Changing Seats

“MEN’S A, COME TO THE LINE…” I heard over the megaphone as I was finishing my warm up. That meant that in a short 10 minutes, Men’s B—myself and thirty-something collegiate racers—would be racing another edition of the Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference Championships at Black Moshannon State Park. In prior years, that would have meant three laps with Men’s A or 64 miles of pure suffering on the saddle while struggling to maintain contact with the group. Today, however, only two laps would be completed as I had come to the realization that no longer can one dedicate as much time on the bike when studying medicine and thus, riding a longer race would have been just plain dumb. The officials described the course and rules as riders sought to find good positions before the start on the gravel path. As the whistle blew, I couldn’t help but smile. During the prior six weeks, I had been sitting for an average of 11 hours a day while studying for a medical board exam and the narrower bike seat was a fresh change.

We comfortably rode for about three miles while guys chatted about how they weren’t climbers and how hard the race was going to be, etc., typical of collegiate racing. After a few unscripted changes of lines by nervous riders, we began the long four-kilometer descent that would eventually be the reason our race would be over. I had done the descent many times and last year I had obtained a PR, which I jokingly attribute to my gain of weight courtesy of medical school. I think science can back up that claim. Within meters of the descent I realized I had made a mistake. Realizing that I am in what may be the worst shape of my cycling life, I decided to stay back to save some energy early in the race. The road surface was less than ideal with large pot holes at times and riders began to doubt their descending capabilities and made questionable choices such as slamming on the brakes, changing lines, and even going into the left lane of incoming traffic, a very dangerous approach when you have four kilometers of sweeping turns at speeds of over 45 miles per hour on 25mm tires. Suddenly, I found myself split from the front group and trying to make my way to the front, not because of ambitions, but because of safety. Thankfully, I made it unscathed to the bottom and the “rollers” began. That is to say, small steep segments of hills with beautiful descents overlooking Centre County’s beautiful landscape of small creeks and farms. Once again, while gasping for air during hard racing, I couldn’t help but smile.

As we made the 90 degree turn that would take us into the long climb, I nodded to the marshal protecting the intersection from incoming traffic, a sign that I was not so concentrated on racing as much as I was in enjoying the experience of being on the saddle again at Black Moshannon. “Black Mo” is a category 2 climb that spans 6.5 kilometers from the bottom of the hill to the roller segments with an average incline of 6%, but that has rollers that would make it almost 10 kilometers to the very top of the mountain. The view during a summer or early fall afternoon as your legs burn up it, is something I can’t describe with my lack of poetic prose. To be there knowing that you have a functional body, willing to cross the comfort zone instead of sitting down watching TV or studying is something I am grateful for. As we continued to ride up with the main group a few minutes ahead, I chatted, more like gasped, with two other racers about their ride experience up the mountain. Neither of them had done the ride before so I sarcastically joked “what a beautiful day for leisure riding” as our faces showed what some friends and I refer to as the “pain cave” face. One of them understood the joke and joked back “right?!!…”, the other one said “ I feel like I am dying” to which I replied, “if you can still feel, you are doing ok”.

We worked our way up as a team with the sole unspoken purpose of not being pulled from the race, which is to say that we were too slow for officials to wait for us to do another lap. As we approached the feeding zone, I looked for my fiancé who was nervously expecting to feed me for the first time ever. I noticed her blue sweater among the group of spectators and told the guys that I would be feeding so they knew and would not be surprised by the brisk exchange that feeding a bottle of water could be during a race. As I was feeling fairly comfortable after climbing for over 20 minutes, I took the time to blow her a kiss before managing to grab the bottle handed by her with such efficiency as that of an experienced soigneur. I was in a good place. Not race wise, as I was a few minutes behind the main group, but in life in general. I was slower because I chose medicine as a career and instead of putting hours of leisure time into training I was instead putting many hours reading books and lectures in an attempt to absorb as much information as I could. But I have always needed a balance and cycling is my escape from the routine that medical school can become, I couldn’t do it any other way.

While we managed to ride strongly on the mountain ridge before descending to the Black Moshannon Lake, I had one thought in mind, “if we get pulled, I am still going to ride another lap. This is too much of a great day to not do so”. What I did not know was that at some point during the race that took place after us, there was a bad crash on the initial descent. So when we made a 90-degree turn to ride through the finish line to start the second lap and the official waved us off the road, I immediately thought, “shoot, we are getting pulled…”. But something didn’t seem right. There were a large number of riders on the road, so I immediately thought, “this has to be a crash; we are not that far off from the front group”.

Indeed, a crash had taken place but not where the riders were on the side of the road, but instead a few miles down on one of the sweeping turns of the large descent. I heard people in the area talking about two crashes, one of which apparently involved oncoming traffic. At the time of this writing I cannot confirm the information, but many people were saying that the rider had to be transported by helicopter. The race was over, as all traffic lanes were closed and we were ordered off the course by the race directors. Nothing much had to be said, we knew it was a serious situation: the somber faces of officials and course marshals told the story.

Suddenly, everything came back into perspective. One day I may be the physician on the other side of the phone, obtaining a history about a fellow cyclist involved in accident. As I later went on a small ride with some old friends from college I couldn’t help to think about the injured riders. I do not know who they are, what happened, or what their recovery would be like. However, in my mind, I already wanted to be the doctor taking care of them. Even as I write this, I find it interesting that I wanted the weekend to escape from medicine before I start my third year of medical school and what I instead found was a deep desire to get going in training so I can promptly be that physician taking care of injured.

Mariano Garay
Penn State College of Medicine
Class of 2017

Editor’s note: There were indeed extremely serious and lasting injuries, but everybody was “ok” in the sense that no brain or spinal damage was found, and all eventually went home with their teams.

Cover photo by Burt Levine (PSU), Fall Ride to Black Moshannon.