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Cancer, hammers, and perspective

Consider yourself warned: this post is neither short nor shallow. Read on only if you like swimming in the deep end.

I wholeheartedly believe that no experience in life can realize its full significance until it is placed in context. Even the most powerful events are still somewhat abstract until they are seen in their proper place in the big picture. To that end, my trip to Tijuana this past weekend for my third Hope Sports/Homes of Hope house build cannot be fully understood until you know the circumstances surrounding it.

Life as a professional cyclist is awesome. I have so much fun traveling and racing and training, enjoying the endless opportunities it affords. But at the same time, it is so hard and requires so much sacrifice. Living on a foreign continent for the majority of the year is challenging enough before cancer comes into the mix. I’m an independent and solitary guy, so I usually do fine away from family for long periods of time, something I’ve grown used to after a decade of school and racing. As I discovered the last two years, the Atlantic Ocean is never bigger than when news of cancer’s resurgence arrives unbidden.

You may be surprised to think so, but I discovered this year that equally difficult to weather is news of victory over cancer. In April, our family learned that my dad was once again rid of the disease that defeats 95% of its victims within 5 years, a milestone that was just months away. We were overjoyed, but I found myself crying because my arms weren’t quite long enough to reach across the ocean and hug my family. I took a last-minute flight home and spent a week with my family, the last time I would see them until the season ended in October. I was also home to see Shane embark on his own journey through Mexico and Chile doing missions work, a match that was lit when I brought him along for last year’s build.

Life continued over the next several months. I was fully absorbed in racing and training and having a great time. On September 6, after finishing the last stage of the Tour of Alberta (a stage that our team won after executing a textbook leadout), I talked with my parents and learned that my dad’s cancer had returned. He was going back into the ring to fight this disease for the fourth time, only a month beyond the 5-year milestone.

News like this, as I’ve learned over the years, can affect me in one of two ways: it either renews my motivation and passion for this sport, reminding me of why I’m here, or I wallow in existential quandaries, aimless and distracted. This time around, it was the latter. I had good legs in the final races of the season, but my head was so far from the task at hand that I had no capacity to suffer. I managed to pull it together for my team in Richmond, but spent as much time as possible distracting myself from the torment of thoughts dominating my mind. I kept it from my teammates, not wanting to bring them down and wishing to avoid the awkward consolations that are part-and-parcel with news like this. I told my director, just so the management knew that I wasn’t just falling down on the job.

I had recently secured a 2-year extension of my contract, which is huge in this unstable sport, but I was overcome with doubts…What am I even doing? What is the point? I spend the whole year away from my family and friends, hoping that those relationships can survive a 10-month hiatus, and for what? The futility of bike racing is never clearer than when contemplating the force that is cancer. At the same time I was frustrated that, even if I could get home to my family, what power do I have? Jack squat, that’s what.

So I did what I do best: I bottled it up and gutted out the end of the season, counting the days until I could get home. I was thankful for my sunglasses and my tendency towards silence, so that my teammates didn’t notice the time I broke down on a training ride in Quebec when the news fully hit me a few days later. Yeah, it’s a glamorous life.

When asked what I would do with my time at home, I answered with “mountain-biking”. It was true: I was looking forward to a lot of time in the dirt. It was also the easy, comfortable answer. People who ask that question are curious which beach you’re going to or what show you’re going to see. It’s not fair to blindside them with, “Well, two days after I get back I’ll be driving my father to chemotherapy because my mother will be laid up after her shoulder surgery.” For the first week back, I was running around the house, my parent’s hands, satisfied that there was something I could do that provided tangible help. We learned that the chemo is working—the tumors are slowly receding, which is promising. I enjoyed seeing my father functioning at a level that would make you doubt the medical reports.

Soon it was time to return to Tijuana to build a house with dozens of professional athletes from a slew of sports. Our group was comprised of athletes from football, rugby, baseball, steeplechase, cycling, bmx, triathlon, powerlifting, motorsport, and Miss Nevada for good measure.

Aside from the excitement of sharing the weekend with so many amazing athletes, I was looking forward to seeing Shane working in his new environment. He was no longer a guest for the build; he is now on staff at the base, filling me with pride at his selflessness and heart. A shadow crept over the weekend as we learned that our dad was in the ER with yet another unexplained fever, some form of fallout resulting from the biological nuke that is chemo.

My first lesson of the weekend arrived before we even boarded the bus when I met Dan, the world champion bench-presser, whose intimidating and imposing chest of granite nearly blotted out the San Diegan sun, never minding the tattooed arms that made my thighs look twig-like. Then he flashed a disarming smile and shared stories with us for the whole drive. Yes, looks can be deceiving. I’d spent weeks preparing for the traditional Friday-night soccer game with hikes and trail runs, determined not to cripple myself like usual. A field full of hypercompetitive athletes playing a sport they don’t know well is a source of endless laughter, no doubt. I awoke the following morning with fresh legs, pleased with my preparation. My arms were sore, though…I forgot to train for the throw-in!

While building a house is still a fun and rare opportunity, I found that the novelty had worn off by the third time. In a way, though, that was freeing, as I was able to invest more time and energy in the family and observing everything else going on that I may have missed on the previous trips. I was swinging a hammer alongside the father of the family we were helping, whose energy and passion for the task at hand was unmistakably shared by his young boys, who were constantly looking for opportunities to assist. I could see that we weren’t building a house for a family looking for a handout, but rather for a family who simply needed life to cut them a break. Here was a guy doing everything he could for his family, but it just wasn’t enough, and there wasn’t a dry eye around when he finally broke down at the completion of the house.

In addition to the build, we had the pleasure of presentations by Drs. Ben Houltberg and John Ashley Null about emotional health in athletes and the dangers of performance-based identity, which provided plenty of food for thought about how we approach our respective sports and relationships, which are linked much more deeply than we might care to admit.

I’m a big fan of metaphors, and my mind kept recycling one in particular the whole weekend: The first task of the build was to cut the 2x4s that would become the frame of the house. I was working with Jenny Fletcher and admired her enthusiasm and the way she fully jumped into the task at hand. I was pleased to be there the moment that the build changed from an abstract project to constructing a family’s home, and she realized that the insignificant marks she’d just made on some wood were going to propagate throughout the build and affect everything we did from that point on. If the frame wasn’t square, we were in trouble. “I hope my marks were good,” she said just as the saw spun up. I spent the following days (and continue to, now) contemplating how such seemingly unimportant actions can have ramifications that we never saw coming. Just as I thought bringing Shane along last year would be a fun experience to share with my brother, I never imagined that it would completely change the course of his life–little pencil marks that did much more than I anticipated.

I’ve also come to better understand the importance of relationships—both for their own sake as well as how they affect my ability to do my job and life in general. I wanted to invest more in my friendships this weekend and was happy to do so, while also placing cycling in its proper place. It’s hard to stress about the coming season and training after seeing the simple joy of a loving family who doesn’t have to sleep on a dirt floor anymore. I’m more thankful for my family and the opportunities my parents have given me through their own sacrifices, and any scrap of time that I can spend with them. I feel free to fully commit to reaching my potential in cycling, but not so that I can finally feel significant; rather, I’m taking advantage of this amazing opportunity that I’ve been given.

Yesterday I capitalized on the great weather in Colorado with what I would consider to be my first proper training ride for 2016. I enjoyed the silence in the mountains as these thoughts swirled around in my head, achieving just enough clarity to put them in written form. I still don’t have everything figured out, but I have a better grasp on those same questions that caused me so much anguish in my final races of the year. My parting thoughts: you don’t have to go to Mexico and build a house to help others, and you’d be surprised at the perspective shift achieved by even a little selflessness.