The Agony and Ecstasy of a Title Chase

I won a championship! After six punishing rounds, I earned the title of champion in the expert division in the Florida Endurance Race Series (FLE). My wife Tory encourages me not to qualify my accomplishments, but the truth is that the field for the entire series was not too deep. On the other hand, there probably was a reason for that. In order to take the title, I completed four 6-hour races, one sixty miler, and one fifty miler over the course of five months. Simply completing the FLE was a daunting challenge, one that not many wanted to put on their racing calendars. In addition, during that stretch I also raced three cross-country races in the Coconut Cup, finishing second in the 40+ expert class, and two local races. So that’s eleven mountain-bike races in five months.

I might also add that I never finished outside the top five in any of the six rounds of the FLE. In four of those six rounds, the competition was legit. And I won the two rounds where the competition was not as stiff. My purpose here is not to be defensive of my accomplishment but respectful toward those reading this—and you know who you are—who take on the best cyclists in Florida, week after week, in the Florida State Series and manage to finish the season on the podium. I’m not sure I’d want to compare myself to those beasts, the elite of the elite. They face a different sort of series with different sorts of demands and challenges.So now that I got that out of the way…

…I won a championship! I was disconcerted by how nervous I was going into the final round. I had a nearly invincible eleven-point lead. Barring some catastrophic problem, I knew the title was mine. But I nevertheless wrestled with some mental demons. Maybe that’s because a few weeks earlier I watched the final round of the AMA Supercross. My heart rate still accelerates when I think about the final laps of the both the 250 and 450 mains. Anything can happen in the final minutes of a race when a title is at stake. Tory soothed me with a mantra that played on repeat in my brain: “Be Dungey!” I’m twice his age, but I needed some of his precocious poise.

Three years ago, I went into the final round of the Coconut Cup with a seven point lead in the 40+ sport division. I felt confident because the race was on one of my home courses. But then the night before a deluge hit the area, turning portions of the course into a quagmire. It was going to be a mudder. Weird things can happen in the mud. My plan was to keep an eye on the guy in second place, maybe file in behind him when the course funneled into the woods; as the saying goes, keep your friends close and your enemies even closer. I didn’t have to beat him; but if he beat me, I could not allow more than six guys to get in between us. As it turned out, I got the holeshot, felt really good, and ran away with it. But I can tell you that, during the final lap, I thought I heard a million different noises coming from my bike, all produced by my imagination: “Is that the sound of a slow leak in my tire? Do I hear the cling of a broken spoke? Is my crank coming off?”

Two years ago, I entered the final round of the Coconut Cup four points down on third place in the 40+ expert class. I figured a podium was out of my reach, so I felt no pressure. It was just an ordinary race. Three miles from the finish, I overtook a guy in my class to finish third on the day. Little did I know at the time, that pass put me tied in points with the cyclist who held third place in the series. As the rules state, the finishing position at the final round breaks a points tie. So I finished that season with the unexpected jubilation of a series podium, while someone else was left heartbroken.

Those are the stakes of a title hunt. It’s something you build, watching it take shape with each round. You calculate possibilities with each race score. If things go well, your emotional investment increases as the season wears on. You feel like you have much to gain, but usually much more to lose. The pressure intensifies.

That is why none of my other accomplishments feels quite like winning a championship. Earning a Ph.D., writing books, and becoming a full professor required sacrifice and hard work. But they weren’t risky. Unlike a championship chase, they couldn’t be taken away from me in less than a moment. Those goals stayed put until I got there. A championship title, on the other hand, can be snatched from your grasp with one small mistake or one bit of bad luck.

By my thirteenth and final lap at Haile’s Trail, I had memorized the course. I knew the exact location of the final climb. Once I crested it, the words came out of my mouth almost involuntarily: “That’s it. I did it.” The fear of nebulous disasters disappeared, replaced with the dawning certainty of a title with my name on it.