The bike racing schedule was, of course, relatively fixed year-to-year. The season started in Rochester, Ithaca, and Binghamton, then went to Auburn and Syracuse before the mid-summer “break”. Between Syracuse and the season-ending races was a vast gulf with one or two races and a whole lot of not much else. That’s where my running took over, and where I felt most comfortable.
Before the season-opener up by Rochester, one of the other local riders had mentioned that he was going to do early races (meaning the local, unofficial races) in a lower gear than he might otherwise to practice high-cadence riding. That was my problem as well, so when the Rochester race rolled around, I told myself that I would keep in the small ring unless it was absolutely necessary.
So it was in my 42" small ring that I rode off the front of the field and dangled for 4 or so laps, feeling great. In the last lap, a half dozen riders caught me, and I settled in for a quarter lap before breaking again. They must have thought I was nuts, but it was all somewhat strategic: I didn’t win sprints, so riding away was what I had. The pack chased me down again, and I accepted something like 10th or 15th (no results seem to exist online).
At the Binghamton Circuit Race a week later, I got my team effort on, and a couple of us combined to get a good placement for one of the team members. I finished 8th overall, which was nice, but as usual the criterium format did not favor my mashing power.
At our local race the following week, I went over sideways on the first climb when the crowd in front of me slowed nearly to a stop; I quickly hopped back on my bike and rode to the front, where four or five of us broke away and crushed the rest of the field. A week later, again near Rochester, I have no recollection of how things played out, but I apparently finished 3rd.
A week after that was the Owasco Stage Race, two events at the time (there’s now a time trial, but I don’t think there was back then). I knew I was going to ride just one of them: there was a run that Sunday that I really wanted to do, and riding a criterium didn’t sound like a great use of my talents.
A teammate, Andrew, was also looking for his Category 3 upgrade, and we’d been riding together quite a bit. The course started on a relatively long descent, turned a corner, and went up a short climb worth a few King of the Mountain (KOM) points toward the stage race win. My teammate was 3rd or 4th, with me on his wheel, as some of the other riders hammered out the climb. Near the top, I pulled in front of him, and he slid in, then blasted by me at the top of the ride to take 3rd (and a KOM point).
The weekend arrived. I knew Category 3 was at my fingertips, and I showed up in Syracuse ready to go and feeling like a mediocre racehorse. I mean, yeah, it was amateur, but I had done a lot in Owasco and wanted to show I could do even more here.
The course was two laps of 30 miles. We spent the first 15 miles together, then watched as a few of the riders took off at the top of one of the hills. One of them was Jason, whom I had spent quite a bit of time riding with and talking to during our Cat 4 careers, and I knew he was a quietly strong rider who could pull the trio away if he had a little help.
The pack seemed lackadaisical about the prospect of racing for 4th, but I was a little more determined. I kept finding myself near the front and pushing the pace a little more before drifting into the pack and watching our pace fall again. Nobody was working together. We caught one of the breakaway riders about 5 miles after they broke, then caught another 5 miles later. The only holdout now was Jason, and with the two breakers back in our midst, there seemed to be a little more urgency in the group.
Finally, we caught sight of the leader and let him dangle out there for a while, just 20 or 30 seconds ahead of the pack, as we cruised through the 35th mile. At last, he gave up, and we were all in the running for first.
Remember how I mentioned not being a sprinter? I didn’t want this to devolve into a crushing sprint finish that I knew would put me top-10 but probably not in the top 3. It was time to talk deals, and Jason was a good guy to talk with.
We cruised in the pack, fending off occasional attacks from other riders. Sitting comfortably in 4th or 5th position with 20 miles left, I rolled up next to him.
“I thought you were going to stay away,” I told him, knowing he would know that I didn’t think that at all.
He smiled. “I’m sure you did.”
“Maybe you just went a little early. Now seems more like it.”
I let the comment sink in, then attacked softly to get to the lead position, and attacked hard to break the group. We were on a flat near the base of a rise, and I didn’t even think about it.
Jason broke with a couple other riders behind me, but we had shattered the peloton. I blazed up the rise, then hammered across the next flat, down the next hill, and ripped up the following climb, building a solid 30-second gap in about 5 miles. I continued to press the pace up the mid-course major climb, and the lead car’s spotter yelled out my 45-second lead as I crested the rise. That second-place rider was Jason; the pack was another 45 seconds behind.
I ducked into a TT position and crushed the rest of the course. Now used to my weekly 10-mile assault ride on Thursday, I figured this could be done in something like 25 minutes, since it was a slightly downhill ride until the finishing climb.
When I rode into that hill, I could see the pack far behind and could spot the trailing two or three riders several hundred meters back. I stood on my pedals, pressed up the climb, and crossed the line comfortably in 1st place.
The following day was the criterium. I had never been good at these, and Jason and I discussed our strategies for the race. I told him there was no way I could win in the pack, because I’m simply not a sprinter.
“So what do you plan on doing?” he asked.
“Not a sprint,” I told him.
We were riding for different teams but speaking a common language here.
At the race start, the announcer pointed out my number as the race leader, presumably figuring that everyone would key in and shut down whatever I might try to do. Lap 1 of 20 went through without incident, but on Lap 2, I decided it was time to move. On the backside descent, I pushed up from the middle of the pack around the outside; passing Jason’s position, he latched onto my wheel, and we blasted off the front like we were shot from a cannon.
We didn’t talk, just rode hard and rode away. For a half dozen laps, our lead grew, until we were over a minute ahead -- the pack on the back half of the course while we were crossing the line. It went like that for 45 minutes, and when the last lap bell rang, we took it very seriously. We pacelined the lap, swapping leads every 5 seconds or so, until the final 400 meters. I was in the lead, and I stood up to give one last effort to drop him. He stayed with, and 100 meters from the finish, he started a smooth and easy sprint to take the prize. I crossed in 2nd, and we rode a cool-down while the race finished up.
I upgraded the following week.
Ah, but this is a running book! What am I doing talking about all these cycling exploits?
A couple weeks later, I signed up for the Jordan Alpine Classic, a race whose course did not necessarily justify the “alpine” monicker, unless you consider “alpine” to refer to anything that traverses a region in which the fauna might be found in an alpine setting, in which case said definition allows any user to say anything is “alpine” without fear of being called incorrect. A local racer, whose name I don’t remember but who did attend enough events that I recognized him, showed up wearing a kilt and no shirt. I, as is my friendly nature, ribbed him about his attire, and his response was radically different from what I expected: he popped his trunk and offered me a kilt for the race.
Yes! Yes yes yes! A thousand times yes!
Okay, maybe not that exciting.
I threw my shorts in my car, pulled on the kilt, and proceeded to win the race. Somewhere out there is a video of my Jordan Alpine Classic race win in a kilt, but it seems to have been removed from the internet, at least in any searchable form. Be that as it may, this 8k-ish race gave me a wonderful glimpse into a new world of running. Alas, I do not own a kilt, so the lesson of the win has been lost to time.
Next up: Falling down.
Mash out. Spin on.
Here in the Northeast, where deciduous trees dominate, winter is a time when the full foliage of summer is starkly absent; everything seems harder, more brutalist. And then there's fall - the flightless bird of seasons, ill-fittingly wavering between frigid, damp overcast and vibrant, blustry sunshine.
I won't pretend to delight in fall's foulest weather, as though squalls and frosted mornings cleanse the overheated runner's soul or let the trail aficionado embrace yin-like calm in the face of this karmic weather yang(er). But it offers a transition unlike any other in our training regimes.
I notice it most in that flattening fitness feeling, when my running legs switch from Need To Move to Functionally Underwhelming. The soreness of a 6-month training plan catches up rapidly, and I find myself wondering each day whether a run is really the best use of my precious time and energy.
Almost uniformly it is.
Unfortunate for these prevarications, then, that it's necessarily accompanied by layers of running clothes, each of which must be thoroughly thermally adjustable. Arm warmers, of course, and gloves, then a thin cap, a neck warmer, a zippered wind- and water-resistant vest, and zippered (cycling) tights. Individually, each can be vented or packed away once I'm fully warm or in the sun, or quickly tugged back on for traversing particularly cold valleys or stopping to smell the rotting leaves; as a group, they add 5 minutes to the run prep, enough time to make me wonder about my weird obsession with trails while I wait for the 6:45 sunrise.
But there really is nothing comparable to harvest-time trails. Each year the detritus of fallen leaves and blown-down sticks crescendos in a mesh of layers thick enough to obscure ankle-breakers and mud pits and small ponds. To aid in the runner's adventure, all the markings of the trail/not-trail barrier are punctured: where summer's overgrown branches hung over a noticeable path, barren sticks now jut at odd angles, yielding as little information as possible; and where winter's repeated foot traffic will imprint snow with a dominant route, freshly dropped leaves hold no such memory, such that at any time, an alternate direction might appear as good and leaf-covered as the prescribed one.
Of course I continue to run. Autumn excursions are less carefree than in summer, to be sure, and in many ways I find them more dangerous than in winter, when the bitter cold and snowy or slushy surface are all the warning signs you could ask for. I know deep down that, like the 20 or so years before this, I'll embrace the transition into winter running sometime around the beginning of December. I will accept that those formerly fast-paced daily 10ks will scale back by 20% either in speed or distance; that my long runs won't go quite as long; that I'll spend more time cross-training indoors.
In fall, though, each of these is a hard sell. This morning, in the clearing next to the forest edge on my local trail, I was keenly aware of the soft touch of autumn sun that whispered against my bare wrists and cheeks. I will enjoy this last stretch of vestigal summer, knowing all too well the inevitability of the bone-deep chill that lies in wait.