I’m on the plane right now, headed back to Oregon from Holland, where I spent the last four or five days (it depends on whether or not you count the vanished day from flying across nine time zones east) preparing for and competing in the Long Course Triathlon World Championships, which I did not finish.
The DNF is a feared thing in racing, similar to the mechanical, which I’ve written about before. Sometimes a DNF isn’t your fault; you get a flat tire or crash. You can have a biological instead of a mechanical, when your body decided that today isn’t the day and makes you stop. You can also choose to stop. Yesterday I chose to stop.
I’d never done that before, and I’m still processing my reasons for doing so. Here’s how it happened, beginning from when I left my new house in Portland, last Wednesday (if you want to skip the long bit, just jump down several paragraphs to the race report).
I left through the back door, since I’d only have to take one key along instead of a whole set, which could be one extra thing to get out of my pockets at the security check-in, and I’m one of those crazy people who like to have everything ready to go way in the back of the security line: computer out, stinky shoes in my hands, jacket stowed in the backpack along with wallet, coin, and keys. Lugging a fifty pound bike-box along a street to the bus is my idea of hell. So when the bus arrived and I only had twenties (the Portland bus system doesn’t give change, something I understand but still resent), walking another quarter-mile to find a convenience store so I could break one of the twenties seemed like an inauspicious start. I’d left my house forty minutes ago and I’d only gone five blocks. Remember, I was on my way to a race.
I made it to the MAX station (still had to get to the airport), but by this point I really had to go to the bathroom, and my flight left in just over an hour. Of course my mom called right then, and she helpfully pointed out I was leaving things a bit tight. Already frustrated with travel, I hung up and promised to call from the gate.
At check-in, two United officials argued about whether or not I could check my bike through the self check-in kiosk. I figured I knew the answer to this, so remained silent until they worked it out and let me wait for a manned counter. In the best stroke of luck thus far, it turns out that, when you fly United to Europe, your bike flies free, something I should have figured for a continent that actually understands cycling. This was the first time in years I haven’t had to pay $50-$150 for checking my bike, so I made it to my gate relieved for the first time in days. I talked to Mom again in a slightly less terse mood and boarded my (late) flight to Chicago.
Again, fortune (or the FAA) smiled, and our pilots made up the hour we’d lost, which was a good thing, because I had to sprint through O’Hare’s unwieldy (and, I would think, seizure-inducing) terminal B. The last time I was in O’Hare was the summer after my first year of college, when I spent a heartbroken night sleeping on my backpack in one of their older, more ‘80s terminals, under fluorescent lights and white walls. I made it to my connecting flight in time to hear the attendant say “One more minute, and then turn that number red.” I sat down next to a gentleman in a old-fashioned hat who wore horn-rimmed glasses and a white goatee. He seemed younger than he turned out to be and was shouting into his iPhone to someone named “Baby.” His name, of course, was Bill, and he photographed naked women with tattoos. “Not,” he was careful to clarify, “pornography.” His description of his craft veered between the innocuous and the creepy. He was on his way to a shoot in Holland. His employers had said “Just come, we’ll figure it out,” and once he’d enticed “a tall, beautiful Danish girl (I asked her ‘are you a model?’ and she said ‘no’) to come around the corner and shoot some pictures, not naked, mind you, man was she beautiful. They’re not hung up about their bodies there, you know, not like Americans.” I managed to lose him in the Customs line when we landed, since he seemed to have made it a point to walk me there personally.
It was around 10 AM in Holland, and I’d left my house exactly 15 hours earlier. I’d slept about an hour on the plane, in between snacks and the obligatory dreadful meal (they still give you meals on cross-Atlantic flights). My bike appeared at the baggage claim and I found the trains. So far, so good. I took the train to a city called Almere Stad (it’s part of a new principality, really, in the Netherlands, not far at all from Amsterdam and one, until recently (1976), that was underwater; yes, it’s all part of reclaimed land and is approximately at or below sea-level; when you don’t have the Gulf of Mexico’s rapidly warming waters to spin monster storms your direction, I guess you feel better about building as such) where, after an hour of wandering the streets trailing my bike box, I discovered that my “hotel” (it turned out not to be a hotel, but a bizarre combination of Club Med, trailer park, and college housing) was 20 kilometers out of town and would require a 50 Euro taxi cab (for those of you with the rate of exchange on your hands, yeah, that’s about a $75 cab ride).
I found a taxi service, run by the incredibly friendly Francis (this would be an important acquaintance later) who put me in a cab with the verbose Misha, who told me all about Almere on the way to Centerparcs: how green it was, how young, how flat. While driving he conducted a symphony of short phone calls, all revolving around a Canadian triathlete named Michelle who was changing hotels and wanted Misha to pick her up personally. He explained to her he’d be out of town (dropping me off) for 45 minutes or so, but would see to it she’d have a taxi from Francis’ company to transport her. She tried to beg off, saying she’d be fine, she’d just “wave one down outside” and he said “Sure, sure no problem, whatever you want” and then proceeded to call the booking agent at her hotel to tell them that he’d gotten her a taxi, no problem, it’d be by soon. He called friendly Francis and another taxi driver, and then hung up the phone, looked at me with a weary smile on his face, and exhaled “Hoo!” He was marvelous.
I arrive at Centerparcs and it’s really like a sprawling campground, paths everywhere, except instead of campsites there are condominiums. Centrally there’s a business office and a group of shops and restaurants that give you awful, insidious products for lots of money (I had, I think, the worst meal of my life there the night before the race: fish that actually smelled (is this possible?) moldy). I talked to two lovely but totally unhelpful desk attendants who assured me my name wasn’t on any reservation lists, nor were the names of the other athletes with whom I was sharing a “cottage” (they really call them cottages; there wasn’t anything remotely cottage-like about them). They did let me call our “coach,” who amazingly answered the call I put through, who told me where to go. I rolled the bike out to Cottage 726 (a cinderblock affair with particle-board furniture) and met two of my teammates: Kevin Lisska and Andrew Hodges. I ate something and promptly took a nap, vowing not to sleep longer than 90 minutes. I hewed to this goal, somehow, and made it to the elite briefing at 5:30, having slept, now, two-and-a-half hours in the last 25.
The meeting was the standard race briefing: don’t draft, here’s the weekend’s schedule, etc…Nothing exciting at all, except the whole French team showing up 40 minutes late, dressed all in perfectly white tracksuits and matching five o’clock shadows. “They look like pimps,” Andrew whispered.
Friday and Saturday were the standard days of light, but slightly intense, training, and time zone acclimation. The only two things worth mentioning are A) the three times I swam the course’s first loop (in true ITU Euro-style, there was a “lap” of 1200M and a “liaison” of 2800M) I averaged 16:00 per lap, which wasn’t bad, right around 1:20/100M, about standard for me in a wetsuit and B) the service in Dutch restaurants is breathtakingly, audaciously awful. Our waitress on Saturday evening actually tossed her hair and flounced away from the table. Ah, cultures that don’t value tips!
Sunday was a comfortable wake-up: 5:15 for an 8:30 start. Luxury, really (NYC Tri, remember, begins at an insane 5:50 AM). Went through the standard pre-race breakfast (two PB&J sandwiches, one cup of coffee, and a small bowl of granola) and got on the shuttle-bus. Arrived in transition, set things up, went for a jog and walked down to the start. Slipped into the wetsuit and swam out to the last buoy and back. Lined up with the other 40-50 pros and waited around for five minutes. Then, the horn sounded.
I’ve found out that you can usually wade for a while during the first few meters of the swim. Everybody’s dolphin diving but not really going anywhere. I waited, and then slipped into the huge pack. It was easy to find some feet and just stay there. What surprised me, upon making it back to shore, was the fact that my watch said 20:32, almost five minutes longer than my practice swims. What was going on? I stayed with my group and swam and swam. Later we heard that the buoys had drifted, and the already long 4K swim was more like 4.5K. Toss in some 1-2 foot swells and (for me) alternating calf cramps, and you get my 1:09 swim split. Yup, almost seventy minutes in the water. It was awful. And I wasn’t that far back. The leaders came out of the water in an hour.
Onto the bike and I felt good, the way I usually do. Ate a chocolate Powerbar (something I’d never done, let the wary music begin) and got to work. By 20K I was picking off riders and thought things were going well. Then Petr Vabrousek (the guy that races about 12 IMs a year) and a Belgian named Stijn (love it) blew by me, about 5M from each other’s wheels and clearly taking turns. I stuck with them for about 15K but, when I watched my wattages hanging out in the 350-380 range, I decided to let them go. It was about that point that I started to see the chocolate Powerbar again, but in reverse. I came back through transition and headed back out of town and got a glimpse of the leaders completing the out-and-back, which meant they were about 10K up the road. There were about 5-6 of them together, which wasn’t good. That meant they were just going to get farther away. My brain started to work and my piriformis muscles, which I’ve had awful trouble with this season, started to tighten. This development wasn’t good.
By 90K I was having trouble just maintaining 20 MPH. Since my goal was to average 25MPH (perfectly doable on a crepe-flat (Europe, remember?) course), things were starting to look down. By 100K I was actively hoping for a flat, something that actually did occur without my knowledge, explaining why I was having such trouble going quickly. I rode back into town, came over the dismount line, found an official and said “I’m done.”
What I’m wrestling with is how uninterested I was in racing on Sunday. When you can’t get excited for the World Championships, something is wrong. Sure, it’s been a deeply disappointing season, one in which I took a step back from the successes of my first year as a pro, and if I was having better results I’m sure I’d be enjoying racing. But feedback, in either direction, has a tendency to snowball if you let it, and I’ve always had issues with inertia, as an athlete. When I played college soccer, it was all or nothing: I was a shutout or blowout goalkeeper. Now, as an endurance athlete, I suspect the same.
As my teammate and friend Janda says, time to “regroup and refocus.” One more triathlon this year, in Austin next month. I stopped into Veloshop today, a ‘Cross and Fixie store here in Portland. It was beautiful, and I’ll put up a post here in the future. Today was crisp and bright, the kind of day that reminds you of summer’s fall. I looked at some pictures of ‘Cross races here in Portland, all gray, all muddy, and I realized it’s almost time to put the running shoes and goggles away. I need to get away from triathlon for a while, since it’s started to feel like a job. Maybe it will start to fire my imagination again, sometime in December.
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