Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Heart Saved

Thanks again for all your thoughts and prayers.  I am truly blessed with so many friends and relatives!

A Heart Saved

Narrative non-fiction by
Greg Larson

Sometimes I think I’m pretty strong. Other times I think I’m good at using the brain. But when the doctors told me in December of 2009 that my heart had a rare aneurysm which had not burst but required open-heart surgery…I just stared at the floor, not knowing what to think. Should I feel thankful that my doctors discovered the unusual situation? Should I be upset that I had to cancel a planned ski trip? Would I survive? How would Gretta take the news?

In the days leading up to surgery, the background chatter in my dreams was noisier than usual. I heard a lot of voices discussing many things. I assumed that my soul’s disposition was the topic of their discussions. During the day, our dog, who is not the typical give-me-a-hug type of dog, knew something was up. He became chummy and tucked his nose next to my leg as we sat on the couch.

I’m thankful for the people who are strong and smart when it comes to health care. I felt like a wimp going to the slaughter, asking for anything to put me out quickly on the day of surgery. I didn’t want any part of it, and was glad I didn’t have to hear the whine of the saw and smell the burnt bone as they began the procedure of opening me up.

The best feeling of the hospital experience was waking up from surgery. I knew that I had survived. I was highly medicated and didn’t feel the pain, yet. The worst experience was the next 72 hours. It seemed like the hospital was a big tube, and I was being squeezed through bizarro-land. Best to just go with the flow.

After four and a half days in the hospital, I’m resting at home now. I feel like I’ve survived a rite of passage, mixed with drugs, pain, tubes, excellent nurses, mediocre food, and constant “vital sign” checks. I am smart enough to know that I need to take care of myself and follow the doctor’s and nurse’s instructions. No driving for 4 weeks. No lifting over 10 pounds until approved by the doctor, lung exercises, walking repetitions, etc.

The discharge nurse told me a story about a man who returned to the cardiac floor after he had gone home from heart surgery. The man had decided that since his limit for lifting was ten pounds, it would be just fine to build a deck with a five-pound hammer. While working on the deck, some of the surgical wires that held his sternum together began to poke through his chest. He cut the exposed wires and took them to the doctor, asking him if the wires had accidentally been left in his chest. Not very smart.

Outside, the 20 inches of snow accumulation from back-to-back blizzards has been melting for five days. And thanks to my good friend, Jim Fleming, for stopping by to remove an ice dam from the roof. Now there is a kind heart!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Race of Truth

The bicycle is my adventure vehicle of choice.  I like to ride long distances for exercise and pleasure.  It was more out of curiosity than anything else in 1997 when I convinced our company's coordinator for men's cyclists to let me attempt the time trials in the Kansas City Corporate Challenge.  The time trial is more like a bicycle drag race than a long tour.  It was not my forte', but I wanted to see what I could do, just for the hell of it.  I remember what the wife of one of my cycling buddies once said, "If there are two men cycling together, you might as well call it a race."   So for a few weeks each springtime, I'd pretend I was a jock, turning into a rabid animal during training sessions and the time trial event.

The Race of Truth
Narrative non-fiction by Greg Larson

The official in the starting box continued the countdown, “three, two, one……go!” The starter pushed me forward, and the two persons recording the time simultaneously clicked their stop watches.  The 2.5 mile lap around the outside perimeter road at the Kansas Speedway lay before me.  The perimeter road is not the NASCAR race track, but a service road that encircles the race track and the grandstands.  My time trial in the 2007 Kansas City Corporate Challenge had begun.

The adrenaline surged through my body, and I exploded out across the starting line.  My legs and arms leveraged the bike and put every ounce of power into the wheels on the road.  I stomped on the pedals for about ten or eleven strokes, and then settled down into the saddle and grabbed the aero-bars in front of me so I could click through the gears while staying in an aerodynamic ‘tuck’ position.  My legs surged like a smooth electric motor as I increased my speed at a rapid rate.  I pushed on the pedals until the speedometer read 28 mph, then I quit accelerating and began to set a rhythm on the pedalstrokes.  From experience, I knew that if I didn’t try to calm down and conserve energy, I would “go anaerobic” and expend all my energy before I completed the first quarter mile.

The start is critical to the success of a time trial.

This was my 11th annual start in the Kansas City Corporate Challenge bicycle time trials.  I did not have the time or the energy to think about anything other than getting the Cervelo P2K bike around the 2.5 mile course.  With controlled breathing, I mentally detached myself from the physical pain, and started to ‘cheer’ for the bike, as if it were a race horse and I were the jockey.

The preparation and start had gone well.  Over the years of competition, I had learned many fundamentals and tricks in time trialing.  I knew that I would have to give attention to every possible detail if I were ever to have a chance at a top three finish.  I also told my cohorts that the only possible way I could attain a top three finish would be if “the planets all aligned and none of the ‘animals’ showed up.”  I did some crazy things over the years in order to get any possible advantage.  The first year at the speedway course, I drove to the speedway in the dark of the early morning and then rode around the course on a practice bike with a headlight, starting before the volunteers showed up, just so I could understand the size and condition of the course.  My wife, Gretta, also helped during my warm-up by waving me to the starting line.  Her wave was the signal that my start time was near.  I walked past the other competitors in line, saying, “excuse me” as I worked my way up to the start.  This year I had a feeling of invincibility, wearing my Italian, Mondo Bici racing outfit proudly as I walked towards the line.  The competitors parted like the Red Sea.

Walking to the start - 2007

I was now deep into the time trial or what cyclists term the “race of truth.”  With no place to hide, it's not recommended for the meek or mild.  The rider and his bike are pitted against the terrain, the weather and the clock.  There are no other factors involved.  Individual times are sorted from fastest to slowest, listing each rider’s elapsed time on the course.  Riders do not race “wheel to wheel.”  At most time trials, the riders are released from the starting box at one minute intervals.  It is pain management at its most basic level.  A cyclist has to believe in his ability and have an aggressive attitude.  Some of the best advice I’d ever heard regarding time trial racing came from British cyclist and world champion time trialist, Chris Boardman.  Chris was coaching cyclists for time trials in the Tour de France.  This is my best recollection of his televised interview quote:

“When I coach individuals training for time trials, I tell them to constantly ask themselves during the event: ‘Do I have enough energy to finish the course?’  If the answer is ‘Yes’, then the rider will not win because he has held something back.  If the answer is ‘No’, then the rider will not win because he has already expended too much energy.  If the answer is ‘Maybe’, then the rider just might have a chance of winning, but he must to keep saying ‘Maybe’ all the way to the finish line.”

The toughest competitor in my age category had started just behind me, so I had additional incentive to keep the speed as high as possible without burning out.  At the start, I turned around and told him, “Good luck, but just don’t pass me on the course!”  I knew he would want to get set in the starting box as soon as possible, so that he might have a legitimate chance of catching me to break my morale.  At the very least, he would be able to watch me and determine if he was losing or gaining ground during his pursuit.  If he reduced the distance between us, he would have a better elapsed time.  Days after the time trial, I looked at the photos, and I could see that he was very anxious to get started as he stood in the que.  He already had his front wheel across the back line of the starting box even before the starter had released me!

A competitor is inching into my starting box!

Wind noise is always a constant.  Depending on the wind direction, the noise can become unceasing and gale-like.  About a third of the way around the course I began to hear the rubber tire sound on the pavement, barely perceptible above the wind noise.  Was it my competitor catching up so quickly?  I looked out of the corner of my eye while continuing to concentrate on pedaling.  It was a speedway maintenance truck with flashing lights, slowly driving by as I continued to focus on maintaining my speed.  Whew! I don’t know what I would have done if my competitor had caught me so soon.

Through the years of competition, my age bracket had as few as 40 entries and as many as 110.  I had continually ‘chipped away’ at my finishing position of 15th in my first time trial.  I had numerous finishes as low as 7th, 6th, and 4th place, but I’d never medaled in one of the top three finish spots.  One year I recruited a cyclist for my age category on our team, and he medaled, preventing me from obtaining a medal for the first time.  The medal was the proverbial carrot that I’d never attained, but I did benefit from the early spring training.  It was an incentive for me to get into shape for the cycling season each year.

I had worked on every aspect of time trialing: pre-race cardio-workouts, heart monitors, pain management, the best gear position at the start, and the technical aspects of the bike.  I finally purchased a bike designed specifically for time trials, and as a surprise, Gretta had purchased an exotic bike race uniform from a small racing club in Italy (she spent eight months writing letters in Italian, and she finally wired the money just in time for the uniform to arrive for my 10th season).

I kept my composure on the back stretch of the course and began to focus on "the dip".  It is a hill in reverse, about two-thirds of the way around the course.  The bottom of the dip is near the tunnel entrance where the NASCAR teams access the inner field and garages at the speedway.  After sharing previous experiences on this course, our team mates all agreed the strategy was to gain as much speed as possible before the dip in order to launch the rider and the bike to the highest possible speed at the bottom, which, in turn, would allow the rider to keep maximum momentum to the finish line.

I accelerated at the top of the dip, and shifted through a couple of additional gears before engaging the smallest sprocket on the rear wheel, which has only twelve teeth.  Very quickly, I realized that no matter how fast I pedaled, I couldn’t push my highest gear.  DAMN!  I could have pushed the pedals a few more strokes if I’d had an eleven-tooth sprocket.  It would have shaved off a few more precious seconds on my finish time.  The speedometer logged 42 mph at the bottom of the dip, and I kept spinning the pedals and downshifting as I went up the incline on the other side.

My strategy was to keep at least a 20 mph speed at the top of the hill, and then slowly increase the speed as the course leveled out, planning to cross the finish line around 25 mph.

The FINISH banner -
Always a welcome sight!

I started looking for the FINISH banner on the horizon, carefully making sure I stayed in my aerodynamic tuck.  At this point in the race, my legs began to cramp and I tasted the blood in the air expelled from my lungs.  I was fighting off dizziness and had only a tunnel-vision view of the finish line.  I could faintly hear some cheering as I got within a few hundred yards of the finish.  My body wanted to rebel and shut down, but my instincts told me, “Just get across the finish line as soon as possible, and then think about the pain afterwards.”  If I skipped one or two pedal strokes, I could easily drop two or three places in the final standings.  My legs were burning, but somehow they kept accelerating the bike to the line.

2007 – Greg near the finish line…… “just maybe”

My mind was detached from the body. I watched myself and the bike complete the last few yards.  Total focus was on expending every last bit of energy that remained just before crossing the finish line.  Once the line was crossed, my body shutdown...and I coasted, coasted, coasted...not knowing where I would end up.  I turned back into the parking lot, then stopped and grabbed a fence to stabilize myself through a dizzy spell.  A volunteer ran up to me and asked, “Should I call medical?”

I quickly responded, “No, I’m okay. I’m just catching my breath.  Really, I’ll be okay.”

The organizers had every detail covered, including the ambulance parked near the finish line.  Fortunately, I recovered quickly and the medical officials were never summoned.

The timers turned in their cards for the officials to calculate the average of the two times, creating the official finish time.  For some reason, the person with the laptop spreadsheets for calculating and sorting the finishers was not present.  We were told the results would be online in two or three days.  There would be no medal ceremony after each age bracket, as in all previous years.  I was downhearted because I thought I had a good chance to finish in the top three, but I left the event with a happy heart, knowing that I had left every ounce of energy out on the course.

Two days later my wife and I began our overseas trip on a dream vacation; a bicycle tour of southern France.  Finally, in the small town of Brive-la-Gaillarde, we searched out an internet cafĂ© and I looked up the results.

“I did it!” I shouted, “I did it!  I finished in second place for the silver medal!”

I was ecstatic. The teen-agers sitting at their PC’s, playing video games with other challengers across the globe, turned and looked at me with questioning stares.  I didn’t care.  It was time for me to celebrate and it made our bike tour in France all the more enjoyable.

The tough competitor who had started behind me had won the gold medal.  He never passed me during the time trial, but he gained a few precious seconds on me as we went around the course, so he finished with the best elapsed time.

Weeks later, back at work in Kansas City, I called my team coordinator to see if he had received the medals.  He said I could come to his cubicle to pick up my silver medal anytime.  I hurried to his building and met him at his office; he nonchalantly and unceremoniously handed me a plastic bag with the medal inside.

I pulled it out of the bag and felt the surface as I looked at it.  It was a really BIG silver medal, and I felt some engraving on the back side of it.  Had they engraved our names on the back?  That would be so sweet, I thought.  I turned over the medal, only to see the name of the sponsor…EARP DISTRIBUTION.  Well, it was my medal, and I had earned it over eleven long, hard years.  No one could take it from me now.

I’ll cherish it forever, along with all the memories of the years I participated in the race of truth.

The Silver Medal - 2007