By Christopher Cudworth
It is important to relate the following anecdote shared by Tom Burridge about a recent cycling experience.
“I was entered in a cycling criterium and did not do a proper warmup,” he chuckles. “So the first five miles were awful. I was out of breath and wondering every second whether I’d get dropped. We were flying along and it was still bad at 10 miles. I was just hanging on, trying to keep it together. Finally at 15 miles things started to come together and I actually got to the front and did a few pulls. I actually finished with the sprint at the end.”
Cyclists of all levels can appreciate the truth in that story. All of us who have cycled for years or have taken it up later in life know that cycling can be the most unforgiving of sports. Like they say, “When you’re wrestling a gorilla, you don’t quit when you’re tired. You quit when the gorilla gets tired.”
So the suffering and pain is universal. It occurs at all levels. Even with formerly world class athletes.
A nice pedigree
Which is what Tom Burridge once was as a runner. A former American record-holder at the Half-Marathon distance (at 1:04+) Burridge attended the University of Kentucky where he was a 12-time All Southeastern Conference performer in distance events. He was a two-time Division 1 All-America, SEC Champion and 4-time runner up. He set the SEC record for 5000 meters and has a PR of 13:48. Beyond college he ran with the Mason Dixon/Victory Athletic club cross country team that won the national championship twice.
His running PRs are impressive. 3:45 in the 1500. 28:52 10,000 meters. In the one and only marathon he competed his time was 2:18.
Those are formidable stats for any runner. Yet Burridge competed in one of the toughest competitive environments in running history. In high school he followed in the tracks of Craig Virgin who ran the 13:51 3-mile that still stands as the record for the Peoria, Illinois course 40+ years later. You had to run under 14:30 for 3 miles to even get a sniff at an All-State ranking and the Top 25. Burridge did that while running for Batavia High
School, the school to which he transferred in his senior year, instantly raising the quality and stakes of every runner in the program at that time.
Against the best
Burridge loved to compete and was not afraid to take on the world’s best when challenged. His race against Frank Shorter in one of the inaugural Chicago Distance Classic 20Ks left him in second place, but Shorter was after all the Olympic champion in the marathon.
The challenge with those times and those types of thrills is that they are not easily replicated as you go through life. The idea of running a 17:00 5K to win the 40 and over division just doesn’t have the same level of excitement as duking it out on the track at sub-4:40 mile pace.
So Burridge pushed his competitive energies into business where he is now President of TRH South, a middle market private banking operation specializing in raising equity and debt for small and middle market companies.
But the call to compete is never really lost in world class athletes. Which is why, a couple years ago, Burridge began to ride his bike. His running was mildly satisfying at the time, but like most distance runners with thousands of miles on their bodies, something about cycling seemed like a great alternative. Less pounding. More speed. It all just fit together.
“At first I was riding this crappy hybrid bike,” he recalls. “And I tried joining group rides with that. But a friend saw me and said ‘You should really get a good bike.”
He now rides a top level Cannondale 6, purchased from a friend known for his mechanical ability and diligent approach to choosing quality bikes.
The new bike was much better. So Burridge started showing up at group rides. He chose to jump in with the racers rather than the tempo group. “I got dropped the first time at 5 miles. Then 7. Then 20. I worked my way up the pack as time went by. Finally I was with the lead group and trading pulls.”
That drove his curiosity to race, and race he did. But that did not go so well at first either. “I’ve got this mentor that finally told me how to race, tuck in the draft, things like that I did not know going into cycling.”
The training was different from running too. “At first I was going out to do base distance slowly like you’d do in running. But I wasn’t improving. I learned that you have to go out and get your ass kicked to actually improve.”
The cycling culture
As he rose through the local ranks of cyclists in the Louisville area, acceptance was slow. “At first when I asked to ride with one of the better teams in the area they were like, ‘No, you’re not good enough. You should go form your own team. So we did. And we’re all a bunch of misfits, like the Bad News Bears. We have people from South Africa, Cuba, everywhere you know? And we all got better, and we started beating teams with fancy sponsors and stuff. We’re kicking ass now.”
The same team that denied Burridge early on finally asked him to join their club. “I was like, ‘Screw you. You didn’t want me when I was coming up.’ ”
Recently Burridge immersed himself in training in a new way. “I went to Florida with this training camp. We were riding 100 miles a day. After four days I thought I’d be dead. But we went out and I thought to myself, ‘I can do this.”
What the story illustrates is that getting to be a better rider is a struggle for almost everyone who takes up the sport. It hurts in the same way for a former world class distance runner as it does for the guy who is riding simply to lose weight.
Which, by the way, was also one of the motivations for Burridge. The tall (6’3″)Burridge dropped more than 30 pounds from a frame that got a little large while working in the restaurant industry. He now weighs 178 lbs, and feels awesome on the bike. A great way for an athlete in his late 50s to find new traction.
To that end, the other component of this story is that runners cannot automatically expect to jump on a bicycle and succeed. While the same cardiovascular engine drives both efforts, the muscles necessary to drive a bike forward are very different in composition and use than those used to run fast. The fact that Tom Burridge is succeeding on a bike is therefore not directly attributable to his times as a runner. The more important lesson is the specificity and dedication in training required to succeed at either, or both sports.
It goes without saying that Tom Burridge is a person with exceptional drive at the foundation of his persona. His dual careers in distance running and now cycling read like bookends to a person blessed with considerable endurance ability. The inspiring part is that his re-discovery of those abilities in a new sport is giving new dimension to his general perspective on life. He is racing again, and it feels good and right and natural to bring that love for speed and competition out of retirement.
There’s no guarantee it won’t hurt, or that it won’t test the very fiber of your soul. But when you climb on a bike, strap on your running shoes or pull on those swim goggles for a go at your best, you know you’re alive. You really know you’re alive.