USAT National Championship-a time for an amputation.

After 7 months of preparation, the Duathlon National Championship is finally over. So, per the norm, I owe you all race report and some insight for the future. Keep in mind-this is NOT short but it is rich in content. I know-my wife proof read it.
Race morning was one of multiple emotions. What can I do with a bum foot? What is a realistic goal, knowing that I am not at 100%…or even 90%?
“Have fun,” were Sharon’s last words, and, more than ever, it seemed like listening to her would be most wise. If I finish 46 out of 46 and have to walk it in, so be it. I remained committed to finishing…..I thought.
The pre-race created connections unlike any race I have ever been a part of. Entering the transition area before sunrise and observing it packed with athletes was an emotional rush. Last minute bike tune-ups, tire pumping, stretching, were happening to the backdrop of sunrise over the mountains in Tucson, and the views were breathless. However, in my row of transition (there were three rows), no one in my area was talking. The guy just a few spots down from me arrived at the same time I did, and we set up and reviewed our gear, like summit day on a grand mountain. I talk too much, sometimes, and it got the best of me here. Here is how our conversation went.
“Hi, what’s your name, Brother?”
“William. From Austin, TX!” he said with some pride.
“Really, isn’t that where Lance trained?” I asked, trying to make a cycling connection.
“Sure, we rode in the same circles over these last few years. Yeah, I know him.” He said.
“Did you dope with him?”
Really. Did I just say that? Damn it. Why do I do that?
What happened next was unexpected but great. He started laughing, and two other guys who were listening in laughed as well. That “open mouth insert foot” moment broke the ice. We all talked for the next 10 minutes about our trips, pre-race rituals and what we were putting in our water bottles. For the record, none of us were carrying water. It was a blend of water and some sort of “not been around that long” sports concoction loaded with God-only-knows.
I was most definitely the rookie there. Most of the guys had been racing for years and those who brought their own bikes had road scars on the wheels and handlebars from all the miles they had logged. I was a bit in awe at their histories, as I bought my first racing bike last month. All of them had either team jerseys or US National Team uniforms/outfits. Two of them had sponsors. I was wearing a white shirt with Core Studio Pilates embroidered on it, and a pair of cycling shorts that I bought on ebay. My socks are starting to lose threads, and there are very few washes left. My transition bag that carries my gear was a Big South 5K race bag that came with my $20 registration fee and T-Shirt that I got last week. David and Goliath came to mind. I was staring down an opportunity to feel inadequate before the race even started.

Jeff Gaura, dealing with an uncooperative right foot.
Jeff Gaura, dealing with an uncooperative right foot.

So I prayed. “I can do all things, through God who strengthens me,” came to mind. I discarded all the references to my gear and my history being inadequate. But one better, I decided to swing the tide. God, is a living God not a story book God.
“William, do you pray?” I asked. I didn’t give a shit who was listened as I asked him or how he responded.
He paused.
“Uh, yeah.”
“Give me your hand, and let’s pray.”
“OK.”
At the end of the prayer, he looked up at me and said, “No competitor has ever done that with me.” I received prayer that morning….it was time to share it with another.
When I was done in pre-race transition, I did one last look over at what I had left on the ground and how I had organized it, memorized how far from the end my spot was. I picked up my music device and put my headphones in, to head out and do some dancing. I had only time to listen to two songs before the battery died. I got “Overcomer,” by Mandesa and “Light em up”. Overcomer made me cry, but I was not embarrassed by the tears. It defined the concurrent state of my body and my soul. I know if training I could kick out 6 minute miles and bike at 22 mph…good enough to be one of the best here. With a bad foot and no running for nearly two weeks, I felt that those sorts of times were not reasonable nor possible to achieve. Yeah, I am a natural athlete, but I was a piece of damaged goods.
As the start of the first heat approached, I gave all my stuff to my wife (jacket, hat, water bottle) and did a 1k run, with a sprint at the end. My foot hurt, but it wasn’t a deal breaker. My wife had made friends (she does that a lot) with a younger woman from San Francisco who expected to win her age group and go to the World Championships next year in Spain. Her running times today were to be what I expected mine to be, on a healthy foot. She had no one here with her, so she gave her miscellaneous stuff to my wife to hold until after the race.
I kissed my wife good bye and walked to the starting line. The announcer gave us a speech to remind us of all of our hours and hours of preparation to get to this one moment-the National Championship. He reiterated that we were elite athletes, among the best in the United States, and that this was to be our finest hour. He delivered a great message, and we were all ready to do this thing. He asked us to remain still for the last 30 seconds.
So much for Sharon’s idea of elevating my heart rate prior to the start.
When the horn sounded and it was time to go, I left the starting line at what I thought was a 7 minute per mile pace. Within the first 500 yards, my foot was tingling and my toes were starting to get numb. Two minutes down, 100 minutes to go, and I was not OK. Sure, the run was uphill, but my spirit was breaking. As we crested the top of the hill, I embraced the idea of outright quitting. My foot was not going to be even 90% this day.
Then, my thinking changed. I gave up trying to fight the pain. There was no way I was going to win this battle of a pain free run, this day. It felt like a 12 step meeting…”admitting to yourself and others that you are powerless.” Powerless was an understatement. Hopeless was more appropriate. My goals were not on my radar any more. Yet, at the top of this very hill, just an hour earlier, I was listening to Mandesa sing, “you are an overcomer. Stay in the fight till the final round,” and I couldn’t let my body’s temporary ailment deny that truth. At the top of the hill, I recommitted to the race. It was time to overcome the pain and push through it. The pain switch didn’t stop, but I didn’t let it interfere with my next step. Or the step after that. Or the 10,000 step after the 9,999th one. On this day, I overcame.
I think this is how Frodo felt when he was carrying the One Ring into Mordor….
The first 5k went slowly, as I knew that I was not achieving any sort of personal record worthy of writing home about. I finished the first run in the bottom half of my classification with a burning right foot.
However, hitting transition and jumping on the bike, I got both some worldly and supernatural support. On the worldly front, my foot got immediate relief when I stopped running and started cycling. On the spiritual side, things were way more intense. On the very first hill out of transition, I passed someone…not just anyone but a member of the current National Team. At the top of the hill, I paused to thank God…not just for the last few moments, but for the whole process of getting here. Then, in that voice that is uniquely God..that voice that always verifies itself, He said, “I will lift you high on the wings like Eagles. You will soar.”

Soaring on the wings like an Eagle
Soaring on the wings like an Eagle

For the first time in the last few weeks, I smiled. It wasn’t just a smile, it was sheer joy. I crossed the bottom of the hill, jumped out of the saddle and climbed. I began to cry-second time today. I can’t run the way I wanted to, but I was cycling like a champion. A moment later, I saw the majesty of the mountains in the distance-the sun was passing over the tops of the peaks, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The road was lined with Saguaro cacti, and the roads were blocked off so we could pedal without the worry of traffic. I belonged here. This was to be my day, just like the announcer said.
During the next hour, I passed people. I spoke to everyone, sharing sometimes a quick joke or a “well done,” as I would pass National Team members from the 50+ age group that left 20 minutes before we did. When I turned at the halfway point, I did a hairpin turn and found myself directly on the back tire of a 31 year old member of the women’s National Team, and the adrenaline took over. I jumped out of the saddle and pedaled my hardest up the hill. When I passed her, I gave him the “good morning to ya!” short and just kept going. No doubt-that was the best climb of my life. By the time I hit the bike dismount marker at the end of the 35k, I felt refreshed. I ran through transition in my socks, as I left my shoes attached to my bike and spoke out loud, “right foot, you are up, again!”
I put on my running shoes, grabbed my third energy drink in an old stinky bottle and ran out of there. There were only 5K to go. Leaving transition, I stepped on the hill that almost got me to quit about an hour earlier. My wife yelled out to me, “You’ve caught up to your twin,” meaning that there was somebody who was always ahead of me and wearing an identical outfit, that I was now caught up to. Don’t know who that was, though.
As I entered transition, I was anxious to see how my foot would do an hour after the last 5K. “Shut up, foot!” was the best I could come up with to say. My foot went silent. Jessica’s prayers were answered. No pain, not tingling, no noise…no nothing. Kind of like Chicago Cubs fans every September. The hill was slow, but as the last part of the run progressed, I felt myself go faster. I passed another bucket load of people and only got passed by 1 person on the final run. Not bad for a bum foot. Near the bottom of the last hill, less than 1k from the finish, Ken Nakata with the National Team (one age bracket below me) stopped. I touched him the back and offered some words of encouragement. “Come on!” I yelled. He looked up at me and said, “This is the worst day of my life!” Without another word, I turned to keep going, and he followed me up the hill, to the finish line.
“Dear Lord, whatever he is feeling right now is not from You. Fill Him with You and return his spirit to him,” I prayed.
“I do not deserve what you have given me today. Pass on some of what You gave me, to him.”
As I neared the top of the last hill, my right thigh started to quake. I couldn’t make it stop, and I had to slow down to finish the hill. At the top of the hill, I grabbed some Gatorade and gave it all that I had left. As I rounded the final corner and saw the finish line, I went all in on my foot. It cooperated.

Crossing the finish line.
Crossing the finish line.

As soon as I crossed the finish line, I got an ice cold towel for my head and greetings from my wife. I was too sweaty and stinky to get a hug or kiss, but I got her affirmation-that is what I sought for, anyway.
Before even two minutes passed, I got a tap on the shoulder. A guy named Bryan introduced himself and told me that he had me in his sights throughout almost all of the cycle and all of the run. He said he burst a couple of times, hoping to at least catch me, but he never could. That meant he followed me for more than an hour. He was curious about my strategy, and he was obviously confident that he could catch me but got perplexed when he didn’t.
“How did you train? How long have you been doing this?” he asked.
“Uhh..I did my first real race in March, and have done two more races since then,” I responded.
“What the *5$$!” he said. I am USAT coach and just did an ironman two months ago. I did pretty well at that event, too. You must have a great coach and training program. Well done.” He said.
“Well, I do have a great coach. She is 70 years old and she has done this sort of event and many other things like this many times. To prepare, I also did a lot of Pilates and some Yoga. Watch this.” I said. I bent over and touched my toes….then, I touched the ground…then, I put my palm on the top of my shoe. “Can you touch your toes, Brother?” I asked.
Bryan went numb in the face. Concurrently, Ken walked over and joined the conversation. He walked up just as I asked Bryan to touch his toes. They both tried, but no joy. Ken got as low as about his knees before quit and Bryan bailed at his ankles.
“How many hours a week do you train?” I asked both of them. Bryan said he trained 18 hours a week. Ken had just spent the summer in Switzerland, cycling with a group over there, to prepare for this event.
“My coach has me training about 7 or 8 hours a week, and that includes Pilates.” Neither could believe either my time in the sport or my strategy for training.
Bryan took a step back from me and looked at my shirt.
“What is it called? Pilates?”
“Yeah, go check it out. Both of my Pilates instructors are women, too. I have been surrounded by women” I said. The truth was that performance was selling them on the idea of something other than just run-bike-run to prepare.
Bryan looked for a way to save face in the conversation as we migrated towards how we were all going to celebrate.
“Yeah I am going to spend the night with two women!” he said.
“Dang, all I am getting is a piece of cheesecake and one woman!” I shared. “and here she is.” Linda walked over and I introduced her to my new friends.
“Linda, take a picture of me and my friends. This is Bryan, a USAT coach and does Ironman’s from New Mexico. And this is Ken from Seattle from the US National Team. I beat them both.”

Jeff, Bryan and Ken, at race end.  I beat them all.
Jeff, Bryan and Ken, at race end. I beat them all.

Their heads bowed and we all laughed about it. Even with broken goods, I could go.
I pulled Ken towards Linda and I shared with him my prayers for him. He didn’t say a word but only listened. My job is not to do anything more than plant seeds.
Later, I found William and learned that he came in 12th overall and was a lock to participate in the World Championships next year in Spain. I congratulated him and got another quick, “thank you, God.”
I got 21st overall. The top 18 are automatic for Worlds, with them dropping down to 25th place, for alternates. Sometimes people can’t get the time, the money, the training regime required or are like me-overcome with fear at the prospect of failure.
I am glad that I didn’t quit. That said, I stood in Tree Pose as often as was reasonable to keep weight off of my right foot. Within 20 minutes of finishing, I took some narcotics to kill any pain that may grow over the next 4 hours as we headed back to the hotel to check out and drive back north to Scottsdale.
In final checkout, I returned my rental bike and met a mother/daughter team who both qualified for Worlds. As I congratulated them, they asked how I did. The mom said, “Oh, will you be joining us?”
“Oh, no, I only got 21st. Plus, my right foot is in need of amputation and I need some time off,” I shared.
“They usually go down the list quite a few as something always comes up. You should plan on getting invited. And, everybody is hurting now. You will heal. The top 25 are Team USA, with only the first 18 guaranteed. I suspect we will be seeing you there.”
The daughter turned to the Mom and said that she didn’t feel well. She ditched her biked and took off for the port-a-johns. She certainly wasn’t feeling good!
Now I have to let her words sink in. Are they even true? Am I good enough to get a place at the World Championship? Place there or not, I did well today. I am an athlete full of emotional baggage, spiritual calling and unique circumstances. I soared high on wings of an eagle, with uncooperative body parts.
Stay tuned. Thoughts in training shall be thinking about what to do next.

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