Amazing what a year’s experience in a competition is worth. I had a great time this year at the World Championships in Long Course Duathlon, and this story explains some of the “why” behind that. Zofingen, Switzerland, is very small Swiss village and Powerman Zofingen is the town’s biggest event each year.
I entered the town, pulling my bike bag and suitcase with confidence. After navigating the Swiss trains, I knew which streets to walk down to get to the hotel, and the hotel receptionist was the same girl as last year. One of my blogs about my experiences during last year’s race was sent out to all the TeamUSA athletes who were in attendance, and more than one or two people came to me and introduced themselves to me, before I even got to settle in, saying that they read this blog. After dropping my stuff in my room and building my bike, I headed downstairs to meet more folks in the hotel. For most in attendance from the USA, Swiss culture was something they learned about it school but had not yet experienced. Adding to their uncertainty was a mild feeling of trepidation over what is often called the hardest race that the International Triathlon Union (ITU) sanctions. Adding to my previous Powerman Zofingen experience, I also had the benefit of speaking German (albeit a bit rusty).
After a few minutes in the lobby, I found 12 people following me to dinner. This pattern would last much of the week. Friday morning was slated as a bike ride. A group of 20 or so athletes with bikes showed up outside the hotel after breakfast the next morning. Fortunately, by this time, there were others in attendance who had Powerman Zofingen experience, and I didn’t feel a need to account for everyone, as I did the night before at dinner. The bike course is a 50k loop (31 miles) that goes through several small Swiss villages. The majority of the route is flat, but there are 3 climbs on the route, and for many Americans who don’t get to practice on hills, there is a sense of fear associated with the unknown nature of the climbs.
Before ever arriving in Zofingen, I planned to ride the whole loop at a casual pace before the race. My only memory of the course includes last year’s competition; I had no reference as to how beautiful the course is….all I remember was going all-out while looking at my electronics that displayed power, heart rate and pedal balance. I never really watched the countryside as it passed by, and I wanted to experience of “real” Switzerland before racing again.
At the top of the first climb, all but two others in the group turned around and headed back to the hotel. For the three of us who kept going, it was a great hour! I can’t put to words how awesome the stress free joyride through the Swiss Countryside felt. Color images of cows, pigs, chickens and hawks now sit in my mind, next to images of racing last year. During the previous year’s race, a man wearing a chicken outfit stepped on the course in front of me during one of the harder climbs, and he ran next to me while i rode, all the way to the top of the hill. It scared me. This year, when we reached what I now call, “the chicken point,” I stopped to take a picture.
Later, as we rode though some of the flats, we stopped at a village watering hole to refill our water bottles with spring water, straight from the ground. Historically, Swiss villages would all have a public water fountain and trough for farmers and shepherds to fill up their water skins and let their animals drink as they moved them between higher ground in the summer and the valleys in the winter. The water was cool and tasted great!
Even though I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, I did have a great breakfast and I felt relaxed and in control on race day. On the 5-minute walk to the transition area, I reflected on all the training that got me to this point. All of those early morning rides and runs that I had done throughout the summer, prepared me for this moment, on this day. I felt blessed to step into transition, healthy and rested. I have made it a habit to walk through transition, taking pictures with my selfie stick and praying for people. Last year, everyone whom I asked if I could pray for gladly agreed. This year, two folks didn’t. That was a new experience, as even non-Christians usually get it that any advantage they can get is a good one.
Across from me in transition was Serna Alexander, a Colombian rider who was 15 years my junior. We both prayed for each other, me, in English, and he, in Spanish.
We were next to each other nearly the entire race, back and forth, and we always had a greeting when one of us passed the other. He wore white Colombian gear, me in the red, white and blue. My time competing with him will surely be the most memorable part of the actual race. Later, at the awards ceremony, he showed up wearing a collar and a long flowing black robe. Turns out Serna was Pastor Alexendar!
Both before and during the race, I fostered a new friendship with Arne Olav from Norway. Arne speaks great English and had Zofingen experience. He kicked my butt during the race, but when we did pass each other, I made sure to ask him if he had checked his email today! I can only imagine that I will see him and his family on our trip to Denmark, Sweden and Norway in 2018.
About 5k from the finish line, the rain started coming down, and salty sweat was dripping from my wet head and face into my eyes. I stopped at another one of the Swiss watering holes on the final hill before the end of the race and washed my face, arms and hands thoroughly. Stepping away from the watering hole and returning to running form was borderline surreal. I had been going over 8 hours at that point and yet felt pretty darn strong. I was not expecting any positive feelings, as last year at this time, I was in pain. It was great to realize how much my fitness had improved in a single year.
As soon as I crossed the finish line, I went directly to the hotel to take a bath and soak in Epsom salts. I had carried a kg of them all the way from North Carolina and knew that a 20-minute soak will help to remove the yuck in my muscles and obscure the pain associated with an endurance event. The salt bath worked like a charm! Once I got out of the tub, I headed back to the race to watch others cross the finish line and just chat over the events. No pain or discomfort in my legs, unlike last year, even after sitting for 30 minutes.
It was a bummer, albeit a predictable one, to see so many Americans drop out of the race. Each had real reasons that no one but them will be able to understand. Many were ashamed to share of their choice to stop racing with me, but some knew that they needed to come back and finish what they started. You know who you are. Those who fail but stand up, ready to fight again, are the athletes that most inspire me.
I had some real accomplishments at this year’s race. I was top American in my age category and 4th out of 36 Americans, overall. Every American who finished ahead was young enough to be my child! In addition, I didn’t get a penalty this year, and when I crossed the finish line, I felt that I could have kept going. I never had a “panic” moment, but I did have a “what the heck am I doing?” moment when Emma Pooley, the world champion, passed me on lap two. She was going so fast that I thought I was in the wrong chain ring.
In retrospect, I am sure that I cannot and will not prepare for and race in Zofingen again, while my wife and I have children at home. Success at Powerman Zofingen requires a lot of early morning running and bike rides on trainers throughout the winter. While I am out in training mode, my wife carries the burden of morning chores, as I would be long gone by the time the rest of house starts waking up. She had to do all the laundry, mow the grass and put up with my afternoon naps. My employees had to tolerate a scheduling fiasco that included finding time to meet both with customers and with me when I wasn’t doing Pilates, running at the US National Whitewater Center or climbing the Blue Ridge Parkway. I can’t say thank you enough for all the people whom made this trip possible.
Yet, it is by having this singleness of focus that I can stay young and compete. Since returning to the US and resting, I competed in the Weymouth Woods Ultra Marathon the following Saturday, 6 days after Zofingen. The course covered three loops in a sandy course in Eastern NC. I was nowhere near the front on laps 1 and 2, yet despite running in sand occasionally up to my ankle, I never needed to slow down and ended up winning first place, overall.
When I look at this plaque, I conclude that Zofingen fitness won this award, not my skills as an Ultra Runner. That sort of result may never happen again, as I am now racing into my 50s. First place in a marathon should happen when you are 20 or 30, not when you are 50!
Next year, my A race is the ITU World Championships in Canada in Standard distance, not Long distance. Although much shorter, the effort and build up will be just as big…but without all the half marathons that lead up to it.
Stay tuned. The next two blog posts will be about the people behind the faces of TeamUSA. There are some interesting and fascinating people that make up the athletes in this sport, and the next two posts will be to bring some attention to them.