REDLANDS, CA. Michael Johnson thought he knew a few things about suffering.
As a former professional motocrosser and cyclist, he knew first hand what
it felt like to push the body so hard that the mind nearly shut down in
a dizzying fog of immeasurable pain.
After mesothelioma took his Dad, MJ didn’t feel normal. Normally,
he loved to race his bike. He loved the training, the intervals, the climbing,
the sprinting, the prospect of a personal best or, better yet, the exhilaration
of beating the best in the peloton. For seven weeks, MJ couldn't muster
the energy to get back on his bike.
And then Michael’s Dad,
John Johnson, died from
malignant mesothelioma. MJ watched as his Dad went from a robust and wiry mountain biker to a
cancer patient curled up in a lounge chair desperately struggling to breathe,
like a fish out of water. MJ learned about a new kind of suffering, the
stupid kind, the kind that takes but doesn't give, and begets only
On Saturday, MJ returned to the field of battle. Wearing his “
Breakaway from Cancer” kit, in a tough pro race, he had made the breakaway, and his chances
for winning looked very good. But bad luck struck. He flatted. Game over.
Dejected, but not defeated, he suited up the next day for one of the grittiest
criteriums in the country at the Redlands Classic.
“No excuses,” he kept repeating, mantra like, as MJ lined up
under forboding grey skies for the start of a technical, 50 minute criterium
in downtown Redlands. Fittingly, the greatest criterium rider in U.S.
cycling history, Davis Phinney, gave a send-off speech in which he celebrated
the primal joys of watching his son carry the family torch. Davis has
progressive Parkinson’s disease. His son, Tyler, is one of the fastest
time trialists in the world with a very bright future.
The gun went off. The pack bolted. The winds picked up as the skies grew
darker. A storm was coming. Ten minutes into the race, bad luck again
struck MJ. He broke a spoke on his front wheel. Frustrated, but determined,
MJ pulled into the pit and grabbed a new wheel. When he re-entered the
race, MJ’s focus took on an all new intensity.
“I wasn’t racing for myself,” he recalls. “I was
racing for my Dad. What I’d normally call ‘pain’ –
the fatigued legs, the gasping lungs – were no longer painful. They
were simply a reminder that I was going for it, pushing myself, going
MJ attacked. Against all odds. One man against 90. By his own accounts,
not a textbook move. “I still had 40 minutes to go,” said
MJ. “Normally it would make
no sense. But today was different. I went into that sort of out of body ‘zone’
that people dream about. ”
Zone indeed. MJ pounded off the front, pedaling through each sharp turn,
stomping out of the saddle to regain speed, carefully monitoring his gap
on the hard charging field. With five laps to go, the crowd of 3,500 was
on it’s feet, sensing that this move was no fluke. It wasn’t
for show, or fleeting glory. This was real.
“I kept asking for strength. Asking myself. The skies above. The
crowd. Even the trees.,” MJ revealed, in a whisper. “There’s
a spirit out there. I know my Dad’s apart of that, and I was tapping
into it, like I never have before, and may never again.”
The spirit moved him and kept MJ in full gallop all the way to the line.
He crossed the finish line, raised his fist, and kissed his Dad’s
dogtags that had been dangling from his neck. Twenty seconds later, the
peloton sputtered in, spent, as the skies opened up and the gutters filled
MJ had pulled off the unthinkable – against the odds, if not better
judgment, he attacked, opened a gap, and held it for more than half the
race against a field of raging chasers to whom both “gifts”
and “giving up” were sacrilegious.
But was MJ “alone?” “It was a solo V,” the powerfully
built former fullback said, carefully choosing his wordw, as if entering
unchartered territory. “But I wasn’t alone. My Dad was with
me. My family was with me. My Mom, who had always come to my races with
Dad. All cancer survivors were with me. Heck, your brother [David Worthington]
was on the corner giving me splits and cheering for me. Your Dad was with
Michael “MJ” Johnson dedicated the win to his Dad, all mesothelioma
survivors, and their families. MJ is sponsored by Amgen’s
Breakaway from Cancer initiative and the
Pacific Meso Center
, a non-profit medical foundation whose mission is to create new therapies
that will convert meso into a chronic but not fatal disease.