That winter, I stayed in good shape but was largely non-competitive. It had been a tough year, what with the injury, and my friends were increasingly interested in finishing something they called a "thee-sis" or something?
Wait, is that what I'm supposed to be doing?
I had been in grad school for 3 ½ years already, and my advisor was asking about my closeout scenario. He wanted me done around Year 5, which looked plausible given the work to date. (As a cycling friend told me around that time, "Based on race results, I'd guess 8 years." No spoilers, but he was right.)
One February night [ed: most nights], several friends [ed: and a professor] and I went to a bar [ed: several bars]. Near the end of the evening, after our crowd had thinned, one of those friends struck up a convo with an interestingly-dressed guy sporting a colorful, poofy scarf. Scarf Man's cluster of acquaintances included an attractive young lady, which is what I might normally have noticed.
Instead I noticed how much the room was spinning and how terribly I needed to relieve myself.
Somehow my horribly drunken state didn't show enough to scare her off. She came to a department happy hour shortly thereafter, and we started dating a few months later.
Around that time, the traditional bike race happened near Rochester to open the season. I was a Cat 3, riding like a madman and ready to do some damage. The Cat 3 pace was far more aggressive, but I was prepared for it. Nobody attacked without being chased down. Including me. We stayed as a pack through the race, and as usual I tried to make a break before the end, with about 2 miles left. Two others came with me, and we pulled across the next mile, but the pack chased us down, and I finished in a generic place in the middle of the pack, completely destroyed.
I did our early-season official race as a Cat 3 as well but didn’t feel particularly strong. I performed unremarkably, and probably would have as a Cat 4 as well. Three days later, I showed up for the traditional Tuesday gathering and rode hard, my frame creaking the entire way. At the finish line, I took a look at what seemed the source of the noise and saw a crack in the frame near the cranks. Glenn had sold me that bike 3 years earlier, and the warranty was still valid; alas, his shop no longer sold Cervelo, so I had to go to Rochester to get it replaced.
While my bike was out being replaced (Cervelo customer service was great for this), I borrowed my friend’s wife’s bike for those Tuesday and Thursday events. Two weeks on, I was late to the Tuesday race, and I latched onto the back as it rolled out of the meeting place. But my legs just weren’t in it. I was having trouble keeping up. I wasn’t sure where this tiredness came from, but it was probably excessive run training and too little bike training. I didn’t have the push to stay with the pack and was dropped off the lead group.
I rode on my own that beautiful April day, chugging up hills and into valleys, across flats and around a course of my own making. And at the top of one of those hills, I looked down at a steep descent, clean except for a driveway on the right. I swerved a little left as I approached, figuring this would give me some space in case of an emerging car.
The thing about vision is that it’s hard to focus on more than one thing at a time. And when you’re looking right, you don’t see things coming from the left.
Dogs that want to be run over.
Dogs that are also heavy enough to stop a speeding bike.
So a dog and I performed an unscheduled stress test on the fork of a bike that was not my own. The fork failed.
And then the road performed an equally unscheduled stress test on the epidermis on my back. My epidermis also failed.
A neighbor called an ambulance, and after I'd been loaded in, I had the paramedics phone the woman from the bar -- with whom I had a date that evening -- to let her know I would sadly be forced to cancel. I was brought to the hospital to be tended to by the wife of a professor in my department. Small world, Ithaca.
And that ended my summer of riding. It took over a month to recover -- all of May down the drain -- and when I got back my legs just weren’t the same. I didn’t have kick, I didn’t have aggressiveness, I just didn’t have it. I had crashed big twice in less than a year, and in spite of being in generally good shape, I couldn’t bring myself to work toward anything in particular.
There was, amongst my friends and well-wishers (who may not have overlapped significantly), the idea of me as a bike racing nut. But if I was a bike racing nut, I had finally cracked, my hardened shell shattered by the unyielding pavement of Tompkins County. Equally importantly, I felt a responsibility to my (ostensible) school work, something I had neglected in riding and running.
I cruised into autumn and ran the Triennial Relay for the first -- and so far only -- time in my career. This race takes a team of N runners (I don’t know if there’s a lower bound) and has them run 7 or so stages, 8-15 miles each, on the Finger Lakes Trail. I answered an email on the listserv (where else?) and joined the party, hooking on with a local friend to run for a team led out by a not-local-anymore-but-formerly-local-and-still-quite-good runner. Our team did acceptably, taking 3rd of 14, and I enjoyed the race immensely, despite missing a turn and leading a few other runners into the middle of a foresty dead end.
For the next year, I didn’t race at all that I can recall. I went to Tuesday night rides, slowly sliding down the totem pole as I focused more and more on writing my thesis. Weekends were almost all spent in New York City, where the woman from the bar moved after she finished law school. That put a damper in my race prospects, but it made my running life soar.
Running in Ithaca was always a trail event; running in NYC was a different beast entirely. I had to shift courses to go with traffic, often ending up at unusual intersections in strange parts of town with little idea how far I had come or would go. I criss-crossed the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges -- at one point all in one run. Running fitness continued apace through ever-longer excursions on pavement and through backwater parks. During the week, back in the open space upstate, I went on long rides with friends or alone.
I stopped feeling competitive about any of it. Sure, I could run a half marathon, and pretty quickly at that. Yes, I could ride 50 miles and barely touch my water bottle. Indeed, I could run to Central Park, take a lap (well, maybe a 1/3 lap; Central Park really is huge), and come back to Williamsburg before joining friends on a local pub crawl. I did all these things not because I had something to win, but because I was exhausted from racing so much.
It gets to you eventually.
The daily preparation is fine, but the weekly routine grinds you down: Identify race; sign up for race; change plans to incorporate race into training; find a way to the course; spend anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours in the car en route; hang around endlessly waiting for the start; race (which will probably be shorter than 2 hours); return; repeat.
And for the race itself, if the weather is bad, because you’ve signed up, you feel an obligation to ride or run anyway. It’s hard to swallow your pride and say, “You know what? When it’s 98 degrees and 90% humidity, I run before dawn or after dusk for good reason. And death by lightning just isn’t in my plan today. It turns out I really don’t feel like being out in a hailstorm for 30 minutes. Also, it’s going to be freezing and windy by the end of this, and I wouldn’t pick today as a day and time for hardcore athletics if I were at home.” But you do it anyway, you start a race at 9 a.m. against your better judgment, put your legs and feet and back and shoulders through hell on sopping wet roads on your way to the next aid station, where you can’t possibly put back enough water to replace what’s been lost in sweat, or you endanger yourself in a rowdy pack, hoping against all hope that you keep your collarbones intact for this ride. You suffer, slowly, inevitably, until you cross the finish line and get a number for a time. And then you relax with other people who have just done the same thing, enjoy some good company and maybe some “free” food and drinks (they’re not free because you’ve just paid for them with your entry fee, but it sure seems that way). You don’t even notice the drive home, because you’re worn out and thinking about the shower that’s 30 minutes to 2 hours away, considering stopping at every restaurant and store along the way just because you can.
Wow. I might have just convinced myself that racing is a terrible idea in general. Whatever, brain, go back to thinking about discrete optimization.
I admit, I was hypnotized by this process for years. It was almost reflexive, developing from a product of my desire to simple habit. And not a lucrative habit: the few times I won races and collected prize money, it was a small payout; meanwhile, I left a trail of $5-$30 entry fees in my wake. My lost work time was significant, and I felt my peers accelerating away academically.
Through the summer of 2006, I either couldn’t afford the habit or wasn’t as interested in it. Or both. I no longer felt racing mattered. All that mattered was that my life was moving along, that I had to figure out where it would end up.
So I proposed. It was a lavish event, full of champagne and music and a wonderful setup, totally shocking to my girlfriend, who immediately said “yes” and then tweeted to all her friends and relatives within 6 seconds that she was engaged to the man of her dreams.
Or perhaps I simply said one evening, “Marry me?” And she agreed. And the next morning she asked whether I was serious before telling anyone about it. Also, Twitter didn’t exist then, and she may have mistaken her dreams for her waking moments and thought she was agreeing to the man in her dreams and was secretly hoping I’d look at her like she’d just told me a tale of fairies and unicorns when she asked if I was serious.
One of those stories is true.
That was June. By September, it was clear that our future options were limited if we were both going to pursue our careers. As a result, we chose DC. We rented an apartment in October and were married in November, the same day I interviewed for what would become my first legit professional job. It was a fine exit from New York for both of us, and I don't know about her but I was sure as hell ready to cut out weekly 6-hour drives through Manhattan traffic.
Next up: Attack of the Swampmonsters!
Mash out. Spin on.
Some runner person. Also perhaps a cyclist & brewing type. But for your purposes, a runner person.