And the last shall be first … to the defibrillator

First of all, a clarification: I did not come in dead last in the third stage of the Green Mountain Stage Race, Vermont’s arduous four-day Labor Day Weekend bike race. Why? I wasn’t in the third stage. I wasn’t in any stage. I wasn’t even a participant.
Now, if I were a participant, I would have come in dead last. Or I would have needed a defibrillator. Or I simply would have come in dead.
The third stage is a 65-mile marathon that travels from Sugarbush North to the top of the Appalachian Gap, via Warren, Hancock, East Middlebury, Bristol, and South Starksboro. (The pros race even farther.) Yes, the distance between Sugarbush North and the top of the Ap Gap is a couple of miles as the crow flies; it’s only 65 miles if you are a maniac riding in the Green Mountain Stage Race and want to pedal in the exact opposite direction of your eventual destination and scale a pair of gaps in a day.
Nevertheless, there are people in Bristol who thought I was in stage three last Sunday, and they were really quite supportive. What happened, essentially, was this:
After church here in Lincoln, I decided to climb on my bicycle and ride from my home toward East Middlebury. This is 25 to 30 miles roundtrip, depending upon how far you go, and none of it is especially arduous. There are two hills, one on the way back into Bristol and one on the way back into Lincoln, and they are both small. They are most assuredly not gaps. The whole ride takes a couple of hours.
I was vaguely aware of the Green Mountain Stage Race when I left, but I wasn’t thinking about its route. By the time I got to Bristol, I was. Suddenly there were groups and groups of cyclists coming toward me, pedaling hard in the opposite direction. They were going north as I was going south and they were going a lot faster than me. They were, I realized, the racers.
I continued on my merry way another 40 minutes toward East Middlebury, waving at the sheriffs who were helping to direct the racers, chatting with one who’s a friend, because pretty soon most of the racers were long past and I was in no hurry. The sheriffs thought there may have been a straggler or two, but the riders were well beyond East Middlebury by then. And so I turned around and started home on Vermont 116, cycling now in the same direction as the racers but very, very far behind them.
And that’s when I heard the first cheers. I was passing a lawn sale and someone yelled, “Hang in there, man, doesn’t matter where you finish!” At the next house, a woman in a lawn chair hollered helpfully, “And the last shall be first!” And as a car passed me, the fellow riding shotgun rolled down his window and pounded on the outside of his door as he reassured me, “Hey, Dude, it’s cool just to finish!”
For the next six or seven miles, people were encouraging me that I could do it, I could make it, and the goal was simply to survive. Didn’t matter that I was in last place.
It was actually rather uplifting, a moving statement about the human condition and our appreciation for the underdog. Suddenly I found myself pumping a little harder. I wasn’t in the race; I wasn’t even close to the racers. But I did not want to let down those intrepid race fans who thought I was the ultimate loser. It was a little like that 1979 cycling movie, “Breaking Away,” except for the fact that I look nothing like Dennis Quaid and I wasn’t a part of the competition.
When I reached my driveway, I coasted to a stop with my arms raised above my head in victory, and would have shouted “Vittoria!” or Victory! in Italian if there had been any signs of life other than my three sleeping cats on the porch. Still, it was a good race. I just wasn’t in it.
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on September 9.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “And the last shall be first … to the defibrillator

  1. EasyDoesIt! says:

    I give you a LOT of credit. Your own bike ride was impressive, even if Not the last leg of some crazy marathon. (65 miles)!? And, if it had been *me* on that bike, I definitely would have stopped at the lawn sale. Quitters may never win, but sometimes they get really good deals…

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