It was about 5 minutes before the first mountain bike event of 2014 – the OMBC race at Mohican Cabins. The race director, Ryan O’Dell, was shouting several race announcements without the aid of a bullhorn. I was kinda listening, but I had heard most of this info a million times before. Then he said it…
“Your race age this season is whatever your age will be on December 31, 2014. Let me repeat, this is very important. Make sure you are lining up with the right division. Your race age is whatever you will be at the end of the year.”
My ears perked up. My focus quickly shifted away from race strategy and sprinting up the initial slope.
Was I in the wrong age group?
I am 39 years old, but I turn 40 on December 3rd (In lieu of birthday greetings on Facebook, please send beer. Just a suggestion). I had just assumed that because I was 39 throughout the entire race season that I should be racing with the 30-39 age group.
Sure. It wasn’t a big deal in one sense. All it meant was that I had to start two minutes later. I was going the same distance, but I was just up against a different set of guys.
This was a big deal for me mentally though.
I rode up to the front, where the experts were waiting to take off.
“Can you repeat that?”
“Yeah. Your race age this season is whatever your age will be on December 31st, 2014”
Shit. Part of my motivation throughout the winter had been to work hard, so I could try and win the Sport Veteran age class. I had been racing 30-39 for 5 or 6 years and I had finally improved enough to where that might be a possibility. Changing divisions would pop the bubble on that goal.
I briefly contemplated not turning myself in and staying in the 30-39 group. In that moment, I really wanted to stick with my initial goal. There was a good chance no one would ever figure it out. It’s not like we had to prove our age. It’s on the honor system. You don’t show your ID at registration. You just tell them what division you want to race in. No one checks.
Then I remembered a few seasons back. I was in 4th place overall in the Sport Veteran division going into the final races of the year when I discovered that the second place guy was supposed to be racing with the 40-49 year olds. I never made an issue of it, but I did feel a little slighted. He had ignored, or maybe hadn’t realized, what the rules were and now I was missing out on 3rd place, which sounded much better than 4th to me at the time.
I had to change.
I’m not one to obsess over birthdays. For most of my 30s, I could barely remember my exact age. If someone asked, it always took a second to figure out how old I was. But this year it feels different. 40 sounds old to me. Not old old, but middle-aged. This birthday was bigger than the others. 16, 18, 20, 21 and 30 are all milestones, but I don’t remember thinking about them nearly as much.
When I turn 40, I can no longer deny that I am a full-grown man. In my brain and my heart I feel young – like I’m in my early 20s, but slightly less impulsive. My sense of adventure burns deep and I like to think that I’ve held on to my youthful, open-minded creativity. I don’t feel 40 – whatever that means.
When I turned 30, I marked the milestone by riding the Washington Metro train system to every single stop. It took me over 8 hours. I spent the entire day alone watching the tunnels and tracks roll by in quiet contemplation. It was something that I had always wanted to do and when I lived in DC I was the only one I knew who had travelled the entire system. It was fun marking this big birthday, by checking this small goal off of my list.
But after that, I didn’t think about my 30s for the rest of the decade.
For my 40th birthday I have set the goal of running my first marathon. I’ve already started slowly building my mileage for it. I don’t have a time goal yet, but I don’t just want to finish, I want to finish strong. This 40-year-old will not go down without a fight. I am not ready to let the atrophy begin – aching joints, high blood pressure, arthritis. Go screw yourself 40. Jimmy ain’t ready.
I wasn’t prepared for 40. But, all of a sudden, I turned 40 nine months ahead of schedule. Real James was 39, but Mountain Bike Racer James was 40 and entering his midlife crisis three minutes before the start of the race.
In that moment I became a Masters Athlete.
I looked over at that sad lot of old dudes that I would be racing against. There they stood, one foot in the grave. I, the young 39 year old stallion, was going to have show them what youth was all about.
Ryan called us up to the line. “Get ready to start in 3, 2, 1, Go!”
It was the largest age division of the day and they sprinted off the line like a herd of zebras running from a cheetah. Meanwhile, I clumsily fumbled to get my right cleat into my pedal. Where were they going? This was not starting well.
Oh well, I’ll catch them in the sprint. Crap. I can’t pedal any faster. Why won’t they wait for me? I thought this was a gentlemen’s sport.
I entered the woods 3rd to last. It quickly became clear that these guys were hungry too. They weren’t going to lie down and let the grim reaper hand them a DNF. They were going to fight up every slope and bomb down every descent. They had no desire to hand the trophy over to the newest member of the tribe. We might laugh and have a beer afterwards, but now we were competitors.
The Sport Masters division wasn’t messing around. This was going to be tough.
I ended finishing 4th out of 17 racers in the division. Considering the poor start, I was happy with that. It wasn’t just the first race of the year, it was my first time on singletrack all season. I will keep training hard and try to improve on that.
My first Masters race was fun and I’ve had a few days to recalibrate my goals. I’m looking forward to racing this new set of men this season.
Further, I want to encourage all of you old guys and gals out there to get out and race. These races feature plenty of guys in their 60s and 70s and I admire them. They are tough as nails and fast as hell. Even if I’m not racing mountain bikes at that age, I hope I’m still challenging myself until then and beyond.
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Have you struggled with moving to an older age class? Let me know about it in the comment section. I would love to hear from you.
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