Friday, September 11, 2009

a qualified success

USA Triathlon National Championships, Tuscaloosa AL 08/22/2009
1.5k mostly upstream swim, 39k bike, 9.8k run

"The tumult and the shouting dies --
the Captains and the Kings depart --"
leaving us with the flags flying over a quiet Black Warrior river flowing swiftly to the Gulf.

This is aftermath of course. In flashback, my story is a below-par performance at the world age-group (AG) race in 2006, see here. The idea this year was to attempt to qualify for 2010 Worlds for one last race, to satisfy my vanity. This was all predicated on job life and health remaining unchanged: Ha, the gods who live past all imploring laugh merrily and long. So as prospects narrow, the goal remained to qualify, but the actual trip to Worlds in Budapest became unlikely. It's just too much money, given the GFC's effects on our college and retirement funds. I’d feel bad leaving the family to spend thousands of dollars on a vanity project. Lausanne actually cost less than Tuscaloosa, go figure.

A cheap flight to Huntsville left me with 100 miles to drive to Tuscaloosa. Walking out of the airport was like stepping into a pressure cooker - the heat and humidity combine to a sensation of physical oppression. Torrential rains and heavy traffic for all those miles wasn't quite as expected, but survived to reach the U of Alabama's campus and the Official USAT Hotel Capstone. Every third radio station in Alabam’ is faux Christian. Luckily one of them was bluegrass gospel, some good old-time music. The mayor was running ads on the radio thanking all the triathletes for coming to spend money in Tuscaloosa.

Dined quietly in the deserted hotel restaurant, as I couldn't face any more driving. There was one other couple, he was another racer in my AG, from Montana which is a long long haul. Nationals draws a crowd wherever it's held.

Next day was all administrivia, fetching the bike from the transport company, checking in, etcetera etcetera. On the walk back from bike check-in, talked to a Pennsylvania couple: we were in violent agreement on the need to avoid unnecessary exertion before the race. Amazingly the bike course was cluttered with clots of bikers, apparently riding the whole way. I drove the course, bike then run. Both were hillier than expected. The run in particular had some startling hills climbing out of the floodplain.

I'd finished the entire 500 pages of David Copperfield by dinnertime. A book is a good shield when dining solitarily but having read greedily, at the restaurant I had to sit in my usual eccentric-loner pose. The guitar player showed up with an old Fender amp and a couple of acoustic instruments, promising to make our ears bleed, but in the event was gently melodic. My usual pre-race meal is a PB&H (peanut butter and honey), so ordered a PB&J to-go from the kid's menu, for breakfast.

By morning all those rains I drove through had worked their way into the watershed and the Holt Lock opened. This turned the river from a sluggish scarcely-detectable flow to a brisk 1 mph current. I swam a short warmup upstream, turned over and floated down at a good clip. We faced the swim with trepidation. One poor old gal (age 77) never even finished the swim, just stayed in one spot for two hours fighting on, then called for a kayaker and quits. Bravo, is all I can say in admiration.

I usually swim about 23-24 minutes but took a hard-working 33 today: once tried to get closer to shore for quieter water but nearly impaled myself on a snag. The stronger swimmers lost 5min or so, the weaker went to the wall and lost 10 to 50. One of my AG competitors swam 44 so I beat him for the only time I ever will.

On to the bike, a two-loop course, and immediately plunged into a bunch of squirrelly 20-somethings on their second loop. For most of the first loop all my effort went into not-crashing and avoiding a drafting violation. I did clip a traffic cone at one point, but managed to keep it upright. The second loop was much pleasanter, in exactly the same time as the first.

By the run it was 80 degrees and 70% humidity, really not as bad as it might have been but quite bad enough. After ten minutes I decided to take my top off and damn the spectators' eyes, it was just too hot to be wearing anything more than necessary. The hills were staggering. Held on grimly to finish in 2:23, as 33 swim, 1:04 bike, 43 run.

At the finish I was quite satisfied with my effort, as I could scarcely walk. The run time seemed slowish though that could be put down to the uphills. Looking at the results, everyone else ran their usual times or faster: that plus the anecdotal reports of GPS showing a short course leads to the belief that it was short and I was slow. Oh dear.

Later that day, delivering the bike back to Luke at the bike transport, I got talking to Kirk Framke (your M35-39 National Champioeen !) about running and getting old. The postrace exhaustion supplied a form of 'in vino veritas' which let me blurt out a truth I'd not articulated before: the worst thing about aging is that running now hurts. It never used to hurt - the pain appeared as information rather than suffering - but now every blessed step of a race takes effort to oppose the weakness. If I take my watch off it's possible to imagine myself to be running fast, still that's only a comfortable delusion. Kirk was an architect: after 9/11 he took to teaching middle-school math in the poorer quarters.

All this plus my need for a little lie-down at the hotel meant I missed the women's elite race.

Here are their bikes at least. The greensward in the background is where the AG rabble racked their bikes. I was by the first flag on the left at the back. A California girl in the 45-9 AG, coached by Michellie Jones, was racked opposite. She assured me her Tyr speedsuit was worth several minutes in the swim. I took an informal survey of all the athletes I saw wearing speedsuits, asking if it helped: 6 "I don't know, this is the first time I've tried it" and 2 definites. The definites came from ex-college swimmers with deep backgrounds, so I'm inclined to think I should have spent the $250.

At the end of the day, 14th in the 2010 50-54 rankings, so a clean qualifier at least - top 18 qualify, this year. 21st in 45-9, a bit weak but as the oldest in the AG I'm not too concerned. The bike was 1:04 for 24 miles which is about 1:06 for 40k, a small PR. The major disappointment was that I'd trained very carefully all year long in an attempt to recover my run, but all the training and tapering did not make any difference at all. In fact the neglected swim was the best performance, bike OK, run mediocre.

From one of President Obama’s books,
“I began feeling the way I imagine an actor or an athlete must feel, when, after years of commitment to a particular dream, after years of waiting tables between auditions or scratching out hits in the minor leagues, he realizes that he's gone just about as far as talent or fortune will take him. The dream will not happen, and he now faces the choice of accepting this fact like a grown-up and moving on to more sensible pursuits, or refusing the truth and ending up bitter, quarrelsome, and slightly pathetic.”

"If you can't let up on the competitive part of it, if you have to go as fast at 50 as you did at 20, you will grind yourself into the ground and become stressed out, bitter and unhealthy." Mark Allen

I'm not bitter, really. It was swell while it lasted.

Brightroom took a picture of me in the race that is the nearest to flattering I've seen in thirty years of race pictures.

On the other hand, my nieces and nephews think I look like a velociraptor, strange bug eyes and muscles in implausible places. So much for flattering. After all those pictures I'm forced to acknowledge that maybe I really do look as goofy as they seem.

Letters (well emails in point of sober fact) to and from Tuscaloosa:
here in tuscaloosa
Aug 21
there are no telephones.. the hotel phone is incapable of outside
calls, and there are no public phones. Extraordinary.

Anyway, arrived safely last night about 7pm, after 130 miles of
driving in heavy traffic and torrential rain. The air is thick enough
to chew. Bike also arrived safely so we're all in place. In Kansas
there were 36 in my AG, here there are 61. Yikes. I guess that's the
east coast phenomenon, more people everywhere you go.

The conference center has free computers so here I am.

I plan to have dinner at FIG (food is good)
and order the kid's pb&j to go, for breakfast tomorrow.

Haven't seen anyone I know yet, talked to a guy from Montana
yesterday, the only one from the state. The hotel has the same feel as
in Kansas - individual triathletes are in general pleasant to know,
the herd emits a narcissistic vibration.
How do you know there's a triathlete in the room ? He'll tell you..

The hotel bed is very comfy. Two queen beds, I need my family with me.

> See. You need a cellphone.
> I was wondering why you hadn't called last night. Boys came up with all
> kinds of excuses for you. Maybe your plane was late, maybe you were too
> (see, we need call waiting).
> Dougie needs to catch a fish and release it to complete his
> fishing merit badge. We might all go down to the gravel ponds on Sunday
> to find a fish to release. Any suggestions on what lure to use ? Can
> you use bait there?

bait is allowed, a nice worm is the best bet - the ponds have mostly
warm-water fish, bass etcetera, so woims is what you need. Otherwise a small minnow lure.

Yes, now everyone has a cellphone, no-one is allowed to not have one:
since the public phone infrastructure has withered away.

The goodie bag includes a fine big towel from Ekanuba (dogfood company), with a pawprint on it. Odd sort of triathlon sponsorship.

It's raining and hot. The bike course is a lot slower than I thought
it would be, hilly and two long climbs. The most part of the swim is
against the current, which is bringing down quite a bit of detritus,
leaves twigs branches and probably the odd dead dog. Not much chance of a PR I think, but I do not repine.
Aug 22
the current in the river picked up overnight. One 70-year-old woman
spent 2 hours swimming upstream before giving up..
I was 10min slower than usual, but the weaker swimmers were 15-20
minutes off their usual swims. This was an advantage for me.
14th in the age group for Worlds qualifier (top 18 qualify), 21st in
45-9 AG. So an OK race, not as fast as I'd hoped, but the course was
very hard. I put my name down for Budapest, have 4 weeks to make a
decision before they want a race fee, but I'm thinking probably not.

off to chipotle for dinner because it's getting late and I'm tired
now. Drive at 7:30am tomorrow and away we go again.

the end