Saturday, February 20, 2021

Asymptomatic




You're fat, but you don't know it yet.  You haven't been tested.  You are, as they say, asymptomatic.  

But that's all about to change.  

Why, though, would you, a former XC champion of the tri-county sport class duathlon events series from 2004 even so much as pause and consider yourself fat?  You were great once, you really were.  You trained.  You won some stuff, races that were important to you, races that other people attended and also tried to win in their own way, while still prioritizing having fun, nearly two decades ago.  You still ride.  The Pandemic, sure, has limited your ability to do so, but class never leaves a rider, right?  Fitness; it's a monument, something you erect out of stone.  It's still in there, right?  Right?

Look, you don't know. Without adequate testing, you can convince yourself you're OK.  But face it, the warning signs are all there:

Let's start with your behavior.  For the last year, it's been 2 training rides per week.  At least they used to be training rides.  You're with your buddies, after all.  Buddies who, just like you, used to train, ride hard intervals, fit into their kit a little better...but don't anymore.  Fat is contagious.  Did you know that?  You did, but you didn't mind; these "training" rides you've been going on together during the Pandemic, sprinkled with laughter and shenanigans like the pepperoni on your post-ride pizza.  Athletes go for 45 minute shreds and then stuff entire pizzas down their necks, right?  You're fine.  

Or your appearance.  You threw the bathroom scale out long, long ago, which was wise because the numbers that it was starting to show you were obviously incorrect.  No one can ride like you do and weigh 200 lbs.  And when you see yourself in the mirror, that's basically the same guy who looked back at you two decades ago, minus a little grey hair, minus the strange lighting that's flashing wrinkles and shadows around your eyes, minus a little flesh around the edges.  You're still you.  You've got this.

So you pile yourself into your kit Sunday morning, slightly annoyed at how much it has obviously shrunk in the dryer these last few washes, but fully convinced you're OK, and ready for the test: Pantani.  

At the start, in the field, you're hot.  Clammy.  Sweating through your bibs, but also somehow too cold to take off your vest.  It's just nerves, you tell yourself, and maybe an extra layer of clothes.  Certainly not an extra layer of you.  Certainly not.  Off you go.  To face...THE SWAB.  Fox Mountain.  

You've managed to hang on these first few miles, rollers and pavement and some sloppy gravel.  It's been hard, but you've felt ok.  Right?  You're OK.  But when the road tilts upward on The Fox, just for a couple hundred feet at 6%, you notice some things.  Things that are not good.  Something is bulging out of your jersey and dragging against your upper thigh.  It's impeding your breathing.  It's tight on your thighs, your knees, your shoulders, everywhere.  Is there a raccoon in your jersey?  You stop to check.  No.  It's just you.  You resume riding, and near the top of The Fox, a climb that is moderate by the standard of which you'll have to ride later, you hop off and walk.  What is happening to me, you wonder?  Am I fat?

Over the top and down down down, you shred the back side of fox mountain with proper form.  You know the lines.  You've ridden down this thing near the front of a stacked field of riders before.  You were fierce, you were.  Surely you're OK, right?  You try to convince yourself, but like it or not, the swab has been taken. Results due back...in a matter of minutes.  We'll let you know.  Here's your swab number.  We'll call you near the mailboxes.  

Across the rolling terrain, paved and dreamy, up the mission home climb, down, and onto Simmons gap.  You're halfway through this thing.  You don't feel good, of course, and any delusions of grandeur you had earlier have been packed up and sent back, address unknown.  But you're not fat, are you?  

Up Simmons.  It's awful.  You hurt in places you don't recall ever being a problem before.  The outside of your knees.  The bottoms of your feet.  Your saddle has shrunk.  Your food, all gone.  Who ate all my food?  Who switched my saddle? 

Phone rings.  You're near the top of Simmons, where it gets steep, hard, awful.  You didn't know you got reception up here.  It's your fat test results, you fool. 

You look down.  Spilling out from under your jersey, where a fit racer once existed, your belly is dragging your top tube, wrapping around it like a wet coat on a drying rack, distended and grotesque, like an alien.  You're overcome with horror.  Ripped from the swelling, your clothing is bursting at the seams.  Your corpulence, expanding from the middle of your belly button outward, like a balloon inflated from the very center of your pandemic-laden soul, all those beers you just had to drink because there was little else to do.  You are literally blowing up, three times your former self now, swollen around every orifice.  You struggle to breath through your own face flesh.  You're asphyxiating.  

"On your left," comes a small voice from behind you. You're swerving all over the road.  A young lady rides past you, scowling at you, determined to get the fuck around this monstrosity before it pops.  You turn your huge head to try to look at her and, disgusted, she pulls her mask up over her face.  She double-masks at the very sight of you, and rides...beneath you?  She goes right under you, that's how big you are.  That's how huge you have become, rising above the old dirt road you thought you knew, upwards, floating out past the mailboxes and the observatory, up up up, out over the top of Shenandoah river where you look down and see your reflection, echoing the awful truth coming from your phone:

Your fat test came back positive.  I hate you.  

Then you wake up.  It's Sunday, nearly 9 AM already.  It was all a dream.  Wasn't it?

One way to find out.

Up, up, up.  




Friday, January 29, 2021

Misattribution

 My memory fails me: was it four or five years ago that the Pantani ride rolled down Markwood Road at 10 AM in 10 degree weather?  It was cold; cold enough in the field before the start that you already couldn't feel your toes, and you had to wonder, legitimately, if perhaps this was not safe.  It was cold enough that your tires popped and cracked over the hoarfrost in the gravel when you first hit Wesley Chapel, cold enough to make you gasp when you took those first few, ragged breaths on your way up Fox Mountain.  

When I went over the top of Simmons gap, past the mailboxes, and down into Bacon Hollow that year, the perspiration in the sleeves of my coat froze instantly, and unable to bend my elbows, I had a hard time steering.  A while later, having my annual emotional meltdown as I trudged up Brokenback, I realized it was going to take me greater than 5 hours to finish that year, and I hated The Pantani ride.  Pantani was dead.  This was dumb.  It was too cold. 

We misattribute our adversity sometimes.   Only Humans, we are prone to this.  We get carried away by the moment, how hard it seems. I've found myself doing a lot of this lately, hiding out, waiting for Covid to roll back and life - in some semblance of what it used to be - to resume.  It's been tedious, for all of us.  

I sat with my daughter a few days ago, and we played with her tiny stuffed animals on the floor of her bedroom, just the two of us, for an hour.  Her imagination sprawled across the white carpet from the bathroom to her bed, a huge world of Unicorns and puppies and elves and fairies, where she has complete control.  Her tiny friends live busy lives, bustling back and forth from the cardboard box that is their house, to the pile of books which is school, and then out to their extracurricular activities, soccer, hiking club, cooking classes, etc, only barely making it home in time for dinner and bed, only to do it again the next day.  They are inordinately busy.  She has complete control of their lives, and for a moment, her own life.  When we sit together, cross legged on the floor, I see how big her feet are getting, how tall she is now, even sitting down.  I find myself inspired by her wild imagination, the very resilience of the human spirit in times of sustained crisis.  And I'm also profoundly sad that this is all she has right now.  Is it enough?  

My wife ran Pantani about a month ago.  Running.  On foot.  The whole thing.  48.5 miles of swinging her arms and picking her feet up and down - that kind of running.  When she first told me about the idea, I doubted her for the first time in a long time, something I almost never do, mostly because I didn't understand it.  How would that even work?  Do you get a hotel half-way through?  Is there a shuttle?  She walked me through the basic math, how long it might take, where she'd get support, some bizarre concept she called "training" whatever that is, and pretty quickly I came around.  

Then she did it.  

After it was over, she distilled the experience, and her reasons for doing it, down to a few words, "It was better than not doing it."  If 2020 were a bumper sticker, that would be it.  

Pantani this year can't happen in the traditional sense, that being 250 of us getting a little rowdy in the field together before a mass-start down Markwood and...whatever usually happens after that.  But it can still happen, I think.  The plan, at this point, is that I'm going to open the gate at dawn or therabouts on Saturday, Feb 13th, prop it open with the shovel, and not close it until Sunday, February 21st.  Somewhere in there, you can ride Pantani if you want to.  The duration, I hope, will be enough time to space people out sufficiently.  We've all been doing this whole Covid-Dance long enough to know what to do.   It takes space, and time, but I think we've got enough of that to give this a try.  Also, as an added bonus, someone with the right kind of cycling computer and motivation might log a finish time of just shy of 9 days.  

For, the vaccinated elite, do whatever you want together, I guess.  You're living in a different world than the rest of us, and I'm not your mom.  

The rest of us, those waiting until August or whatever for the jab, I ask that - while parked in the field and out on the roads - you maintain your space, ride safely, sob into your own mask, and if you can't be cool, at least act cool for the duration of the experience.  I really don't care what you do or don't believe.  Abstract though it is, someone's life might literally be counting on you.  

Back to my original point about misattribution - I have drawn up a schematic (like most years, on a napkin, where brilliance happens) that I hope will be a helpful tool for you as you navigate the differences between Pantani in normal years, and this year's Covid-Pantani.  As you'll see, the differences are marginal. Pantani sucks either way.


Like most years, since there's really nothing out there, you'll have no one to blame but yourself.  And McCardell.  But mostly yourself.  Will it be enough?  

Space yourself, pace yourself, friends. We will get there, but it's a long way back to the top.  

Up, up, up.  

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

The plan is there is no plan

The plan is there is no plan.  

It was almost always that way with Pantani.  Most of the days when he attacked, even his supporters were left scratching their heads.  Even in hindsight, "Why there?"  

Instinctive racing, today - in a peloton of 150-some guys staring at their power meters on every uphill - is remarkably ineffective.  Even for Pantani 20 year ago, it usually it didn't work.  But it wasn't just his brand, an athlete's brand in the modern sense being something they craft.  Today an athlete must put an awful lot of thought into things.  Not Pantani.  

Pantani let it rip first, then thought about it.  

That's one of the ways Pantani differed from Armstrong, Ullrich, many others.  Ullrich, in particular, when he went up the road, he went with a purpose.  He'd force it if he had to, the big German.  Lance would too.  It was often bitter, joyless bike racing, but at the very least, someone drew it up ahead of time.  

When Pantani attacked, it wasn't a calculation.  It was the way the sun finally came out over Tuscany after a long day in the rain, and he felt the guy behind him move to take off his cape.  Or, it was the way the smell of damp rosemary hung in the fog on the backside of a climb he'd never seen.  It was the way the poppy fields of mid-summer in France, so slow and gold all day, finally leaned against his shadow in the ditch beside him, goading him.  Everything seemed to whisper, Go.  Just a split second and he was gone.  

The effect Pantani had on fans of the sport was one of mesmerization.  You might, as a viewer, believe in yourself a little, that if a tiny, poor kid with big ears from Cesanatico could make that move stick under those conditions, with the rest of the Peloton in full pursuit to no avail, that maybe you could get up at 3 AM again and feed your baby and get to work on time.  To watch Pantani was life-affirming, even in his failures, even after he was gone.  

I think about that a lot now.  In a year with so many tragic departures, Pantani remains a hero - the Shakespearean kind, for me right alongside Macbeth, and Hamlet, and King Lear.  We have learned something, I think.  Take, for example, Pantani2020, our own little gravel worship of these and other tragic flaws, which drew something like 250 people.  In hindsight, and by 2020 standards, it was enormous.  We were flying a little close to the sun, weren't we?

Many of you have reached out in recent weeks as you try to plan your upcoming year, to ask if we'll be giving it a go again here in 2021.  

As Pantani always rendered it: the plan is there is no plan.  

But maybe it will sort itself out on the road, eh?

Up, up, up.



Thursday, September 10, 2020

Crozet Running

You can tell a lot about a person by how they behave on the Death Climb.  

It's 2018 or so, and I finally catch John Anderson on the steep stuff near the top, before you get to Aid Station 5.  John owns Crozet Running, and I've bought shoes from him before, and he's always seemed like a pretty good guy - but I don't really know him.  The death climb was interminable that year, muddy, painful, and at this point in the SM100 you'll basically take any company you can.  Together, John and I ride the top third of the Death Climb.  I observe that he's the kind of person that - when he really gets to work on the bike - you can't tell if he's grimacing or smiling.  He is in pain, but he is jubilant.  He is a runner, but he is our kind of masochist.  As we climb, he occasionally dismounts and walks a steep section, purposefully pushing his bike instead of riding it, a sound strategy for dealing with the 3,000 vertical feet it takes to get to the top of Reddish Knob.  I make a mental note to go buy some shoes from Crozet Running before winter, and we push on.  Somewhere near the top we get separated.  That Fall was busy, and I didn't make it to Crozet to buy shoes.  I don't know much else about John.  

I was saddened to hear it announced that Crozet Running is the latest in a long barrage of retail closures in our area.  Casualties of Covid.  They will have to clear out all product, end their lease, and do something else.  I should have bought more of my shoes there.  We all should have.  What the pandemic has made clear - and very sad - is that you can only trust your neighbors.  Your neighbors will buy the right way, from a local business.  But you can never, ever trust "the consumer."  The consumer is a thing, not a person.  The consumer is remorseless, impatient, driven by whim and convenience, and mostly it's online now.  

2020, Covid, Crozet Running; these things will come to pass.  But the Death Climb goes on.  Of the 264 registrants for SM100 this year, some amount of them still toed the line in a Covid-appropriate manner.  They teed off in small groups for safety, like golf.  By all accounts, the event was safe, and perfect.  I am both heartened and dismayed by the state of things, where the collective will of good people only allows one business to survive while another dies.  

When this is over, I'd like to ride the death climb with John again, make sure he knows how sorry I am.  I'd like to walk some with him on the steep stuff at the top, slow things down, make patient decisions that are right instead of easy.  We must not forget what those things are.  

Up, up, up.  



Monday, August 17, 2020

Change of Plans



There should be a lake here.  I can imagine it as I gaze upwards.  I'm floating down a tiny creek in a kayak,  fly rod in my lap, August air thick with fog and the smell of bass.   Huge riverbank poplars and white-barked sycamores drape the creek above me like a roof, but in my mind I replace their sheltering mass with 100 feet of water instead.  Catfish and carp should be swimming there, between me and the surface of the reservoir, far above, their dark green shapes outlined against the sky, shimmering and refracting a world that does not exist.  They should live there.  Instead, I float downstream in a 10-foot kayak, fishing instead of training for the SM100.  I'm just floating along, in a Pandemic and barely a foot of water, and I contemplate the nature of plans that change.  

The days are getting shorter.  Every year for the last dozen years or so, the changing of the season from Summer to Fall has brought about a sort of restlessness in me.  I should be on my bike.  I need the miles.   On The Sunday Before Labor Day any other year, I would race the SM100.  It's difficult, but necessary.  It's the only way I know to allow summer to peacefully bow out, become fall.  


I have finished the SM100 10 times.  But I won't this year.  My brain knows and understands that.  Racing bikes is far, far down the list of things that we have to sort out how to do again in this world.  But the slow twitch fibers in my calves and certain buried aspects of my nervous system have so far been reluctant to come around.   I've been waking up at night.  The air has been cool in the mornings this week, and the leaves are turning dry now.  

Like water, there is simply no other way forward.  Floating a river teaches you that.  I give a couple of easy strokes with the paddle, make a cast again, and I try to center myself in the kayak, here at the bottom of a lake that almost happened.  It's a strange thing to ponder , an entire ecosystem - fish, turtles, people, races, lives, simply dropped from the narrative.  

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Sham/Shame

In the roadside ditches between my house and Nortonsville, between the road itself and the rolling green pastures and oak flats, there are three used masks.  They're not together.  The first one - a nice white N-95 - is right around the corner here, less than 500 yards from where I sit and write this.  The other two, a black one and a blue one, are about a mile past that, just on the edge of Buck Mountain, in some tall grass on the right.  It's possible they were purposefully discarded there together, homemade cloth masks that someone obviously labored to create, now spent.  It's also possible that they simply blew out of the window of a passing car, just an accident.  It turns out that masks, divisive little items which they have become, can also be litter, intended or not, and maybe that means something.  


On the same stretch of road, there are about twenty empty, blue bud light cans.  At least twenty.  That number goes up and down a little based upon the schedule of roadside clean up crews, how fast the grass grows, and presumably how often these assholes drive the road and throw their cans out. On long rides out through the county on hot days, litter is something I have struggled to understand.  Who on earth is doing this?  Is it on purpose?  Is it a single individual, a lone-wolf, bud light bandit in reverse?   It might, in fact, be a single bad actor, though if COVID has taught us anything, it's that bad behavior begets more bad behavior.  These things come in packs.  


*

  

My wife literally runs.  She logs her miles in a spiral notebook that she keeps by our bed, spends hours out on the narrow country roads that spread north into the surrounding counties, out into Greene and Madison, like roots. Hours per day, miles per week, she prefers to deal with our bizarre new reality on a one-dimensional plane, one foot in front of the other.  She was born here.  

 

“It’s like they’ve become emboldened now,” my wife summarized her experience on the road recently.  It's summer, Sunday, too hot for a long run unless she started early.  So she’d left home in the dark, trudged without coffee through humid air thick with fog and manure.  Along the way, she’d been horned twice, both times by big trucks, rednecks, whooping at her and catcalling.  She couldn’t read their license plates as they careened away, North, out into the county, but in the back window of both, the same kinds of stickers.  


*


I had a theory going for a while that the sub-culture of people who throw beer cans at cyclists, and the sub-culture of people that harass female runners, and the sub-culture of people who refuse to wear masks in public - if you mapped them all onto a Venn diagram -  would be a single, overlapping circle.  But that hypothesis got crushed on a ride recently, at the bottom of Bleak House road above the river, when I came upon a French-Canadian guy with an old steel Nishiki propped against the guard rail.  He was having a smoke and halfway through his first of two 20-ounce tallboys.  He had the two cans tucked neatly into the bikes' bottle cages, a perfect fit, and he wore a bright yellow safety vest. I spoke some French and he spoke some English, but eventually we settled on English because his English was way, way better than my French.  This man was quite a paradox.  He claimed, between enormous gulps of malt liquor, to be a former ironman triathlete, which I found believable as he recounted in detail the massive costs involved with race travel.  He'd just been coal-rolled, up near the intersection of Woodlands and Reas Ford, by some huge truck with a modified exhaust, and it had burned his eyes.  So he was pounding a couple of beers here, at the bottom of the hill near the river, to take the edge off before he rode home.  


"Motherfuckers," he swore, with a thick, French-Canadian accent.  We leaned against the guardrail in silence for a while.  He smoked, and I watched the flow of traffic.  


He asked me about the Virus, "What do you make of all of this?"  

I confessed that I honestly didn't know.  

He said he thought it was a Shame.  Or he said he thought it was a Sham.  I couldn't tell which he said.


That's vital information, of course, his whole point of view in the conversation hinges upon the existence of a single letter - that "e".  I wanted to ask him, but in a strange way I felt it didn't matter.  I didn't want to know anymore.  We're all just playing parts now, some bizarre, nationwide attempt at improvisational theater where we've all been assigned roles but no one knows their lines.  What would my character say about this?  We check twitter the way that an actor checks the script.  Line, please.  

But what do we really know?  


*

 

“It’s my faith in people, now,” my wife mutters.  But she cracks her knuckles anyway and jumps the three steps down off the deck on her way out for a run again.  She will never stop, I know.  It’s barely dawn but already hot, and she’s glistening under a thin layer of sweat, resplendent in her defiance.  Take your best shot, motherfuckers.    


It's a sham, or a shame.  Maybe it's both.  Maybe it's something else.  


Up, up, up.  

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

The Edge

I went for a pretty big ride on Sunday afternoon, out through the fringe of the northside of Charlottesville.  The trails I ride up here are all nooks and crannies, private land I do or sort of don't have permission to ride.  Some of them run down gaslines and across neighborhood HOA's.  Some traverse the river down the edge of unmanaged county land.  Some are old, deeded right of ways that don't actually give anyone a right or a way.  But I ride them anyway.  It's a lawless, wonderful place, the edge, where no one is really supposed to be. 

Along the Rivanna - somewhere above the reservoir - I came upon a guy diving and spear fishing in a deep hole at a bend in the river.  He was a madman.  I talked to him for a while.  He had canoed in there with his dog, a brown and white mutt that kept watch from the bank while he dove.  He had beached the boat on a sandbar there and spent the better part of the afternoon.  Two small speakers played reggae from the seat of his canoe, on top of a cooler of beer cans, mostly empties.  He was in and out of the water a lot, back and forth to the canoe, no oxygen tank or real equipment, just a set of goggles and big lungs and a spear.  It's illegal to spearfish in freshwater in the state of Virginia, but he wasn't worried.  He was Caucasian.  His skin was deep bronze, thick and loose like a mature hog late in the summer, the kind of permanent tan you only achieve after a thousand sunburns.  He didn't worry about sunscreen.   He didn't worry much about anything, I gathered.  His shoulders were huge, the kind of mass you'd never develop in the gym, only through a lifetime of paddling and rich food.   He was distracted at times, the way that high people can be, but also laser-focused -  diving underwater for two minutes at a time, searching for the big catfish that tend to push upstream from the reservoir this time of year to spawn.  He had seen some big ones.  He tried to sell me weed, but I declined.  So he tried to sell me acid, which I thought was a strong upsell for someone who didn't want to purchase weed, but I declined that too.  We talked for a while, but eventually he went back to spear fishing.  Intermittently, he would waive a bowie knife around above his head, swatting at mosquitos, or maybe just hallucinating.  He shot a huge bass.  

Then it got weird.  

A beautiful woman rides by on a horse.  She is by herself, young and very fit.   She wears her blond hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail, and she pulls hard on the horse's reigns to control it as she carefully picks her way down the trail next to the river.  She stops the horse, tall and proud above the river like a statue, and she looks down into the depths of the hole.  Spearfish guy is literally chest deep in the water, speargun in his hand, scuba goggles on, with a huge dead fish, and he yells up from the river and tries to get her phone number.  I've never seen anything quite like it.  There is very little dialog.  She's like 50 yards above him, and the current is pretty fast around that bend, so he has to yell to be heard.  He sees something he likes and he bellows out to it like a bull moose.  She declines and rides off.  

But 20 minutes later she comes back and gives him her number.  

She doesn't make a show of it or anything.  She reads out her phone number in an even monotone, loud enough but also measured, like how she might call out the numbers at the local community center for bingo on senior night.  Spearfish guy scrambles to his canoe to get his phone, speargun dragging behind him in the water, still attached to his belt by some kind of lanyard, still loaded.  

Afterward, she departs upstream, and he leaves downstream.  It's a date, I guess.  I fish for a while, but the river is calm and empty.  

On my ride home, it's sunset and I laugh some.  They will make quite a pair.  She left, knowing better, but she came back 20 minutes later and gave him her number.  I have no idea what her story is, but I imagine her brain for those 20 minutes, the time between when she left and she came back.  She's riding her horse in the forest.  It's silent.  In between the green sycamores and the huge riverbank poplars, a transition of some kind must have occurred   She knows it's a bad idea, or...at least it used to be.  But this is the edge.  Things are changing fast.  

Everyone I know is somewhere in those 20 minutes right now.  


We're going somewhere, aren't we.  
But where?  
Up, up, up.