Wednesday, June 17, 2015

My 50th Birthday

My mother-in-law made a birthday card for me with this graphic on the front cover.
Last night the phone rang shortly after midnight. That can’t be good, right? That’s never good. But this time it was OK: it was my sister-in-law calling to wish me a happy birthday. She’s one day older, and when she called it was still June 16 in California. We were in a 2-hour window during which birthday greetings were appropriate for each of us within our respective time zones.

Fifty years ago today, at 2:44 p.m. Eastern Time, I was born at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. It was a Thursday. I was 21.5 inches long and I weighed 8 pounds, 1 ounce.

In 1965, a typical 50-year-old man in southwestern Pennsylvania was someone who had gone right from high school into military service and then into a steel mill or a coal mine. His body was already failing due to harsh working conditions, cigarettes and alcohol. He had been “old” since his mid-30s and would be dead before he reached 70. I grew up around such men. I was respectful of them, sometimes fearful of them, and always determined not to end up like them.

I arrive at 50 as a member of a generation whose lives our fathers and grandfathers could regard only as easy. We have lived in peace and relative prosperity. Fewer of us perform manual labor and fewer of us smoke. We know more about exercise and nutrition. On balance, we have had better healthcare throughout our lives. At 50, many of us are still capable of athletic performances that our forebears could not have imagined.

My birthday ride was 50 miles out-and-back on the Eisenbahn State Trail, averaging 17.1 mph on my cyclocross bike. That was a solid effort, but it wasn’t the ride I wanted to do. A couple of years ago as I considered the approach of my 50th birthday, I thought it would be cool to return to Pittsburgh and then to ride the Great Allegheny Passage to Washington DC, 100 miles per day for three days. It would have been a worthy challenge, but I just couldn’t make it work. Maybe next year?

June 17 has been a ill-favored day in history: the Watergate break-in, the low-speed OJ Simpson highway pursuit, the birth of Barry Manilow … I could go on. But I am honored to share my birthday with two of the greatest bike racers in history: Eddy Merckx (70 years old today) and Sven Nys (now 39).

Turning 50 is an accomplishment not everyone can claim. I have lived longer than John F. Kennedy (46), Elvis Presley (42), John Lennon (40), Martin Luther King (39), Roberto Clemente (38), Lou Gehrig (37), Marilyn Monroe (36), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (35), John Belushi (33), Jim Morrison (27), Jimi Hendrix (27), James Dean (24) and Buddy Holly (22). Clearly, staying away from assassins, drugs, sports cars and airplanes has helped, but as the years continue to accumulate I’m going to praise cycling even louder. Ultimately, it may not extend my life beyond a normal span but it will continue to extend my youth.

One of my racing rivals is a guy from Illinois who always tells me—perhaps only in jest—that his goal is simply to outlast everyone, to win by being the only man in his age group. Screw that. I don’t want to be 1-of-1. I want my friends to accompany me through our 50s and beyond, and I want to kick their asses. There’s more to accomplish and this is no time to slow down.

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