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#MyTri: Remembering A Mentor

For this triathlete, it was a cyclist named Mike, who struggled with demons.

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We’re bringing back #MyTri—where we’ll be letting triathletes tell their stories in their own words. To submit your triathlon story email with “My Tri” in the subject line.

It’s winter, normally the time when I assess last season and consider what my coach calls “the pockets of potential” for next season. Except not this year, because, well, yeah… It’s also when I remind myself that triathlon is a privilege, and to remember how I got here. Most of us took circuitous paths swimming, running, riding, or rehabbing our way to triathlon. And since few of us got here on our own, most of us had a mentor.

For me, it was a cyclist named Mike, who I met one winter day in North Carolina and with whom I spent over a decade racing bikes. He taught me how to train, how to race, and when to know that contesting a messy training ride sprint was needlessly playing with knives. Alas, he never cottoned to time trialing. When I bought a time trial frame with curved tubes, he put a sign on it reading, “Bent tubes for bent minds.”

But what should have been a lifelong friendship ended when, overwhelmed by psychological demons, Mike unraveled. I got the news from a mutual friend. “Mike took his life yesterday,” he said. “I knew you’d want to know.” As the details of his death accumulated, I pondered a cascade of memories.

First Ride. Winston-Salem, NC

I arrived on my second-hand clunker. Mike rolled up on an immaculate Colnago, the essence of cycling coolness. Red-haired, with cheeks that bloomed crimson under exertion, he had spent years as a weekend warrior racing among the lions of his day. He was relentlessly meticulous—this owing to being a jet aircraft mechanic—and I remember thinking that I should pay attention to this guy. Against the odds, we became friends and training partners.

Mike spent his last day working at a bike show held at the park where he had raced for years with the pro field in the annual Carolina Cup Criterium. Afterwards, he had walked with his bike, a book, and a 9mm pistol to the second turn on the course, an uphill sweeper that fades into the forest. It’s a quiet spot.

Tuesday Night World Championships. Lewisville, NC

Our club’s version of this weekly training race was 30 miles of teeth-clenched misery that we dubbed “The Puke Ride.” Halfway through, when a guy driving a pickup decided to punish us, I got the worst of it. Scrambled ribs, punctured lung, concussion, and a heart contusion. Mike escaped the carnage, holding my hand until the ambulance arrived. In the hospital, he snuck in a chocolate milkshake for me.

He was unusually well-read, with abiding passions for history, mountains, Eric Clapton’s music, and the road less traveled, having once crewed a 50-foot sailboat across the Atlantic. Like the triathletes I would later know, Mike understood the value of asking himself to do hard things and then struggling to get them done. A natural contrarian, his favorite pro wasn’t the ubiquitous Belgian, Eddy Merckx, but the stylish Italian, Felice Gimondi. “It’s pronounced ‘Fel-ee-chay,’” he would remind me. But all you really need to know is that he was a good, kind, and decent person. A cop on patrol found him.

Hanes Park Criterium. Winston-Salem, NC

When another rider’s bottle got loose, the crash that took Mike down drilled him face-first into the pavement, landing him in the hospital with a tracheostomy and his jaw wired shut. This time, it was my turn to visit. Unable to speak, he resorted to writing. When I started to write my response, Mike rolled his eyes, snatched it back, and wrote, “I’m not deaf.”

That quiet spot in the second turn was the end of a slide that left Mike beset by a cloud of demons whose furies defied the sway of reason and the influence of medication. There were real demons as well. When Mike foundered, the sharks in the airline hangar smelled blood and loosed a torrent of adolescent abuse. The delusions mounted, and his career evaporated.

Carolina Cup Criterium. Greensboro, NC

I rolled up beside Mike on the starting line as I was finishing the first of two sausage biscuits. Through a flurry of crumbs, I offered him the other one. Aghast, he declined. Not politely. Halfway through the race, I pulled alongside. “Hey,” I said, rummaging in my jersey and yanking out a greasy, paper-wrapped lump, “You want this other biscuit now?” Again, he declined. Again, not politely. Snack time on the bike with Mike was never quite the same after this.

When a good friend sails into the abyss, you do a lot of soul-searching. And even now, I worry that Mike died thinking that his friends didn’t care about him. But I later realized that most of us are just plain folks from Kansas, flying by the seats of our pants, and doing the best we can with what we have. Nobody can ever really know someone else’s pain.

Burlington Criterium. Burlington, NC

Technical criteriums were Mike’s stock-in-trade, and I watched as he worked the front of the field like a border collie, deftly moving riders off of wheels that he wanted. This wasn’t just instruction, it was performance. Me? My only Mike-like moment came when I bunny-hopped the curb and took the sidewalk to avoid crashing.

Things go wrong, they always do. “The human condition,” as a friend frequently reminds me. Most folks cope, but for Mike, small ills multiplied into unbearable grand maladies. At the end, I watched from afar as each day became for Mike what the writer Dorothy Parker once described as “some fresh new hell.” When the buffer between coping and collapsing finally cracked, Mike tumbled into a pit of cognitive quicksand.

Middle Teton, 12,804 feet. Wyoming

Mike taught me bike racing, so I taught him mountaineering. As the sun rose, we roped up and kicked steps with our crampons for hundreds of feet up steep snow and ice. I keep a photo from that day of Mike on the summit, cold and tired, but smiling nonetheless.

Oddly, Mike never quit the bike. But this was not the Mike who had mixed it so stylishly for years with the pros. Edgy and withdrawn, he persevered, riding alone for hours, still struggling to accomplish the hard things. It will be easy for cynics to scoff that someone who couldn’t hold a job and who tilted at unseen windmills could find the time to ride his bike. Once upon a time, I might have scoffed with them. No longer.

VeloSwap. Denver, Colorado

We bought two raffle tickets for a jersey autographed by “The Cannibal” himself, Eddy Merckx. When Mike won, he laughed at my smack talk about being unfaithful to Fel-ee-chay. But he kept the jersey.

With Mike’s world in freefall, I think that the bike became for him what the writer David Penney has called “a vessel of memory.” Alone among the discarded relics of a happier past, the bike remained the one talisman that Mike never abandoned, and I think that it allowed him to retain some shred of normalcy amidst the maelstrom. Who among our triathlete tribe hasn’t rescued a crappy day—or two days, or a week—with a long ride to clear our heads? Who among us, then, can fault Mike for hoping that this vessel might keep him afloat long enough to make it back?

Last Ride. Troutman, NC

We rode 50 miles through the countryside around the two-stoplight town where Mike and his wife had moved. Caught in a downpour, we soldiered on, old friends riding like the old days. I didn’t know it then, but Mike was about to encounter the whirlwind that would shortly consume him. Perspective would eventually arrive for me, but too late. I never saw him again. Nobody from the airline hangar ever called his wife.

I often wonder how Mike would have reacted to being credited as a mentor. My guess is that he would have been perplexed, partly out of humility, but also because he equated time trialing with being chained to a treadmill while being force-fed a bag of laxatives. But triathlon proved a logical outlet for everything I had learned from him. Race management, nutrition, equipment, easy days, and the list goes on. All of it sprang naturally from the years spent following Mike’s wheels.

Lasting Memory. Boise, Idaho

Long removed from the winter day when Mike appeared on that Colnago, my wife and I have left North Carolina. But even now, his ghost echoes down the years. We recently saw his former wife; she is remarried, happy, and living in Colorado, where she rides her bike most days. I hope that this would bring Mike some measure of peace.

As for me, when I look at that Merckx jersey—a gift from Mike’s wife—I know that I never held the answers that would have saved him. People, like buildings, can have load-bearing beams that unexpectedly give way. In the end, I am still plain folks from Kansas, still flying by the seat of my pants, and still doing the best with what I have. So, I guard the memories, which remind me to take care of my friendships, to be gracious, and to keep struggling to do the hard things. I hope that this would also bring Mike some measure of peace. It seems the least I can do for a friend who helped me get here.

Marshall Ellis lives and trains in Boise, Idaho.