Rud waits at obvious landmarks and forks in the trail. When I catch up, he rides off again, steering his mountain bike over rocks and roots or a log now and then. I follow, but each time, he’s quickly out of sight. I stop worrying about holding him up. I can’t ride any faster, I’m cooked.
At one break he muses, seemingly to himself, “I think this next section is really steep.” It is. I enter a rock chute dropping dozens of feet down an uneven surface partly covered by dry leaves. I flatten my body, my butt hanging well off the back of my seat, almost dragging on my tire. I’m trying to level myself with the earth’s gravitational pull, trying to keep from pitching over my handlebars. Halfway down the chute, I bail. I’ve pushed my luck too far. A crash on this feature will seriously mess up an old guy like me.
“I’m feeling (huff, puff) every one (wheeze) of my fifty-nine years.”
“You’re fifty-nine? You don’t look a day over fifty.” Rud actually amended his estimate a minute later but indicated that he assumed I was about fifty-three. I wish. Fifty-three marked the final year of my fit period. I began my downward slide after that. Plantar fasciitis, low motivation, poor nutrition, that year when my blood iron levels crashed. Over the past five years, I’ve really slowed down. This past year I rebounded some, but I’ve got a long way to go.
Something clicked during my ride with Rud. I decided to stop apologizing for not being able to keep up with people fifteen to twenty years younger than me. I decided to stop chasing faster riders and just enjoy my ride.
Just before Halloween, I signed up for a race—the Thursday Throwdown at Bulldog Bike Park—ten times around a one-mile loop. I fully expected to get lapped by more than half the field. What I didn’t count on was feeling like I was in the way. Constantly, I moved to the side, scraping my arms on the stiff-cut branches lining the trail. Or pushing myself through a tight section knowing that my slower pace impedes others’ performance. Hyperventilating after these bursts, I tried to catch my breath before the next bottleneck. I quit after five laps. I wasn’t having fun. Looking at the results, I realized I was one of the few riders over fifty.
I’m old for my peer group. Because I spent my twenties and half of my thirties abusing alcohol, I didn’t get started on the adult portion of my life until I was almost forty. Now my kids are teenagers while my high school friends Facebook about grandchildren. I coach Eli’s team with a bunch of dads in their early forties.
Countless times over the past two years—since I started mountain biking again after an eighteen-year break—I beat myself up for sucking wind trying to keep pace with the other coaches and the high school kids. I feel frustrated and embarrassed that I can’t keep up, causing others to wait. Suddenly, I realize how stupid this is. I’m not supposed to be able to keep up. Riding with the newbies—like the other few coaches over fifty—is where I belong.
In the middle of my ride with Rud, it occurred to me that rather than feel bad for lagging behind a bunch of “kids,” I should just be thankful that I’m still riding. I don’t need to burn through the woods and plummet down sick features that will break my rigid body if I misjudge a turn. The times I’m happiest is when I slowly pick an elegant line through challenging rock section or catch some controlled air off a well-placed root.
It might be time for me to seek out some new riders whose goals more closely match my own. Or at least make sure I properly set expectations when riding with a younger crowd. I’m pretty sure I’ll have a better time.