Rite of Passage

The year I turned 50, I entered a bike/run duathalon being held in a small mountain town in the foothills west of Denver, Colorado. It was a a new race, and there was a small turnout of 120 people or so. When I went to pick up my bib, the woman at the registration table told me the race would start with the bike segment and pointed to the start area in a nearby meadow.

I went back to my car, took a long drink of water, pulled on my helmet and gloves, then rolled over to the start. I took a position behind the first line of riders with their front wheels on a rope barrier demarcating the start.

I'd been there only a few minutes when a race official came up to me and said, "Sir, you're in the wrong wave. Your wave is the next one back. Look at your bib." Sure enough, "Wave 2" was scrawled in magic marker in the upper right corner. "Sorry about that," I said. He nodded and smiled, and I worked my bike backwards and made my way to the far side of the rope marking the second wave, which was just forming up. Again, I took a position in the second line as other bikers closed in around me.

A voice on a bullhorn called out, "Two minutes to start." I watched as the riders in Wave 1 hunkered down over their handlebars, one toe clipped into a pedal, ready to go. I noticed that all the people in Wave 1 were all young men. There was not a woman to be seen. Then I glanced around my own wave, which was all women except for a couple of older men scattered here and there.

It occurred to me that it was the first time in my life that I had been seeded in a race with women. I was well aware that many women are excellent athletes and many of the young women would easily beat me. I had come to terms with that years earlier when my daughter scorched me in the bumps while downhill skiing.

But still, when the starting gun sounded, and I watched the wave of young men pumping away up the hill, I felt a mix of anger and sadness. Somehow I felt demoted.

When Wave 2 started a few minutes later, we raced across a flat section that narrowed to a single track making a long climb into the trees. The top racers quickly pulled away, and over the next couple of miles the field spread out. It was a bumpy, winding course. The track was narrow, and rocks and trees flanking both sides made it difficult to pass or be passed.

For the first half of the bike segment, I was tailed so closely by a girl that several times her tire bumped against mine. A couple times she called out "On the left" for me to pull out so she could pass, but I just cranked harder and pulled a few feet ahead to tire her just enough that she couldn't get by.

With about three miles left, which was mostly downhill, we were descending fast through a stand of lodgepole pine that hat been thinned for fire mitigation. The trail was brand new, blazed just for this race. On a tight turn my right pedal hooked onto a stump which had been hidden by a clump of grass, and the bike pivoted and hit a tree trunk, throwing me off to the left where I rolled on my shoulder. The girl who had been behind me hopped over my rear wheel and sped down the trail. Luckily, I had fallen onto soft pine duff. I had a few scratches, no broken bones.

My bike had not made out so well. The right front brake was twisted. I pulled it away from the wheel. The front rim was slightly bent, but rideable. I completed the last two miles with no front brake, but had a smooth, slightly out of control, ride despite a wobbly front wheel.

The 5 mile trail run was challenging because of the high altitude and the leaden feeling you get in your legs when you run after riding a bike. Breathing hard and concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, I forgot all about waves.
I finished 2nd in my age group of male TOJs. There were only 5 of us. That was the last time I paid any attention to waves or any other measure. They don't matter. Whether riding alone on a trail or running in the Bolder Boulder with thousands of others, the prize is the joy you feel while doing it, no matter where you start, no matter where you finish.

Book recommendation:

Cycling Past 50 by Joe Friel is a good book for any TOJ, whether a biker or not. The first section provides an excellent overview of physiological changes in older athletes. If you are a biker, you'll find plenty of useful information and inspiration.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember that race, too. It was my first multisport event, and I certainly had no concept of the organization and prep for these types of races. I remember attending the prerace briefing the night before, surrounded by well-toned endurance athletes and wondering what in the world the TOJ had gotten us into now! Somehow we all finished without any injuries, and I was proud that we could pull it off with low tech gear, and !gasp!, cotton t-shirts!