30 mph seconds before, I was now doing virtually
zero with oxygen debt due to my climb back to the course route.
I dug very deeply into my being, and never let my speed fall off. I
came over the finish line quite fast and commenced my retching ritual
which lasted much longer than usual. Oh, and yes, for the first time
ever, I did some retching while still out on the course. I had taken my
body well beyond its limits.
The current Florida record for my age group is 16 flat. With running
off the course, I ran an amazing 14:41, which is about a 25.4 mph
average on a technical hilly course. The gold medalist from VA ran a
great time of 14.20, so I lost the national championship by 21 seconds,
and I sincerely believe I not only wasted much more than that with my
excursion, but used up vital energy getting back on course.
As an aside, my poor 30 second man seeing me coming back up
the street also went off course in spite of me using the last once of
oxygen available to me to yell and point to him. The officials simply
watched all of this transpire.
I was depressed to say the least. Rosie was trying to convince me
that we do this for fun. I am trying to convince her that competition
is life and death. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between my hardcore
approach and her Pollyanna approach.”
This is Rosie and I can tell you that it was a disturbing sight to see
a grown man with his head in his hands, sitting on the ground, totally
dejected, feeling sorry for himself after a great race. Sometimes we
have to lose to win. That was the end of any fun we might have had at
At the awards ceremonies, as they played the Olympic Fanfare to celebrate those who made the podium, I stood there depressed with my head hanging low. My months of intense training and racing and the logistics and expense of getting to Louisville were all for naught.
That evening, I was having dinner with a multi-national cycling champion and I told her, “I will return in 2011 in Houston and win!” I set that 4-year goal, and set about working on it immediately. Fast forward to a couple of months prior to the competition, which took place on June 20th, 2011.
My training was going amazingly well. I landed a new sponsorship with Guru Bicycles and they supplied me with a state of the art time trial bike, a Guru Crono 901. My interval training sessions were faster than they had ever been, and I shattered the course record for my age group at the venerable Fort Desoto Time Trial Series in St. Petersburg, FL by about 4 ½ minutes! I was ready.
One of my goals was to break the national age group record, which had stood since 1999. In my recent racing, my 5-kilometer splits while racing 15 kilometers were actually faster than the 5K record. To make it even more exciting, the prevailing winds in Houston in June are always a very brisk Southerly breeze and the course was going to be a one-way Northerly course. With that kind of tailwind, and with no need to make the usual 180-degree turn, which I always struggle with, I knew that I could shatter the record.
Shortly prior to the event, the organizers announced that due to unplanned road work, the course had been changed to a Westerly course which meant that we would be running with a challenging 90 degree, brisk crosswind – as it turned out 19 mph with gusts on race day
I practiced for two days on the course, and found it a bit daunting between the narrow shoulder for the racers, the crosswinds, and the fact that the race would be on an open roadway with large tractor-trailers coming very close at 65 mph. A couple of times when I was practicing at race pace, I was almost sucked off the road by large trucks. I warned the organizers that the course was dangerous and in fact the weather service had issued wind advisories warning vehicles travelling in an East/West direction that they might experience controllability problems. Riding a time trial bike on aerobars at around 30 mph on a narrow roadway with aerodynamic wheels would be particularly challenging. No changes were made and in fact one racer died when he lost control of his bicycle on race day when he crashed into another rider who crashed in front of him.
One and a half days prior to the race, I experienced my ultimate nightmare. After months of preparation and having not been sick in as many years as I can remember, I came down with a cold. Apparently, I had over trained and my body was reacting negatively.
When I awakened on race morning (my start time was exactly at 10:45), I felt terrible. I knew that if I raced that day, I would get even sicker, but I could not take the chance of throwing away a 4-year, major goal by not participating. I was very down mentally and then my friend Alan Badia, a champion cyclist who had just won a big race that weekend, contacted me. He told me that he had been sick all week prior to the race, but he still managed to win. That buoyed me up mentally, but I still felt very badly physically.
As I did my warm up, I started getting quite nervous because my body was simply not responding. When I would attempt race pace pickups (increases in speed), my legs would immediately fill with lactic acid. Finally, after about an hour of warming up, I started to actually feel quite good and I found that I could do pickups at over 30 mph with no lactic acid build-up. I was ready, and I came to win!
I arrived at the line just 5 minutes prior to my scheduled release time of 10:45. As I mentioned earlier, there were 30-second intervals between each racer. The count down finally came, and off I went. The course started by climbing what is probably the only hill in that part of Texas, but I was so pumped with adrenalin, that it felt like a downhill. I settled into my aerodynamic position on my aerobars, looked down at my computer and it reflected just over 30 mph – I needed to average at least 25.5 to break the national record.
Any of you who are competitive athletes know that to be in “The Zone” during an athletic competition is a wonderful, but rare feeling. The last time I was in the zone was the above-described race 4 years previously. I WAS in the zone! The racing seemed effortless, but my heart rate monitor revealed that my body was working at redline. Often times when racing a time trial race which is a very painful thing to do, it seems like the finish line will never appear. That day, it seemed to appear in a couple of minutes. I flew over the line, and a quick check of my computer revealed that I had shattered the national record and unless someone else had done the same, I had just won a national championship and achieved my 4-year goal. I made a U-turn to return to the start and came to an aid station passing out fluids. My body had gone to hell and it was obvious from the way I looked and sounded. I think one of the attendants was about ready to call an ambulance! I drank some water and headed back to await the official results.
As an aside, the National Senior Games Association, the host of this event, is a member of the United States Olympic Committee, and in that the event is also known as The Senior Olympics, a lot of things are done with an Olympic theme. For example, I previously mentioned the playing of the inspiring piece The Olympic Fanfare for the podium awards. Call me a nutcase, but for weeks prior to this event, I listened to the Olympic Fanfare multiple times a day!
Finally, the results were posted and they confirmed that I had not only won the coveted national championship, but I had shattered a 12-year-old record. The most amazing revelation was still to come.
As I stood on the podium with my gold medal around my neck with the Olympic Fanfare playing, tears were rolling down my face. As an aside, there was another more important reason for that emotion. WAM Events is probably the largest organizer of cycling competitions in the Southeast. Keri Burns and her significant other Bill, put on some of the most amazing races that one can ever hope to attend. Keri is battling a rare form of cancer and in that she has no insurance and the treatments which must be administered in another state are so expensive, the cyclists got together and formed Team Keri to raise money for her treatments. One of the mediums for raising funds was the sale of Team Keri T-Shirts designed by a chap by the name of Michael Ploch who has business that does that kind of thing. He was a leader in this movement to support Keri. One of my dreams was to bring my Team Keri T-Shirt to the nationals, win, dedicate that win to Keri symbolic of what will be her defeat of cancer, and then stand on the top step of the podium with that T-shirt. That to me was the most satisfying thing about the experience!
But now the most amazing of revelations. Understand that the level of the athletes at these games is incredible. Many ex Olympians, ex pros, world and national champions and tons of state champions come to compete. There’s was even an ex NBA player in the basketball competition. There were 10,100 registered athletes. My age group alone had 3 national champions and one chap who made the podium at last year’s world championships. Understand also that there were over 100 competitors in the 50-54 and 55-59 year old age groups. I WAS INFORMED THAT I, AT THE AGE OF 71, HAD TURNED THE TOP TIME OF THE DAY FOR ALL AGE GROUPS!!!
Redemption is sweet.