Every state has a Senior Games competition similar to the Olympics with over 20 sports to compete in. You must be over 50 to participate. The top two winners in each category may compete every other year in the National Senior Olympics. In 2009, I participated in the games held at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California.
I started training at the beginning of the year but tore ligaments in my thumb in February. I didn’t have surgery until mid April and this put a damper on my training. However, in June I was able to win three gold medals and a silver in the California Senior Games. This qualified me for the Nationals to be held in Houston, TX, in 2011.
I decided to train at high altitudes to prepare for the National games. I loaded up all my bikes and my dog Mufasa and headed to the Sequoia National Park for a week of training. I stayed at the Ponderosa Inn, a grocery store/restaurant at 7200 feet of elevation with only two rooms for rent located in the middle of nowhere.
My first ride was uneventful but enjoyable. Since the Ponderosa was at the top of the mountain, the only choice was to descend 25-30 miles in either direction in search of the next sign of civilization. Day two was to be my first “big” ride. My goal was to ride to the town of Kernville and back.
When I started out in the morning, the temperature was about 80 degrees. By the time I descended to the first store, my bike computer indicated it was 104 degrees. I drank a bunch of Gatorade and ate some nuts and potato chips for salt and headed the next 15 miles along the Kern river towards Kernville. Two miles from the store I checked my pocket for my salt pills and they weren’t there. They must have dropped out on the descent! Not good. Without those pills I wouldn’t make it back up the mountain. I decided to turn around and make my way back as I had just had something to eat and drink. By this time, the heat had reached 111 degrees! Thankfully, around 12 miles up the mountain, I ran across a small community that I hadn’t seen on the descent because I was going too fast. I was able to refuel and attempt the last 20 miles of climbing.
Training alone in the mountains is mentally tough. You’re completely alone with no cell phone coverage and it is rare for a car to go by. I was pretty much on my own. I did make it back but had been cramping terribly. I had heat exhaustion and was severely dehydrated. Bad diarrhea, an upset stomach and a sleepless night left me exhausted the next day. Not to mention it was hot. I could barely walk and thought I might have blown the whole trip. Remember, there was no flat ground. I slept most of the day and did a light 24 mile ride in the late afternoon after it cooled down a bit. I decided to wait until the afternoon of the next day to attempt my next “big ride.” I hoped the extra rest would allow me to complete the ride. I was going to ascend Sherman Pass which is over 9000 feet.
I descended the 26 miles before the start of the climb to Sherman Pass. On the way down I found my container with my salt pills! What luck! As I ascended it was 104 degrees and I saw only two or three cars. The climb was tough and, around 8000 feet, I was running out of liquid. I tried to hike down to a stream but I couldn’t get to it. I had no choice but to turn around at 8200 feet. The descent was treacherous. The road was bad, the curves tight and it was very windy. My bike started to make a loud sound when I would coast, somewhat like the screaming of a mule. This happened when my chain would hang down to the ground causing it to bounce dangerously close to my back wheel. At over 40 miles an hour, I didn’t need my chain to get caught in my back wheel. This made the descent a problem. Luckily, I made it and then had to start the 26 mile climb back to the Ponderosa. Again, I might have seen three cars the whole way.
It was dark when I arrived and the restaurant was closed. I didn’t know they would close early if there were no customers, but it was okay. I had a blender, fruit water, protein and my supplements. I had felt really good coming up the hill and maybe pushed myself a little too much. It had been a six hour ride, 75 miles with over 9000 feet of climbing. The change in temperature in one ride was amazing. It went from 105 degrees at the hottest to 57 degrees to the lowest! That’s a difference of almost 50 degrees in one ride! Cycling is a tough sport.
The next day I was toast. I was a little worried that I might have left my legs on that ride and that I might not be able to recover for the first race which was to be held three days later. I decided to do a short 20 mile ride and then take a nice cruise with Mufasa around the “Trail of 100 Giants,” the trail of old growth Sequoia trees which are breathtaking. The following morning, Mufasa and I loaded the van and head to Palo Alto. Well, I should say, I loaded the van and he watched.
The games were pretty huge. I met with my friends Mike Lukich and Cathy McNamara and registered for our events. Mike and Cathy had already scoped out the course and took me to test it out. It was an “out and back” course with a nasty little 11% hill for about a half mile at the end. Riding the course turned out to be essential.
20k Road Race
I staged with about 40 other competitors on a perfect day. Since the start was the descent it was a “neutral” start, which is when the pack must stay behind a referee as he rides a motorcycle slowly down the hill. This way, no one will kill themselves in the first two minutes of the race. I didn’t really know any of the other racers so I kept my nose out of the wind the whole race. The real race was to the corner of the climb and, unfortunately, I didn’t get a good position. As we barreled into the corner I was probably eight guys back. They were hammering and I thought I had lost the race. I didn’t panic and kept my pace hard and steady. I’m a good spinner so I kept it in the small ring which means I was using my slow-twitch muscles. Everyone else was in their big ring mashing a big gear using their fast-twitch muscles.
The climb was great for the spectators because it was a “snake” where they could view the entire ascent. As we climbed the crowd screamed for the favorites. By the time I hit corner three I was fourth and thought to myself “one more guy and I’m on the podium!” At the last corner I was third. I was dying but who cares, in about six seconds I could lay down and go to sleep if I had to. I clicked down two gears, stood up and gave it everything I had. I passed both guys and won the gold medal by only two seconds. I was stunned. It was over. I had just become the 20k National Senior Road Race champion. I couldn’t believe it.
When I got to my van to recover I heard the announcer talking about me, “John was a drummer who played with Cher and also was a Romance Novel Cover model, etc. etc.” I was confused. How did this guy know this all this stuff? I changed and rode to back to the start-finish and saw that the announcer was Bruce Hildenbrand who had been a guide on the “Etape de Tour de France” trip I had participated in 2005. We spent two weeks together and like the good journalist he is, he remembered what we had spoken about.
Within about an hour I was standing on the first winner’s podium of the games receiving a gold medal. It was such a good feeling. No matter what happened in the next three races I was a gold medal winner, a national champion. The pressure was off.
40k Road Race
Since everyone now knew who I was, I waited until everyone had staged and entered in the back of the pack at the last minute. Once again we had a neutral start. Since I was in the back of the pack no one noticed me. At the bottom of the hill the referee waved the flag and, off to the races we went. My plan almost bit me in the rear because there was a nasty crash in front of me that almost took me out. I was able to brake, ride over a guys wheel and although my foot came off of the pedals I was able to stay upright.
In a bike race, if you hear a crash, the pack will always step on it. It’s a great opportunity to get rid of everyone who fell and anyone who is caught behind the crash. Since we had just been waved to start the race, along with the crash, the pack was hauling ass! I put my head down and was able to catch on. A few of the other racers were not so lucky. It was super windy and the national time trial champion, John Novitsky who had gotten seventh the day before, kept trying to get away. I would let him stay away, but if he got more than ten seconds from the pack I would drag the pack up to him.
Once again, the real race began at the corner of the climb. This time, I got a better position. Once again everyone was flying at the bottom of the hill and at first I thought I had lost the race. I kept my cool, stayed in the saddle and spun up the hill, picking off one guy after the other. After the last turn I was in third. I clicked down into a bigger gear, stood up and stomped past the same guy who got second the day before in the last millisecond. It was that close. We ended up with the same time, but I was now the 40k National Senior Road Race champion.
I got sixth in both the 5k and the10k time trials, but it didn’t matter because I had two shiny gold medals to take home. Sometimes it’s not always the strongest rider that wins a bike race, but the craftiest. That had been me.