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)

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