August 18, 2007: Race report #19, Downers Grove “nationals”, Illinois. My birthday.
I woke on my 39th birthday to leaden skies and cool temperatures. I had not had a lot of sleep the week prior, pulling an all-nighter, and a couple other late nights for project “Mythos” at work. Nonetheless, this race… Downers Grove Nationals… this was MY course – a podium finish for 5 years running, and 10 total podium finishes. In fact, a podium finish every year that I’ve raced it.
I arrived on time at the course, registered, warmed up with a jacket on, and then arrived to the line just as the first sprinkles fell.
Downer’s Grove in the rain… had never tried that before. Eight corners, manhole covers, fresh white lane marker paint , a steep uphill, two high speed downhill corners… a disaster in the making. I could still feel the itchy pink tightening glaze of shiny new skin over the road rash from the crash just a week ago.
We set out onto a still dry course, with a light drizzle. Within a few laps the drizzle heavied, and then became solid rain. The course then turned to the equivalent of ice. Every corner had either manhole covers, off camber sections, or wide swaths of freshly painted lane markers. Almost every corner someone went down. Within 2 laps, the pack became a single file line. Within 10 laps a majority of the 118 riders quit.
I sat in about 6th place. Sometimes the top 10 of us were in a breakaway. Sometimes the top 3 were in a breakway. I just pedaled and held on, and tried to stay upright.
It was like walking on black ice when you have a little bit of fresh snow on the soles of your shoes. In order to not windmill out of control and fall, you have to soften every motion, control every finite movement as you try to stabilize, every fine motor control trying to eliminate the possibility of slipping. Gentle steering, gentle shifting, gentle pedaling – full circles, no hard strokes, no knee wobbles, and tender, tender braking. Quickly every part of my hands, forearms, shoulders and neck tired from the tension. Several times a lap a tire would slip and for a second I’d feel the vertigo of falling – until the tires would catch on a patch of decent pavement and then I’d recover only to try and be more tightly controlled than ever.
Riders pass me… and I watch disinterestedly as they go spinning out to the left or right for trying to ride any other than the widest smoothest line through the corners. Moving up became a very difficult and dangerous proposition. I did my few moves forward through the single file peleton on the hill.
The pack winnowed down. The crazies were eliminated. It began to feel like a practice. A couple guys passed me, and then one more. I let them in. I found the whole thing numbing really…
Suddenly the bell rang. I hadn’t been paying attention – after staying in the top 6 for the first 40 minutes of a 45 minute race I was suddenly in 12th with only one lap to go. Normally not a big deal, but with the rain, moving up on this course was an exercise in risk and danger.
I moved up 4 slots on the hill into 8th – but I should have been able to sweep the whole field – my power was seemingly more limited. Screaming down the hill into the next corner – there was no room to make a pass without entering the off camber zone with the white paint. Next corner was the same thing – no place to slot in.
3 corners to go and still in 8th. But the corners were like ice and taking any other line than the widest was a sure prediction for a crash, so I bided my time, and slotted up one spot prior to the final straightaway.
Entering the final 150m straightline to the finish I moved up one more spot to finish 6th. My worst finish at Downer’s grove in the last 6 years… But in reality even finishing given the conditions was a significant performance… But it was very, very unlike me…
Flashback: August 17. Scene: Friday morning at 6:30am and I’m getting ready for work. It is the day before my 39th birthday and the day before one of the most important races of the year – Downer’s Grove nationals.
Too tired to agonize over what the numbers might say, I stepped firmly up onto the pebbled white plastic of our digital scale. Same pebbled plastic surface, same white feet with tan calves rising above. Something different though – even as the digital wheels spin, the numbers and the visual dissonance register at the same time 172.8 lbs – more than 2 lbs lighter than my goal weight – I had lost 24 lbs in 5 months.
My gaze traveled up from the scale and gathered the images of my thighs and calves – but with a discordant note. I glanced down and was transfixed by the ‘look’ of my legs.
For dozens of years I had experienced a regular disappointment - despite all the training, weights, riding and skating, I never developed those massive oak thighs of an Eric Heiden or Dan Jansen full of knotty bulging muscles. Instead I typically stared down a smoother, slimmer version of the athletic leg. Neither heavily muscled nor well defined, the springy, smooth Elm-like bows of my legs had been a fixture for most of my athletic life. But this time it was different…
This time though they had a new look – gone were the thicknesses and rounded springiness of a young branch. Replaced was something harder, more sinewed, varnished, knotty. Like the water on driftwood the lengthy races had reshaped my limbs and in the light and shadows I found new angles, rounded cutouts, hollows where it used to be solid. I was transforming
I never should have been able to finish Downer’s Grove in the rain – that type of race is for endurance athletes: it was essentially a time trial – something I typically have NO true ability to do. So what happened? I was no longer me – I was no longer the 10 second, Elm-limbed sprinter. I had transformed my body – by necessity, my body had adjusted after all the long races, miles and intensity, into some facsimile of an endurance athlete.
I had converted my fast twitch muscle to slow twitch muscle.
The upside – I could finish and even place in incredibly difficult aerobic races. The downside – as I was soon to discover, is that by cultivating my weaknesses, I had all but eliminated my one true strength – to go really fast for 6 – 8 seconds.