It’s been awhile since I’ve told a good yarn of a racing tale. Well, I’ve got one for you today and it’s a ditty. But before I get into this story that requires embarrassing myself beyond belief — almost as badly as the time I mistakenly used the women’s bathroom to change my clothes — I will back up and share with you one key learning that I want you to gain from my misfortune.I often tell people here in this forum that the should mix it up, try new things, and take detours here and there. If you keep doing the same things over and over, how would you know if you were really good at something else, I might ask. And, mixing it up keeps things fresh and fun. I routinely pick out a sport and spend a whole season doing nothing but that — be it ultra-running, duathlon, trail-racing, or whatever — because by focusing on a new discipline it allows me to learn things that I can apply to my other endeavors. If I hadn’t, for example, decided to focus on short-course duathlon last year, I wouldn’t have know that I was so good at it. And that’s the kind of thinking that I used to get myself into the event that I was competing in this weekend.
It started a couple of weeks ago when I was doing my schedule planning for the year. I have sorted through dozens of races trying to find a race schedule that sounds fun and interesting. My one big problem is that the USAT Duathlon Nationals falls within a heinous period of travel for me. In five weeks, I will be in five different countries with Nationals right smack in the middle of that. So if I wanted to try to go to World’s again, the only way to do it would be to try to get to Nationals somehow. In looking at this, I thought of some other options. I thought, for instance, that I might try Sprint Triathlon Nationals instead. And this is what found me pondering what off-road triathlon might be like.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and I’m find myself signed up for an off-road duathlon. I didn’t really even realize that it was an off-road duathlon when I signed up for it. I actually thought that it was just a winter season on-road race. But about a week before the event I was looking on-line at pictures from last year and sure enough people are riding through the mud and snow. Hmmmmm I thought to myself. Well, I guess I could get myself a mountain bike and give it a try. As I just wrote a minute ago, I do encourage people to try new things and all.
Friday night comes along and I’ve packed my borrowed mountain bike onto my car and have left Portland to head for a suburb of Tacoma, about 40 miles south of Seattle. (You get this, that I’ve not committed to an overnight and have driven three hours to get to this race, right?) Let me describe this bike for you: this is a mountain bike designed for climbing. It has 26 inch wheels, tiny gears for going straight up-hill and big fat tires for riding in the mud. Oh, and weighs about 30 pounds.
I got to the race site nice and early, because I wanted to pre-ride at least one loop of the five mile course. It was cold out, perhaps 32 degrees and my fingers were numb as I struggled to get myself all ready to go. There are a couple of guys at the car next to mind and I ask them if they know about the course. “Well, it’s totally different than it was last time,” one started. “Yeah, it’s supposed to be more technical and they added some stairs at the end.”
‘Did he say stairs?’ I thought to myself.
I looked around and many of the bikes were made for a different format of cycle racing called cyclo-cross (or just ‘cross’ if you’re into it, which I am not.) Cyclo-cross bikes are different than typical mountain bikes in that they have larger wheels with thinner tires and likely are geared less for climbing than a typical trail bike. The long and short of the different is that one wide trails or grass they are faster, but they would be more difficult to control on narrow, muddy, single-track trails. There would be both types of terrain, but most of the bikes seemed to be cross bikes. The other thing I noticed is that most of the people were in cycling team jerseys. These folks struck me not as triathletes or runners, but as cyclists.
At this point, I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.
I headed out onto the trail and found the first climb to be surprisingly wide and easy to navigate. I was turning over the pedals and the little teeny gears like a wind-up monkey on crack. I think I was going about top speed up the hill. Top speed being about 10 miles per hour. It felt like. . . a mountain bike. I started down the first descent and nearly missed a turn. It was a hard right-hander and I ended up standing in the bushes. Huh. I climbed back on and start down again. The next big turn came at the bottom of a steep descent and turned straight back up the hill. I missed the shift, was in too high of a gear, and had to dismount to avoid falling over. I couldn’t get back on because the hill was so steep, so I pushed the bike up the hill. It went on like this for the rest of the loop. My take-away: if I can’t ride this by myself with no pressure on me, what am I going to do with swarms of riders around me?
Back in the transition area, I found the stairs. Thankfully it was only two stairs. I jumped them with my bike and felt OK about that move, but knew that a wipe out coming into the transition area would be painfully embarrassing. I was about to go around again when a woman asked me if I was going to go ride the course. “Hell, I’m just going to ride these stairs a few more times so I didn’t kill myself,” I told her.
It was almost time for the race to start. I was nervous.
The race organizer held a meeting. He said something to this effect: “The old course was two laps of the run and three of the bike course, except for the short course, which was one lap of the run and one lap of the bike, but is now one lap of the run and two laps of the bike, so that makes it a little longer, and the long course is now five laps instead of three.”
Did you get that, because I didn’t. I really didn’t. What he had meant to say was the the run course was two laps TOTAL (one at the beginning and one at the end) and I thought he meant two laps EACH TIME. This becomes important in the next paragraph.
The gun goes off and I surge to the front. In my head, I am running two 5K runs — about 6.2 miles total. I was up with the leaders, but the pace seemed ridiculously fast for the distance. The first mile passed in 5:09 and they were pulling away slightly. ‘That’s OK,’ I thought to myself, “let them go. You’re really good at pacing this distance.” At 1.9 miles we were back at the transition area and I was hanging back ready to start loop two. Everyone else was jumping on their bikes. “Huh”. I yelled to the race organizer, “aren’t we doing two laps of the run course?” No, he said, only one. (Two total I would later figure out.) So my run was done after less than two miles and I had been holding back. Whatever.
I jumped on my bike and headed for the first hill. The people in front of me were quickly leaving me in their wake. I hit the bottom of the hill and shifted into what felt like the right gear. I was wind-up monkey on crack again, pedaling my little heart out. That’s when it happened. “On your left,” I heard. “On your left. On your left. On your left. On your right too.”
I have never, ever, ever, ever been passed by so many people at any race in my life.
OK, I thought, that was going up hill. Perhaps the cyclo-cross bikes have an advantage? I started down the hill. I made that first turn, the one I missed last time. I breathed a sigh of relief. Just about them, KAPOW, I’m lying flat on my back in the mud. Huh. I got back on my bike and started down the hill again. At that nightmare corner, the one that had thrown me before, I had say six guys right before me. I tried to get into the right gear, but then some yelled at me to get moving, because I was blocking their way. I slid around the turn and ended up on the ground at the base of some blackberry bushes, the sticker of one may still be lodged in my butt. I pushed my bike to the top of the hill as twenty or so people passed me by.
Not long thereafter, I crashed again. This time I was negotiating a very narrow part of the trail that was really muddy and somehow I just ended up in the bushes. I don’t know why. I lay there shaking for a minute as another ten or so people went on by.
I felt like I was wearing snow-shoes at an ice-skating competition. It was ridiculous.
And let me be clear about something. Equipment aside, I just didn’t have the skills to do this kind of ride. Think about it. I was crashing YET ALSO going slow enough that people were bombing past me. It’s not as if I was just out of control and taking things too fast. Or maybe I was: too fast for me anyway.
I did manage to avoid crashing on the stairs.
So what can I tell you from this disheartening and sobering episode in my racing career. Well, here it is folks: you don’t know if you don’t try, but it doesn’t matter who you are– some things just won’t work out. In this case, I just didn’t have the type of skills to compete in this discipline. I’ve ridden a mountain bike off-road maybe five times in the last 20 years and not in the past five years. Although I’m a strong cyclist, I didn’t have the skills to handle the bike that way. But that’s OK. I could have turned out to be a natural. I might be writing about how I surprised myself about how easy it was. Not this time. But that’s just fine.
And let me end this by going back to the beginning. I said that I was going to share my “misfortune” with you to help teach a lesson today. “Misfortune” isn’t really the right word, because I actually learned something and had something new to share with all of you. In fact, in a text message after the race I simply wrote: “it was a complete disaster, but it will be great to write about.” The lesson here is that not every experiment will work out. Some will be disappointments and some might even be disasters. But that’s just fine. So long as we keep trying and learning then it makes us better people, better athletes, and it keeps us grounded in what we really can — and can’t — do.
Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
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