Itâ€™s nearly 2am in Poland. Iâ€™m not even a little bit tired, which is partly because I just finished an eventful day of racing and partly due to the fact that I just finished a real pleasure of a book (Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman), and both these things require due contemplation. It requires the type of thoughts that trump tired muscles and the knowledge of having to get up in a few hours to continue this atypical three-quarter-family vacation (Really Susan, save your vacation days for someplace warm and with good food).
This is my dad having lunch with a family my mother and he met at the lake. Apparently they were laughing and having a grand old time, even though they didn’t speak a lick of each others language.
I think I should tell you about my first elite, draft legal race. (And through the story I’m going to litter some pictures from yesterday’s race.)
It was the US elite and U23 national championships in 2005 in Bellingham, Washington. I had recently graduated from Columbia University with several fancy sounding awards, a degree in mechanical engineering, and high hopes (from myself, my parents and my former classmates) of taking a short time off and then finding a (very well paid) high tech job that would use my mental skills and allow my true industrial potential to shine. My athletic career was no longer part of my academic journey, and the workforce, while valuing my demonstration of devotion, time management, hard work, and goal orientation, would not allow me the time needed to pursue an extracurricular hobby with the devotion I had always given to swimming. My time off was intended to address this issue, as well as allow me to do some of the things I hadnâ€™t had time to do as a scholar-athlete.
(I’m the one with my cap off already)
After my â€œtime offâ€, which was originally intended to be a year, I would either start working or start graduate school (also in engineering, much to the dismay of my mother who thought work experience would be valuable before more education). In the meantime, I took a job 24 hours a week at a local bike shop, Speedy Reedy in Seattle. I wanted to learn about bikes and I wanted to buy a bike and I wanted to try this sport my college swim coach had told me about called â€œtriathlonâ€ and I wanted to live up to the nickname I had earned in high school of â€œiron manâ€. (I also had the idea that because Triathlon was a newer sport, and not â€œpureâ€ like any of its components that it would therefore be an easy sport to â€œdominateâ€, which meant I really didnâ€™t need to train.)
(Don’t let anyone tell you draft legal bike legs are easy. This was a very challenging ride.)
I loved working at Speedy Reedy. The staff and the customers made it a great place, and working with my hands made me feel good at the end of the day (unlike a job sitting at a computer, which I suspect is only a gateway for distractions like email, facebook, and myspace. The mass of emails I get during the day from people who make fun of me for not having a real job confirms this suspicion.) I did buy a bike, and three days later I did the Issaquah Triathlon. My bike was slow, my swim (62 degrees without a wetsuit) was slow, and I donâ€™t really remember anything but pain on the run. Then I did the Seafair Triathlon, placed fourth, which fueled me a week later to sign up for the U23 nationals (The thoughts that doomed me: â€œIâ€™m under 23, Iâ€™ll sign up for that categoryâ€¦â€).
A week before the race I was called by Bill Burke, a race director known for races including Honolulu Triathlon, Hy-Vee Triathlon, USAT Nationals, and many local races in Louisiana. He told me that I shouldn’t have been able to sign up for U23, and asked if there was a good reason that I should be in it. I told him I was 4th at Seafair (in my mind, the pinnacle of sprint triathlon). He told me I would probably be demoralized if I raced with the elites (I think he actually used that word, then added that it may cause me to quit the sport), however he thought I had a good chance of doing well in the age group race. I didnâ€™t back down. I wasnâ€™t in triathlon to win age group races, I wanted to compete with the best. (I still didnâ€™t know what I was in for, and it wasnâ€™t until the day before the race that I was informed by Reed, of Speedy Reedy, that I would have to take off my aero bars for a draft legal event.)
At 200m into the swim I had the lead over such well-known triathletes as Andy Potts and Hunter Kemper, and was ready to relax the pace a bit.
Thatâ€™s when I was trampled, and lost the lead pack. I came out of the water in the middle, had the slowest transition of anyone. Carefully I put on my shoes in transition, along with sunglasses, and then stopped to powder my nose and apply a quick layer of sunblock before clip clopping in my bike shoes out of transition and fumbling to clip into the pedals. (I had only been using clipless pedals for a month or so, which coincidently is how long Iâ€™d owned a bike.) The middle leg of the race was a 40km draft-legal bike, and unlike 25% of the day’s competitors, I wasn’t lapped out by Kemper. It was a six loop course that involved the most massive hill Iâ€™ve encountered in triathlon. Alabama Hill, they called it, which averaged 12%, for a distance that increased each lap to a final length of nearly 300 miles on the sixth lap, which I did solo, having finally been dropped by the two men I rode with. Unlike the previous 5 ascents, which involved riding by hundreds of cheering Bellinghamites (is that what you call people from Bellingham?), my â€œclimb of shameâ€ was seen only by my parents, Barb Linquistâ€™s Husband (who had been standing with my parents, and was therefore convinced to cheer for the sad boy in the back), and a motorcycle cop who was in charge of following the last person, and seemed to be having a difficult time keeping his bike upright at my pace. Iâ€™m not sure Iâ€™ve ever felt as weak as I did after that bike ride, and in retrospect it was a bad time to do the longest continuous run Iâ€™d ever done: a 10k. It took me 55 minutes to complete the four lap course, three of which allowed enough time for every other competitor to finish. I was so far behind, in fact, that the road closure had to be ended before I was finished. There was a line of cars waiting to get through, and the police asked me to run close to the edge so that they could at least open one lane to traffic. Hunter also seemed rather bored when I finished, having waited over 30 minutes for me so that he could collect his award.
(This time I at least started with the lead runners.)
That was the day I decided that training and experience may be necessary to â€œcompete with the bestâ€, a thought that slowly took over my interests until almost exactly one year later when I had my last day in my first engineering job, and decided to return to school to seek out a completely different profession while I focused on becoming a world champion, a pro triathlete, and then combining the two. Step three may take longer than the first two.
So with the experience of Bellingham I didnâ€™t have any expectations going into my second draft legal pro race. I had nowhere to go but up. At Poland, I stayed in the front pack in the swim and on the bike (even did my share of work in the front), but I ended with the worst run of my season (which wasn’t the slowest run of the day). I learned a lot, and next time I will be fresh and ready. Itâ€™s a big step from Amateur World Champion to ITU elite, and I feel like a slinky on those stairs of status.
On the plus side, a little demoralization in Poland keeps me humbled, which my friends back home will undoubtedly appreciate.