To appreciate how much this year’s Solstice 100 meant to me, it helps to understand first how my 2019 Dirty Kanza came to matter so little.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted that DK finish something fierce. But May had unfolded for me in such a way as to make bike racing feel a little silly. (OK, it has always felt a little silly. But silly this time in a way I didn’t enjoy.)
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in early May, and our lives reeled. With this disease, doctors give a diagnosis well before they can fully understand your prognosis. It’s as if they tell you there’s a criminal loose in your mother’s house—someone who intends harm. They’re just not sure yet about this criminal’s record. Does he typically steal TVs, or, you know … murder?
The weapons we have to fight these intruders work great—on some types of cancers. On others? Less so. So the message I took from our oncologist was basically: Your mom could be fine. Or she’ll die. We’ll look into it and get back to you. (I sound snarky, but I don’t mean to. This is just the range of outcomes oncologists see on a daily basis.)
There is no “good” cancer. But villainy varies.
Early results looked hopeful. We’d thought a lumpectomy might be the end of it. They cut out Mom’s tumor, as well as some surrounding tissue. Inside this removed tissue, they were surprised to find 15 more tumors they hadn’t known about. (Fifteen?! I reeled again.)
How bad was this news? They needed scans and genetic tests of the tumors themselves to know. Again: We’ll get back to you.
After her diagnosis, Mom quoted our favorite satirist, the late Molly Ivins (above). (What? Don’t you and your mom have a favorite satirist?) “First they mutilate you; then they poison you; then they burn you. I have been on blind dates better than that.” (Photo, Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
My training for DK wrapped up in this “we’ll get back to you” phase. (I realize that talking about my fitness at this point is absurd. But this is a gravel cycling blog. And Dirty Kanza was coming.)
I considered not going to Emporia, then had my face slapped by my wife and my brothers. “Uh, don’t be dumb,” Jeremy told me. “You’re racing.” Besides, my son was in the 27-mile DK high school race. I couldn’t skip.
The month’s stress played havoc on my fitness. But I really couldn’t have cared less. The race-day forecast called for highs in the mid-90s. And I couldn’t have cared less.
I teed it up on June 1, my 43rd birthday, and let rip as though I were both sharp and acclimated to the heat. I was neither. I didn’t care when it started to hurt. I didn’t care when we slammed downhill into a washout at 26 mph, my stem’s clip failed, and all 15 cards holding 200 miles of turn-by-turn directions burst out of their pocket, slapped against my stomach and fluttered to either side as irretrievable as loosed pigeons.
Jesus, take the handlebars. I’m riding blind! Still, I couldn’t have cared less. (Image, twinsix.com)
I did care some when my ice sock from the first checkpoint melted and I suddenly realized my thermostat was pointing to “filthy hot.” I cared that there was no wind anywhere to cool me. I cared some more when I lost my teammate’s wheel, then gulped the last of my water.
And I cared a bunch when the skin on my arms went papery dry, and the grit on my chest stopped washing off. I cared gobs when I started to shiver in the heat. Something in my body flipped then and told me the sun felt better than the shade.
I pulled sick into Education First’s MASH unit of a goodwill water oasis at mile 99. I was better suited for an ambulance than a bicycle at that point. When you’re cold in that kind of heat, it’s because your organs are on red alert, and your body is now abandoning your extremities to send all available blood and fluid to your heartsick liver and kidneys.
I soaked myself and rested there a good while after my teammates rolled on. I should have pulled the plug and called for Beth. But, because I didn’t care, I crawled another 50 miles.
I stopped maybe two miles shy of the next checkpoint when I saw another heat-weary rider eat a corner and knock himself unconscious in the dirt. He was awake when I reached him, but dizzy and nonsensical. Another man stopped and together we dragged him off the turn line so other heat-dizzy riders wouldn’t crash into him.
The other man went on and I stayed back to talk our patient out of continuing. I couldn’t tell whether his slurring was the result of heat, exhaustion or concussion. It might have been all three.
We sat in the dust for a few minutes. He rallied himself and dribbled water over his abrasions. My wife’s van, I told him, was two miles off. She can be here like that. He told me he wasn’t “fucking quitting for anything.” I told him what AMA stands for. He thanked me kindly. Staggered up onto his bike and zig-zagged off.
It was the punch-drunk foolishness in his grit that did me in. A wave of nausea washed over me, and I had no answer to the question of what I was doing there. My mother had cancer. She kind of needed me, even. And I was out here risking my kidneys, pissing something the color and temperature of Sanka into the weeds. For what?
I could make it two more measly miles to Beth. But I didn’t care. I tried not to throw up and felt weirdly indignant. If that poor man wasn’t quitting for anything, then I wasn’t going for anything. Not one more pedal stroke.
I called Beth.
You’re so close, she said.
Come get me.
I waited in the shade for her and watched a four-foot kingsnake slip out of the grass within a bottle-squirt of my bike. Kingsnake and I looked at each other. I’m not goddamn moving, I told it. You’re moving.
It agreed, backed up some and crossed the road while I took this picture.
The snake reared back on this guy and was not run over.
Marcus’s race, I was happy to learn in the van, went far better. I’m proud of him. He beat his goal by 15 minutes and got his first taste of pacelines where nobody wants to take their turn at the front.
The rest of June looked up sharply thanks to good friends and good news.
Coincidence had it that the nurse practitioner working with my mom’s surgeon was none other than my good friend, Kelly Fields. At her first appointment, Kelly noted Mom’s last name.
“You wouldn’t have a son named Eric, would you?”
“An Eric married to a Beth? An Eric who bikes?”
Yes… They both smiled.
Kelly would be an incredible resource through all that followed: the lumpectomy, the testing and scanning, the double mastectomy, the recovery and the radiation. She equipped us with everything we needed for oncology appointments and answered every question with both kindness and accuracy.
She literally danced with us when we got good news.
On the genetic scale of cancer criminality, Mom’s tumors were far closer to Gargamel than Jason Vorhees. Her body scans came back clean—with no perceivable cancer having made the leap from breast tissue to her vital organs. And the testing revealed she’d see no medical benefit from grueling chemotherapy.
Her mastectomies were a success. When Mom was ready to go home from the hospital, it was Kelly who dismissed her. Then Kelly dismissed herself to go catch a friend’s son’s baseball game. But when computer problems delayed Mom’s dismissal, Kelly left the game and came back, yanking chains and growling to hurry things along and get my mom home.
Mom’s home now and doing well. Her radiation treatments from here are precautionary. And her likelihood of being cancer free nine years from now stands near 90%.
Because this is a cycling blog, I’ll tell you my legs are bouncing back right alongside her. And I approached Joe’s Solstice 100 on June 22 with an attitude 180 degrees removed from what I had lugged to Emporia three weeks earlier.
If I cared for nothing in Emporia, I cared for everything in Malcolm.
When Joe hollered race instructions through his solo-cup megaphone, I cared for each word. When Kevin Fox offered a starting-line prayer, my heart thudded amen. I cared for Ashton Lambie’s Olympic dreams. I cared for the guy who opened up Lippy’s BBQ at 6 am so all of us could nervous pee. I cared for all the bright blue-jerseyed Lincoln Abrahams dotting the field. I cared for the whole field. And the fields beyond us.
Joe, Ashton and Steve at the start line. (Photos, mccolganphoto.com)
We rolled out and I let all the racy racer guys go from the start. My best man, Peter B. Welsch, was here from Minneapolis. And I was of a mind to celebrate this 100-mile thing with him. And Don Day. And Brad Z. That, my friends, is a fine start to any party. And Lordy, did we have fun.
Pete and Brad sum up the mood. (Photo, mccolganphoto.com)
The field sorted itself out and it took a little while to work our way together into one group. I reached Don, who promptly introduced me to one Lynnly Kunz from Lyons, Colo. She was in town for her first gravel century. I asked her if she knew how many women were up the road from us. “None,” she said, “and I’d like to keep it that way if I can.”
With no Abes of the female persuasion racing with us that day, we offered assistance—though it was pretty clear she didn’t need it. I’d later learn that in addition to sporting some serious ink, Lynnly works at Greenpeace and has her own granola bar company. So before she’d even logged her first miles of gravel pedaled in anger, this woman was already about as gravel as they come.
It was fun to fill her in on the decade’s worth of history crammed into this 3-year-old race. I told her about Joe and the love he pours into this event. We rolled into the first checkpoint and witnessed the volunteer machine Joe has oiled so well.
“Eighty-six!” someone yelled loud enough to startle me. “Forty-eight!” Another volunteer logged our race numbers on the fly. A third flashed a pipe cleaner for me to take without so much as slowing down. (These pipe cleaners serve as physical proof racers had checked in).
I wanted to tell them they could chill out. We weren’t racing so much as simply making good time.
More of Joe’s care was evident in the aid station itself. The coolers were plumbed together with a PVC line dotted with high-flow spigots that could allow several riders at once to fill bottles. There was even a longer, floppy plastic line perfect for sliding into a Camelbak’s bladder.
These folks were ready for us with a capital R. And it was beautiful with a capital B.
We also told Lynnly about the significance of the RG logo on everyone’s race number—how Randy Gibson had won this race in its first year, and how, months later, both he and Joe were struck by drunks in separate crimes.
We still have Joe. We lost Randy.
Beth and the kids were there at the Brainard checkpoint and again on the main drag in Valparaiso. We passed them and I fell off our group to loop back and pass them again. I wanted to soak up the positivity and hear a word or two about how Marty and Steve were doing up the road. I worked back to our group and admitted to Lynnly it always jazzes me up to see them on the course. I don’t know anybody who does that anywhere near as often or as happily as Beth does.
We rolled along merrily from there. Even at a friendly pace, the hills began to hurt. And I got that finish-line hunger that eventually comes whether you’re racing or riding.
Finish line, please… (Photo, mccolganphoto.com)
Beth would be waiting at that line. And the kids. And Pete’s family. And a plate of smoked pork and a cold beer that I had been looking forward to for a literal year.
And there was still more for me at this year’s finish. My cancer-free mom was there. Alongside a dear friend and nurse practitioner named Kelly Fields.
I’ve raced harder for a finish line. And I’ve hurt worse. But I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see one come.
There it is!
Look at that post-surgery side-hug. Pro. (Photo, Kelly Fields)
Any race summary that fails to acknowledge what Beth does to keep me going is not telling you the whole truth. (Photo, Kelly Fields)
Me and Pete with your 2019 women’s Solstice 100 champion, Lynnly Kunz.