Because I’m such an epic scaredy cat, I never turn around when I race. I’m too afraid of what I’ll see: a dozen riled-up Lance Armstrongs, I imagine, standing and stomping, poised to swallow me up then spit me out like a discarded GU wrapper.
So today, in the Mount Baker Hill Climb, I won’t turn around, but I know that my friend John is right behind me.
And though John is one of my closest buds, I’d rather he was somewhere else right now—home mowing the lawn, Costco, a few miles back cursing while he fumbles to fix a flat by the side of the road (cruel, I know), Sea World in Florida; it really doesn’t matter. Just somewhere else.
John, you see, has my number. Or is in my head. One of the two. Or both. I can’t decide.
John and I, and about four others, are in the lead pack of this hillacious Western Washington epic, a 24.5-mile race that climbs 4,300 feet, three-quarters of that up the final 10-mile slog that makes riders scream not only for mommy, daddy, blankie, and teddy, but their first-grade teacher too. John and I have trained this hill half a dozen times with me getting the better of him most every time, sometimes even dropping him on a shorter but steeper climb about five miles before this bear.
But not today.
John rides my back wheel like a remora on a hammerhead, aping my every move—drinking when I drink, shifting up when I shift up, shifting down when I shift down. Standing when I stand. I hear him. There’s no shaking him today. But that’s no surprise; it’s exactly what I expected.
This is a race. And John plus race equals feats of super-human strength.
How is it that some people can turn into a whole other species, it seems, on race day? (Especially vexing, people that aren’t me.) Elevating their performance far above what their training would suggest? (I’m not talking certain pros here who may or may not turn to chemistry to raise performance levels; I’m talking normal people. Like John and me.) Certainly, my times in races are better than those in training, but not to the extent that has local folks who care about this sort of thing chatting me up, “Can you believe how McQuaide did?”
Like they do with John.
John, I’ve come to the conclusion, just has higher tolerance for discomfort than I. In all aspects of his life. On our rides he’ll tell me semi-harrowing tales of jobs he’s had, or about raising his teen-age kids, or dealing with elderly parents, and I just shake my head. I’d crumble whereas John seems rock steady.
Just like he is out here today.
***With about two miles to the finish—but 700 more feet to climb—this pack of five starts to disperse, and for a moment I’m in sole possession of second place. (The eventual winner got away so it’s become a battle for runner-up.) John’s close, real close, but I’m not turning around. If I do, I just know it will have the opposite effect of Lance’s L'Alpe d'Huez “look” of 2001; I’ll stay put while all behind zoom past me as if their bikes suddenly had jet engines.
Hammering away in the red zone on a relentless 10-mile climb is painful and not just physically. Not only are my quads, calves and hammies pumped out and about to burst, my chest feels like I’m attempting to be the first person to summit Everest while chain-smoking a carton of Camels. And mentally, I’m not in the self-nurturing space I need to be.
I understand that the farther we continue like this, the more likely it is that today’s race for second will come down to a yank-your-own-toenails-out painful, mano a mano, me-versus-John sprint up the final 200 vertical-seeming meters. Whatever discomfort I feel right now is like riding a chairlift compared to that.
Especially since I’d have a 50-50 chance of losing. Though, let’s be honest. This is John we’re talking about; despite my best psyche-myself-up affirmations to the contrary, my chances are closer to 20-80 or 10-90 or 1-99, with me on the short end.
So when John passes by me with about a mile to go and despite my best efforts I can’t respond, it’s no real surprise. And it’s not that I’m relieved, so much as … I’m kinda relieved.
I’m not going to have to lose that dreaded sprint.
And you know what? Third place is nice. I beat my best time on this race course by almost five minutes. And in the grand scheme of things John’s ability to elevate himself on race day more than I can doesn’t really matter much.
Though it sure would be nice to have the guts to turn around once in a while.
Even nicer to turn around and see John.
Just a speck.
Far down the mountain.