Racing a bike hard won’t cure cancer. Racing a bike really hard and
even winning won’t cure it either. So what’s the point? Why
am I so proud and privileged to have won the gold medal with my friend
and teammate Michael Johnson in the Masters National Championships tandem
time trial last week in Prineville, Oregon?
I’ll tell you why.
Michael – MJ – and I have a bond. It’s not a bond we
wanted, because it came about only through unspeakably sad and wrenching
loss. MJ lost his father,
John Johnson, in 2012. I lost my father,
David “Punch”Worthington, in 2006. Both were taken from us well before their prime. These two strong
and swarthy former U.S. Marines were taken by cancers caused by asbestos.
Like so many others who have lost a father or mother to
asbestos cancer, MJ and I miss our Dads. We remember them for the way they fought back,
against the odds, to overcome their affliction with honor and dignity.
We remember how, despite the pain, and constipation, and bloating, and
tumors, and emaciation, they soldiered on, never giving up, and never
“My God,” we silently screamed, “If we had only a fraction
of their strength!” MJ and I were impressed and awed by the examples
set by our fathers. MJ’s a former professional bike racer. I have
a life-long passion for cycling. About a month ago we decided to compete
at Nationals to in some small way honor the life and times – the
good and the bad times – of John and Punch, respectively.
We hooked up on a bike built for two, aka, a "tandem."We hadn’t
ever ridden a tandem together before. We dialed in the bike (seat height,
handle bar position, etc.) literally an hour before the gun went off.
Admittedly, we were scared. What if we flailed? What if our rhythm was
off? What if we cracked, or crashed, or simply lacked the power?
Fear can be a very strong motivator. MJ didn't’ want to let me
down, and I didn't want to let him down. And neither of us could stomach
letting the spirit of our Dads down. We knew we had to give 110%. Neither
MJ nor I are wispy crystal gazers but we wanted so badly to believe that
by choosing with all our might to go “into the box” of pain
we would somehow leave our bodies and connect on that mythic astral plane
with our tough marine progenitors.
Our goal was to bond, to connect, to triumph, and more viscerally to smash
the 25 mile course record of 51.25. In short, our mission was to crush.
We knew it would come down to the last few miles, when our legs were loaded
up and the oxygen was scant and we were in the tunnel hurtling through
the blackness fueled by glorious sacrificial suffering.
MJ set a wicked pace. We went out hard and fast. MJ said later he kept
imagining his Dad, John, looking down with a smile. My thoughts went to
the river, the Crooked River, which meandered along our race course through
high canyon walls. Punch used to drift down this river in his big flat
bottom canoe, fishing, camping, drinking Hamm’s and, as he said,
connecting with his “spirit eagle.”
The last few miles, when we entered the tunnel, when the lights went dim
and the brain slowed down but the legs kept robotically churning, MJ and
I both realized this was a moment we would look back on, forever, whether
happily or not. We wanted “happily." Again, the fear kicked
in, forcing us to leave nothing to chance, and blow it all out. MJ could
barely breathe, I could barely breathe, but we each summoned the energy
to shout into the wind with conviction “John Johnson!” and
“Punch!” This was indeed our moment and we wanted to share
it with our Dads.
We crossed the line, wasted, but happy. We knew we left nothing on the
course, and if that wasn't good enough to win, so be it. I checked
my Garmin computer. “Holy Smokes!” We had averaged 30.1 mph
and recorded a time of 49.15, shattering the course record by over two
minutes. We later learned that we – “Team F.A.C” (F--
Asbestos Cancer] had beaten the second place team by four minutes.
No, we didn't beat mesothelioma, or lung cancer, or asbestosis. We
didn’t raise money for cancer cure research. And we didn’t
bring our Dads back. But for those 49 minutes and 15 seconds we honored
the memories of our Dads in a way we believe they would appreciate. We
did it the way that they had taught us -- fight hard for what you believe,
go for the gold and give something back. MJ and I lost our Dads but from
their loss we gained a brotherhood that will last forever.