I only have vague memories of it, but my mother tells me that we actually rode together in the first HHH. That was in 1982, when the Wichita Falls Bicycle Club founded the ride – naming it with a cool “triple-entendre” referencing the hundred-mile course, the hundred-degree heat, and the city of Wichita Falls’ hundredth anniversary. If I remember correctly (and I need to call mom and ask), we rode one of the very short “family” distances.

I was born in Wichita Falls (on SAFB, actually), and lived there until our house was destroyed by the big Wichita Falls F4 tornado in 1979. After that we spent a year or so living in first a tiny travel trailer, then later one of the government-issued trailers dropped on a piece of land owned by a guy my father knew. It wasn’t exactly a great time. The kids there were pretty vicious. I remember getting shot with a pellet gun once by one particular kid, though I eventually paid him back by convincing him to piss on an electric cattle fence. (Not) good times.

The 1979 "Terrible Tuesday" tornado. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

The 1979 “Terrible Tuesday” tornado. Photo courtesy of NOAA.

Eventually, with a lot of work and help from a number of kind people, we managed to clean up and sell the remains of our house (slab and part of the frame) and buy a place in Burkburnett, an outlying community. In junior high school there, I met my friend Kerry, whom I’m every bit as close to today as I was then. Know how, as the years click by, some people grow away from you, yet some people stay just as close, the differences feeding rather than diminishing the friendship? Kerry and I are the latter, and we’ve been friends ever since.

After high school, I moved to Florida to attend the University of Central Florida, but without a reason to be there, I didn’t perform well. After a few years I ended up on academic probation, though I continued attending classes at various community colleges. During my time in Orlando, I met the woman who (at the time) ran Space Camp, Florida, and she offered me a job as a camp counselor. It was a good fit: I had attended Space Camp in Huntsville five times as a kid and was (and am) an avid space geek. So with the shift from university to college, I also moved from Orlando to the coast, living on-site in a Space Camp dorm and around the Cocoa/Titusville area with guys from work.

During this time, Kerry was having a more successful run at Texas Tech, and one summer I helped him get a job at Space Camp so we could spend the summer together. He worked as a counselor right as I took a job shuffling tourists into the Shuttle to Tomorrow — a full-size mockup of a Space Shuttle orbiter with a theater in the cargo bay — and doing tours of the camp’s training facilities. The upshot of this was that Kerry and I got paid on alternate weekends. After said paydays, we promptly blew it all on margaritas, wings, and other fun. Essentially one of us was always in debt to the other one; whoever had the cash paid.

We called it the "Shuttle to Nowhere" since it didn't move and the tourists first questions was "is it real?"

We called it the “Shuttle to Nowhere” since it didn’t move and the tourists’ first question was “is it real?”

Eventually, though, I realized my life wasn’t going anywhere quickly; though it was a lot of fun sometimes, you don’t get ahead much in life on $175/week plus all the food you can talk the cafeteria ladies out of. I’d managed to convince Midwestern State University — based on some vagaries in the early automated transfer of transcripts between colleges – to accept me despite my academic suspension status, so at the end of the summer we packed it all up and headed back to Texas — but not after spending a couple of weeks sleeping in, ordering pizza, drinking too much, then deciding it really wouldn’t hurt to wait another day. Eventually we made it back to Wichita Falls, stopping at the last gas station a couple hours outside of town for gas — just enough to get us home, paid for with change we found under the seats. It was a memorable, if not profitable, summer.

Back in Burk, my mother took me in, and I (sometimes) attended classes. I still didn’t have a reason to be in school besides a notion that “college is good,” so I just spent a lot of money digging a bigger hole. It wasn’t a good thing. Kerry was still at Tech. We visited from time to time, mostly me heading out to see him, since there are a lot more places for college-aged kids to get in trouble in Lubbock than in Wichita Falls.

Once, though, Kerry came back to do the hundred mile at HHH. He was a competitive college cyclist, and having finished the hundred pretty quickly prior (while I was in Florida), he’d come back to town do it more for fun than to reach a specific goal. The 50 mile, 100 kilometer, and 100 mile routes all run through Burkburnett, so when he reached that point, he took a couple-mile diversion and rode over to my house. I was sleeping in per usual, and he banged on my window to wake me. After I’d detained him for an hour or more shooting the bull, he (not surprisingly to anyone who’s ever stopped at one of the Burk stops on the HHH) decided he didn’t want to suffer the rest out. He also didn’t want to miss out on the finish, so we loaded his bike into the car and I dropped him about 10 miles from the end. He and I kid each other a lot (good-naturedly)  about that day, but what I remember most clearly is that while I was sleeping in, he was out trying to complete a century.

The 100k HHH route.

The 100k HHH route.

A year or two later, some friends convinced me to try the ride. Kerry found a guy in his dorm that needed some cash and was willing to part with a bike — a mid-eighties Giant (right after the Trek split, I think), which Kerry upgraded with cast-off Shimano 105 parts from his racing bike. (He had an early carbon Specialized, which he’d brought to Florida with him, incidentally.) I think I paid like $100 or something for the Giant at the time. My friends and I “trained” together, which meant that we rode maybe three or four times, never more than a few miles. On “race” day we’d signed up for the 50-mile ride, but bailed out at the 35-mile point, having neither the fitness nor grit to finish.

Eventually, I was asked to leave MSU as well, my grades having dropped to an all-time low. At the time I worked for minimum wage as a board-op tending the music and producing commercials at a Wichita Falls “lite-rock” radio station. When I tried to schedule some extra work hours to make a few bucks, I made a startling discovery: after doing the math, I realized that even if I worked 24 hours a day I couldn’t make enough to get ahead. It was time for a change. I talked my way into a job at the airport making about twice minimum, and I worked hard at it. I wore a suit to work each day, even though my co-workers wore jeans and made fun of me. I learned as much as I could about the company and tried to become more valuable to them.

Later that year, I moved to Dallas with the same company, and over years I grew work-wise, increasing my value and my earnings. I met Audra, and we began our life together, which was a huge plus. Yet it wasn’t until Audra convinced me to hit the gym in 2009 that things really began to turn around. Losing weight marked the turning point for me, but it wasn’t the weight loss that turned things around. It was the insight it gave me into myself. I found out that a lot of the things I did and the things I liked no longer made sense to me, and I began to take responsibility for myself, to accept my goals and desires and to reach for them — to do things that mattered to me as opposed to doing what others expect or what “seemed normal.” 

Kerry was one of the early people to embrace the changes in my life at that time. As anyone who’s gone through life-shifting physical (and mental) changes knows, weird things happen with the people around you. Some become hostile, some are strangely friendly all of a sudden, and some just distance themselves from you. For me (and for many, I’m told) the shift in self-image happened much slower than the shift in outward image. It didn’t help that I’d decoupled myself from many habits, too, causing a huge change in lifestyle. Seriously, if you’d ask people about me before, they’d tell you what kind of beer I liked or how much I ate. It was a major part of who I was. So it was very awkward, because the people I thought I fit in with saw me as other, and the people I did fit in with, well, I saw them as other. In hindsight, though, Kerry always treated me with respect — far more than I had for myself early on. He was positive about the changes, not because it mattered to him what I looked like, but because for the first time I was starting to express myself, make my own way in life. He recognized this remarkably early, and during my initial weight loss period, he suggested that if I felt up to it, we should ride the 50-mile HHH route together.

Funny: most people who see someone with reasonably-low body fat assume that said person has some kind of sporting experience or background. With me, that’s definitely not the case. I may have spent time in the gym, but that doesn’t mean I can play basketball (I can’t), football (definitely not), or ride a bike effectively (working on it). 
When we decided to do the 50-mile ride, I talked to Mitch (my trainer then) about it, and he slowly transitioned me from elliptical and treadmill to stationary and spin bike. He rode the stationary bike with me often, and he gave me pointers on posture and riding technique. For example, he’s the reason I don’t ride “like I’m riding a bronc,” as another friend calls it when one rides knees-out. He switched up my resistance routine to strengthen my quads and other supporting muscles to avoid heavy cycling-use injuries.

But the first time I actually rode on the street was the day before the 2010 HHH. I’d been lazy about getting the bike out of storage, and it had some issues. Kerry flew into town and spent the morning going over the bike with me to make sure that it wasn’t too trashed after spending 15 years in dank garages and storage units. My first ride was in the alleyway behind the house, where Kerry explained that I needed to avoid a death-grip on the hoods in order to stay upright if someone hit me. We rode around the neighborhood with him riding what felt like two centimeters from me the whole time, getting me used to the idea of riding in groups. The next day we completed the ride. It was damn hard for me, but I did it. We did it. Together.

Waiting for the HHH start in 2010. Getting ready to roll with over 10,000 other is a unique experience.

Waiting for the HHH start in 2010. Getting ready to roll with over 10,000 other riders is a unique experience.

One result of my newfound self discovery was that later that same summer it finally dawned on me that my negative thoughts about college weren’t due to college, but due to me and my mistaken reasons for attending. Having had some success with blogging and podcasting in recent years, I had lots of questions about why online communities function the way they do — why and how people interact in online settings. I discovered that the University of Texas at Dallas offered a relatively-new program called Emerging Media and Communication, a sort of new media and communication mash-up that seemed tailor-made for me. I contacted the office and stopped by to talk with the department advisor, who agreed that EMAC and I seemed a good match.

Things were harder at the UTD admissions office, though. Looking at my transcripts, the admissions guy actually laughed at me. (No, really, as in “ha ha ha” out loud.) He said that unless I participated in an “academic forgiveness” program, where I’d forego the 80 credits I’d hard-earned throughout my crappy 7-year college experience (I was an A or F student for the most part), there was no way they’d admit me. At first, the experience shamed me, but having figured ways through university paperwork for far less valuable reasons in the past, I wasn’t willing to give up. My face flushed when I asked who actually made the decision for admissions. He gave me a name, but indicated that I was wasting my time. I came home pretty heartbroken. The same day Audra drove me down to Collin County Community College — where she taught part-time then and where she’s now full-time faculty — and they admitted me immediately. This is one of the reasons community colleges are so valuable: they understand second chances. Buoyed by that second chance, I worked with the UTD department advisor to register in some CCCCD classes that would transfer, and I continued working toward UTD admission.

In the end, the UTD admissions clerk was wrong. I wrote to the person whose contact info he provided, and I enlisted friends and colleagues to write recommendation letters for me. With all this information, the person never actually met with me, but she did approve my provisional admission based on me completing my summer CCCCD classes (and limiting my enrollment to 9 hours/semester). This limit was unceremoniously lifted after my first semester, and I went on to make the Dean’s list my second semester — and every semester since. (I was disqualified my first semester because you have to take at least 12 hours to make the list.)

In 2012 Kerry and I rode the HHH again, and this time I vowed to better prepare. Rather than spend my training time on stationary and spin bikes, I bought a cheap bike trainer and rode my actual bike — still the ancient Giant — albeit in front of a TV in an air-conditioned room. A few months out I realized that my cheap-ass bike shorts weren’t gonna cut it for another ride. They’d chafed holes in me during our 2010 HHH adventure, so I set out to buy some better gear. I also sprung for some shoes (which I still wear) and a jersey. Wanting to get out on the road a bit before the actual day, I joined a weekly  ”no drop” beginner ride.

By the time I’d done that 20-mile ride two or three times, I developed a gut feeling that I was going to stick with cycling this time rather than just gearing up solely for the HHH. Sensing this — and probably tired of listening to me whine about the ancient down-tube shifters on the Giant — Kerry pointed me to a single Shimano integrated brake/shift lever on eBay, and I won it for a few bucks. Again he showed up a little early, and after scoring a bit of cable and fittings locally, he installed the lever, giving me STI shifting for the back derailleur at least.

We had a great day at the HHH, deciding mid-ride to ditch the 50-mile we registered for and do the 100k instead. I was woefully underprepared. Things got especially tough during the last 15 miles or so when we headed back into Wichita Falls from Burkburnett along I-44. An article in a recent issue of Bicycling magazine called what we experienced “a headwind like God’s blow dryer.” Halfway between the two towns we saw probably 50 riders crashed out at a normally-abandoned picnic area off the highway, giving up not 10 miles from the end. We pressed on to finish, but at great cost. I almost fell asleep driving back to my mother’s house in Burk afterward, and Kerry told me that he dozed off with food in his hand at a restaurant with his family that night. At mom’s place, I slept, ate, slept, ate, slept some more, ate one last time, discovered it was Sunday already and headed home to Audra.

This year Kerry and I are riding again. It’s fascinating looking back at how the HHH has woven through my life. As a child on that first ride, I could never have guessed where life would lead me. When I drove Kerry to the HHH finish so long ago, riding a hundred miles sounded wacko crazy to me. I’d have laughed like the UTD admissions guy if you told me that I’d ride a hundred miles myself with Kerry, and I’d have probably full-on guffawed if you told me it wouldn’t happen until we’re both over 40. So many things have changed. I’ve moved past my negativity about college, graduated (Summa Cum Laude, departmental honors, 4.0), and am considering graduate school in the next year or so. Kerry is now Lieutenant Colonel George.

When everyone I knew put their diplomas up on their walls, I put this up in my office to make fun of them.

When everyone I knew put their diplomas up on their walls, I put this up in my office to make fun of them. Yes, it’s real. I’m a Mouseketeer.

By the way, that last part doesn’t surprise me nearly as much. Sure, It’s funny to think back about the things only a long-time friend would know — and keep to myself, by the way — about Kerry, follies we’ve all experienced. But it’s no surprise that he’s so successful in his Army career. He’s always been strong, compassionate, and determined, all of which makes him a natural leader.

Me, a happy graduate with Audra, without whom none of this would be possible. (My diploma arrived in the mail last week.)

Me, a happy graduate with Audra, without whom none of this would be possible. (My diploma arrived in the mail last week.)

Another change this year is in my preparation for the event. After joining a local beginner’s group training program in January of this year and completing my first sprint-distance triathlon in March, I started working one-on-one with a tri coach, who laid out (and re-worked on a week-to-week basis) a custom workout program for me to reach my yearly goals, one of which was this weekend’s ride. This year my workouts included focused interval sessions on the trainer, designed to build speed and endurance, plus outdoor rides slowly stepping up in distance from 20 to 100 miles, helping me to overcome and understand everything from saddle sores and hand numbness to nutrition and hydration.

Since January of this year, I’ve put approximately 700 hours into running, biking, swimming, and lifting. More than 170 hours of that have been on the bike alone, and I’ve averaged around 500 miles/month on the bike specifically since June. This work culminates in where I am today, prepared and ready for the ride this Saturday.

TrainingPeak's complex Performance Management Chart. Short version: think of the blue line as my "fitness."

TrainingPeak’s complex Performance Management Chart. Short version: think of the blue line as my “fitness.”

Having solidly completed a tougher century in just-as-hot weather already, I’ve already checked “rode a hundred miles” off my bucket list. So I sat down with my new tri coach yesterday — the coach I started with in March moved recently, and I switched a couple of weeks ago (more on this later) — to discuss goals for Saturday’s ride. I suspect I could set a pretty challenging time goal — and meet it! — if that’s what I want. But what I really want is to comfortably complete something previously unimaginable in celebration of how much more I love my life now than I ever have. My coach translated those goals (and some others applicable to my future goals as a budding endurance athlete) into this:

  1. Have a great time.
  2. Finish feeling tired but happy
  3. Manage effort — learn to make corrections as I go to ensure achievement of goals #1 and #2.
  4. Pee more.

There’s more detail, of course, but I’ll discuss that in my race report later. For now, I’m going to enjoy walking around on legs that feel more solid than they ever have and anticipating Saturday’s ride, not with fear and concern like in past years, but with the happy anticipation of spending time with friends doing something awesome.

The physical and mental growth I’ve experienced so far are bound together, inseparable. If my journey hadn’t started at the gym, I don’t think it would have continued into the classroom — or onto the course of the half-Ironman I put on my “A” race list for next year. If not for those experiences, my life wouldn’t include many of the wonderful people that I’ve met — or reconnected with — in the past few years. I’m neither done digging into the mess that is my life nor finished fixing my own personal inadequacies. But when I cross the finish line of the 100-mile HHH course this weekend, I’ll be thinking back about all the joy along the way and what’s to come.