It looks like the complete route. To the right is the GPS map of my ride today. Those who have ridden El Tour de Tucson will recognize it as the full 109 mile race, the “big one.” Since I got back on the bike in 2005 I have not done the full race, only the 80 mile portion. But this year was different. I have gone full-bore back into cycling as my primary means of getting “fit by fifty,” and while I never dreamed I would ride long distances again when I climbed back on the bike in 2005 at 244 pounds, as of today I am down to 176, and that is definitely “long distance cycling” weight. So I signed up for the whole enchilada for the first time since the late 90s.
Now, let’s go with the positives first. I rode the fastest 105 miles I have ever ridden in a race. Ever. My entire life. Now realize, back in the 90s I was a “hammer head.” I once did a 24 mile ride at 25.64 mph average speed. I would regularly do metric centuries (62.1 miles/100km) at 22mph average speeds. And I weighed just a little less than I do now (about 172). So to clock the best time over 105 miles ever is really encouraging. El Tour has a decent amount of climbing (3255 ft. according to my cycling computer today) too, which makes keeping a good average speed difficult. And, of course, El Tour de Tucson has two dry river bed crossings, too, each of which takes a full 0.3 off your average speed. As a result, the nearly 19 mph average speed I managed (taking the river crossings out) is great news for someone soon to turn 48 years of age.
Next, I climbed like a madman today. I was almost never passed on the climbs, and passed entire groups on ascents. It was amazing, and I think my time in Flagstaff Monday and Tuesday had a lot to do with that.
Further, there was a major problem with today’s ride: WIND. 20 mph right in our faces at the worst part of the race, the last 25 miles. It was really blowing. Flags were standing straight out, dust blowing, tumble weeds….tumbling, the whole nine yards. I got hit with a dust devil that made me feel like someone had hit me with a sand blaster. So, to post that great speed with that wind blowing in my face at the end of the race, was amazing. I was passing entire groups toward the end who were struggling badly with the wind.
My goal had been to finally finish El Tour de Tucson in less than six hours, and get a coveted gold medal. There are professionals who ride “platinum,” who do it even faster than that, but I am a mere human being. I ride to live, not live to ride. But I have always wanted a gold medal. I got one in El Tour de Phoenix in 1995, when it was still over 100 miles (it is now 72 miles, and as was announced by the mayor of Mesa, Arizona today at the start of the race, it will now be called El Tour de Mesa, as of next April—same race, different name). But I have never gotten one in El Tour de Tucson, which is one of the largest races in the United States (well over 9,000 riders out there today). The one year I had the best shot at it (1996) I crashed along with about twenty other folks eight miles into the race (that’s a very dangerous time in El Tour). And by my calculations, I would have crossed the finish line in just a shade under six hours today. If only….
For you see, the only reason that graphic shows the whole route is that it includes my riding from my hotel to the start line. I did not finish El Tour de Tucson today. I finished 107 out of 109 miles, in fact. Yes, I quit two miles from the end (by getting to my car, where I had started in the darkness at about 5:40am). Why? Well, simple: 105.9 miles into the ride my left leg, to put it as simply as possible, seized. Cramped. All of it. Quad, ham, even my feet. It was one of the most painful experiences I’ve ever had. Cried out in pain (and a bit of shock). Came to a skidding halt, basically fell off the bike, and lay by the side of I-10 trying, vainly, to stretch out my leg to stop the agony. Bikers in long races are friendly toward one another (mainly), and I had lots of offers of help—but what could anyone do? I got back on the bike, knowing my quest for gold was now over, and tried to at least finish…got about 3/4 of a mile and bang, it was back, with a vengeance, now joined by the right leg. I tried everything I could think of, but finally, standing by the side of the road, leaning on my bike, trying to stop the pain, I saw my hotel…where my car was parked. I managed to coast into the parking lot and to my car, where I must have looked quite the sight. I tried to put my shoes on so I could drive my car, but my feet would freeze in spasm in the process. More screaming. It was a joyous experience.
I finally got my shoes on and managed to drive to within about 1/3 of a mile of the start/finish line. I had a timer chip on my ankle, and they charge you a fair amount if you don’t turn it in. I explained my situation to a nice lady and, I think, her grandson, collecting timing chips, who commiserated with me. It’s a royal bummer to get 98.2% of the way through El Tour and then have to give up! That DNF will be posted on the PBAA website…forever. So I hobbled back to my car and started the long, and pretty quiet, drive back to Phoenix.
Now, it would be very, very easy to wallow in disappointment at being stopped from getting that gold medal a matter of a few miles from the finish. All that training and effort! And all I get is a DNF (Did Not Finish). I won’t lie, that is quite disappointing indeed.
However, even while lying on the pavement next to the frontage road of I-10, I adopted a different view. I thought of all the positive things I listed above. I thought of how I have had cramping problems in the past, too, but they would normally start around 68-70 miles in, and this time I had managed to hold them off to 105 (and if it had not been windy, I don’t think I would have even experienced it). So, instead of being depressed about it, I thought, “Well, I’ve moved the problem back a solid 40 miles—almost there!” I thought about the fact that I have two more shots before I’m 50 at getting that gold, and, the fact that if the weather had cooperated, I would surely have gotten it this time, so there’s a good chance of accomplishing my desire in the future. And now I have even more reason to remain as disciplined as I have become in my diet and training and health for the next twelve months.
You see, my mom used to say that some people choose to be happy, and some people simply choose to be unhappy. Often, when facing the same situation, one person will keep a positive attitude and try to learn from their situation, while another will choose depression and sadness and anger. As a Christian, I don’t think there should be any argument about which of those two perspectives should be ours. We are redeemed, forgiven, and possess eternal life. God is working in our lives to make us like Christ, and the whining we often present to Him is anything but God honoring or consistent. Contentment comes with godliness, thankfulness with maturity, and complaint is simply sinful. I had even said to a man as we turned a corner together during the race, “Isn’t it great we get to be out here, doing this? So many cannot do so.” I think he thought I was nuts, but I meant it.
So I earned a DNF today. All that effort, all those hard climbs, all those folks who I passed–matters not. They finished (the vast majority anyway), I didn’t. Period. As far as the race is concerned, I failed. Those are the facts.
However, it would be short sighted to take only that perspective, true as it might be. There’s a lot more to the story, and I am actually quite pleased with my effort today, and next time, I will greatly increase my electrolyte intake (already have the means of doing so). Another lesson learned, another reason to look to the future.
As I turned into the wind today, I started thinking about spiritual applications to what I was experiencing (what else are you supposed to be thinking about? By that time you aren’t drafting, so you can ponder other things than the tire of the guy or gal in front of you.) I thought about the need for perseverance, and the fact that the older you get (later in the race) the harder it may well become! But when my legs seized up, I immediately made the connection to a thought I have had many times over the past number of years.
My greatest desire of my Lord is to finish well. I did not think about finishing well when I was in my twenties and thirties. But something happens when you pass the mid point of your life, probably a combination of the aging of your body, the passing of friends, the growing of your children, that causes the thoughtful Christian to think not only of eternal things (every believer should be thinking of those things daily), but of how we might live a life that is pleasing to God, and more pointedly, finish our course so as to glorify Him. As you grow older, your catalog of names and faces of those who did not finish well grows. I can think of many who, upon entering into old age, have brought disrepute upon their profession, or at least, their wisdom. They may have made quite a splash in their younger years, and may have fought the battle well, but upon entering into older age they have marred their testimony through their actions. Some do so by vacillating on the essentials of the faith. Some do so by ecumenical foolishness. Some do so by adopting the idea that they cannot learn from anyone younger than themselves; in other words, they stop learning. There are a myriad of ways in which some earn the DNFW, “Did Not Finish Well.” And I frequently express my fear of this to my Lord. I want to finish well. I do not want to force people to say, “Yes, well, I appreciated White’s work in the main, but you know, the last stuff he did, well…he was getting older, you know.”
See, as far as the ledger on the PBAA website is concerned, I did not finish well today. I climbed well. I descended well. I rode a strong race, I even fought the wind well. But I did not finish well, so all that was marred by what took place right at the end of the course. It is my sincere desire that in the heavenly register of the lives of God’s people, I do not find a DNFW when I stand before the Lord. May the Lord grant me mercy and grace, and the discipline to fight the good fight up to my dying day.