Friday, September 16, 2011

My Life as a Horse

A doppelganger for This Old Jock?

Hi all,

A week from today I'll be motoring up north to Ascutney, Vermont, with the girls to connect with my brother Matty and his bride, Laura. The couple is driving out from their home in God's Country, otherwise known as Eagle, CO, with their two hounds and two mountain bikes. Laura has returned to her mountain bike racing roots, and she's signed up for the notorious Vermont 50 (one of the most grueling events I've ever done). So we're  heading over to the Green Mountain State to cheer on Auntie Wedgie. And, no doubt, I'll relive one of the more inglorious moments of my own cycling career, the day I found out I was part-human, part horse.

The following is an essay I wrote about the experience, a good eight years ago. The accompanying photo isn't me, but given the guy's expansive torso and semi-scowl, I suspect I've got a long-lost twin roaming those woodland trails! The funny thing is, looking over this piece, is that I'd give up my right pinky finger to be "only" 215 pounds again! Guess it's time to get back in the saddle and start pedaling. Often!

My Life as a Horse
Coming to terms with size, cycling and the term "Clydesdale"

Five years ago, signing in for the Vermont 50 mountain bike race — my preferred form of masochism — I handed my racing and driving licenses over to the woman at the registration table. She took my IDs, glanced up, and seeing the stressed seams of my jersey, quipped: "My, you're a big boy. Clydesdale?"

"Excuse me?" I blurted out, unsure if I was just insulted.

"Clydesdale," she repeated, with a grandmotherly smile. "You know, the heavyweight division."

I didn't know. I do now. And, at 215 pounds, I've grudgingly accepted that I am, and will forever be, a horse. "Clydesdale," for the uninitiated, is the quasi-official term for a 200-plus pound male weekend warrior who insists he still has enough left in the tank to compete in endurance events such as cycling, running and triathlon. Women who tip the scales at more than 145 also have their own category, called either fillies or Athenas.

I say "quasi-official" because not every event recognizes the big-boned category.

However, there are several ruling bodies that oversee this division, including the USA Clydesdale & Filly Racing Federation and the international Team Clydesdale, and even blogs, like SuperClydesdale. Initially, the notion of a weight-related race category didn't sit right with me. I understood age limits, but weight classes felt more contrived. To my way of thinking, you compete against your peers. If the skinny guy next to you has a better power-to-weight ratio, more power to him.

That probably explains why I'm drawn to contact sports like hockey and hoops, where I rely on my bulk to dole out retribution (assuming I can catch the scrawny weasels). Ironically, I got into cycling because of the strain that running put on my joints, in no small part due to my beefcake build.

I wasn't always like this. There were brief, post-collegiate glimpses of a trim torso. Shortly after turning 25, my college sweetheart and I split and I attempted to mend a trampled heart by making it work insanely hard. I pedaled for miles and miles, indoors and out, ultimately melting more than 45 pounds off my collegiate peak of 220. The weight stayed off for a year or so, but that had more to do with my paltry reporter's salary, since I couldn't afford food and beer.

Eventually, the weight snuck back on despite hoops, hockey and a continued commitment to cycling. I never got huge, but I was consistently roaming around Clydesdale country.

Things didn't improve much after 40. There's the inevitable downward shift in metabolism, making weight management doubly challenging. I still long for those days of 175 pounds and 32- inch waistlines, but Father Time is betting against me.

Of course, it's not all bad. Cycling and competing keep my weight within reason, and my heart rate and blood pressure down. During road rides, I'm the most popular lead-out guy in the pack, with my "Big Dog" physique creating a massive wind wedge. On singletrack descents, gravity pulls me downhill like an anvil.

Going uphill, unfortunately, is another matter altogether. Not long ago, a national cycling magazine featured a test to determine natural climbing ability. It was a simple height-to- weight ratio, followed by some pithy observations. On one end of the scale — say, if you were 5-foot-11 and 135 pounds — the chart suggested you might be "the next Lance Armstrong." I was at the other end. After dutifully dividing my 6-foot-2 frame by my 215 pounds, I found my spot at the bottom of the chart. The comment? "Move to Kansas."

Well, we live in hilly Boston and love life here. The fact that I might be a lifetime member of the Clydesdale club wasn't going to force me into premature retirement. To prove the point, I took my XL game to New Hampshire last summer to tackle the infamous Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb. At 6,288 feet, "The Rockpile" is the Northeast's tallest peak and the site of the highest recorded wind speed on earth, a searing 231 miles an hour. The daunting Auto Road, rising almost 5,000 feet in 7.6 miles, features 72 corners and an average 12 percent grade, including an ungodly 22 percent stretch over the last 100 yards.

More than a third of the 600 racers were Masters athletes, but few were carrying as much baggage as me. Fierce winds, horizontal rain, a relentless incline and a balky lower back took their toll — I struggled to the summit in two hours, more than an hour behind the top finishers. But I did finish.

Afterwards, I saw that 43-year-old Eric Brandhorst was the first-place Clydesdale. His time of 1:15:12 was a goal worth riding toward. I knew I'd be back.

(This article originally appeared in the now-defunct GeezerJock magazine. RIP)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Truth and Tyler

OK, I'm going to try real, real hard to not sound like the angry, exploited journalist here. Tyler Hamilton is, basically, a good guy, one of the most personable athletes I've ever met. It's just a shame that he's also a bald-faced liar. You don't have to take my word for it. You can take Tyler's word.

Anyone who happen to watch tonight's 60 Minutes episode, with Tyler baring his soul to the world about his long-denied use of performance enhancing drugs and blood transfusions, can make their own decisions about the man's honesty. I have my own story.

Tyler is a local guy, born and raised in Marblehead, a product of the Holderness School in New Hampshire, and an NCAA champion cyclist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I started following him when he latched onto the Subaru-Montgomery squad, the irresistible "local guy makes good" storyline. And then his career took off, aided by his own tough-as-nails performances on the bike and the all-encompassing glow of Lance Armstrong's stunning comeback from cancer and subsequent Tour de France victories.

Hamilton was a loyal lieutenant on Armstrong's US Postal squad for those early wins, and that catapulted him into the stratosphere of European cycling. In 2001, he left US Postal for a huge pay day and a chance to be a team leader with Team CSC. Those years were a roller coaster for Hamilton, marked by bad luck, bad crashes, and heroic efforts, culminating in a 4th place Tour finish in 2003 despite suffering a broken collarbone in an early crash. Clearly, we can't help but question now just how many of those performances were done au natural.

I remember going into my local bike shop shortly after the news broke of Tyler testing positive for doping at the Tour of Spain in 2004. We were all stunned by the news. Hamilton was by that time a legitimate hometown hero, an Olympic gold medalist in the time trial only weeks earlier (The attached photo shows Tyler celebrating is Olympic victory with his then-wife Haven. The two are now divorced). The bike shop owner, a forthright individual with intimate knowledge of the cycling world, stated flatly: "He's guilty. They're all guilty."

That was seven years ago. And those simple two sentences have proven true, again and again and again. Bjarne Riis, Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, Hamilton, Alexandre Vinokourov, Floyd Landis, Alberto Contador, and even "the patron" himself, Lance Armstrong. The list goes on and on and on. There are few innocents in the European pro peloton. Very few, if any. And there haven't been for a while. Even those who haven't doped are complicit in their silence. Good guy Frankie Andreu? Guilty. George Hincapie? Guilty. The stain is pervasive.

Now, I'm not saying these are bad people. They understood the rules of the game, and the rules meant that, if they wanted to compete, they had to cheat. As Andreu admitted, he was tired of losing to less talented riders simply because they doped, and he didn't. But these cyclists made that choice. And then they chose to lie about it. To all of us. And in doing so, they've cast a long, dark cloud not only over their sport, but over anyone who chooses to compete in it.

I've interviewed dozen of professional cyclists over the years, including Hamilton on numerous occasions. I've often asked them about doping, and never had a single racer admit to me that he or she doped. Not once. People question why the US Government is spending so much money going after Armstrong. My reaction? We'll at least get to the truth, because people like Hamilton and Hincapie are going to think twice about lying to Uncle Sam. It's unfortunate, but sometimes it takes the threat of prison to get these guys to tell the truth.

In 2006, I spent two hours in Tyler Hamilton's living room high above Boulder, when he hoped to overturn a ruling by USA Cycling to ban him from cycling after his 2004 positive drug test. It was a spectacular mountainside home, bought with a portion of the millions that Hamilton had earned through a gritty career as a cycling domestique, and later the team leader for Team CSC and Phonak. ESPN colleague Shaun Assael and I spoke with Hamilton, his wife, and his attorney at length about the charges, and his claims that he was falsely accused, the result of faulty testing. Tyler flat-out lied to both of us.

"You have to believe me," Hamilton told us. "I didn't do it."

Well, he did. It just took him a while to admit it. For years, he tried to parlay his "nice guy" image into duping writers and everyone else into thinking that, somehow, he was the victim. Perhaps, like former teammate Floyd Landis, Hamilton finally got religion. Maybe he wants to jump-start sales of his book. I really don't care. He's still in damage-control mode. Here's the bottom line -- Hamilton doped for selfish reasons, and now he's trying to come clean for selfish reasons.

Journalists often take heat for "making the facts fit the story." But more often, we're the messengers. I conveyed Hamilton's message. And, yes, there once was a time I wanted to believe him. But no longer. And that makes me see red.

Tonight, Hamilton told 60 Minutes, and anyone watching, that he lied to protect the sport, to protect his teammates, his friends, and the staff. Maybe so. But by lying, he also helped perpetuate a corrupt culture that now implicates, rightly or wrongly, almost everyone who participates in this great sport. He also lied to protect himself. I'd like to hear him admit that too.


Addendum (5/23/11): A great deal has been made of the timing of Hamilton's confession, and his decision to air it on national television. Many detractors, like those in the Lance Armstrong camp, say Hamilton did it to bump sales of his forthcoming book. Even if that's not true, Hamilton could take an enormous step toward legitimacy by earmarking any profits of his book sales to his previously embraced charity -- the National Multiple Sclerosis Society -- or any other charity that he has no financial link with. That would get my attention, and prove that Hamilton was serious about cleaning up the sport, and not feathering his own nest. -B

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Water-Method Man ...

Back in my college days (ancient history, I know), I went through something of a John Irving jag. Started with the novelist's breakthrough hit, "The World According to Garp," and then went on to read some earlier works, like "The 158-pound Marriage," and later ones, like "Cider House Rules." But oddly, one of my favorites was his second, "The Water Method Man." Little did I realize then how much the title would ring true for me know, well into my 53rd year.

You see, I'm now The Water-Method Man. OK, the definitions are really worlds apart. Irving's protagonist, Fred Trumper, suffers from an unusually narrow urinary tract, and is forced to guzzle inordinate amounts of water to flush out any nasty germs, etc. My "water method" is something entirely different. It is, I hope, my road to recovery.

Six months out from hip surgery (a fluff and buff detailed in prior posts), I needed to get moving again. Not just for my body, which is sagging under the weight of 20 new-found pounds, but also for my sanity. Being active has always always been a coping mechanism of mine. And for the past six months, I've been as active as your typical garden slug. Probably less so.

So I've started running. In the water. In a pool. Now, I understand the benefits. Water's buoyancy will help support my 200-plus pound frame, reducing the stress on my post-op hip (and various other joints). And the natural resistance will help me regain some of the muscle mass that I've frittered away this past half-year. I get that. But, admittedly, it's hard not to be self-conscious running in a pool.

First of all, it just ain't natural. There are very good reasons why people a lot smarter than me have come up with a variety of swim strokes to help men and women carve their way through the water. Freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke ... all make more sense than running. And that's pretty much what almost everyone else is doing each morning I get over to the Manchester Athletic Club (I'll address that "almost" part a little later). While all these dedicated swimmers are dutifully filling their lanes, I come in like an aircraft carrier, plodding along, creating a massive wake. I secretly say a word of thanks that everyone else is wearing swim goggles, so I can't see them rolling their eyes.

Second, it's boring. I mean, put-a-vise-on-my-head boring. I'm easily bored anyway (which is why I've always been drawn to sports that require chasing something), but running at a snail's pace in a pool feel's like, well, water torture. There's no Zen escape, no "quite mind, active body" release. It ... is ... drudgery.

To make things worse, the bottom of the pool is pretty slick, making foot placement a precarious proposition. It's one thing to be running in the pool; it's an entirely different matter to be flailing about like I'd scheduled my workouts right after a three-martini lunch. Occasionally, I'll stumble right into the path of an oncoming swimmer, and you can imagine just how well that goes over. Suffice to say that the sauna-quality atmosphere of the MAC pool can get pretty chilly pretty quickly.

Today I had the bright idea of wearing my old windsurfing slippers for a little added grip. The problem was that these Nike slippers were waaaay too old -- they hadn't seen any action in almost two decades -- and promptly disintegrated once I got to work.

On the plus side, I'm not the only person in the pool not swimming. There's actually a water aerobics/social hour session that started shortly after I started treading water. It was, in fact, fairly hilarious. The perky instructor -- who is not in the pool, but can only be described as buoyant herself -- didn't seem to mind one bit that most of the participants (ranging in age from 60 to 90, as best as I could tell) were more interested in catching up on local gossip than actually working out. And the music selection was priceless. Honestly, when was the last time you heard Michael Jackson's "Beat It!" ... ?

But more than anything else, seeing the old-timers' aerobics class was a terrific motivational tool. I know I'm no spring chicken. Not by a long shot. Especially where my hips are concerned. But with all due respect, I'm not ready for the MAC morning water aerobics sessions either. So I put my head down, and kept running against the tide.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Long Haul ...

Now the hard part starts.

The easy part, as with all surgery, is actually going into the hospital, and letting the doctors open you up, dig around, and make whatever repairs they deem necessary.

That was followed by something of a hip honeymoon. I was coddled at home, and pretty much wherever I went. College kids would open doors for me while I was covering hockey games, and everyday folks would routinely give me a wide berth whenever I came staggering along. It was encouraging, to be honest, to see so many people making the extra effort to care for the gimp. And that, essentially, was what surgery had reduced me to.

I was ordered to avoid full weight bearing on my surgically repaired right hip, primarily because the repairs were more extensive than my surgeon – Dr. Richard Wilk – initially anticipated. When I met with him just prior to surgery, Wilk was candid. Blunt, even. Fifty-year-old hips, he said, rarely are candidates for repair. More often than not, the labral tissue is so shredded that the best option is to simply clean things out.

Fortunately, for me, once he got all his arthroscopic probes and instruments into my hip, Wilk found the tissue was in decent condition, or at least better than expected. True to his word, he made the repairs. I vividly remember, coming out of anesthesia, meeting with Wilk. He told me, in his typical straightforward manner, “I’ve got good news and bad news.”

“OK,” I replied. “I’ll take the good news first.”

“Well, we did a lot more repair work than we originally planned. The tissue was is pretty good shape, so we put in a couple of anchors.”

Good news indeed, I thought. “And the bad news?”

“Better repairs means a longer rehab. You’re going to have to be patient.”

No way around that, I thought. The work was done, and I had specifically asked Wilk to do the repair work if he felt it was worthwhile. Now the ball was, proverbially speaking, in my court. The surgery was behind me. Now, it was all about recovery and rehabilitation.

Predictably, I wasn’t the best patient, post-op. My wife, an occupational therapist, went out of her way to make sure our house (fortunately, a ranch) was free of obstacles. It would be six weeks, minimum, on crutches, to avoid any weight bearing on the repaired hip. When I got antsy, I’d take liberties, walking around the house without crutches. And if they caught me parading about, all my girls would read me the riot act.

I’d commiserate with my older brother, Sean, an orthopedic surgeon from New Hampshire. Sean, 18 months my senior, is just as active, if not more so, than I am. He understands the need to keep moving. Like Woody Allen’s terrific shark analogy in Annie Hall, we believe that if we stop moving forward, we’ll die.

“The problem is that we still think like a couple of guys who are 25,” says Sean. “Our brains won’t admit how old we are. But our bodies are 50, and the fact is, we’ve put our bodies through a lot of wear and tear.”

That wear and tear was plenty evident on my X-rays, which revealed fairly advanced osteo-arthritis on both sides. That’s the reality for me, and my hips. Sean, after taking one quick look at my X-rays, basically told me that my hips didn’t owe me a thing. “I can’t believe you’ve been playing hockey on those hips for the past 20 years,” he said.

Which, of course, made the decision to have surgery that much easier. I didn’t have anything to lose, really. Post-op, Dr. Wilk was noncommittal. The cartilage had, as predicted, flaked off the hip socket like rotted ceiling tiles. There were now small areas where the head of my right femur and the hip socket were bone-on-bone.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t in much discomfort in the week after surgery. I tired easily, which was understandable, since my body was busy repairing itself. Still, I took painkillers for only a couple of days post-op, and then put them aside. I’m not a big medication fan, anyway. I’d would rather know if I’m pushing the joint too hard. I’m no hero, but I believe masking aches can be dangerous. But the truth was, there wasn’t much pain. My spirits soared, perhaps a bit too much too soon.

I went out and bought a huge supply of triple-strength Osteo-BiFlex, with the hope it would accelerate the healing process. Though considered suspect by some, the glucosamine/chondroitin formula couldn’t hurt, said Wilk. It wasn’t the miracle supplement (“Clinically shown joint within 7 days!”) that the package promised it was, he said, but there wasn’t any real downside, either. My body would either take to it, or it wouldn’t. Simple as that.

Today, six weeks out from my surgery, I’m finally off the crutches. That mean it’s time to start rehabbing. I’ve got a date with the physical therapist next week, and hope to get a regimen that will ultimately get me back on the ice, and the slopes, and the bike, and the soccer pitch, sometime in early 2011. My surgeon has warned me not to get too optimistic, but I can’t help myself. It’s my nature. I have a history of getting injured, But I’ve also been a pretty quick healer.

Of course, I also have hips that are a candidate for carbon dating. Father Time doesn’t really care about my hopes and dreams and silly, old-man expectations. I want another bite of the apple; I’ll admit that. Wilk, though specifically stating that he doesn’t like making predictions, nonetheless gave me some odds to keep in mind, as parameters. The likelihood that I’d be able to play hockey again was pretty encouraging: 80 percent. The chances of playing goal again? Not so good. Probably 15-20 percent.

But I’ll take those odds. What choice do I have? Plus, it’s time to stop wondering, and time to get to work.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pay up!

Boston, breezy and cool!

For years, I've joked with my stepfather about taking up golf "when I have my hips replaced." It was a running gag that we both got a good laugh from, because Don knows I'm incapable of ever taking golf seriously, and because I never thought I'd need to get my hips replaced. Well, it appears Don's take was a whole lot more accurate. Because the bill has come due.

My hips, to be kind, are a wreck. They show the wear and tear of 50 years of a wonderfully rough-and-tumble life. These hips could be the first piece of evidence in the trademark trial of "Boomeritis," the tongue-in-cheek term coined by the American Society of Orthopaedic Surgeons to describe a raft of injuries that post-40 athletes subject themselves to.

I think if I added up all the days I've spent on this planet, and divided that number in half, I'd have a pretty good count of all the football, soccer, basketball, street hockey, ice hockey, baseball, and softball games I've played. And that wouldn't include the countless days running, pedaling (on and off road), downhill skiing, cross-county skiing, snowboarding, hiking, climbing, swimming, and even the occasional weight-lifting session (never was a big fan!). There's an accumulative effect of all that fun, and for me, it's pretty much concentrated in my lower back, and my hips.

Still, in all honesty, I can't complain. When my brother Sean, an orthopedic surgeon in New Hampshire, took a look at my hip X-rays, he confirmed what two surgeons told me previously. I was lucky to get 50 years out of those ol' hip bones. Seems I have a natural deformity in the "ball" joint -- too much bone -- which didn't make for a great fit with my genetically shallow socket joints. "Essentially, you've been trying to fit a square peg into a round hole all these years," said a straight-talking Dr. Richard Wilk. "You were bound to have problems. I'm a little surprised this didn't happen earlier."

Which, of course, is small consolation when you're hoping to get another four, five, 10 years out of the current model. Surgery became necessary this summer, when a suspected "groin pull" from 11 months earlier failed to heal, and doctors finally ruled out a "sports hernia." An MRI in August revealed the extend of damage to my hips, especially my right, including joint deterioration and a torn labrum. That's when surgery entered the equation, and I immediately set out to find someone good. "This is the new sexy surgery," warned Sean. "There are a lot of guys rushing into this field. You want to find someone who has done a lot of them."

Fortunately for me, I found Dr. Wilk, who came recommended not only by Sean, but by several Division 1 goaltenders who I help coach. Plus, Wilk has been doing these hip arthroscopes for years. I liked his resume, if not his diagnosis.

"Basically, your hips are pretty much beat to shit," Wilk told me during my last pre-op visit. "Is that a medical term?" quipped my bride, who accompanied me for emotional support, and to get a better idea of how heavy an anchor I'd be post-surgery. But I was comfortable with Wilk's no-nonsense approach. He was telling me that he would do what he could once he got inside the hip, but he wasn't making any promises. In short, he could rely on his own skills as a surgeon, but couldn't be nearly as certain about the raw material he'd have to work with. Fifty year hips rarely produce a gem.

So I've got a surgery date, and I'm eager to get it done. Like most everything I've done in life, I'd rather take a course of action. Surgery is never a great option (like BU coach Jack Parker once told me, "The only minor surgery is the one someone else is having."). But the alternative -- doing nothing -- is much worse. Time to pay the bill, and get on with it. Golf can wait.


Saturday, September 11, 2010

Luck of the draw ...

Boston, beautiful

Nine years ago this morning, I was hunkered down in my basement office, furiously tapping away at the keyboard, trying to wrap up a story before my scheduled flight the next day. Lauri called me after dropping the girls off at day care, asking if I'd heard the news -- a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. I hadn't, but my immediate reaction was that it must have been a small, single-prop craft. Maybe a lunatic, maybe just an awful accident. Like the rest of us, my mind wouldn't even consider the reality that eventually came to pass.

I went upstairs, flipped on the tube, and watched the horror unfold. By that time, the second airliner had flown into the South Tower of the WTC, and all hell was breaking loose in Manhattan. I sat there, dumbfounded, unable to comprehend what was happening right before my eyes. Terrorism had taken on an entirely new meaning. When the TV anchors announced that the second jet was United Flight 175, a chill knifed through me like a bony finger of the Grim Reaper. United Flight 175 was my flight the next day. Although I was on assignment for Continental, my trip was organized by the Hawaiian tourism office, and they booked me on United, flying direct to Los Angeles, then to Hawaii.

My mood immediately shifted from disbelief to ashen. I was actually shaking, watching the coverage. My story didn't get done. And my flight, and trip, were canceled. My life, like the lives of countless thousands, was changed forever. So had the world as we knew it. And we're reminded of it every time we fly, every time we wait in a security line. Our daughters, thankfully, were too young to comprehend the depth of the evil on display that day. Lauri, my wife, was understandably distraught. I, for some odd reason, was simply numb.

That night, I played hockey down at the local prep school. I hadn't planned to, but needed to do something to shake myself out of my stupor. So I grabbed my gear, drove down to the rink, and got into the first fist fight I could recall since high school. It was stupid, a reflection, I'm sure, of the tension that everyone was feeling that night. Not even hockey, a game that was my great escape for most of my life, could provide any refuge.

A month later, I flew to Denver, Colorado, to meet my brothers Matt and Mike. We were headed to the High Lonesome Lodge on the western slopes of the Rockies, and along the way the United States unleashed its military fury on Bagdad. When we arrived at the High Lonesome Lodge, the place looked like a ghost town. Buzz Cox, the manager, explained that the lodge had been booked solid by Cantor-Fitzgerald, the finance firm devastated by the 9/11 attacks.

Americans, to this day, are justifiably outraged at the murderous acts of Sept. 11, 2001. Like most, I will never forget. But I also try to remember how fortunate I was, of the difference that 24 hours can make. Did God "spare" me? I don't think so, because that would insinuate He didn't spare the 2,977 people who tragically lost their lives that day (and the 19 hijackers He allowed to live long enough to perpetrate such a heinous act). Sometimes I think the Almighty simply sets things in motion, and then lets the chips fall. Why wasn't I on that flight, along with Ace Bailey and Mark Bavis of the Los Angeles Kings and 63 others? It was just fate; the luck of the draw. It's a cruel reminder that none of us are guaranteed anything. Ever.

Which is why we should celebrate everything we do have, and never once take the things we hold dear for granted. I get to enjoy this stunning Saturday morning, and plan to go for a bike ride the minute I get this essay posted. Today, I'll hug my bride and our girls a little more tightly. I'd like to say I do that every day, but I don't. Life, with all its challenges, tends to dull the immediacy of these moments. But every now and then I'm reminded. I need that.


Monday, September 6, 2010

The Sketch King rides again!

Boston, a splendid Labor Day

I admit it ... I'd almost forgotten. The sweet, cool breezes of early autumn and splintered sunlight filtering through the trees. That distinct loamy smell of the earth, and the absence of bugs. The sublime thrill of fat tires on skinny trails winding like a roller coaster through the woods. I'd almost forgotten how quickly your breathing becomes labored the moment those trails tilt uphill. The nuisance roots and rocks that litter New England's rugged landscape. And I'd almost forgotten the spontaneous laughter that erupts when it all comes together.

Yes, the memories had faded. In the four years since I trashed my right shoulder after augering my bike's front wheel in a washed-out section of trail, and gone flying over the handlebars, I'd taken a self-imposed sabbatical from the singletrack. I had dabbled here and there, but I'd lost my nerve, frankly. I was scared. Scared of every slick, off-camber root or tire-grabbing chunk of granite that might send me to the ground or into a tree, and eventually the Emergency Room, again. Between hockey and mountain biking, I'd suffered a litany of injuries that had me feeling my age. The shoulder was the worst of the recent vintage, though, and I began contemplating more genteel pursuits.

I turned to the road bike, not so much because I enjoyed it more, but because I felt like I had more control. The irony, of course, is that, among my cycling friends, road accidents typically have proven to be much more devastating. My thinking was (and this is probably as good an indication as I can offer of how far my confidence had sunk), if I tumbled on the road, someone would eventually find me, and help me get back home. In the woods, I could lie there for days. Ridiculous? Of course. But that's the mindset of a rider who has lost his bravado.

Fortunately, my friends wouldn't let me fade away. They kept prodding me to join them, luring me with tales of new trails being carved in nearby parks, Bradley Palmer and Willowdale. Eventually, they wore me down, and I relented. I suited up Sunday with a fair amount of trepidation, but the morning was so damned beautiful it was hard to feel too negative about anything. I asked my buddies -- Billy E. and Mark O. -- to go easy on me. Not only was I venturing back into the woods after a long hiatus, but I was also riding on a bum right hip, compliments of a recently diagnosed torn labrum. It didn't hurt while I was riding, unless the incline got real steep, or unless I had to get off the bike. Which I did. Often.

It was a strange sensation. I spied old, familiar obstacles that I'd cleared easily in years gone by, but I was unable to stop myself from stopping. I realized this was going to be a slow process. I told myself to be patient, even as I publicly admonished myself for being such a wuss. I was the ride's anchor, but Billy and Mark never once made me feel like I as holding them up. Every time I apologized, they would just look around, and comment on what a gorgeous day it was. The support was a huge boost. So were the trails, which had been cut with an artist's flare.

I started to link some sections together, started to look where I wanted to go (instead of focusing on the trail's not-so-hidden dangers), started to reconnect with my Fat Beat's supple Ti feel. I started, even so subtly, to feel that flow train. I was back. Not all the way, but back nonetheless. I was still riding like the Sketch King, but I was riding. Off-road. And smiling just about the entire time.


Monday, June 14, 2010

The dream season ...

Boston, overcast ...

I've played organized sports for pretty much my entire life, a good 45 of my 52 years. There have been plenty of ups and downs, and even the occasional title. I think there was a baseball and basketball championship during grade school, though I'm not sure, to be honest. There was the city championship for my Manchester Central High soccer team my junior year, in the fall of 1974, and the glorious intramural hockey championship at UNH in the winter of 1982 (in which I gladly traded in a night of studying for a statistics mid-term for a night of revelry with my teammates after the narrow but well-deserved 4-3 win)

But, in all those years, I've never been part of an undefeated team, until now.

This past week, the venerable Ipswich Sea Dogs of the Over the Hill Soccer League completed a nice run of the table, finishing their regular season with a sparkling 10-0-0 mark. It wasn't a "perfect" season per se -- only someone truly deluded would think anything that starts with "Over 50" could be perfect -- but our record was. Ten straight wins. It was fun to be a part of. I came to the team late, a last-minute signing. For the past five years or so, I'd played in the Over-40 division, with a great group of guys who called themselves Ipswich United (and more recently, Wen-Ham United), among other various nicknames. But my litany of injuries (hamstring pull, back spasms, tennis elbow, dislocated finger, groin pull) made my participation, and performance, somewhat unpredictable, and I encouraged Captain Dan Bates to find another keeper.

Plus, I'm now 52, and my body was telling me that it was time to "move up" the the Over-50 division (no, that's not actually me in the accompanying photo ... just a reasonable facsimile!). I started feeling like a calcified Chris Chelios of NHL fame, chasing after a young and spry Sidney Crosby, with much less success, I might add. After missing Wen-Ham United's entire fall season, I made a few phone calls, and landed a back-up role with the Ipswich Sea Dogs. Truth is, the Sea Dogs resident goalie, Doug Plante, was also the team manager, and quickly 'fessed up that he'd rather play in the field. So, in short order, I became the starting 'keeper for this orange-clad squad that resembled the United Nations of old-guy soccer.

We have guys from England, Vietnam, Chile, France, Trinidad, Greece, Syria, and God only knows where else. We have architects, laborers, biologists, craftsmen, salesmen, computer geeks, business owners, you name it. I'm the token Irishman and writer (and resident tech idiot). But the beauty of sport is nationalities, and professions, don't matter. Personalities are what make a team mesh, and we've got a wonderful group of guys who are still passionate about this great game. Not "perfect," but close enough. The play was a shade slower than my Over-40 campaigns, but feisty nonetheless. We're a group that plays hard, but plays fair. And that proved a winning formula, as we ran the table on the regular season. And, truth be told, this team probably would have gone undefeated with a bunch of Munchkins alternating in goal. I had a few saves over the course of my seven games, including a few solid stops, but I was never besieged. Not that I'm complaining.

Our first playoff game pitted the Sea Dogs against the appropriately named North Read Gray Cobras. I made two decent saves early on, and we managed to squeeze out a 2-0 win, despite my misplaying a long shot that caromed off the crossbar, forcing my stalwart sweeper Sergio to clear the ball off the line. Next week, we play in the finals, but I'll be far, far away, boating in the British Virgin Islands. It's one of those dream assignments, especially since I get to take Lauri with me. But I'll have bittersweet feelings just the same, knowing that I won't be there in goal for my boys, the Sea Dogs. My only perfect team!


Friday, June 11, 2010

Let the games begin!

Boston, overcast

OK, I promise to be a little more positive today, and why not? The best sporting event anywhere gets under way today, as the World Cup kicks off in South Africa. I did a web advance for Four Seasons magazine on the Top Ten reasons to check out the action. The one thing I neglected to mention was the much-maligned Jabulani ball by Adidas (at right), which all the goalkeepers are complaining about. Of course, goalies need something to whine about, since they spend all game just standing around! Here's my unabridged version ...

Ten best reasons to watch the World Cup

The FIFA World Cup, the quadrennial celebration of the sport known worldwide as football (and soccer in North America), is heading south of the equator this summer. For the first time ever, the world's most popular sporting event will be held on the continent of Africa, in the Republic of South Africa. The tournament began in 1930, and except for World War II (1942 and 1946), has been held every four years since. Brazil, which will host the 2014 World Cup, has won five of the 18 tournaments. Italy, the defending champions, has won four times, and Germany three. Impressive numbers. Want more? Here are 10 reasons to watch.

One. It is, simply, the biggest stage in all of sports. Period. The tournament boasts 32 teams from around the world (pared down from 210 nations during two years of qualifying play) – a truly international field representing an unequaled collection of soccer talent – converging on a single country. The month-long World Cup features a total of 64 games, with 48 "group" matches followed by 16 knockout games. The finals are set for July 11, at Soccer City Stadium in Johannesburg.

Two. Star power. With a few notable exceptions, the best players in the world will be on display, not wearing their club uniforms but their national team colors. Expect to see players such as England's Wayne Rooney (Manchester United) and Steven Gerrard (Liverpool), Brazil's Kaka (Real Madrid) and Dani Alves (Barcelona), Spain's Fernando Torres (Liverpool) and Xavi (Barcelona), Argentina's Lionel Messi (Barcelona) and Carlos Teves (Manchester City), France's Franck Ribery (Bayern Munich), Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), the Netherland's Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan) and Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Italy's Gianluigi Buffon (Juventus) and Andrea Pirlo (Inter Milan), the Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba (Chelsea) and Cameroon's Samuel Eto'o (Inter Milan).

Three. The power of emotion, driven by national pride. These stars aren't only the most skilled in the world; they're among the wealthiest athletes on the planet. But they're not playing for a payday. They're playing for honor, for country, and, in many instances, immortality, both home and abroad.

Four. The World Cup can be a dazzling rite of passage, with fresh talent – brilliantly gifted but too young to know any fear – showcasing their wares before the world. Such was the case for 17-year-old Edison Arantes do Nascimento, better known as Pele, when he won his first World Cup with Brazil in 1958 against Sweden. Who are the new stars? Watch for Javier "El Chicharito" Hernandez and Giovani Dos Santos of Mexico, Jozy Altidore of the United States, Eljero Elia of Netherlands, and Angel Di Maria of Argentina.

Five. The opportunity to see something truly breathtaking. Some moments are famous, such as the logic-defying save by England's Gordon Banks of a header by Brazil's incomparable Pele during the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City, Brazil's Carlos Alberto's laser strike against Italy in the finals that same year, or France's legendary Zinadine Zidane imposing his will on Brazil in 1998 during a 3-0 victory that secured the only World Cup won by Les Bleus. Some are infamous, such as the "Hand of God" goal scored by Diego Maradona of Argentina (with his hand) against England in 1986, or Zidane's bizarre meltdown when he head-butted an Italian defender in the 2006 final, possibly costing France a second title.

Six. Intriguing match-ups. The opening contest on June 11 – between Mexico and host South Africa – may reveal whether either team is a contender or pretender. The Group C match between England and the United States marks the 60th anniversary of one of the World Cup's most memorable upsets (a 1-0 US victory in 1950). Group G, with Brazil, Portugal, Cameroon and North Korea has been dubbed the "Group of Death," since at least one very good team will not advance. Plus, every team from every World Cup final since 1966 is in the field, a harbinger of epic battles between long-time adversaries during the knockout rounds.

Seven. The ever-present possibility of an upset. Rarely do all the draws go according to plan, and trying to find the sleepers in the field of 32 is an odds-maker's nightmare For proof, consider the 2009 Federations Cup, a dress rehearsal for this year's World Cup. Spain came in riding a 35-game unbeaten streak, and the No. 1 ranking in the world. The Spaniards were poised to make it 36 straight against a United States squad that was playing like second-tier competition. The result? A dramatic 2-0 victory for the Americans. In 2002, the Republic of Korea made a gallant-but-improbable run to the semifinals (with wins over Italy, Portugal and Spain) on home soil. Could South Africa's Bafana Bafana, led by the sublime Steven Pienaar (Everton), make a similar run to silence their detractors?

Eight. Who has home-field advantage? The World Cup has traditionally gone to countries that reside at least close to the host nation, notably Italy in 2006 (Germany), France in 1998 (France), Germany in 1982 (Spain), England in 1966 (England), and Argentina in 1986 (Mexico) and 1978 (Argentina). But there have been notable exceptions as well, such as Brazil in 2002 (Japan/South Korea), in 1994 (United States) and in 1958 (Sweden). South Africa, meanwhile, is a wild card. The smart money may be on Brazil's Samba Kings, as they've proven themselves to be historically road worthy. But don't count out traditional heavyweights Argentina, Italy, and Germany, all of which can win ugly, and the resurgent squads from Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands.

Nine. The host nation, long known as a symbol of divisiveness and apartheid, is now poised to show the world it can take on the role as a great unifier. Persistent questions lingered prior to the event whether the organizing committee, and the 10 stadiums, would be ready. Time will tell.

Ten: You won't be alone. Millions and millions of fans, from the passionate to the casual, are expected to tune in to the games. So many, in fact, that it's impossible to calculate, or even estimate with any accuracy, how many viewers will be watching.

I know I'll be watching! ;-)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Tool

Boston, with a side of rain

I'm not sure what I enjoyed more last night; the Chicago Blackhawks hoisting their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, or Philadelphia fans roundly boo'ing one of the most despised commissioners in sports -- Gary "The Tool" Bettman. Now, Philly fans are notoriously tough on anyone from out-of-town, but Bettman gets hammered everywhere he goes. And with good reason. Hockey fans can't stand him, because they know he's not one of them. He's a tin-voiced little weasel who pretends to care about the game he oversees (OK, the "league" he oversees) because he's all about appearances. But, in truth, any real fan of this glorious game can see right through The Tool's insincere charade. The emperor, in this case, not only has no clothes ... He has no credibility.

Let me be absolutely clear about this. Bettman doesn't give a rat's ass about the sport. He has no passion for hockey, and remarkably limited knowledge of its nuances, the skill involved, the rules, its history, or its cultural significance. He's an expensive suit, with an over-inflated ego, and nothing more. Bettman's arrogance probably blinds him to the fact that he's almost universally despised. He works for the owners, and his only job (for which he is paid quite handsomely) is apparently to save them from themselves. We lost an entire season of the best sports league on the planet because the owners couldn't agree, and Bettman somehow tried to flip responsibility for the lock-out on the players. Again, it was so transparent that it was laughable (except for the reality that we lost that aforementioned season). The best thing to come out of the lock-out was an enterprising attempt to have a Stanley Cup playoffs among non-NHL teams. But Bettman and the NHL owners, brandishing their financial clout and legal brass-knuckles, squashed the idea like a misguided chipmunk on the Mass Turnpike.

And why did we lose that season in 2004-05? So selfish owners like the Bruins' Jeremy "Greed is Good" Jacobs could guarantee themselves "cost certainty." You want cost certainty? Put a great product on the ice, and try capping the cost of a ticket to $45, and a 10-ounce Bud Light to, say, $5. That may not guarantee you billions, but you'll make a profit.

Bettman likes to think he's the master of marketing, bringing the lessons that he learned at the feet of his mentor -- David "I'd rather be a tall black man" Stern of the NBA -- to the National Hockey League. Only two problems with that. First, have you seen an NBA regular-season game recently? Just brutal. This is a league that has managed to suck the life out of a potentially great game. Compare it to college hoops sometime. No contest. Second, the NBA isn't the NHL. While the NBA glorifies the individual ("How's that ring looking, Lebron ... Oh, sorry."), hockey and the NHL are about team, first, second, and always. There are great players, to be sure, but even the greatest -- from Howe to Orr to Gretzky -- understood the team was always the primary focus. And the secondary focus was a distant second.

But Bettman doesn't get that. He thinks, "Worked for the NBA, should work for us." And that's why Pittsburgh is playing in the Winter Classic again, to match superstars Sid the Kid vs. Ovie. Funny, but neither of those two guys (great players both) made the semifinals this season. Karma? I like to think so.

So keep boo'ing, Philly fans. I cringe every time I think of how your Flyers turned the tables on my Bruins this spring, but you made up for it last night. Bettman had the post-game microphone, but he certainly didn't have the gumption or the backbone to work the crowd. He knew he'd get torn apart. He'd get the same reception in Boston, Montreal, Chicago, Toronto ... anyplace where hockey is part of the social fabric. The NHL commissioner is nothing but a tool, and he's got to go! The sooner, the better.


Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Soccer is for hard men, Part 3

A splitter day in Beantown!

With all the buzz surrounding the upcoming World Cup, it's inevitable that the soccer-haters are coming out of their narrow-minded closets to make fun of a sport they either (A) don't understand, or (B) secretly fear, 'cause they know they wouldn't be any good at it (or, more likely, would have a heart attack trying to play, given the typical circumference of their waists). I have no problem shrugging off their lame-brain comments ... A quick, "Oh, you think it's easy? Come on out and play with us sometime" is an easy way to short-circuit their short-sighted arguments.

Others complain about the lack of scoring, which always makes me think "If it were easy, everyone would be doing it." I've pretty much given up trying to convey that the very fact that goals are so rare, so difficult to come by, is what creates the exquisite tension that puts true fans on the edge of their seats. There are usually dozens, if not hundreds, of great plays in every game that don't result in the ball crossing the goal line, but they're great plays nonetheless.

Still, what annoys me most is when these sports "expects" insinuate that soccer players aren't tough. The theatrics of most South American (excluding the great Lionel Messi) and Inter Milan players aside, futbol players often take a pounding. I'll admit the occasional flop, and I don't like seeing them (in fact, I love it when an opponent gets in a flopper's face, embarrassing them for embarrassing the game). But most replays reveal fouls, and often hard fouls. Which, of course, got me thinking of this essay I did a little while back for the wonderfully titled GeezerJock magazine (later renamed Masters Athlete). Just another piece of evidence that soccer is, indeed, a contact sport.

It only hurts when it hurts

“How the heck do you hurt your hand playing soccer,” asks my older brother, the orthopedic surgeon, obviously amused. “Aren’t you supposed to use your feet?”

Very funny. I’ve become accustomed to these little digs, given my penchant for injuries and my refusal to stop playing the sports that put me in harm’s way. The worst moments are the Emergency Room visits. I'll never forget the day, 10 years ago, when my poor wife, eight months pregnant with our first child, drove me to the ER after a mountain bike mishap. I won't bore you with the details, except to say that it took eight stitches to close the gash on my right cheek, just below the eye (I still have no idea where that tree branch came from!). The doctor that day took one look at my swollen puss, glanced at my chart, and quipped condescendingly: “Mountain bike accident, huh? Shouldn’t you know better at your age?”

The fact that he made the comment more than a decade ago tells you what I thought of his advice. A few months shy of my personal half-century mark (now that puts things in perspective), I still run, ski, snowboard, cycle (off- and on-road), skate a few nights a week in various hockey leagues, and play goalie for an Over-40 soccer team. We play in Boston’s Over the Hill Soccer League, a name that conveys the same gravity and levity as, well, the name of this publication.

This past summer, our squad was asked to participate in an invitational match – a “friendly” – against a team from Gloucester during the city’s St. Peter’s Festival. Not 10 minutes into the second half, with our guys nursing a 2-1 lead, a Gloucester player made a nice move on the end line, and sent a sharp pass across the penalty box. Admittedly, 20 years ago, I might have gotten to the ball a bit faster. Then again, the attacking striker probably would have been quicker as well. In an instant, my hands, the soccer ball, and the striker's foot came together at the exact same moment. The foot won, as my opponent connected squarely with the ball, mashing the outside three fingers of my right hand in the process. Pain ripped through my arm like an electric current. Worst of all, the guy scored.

I immediately knew I was hurt, but had no idea how bad. A teammate rushed up, asking: "What's wrong?"

"I don't know," I answered. "My hand is messed up."

As I grimaced, face down in the grass, another teammate removed my padded goalie gloves. All I heard was: “Oh, that’s what’s wrong.” When I finally worked up the nerve, I peeked at my right hand, and saw my ring finger bent unnaturally at a right angle, sideways. Someone's wife called 9-1-1, and I found myself the embarrassed center of attention as I slowly trudged off the field. The first responders took one look at my crooked digit, and said, legally, they couldn’t touch me. A paramedic, who didn’t have the same liability headaches, tried to pop the joint back into place, but to no avail (though he succeeded in dropping me to my knees). So I click-clacked in my cleats across the asphalt parking lot and sheepishly took a seat in an awaiting ambulance.

Heading to the hospital, I thought an ambulance ride was justified for shredded knee ligaments or other major injuries, but making such a fuss over a dislocated finger seemed goofy. The attitude of the ER staff didn’t help. Granted, a 40-something guy in a soccer outfit will elicit giggles, but I would have appreciated some self-control, especially since most members of the staff were noticeably overweight (an oddly common occurrence at hospitals).

My ER doctor, however, was completely empathetic. A short, spry women with running shoes and a lilting Irish accent, she checked out the finger, ordered X-rays, and said she'd be back in a jiffy to straighten things out. Self-consciously, I made a comment about feeling silly, playing a kid's game at my age.

"At least you're out there," she replied without hesitation. "That’s the important thing."

She was right. I'll be back on the field, once the hand heals, and if I can avoid any return trips to the ER. After all, the boys rallied to win the Gloucester game, and I don't want them thinking I'm expendable.


Friday, May 14, 2010

The Divot

Boston, allergy season

Not all that long ago, my brother Sean and I were out for a road spin, decked out in full cycling regalia. The thing about cycling gear, to be blunt, is that there's no hiding anything. Ladies, you know what I mean (wink, wink!). Not that I have anything to, ahem, "show off," mind you. It's just the reality of Lycra. Whatever curves you've got will show, good curves as well as bad curves. Which is just a way of setting up this little anecdote about Sean and I pedaling along. He was drafting behind me when he suddenly asks, "What is up with your hip?"

I turned around, and in the most sarcastic tone I could muster, say: "Oh, this hip? You mean this dent right here?" I pointed to the distinct crease in my left flank. "You don't remember Boys Weekend at Chris's house, when I got hurt, and everyone said I was faking it?" And therein lies the story.

The Divot

I'm not a cross-country ski guy. Never have been. Too much work. I like gravity, and I like chairlifts. Cross-country skiing is for those skinny, endorphin-fueled endurance athletes who can push their heart rates into the stratosphere and just motor all day long. I'm not built that way. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed, during a festive Boys Weekend one frosty February at my brother Chris's place in Washington, N.H., to a cross-country ski outing through the woods back behind his house.

Now, we're not talking smooth, tracked cross-country trails here, like you might find at the Jackson Ski Touring Center. Nope, nothing even close. These were rough-cut logging roads (known colloquially in New Hampshire as Class VI highways!), better suited for ATVs and 4X4s. In fact, most World War II tanks would have trouble navigating some of these "roads." They're actually decent hiking trails during the warmer months, but during the thick of a Northeast winter, they're a minefield, loaded with booby traps lurking underneath a fresh cover of snow.

There were at least six of us, including me, my brothers Sean and Chris, Tommy Duval, and two of Chris's college cohorts, Bill Riley and Tom Paul. A really good group of guys. We all knew the evening would be a raucous boozefest, as we had an enormous pot of chili simmering and enough tequila to keep a Mexican border town looped for days. So, we decided we'd do something good for our bodies before pickling our livers. It was a beautiful day, if I recall (it's been a good 10 years now), cold but crisp. We all had our skinny skis and poles, and Chris picked out one of his favorite "highways" for a little exploration.

Admittedly, I had my doubts about our agenda. First, I've never been all that stable on cross-country skis, with my heels flopping all around. I've snowboarded and skied on alpine boards for years, and prefer the control that comes with having my heels locked down (again, requiring gravity's assistance). I understand the necessity to have a free heel during the push-and-glide movements of Nordic skiing, but the corresponding instability makes me a tad uncertain. Add to that the unpredictable terrain that Chris had selected, and I was sweating bullets long before I started red-lining my heart rate.

The first hour was relatively uneventful, though the ruts and troughs in the trail were challenging, as were the dozens of downed trees that crisscrossed our route. Plus, the road wasn't flat. The uphill portions were a slog, and the downhills, combined with those inadequate bindings and my dubious Nordic skills, were much too sketchy for my liking. Still, we made the best of it, laughing at each other and our plodding attempts to master the art of skinny skis. Some, like Sean and Tom Paul, actually looked pretty good, but most of us just flailed about, huffing and puffing and I'm certain making the task more difficult than it needed to be. Finally, the group agreed that the trails weren't going to improve, and we decided that both the chili and the tequila had probably aged to perfection, and any delay in consumption would be a crime against humanity. So we turned around. And, immediately, we faced a downhill that suddenly looked a whole lot more daunting than it had during the previous climb.

Eager to get back to Chris's house and the blender, I volunteered to go first. My enthusiasm proved my undoing. Despite a pizza wedge that would make any ski instructor proud, I kept picking up speed. Toward the bottom of the slope was a huge fallen pine suspended across the trail. For a split second, I envisioned impaling myself on one of its branches. So, I took the only option my oxygen-starved brain offered, which was a head-first dive. And damn if I didn't pull it off, pitching my 200-pound frame underneath the hulking trunk. And that's when a white flash of pain flashed through my body.

Hidden underneath the pristine blanket of snow was a tree stump, and I found it squarely with my left hip. I knew instantly I had done some serious damage. I got light-headed, my stomach started doing cartwheels, and my leg actually began convulsing. But to the guys at the top of the hill, it was a perfectly executed Pete Rose dive, and as I was writhing in pain, they howled and shouted encouragement. For a little while. Finally, Sean, an orthopedic surgeon, came to my aid. At worst, we thought it was a bad bruise (after all, I have plenty of padding in that particular area). Regardless, it was a long, painful trek back to Chris's house. And the guys -- being guys -- kept riding me, unconvinced it was anything serious. I tried convincing them otherwise, but they wouldn't hear of it. And, of course, the last thing any red-blooded male wants to be called is a wimp. Never has being the "butt" of others' jokes been so rife with irony.

That evening, I wasted no time in masking the pain with a few rounds of beer margaritas. I strapped a bag of ice to the hip, gulped down a few heavy-duty painkillers, and then let the tequila works its magic. The gang sat around for hours, sharing laughs, singing songs, telling tall tales, and generally getting shnockered. The overnight, though, was tough. Each time I rolled onto the hip, the stabbing pain woke me up. The next morning, unwilling to give in to the group's sophomoric taunts, I agreed to go on another cross-country outing, and even managed to fall on the same hip again, sending another bolt of agony through my gray matter. So much for discretion being the better part of valor.

The accompanying photo was taken two weeks after the fall. That's how long it took for the bruises to surface (and spread). Sorry if it's a little risque, but there's really no modest way to take that shot. Believe it or not, it looked even worse a few days afterward, but this is the only photographic evidence I kept. After a month, Lauri convinced me to go see my doctor. His diagnosis? I had sheared some of the muscles in my hip (that was the divot), and adjacent bump was the torn fibers curling into a ball. "Well," I thought, "that would explain why it felt like the top of my head was ripped off." Eventually, the colors subsided. But the divot remains.