“Well, I guess I might as well head home and focus on Arizona…” That was the first thought that popped into my head as I heard the announcement over the loudspeaker, “The swim has been cancelled. I repeat, the swim has been cancelled.” The very next thought was, “it’s COLD!” I called superduper “manager” (really, he’s just an awesome friend, but I can’t remember how I survive at the races when he’s not there…) extraordinaire THE Kwaz, who had been nice enough to drive me to T1 in the morning so Jill could stay with Quentin, and asked if he would come get me. While I waited for Mark to get back, I weighed my options. The only other time I’ve done a race where the swim was cancelled – NYC in 2003 – I skipped the race and did another local race that doesn’t suffer the fate of having a sewage plant that overflows in heavy rain right on the swim course. And, honestly, that seemed like a fine option right about then – go back to the hotel, get warm clothes, head out for a solid workout, and focus on IMAZ in 15 days.
The KWAZ mobile provided a welcome respite from the cold, and a chance to consider what I wanted to do. I called Coach Michael, who was en route and who had the same sense of disbelief as everyone else at the venue. How can the swim be cancelled? It can be cancelled when it’s 37F and the water is 55F; in fact, the ITU rules state that it must be cancelled in that event. In the aftermath, I think there were many folks who thought, “oh, we could have swam” as the afternoon turned out sunny and (relatively) warm. But it’s easy to imagine swimming after you’ve done the race and didn’t spend the first hour (or more) riding in frigid temperatures while being soaking wet. Despite not wanting it to be cancelled, I do believe it was the right decision, regardless of the outcome which I am doing my best not be biased by.
Plan B, largely due to the fact that it was a split transition race, meaning no one had run stuff accessible (though, being triathletes, pretty much everyone was dressed in run-capable-clothing), was to do a time-trial start with athletes leaving every five seconds. The bike and run courses would remain the same. A duathlon would have been a more well received option, I imagine, but the logistics even if it hadn’t been a split transition race would have been a nightmare; there was nowhere good to do a first run of any real distance. For all the griping, I really can’t imagine another option. Well, besides just going home, which was my first instinct.
In the aftermath (let’s just assume that you all know what happened), some people joked that I was “summer biathlon world champ” (except there is summer biathlon – it’s running or biking, and shooting; I have a friend who does it). Honestly, I don’t know what I am. Time-Trial Start Bike-Run World Champ? What is a triathlon without a swim? I guess I’ll leave it to other folks to figure out. I’ve never been much for calling myself something anyway. Simon Whitfield likes to joke that his gold medal is “expired,” and if he can take that attitude, well, I think it shows a remarkable sense of what really is important. For me, it’s that photo below this one – with Quentin and the Stars & Stripes.
Eventually, I decided that the best prep for Arizona would be at least to do the race and use it as a hard workout with aid stations. The pool was closed, so a hard bike-run was all I could do anyway, so why not do the one that was laid out before me? The “cold” (figurative) start was fine with me, because I practice doing rides that way regularly, where I hit it hard right out of the gate. I always figured they were good practice for just “getting right on the gas,” but I never though it would turn out to be such a specific workout. To quote the great Louis Pasteur, “luck favors the prepared.”
In this case, that proved additionally true because despite that fact that I had not prepared my T1 bag very well and all my warm clothes in there were cold and wet, fortunately, I wear race-usable clothes in the morning, so my morning undershirt became my race day shirt and my morning gloves became my race gloves. Being (at least in my former life) a hardy Northeastern boy, I seem to do okay in cold weather, so gloves, a long sleeve technical undershirt, and toe covers seemed like enough. The concern over the heat of an aero helmet at a race like Hawaii turns out to be a boon whether the weather is the opposite – aero helmets have the distinct advantage of being nice and warm when it’s cold out.
My secret “weapon” was three sections of mylar “space blanket” from REI (now part of my standard race kit supplies) – one big panel for my chest (which I dumped about 2/3 of the way through the bike) and one for each quad (which I kept for the whole race). I picked this trick up after watching Olympic-distance ITU World Champs in Vancouver in 2008 (that was cold…) and relied on the success that many athletes there had with it.
I had a brief strategy talk with Coach Michael – “the pace will be VERY fast right from the start” (it was) and “stick to your plan,” meaning fast bike, fast run, close hard in the final miles of each (I did, though less so on the bike, where I did a pretty fair job of smashing myself trying to break free).
As with most races, I have very little memory of anything during the race. It’s more snapshots. Martin Jensen pulling away after the big descent from the second turnaround (damn him and his 55 big ring…); coming flying into transition unexpectedly quickly and still having one shoe on; beating Sylvain Sudrie out of T2 despite this mishap; using the downhill section to break away on the last mile of lap #3 per Coach Michael’s advice that a hard bike ride would make the downhills – not the uphills – the critical portions of the run; and halfway through the fourth – and final – lap, Coach Michael yelling, “now you do it for a World Championship.” It’s that last one that is the defining moment of the race for me. Everything else is really a blur, even those piecemeal memories of the “key” moments of the race are rather scattered. But I can hear his voice as clear as day – or as clear as the then slim (but enough) margin I had behind me. In the time before – and much (if not all of the time after) – that wasn’t really present in my mind. World Champion? I wrote on Twitter the most honest assessment I could think of – “I’m just a former rower practicing the art of suffering.” (As if one can ever truly be a “former” rower…)
From that moment of stillness everything returned to the blur of the race course. The focus on the next step, the next aid station, the next turnaround, measuring the gap. The “process” of racing, like the process of training, is about detail. That’s the omnipresent voice of Coach Joel in my head. It’s about right now. And right now. And right now. Continuously. Only in the most fleeting of instances, when the not-in-your-head-but-in-real-life voice of your coach (I can’t imagine anyone else saying it and having it resonate) says it so simply, does it stop and register. And then it’s gone, and you are back to the task at hand.
And so it goes, at least until that truly special moment, when you take your glasses off, and take your hat off, put your hand on your heart, and hear “The Star Spangled Banner” played. And hear it played because of you.