Saturday morning was race morning.
I woke up serious, determined, tapered and ready to go. I put my game face on. As well as a pair of comfortable walking shoes. This was not just any race. A world championship. Put me in coach, I’ve done the training, I envisioned the outcome over a dozen times. There’s no one that can do this better than me. I’ve done it before and been at this level.
I am a world champion spectathlete.
It’s a lot easier than it sounds. I’ve spent the past year watching more races than I’ve done. And when I look back on it now I realize it’s what I needed to do. Indeed I have seen the race from a different point of view and when I look back at the past two years I realize the only thing I have gained is perspective. Which is perhaps more valuable and rewarding than any medal or title. Perspective makes us value what we have, it makes us appreciate where we have been, and where we might go.
Perspective from the spectators point of view. You wake up just as early, you drop off your athletes. Then you drive 100 circles around the street to find parking. You go on a mission to find coffee. Start with the important things. You accept that you'll maybe (or maybe not) find food later. Then you walk over to the swim start. You stand waiting for the faces of everyone you know. This is perhaps the most exhausting part of spectating. You spend hours studying, searching faces looking for body shapes, uniforms, gaits, eyes of the athletes you know. It’s tiring. And finally when you do recognize someone, you wave and shout like a maniac.
Then I stood by a pier watching the pro waves go off. The women were off and then the men. It was quite entertaining – as is most of this race – only because it seems to have become a display of how ridiculous can things get and how far can race organizers turn their head to ignore it. Before their head completely falls off. I guess no one – not the officials, not the kayakers, the paddle boarders, the hundreds of spectators, the announcer, nor the over 60 men in the pro field noticed that while they started 90 seconds before the race AT the start buoy they kept inching their way forward, more, more, more until by the start cannon they were a good 100 yards IN FRONT of the start buoy doing what looked sorta like swimming already.
The crowd just laughed.
After all, it’s Clearwater. Does anyone take this race seriously? I mean no disrespect to those who competed or strive to qualify. It’s a world championship. That’s honorable. But it just seems that everything about this race doesn’t add up. The officiating seems a bit loose. The competition seems to have arrived with the intent that to get ahead in this race, you need to draft. Yes, you can race this race clean. Many athletes do. But to get on the podium? Maybe you need to race a little dirty. Maybe not. I’m not discounting any of the performances out there. There are some phenomenal athletes there, true. But like I said, something about this race doesn’t add up.
Another case of bad math.
After the pros started, I walked back to the transition area to watch athletes come in from the swim. I waited until I saw all of my athletes and then headed up to the causeway to situate myself for the run. The excitement started building as I saw the lead vehicles bringing the pro men across the bridge. They whirred by me in a giant pack of about 30 cyclists zipping upwards of 30 mph. But who can blame them. With the one lane and the traffic cones being carefully placed inside that lane they hardly had room to ride let alone pass.
I stood around mile 2 of the run cheering my athletes and friends on like crazy. I said a lot of things. Things that I would say to myself when I was racing. Things you need to hear. Things to keep you focused. So many thoughts and feelings go through your body and head. Pain, fear, discomfort, nerves. I could see the discomfort in their eyes, sometimes their gait. But I could also see the hunger, the passion. It’s the raw emotion of racing that fires me up to get out there again.
When they all passed me for the last time, I walked back to the finish line. Finally I started finding athletes. Congratulations, hugs, how did it go. Things went well! Kara ran her way to top 10 in her age group . Erich had an all around solid effort with top 10 in his age group. Rebecca set a new PR even with getting a flat tire by the tracks. It was a proud day. And Chris? At some point that will be a separate blog about my thoughts on racing pro. It’s safe to say he learned nothing that I didn’t already know or tell him. It’s different out there. Especially when you race that course alone.
By 2 pm I had been on the go for nearly 10 hours. I had consumed a bagel and a cup of coffee. I was trashed. Not to discount what the athletes do out there but us spectators are out there just as long without a steady stream of fuel and fluids. Plus I made the rookie mistake of forgetting sunscreen and dropping my salt tabs. But I was in the final stretch. You can do this, I said to myself. One last mile, one last person to find: Jennifer. I walked by the food line, weary, eyes tired from searching for faces when someone stopped me.
Hey, thanks for cheering out there today, said a woman who I remember from the course. She was wearing a top that said Practical Coaching.
I told her it was my pleasure, it’s what I do, I smile, I’m a professional spectathlete.
She looked at me like she recognized something and asked: Are you ELF?
Yes. Yes, I am. I am E.L.F. Although by marriage it’s E.L.W. But what is an ELW? She told me that she reads my blog. I thanked her for reading and then ironically ran into Kelzie-from-Kona, the one who shouted to me along Alii Drive I read your blog! We talked for a bit before I walked back to the group. All the way, of course, thinking….
We drove back to the hotel. Jennifer and Chris demanded pancakes. I just wanted to be by myself. I was done being cheerleader for the day. I went back to the room and looked at my running shoes by my suitcase. I was in no shape to run. I had been on my feet all day, probably walked over 5 miles shouting, cheering, low on fluids, and most definitely low on fuel. But I needed to run. This was my time.
As I ran along the streets of Clearwater I realized I was done being a cheerleader. I am done standing on the side. I’ve spent a year watching the sport. I am tired of watching. I am tired of being recognized as a spectathlete. I am tired of having conversations with athletes that I used to have in my head with myself. I am tired of putting myself off. In the past week I have had this feeling that the show must go on. I need to get back to what I like to do and get good at it again. I am not a good pro and don’t want to be. But I want to be a good athlete.
On December 31st I get to expire as a pro. I am ready for that. No, it wasn’t a mistake to turn pro. A mistake is something you regret. Instead it was a lesson. Yes, this lesson cost me the last two years but sometimes the best lessons are the most costly. In exchange for an elite license I learned a lot. I’m not sure all pros can say that. I see a lot of pros making the same mistakes over and over again in their races. At some point you have to be honest with yourself. You’re either not physically strong enough or you don’t have the head for it. If you been an athlete for xx years and you’re still dropping your nutrition/salt tabs/whatever on the course and still not going back for it you have to sit down with yourself and ask what the fuck.
When will you get it?
I got “it” in the past few months. I don’t belong. I am ok with that. Recently, I was asked what is the hardest thing about being a coach. Honestly, it’s resetting unrealistic expectations. It’s letting people down in that way. It’s convincing them that there is no magic on race day. If you don’t do it in training, you cannot arrive at ________. But this honesty is also the most important thing you can do as a coach (and as an athlete). Help athletes set realistic expectations, guide them to get there and feel like hard work was worth their time. Because if you set a realistic expectation you will likely achieve it. You will have success. Success then builds more success. It’s like climbing a staircase. You cannot jump from ground level to the top step. It’s progressive.
Unless you have a killer vertical.
Along those same lines, back in August, I asked someone to honesty look at me, my training, my paces, my power graphs, my results and give it to me straight. They came back at me with the best thing I have ever been told:
You should have never turned pro.
It was a huge relief to hear that. And I told them thank you; thank you for not wasting my time and thank you for being honest with me about that. Because the one thing we will all run out of eventually is time. You CAN go back and pick up dropped bottles but you CANNOT go back to pick up time. For someone to tell you honestly how to not waste your time with unrealistic expectations, well, honesty is worth its psychological price.
Which brings me back to Clearwater. Or the 70.3 World Championship. Until they move the location or change the format, I would not waste the time. You only have so much life energy, so much money, and so many miles you can race. Spend them wisely. There are better races out there. Maybe experience it once but be prepared for some dishonesty out there. If you cannot reconcile with that, then go out and race a different race. I’m not accusing, I’m just saying. And along with that just standing by and laughing with the other spectators as the pro men’s field moves farther and farther from the start line before the race starts….
And so this closes my 2009 season as an athlete turned spectathlete. I learned a lot from this side. But now I look forward to 2010, to racing and coaching. The show must go on. It is time. And in all honestly, it’s time for me to be an athlete again.