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Michael Johnson Repudiates Suffering, Dedicates Redlands Criterium to Dad and Meso Patients

Michael JohnsonREDLANDS, 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 more misery.

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 bigger.”

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 with rain.

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 me, too.”

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.

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