Miracles at the Mississippi
Life-defining moments are rare, but in the landscape of our memories they rise like mighty mountain peaks above an expanse of clouds that form the collective annals of our existence; the birth of a son or daughter, the death of a loved-one, your first kiss, finding your God. I experienced such a moment on the lush basin of the mighty Mississippi River, eighteen miles from TS 35 on the afternoon of June 20.
After what seemed like hours of stumbling about in a fog of self-pity and negativity (“No way I can make it to West Alton by the necessary time-cutoff”) I mounted the red dragon, having quickly dismissed the stealthy time-trial bike in disgust of its wretched performance, and somehow managed to convince my legs to move. I was barely making forward progress. Any slower and gravity would have caused the bike to stall and me to keel over like a metal duck in a carnival shooting gallery. Eighteen miles may as well have been eight-hundred. Out of nowhere, two simultaneous miracles usurped the seemingly inevitable narrative of failure. One involved my daughter, Seren, and the other, my fellow-racer, Frank Fumich.
RAAM race organizers recommend that close family members should not be selected as part of any racer’s crew. The reasons are twofold. First, for racing success, the focus of the crew and rider must be singularly on the mission – getting the rider quickly and safely from coast to coast. This singular focus is subject to compromise if the rider or crew is also concerned about making sure the family member is safe/having a good experience. In a race where every ounce of available brain capacity is a precious commodity, such a distraction is damaging to the mission. Second, your loved one will have a hard time watching you suffer, and there’s an awful lot of suffering. Even if never verbalized, the racer will pick-up on the concern experienced by the family member, and this will plague his/her psyche, again compromising the mission. The decision to include my eldest daughter, Seren, and my father-in-law, Hank, as crew members was clearly counter to the long-established standards for success of RAAM’s 37-year history. Yet on this sticky June afternoon when the racer, (aka, me), was obviously suffering greatly, it was my sweet Seren’s presence that spurred my inner drive and ambition to succeed against all odds.
As I bobbed and weaved my way forward in fits and starts like a child whose parent just removed his stabilizing training wheels, my cell phone rang. “Dad, where are you? I’m waiting for you here with Papa. Please get here soon. They have a fruit stand with fresh watermelon. You can do it Dad!” Through mistying eyes and a mouth so parched even the humid air refused to take-up residence in it, I managed to croak a feeble response into my hands-free, helmet-mounted bluetooth device. “I’m on my way, Seren. I’ll be there soon.” While contemplating what I just committed to, and there was no-way I was going to let my daughter down, I caught a glimpse of another rider and his white follow vehicle up ahead. I could barely make-out the number plastered on the back of the van; 525. It was Frank.* Without warning, a surge of impossible energy consumed my broken body and revived my sunken spirit. Legs, that just moments ago felt like useless appendages, began pumping like pistons, churning the red dragon’s drivetrain and driving me forward. “I need to catch Frank; I need to see Seren and taste that fresh watermelon,” I thought to myself. A self-created, speed-induced breeze began to refresh my sun-baked arms and face. Faster I pressed-on until Frank’s image grew ever larger and Seren’s beckoning became a matter of urgency.
I almost burst into tears as I pulled-alongside Frank, so happy I was to exist in the same space as a fellow-rider who had surely endured what I had, who had suffered in similar fashion the unforgiving punishment of days and nights with little sleep. “Frank! It’s so good to see you!” The pep in my voice surprised me. “Michael, you are looking so strong,” I recall Frank saying. His expression of encouragement was so genuine that I believed it despite the contradicting evidence of the past several hours. His compliment and his company gave rise to an ebullience I had not experience since consuming a cheeseburger at Pagosa Springs, Colorado, before tackling the mighty Wolf Creek Pass. After exchanging a few more pleasantries I pulled-ahead of Frank as the average speed displayed on my Garmin began to nudge upward. Misery was replaced by music now blasting from the little white dragon’s roof-mounted speakers. “Risin’ up, back on the street. Did my time, took my chances. Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet
Just a man and his will to survive……” Could my Team Red Dragon crew have picked a better anthem for this defining moment?
Reaching TS 35 as quickly as possible became my singular focus. Could I possibly make-it in time? There was no way of knowing. Arriving with dignity and determination to the banks of the Mississippi, a stonesthrow from Illinois, and hugging my dear daughter was the most important thing right now. She was the “Eye of The Tiger.” The procession of trees lining the road gave-way to an open expanse and in the distance I could see the cluster of a hastily-assembled RAAM encampment. Was that a watermelon stand next to our “mothership?” My grimace gave way to a broad smile; I made it. Whether or not I made it in time would remain a mystery for a while longer. It mattered not at this moment. Dismounting the red dragon and allowing it to drop gently onto the warm fescue blanketing the great river’s shoreline, I clamored-up the three steps of the 5th wheel. The door swung open, and before me stood my miracle. “Dad, I’ve been waiting for you. I love you.”
Join me next for Race-Reflections (Part 5); There’s no “I” in “Team”
* See Post-Race Reflections (Part 2) for more on Frank Fumich.