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"Getting beat early in the season always makes me a little worried," says Overend. "That's part of my motivation. That's what enables me to work hard. If I'm not worried, I'm not going to win. I think one of my strengths is that I'm not satisfied with what I've accomplished."
He has accomplished quite a bit in the past six years, five times winning the NORBA national championship (including this year's), which is determined by points earned over a series of six races. In September 1990, in Durango, he won the first world championship to be sanctioned by professional cycling's international governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale. Overend defended that title in Lucca, Italy, on Oct. 5, finishing third.
Overend trains from March to October, either alone or with Daryl Price, a Specialized teammate who also lives in Durango. One of their weekly rides is a hill session on road bikes, the description of which alone saps one's energy. "We ride four times up this milelong hill, spin for a couple of miles to recover and then do the hill four more times," says Price. "You'd die if you tried to do eight of these in a row."
On another workout, Overend and Price ride mountain bikes into the nearby La Plata Mountains. Within an hour, they hit Tomahawk Basin, which marks the beginning of a series of steady climbs up and over two mountain passes. Both passes ascend more than 4,000 feet, to 11,000 feet above sea level.
Overend's training regimen is based on a program that he developed over 15 years as a competitive runner, and it combines hard days and rest days with weekend races. Overend also has the rare ability to perform at altitudes from 6,000 feet to 14,000 feet, where the air is thin. "Ned is an incredibly efficient oxygen processor," says Ed Zink, a Durango bike-shop owner and longtime friend.
"We used to call Ned the Human Lung," says Scott Molina, a champion triathlete who has trained with Overend. "He's lung from his head to his toes." In addition to his physical powers, Overend brings two other formidable weapons to the starting line: fine bike-handling skills, which he developed in motocross competition while attending three colleges in California, and the tenacity of a pit bull.
In the Memorial Day race in Durango, Overend is in sixth place on the first lap when he gets caught in a pileup on a downhill section of the course known as the Chute of Death. It's a narrow, 40-yard trail of loose rocks and dirt with a 50% grade and a sharp right turn at the bottom. Another rider rams Overend from behind, knocking his chain off and twisting his front derailleur. Overend must stop three times to get things fixed. He loses more than four minutes, and he drops to 37th place. By the end of the 28-mile race, he has worked his way back through the strung-out field and into fifth place.
Overend did not have many chances to play organized sports as a kid. His father, Edmund, worked for the State Department, and Ned was born in Taipei. The Overends also lived in Teheran and on a plantation outside Addis Ababa, before settling in Marin County, Calif., when Ned was a high school freshman. He ran cross-country in high school and college, and he continued to compete in road races while living in San Diego as a college student.
On a whim, he decided to enter the 1980 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. Overend had trained little for the 2.4-mile swim, and he was so inexperienced as a cyclist that he rode the 112-mile bike leg in sneakers and running shorts. However, thanks largely to his performance in the 26.2-mile run, he finished 24th among 108 starters.
In 1980, after he moved to Durango with Pam, a nurse he met while in San Diego, Over-end found a job repairing transmissions in a foreign-car shop. On weekends, he continued to enter an assortment of events. The more difficult the course, the better Overend fared. He finished second twice in the Pikes Peak Marathon, in 1980 and '81. He set the record in both the 13-mile Kendall Mountain Run, which climbs from 8,500 feet to 13,000 feet in seven miles, and the Estes Park Triathlon, which begins with a 26.2-mile mountain run, entirely above 8,000 feet, and follows with an 80-mile bike ride through Rocky Mountain National Park and a one-mile pool swim.