A Boulder in the Road: Phil’s Story (3 of 5)

by Alice Blackmore

Man smiles after finishing mountain bike race

When Phil, a prostate cancer survivor, entered the corral to begin the Tahoe Trail 50K mountain bike race on July 15, 2023, he didn’t expect his plans to literally go sideways. The starting whistle blasted at 7:00 am, and more than 200 mountain bike tires scrabbled to gain traction. After a quick ride through Northstar California Village, the bikers followed ski trails and mountain roads with more than 6,000 feet of elevation gain. The race ended at the lookout over the village. The thin air made it difficult to breathe.

Phil finished the race but at the 30-kilometer mark crashed. Making a quick choice between “lifelong friendship with a boulder or a casual acquaintance with a tree and the boulder’s smaller brothers,” Phil incurred a shoulder injury and a couple of cracked ribs. And just like that, his dream of tackling the Leadville Trail 100 MTB in August was shattered.

Phil will be the first to tell you we don’t get to choose many of life’s challenges. However, we get to pick our attitudes in how we react to them.

Man mountain biking on trail
Phil on the Tahoe Trail course

If you haven’t met Phil yet, you can read his story in An Ordinary Guy Living an Extraordinary Life: Phil’s Story (1 of 5) about his fight with prostate cancer and how he started fundraising for Livestrong. Phil made plans to participate in five bike races this year. His first race found him riding through the five boroughs of New York City in May, featured in Fulfilling Big Dreams in the Big Apple and Beyond: Phil’s Story (2 of 5). His second race was the Tahoe Trail 50K held on July 15. His third race, and the ultimate challenge, was to be the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, scheduled for August 12. Phil called this race his misogi.

Misogi is a yearly ancient Japanese tradition where a person cleansed their mind and soul by standing under an ice-cold waterfall. However, modern misogi is no longer about freezing yourself. Instead, it has evolved into intentionally designing a physical challenge that combines a low prospect of success with exhaustion of the body’s physical, emotional, and mental limits.

In Phil’s words, designing his misogi had only two rules: “make it next to impossible to finish, and in the process don’t die.” Done well, the misogi exchanges comfort for the rarified zone of the spirit. Phil trained for the past year for his misogi, the Leadville Trail 100 MTB, but now cracked ribs and a torn up shoulder will defer the effort until next year.

The Leadville Trail 100 MTB is an annual endurance event that brings out the most extreme cycling athletes. Livestrong is one of the race’s charity partners, and many cyclists dedicate their race to raising money for the cancer community. 2023 marked the 29th year that Leadville welcomed mountain bikers from around the world to compete in “The Race Across the Sky,” as it’s affectionately known.

Leadville, Colorado is a small city perched at 10,158 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains. Established in 1877, Leadville was once an affluent and booming silver mining community. After the city’s last silver mine closed in the 1980s, some residents took the opportunity to reimagine Leadville’s mountainous marketability.

A local miner and a business owner put their heads together and initiated a 100-mile running ultra-marathon in 1983. 48 runners showed up that first year, and only 10 finished. Over the next several years, the 104-mile race with a climb of 12,500 feet became popular, and a series of running and cycling races were added — hence the Leadville Race Series.

Colorado mountains
The scenic Leadville race route

Leadville Trail 100 MTB promotes itself as “the beginning of a new you — one that possesses the grit, guts, and determination” to rise above your greatest challenges and never quit. Not only is this sentiment appropriate for a misogi, but these words also fit the essence of Livestrong’s attitude. You might have cancer, but you can learn to live well with it.

Phil was training to bike the Leadville Trail 100 MTB miles to raise money for Livestrong. Why? Because Livestrong is there for you and your family if you are diagnosed with cancer. Livestrong is an organization that offers real support for the everyday problems of cancer survivors, no matter where they are in their journey. Your concerns are their concerns, and they meet you wherever you are. Livestrong’s programs and services include fertility assistance, personalized navigation support, and Solution Grants to cutting-edge organizations that are solving overlooked cancer problems.

Cycling number, cycling race bib, and finisher’s medal
Phil showed his support for Livestrong with his jersey choice for the Tahoe race.

So what’s Phil’s attitude about the roadblock to riding the Leadville Trail 100 MTB this year? He says that “it appears to be more of a speed bump placed in a way to teach a more important lesson than a roadblock.” Here’s how he feels:

“I am obviously disappointed. This is the third significant crash I have had in the last year. All three have injured, or reinjured significant body parts. I have been off the bike and in physical therapy for the last three and half weeks. The good news is things appear to be slowly on the mend.

The big takeaway I had from this incident was to reflect on whether I was humbled by the mountain and what occurred or whether I was defeated. At first, I certainly felt defeated. A year of training, anticipation, and preparation out the window. Another year older when August 2024 rolls around for the deferred race, with the inevitable limitations age imposes. After all, I will be 70 when I roll past the start line. Cancelling plans for what was to be a very special event. Letting my team know. Letting the family of the girl I was racing in honor of know. It was, in a word, very depressing.

At the same time, I was graced with a wisdom to reflect on a core question. Was I defeated and just plain foolish for daring to embrace such a big dream? Or had Tahoe humbled me?

Man participating in a mountain biking race

The main action associated with defeat is to give up. The actions associated with being humbled are to recognize my true insignificance in this life, hitting my knees, restarting the process, and asking for help. Then starting anew. Accepting limitations without allowing them to become excuses. Embracing the simple reality that injuries and exhaustion are constant, even if unwelcome companions of endurance athletes. That nothing of value comes without some pain.

In that moment, God gave me a choice. I could quit and fade into what Thoreau called ‘quiet desperation.’ Or I could be humbled and learn from the mountain, the bike, and the ups and downs of this very brief life. To retire into the dubious comfort of a La-Z-Boy, or acknowledging the momentary fear, inadequacies, and depression, accept the realities, ask for help and dare to live life in its fullest form. The choice was mine. Just like in my cancer, to accept the blessings in the speed bumps (literally) of the moment. Trusting God opened the door, designed the path, and would establish meaning. All I need is willingness, fortitude, and courage to suit up, show up, and walk through the door.”

Phil’s injury didn’t heal in time to ride in his fourth scheduled ride on September 10: the Livestrong Challenge in Austin, Texas. So, now he has his eyes fixed on his final race of this year, the Austin Rattler on November 4. This 20/40/60 mile race will have him riding in loops through the Texan countryside, beginning and ending at Reveille Peak Ranch.

Phil didn’t choose to have cancer or to be injured in Tahoe. However, Phil has chosen a path to follow, and hasn’t given up. “Like cancer warriors do every single day,” he says, “to make the effort again and again, and with no guarantees trust that whatever happens after that is in God’s hands. When viewed in the perspective, this journey I do not want to miss.”

About Livestrong Events

When you participate in a Livestrong event, you help cancer patients access survivorship programs and services. Whether you choose to bike, run, or walk, dedicate your miles to a loved one who has battled this disease. Challenge yourself. Challenge cancer. Challenge accepted? View our full 2023 event lineup.

About the Author

Alice Blackmore is a freelance writer who uses her nursing expertise to craft blog posts and health articles that resonate with readers around the world. When she is not writing, she is hiking, running, kayaking, or just hanging out with family. Read more of Alice’s work at InsightfulNursing.com.

A Boulder in the Road: Phil’s Story (3 of 5) was originally published in Livestrong Voices on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.