The Climb of Shame

Bunny ears are still funny

It’s nearly 2am in Poland. I’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).

Dad eating lunch on the porch of a family by the race start
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 hadn’t had time to do as a scholar-athlete.

swim exit
(I’m the one with my cap off already)

After my “time off”, 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 “triathlon” and I wanted to live up to the nickname I had earned in high school of “iron man”. (I also had the idea that because Triathlon was a newer sport, and not “pure” like any of its components that it would therefore be an easy sport to “dominate”, which meant I really didn’t need to train.)

Things change.

In the lead bike pack
(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 don’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: “I’m under 23, I’ll sign up for that category…”).

last stretch

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 didn’t back down. I wasn’t in triathlon to win age group races, I wanted to compete with the best. (I still didn’t know what I was in for, and it wasn’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.

That’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 I’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 I’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 “climb of shame” was seen only by my parents, Barb Linquist’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. I’m not sure I’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 I’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.

Running with a pack!
(This time I at least started with the lead runners.)

That was the day I decided that training and experience may be necessary to “compete with the best”, 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 didn’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. It’s a big step from Amateur World Champion to ITU elite, and I feel like a slinky on those stairs of status.

all alone. ditched.

On the plus side, a little demoralization in Poland keeps me humbled, which my friends back home will undoubtedly appreciate.

Published by Ben

Ben Collins Professional Triathlete

Join the Conversation


  1. Christine: If you get your brother to show Ben how to fly a kite, he can teach you how to fly an SR-71. If swimming were as easy as running, most people wouldn’t be so terrible at it. 🙂

    Ben: If that email bit was a jab at me, I’m embarrassed for you. Of all my myriad weaknesses and failures, my love of electronic media doesn’t even crack the top 500. You didn’t even bother to point out that my wife out-benchpresses me or that, after I get home from work, I need a long cry to deal with the humiliation that is my daily existence.

    The emails, though, those are just my bitter jealousy rearing its ugly head. Pay them no mind (unless they ask for money, advice or sponsorship ideas). (Or hugs).

    Come home soon. There’s beer here with your name on it.

  2. Oh, and P.S. Top 50 is f*cking awesome. If you’re disappointed, I’ll punch your in your groinal node.

  3. I like the picture of the building with 30 sat dishes on it. I also like the picture of the randomly placed barriers along the street and people knew enough to stand behind them – all 2 of them. Nice job Huli. If I could catch you – I’d punch you right after Brian did. I’ll punch you in an area that won’t impact your race performance though – like your ear. I have no doubt your next race with the elites will be a different story (of course it will because you won’t be in Poland but you know what I mean). Keep at it – pain is just weakness leaving the body.

  4. Welcome to draft-legal racing! It’s sick how fast those guys run, eh?

    Nice work on making the pack. It took me all of last year and half of this year to finally get off the bike with the main field (two days ago at Pacific Grove). I had a similarly tough time of it on the run and watched the bulk of my bike pack drop me like I was standing still… more motivation to train, just in case we needed it.

  5. brian: if running were so easy then why are the so many people that dread it or then why can’t i just go out and run a sub 30 10k because it is not as easy as it looks to be fast. i think ben knows this. so now i think ill turn to my brother and have him teach me how to beat all you in my run!

  6. Here’s a funny coincidence: Andrew (2nd at Worlds) and I have the same birthday. Only he’s 4 years younger. I’m thinking June 27th must be a good day to give birth to a triathlete. Oh and Andrew, it’s not luck, it’s attitude. If you bring a spare you’ll likely need it. Nice job though, way to take back 80 seconds in the run. Leave a real email next time so I can write back to you.

  7. I agree with Brian about flying SR-71s. You’ve come a long way since Baker’s Breakfast cookie. I don’t know if you know this but Scott and I were witnesses of your 55 min 10k 🙂

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