Thursday, July 12, 2007

Story - Paul Ruhlman

You ever do a race and it's titled something like "The Someone Someone Memorial"? And you just go and race and see how you do and focus on your finish and hydration and heartrate and power and all that stuff. And you go home.

That Someone Someone loved cycling so much that at some level someone, perhaps a family member or a good friend, decided to sponsor a race in Someone Someone's name. And if they didn't do that, perhaps that race wouldn't have happened.

Next time you do a race like that, ask who that Someone was. Although they may not have been famous in a Time Magazine sense, they probably affected a lot of racers around you now, either directly (that Someone raced with your peers) or indirectly (that Someone raced with people who raced with your peers).

A big "Someone" race is the Fitchburg Stage Race, a race held in Art Longsjo's memory.

Interestingly enough there happens to be a "memorial" race this weekend - the Donovan-Ruhlman Naugatuck Criterium in Naugatuck, CT.

The senior Donovan I never knew - his son Scott was a very strong Cat 2 by the time I started racing and he was definitely "old". In other words, he wasn't in high school anymore.

The other name though...

I'm sure that no matter what your age, you'll think about times when you were younger and think, "Boy, was I naive." As a young Junior (in other words, I was barely a Junior in high school), I didn't realize some of the magnitude of the races I was entering. I just checked out Velonews for upcoming events, asked the guys on the team what race they were doing, what it was like, and I'd sign up for it. If the entry was too much then I'd skip the race.

To prepare for events my main training ride was the weekend Oscar's group ride out of Westport. My specific training varied depending on the upcoming race. If it had a climb, I'd go do climbs. If it was fast, I'd, well, I'd go do climbs fast. And if it was a road race, I'd do long rides. With climbs. Of course I'd have to race down Route 7 as fast as possible, drafting trucks or cars or whatever I could find, just because it was so fun. But I "worked" on climbing.

One race in particular seemed to be actually doable, the Cornwall Road Race. It had just one real climb, the climb wasn't that long (perhaps a mile plus), and it started about a hundred yards from the start. None of this "climbing after racing for 15 minutes". Just go and climb, at least on the first lap.

As young as I was, an even younger (I think 14 at the time) Junior named Paul came up to me and asked what gears I'd be using. I ran a 15-21 almost straight block with 53x42 rings (Junior gears). I thought he was asking me for advice and I really had no idea what gears would be best - I figured if I couldn't go fast enough in the 21 that'd be it. Secretly I was thinking that I could climb in the 19 and perhaps attack in the 16 or 17.

"Do you stand or sit when you climb?", Paul asked.
"Um, I usually stand", I replied.

Actually, I read somewhere if you stand, you should stand about 2/3 of a climb and sit the other 1/3. And the given rule is if you stand you can use a cog one tooth smaller. But I figured that was splitting hairs and I didn't need to complicate this kid's life with minor details.

"Oh, that's good. You need a 22 if you sit."


"Who is this joker?", I thought.

A one tooth difference? What's he talking about?

I forgot about this know-it-all kid in my preparations for the race. And we took off and we hit the climb. When I was standing on the climb I felt fine. But as soon as I sat down the gear was just too big. And I started drifting backwards when I sat down. So I stood as much as possible - but I'd almost blow, have to sit, and drift backwards. I think I made the climb once, maybe even twice with the field. Eventually I succumbed to the inevitable and drifted right off the back.

It seemed like when I sat, well, the gear was too big.

Maybe by a tooth.

I paid attention to Paul after that. Quiet kid, not really chatty. He had some very powerful teammates - a new kid named Rob Lattanzi and a superstar Junior Pat Morrisey. He and his Laurel Bicycle Club crew drove up to Greenfield, MA for the Greenfield Stage Race. One of the chaperon racers for his team owned a VW bus and they piled in there for the long drive up.

Greenfield was a major race back then. Two long road races in a row. I'd never done a stage race so I wasn't sure how my body would react to back to back efforts. In order to simulate consecutive race days I did a few Saturday and Sunday group rides, going hard on both days.

I felt it was doable.

I'd recently figured out some of the dynamics of riding in a pack. I wasn't very good at sitting on a wheel (ironic to hear that now, isn't it?) and it seemed like I was always braking to avoid hitting the guy in front of me. My newly found trick was to do the following - instead of braking if the rider in front slowed a bit, I'd let my front wheel drift to one side. In the team's group rides where the I knew the course and the pace was reasonably steady, this maneuver saved me a lot of energy. I'd rank it as my favorite new "tactic". Riding inches away from everyone was still a few years away but this was a start.

The first day was horrendously difficult. I'd never ridden on so quickly on such wide open roads. The wind seemed atrocious, and combined with the always-furious Junior pace, the field stayed single file for as long as I remember.

At some point, the rider in front suddenly slowed. I was mentally drifting and didn't see this happen and almost hit him. I moved to the side to avoid braking, pleased with my new skill. Unfortunately I scooted up virtually next to the guy so the racer behind me simply moved up and took my spot.

Suddenly, in a single file pack, I was out in the wind. Not good.

I tried to move back in line but couldn't, the racers zipping by quicker and quicker. I kept looking back and got ready to do an all out sprint when the last riders passed me me. Suddenly a gap appeared in the long line of racers. I looked over and saw Paul had left a big gap. He yelled to get into the line. I sprinted in, groveled for a half minute, and recovered. He rode up next to me and mentioned it's better to brake when it's single file, that slewing off the line simply invites others to take your spot.

Point taken.

Eventually I came off on a climb (big surprise) and time-trialed in on my own. One of my classic "I paid for a training ride where there are marshals at each intersection" rides.

After the race we met up with him and his teammates for food and race stories. He seemed tired and a bit disappointed so I asked him how he did.

"Seventh", he replied.

Seventh! Seventh was about a step below, well, maybe winning the Tour! Seventh! I couldn't believe it. And he was disappointed. I don't remember too much about what he said of the race but boy oh boy seventh.

(It might have been 4th or 9th which two other places he got while I knew him - I do know he placed in both Greenfield races and the Cornwall race).

The next day I got out there, feeling like a pro, wishing that perhaps one day I could do this more often. Race, eat a lot that evening, do a little mini-massage (I read about that in Bicycling), wake up, eat, and get dressed to race again. Bleary eyed, a bit sore, I readied my trusty Basso. I had no illusions of doing anything - I figured it'd be great if I made it for a while in the field before I got shelled.

And that's how it went. The field went single file, I blew at some point, went shooting out the back, then dragged myself over countless hills, rises, and climbs to get to the finish.

Disastrous from a racing point of view but definitely an experience for a kid who could barely drive.

Over the next year or so I saw Paul a couple times at races. Always quiet, always modest. I'd have to pry his results out of him. I remember him always doing well but honestly I simply can't remember other races we did together. He qualified for Nationals, something that all of us dreamed of doing (some overtly, some secretly).

He went to Nationals but never returned.

Apparently he was a passenger of a car that got involved in an accident (I'm not sure but I think the car got hit by someone else - they were in the wrong place at the wrong time). He was fatally injured.

For a number of years the Paul Ruhlman Memorial race took place in Meriden. My best and only placing there got me some money, $45 or so. After holding the money in my hand and realizing who was paying it out, I held out the money to the race announcer (a great Cat 2 himself) and asked him to make sure it made it into the Ruhlman fund.

I didn't know if he'd pocket the money or what (I didn't even know what the Fund did) but a few minutes later I got a visit at my car from an older couple I'd never met in my life. Mr and Mrs Ruhlman. I have to confess I didn't know who they were but they took care of that by introducing themselves as "Paul's mother and father."

They thanked me for my donation and asked how I knew Paul. I mentioned Greenfield and Cornwall and that, honestly, I didn't know him that well, he just helped me when he could. I felt a bit embarrassed as I hadn't meant for anyone to say anything, I just felt that taking the money wasn't right, not when it'd increase the cost of the race and therefore decrease the contribution to the Paul Ruhlman Fund.

This Sunday I plan to be at the Naugatuck race (work permitting). For the first time in recent memory the 3's have not been lumped with the 1s and 2s (and there are some stories about those races but they all end in me not doing well). Although racing with the big boys is fun when you're in shape, for me, right now, racing with the 2s simply means I'd be dropped in a few laps. A 3-4 race has some potential though. My legs aren't too great as evidenced at last week's New Britain race, but maybe they'll come around. Some double secret training might help my cause.

And perhaps I'll be able to make another hard earned donation in Paul's memory.


GOB said...


Naugatuck was always one of my favourite races, but I never knew any of that. A truly classic New England crit course. With a great back-story. Who knew?

Aki said...

Naugatuck for me was always a love-hate race. I much preferred the Meriden course but after a lot of problems with locals (bikes stolen out of cars, kids threatening to throw basketballs into the field, firehouse on the course) the race moved over a few towns.

It was good to see Sue and Guy out there at the race, weather notwithstanding. I paid my $27 for the day, apparently that was all I was due to contribute.

Anonymous said...

Hello this story was written last year, i am not sure if you will see this response...Paul was a very good friend of mine in high school and the first friend I had ever lost. It was an awful time for his friends and family but your description so many years later moved me so much. You described him to a "t". He was such a generous, kind and gentle person and I am so glad that people are taking part in this memorial race in his honor. Thank you.

Aki said...

Alicia - I get an email notification for every comment on this blog, although sometimes I pretend I don't. I'm glad you found this story about Paul and I'm also glad that he really was what I described. As I point out in the story, I felt like I didn't know him all that well but he always treated me well, respectfully, and acted with a maturity well beyond his years.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad you saw my response! Cycling meant everything to Paul and you are so right about his maturity. In high school, While we were all planning for the next "Keger", he was out training for his next race. All of us respected him so much and wanted to see him succeed, and he would have...which made it all the more difficult to believe he was gone. But, his dedication was a lesson to me that I have tried to use through my life...even 20 years later. It's really something that even now, he is an example for strength. it just proves he did more in his short life than many people do in a lifetime.
Anyway, thank you for listening and letting me blabber on your blog!


Aki said...

Alicia -

Thanks again for your thoughts on Paul. I never knew him outside of his racing, and the most time I spent talking with him was between the two days of the Greenfield Stage Race. I realized when I read your second comment that I don't even have a picture of him. I can say that for many years I tried to be like him in the races, quietly strong. But I'm not as strong and not as quiet. lol. I'm glad though that you found the post in the first place, I hope that it helped.


amy Ruhlman said...

This is Thanksgiving week and this is the time of year that Paul was involved in the fatal car accident. Somehow my niece found this and sent it to me. It brought tears to my eyes but made me very proud.

Paul's mom

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to let you know that your blog about Paul Ruhlman has a beautiful message in it.

We ALL sit in seats in theaters or walk down hallways in hospitals that are dedicated to someone's memory, or we take part in events that are named for someone who is gone.

You have honored Paul by your comments and your description. You have honored his family who loved him so much. And you have helped his spirit live on.

Thank you.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to let you know that your blog about Paul Ruhlman has a beautiful message in it.

We ALL sit in seats in theaters or walk down hallways in hospitals that are dedicated to someone's memory, or we take part in events that are named for someone who is gone.

You have honored Paul by your comments and your description. You have honored his family who loved him so much. And you have helped his spirit live on.

Thank you.


Aki said...

Amy - thanks for the kind words. I can't pretend to understand the loss that you felt, the feelings you went through. I'm glad that you found the post, though, and I'm glad that it made you feel proud of Paul. I wrote the post to illuminate the meaning of the Naugatuck race but I guess I ultimately meant it for those that knew him so much better that I ever did.

Gabriella - thank you too for the kind words. From your words and the others', Paul obviously affected people in a positive way. That was perhaps the best thing he could have left behind.

nico said...

Thank you for the tribute to Paul in words and actions.

I raced with him in those days too. We were roommates at the OTC in Colorado Springs in December 1985.

We were there through Christmas and there was a drawing for presents. Paul won the team USA skinsuit and I always thought how lucky he was.

Paul always kept us laughing. One day, during a classroom instruction with no less than Eddy B, the national team coach, we were told, in Eddy's thick Polish accent, to be "Strong like bull, eat like horse, sleep like baby."

Paul, from the back, added, "Fuck like rabbit" and those in earshot couldn't contain ourselves.

I responded to his relaxed, likable, demeanor and ready sense of humor, and regret that I didn't stay in touch.

It was only a few short years later that I went to a race in the middle of Connecticut, the Naugatuck criterium, only to find out when I got there that it was the Donovan-Ruhlman memorial race and found out what had happened to Paul.

I wish I could write that it motivated me to do well in the race, but I felt so sad and empty inside at the news. I'm not sure I even finished.

I see his teammate, Rob Lattanzi, regularly as he is a neighbor, former teammate, and regular club race competitor. I've passed this link on to him.

Leon Moser

Anonymous said...

Paul was truly an amazing guy. I was just telling my husband about him when I decided to google him. I found this blog as well. He will always live on in our memories. My last pictures of him are at a "keger" in high school. He is smiling and that is how I remember him. We were lucky to know such a gentle and giving soul.