The other day, excited about my decision to plan a 2010 season, I sat down with a pen and paper ready to write.
(enter sound of crickets)
Usually something jumps out at me. Something big, something worth the sacrifice. A driving force that pulls me through a season, keeps me honest and makes me want to hurt. The big race, the peak race, the one that you’ll give up sugar for two weeks, go to bed early, stop drinking wine. That race.
But right now, I cannot think of one.
Immediately I started looking around. Gathering dates, ideas, asking friends. There was a lot of chatter. Do an Ironman, do Vineman, Rev 3, 2011 long course worlds, go local, go far, do a series, try to qualify. The first thing that struck me is that we have a lot of options in our sport. The second thing that struck me was…nothing. None of those sound good to me.
I immediately cancelled out Ironman. No thanks. Been to Kona twice, did it well and feel no need to revisit that. I also immediately cancelled out 70.3s. I’ve done many of them and some are good. But unless I plan to try to qualify for Clearwater (answer: no) there is no need to pay over $275 to race on a course with up to 3000 other athletes. Think about that: 3000 athletes. Yikes. I also cancelled major travel. Travel is fine for one race or so. But it’s different now. Baggage fees, oversized fees, hotels, different time zones. Simply put, travel is very draining on the wallet and the body.
The problem is that I’ve been in the sport for over 10 years. In terms of triathlon, I am a dinosaur (if that's the case, then Jennifer is an artifact). Not only that but I’ve done things. Many things. Everything from sprint to Ironman, regional/national/world championships. Chances are I’ve been there, I’ve done it. Next.
I thought some more about it and what I realized is that I miss the good old days. The little races with grassroots organization that were just about the race. Not about the logo, not about the finisher’s gear, not about the tattoo, not about changing the swim venue because it’s windy, not about one thousand signs marking the course. Not about making it easy. It was truly an endurance event with all of the good, bad and ugly, uncensored. Because the uncensored parts were the best parts. Overcoming them is what made racing….racing.
But triathlon has gotten watered down. It’s a kinder, gentler sport now. Maybe it’s because our society is so litigious. Maybe it’s because it’s a sport that is very accessible yet it’s challenging. It’s one thing to sign up for a marathon but imagine the glory of doing an Ironman. It’s like a frontier of challenge that awaits the ordinary man proving he can conquer just about anything.
Except weather. But wait, yes he can. He can just change the course because the water is too choppy.
Not just that but it’s become diluted. Years ago, everyone did nationals. It was the race, the only big race that you aspired to. There were regional championships and special qualifiers. And only the best showed up. Nobody focused on half Ironmans. Everyone did Olympic distance. The point was to race often and race well. Long course wasn’t where it’s at. That said, you saw the same people year after year because they stayed healthy enough to race. Nowadays, I see athletes disappearing after two years. Too much long course, too much injury or maybe that is just how it seems.
Back then, Kona wasn’t even in the vocabulary of most people. Remember how you used to get to Kona years ago? Around here, you had to win Mrs. T’s (which is now the Chicago Triathlon). That’s right, you had to win an Olympic distance race that took place SIX WEEKS before the big event! Looking back on it, it was one of those what were they thinking situations. But sure enough I know a girl who indeed won Mrs. T’s, took the slot to Kona and then learned that 6 weeks of Ironman training really was no way to prepare for the day.
When racing was really racing, that is what I miss. When I first started racing I hit the local scene in the Great Lakes area. The competition was tough because they all stayed around here to compete. The national scene was not as big as it is today. Everyone did the same races. There was Galena, Tri Shark, Three Rivers, Elkhart Lake, Muncie, Ironhorse, Danskin, Seahorse. Your season ended in September because that’s when the races ended in the midwest. Nobody traveled. And then you would focus on running. It made sense and helped keep you healthy.
I keep thinking back to some of my favorites.
(cue sound of bad Barbra Streisand: Memories...light the corner of my time trial bike...)
Enter the Lake Macatawa Triathlon held in Holland, Michigan. I remember I signed up race morning and transition area was a parking lot. You threw your bike into a parking space. And then you headed to the lake which was actually the color of rust. There were dead fish floating along the shore and you could walk about 150 yards out to the first bouy. Of course I did! I could barely swim back then. Still can’t. No one complained. No one wrote a letter to the race director. No one yapped about it on an online forum. The swim was not cancelled. I ended up placing 4th overall winning $200 and a pair of wooden shoes. The overall winner? Laura Sopheia at a young 46 years old. She’s still smoking fast at age 55 today.
Back when race maps would say things like “wicked downhill” as a warning to watch your ass. Or when water quality so questionable that you might need a prescription to get rid of the crazy scratch you got from swimming through a pond full of goose crap for 1.5K (true, happened to Chris in Ohio). Or when there were no volunteers telling you where you go. You had to figure out by yourself. And if you got lost, you didn’t blame the race director or some volunteer. You just turned around and found your way back, drove home and raced again the following weekend.
Back then racing was raw. It was real. It was not catered, watered down or safe. It was at times just plain crazy. There was no bigger picture. No bragging rights for crossing a line with a line with a noisy hubbub. You crossed the line. You finished the race. You stuck around to eat bananas and pick up your award. If you did TriShark you got a wooden shark. If you did Pigman you got a golden pig. Sometimes you just got the race experience. And that was enough.
Timing chips? Maybe it was a guy named Chip holding a stop watch who would actually pull that detachable tag off your race number and feed it on to a string that marked your place. Your placement was in the hands of a piece of twine and a tiny tag covered in your own sweat. Could you imagine!? Maybe you got splits. Maybe not. You never cared any way. You just raced.
At some point, though, it turned. Things always do. You got a little too caught up in competition. Damn Type A personality. Must achieve must achieve must achieve. Got to be bigger, better. All of a sudden you found yourself doing 6 half Ironmans in one year that required extensive traveling. It became less fun. It was less about pure racing and more about gathering – money, awards, experience. You lost the point of it all.
And the point is – you love to race because it feels good and it’s fun.
The other day Chris was saying that he has forgotten how to race. This is so true of athletes that spend a few years focusing on long course triathlons. Unless you are the top of the top, you cannot race an Ironman or even a half Ironman. You survive. Even the top age groupers survive, they just survive faster than everyone else. You lose the ability to go head to head, to get a fire under your ass and haul ass to the finish line. Top age groupers can do it at the half distance but even then it’s so much about pacing and nutrition. Our sport has become so saturated with long course that it’s becoming more about completing than competing.
I think all of this means I am getting old. And a little ornery at times. But mostly I am cupcakes, sunshine and lemonade. Like all girls. Anyways, Jennifer and I often joke about how we are like to two old Muppets sitting in the balcony scoffing at the scene below. It's not that the scene is bad, it's just that we remember it from a different time. And maybe all memories are sweeter when you are younger and more innocent.
In my quest to put together a race schedule, I started looking around at the local scene. I want to race often and race hard. I have been all over the country racing the big races against the big names. I want to be home. I just want to race my race without worrying about putting together my bike, adjusting to a time zone, attending mandatory pre-athlete meetings and just want to start the race when the race director shouts the two most exciting letters in our language...
I don’t know about you but I just got the urge to race my dog to the top of the stairs.