National titlist leaves his pain miles behind


"I hit a big rock and did an end-over," Joe Amato said matter-of-factly, rubbing the back of his aching left shoulder.

"What about your finger?" asked his wife, Diane.

"Oh, that. I think maybe it's broken," he said, shrugging. Later, he added: "Mountain biking is rough on the body. You do crash. I don't try a lot of the things, now, that I used to, but younger guys have no fear."

Amato is still one serious mountain biker, though. Make that one serious competitor, because love of competing, he said, keeps him biking, running and swimming for huge chunks of spare time. He's fit, too - looks as if he might be in his 40s, but he's 58.

The pains of early last week resulted from merely his most recent bike spill, about two hours into a 100-mile, 235-rider race called the Shenandoah Mountain 100, contested near Harrisonburg, Va. Amato saw it as a "must" event, and he finished, disappointed with his time - more than 13 hours, 11 hurting.

"It must have taken me 20 minutes just to get myself back together," he said.

But time's wasting, what with the really big race in Amato's main event - mountain bike, or as it's sometimes called, off-road triathlon - coming up Sept. 21-22 in Lake Tahoe, Nev. And so - hard-to-bend, hurting finger and tender shoulder notwithstanding - he was back on routine at dinnertime Tuesday, working out in Patapsco Valley State Park's McKeldin Area in Marriottsville.

That's how athletes, of any age, become national titlists, which Amato is, although he humbly pointed out that not a lot of men his age compete in his sports and most of the younger guys are faster.

"He hates talking about himself," his wife had confided a few minutes earlier.

Indeed, he was self-effacing, he competes in pretty-much anonymous sports, and, true, there aren't nearly as many older competitors in his age group as there are 20- and 30- year-olds. But there are enough to have real competition, and there's a public record.

For context, triathlon (running, swimming, cycling) has existed as a sport since the 1970s; it requires narrow-tire bikes that fly as fast as a rider can go on hard-road courses. Amato, who said he got serious about running first, when he was about 35, and later biking, has done lots of triathlons - good enough to rank 12th nationally in his age group three years ago. For many years, his love was sports cars, and he raced Datsuns in Sports Car Club of America events.

He dropped engines for pedals in the name of fitness, and these days, one of Amato's two athletic passions is the younger sport of off-road triathlon - requiring bikes with shock absorbers and wider, knobby, balloon-type tires to cope with hilly, rocky terrain. The other is even younger, more rugged and demanding niche sport called adventure racing.

In off-road triathlon, that public record shows Joseph Amato, Ellicott City resident and owner of an hydraulics service business in Baltimore, will be returning to Lake Tahoe to defend his 55-59 age-group championship in the Nissan Xterra Triathlon USA Championships.

Last year, he finished the 1.5-kilometer swim in Lake Tahoe, the 34K mountain bike race on the drop-dead scenic Tahoe Rim Trail and 10K run ahead of his closest age-group competitor by 44 minutes. Correct, that wasn't the seconds that often determine triathlon winners.

"I'm not really that fast," he said, although at least a dozen younger guys would have loved to have his timing splits that day. "But I do have pretty good mountain bike skills."

He has been perhaps his most active in all forms of racing this summer. Amato is ranked No. 1 in his age group after two Mid-Atlantic Xterra races and third nationally, placement being determined by points earned in Xterra races in eight American regions this year. No amateur rider, and Amato is one, rides in anything close to all 31, most staying reasonably close to home. Amato got a bunch of his points by winning his group - by 4 1/2 minutes - in the Xterra East Championships in Richmond, Va., in June.

He also has done several adventure events, which can last up to 48 hours and require not only cycling and running but whitewater canoeing and swimming, rappelling, and map-reading skills. Courses are so grueling that competitors - individuals, pairs or four-member teams - sometimes must carry their bikes on steep, rocky trails or go "bike-whacking," which means shoving the bike through underbrush and thick grass.

"When Joe started doing our events about four years ago," said Don Mann, a retired Navy SEAL and founder of Odyssey Adventure Racing Inc. in Virginia Beach, Va., "he didn't finish. But he kept coming back, doing better each time, and now, regardless of his age, he's one of the toughest competitors we have. He told me he didn't want the record for the most non-finishes in our races.

"His determination, his never-quit attitude - outstanding," Mann said.

"He's one of the calmer riders out there," said Christine Kelley, of Oella, who met Amato through triathlons and sometimes partners with him in adventure racing. "He's done so many races, and he clearly thrives on it. ... He's a machine."

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