Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Quale of Turkey Hill

A recent ad from Carmichael Training:

"37 years old. THREE KIDS. Lots of business travel. SOUND FAMILIAR?"

Yeah, sounds very familiar. But how about this?

"AP athlete of the year from 2002-2005. BEAT CANCER. Seven-time winner of the Tour de France, RESTING HEART RATE: 32. Max heart rate: 201. DATES CELEBRITIES. Has piles of gold lying around the house that weigh more the UCI bike limit. SOUND FAMILIAR?"

No. No it does not.

Very little about Lance Armstrong is "familiar". I'm gonna quote David Foster Wallace: "To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves."

And yet, we do see a little bit of that hybrid in ourselves. We fantasize it anyway. We see it in potential. We see it in our greatest moments. Which is why the Carmichael ad will work. It's why Lance inspires. He's not just transcendent. He's also flesh and blood. (And maybe some cow-blood derivatives.) What separates Lance from us is only an iron will and a few hundred thousand mitochondria. That's all.

I'm afraid my race report will not be inspiring in that exquisite-animal-angel-hybrid, familiar-yet-unfamiliar, immanent-yet-transcendent kind of way. It's more like just the animal side, the familiar side, the immanent side.

It's like the war-movie screenplay I've always wanted to write. It opens like Saving Private Ryan: D-Day madness, from the soldier's-eye point of view. Within minutes, the character you've been inhabiting on screen gets shot. Credits roll. (I'm not suggesting the ushers come out and shoot the actual movie watchers. That would be one hell of a war movie!)

For a lot of soldiers, that is what war is actually like. You get shot. You die. In battle, the camera does not hover, lovingly, over the people who matter, pausing the action when one of them is hurt or in danger, and following out their narratives in a dramatically satisfying way. And when you die, your movie is over. YOUR camera doesn't pan over to your best friend who goes on to avenge / mourn / learn life lessons from your death. It's just OVER. But we watchers, spectators, always follow the survivors.

And that is true in racing as well.

All of this to say: my race report for the Turkey Hill Country Classic will be about as popular as my war movie. Yeah, that's right: I got dropped. Bang, I'm dead, roll credits.

It wasn't exactly a surprise. I'm untalented and I've been training for less than a month. I knew it would be rough going out there with that kind of fitness. It didn't help matters when the riders from the 3/4 race came in. There was a haunting, hollow-eyed look about them. I was reminded of a scene from Glory, the Matthew Broderick / Denzel Washington film about the 54th regiment from Massachusetts in the Civil War. In the scene, the 54th is passed by another regiment marching back from the front lines. The 54th is cracking jokes when one of the marchers says, "Men are dying down that road."

The 3/4 race featured crashes and the Gamber Wall. The field was shattered, literally -- I saw a cracked helmet and a bloody buttock -- and in racing-speak as well. Men were dying down that road.

But, apart from our own individual bouts with fear, pain, thrill of victory, agony of defeat, etc., the 4/5 race was uneventful. No crashes. The course was hilly, but not absurdly so, with two climbs of about 80 ft. and one triple climb of around 200 ft per lap.

My positioning was poor: I was in the back quartile of the pack for most of the race. With each hill, and especially, with each corner, I could feel the mounting fatigue as I sprinted to 're-compress the accordion'. Yet, there wasn't a lot of room to move up, except in the moments when I had the least energy.

I could see one of my friends up at the front of the field, launching off into space, then slowly coming back to earth. He was just having fun.

I got dropped coming out of a corner in the third lap, 13 miles in. There was a very short sprint, two guys went around me, and I was gapped. Too bad I was nearly on my limit. I tried sprinting, but the legs would not co-operate. I turned around and saw only the police escort. No riders in sight. None.

It's like drowning in open water, not because you can't swim, but because you can't swim forever. Fatigue sets in. Except for your own breathing, it's quiet. There's nothing to mark the urgency. Your mind is telling you that your SURVIVAL is at stake. But the natural world around you -- and Lancaster county is so peaceful, so pastoral -- is indifferent. I'm gonna quote Auden:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That for all they care, I can go to hell

And to hell I went. Sprinting wasn't going to work. My legs were balloons of acid. Worthless. The only option was to settle into a steady rhythm. In front of me, a mild set of hills. Only 80 feet of elevation over the next a mile or so. I lost even more distance, but bombed the downhill and took the corner well, without having to slow for any riders ahead, because, um there *weren't* any. I was gaining on the pack and starting to believe I could fight my way back on.

Over the next mile or so, on a slightly uphill grade, I time trialed ever closer, the police escort, menacingly, right behind me. Steady, steady rhythm. Steady. Smooth pedal stroke. Deep into the drops. Knees high. Massively into the red. World shrinking. Fighting doubt. Don't give up on that wheel 50 yards in front of you. Nothing matters but that wheel. Get that wheel. Get that wheel. Catch that fucking wheel!

And I catch it. I catch it.

And then I'm dropped again. This time, falling back rapidly, helpless, my heart and lungs and legs exploding, bike weaving, police escort zipping past, as if to say, in an official capacity, "You're DONE, sir".

I gather myself and settle in to work again. The peleton is receding quickly, but I still want to chase. Want to chase, but can't. Until the end of the race, I'm alone, out in the Pennsylvania countryside.


qualia said...

oh, btw, "quale" is the singular of "qualia", my moniker here. google it.

Calvini said...

big wimp. htfu.

just kidding, of course. give it a month and you'll be killing it.

and the great thing about riding from the bottom of the peloton is that most people can identify with you. i certainly do.

qualia said...

HTFU is at the top of my to-do list. Next on the list is mastering Martin's how-to rules for getting dropped, just in case I don't HTFU enough.

good luck racing today.i think i'll metro over there to watch. my legs are shot.