“It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then, the victory is yours.” ~ Buddha
The challenge is to know yourself, to learn and to improve.
Searching for deep experiences, those that give a sense of exploration and a feeling of embarking on an adventure. A certain amount of the unknown comes into play. This thrills and empowers us to a heightened sense of focus. Finding flow and staying in its supreme awareness takes practice and trial and error with a willingness to contrast experiences.
Racing is an exhilarating way to find out what you are made of. To discover boundaries and realize that you can always draw another line in the sand and then another. Testing yourself with perceived limits only to break through into new frontiers.
When I signed up for IM Switzerland it was one part challenge and one part adventure. Taking the family to Switzerland was one of the main goals, while enjoying the journey and empowering ourselves to play along the way.
Apart from Zurich being an outstanding place to visit, another major factor for me was the cool weather and potential for rain. For me to thrive against the other assassins of the sport, the pro men, it is helpful for me to race in mild to cool conditions. Especially, being that training in Bretagne, France, I was wearing a lot of sweaters. It’s pleasantly cool here.
In the week leading up to the race the Alps were in a heat wave. Coming from Bretagne it was more than just slightly uncomfortable. We all had trouble sleeping in the heat, I took to soaking a cotton t-shirt in cool water and sleeping with it on. I recognized what this meant for my race, accepted it and moved on. I would have to slow down significantly, could I? In the heat of the race situation?
Lola also acquired a nasty cough that not only kept her up but mom and dad too. We were all a little hot and tired from the travel and Lola just loves to go, go, go, even when she is under the weather. Hortense ended up taking her to the doctor the day before the race. While regrettable that Lola was not well and that her and Hortense would be gone all afternoon on this errand, it did allow for some father and son play time. We lingered outside in the park by the apartment we were staying in and played with, what else…toy tractors.
My main objective going into the race was to float through the swim, cruise the bike as much as possible and build into a fast run. My running legs felt amazing and I wanted to see just how fast they could carry me. I was confident of a sub 3 hour marathon, just how much under could I get?
A large crowd is gathered around Lake Zurich and the announcer is priming us. There is something special about the moment just before embarking on a challenge, especially when embracing it with a big hug. I was smiling. The cannon boomed and we ran a few steps before diving and swimming. There was a larger group off to the left pushing the pace and I calmly settled behind the leader of my right group. The groups began to merge going into the first buoy and the left group was definitely ahead. Going around and passing the guy in front of me I was able to just grab the tail end of this lead group, but one swimmer was already gapping us. Internal dialogue flooded my mind. This took me out of the flow and into a calculating, planning, thinking person. A big part of me wanted to go, catch the leader, your holding back too much, another part said, ‘float’, let that guy go solo. My effort was truly at an easy effort. An honest assessment at the time had me thinking that I often warm up at a higher intensity. The situation was close to perfect. I was behind the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th swimmer, drafting like a champ and feeling like I was just warming up for a long day ahead. There was already a gap behind me. OK…I need to stay put.
And that’s where I remained for the rest of the swim. I loved it. Being at ease just holding my position allowed me to focus on the wonderful scene, my form with the timing and the hips. Playing with full relaxation, conserving energy and enjoying the simple action of swimming with all the practice I had gained over the years. I was ok with this, however, with no challenge and no push it is mildly regrettable to have no ‘test’.
But this is the state of IM racing at least at the pro level, with the swim only being 10% of the total event there really is not much to gain or lose, so thinking about the bigger picture I kept my HR around 100 and chilled.
T1 was uneventful for me but the other guys were frantic and really pushing the pace. Getting on to the bike felt great and the speed of the machine made for some fun. For the first 5 miles I stayed behind Michael Raelert from Germany (2x IM 70.3 World Champion) and Alberto Casadei from Italy. Raelert did most of the leading but Alberto would take a pull at an easier pace before Raelert would be impatient and charge again.
Jan Van Berkel, the local hero who swam in our group but had a slow T1 finally bridged up after what must have been a pretty intense effort. I stayed in the ‘pole position’ in the back and comfortable watched these guys charge ahead with an entourage of motorcycles from the media and race officials.
Around 20 miles in we caught the lead swimmer, Manuel Kueng and with the group growing I stayed in 4th position with Alberto taking up the rear. I was having so much fun, being at the front of such an amazing race and thriving. Also, being my first time seeing the bike course it was very helpful to emulate the leaders, they were basically giving me a first class tour. It was evident how well they knew the course. Jan lived in the city and trained the course regularly, Kueng also being Swiss seemed familiar and Raelert seemed to also have the means to do his homework.
Then, the moment of truth. Training in the mountain-less region of France I was unsure of my abilities to climb and we were starting our first long climb. The legs and the form and the feedback from the breathe proved to be outstanding. Inner dialogue flooded my mind; you should go, break away or fracture the group. But it was way too early for this craziness. Instead I just eased into the group’s pace and enjoyed the moment, grateful that my climbing legs showed up.
At this point the 5 of us had an enormous lead on the next rider, probably around 7 minutes. After several minutes of climbing we crested the top and started doing some rollers. The race couldn’t be going any better. A couple hours into the race I had yet to ‘burn a match’, stayed conservative and the lead group I was riding with had a monstrous lead.
Then, we started descending on very narrow streets, this way and that way, through small villages. All the while many signs were warning the racers to get out of the aero bars and slow down. The hometown kid, Jan, was now leading the charge. A small gap opened up to which I recognized immediately but had little concern for as we were descending and I felt great. However, the trickiness of the course over the next several miles and not knowing it by heart proved to be a major problem for me. Going into several blind corners while feathering the brakes was costing me small chunks of real estate on the boys up front. Still not overly concerned I did my best to nail my lines.
One blind corner in particular cost me dearly. I more than feathered the brake coming into a corner with great speed and having no idea what I am turning into. But as soon as I got into the turn I realized my mistake; you can hold your speed and your line if you know what is coming but I was tentative at best. Holding, or even increasing my speed would have popped me over the hill but instead I’m grinding up it. Suddenly, the gap is worrisome.
I get angry that these guys are getting away by descending better than me. The gap must be closed and it must be done fast. I burn a match and for the first time all day charge ahead. Alberto, who also got caught out is not able to go with (or smart enough not to).
They are tantalizingly close and it feels with one massive effort or just a subtle slow down on their part that I will again have my escorts giving me a first rate tour of the course. Now, being solo and coming up to corners I’m having to shout and do sign language to know which way to go. That’s how tight the streets and the villages make the course. It’s fun and an amazing course but going at the high speeds, and not knowing the course forces me to play it safe.
By the end of the descent and the winding, twisting rollers I have lost a good minute! All the while working harder to go slower. They still seem in reach so with the roads being straighter I continue to charge.
After about 15 minutes of intense riding it becomes apparent that they are gone. Solo. With hindsight the locals new the perfect place to gain time on the rest of the field. Arrgh. I settle into a more sustainable pace. The frustrating thing is that being the 4th person on the course, but the first guy that doesn’t know where he is going, I’m having to do all sorts of sign language and shouting to have the volunteers point me in the right direction. I feel myself losing microseconds everywhere and more importantly wasting energy.
Getting ready to close out the first lap I come up to ‘y’ intersection that looks like I should go right. Being committed into the turn the volunteer wakes up and notices my mistake and points in the other direction. I’m going between 25 and 30 miles an hour. I hit the brakes and while I’m doing this notice train tracks parallel to my wheels! It’s too late as my momentum moves me into the rivets of the tracks. The next thing I know, I’m lying on my back having been thrown several feet from my bike. There is a train coming. Seriously! Major waste of time and energy. And having a train come at you on the track is a bit unnerving. I quickly bottle up the negative energy in a box and get on with my race. I’m back on my bike and working on getting my speed back when the train passes my wreck.
I have a click with each revolution now. I spend a few minutes trying to figure out what part of my bike has been damaged and where the noise is coming from. I let the frustration get to me and it takes me out of the flow. I’m riding in 4th position with a big lead on most of the field but feeling vulnerable. (After the race I discovered a broken cleat that compromised my pedal stroke and made the clicking noise with each and every revolution).
Then, another hometown hero, Ronnie (the 6 time winner of this event) catches and goes by me with little fight from my part. He is flying but I feel like I’m fading.
I close out the 1st lap in 5th position, still in a tremendous spot but I’m starting to have a very contrasting feeling from the first 3 hours of racing. Suffering is settling in. At the time I thought I had blown it by chasing the leaders for those 15 minutes in a calculated risk and blown the lid off my race. With hindsight, the heat was killing me much more. Even with a very controlled and comfortable pace I think the heat of the day would have had me suffering beyond being able to perform well. OK maybe, but not well. Now the one-two punch of charging for 15 minutes and then crashing was being followed up with a knock-out blow; the heat was taking it out of me.
I went through some suffering. My challenge came way early than it was supposed to.
Still riding in 5th place but with an energy level less than what I am used to I keep expecting someone to fly by. It doesn’t happen.
After what seems like forever and in reality was 20 miles, finally a group of three come up on me and I feel some spark.
Competition for me has always been a collaborative effort. Sure, triathlon has its obvious solo aspect but to go beyond and discover your best self takes searching and learning from others. The true Latin based meaning of competition is, to strive together. In this way you challenge yourself and others to perform at you top abilities.
So for me that competitive spark gave some much needed energy and I was able to pick up the pace. The power of perception to find another gear.
However, it was short lived. While, I did not internalize or accept the degree of heat stress my body was under I willed my body to find the energy I had been training with all over the arm of France’s northwest coast.
I drank and ate mindfully of the situation and this aspect of my energy felt optimized. I simply was melting in the heat. The body was completely shocked by the temperature. I’ve been here many times in my career. Triathlons tend to be in warn to hot climates and when you live and train in a place that does not emulate or is not hotter than the race, you end up compromising your ability to thrive.
I suffered well in the last miles of the bike. Ha. Concentrating on simple aspects of breathing and being in Zurich with my whole family gave me the power to endure and discover more energy. I do not ever remember a time where I wanted/needed to get off the bike so badly. I got off the bike and entered transition with a strong contrast of emotions. Thankful to have completed the bike, grateful to have that behind me. However, distraught with what lied ahead. A marathon!? My body and mind are falling apart, I’m getting warnings, sirens, and outright protests from the body and mind. I’ve raced to the point of needing medical attention a few time in the past and recognized the path I was on.
Triathlon is about health for me. It is about thriving and living a balanced life while optimizing the body, mind and soul’s potential moment to moment. No race is worth finishing if you are compromising your health. Sure, there is a bit of a sliding scale but it goes from bad to worse in an instant.
This process played out while the volunteers went from being encouraging to sensing the intensity of the moment and walking away while giving me looks of empathy. I was the first person to enter the transition tent and just sit there. I needed time to gather myself.
I felt like steam was boiling off my skin.
I had lost the fight to ‘race’ near the end of the bike, this was clear. I dipped too deep into being able to compete with the other professionals. With all my wisdom over the years and even with an incredibly capable body and mind I had dipped into my greatest fear while racing. Survival mode. The real aspect of that that shook me was the fact that survival mode was happening so early with so much more to go. I had prepared for survival mode to set in late in the run but experiencing it so early on the bike was breaking my will to continue.
Everything was telling me not to go, that I should pull the plug, that I had raced smart and did what I could but it just wasn’t your day. You can’t possible do a marathon in this state with the heat only getting worse. The heat terrified me. Seriously, it was just so suffocating on a body trained in mild temperatures all summer. I can’t do it, I’m not gonna do it. I’m done with this.
Then, I thought of my family.
This was the turning point.
I put one foot in front of the other.
From that point forward, it was one breath at a time.
One precious breath, then another.
It was slow, it was painful, I felt pathetic, it was not how or what I trained for. Or was it? Sure I had trained to be at the pointy end of the race, and knew in my heart that I was capable of this. But that was not to be my lesson on the day. I was gaining something much richer, something much deeper than a thriving finish near the front. That’s what I wanted. But that’s not what I needed.
I raced with heart. I raced with all the heart I could.
This was to be my lesson on the day. My evolution to know my best self was not about performing as a supreme athlete but as a supreme person. About finding out what I was made of? Who am I? and What really matters?
I learned on the day that my strongest emotion and energy is love. That this is my potential, that this is what I’m made of and that this is what really matters.
So I ran on with heart.
It wasn’t the challenge I expected but it was the challenge I needed to open up my understanding.
While it was not the performance of my life, it was the race of my life. Therein lies the beauty.
A few minutes into the run I came upon a running shower next to the aid station. The water was not that cold but I stepped under it and it took my breath away like I had just jumped in an ice bath. In an instant, I understood the degree to which my body had been and was overheating. I had a little party in the shower and found a little mojo. Enough to run the marathon with liberal showers and hydration at each aid station.
Moments after finishing the race I laid in the grass with my family, strong enough to be with them. Appreciative of the love and the moment. Realizing that a family’s love is always there.