Riding the Wafer...The Worst Parade Ever

I wasn’t a cyclist before Sunday.

There are some unwritten rules of biking, and I’m sure I’ve broken all of them in the last few months of training leading up to the Belgian Waffle Ride. I didn’t shave my legs, I rode with spandex on the mountain bike and loose shorts on my road bike. I actually didn’t even ride a road bike, I bought a used cross bike for a couple of hundred dollars from a nice guy who rode it across Belgium in the pouring rain. He threw in the panniers and a helmet and shoes that were a little too tight. At least I was smart enough to not throw the luggage racks on during the race.

The Belgian Waffle Ride can be intimidating. Just the distance is intimidating, and then you have a look at the elevation profile, and check out pictures of people who finished covered in a mixture of blood, dirt, spit, tears, snot, and mud. The full Waffle is 134 miles with over 10,000 feet of gain. The shorter, humbler Wafer is 74 miles with 5,300 feet of gain. Rolling into the expo to pick up my number, I couldn’t help but notice the veins, rolling like ropes up these men and women’s smooth calves. They also had shorts that matched their jerseys. These are called kits.

I have one cycling jersey. It has a zipper in the front and pockets in the back. I bought it when I did Ironman Cozumel about ten years ago. It has a big Ironman logo on the front to let everyone who knows anything about cycling know that I can’t handle my bike in a pack for shit. It’s also brand new because when I did that Ironman ten years ago, I gave up biking. The training took too long, and with three small kids, I didn’t have the time to go for long rides. The tri bike went up in the garage, on a hook where it hangs today to serve as a warning for anyone that passes to turn around and run if they value money and/or time.

The morning of the race, the organizers of the Belgian Waffle Ride laid out a gluttonous breakfast buffet of bacon, waffles, and melted butter. I skipped the bacon but did down a couple of waffles dripping with melted butter. All races should have waffles at the start, especially 5Ks. It would make watching them way more interesting.

I felt all tingly waiting for the start, but that may have been the minty Assos chamois cream I’d slathered all over my taint and undercarriage area. The organizer gave a speech about how we are all friends in a giant parade and how we need to look out for each other, a kid played an awesome, guitar-version of the National Anthem while standing on top of an RV, a mariachi band played, and we were off.

I’m not going to bore you with every detail of the race, I’m just going to bore you with some of the highlights.

The start is on road for about 10 miles and most of the 6–700 people stay in a tight group. The group goes pretty fast because the people in the front of the pack break the wind for everyone else, so you just have to bike behind someone in front of you, and not slow down and not waver in your line while you’re making a turn, and bike super straight, and not veer to the right or to the left, and you will not crash, and have the 300 or so people who are riding behind you run over you and then they crash and you have ruined their day. Did I mention that I used to be a triathlete and most of my biking experience had been of the solo variety while riding in a straight line on aerobars? You aren’t even allowed to be within 10 feet to the cyclist in front of you when you’re racing a triathlon. This pack riding was new to me, and luckily, I didn’t ruin my or anyone else’s day.

I did go down once, pretty hard, but it was in the soft dirt. I was leading a group of about 5 or so, and by leading, I mean there were probably 5 people behind me waiting for a good time to pass. A mountain bike came the other way, and I tried to turn, but my front wheel caught some sand, so I went down. Hurt my knee a little bit, but I was thankful when I looked back at the guy who was following me skid to a stop inches away from my head.

Cross racing is a cross between road and dirt biking, with a bike that isn’t entirely suitable for the road because of its big tires, nor is it suitable for the trails because of its skinny tires. Despite this, cross racing is so much fun. I rode through streams, on singletrack, over gravel, up and down some twisting climbs, and the road sections weren’t any easier.

I was told there would be women with bikinis handing out bacon at an aid station called The Oasis at mile 60, at the base of the hardest climb of the day. When I arrived, there was bacon, but no bikinis. My spirits were a little low at this point, but it had more to do with the upcoming climb than the bikinis. Everything changed a few miles later when I biked past my house and my son and daughter were there waiting for me. My son handed me a beer which made up for the lack of bikinis at The Oasis. I guess I’ve changed.

Near the top of Double Peak (don’t mistake that grimace for a smile)

Adam and I shared the beer before we started the climb to Double Peak. Adam is a guy I’ve known for over 20 years. He came down from Santa Cruz to do the race with me, and he prepared by going to Colombia and cycling the longest climb on earth (over 10,000 feet). I prepared by climbing the Hills of San Elijo, but somehow I always left out Double Peak. That’s the high point of the Wafer ride, and it’s the only time that I considered dismounting and walking the bike. I should have as it would have been faster than my cycling pace.

Me and Adam in the early miles

It went mostly downhill from there, but in a good way. I hit 45 MPH going down Twin Oaks, which is fun until you start thinking about all the things that could go wrong. I got into a pack in the last mile and asked who was willing to lead me out for the sprint. I was saving that bit of cycling lingo for the end, but nobody laughed. Maybe everyone was just too tired at that point, or maybe it just wasn’t as funny as I thought it was. So, in typical dad fashion, I sped up to another guy near the finish and asked him if he would lead me out for the sprint. He chuckled. Success. Then he dropped me.

The finish area was awesome, but when the finish line is Lost Abbey, it has to be good. I sat with Joe and Adam, nursing the free beer, comparing battle scars and swapping stories. It was weird because if there had been a registration booth at the finish line, I would have signed up right there. I never have that feeling after a race. It usually takes a couple of days for the memory of the suffering to fade, and the good sections, the afterglow to come into focus before I’m ready to commit to another one, but this time I would have signed up again on the spot. I was covered in dirt, my teeth were gritty, the blood and mud mixture had dried on my knee, and I felt like I was going to throw up. But sitting there in the sun with hairy legs, a gritty smile, in my one and only cycling jersey, I felt like a cyclist.


I can’t wait to do this race again next year, but if they’re going to call it a parade, there better be some floats and beauty queens throwing candy. For now, I’m bathing in CBD cream and waiting for the appropriate occasion to pop the Lost Abbey Belgian Ale. Thanks to Joe, Adam, Ed, Chi, Craig, and others for sharing some of the road and race miles.

Sunsets

Do not go gentle into that good night
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
-Dylan Thomas 
No, I'm not dying. I mean, we're all dying, but I hope to live a good while longer. My running career, on the other hand, is in its last stages, and that's difficult for me to deal with. It's difficult because, for the past 15+ years, I've defined myself as a runner. Labels are dangerous, but runner, or more specifically, "trail runner" was a label I was happy to take on. I wrote about running, I made a dumb Youtube video about stupid things that trail runners say, I planned vacations around running. Running connected me to some of my closest friends. Through running, I experienced some of the best moments of my life, and also one of my greatest disappointments. 
Dealing with not-running, with the slow death of that part of my identity has been difficult. I am self-aware enough (just barely) to understand that this is about as a first-world problem as poor wifi. Even though I tell myself not to be so dramatic, that sentence up there at the top of this paragraph shows how well I listen to that inner voice.
About four years ago, while hiking the High Sierra Trail, I started to notice pain in both of my heels. The pain would be pretty bad in the morning, but after a few miles on the trail, it would go away, only to reappear the next morning. I figured it was a side effect of hiking the High Sierra Trail. 
I thought the pain would go away with time off, but it didn't, so I just dealt with it. 
I took up yoga, I stretched, I bought and used a variety of weird looking devices that gather at the foot of my bed, and I'd hide them from the housekeeper if we had one. I went to chiropractors, massage therapists, physical therapists, ART specialists, and I decided not to punch one of my running partners who asked if I'd tried stretching. My wife got me to try some capsicum cream which is basically like rubbing habanero peppers on your skin. God help you rub your eyes or worse with that cream on your hands. CBD cream, with all its hype, actually really helped with the pain and inflammation (it worked so well for me that I became a rep). None of this stuff cured me, but the combination helped mitigate the pain. I would run one day, take the next day off. On those off days, I limped, and inevitably would be asked why I was limping. Usually, I just said I was getting old. 
Finally, I went to a podiatrist and was diagnosed with Haglund's deformity in both of my heels. I hate that they call it a deformity because it's just a bone protrusion on the heel. I love feet a little too much, so it's hard for me to deal with a deformity in my own feet. The podiatrist said it's also called "Pump Bump," and that just sounds so much worse. I mean neither would work on an online dating profile, so when people ask why I'm limping, I usually just respond that I pulled a calf while weeding the yard, or something that sounds slightly less embarrassing than, "oh, this…this is pump bump." 
The doctor said he could open it up, detach my Achilles tendon, shave down the bone, then reattach the Achilles. He would have to do one heel at a time with months of recovery between the surgeries. He told me, with a smile, that with a full recovery I would be able to run 3–4 miles pain-free. One of the hardest parts of all of this is that I have goals that will be unfulfilled. I tell my kids they can do anything. They can overcome the greatest odds, but sometimes that's just not true. I will never run a 100-mile race. I'll never break 3 hours in the marathon. 
In trying to minimize the pain, both the physical and the kind in my head, I've tried to stretch out and do new things. I signed up for the Belgian Waffle Ride. It's a cyclocross race, so it's not quite road biking and not quite mountain biking. The full version has a 60–70% finish rate and it bills itself as one of the toughest bike races in America. I'm doing the half this year, and if I survive, I'll do the full next year. Any ride that starts with waffles and ends at a brewery can't be that bad. 
In training for the ride, I've been risking my life in the hopes of keeping up with my daredevil son on the mountain bike. Luckily, I'm done having children, because certain body parts have taken more of a toll than others. Yes, I'm talking about my balls. 
My son has an amazing sense of comfort on the bike that I just don't have. He flows through the turns and flies over the jumps with grace. He doesn't fight the bike. On the other hand, I'm not allowed to break the first rule of bike fight club, so let's just say I'm not quite as graceful. It's been fun to watch him develop this passion and to be able to share in some of his rides. He's still at the age where he'll occasionally ask me to join him for a ride or to take him to a different trail system than the ones we have within biking distance. I've always told my kids that I'll never say no if they ask me to do something active with them. I may regret that soon. 
Glad I didn't say no to this ride
I'm still running, just slower than usual, and with more pain, but as they say on Brokeback Mountain, "I just can't quit you." Maybe it's the simplicity of covering long distances with minimal equipment, or it could be the hours spent talking through histories that I can't get anywhere else. I'll be sitting in the lineup talking to a guy about how he is struggling to communicate with his daughter, and this is something I can relate to, and if we were running, this could turn into an hour conversation, easy, and we would bare our souls to each other and expose our fears to the dirt, the trees, and the wind. But this is surfing, and a set wave is coming. He stops mid-sentence and we both paddle for it. He has a better position, closer to the peak as it builds, a nice right. He says he's going right so I paddle hard towards the left, and it's a great wave. We both catch it, going different directions and ride it close to the shore. It's a great moment, and we both paddle back out with huge smiles. I head north for more lefts and he stays south. The conversation hangs there unfinished, but there are more set waves, it's glassy, and this is a lonely hunt. 
I ran a few days ago with two friends. We did a 6ish mile loop. One of them pushed their baby in a stroller. We walked the steepest parts of the climbs. We talked about our upcoming trip to Boulder, we talked politics and hate in the world, and of course, boobs were mentioned, mostly our own. I came home happy and full of energy. My heels hurt, but it was worth it. I wouldn't quite consider it "raging against the dying of the light." It's more like watching the sun slowly fade with the memory of that bath of color in that sweet spot that we don't like to talk about that pulls from both joy and sadness.

You Can Fly


I haven’t seen Dumbo in years, but I still get sad thinking about it. It broke my heart when I was a kid. This elephant with the big ears, stolen from his mom, picked on and forced to perform. Disney used to be dark. I can’t remember if he dropped his feather or was forced to jump without it, but the look of fear on Dumbo’s face sticks with me today.

I get it. Dumbo had to believe in himself. He needed to know that his power came from inside him, and he could fly with or without the crutch. The current issue I’m dealing with as a parent is that I’m the crutch.

I want my kids to take risks, I want them to climb, to flip, to drop in on the 20-foot halfpipe, or do a backflip off the 10-meter diving board, or even go for the slide tackle that explores the gray area of legality. I want them to fall off the bike and then get back up and try again. I want them to do all of this, and I praise them when they succeed and when they fail, but I still want to be the one to catch them, to spot them, to cheer them on, and occasionally to help them off the field when they hurt themselves.

My son has been able to do a backflip for about 5 years. He can do a backflip off the high dive, and he can do one on a skateboard off of a ramp into a foam pit. He can do one on the trampoline too, but he still asked me to spot him. By spotting him, he means me being on the trampoline with him and at the most, barely feeling his shirt glide past my fingertips while he is mid-air. Physically, he didn’t need me to spot him, and I wasn’t spotting him at all.

He can also do a front flip 180 and a front flip 360 which is kind of like a vertical and horizontal flip at the same time and looks way harder to do than a backflip. He doesn’t need me to spot him for those tricks or any of the others, but for the backflip, he needed me there. I was his feather.

Every time he asked me what trick he should do, I would say backflip. He would ask me to spot him, and I would tell him that he could already do the trick and that he didn’t need me to be on the trampoline with him and that I don’t really spot him anyway, I just stand there looking stupid, and that it would probably be easier for him to do it without me standing there because I take up room on the trampoline and I absorb some of the bounce. I gave him all these arguments, but he would ask until I eventually relented.

Last week I came home and my son ran up to me with this big grin on his face. His new trick grin. He asked if I wanted to see his new trick, and I started to head out back to the trampoline and he stopped me and said no, right here. He stood there in the middle of the living room, crouched down and did a complete backflip from standing.

I was shocked, amazed, and proud. What about the trampoline? What about the spotting? He showed me how he progressed from doing the backflip on the trampoline to doing it standing on the trampoline without jumping, then doing it on the grass, then the carpet. No spot? No, he said, I did it myself. I was as proud of him as he was for himself, but I felt like a dropped feather twisting its way to the ground.

Sharks and Minnows

Photo and cropping job courtesy of Marathon Foto

When I pictured myself running the Boston Marathon, it was cruising downhill on a crisp, but sunny spring New England day. A couple weeks out, the weather forecast called for rain, and a 15 MPH wind from the west, which would be nice. The rain would be annoying, but as long as the wind was at our backs, everything would be okay. A week out, the wind forecast shifted to a 20-30 MPH headwind with temps in the high 30s and low 40s. These were some of the worst conditions the race had ever seen.

I don’t like race reports. It’s hard to go back and be in that experience once it’s over. I’ll share what got me through the experience in the hopes that these strategies will help someone else. For Boston, I thought about middle schoolers. I should probably clarify that. I’ve been coaching middle school track and field, and it’s a good thing because that last sentence would sound kind of weird otherwise.

I’ve devised a system that works for me during races. It keeps me from thinking about how much warmer and drier I would be in the medical tent, or back in my hotel room with a hot shower and a steaming cup of coffee. I think about people I love, and things in my life that I am grateful for. During Boston, I thought about my kids quite a bit. My oldest daughter will be heading off to college next year, and it’s too soon, and I’m too young and emotionally immature to handle that. I thought about how amazing she is, and that I need to tell her I love her more often.

I thought of the middle schoolers I coach, including my two younger kids. Everyone talks about how annoying middle schoolers are. Yes, they can be annoying. So annoying. They have these chemicals in them that they don’t know how to handle, so they deal with it by being loud, obnoxious, and moody. They are also amazing to be around. They’re still kids and they do kid things like dance and sing together in practice, without the self-consciousness of high school kids, or the awkwardness of adults.

There is something about watching kids run that gets me excited. Again, as a coach. They have this naturally good form. They drive their knees, and their heels come all the way up to their butt on the backswing. Their heads are up, chests are out, and their arms drive forward. What happens to runners as we age? Why do we lead with the heels? Why do we shorten our stride? Why are we stingy with our energy? I guess we’ve been burned too many times. If I started Boston as a middle schooler, I wouldn’t last 5 miles because I’d be chasing everyone who passed me and end up running sub-6 minute pace for a few miles, then walking with my hands on my head, face flushed red, and gasping for breath. But, that form, that’s what I channeled.

We play this game in practice called sharks and minnows. Even the shot-putters play it, and they actually run. Fast. It’s a common game. One person is the shark in the middle of the field, and the other 60 or 70 kids (minnows) line up on one side of the field and try to make it to the other side without getting tagged. If they’re tagged, they become sharks. This goes on for 5 or 6 rounds until everyone is chasing the last couple of minnows. The kids complain about running repeats, but when they play this game, when they are minnows, they run 100-meter times that beat anything I’ve seen them run in a race. And they’re smiling the whole time.

We lose that smile, too. I made jokes during Boston. Freezing, soaked with rain, and I would step in a puddle and yell out “dang, now I’m wet.” People around me would laugh. And then 15–20 minutes later, I’d make the same joke, and people would smile, and then 15–20 minutes later, I’d make the same joke again, and people would roll their eyes. I’m a dad, it’s what I do. It kept me going.

Have you ever seen Kipchoge run a race? He smiles like a maniac. He’s laying down 4:34/mile pace at the end of a marathon and he’s got this huge grin on his face. He says it makes him go faster. It works. It works for the kids, too. I tell them to smile during their race, but they never do. They push, they strain, they try too hard. Racing isn’t fun, sharks and minnows is fun.

I pushed too hard at Boston. In the back of my head, requalifying was a goal, so I didn’t adjust my pace for the weather. The cold, the wind and the rain took their toll, and the too-fast start caught up with me around mile 16. I slowed down (I don’t count the intentional Wellesley slowdown at mile 13). I reminded myself that running that race was a long-term goal that I had worked hard to achieve and that I was grateful and lucky to be there. I decided to just run. I stopped looking at my pace, I slowed for water at the aid stations, and I smiled.

I probably looked like an idiot as I turned down Boylston Street and the rain came at me horizontally. I didn’t care. Mouth open, arms wide, running towards the finish with my eyes closed against the rain and the wind, and letting the tears mix in with all of it.

I recognized that feeling, that middle school not caring how much is left, or who is watching, or what time I’m going to get, or how I’m going to make the two-mile post-race walk back to the hotel while dealing with hypothermia. I was fully in love with that moment, legs stretching, but not forcing anything, running like a middle schooler avoiding the sharks in the middle of the field like my life depended on it.

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