My name is Danny and I’m a recovering Masters Racer. Got the whole Masters Mojo workin: full-time job, lovely wife and brilliant kids, full-on mid-life-crisis-Facebook-profile-pic-lookin’-pro-in-the-kit, supah-bling bike sufficient to make Justin Lindine drool and, of course, the bullshit, qualified and contingent (and essentially meaningless) results to show for the extravagant investment of time and money.
I turned 46 years old on Saturday. Racing age is 47. No big whoop, I guess. Although I certainly neither feel nor act my age, I have gotten to the point where birthdays aren’t the anxiously awaited celebratory blowout they were when I was only a little younger. This year, in fact, there was no real party to speak of and no presents to tear open. And yet, I feel like I will remember my 46th better than I remember my 45th. Or 40th. Or 20th. Or 10th. This year I spent my birthday hanging in Dallas with my mom, who has hit a little bump in the road in her battle with breast cancer. No bikes all week. No nothing but mom, really. And she sang happy birthday to me. Like when I was little, except I’m the grown-up now.
Racing Age. The term resonates loudly with me today, as I consider its multifaceted dimensions. Whereas racing my bike is certainly keeping me “young” (at least compared to similar-age colleagues and, especially, some friends from high-school I keep track of on Facebook—yikes), I think it is also prematurely aging me. My dubious, crackpot theory goes like this: asking the engine to operate at the very high output required to be at all competitive in this difficult sport teases malfunctions and maintenance issues (that might, under “normal use” occur a bit further down the road) prematurely to the foreground.
I now know, for example and thanks to bike racing, that I have a genetic heart condition known as left bundle branch block that will give me trouble when I’m older. I mean even older than I am, which is plenty old. Most people discover that they have this ailment in their 70’s, but because I run myself into the red line so often, it has tipped its hand already. Not life threatening, mind you. Only really gives me trouble when I pedal real hard, so it is mostly only bike-racing-threatening. At really hard, sustained efforts, my pulse drops to around 37 bpm, which feels a bit like being punched in the stomach, but in your whole body. I can also look forward to diminishing mobility and increasing discomfort as I age, thanks to a broken neck many years ago that was “fixed” with surgery. Also thanks to racing bikes. But say the phrase out loud with the emphasis on racing as a verb, rather than an adjective. Yes we are, all of us. Racing age.
So my racing age is 47. Racing weight is 148. My mom’s racing age is 67. Her new racing weight is 97. Mom did remarkably well through the chemo treatments and what was advanced and aggressive cancer is apparently in remission. Now, however, she is suffering from a very rare form of paraneoplastic syndrome, which basically means her bad-ass immune system has produced cancer-killing antibodies that, now that the cancer is all but taken care of, are attacking her nerve and muscle cells. It sucks hard. Mostly for her, but also for everyone who has to stand by helplessly as this beautiful woman who not that long ago would be mistaken for my sister and who has always been my hero and a model of physical fitness (well before the word “fitness” was so ubiquitously subsumed into popular vernacular) suddenly turns old before our eyes.
There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful, as we wend our way through myriad specialized tests and treatments, but I know, in quieter, darker moments, she’s starting to wonder what exactly she’s chasing, and for how long. And although obscenely trivial by comparison, I can’t help but ask the same question of everything I am chasing in my life back in New York. Especially bike racing. Where am I headed with this? Is it logically impossible to beat age?
Then I went for a hard group ride on the road yesterday with my NYCROSS.com teammates and was ashamed of how happy I felt just being in the saddle, holding on to the wheel in front of me, not thinking about life and suffering or anything. And a few seconds after the start of the race this coming weekend in Troy, NY, I hope to similarly zone out and forget. Everything. In the 45 minutes it takes to finish a cyclocross race, there’s little else happening in my otherwise buzzing noggin. Time is revealed for what it likely, truly is: a convincing illusion. It is a welcome respite from my chronic over-thinking condition, and it runs on any and all manner of fuel, including rage, sorrow, confusion, frustration, joy—whatever will burn, which is almost anything. The pep talk I gave my mom as we tearfully said goodbye Sunday morning so I could return to my life here included one of the inevitable bike-racing metaphors that my students get so sick of hearing: try to shift your focus away from what you want to avoid smashing into and toward where you want to be. First few ‘cross races I entered, the barriers really freaked me out, so I would stare at them for half a lap and, invariably, would stutter and smack and stumble over them. It was only when I started to go real fast and look toward the next corner beyond the barriers that I would make it over them effortlessly and smoothly. Sometimes I am on the other side and hopping back on the bike before I register that the barriers are even there. And my mom is a lot like me, in that she’s one of those mutants who moves toward the pain and work, rather than away from it, so she’s ideally suited to win this race. Physical therapy? Most people only do that when the doctor is looking. My mom does that shit for fun. She is stronger than me. Stronger than you. Stronger than PNS. And this weekend, regardless of my results in the races, the hurt I will put into the pedals is for her.
*First and last photos courtesy of Bob Anderson, Art Geek Studio