Monday, March 4, 2013

lions in my life

Being the youngest of four I had plenty of older influences in and out of my life in the form of sibling significant others. I was young and impressionable with this rotating cast that benefited from their separation from familial drudgery. They provided exposure to more than my kin ever could. One such example pulled me into the world of self-propulsion on two wheels and subsequently put me on the track I still pedal.

On this course of pushing my body I've had the benefit of having even stronger influences that have shaped my views of human performance and my own personal potential. At 14 I dove into the deep end of cycling culture and had to sink or swim. Luckily, the deepness near me was Trexlertown, one of the countries premier track destinations, where legends roamed.

With his booming British accent, sharp wit, and compassionate charisma, Alaric Gayfer knew when to throw young riders like me further into the deep and teach us how to not only survive, but thrive. I never became a track star and I'm still comfortable with my own mediocrity, but it was this man who gave me my first road bike out of the attic of a bike shop, who threw me into races with kids half my size to simply get experience, who would bang on the boards at the T-Town track and make me feel was Alaric, a multi-time British National Champion, who brought me into the fold.
Years later, through some forgotten connection, I learned that Alaric was battling cancer. By a strange coincidence, his last attempt to heal took him to Duke medical center where my sister was doing her residency. She went to see him before he passed, remembering how generous he was to her little brother. I'll never forget that. Even the people around me knew how much he meant, even when I didn't.

Little did I know, he was the first in a span of over ten years who would leave a lasting impression.

Not long after I received that red and black Raleigh Technium from the attic of Cycledrome, I begged my parents to sign me up for more consistent "training" and coaching. It was the fledgling and prestigiously named American Cycling Academy that had the greatest pull. ACA was the over the top business name for an over the top personality: Gil "Gibby" "The Bear" Hatton. $90 a month got me the opportunity to sweat in the same room as olympic gold medalist Marty Nothstein. A couple of other  amateurs like myself were in the mix, but I was definitely one of the youngest (a trend that, looking back, has been consistent for many of my cycling experiences).

I skipped out of high school track & field two springs to get ready for summers on the track. Those warm training nights at the velodrome, sun setting, bright lights blinding, the crackling of a well tensioned track chain, swaying up and down the banking ("like a paintbrush" Gil would say) felt like the Field of Dreams.
Gibby was certainly a polarizing figure in the T-Town cycling scene, and since he returned from several years in Cali, I imagine he still is. In the short time that I knew him however, he gave me such a strong foundation to build off of. He also gave me the name "Claymore", which never really stuck past high school. It was supposed to remind me to be " the mine". Much later I discovered that endurance racing suits me better than anything that requires explosive sprinting, so maybe that's why the name died.

During that same period, when track racing kept me busy in the Summer, I didn't yet appreciate all the seasons of cycling, so I ran cross country in the Fall. I was not built to run back then. I don't know how I stuck it out. It was more of a way to gain associations (aka "friends" in high school speak), than to compete. Sure, I tried, but I never really pushed myself that hard and because of this I never found much success. It was just too damn painful. My legs wanted to push pedals; I had a wicked kick downhill, rotating my legs through like I was on a bike, but that's where my skill stopped.

The man that kept me going was Bill Ruth. He scared the shit outta me. And I'm glad I had him to do so. His standards were high,  his workouts were strategic, his strategies were shrewd, his stare was serious, and his shouts could split wood. But never did you ever feel that he didn't care. From the state champs to the pack fodder like myself, he connected with everyone; knew how to push you if you were running sub-6's or struggling with sub-10's. And because of that dedication, he led decades of runners to dozens and dozens of wins.
The way we worked out still sticks with me, so do the adages, the stories, the ferocity of competition on those teams, and the sense of community he and the other coaches were able to build. Even though running definitely lost out to cycling, running at Liberty HS with Coach Ruth set me up to push even harder. 

There was even more overlap during this time. I met another pillar of my competitive career during high school, but I didn't realize at the time that he would become even more meaningful to me years later. Jim Young started collegiate cycling in 1973. I didn't know this when he coached the local paper's employee team for a one night exposition of amateur racing at the velodrome. My Dad was an editor at the paper and signed me up to be a part of this hodge-podge team. Coach Young coached a lot of national champions. I didn't know that either. I knew he was Penn State's cycling coach and that was all.

He didn't say much, but when he did talk, you listened. That's as much as I remember from that first interaction. We maybe had two or three practices before we raced for The Morning Call and then he became just another tough old-guy that I didn't think I'd ever see again.

Fast forward three, maybe four years, past high school, past a year as a masonry laborer with my brother, past hiking the AT, going to Europe, community college and I found myself at Penn State. I used to dream of shaving my legs while thru-hiking the trail... so yea,  that cycling bug never really died inside of me. Now I was in a whole new confusing web of social interactions, far far larger than high school, and not only could I make some easy 'associates', but I could finally surround myself with other guys that shaved their legs too (oh, and race bikes again!). So the Penn State Cycling Club got a new recruit and like track cycling as a young teen, I dove in deep.

And guess who I got to meet again?

This time I really did listen to him though. I was now surrounded by his disciples. He was like the Godfather, a force to be reckoned with, governing from afar. He lives back in the Lehigh Valley, a solid two and a half hours from State College. He was also, for the longest time, not supposed to be coaching the team. At least according to the control freaks, risk managers, and generally miserable human beings at Penn State Club Sports (my sophomore year I was president of the club, so I got to deal with the unpleasant politics they imposed on student athletes like myself). He wasn't signed-off on something or some other stupid technicality. They certainly couldn't stop him from being a part of the team he built. They were fools to think they could.

Of course, national news has told the story of how corrupt and morally bankrupt the upper tiers of PSU athletics was, so in hindsight and in comparison, I can write off my struggles as petty drama...with plenty of scares from injured racers (including current US U23 Crit Champion) and threats to shut-down the club to keep me on edge.

Coach Young was there through all of that. He noticed when I ran to my car, time and time again, to go find the local hospital one of our riders got taken to after a crash. He listened to all the drama and cut through all the crap. He kept us focused on what was important.
I traveled with our 'A' racers to Collegiate Road National's when they were held in (now nearby) Fort Collins. In some hotel conference room, I joined him at a couple meetings with the cream of the collegiate cycling coaching crop. Ft. Lewis, Marion, Lees McRae...all were represented by these fit middle-aged men. And here I sat next to the white haired, Parkinson's-riddled founder of collegiate cycling, looking a decade older than he was. His labored language did not receive the anticipated pity, but instead a palpable respect. I was humbled. I was proud. He spoke from experience, wisdom, and fire.

I've been one of countless many to have had these mentors. But in my case, it's perhaps particularly fortunate to have known so many that are so remarkable.


Now in my late twenties, traveling around the country to seasonal job after seasonal job, it's riding and racing that keeps me sane. Whether living in a double-wide in Austin, or the barely wide-enough cab of my old little pick-up in Telluride, I've always had a quiver of bikes. They served as tickets to whatever regional riding the area had to offer. They have been my in as well as my out. An in into a community and an out from the insular work environments I've been a part of.
Even though I no longer drive 'Big Red' around, the same goes for here in Estes. Through Bikeflights, of course, the quiver was sent out here, and they still serve as the in's and out's I've grown to depend on. 

But this position is longer than the others. I'm here for a full year, so I'm putting much more into it. Something I wanted to start here was the circuit training we used to do back in high school xc. So I reached out to "Wacki", the then assistant, but now to the best of my knowledge, head coach. He said he'd be happy to help, but maybe I should just ask Bill, "he's out there in Estes Park too". 

A few emails later and Bill was back in my life, designing a specific circuit workout for our school, and even giving me valuable advice about racing Dirty Kanza. 

Last week, we got out for a road ride together, down out of the mountains. 
On our drive back up the canyon we were reminiscing about track & field maybe, casually passing the time. What flashed, in an instant, past two cars in front of us, neither of us were prepared for. A mountain lion, with two unbelievable strides, leaped across the road and into the dense forest beside it. We were stunned. Neither of us ever saw one before. And to see one in broad daylight, during the rather mundane activity of driving home from a ride, was even more startling. 

Now, I'm not one to believe in mysticism and magical connections, 'power animals' and the like... but I am one to appreciate connections. I saw that lion with someone I still look up to, to whom I'm still a student. It made me think back to all these mentors and coaches, who like this lion, lept across my path, leaving a lasting imprint, then faded from view. 


dellyk1 said...

I must say I'm jealous. If I talked to the dance lions of my past they'd tell me to quit fuckin' up my legs with this cycling nonsense. I really enjoy reading your blog! You a lion in my life...we seen't it at FT Yargo when you teleported to where we were after having lost a pedal! :D Damn. You gunna kick some ass at that there Dirty Kanza!:D

Clay said...

Well shoot darlin', that's a mighty fine compliment. Thanks! Certainly haven't thought of myself as a lion in this metaphor...perhaps more of a passing apparition. I hope to kick ass at DK, even if it's only my own.