When I first got into Duathlon three years ago, finishing strong at Zofingen was more than 1000 miles away from my mind. Sure, I’d heard of the race and how hard it was (see previous post as I address the myths and truths of Zofingen). That said, I thought the only way I would ever “do” that race was to put it on my schedule, spend money and commit to going.
So, I did just that, about a year ago.
Then, the year went by, and I found myself, in a hotel room, the night before the race, wondering if that decision to commit by spending money was a good idea…or was this the same thing as paying for a gym membership for a whole year, hoping that would motivate me to get into shape.
Prayer overcomes all fears. God tells us repeatedly, “do not be afraid.” This race was no reason to start becoming overwhelmed with fear. Sharon reminded me over email that I had done all the distances in my training, and I had just finished a week in the Pyrenees, getting my legs ready to ride through the “rolling hills” of Switzerland against the best duathlete folks in the world.
Truth overcame fear, and I slept like a rock. I was ready.
I had race goals. I wanted to finish the race; considering that typically a quarter of the starters don’t finish the course. I wanted to be the fastest American in my age category. There were three of us, so that seemed both reasonable and possible. Lastly, I wanted to get on the podium and earn an ITU medal. Considering that I still had no experience on the course, or with this distance, I placed this last goal as a “one of these days,” sort of goals.
Entering transition the next morning, though, I saw that others had been overcome by fear, and the onus was to be there for them. My problems were few. The temperatures at race start were predicted to be in the upper 40s, and the forecast had the temperatures rising to near 70, by late afternoon. There was also rain in the forecast. “What do I wear,” consumed me for a bit, before I eventually concluded that I needed to be flexible. I got a pair of arm warmers from Jackie Miller, another athlete, and decided that I would wear them as long as I needed to. I didn’t know what kind of food hankerings I would have after the 150km bike ride, so I went for comfort foods. I opened a can red bull and made myself a peanut butter and Nutella sandwich, and I put both in my ITU provided bin, along with a different pair of shoes in case the rain came down and a change of uniform in case I wrecked and needed to replace either the top or the bottoms.
All of that took a whopping 5 minutes, and I had another hour to use. How to use my time was an easy decision…apply WWJD. I decided to walk around transition, praying for athletes who appeared anxious to find peace. There were a whole lot of nervous athletes, and most of them were, like me, in Zofingen racing for the first time.
Eric, another TeamUSA guy, obviously had a poor nights’ sleep, and I asked to pray with him. He smiled for perhaps the first time that day and he closed his eyes to receive prayer. When I looked up at the end of the prayer, there were two most noticeable points. Eric was crying, and a cameraman was recording us. Beautiful. There was also a Dutch gentleman whom I’d met a few days before, and I sought him out. I placed my hand on his shoulder and prayed for him, as well. I walked by the elite athletes and looked at their readiness strategies. The woman who eventually won the race had a water container the size of Lake Erie and had brought along clif bars as her source of carbs during the 4-hour ordeal of riding the Swiss terrain. The elite men were all looking at one another but not speaking much. Sizing up their opponents in that moment would provide no competitive edge, nor would add any confidence. They needed to race the best race of their lives, regardless of how those around them raced. Before the race started, I knew that many athletes were having positive energy sucked from them by their worrying. My fix? Hang out with TeamUSA girls! They were happy just to be there, and they were quick to laugh. Nearly all the guys were overtly serious and a far cry from loose.
As the race got built up by the announcers, I knew that the first run is nearly irrelevant in determining whether or not I was going to meet my goals. As such, I knew I needed to make that first 10km as low impact as possible. So, I set my watch up to beep at me if I let my heart rate exceed 140 beats per minute. As Sharon has repeatedly told me, “Keep your heart rate down.” By the end of the run, the strategy of keeping my heart rate down added a few minutes to my time. So what? There was a 4-5 hour bike ride ahead as well as a couple of hours of running to add on top of that. I hit transition 1 with a controlled heart and lots of energy for the bike ride.
Leaving transition on my bike, I quickly got into a groove with many other cyclists who were at my level. One specific group of guys kept my attention for the whole 5 hours: Fortun (Belgium), Schmidt (Germany), Hernandez (Spain), Jennaud (France) and Monacchini (Italy). For sure, we were similar in pace, but I felt that I was stronger on the hills than they were, c/o my time in the Pyrenees. That said, my inattentiveness to details got me in trouble.
As part of the pre-race briefing, we were all told about the rules with regards to drafting. Specifically, we were to stay 6 bike lengths behind any other rider, so as to not have an unfair advantage while riding. However, during the climbing portion of the race, when we are all going at speeds of less than 10 mph, drafting isn’t a factor, and we were informally told that the ITU doesn’t enforce the rules as much then as they do on otherwise flat surfaces.
Boy, what I wrong about that translation! About 15 minutes into the bike ride, I was whistled for drafting Fortun and was told to proceed to the next penalty box. I went through a battery of emotions. I was mad that I was caught (typical criminal response), when there were a pack of cyclists concurrently ahead of me, all doing the same thing. They didn’t get a penalty, and that hurt my feelings. I was upset in that the penalty would cause me to give away time on my group and might get overwhelmed by anxiety to catch up with them. I lost confidence and questioned, albeit only briefly, whether or not I could even finish the darn race.
As Heather M. reminded me just a day or two before I left, my strength is my mental game. I needed to deploy that now to get an edge. I was one hour away from the penalty box and having to sit down for 5 minutes, and I didn’t know how to turn that into an advantage. I needed to make some lemonade from my newfound lemons.
I decided to convert this race over to a tortoise and the hare event. I exerted extra effort to ride directly next to the others in the group of 6, look them in the eye, and yell out, “let’s go” hoping to get them to go harder than they otherwise would. If perhaps they exerted extra effort on the first lap, I might be able to catch them on lap 2 and 3, when I was more rested than they might otherwise be.
I, too, went hard on the first lap, but I most definitely held back in places where there was no intrinsic value in going fast. For example, after the descent of the highest point on the race, there is a 10 km section at a -3% grade, and I spun out. My bike was in its largest gearing, and I was putting out over 200 watts of power, when I realized I could drop to 100 watts and lose only 1 mph for the effort. I let the group get ahead of me, knowing that at the end of this downhill run was a 4 km climb. The strategy worked perfectly. I was the first one to the top of the climb, alongside Monacchini, and looking back, I could see that the rest in our group was winded. I wasn’t even close to zapped. I yelled out from the top, “Let’s go!” again, hoping to get them to go up the hill, that much harder.
Within 10 minutes, we approached the end of the first lap, and I let myself drift into the back of the pack. When the penalty box approached, I slid into the box, undetected, and let them go ahead. My plan, now, was to eat, hydrate, practice my German with the penalty box staff, then to go out and be steady Eddie, until I caught those guys. I got about 500 calories in my body and nearly a full bottle of liquid in those 5 minutes.
Leaving the box, I had no anxiety. I knew what I could do, physically, and I had a new goal….actually, I had 5 goals. Catch those five Europeans.
The plan worked to perfection. An hour out of the penalty box, I caught up to the first rider, and before I finished the last lap, I had accounted for all of the riders but Monacchini. None were in front of me, and I passed each one with eye contact and a “let’s go!” As I turned into transition, I thought, “damn, I wish there were 4 laps to this race,” as I was feeling strong and felt that another 50k of bike racing would have worked in my favor.
Running through transition was most interesting. The women started a full hour before the men, to prevent us from crossing paths.” The World Champion was finishing the race as I was leaving, and the crowds were cheering and clapping for her. I had to slip out through the pageantry and begin an 18-mile trail run and leave a stadium full of very happy people.
Too bad I wasn’t happy in that moment. The run was on a combination of trail and paved paths, comprised of a blend of uphill, downhills and flat surfaces. My legs were hammered, and I ran much slower than I anticipated. The trail runs that I had done at the US National Whitewater center were not nearly as difficult as the Zofingen trails, and I gave up nearly 2 minutes per mile as I pushed up and down the hills. I quickly concluded that my brick runs after long bike rides weren’t enough to adequately prepare me for this race. On the steepest of hills, I did what nearly everyone else, including the world champion did, I walked up the steep hills and ran everything else.
I was not fatigued, even as I neared the end of the race. However, my legs were not as strong running as they needed to be, and I could tell that I was not going to be on the podium. However, even before I entered the stadium, I knew that I had beaten the two other Americans in my category and was about to finish the race. My joy trickled through to my finish line behavior-I literally jumped over the finish line, tapping my heels together in the air, before landing. Two of my three goals were met!
After receiving my post-race goodies and getting a shower, I headed to the chow hall to get some nutrition. In the tent, still stinky and wearing their national team uniforms, were Schmidt and Fortun. I greeted Fortun. I told him that I got a drafting penalty riding behind him, and he smiled. I reached out to shake his hand and said,
“See you next year?” He looked back at his coach, then to me, and he took my hand and said, “Yes, I think so. Let’s go.”
Oh, the irony.
A few hours later, as I sat in the airport hotel, waiting to go to sleep and fly home, the finality of the experiences caught up with me. I really missed my family, perhaps more than at any other time over those 19 days. I missed my dog, my job, my chickens and the sunsets with my wife over a glass of wine on the side porch of our house. It was hard to add up what I had done in the last 18 days. I had cycled the Pyrenees, Coast to Coast, and had competed in the World Championships, at the highest of levels, and I did well. I finished 12th in my category and 97th, overall.
Three years ago, I was between 190 and 200 lbs. Now, I weigh 162. Before I started, I could not run for an hour. Now, I can run for 3 hours after a 5 hour bike ride and still not be fatigued. I am in my element.
To reach my last listed goal, I need to lose 8-10 lbs. to have a better power to weight ratio on the climbs. I will need a few days in the Alps to get my climbing legs ready, too.
And, I have a commitment to race Fortun again, next year.
And there is still a podium to stand on.
So, Sharon, Susan, Ellen, Isabel, Heather, Laura, and, above all, my wonderful wife Linda, let’s prepare to do this again!