Thursday, November 26, 2009

I Won the Race--Story in the New York Times "At War" Blog

The race went off fine. My runner and I won the team competition. And the story is on the "At War" blog in the New York Times!!
http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/

Here's the story. Photos tomorrow.

Among the hundreds of things I miss about home during my year in Iraq is the Turkey Day bike race in Lancaster County, Penn. This unofficial final race of every season draws 50 or more racers from around the county, and it shows which cyclists kept up with their fitness routines since the end of the season in September. So when I finally got a chance to organize a bike race on Tallil Ali Air Base after six months here, I wanted it to be on Thanksgiving Day.

As far as anyone on the base knows - and there are civilians who have been here since late 2003 - no one has ever organized a bicycle race at Tallil base, or as the Army calls it, Contingency Operating Base (COB) Adder. To the purist, the Task Force Diablo Biathlon was not exactly a bicycle race, but bikes raced in it and bikes crossed the finish line, so it was a bike race.

A biathlon was also an easier sell at Garrison Command because the cyclists don't ride in packs. In July I tried to organize a race for Labor Day weekend. I had a promoter, Rich Ruoff, who put the race on his Web site and was going to handle registrations online. Bike Line of Lancaster gave me two boxes of prizes. I could get medals from the KBR people who organize the running races. Everything was set, but then I met with a sergeant major (who has since left) and the race was over before it started. He wanted me to guarantee participation of at least 100 entrants and guarantee their safety - a tall order for a bike race.

The current garrison sergeant major was stationed in Italy and rides a Colnago road bike himself, so he was more amenable to hosting a race. Early in November, we had a meeting at Garrison, got the green light and started to put together road guard crews, medics and advertising.

Everything was in place, then the day before the race it rained. Real rain. After six arid months here the roads were awash in mud. Tallil has about 20 squat, dirty trees in 20 square miles of base and no grass. As soon as it rains, the armored trucks and fuelers with their four-foot-high tires drag mounds of mud onto the road. I rode that morning and found myself and my bike caked with mud by the end of the ride. I thought the race might be canceled. But by afternoon the sun was out, and an east wind was drying the mud.

We had both team and solo racers. The really cool people race solo. (I have a heel spur and raced as part of a team.) Being half of a team also solved a problem I had with organizing a bike race and riding in it. I was worried about winning my own race. But since I was in the "less cool" category I did not worry. We also kept the distance short -5k run, 15k bike - which favors the runners.

At 5:00 a.m. I walked the ¼-mile to the start/transition area at the House of Pain gym. I walked both of my bikes because my commander, Lt. Col. Scott Perry, was borrowing my single-speed mountain for the race. By the end of the race he wished it had gears.

The coffee shop is just 200 meters from the House of Pain so I could start the day caffeinated. The road guards started arriving right away and the medics followed soon after. By 5:45 there were only 20 competitors. Five minutes later we had the safety briefing and I gave the race instructions. I thought I was very clear. But not everyone listened.

At 6:10 a.m., 30 racers started the 5k run. Ten were doing only the run. Six of us stood at the side of the road and watched the runners disappear in the pre-dawn gloom of this cloudy morning. We were the riders in the team event. Around the edge of the House of Pain parking lot, leaning on the concrete blast walls, sat two dozen bikes - from a perfectly clean 20-speed Giant carbon road bike with bladed spokes to a $100 mud-covered PX special.

After the runners left, I did a few sprints to get warmed up. There's just no way to be a race organizer and warm up. As the race timing clock neared 18 minutes, my partner, Sgt. Derek Miller, made the final turn on the 5k run. When he finished, I took off riding as hard as I could into a 10mph east wind. Our main competitors were a pair of Air Force security police. Their runner was nearly a minute behind mine, but their rider had gears and I was on a single-speed road bike. As it turned out, the only other rider I saw was the guy on the 20-speed Giant. He was coming toward me when I was just past half way. He yelled, "Am I going the wrong way?" I said yes and kept pedaling. He won't do another race without riding the course first.

At 50:12, I was the first finisher. The Air Force team was two minutes behind. The next finisher was the overall solo winner, Maj. Joel Allmandinger, followed by two more solo competitors. Their race for fourth was the best race of the event. The two riders are both colonels, Colonel Perry, who commands the aviation battalion, and Lt. Col. David Callahan, the deputy commander of the armored brigade at COB Adder. The pilot beat the tanker in the run, but Colonel Perry was on a single speed mountain bike. He was O.K. on the first part of the course riding into the east wind, but on the south side of the course the tank commander could change gears and was going 6 or 7 mph faster with the tail wind. Colonel Perry got passed on the south side. Colonel Callahan stayed ahead until the finish.

After the race I handed out the helmets, gloves and water bottles from Lancaster Bike Line and the medals from KBR. I am hoping we can do one more race on December 19th.

Sgt. Neil Gussman rejoined the Army in 2007 after a 23-year break in service. He blogs every day about his experiences as a 56-year-old soldier at http://armynow.blogspot.com. Sergeant Gussman is a Category 3 masters racer. He has done more than 120 races since he turned 50, including three while he was home on leave in June.