The short end of it

Blah blah blah—those are my excuses for not writing blogs lately. I’ve been busy, okay? If someone’s still looking forward to my blog posts, I apologize. If not, then I take it back.

I’ve had a hard time writing about the sprint triathlon I did last month because I’m not sure how to write about it without venting. My wife made us really late in the morning through a combination of taking her sweet time and closing out of the google directions I’d looked up on my phone. When we arrived at the race, they very nearly turned us away because we were so late.

After a brief eternity, we lined up for the time trial-style race start as my grumpy mood began to give way to some race excitement. They’d divided everyone into a bunch of subjective categories for the swim (1 = swim team fast, 2 = masters fast, 3 = regular joe fast, 4 = slow, 5 = walking the swim), so I found a spot right in between two categories. When I started the swim, the 50m pool felt spectacular, and I comfortably crawled through the laps. My swim time, like usual, was only so-so, but I did pass a few people.

Yes, this is what comfortable looks like.
Yes, this is what “comfortable” looks like.

I nearly mounted my bike before leaving the transition area, which would’ve gotten me DQ’ed, I’m sure. But once I got out there, the bike felt just right. I took the first hill feeling great and passed my wife and her sister. When I crested, I had two riders in front of me for the descent, one of which I caught quickly. I didn’t close in on the second until we got back to (nearly) level ground. But when we got there, I realized he had a fairly nice triathlon bike. I gave him a thumbs-up as I went by, and he gave me a blank stare that said, “How are you doing that?”

The second hill went even more magnificently, with one exception: the course had obviously changed from 2010, and when I got to the top of the hill, there was an unfamiliar section. Instead of going straight to the main road, we were suddenly taking a twisting, turning, diagonal side road to the main road. I lost some time going the wrong direction and getting mixed up, but I quickly got on the right path.

Back on the flats, I found myself trading passes with a gal named Brittany, who was cranking out the watts on her tri bike. (No, I didn’t draft.) I got back to transition just ahead of her and we took off on the run together—though I quickly dropped her. I was slowly reeling a guy in on the run, so I thought it was going okay. Turns out, I was having one of my slower triathlon runs.

See? It even LOOKS like I'm running fast right? I'm not.
See? It even LOOKS like I’m running fast right? I’m not.
I caught the guy just before we entered the Olympic Oval, and as I did, the female winner (who I’d passed easily on the second hill of the bike) caught up to me. The three of us crossed the finish line a stride apart and quickly started the game of waiting to see how we did.

It appeared at first that I’d missed third place by, get this, 27 seconds—seven MORE seconds than last year. So I quickly moved from elation to “not again!” My sister-in-law had handily won her age group (owing partially to the fact that it consisted of her and only one other girl) so we stuck around for the awards. And then, oddly, they called out my name for third place in my age group—the AG winner had bumped up because he came in third overall. So, as it turned out, I really did take third place in the AG competition.

My wife also had a good time at the race, but not exactly how she expected. She’d anticipated having a fast swim, a mediocre bike and an even less impressive run. Well, her sister dragged her up to the front group of the swim, so right out of the gate, she got passed by a couple of lanky guys who were impersonating Michael Phelps. She then cranked out an unexpectedly decent bike ride before having exactly the miserable run she’d anticipated. In the end, she was just glad to finish. And I was glad for her.

Ghosts

“You were racing because you were pissed.”

“I was.”

What’s amazed me most about this whole Lance Armstrong thing is how many people seem to be shocked or surprised at the mountain of evidence released by USADA. Really? No one knew? A sprinter loses five pounds and is suddenly beating the best climbers in the Tour de France on the mountain stages, and no one blinks an eye?

Of course, we were all so ignorant of the world of cycling back then. By the time Lance won in ’99, I already loved riding my bicycle (which had been my sole form of transportation for at least a year at that point). But if I hadn’t read Lance’s book, I probably never would’ve pinned a number on and climbed Teton Pass. I’d probably be lifting weights and riding my bike, but not for competition’s sake.

So Lance, if you’re reading, thanks for that.

But through all of this process, my mind keeps going back to a different cyclist, someone who’s not around to see his suspicions validated, someone I grew to idolize (probably more than I should’ve) and recognize as a victim of this doping culture.

I keep thinking about Steve Larsen.

There’s an almost 90-minute interview with Steve still available on CompetitorRadio.com. When I first listened to it, I hardly knew who Steve was. But it’s hard (for me, anyway) to hear that interview without identifying with the guy.

Here’s a rider who was set up on his bike by Greg Lemond, who devoted an enormous amount of energy to becoming the best cyclist he could be, who showed promise from a young age, and who competed for a national championship early on. Then suddenly, things changed.

“In 1990, I was beating Lance, and by ’91, I was working for Lance, and that’s all she wrote! … That’s how quickly Lance progressed.”

Steve went to Europe to race as a pro a little earlier than the others. He managed to make his team’s Giro d’Italia squad. But by the end of that three-week race in 1993 (and yes, I fact-checked this), Steve finished fourth from last—129th—riding, in his own words, “pan y aqua [bread and water]—you know, clean.” He’d gutted his body just to finish under the time limit while legends (and dope fiends) like Marco Pantani conquered the monolithic spires on the course in record time.

“It’s mind-boggling how severe it is … A three-week tour, the kind of fatigue and suffering you go through is hard to explain. I mean, it’s so deep in you, and you’re so tired. Your heart rate doesn’t go up anymore. Things aren’t working normal, and yet you just get up and you do it again day after day.”

Ultimately, Steve came back to the United States after only a couple of seasons. Europe wasn’t a place for clean riders at a time when EPO was spreading like a disease across the peloton. I once talked to a former pro who’d raced him and who said Steve had a nasty attitude toward his competitors. Can you really blame him? A rider he used to beat (Lance) won the world championship the year before Steve lost his pro contract and came home.

“It is a little disheartening to, y’know, know guys that I raced with for a good part of a decade are now coming out and saying, ‘Oh yeah, I cheated,’ and knowing those were guys I could’ve been competitive with. By the same token, it is what it is.”

For five years, he competed in what I think is the most intense sport on the planet: XC mountain bike world cups. Then he got left off the 2000 Olympic team despite being one of the best riders on the circuit. By then, Steve had learned his lesson.

“I was racing with anger and with rage, and it was, honestly, a miserable way to do it. As much success as I was having, it wasn’t any fun.”

He left the NORBA behind (despite being the national champ) and entered the hypoxic world of Ironman® triathlon. He smashed Andrew Macnaughton’s Wildflower bike course record on a stock road frame with a road helmet on. He won Ironman Lake Placid and demolished the field on the 112-mile bike leg of Ironman Hawaii on an extremely windy year at the Big Island, taking 12 minutes out of the guy who would ultimately claim the Hawaii Ironman bike course record.

But then, before his career grew stale, he dialed things back, became an age group athlete and took things a little easier.

“One of the reasons I lasted 15 years in pro sports and am still married to that great wife and have five kids is knowing when that passion is going away and when you need to redirect your energies.”

He understood balance and knew what came (comes) first: family.

And then, on a spring day morning in 2009, he collapsed during a run and died on the track at the age of 39, leaving behind a wife and five kids.

By that point, he’d become my biggest endurance sport hero—a guy who could do it all and be a great dad at home too. He also seemed to embody the same turning point I knew I needed to make: from a vengeful underdog to a calm role model and family patriarch. I’d go to my little pool-swim sprint triathlons and hammer the bike, passing hundreds of other riders and feeling I’d sampled an hors d’oeuvre from the same table where Larsen had eaten his endurance feasts.

I was devastated when he passed away.

In literature, they say ghosts symbolize unresolved conflict. I guess that’s what the doping situation seems like to me: a whole lot of injustice and a whole lot of loose ends. Perhaps that’s why the more I read about the “reasoned decision,” the more that interview with Steve swirls around in my mind.

But in the end, it’s Steve’s interview that reminds me that not all injustices result in personal destruction. Some, it turns out, do just the opposite. In Steve’s case, I think it whittled and carved him into the dad and competitor he became, someone I came to really admire.

“The whole rage thing interests me. How long did it take to let go of that, and have you really let go of it? I mean, deep down inside, it sounds like that really, really, really got to you.”

“You know, it did … after the road career didn’t end great. But you know, I’ve let it go … I sleep well at night … Some of the guys you mentioned, I know how I used to beat ’em at a certain age when, you know, playing fields were level.”

A wash, a spin cycle and a heated dry

In the middle of my Robie Creek training, I found myself frequently distracted by thoughts of the Spring Sprint Triathlon I’d done two years ago. The race, after all, still exists, though I hadn’t done it last year. And it was a ton of fun—an easy 400-yard swim followed by a brutal triathlon bike course, followed by a rolling cross-country/road 5k. What more could an athlete ask for?

Immediately after selling my Robie registration, I started eyeing the race and mulling over whether to go to it. About two weeks beforehand, I got an email with a discount coupon for the registration and a warning about the registration cost increase. So I took the plunge!

Then, three days before the race, I got this email update informing me that they’d scrapped the freaking awesome bike course and replaced it with something far more tame and toothless. Also, the run course had been expanded to be a full-size 5k where it had been a 2.5-miler before, and that didn’t sound particularly appealing in light of my calf issues.

Miffed, I emailed the race director and asked for a refund. Seconds after sending the email, I developed a nasty case of email remorse and started hoping she refused my refund request. And, sure enough, she did.

That night, I came home and yapped with my wife about what to do differently. I said something like, “Well, I’m not going to slap the aero bars on at the last minute,” since we all know the golden rule of racing is not to change anything just before your race. My wife replied, “Oh really? I thought you’d do that for sure.”

I got to thinking about it, and my next thought was, “What the heck? Why not? I still remember how to race a time trial.” I’d spent most of 2007 and 2008 racing time trials, after all. So I slapped on the aero bars and took the bike out for a spin to get my seat in the right spot. Here’s what I ended up with:

Not bad for a last-minute adjustment, right?

We made the drive down to Utah, and, adding to the extemporaneous nature of the whole experience, my wife decided to come spectate the race while our in-laws watched the kids.

After dropping my stuff off at transition, my wife and I headed to the pool where the start would take place. I peed probably five times. I know, TMI. Tons of folks got lined up as soon as the first few jumped in the water despite the race director’s insistence that people wait their turn. I heeded her directions and budded into a spot probably 15 minutes after the start.

I met a couple of girls doing their first triathlons. As we got closer to the start, I gestured at the spot in the pool where everyone was to start from and then said, “I wonder how many people have peed right there.” I don’t think the newbies appreciated that little observation.

I’d told the girl behind me that she would probably pass me in the swim and should probably start ahead of me. In a show of unwarranted modesty, she insisted that wouldn’t happen. But once we were in the swim, it happened pretty quickly. I got caught up in a couple of traffic jams in the pool and wound up with a lousy slow swim split, even for me.

Plenty of traffic in the pool

When I got to the transition area, it looked like a ghost town. I’d started with the slower swimmers (where I belonged), so most of the bikes were gone already. I managed a decent transition time, but I had a little trouble getting my triathlon top on—it’s not the easiest thing to do when you’re wet.

Just as I was getting out onto the bike course, a guy went past me with a sweet Specialized triathlon bike, decked out in aero everything: one-piece tri-suit, aero helmet—the works. I thought to myself, “I can match that,” so I did. He was holding about 22.5 mph. We soon reached an intersection where, evidently, another competitor in the race had been in an accident with a car. We probably dropped down below 10 mph going through there, but I quickly got up to speed on the other side. Oddly, the Specialized guy started easing off on his pace, and I blew past him shortly thereafter.

The course, it turned out, wasn’t entirely flat. It had a long, gradual climb on the far end and a short power climb just before the transition area. We did two laps, which was fine by me. I probably passed 100 cyclists along the way, and I’m not exaggerating.

Like my little ITU position? Watch out, Brownlees!

It wasn’t until later that I’d discover I had the 12th fastest bike split on the day and the fastest bike split in my age group. In the end, however, I’m just glad I didn’t get hit by a car. As I was coming into transition after my second loop, I saw an ambulance picking up another competitor who’d been in another bike-on-car accident. My wife told me she saw this guy’s wife sobbing and worrying about her husband. I felt pretty bad for them. That’s a lousy way to end a little Saturday morning workout.

The transition area still looked like a ghost town as I went out onto the run. I guess everyone else was still out on the bike course. As I started up the run course’s first two grass hills, I felt like I was crawling. But as slow as I was running, the folks around me seemed to be standing still. No one ran with me on the run. I spent the vast majority of that time alone, and I managed to pass five or ten more folks along the way. This time, when I got to the finish line in the Olympic Oval, I was all by myself.

My finishing kick—not so pretty!

Secretly, I was hoping to make the podium for my age group, and the truth is that I might’ve had the fitness to do it. I wound up missing third place by only 21 seconds, second place by about 40 seconds and first place by about a minute and a half. I’m pretty sure I could’ve taken 30 seconds out of my swim split, never mind the extra 10 seconds I spent wrestling with my tri top in transition.

Regardless, I had a fun race, and I’m glad I didn’t get a refund. It was definitely a confidence booster going into the season. And I enjoyed things enough that I think I’ll probably go back next year—no matter what they do with that bike course.

Free-verse Friday

If you don’t like reading poetry in a blog post, don’t be mad at me. Blame this guy.

So here’s my poetic contribution to the blogosphere (forgive me if I’ve posted this before):

Out There

“It’s very easy to disappear into your own personal closet and disappear from society. I know that feeling acutely.” –Davis Phinney

A chaotic vacation from one-handed
tunafish-sandwich-making parenthood
begins as I drop my socks in the rocks
next to my wheel, slip my steel-cleats
on bare feet, and reach for aero bar ends

My transition complete,
I slice the ascent from the valley floor,
in a fit of caged windmill break-dancing,
transferred through pedals to pavement
in elliptical rhythm

I drop one then two then three then four.
My bladed spokes, carving gently,
whirring smoothly on rolling
pavement wheel-ruts, dulling senses,
swallowing voices, redistributing emotion.

My soundtrack is breath
I wax kinetic, goading passersby
to tack the gusts with me
like hot razorblades through butter.
But instead, I’m alone on the roads.

For one brief antisocial moment,
diametric from family, friends, and foes
I am Teflon, untouchable, unfelt—
undetected by empathy or sweat;
No one shares my velocity.

On the cusp of vanishing,
with my arrogance strewn
across the road, my depths purged
in cathartic athleticism,
I turn my cold shoulders toward home,

Knowing that after a dip in the pool,
there’s a tunafish sandwich, some
warm Gatorade, and a two-year-old waiting
to hear what it’s like “out there”—
my victorious disappearance.