The closest that I have come to a tragic race result in the triathlon did not happen during a race at all. It was the events that led up to the race that almost completely derailed my day, and perhaps every day since.
In July of last year, I was preparing for my second triathlon, the Deschutes Dash in Bend. Like most athletes, I prepare for my races with a methodical, almost scientific ritual in which I visualize and anticipate the exact sequence in which I am going to act in the hours leading up to the race.
I knew what time I was going to leave Eugene, I knew the route I was going to drive, and knew just what time I would arrive at my campsite. As is the case with every race plan that I prepare, I knew precisely what I was going to eat and when, how long it would take me to digest my meal, when I would go to bed and when I would go to the bathroom. I anticipated how long it would take me to get to my race in the morning and where I was going to park once I got there. I have learned through trial and error not to leave anything to chance, and for this race I was well prepared.
If you have never been through this sort of ritual, I imagine that it sounds more like some sort of obsessive compulsive panic attack than any sort of recreational activity. Over the top? Not really when you consider the hundreds of hours and thousands of miles that an athlete puts into training for these events. Not to mention the small fortune it costs to register and travel to a race. Imagine an entire winter’s preparation thrown out the window just because you decided to try a new dinner dish the night before that doesn’t agree with your stomach, and now the closest that you are going to get to the starting line is the row of porto-potties at transition. To further complicate things, the mind is probably the most sensitive part of your body when it comes to racing. Mentally, even the thought of messing up a race can be enough to derail a good day. Mental skills are as crucial to good race as strength and fitness. This is why all endurance coaches will stress the importance of a well planned and executed race plan.
So with my plan in hand, I set off to my race. An hour later, almost to the pass over the Cascade range that plan started to chug to a halt. The engine on my Blazer started to lurch as I was greeted by a plume of steam jetting from the hood. A quick survey of my temperature guage showed a completely over-heated engine. While it was a nuisance though, I had anticipated for some sort of delay and given myself extra time in the plan, I could deal with this. I pulled over to let the car cool off. Unfortunately though, an hour later, the engine temperature had hardly budged. I was starting to feel the first pangs of stress over whether I was going to make packet pickup for the race.
Fortunately a concerned motorist pulled over and checked out my car, I had absolutely no coolant in the engine but fortunately he had a gallon jug of water in his car. Using the jug and a nearby drainage ditch, I was able to refill the radiator and head back on my way. I was able to make it about 20 miles before the engine completely overheated again, so I used water from a reservoir near the highway to fill up again. This is how I proceeded over the next several hours, 20 miles at a time creeping along until I could find another ditch, puddle, or stream that I could top off my tank. Unfortunately I got to a point an hour out of Bend that I ran out of water. I was forced to make the call for a tow.
Things didn’t get any easier at this point. None of the mechanics in Bend were open on Sunday, and I had to be back in Eugene for a meeting with the owner of the company I work for on Monday, this was non-negotiable. To further complicate things, every hotel room in town was booked for a Steve Miller Band concert that was taking place that night in town. Lacking any other options, I had the tow truck take my car to the campground that I was staying at for the night. Judging from the number of people that were pointing and laughing, it must have been quite a sight watching the wrecker driving through the camp ground looking for my assigned campsite.
After getting my camp site set up, I had to make some tough choices. I knew that if I wanted to get my car fixed on time without a reservation, I would need to get it in to a mechanic first thing in the morning. But I had a race scheduled first thing in the morning and I wouldn’t be done with that until around noon. I had to make the choice between getting my car fixed and heading home or racing and hoping for the best afterwards. I set my alarm to go off first thing in the morning and armed with as many gallons of water as I could fit in my car, I head out and watched the sun rise over the Oregon Desert as I crept along the highway to my race.
Once I got the the race location, I had a million things swirling around in my head. I knew that as soon as my race ended, I would need to find a mechanic that could fit me in, somehow find a way to get my car there, and how in the world was I going to pay for all of this? Remember what I said earlier about the mental preparation being crucial to a good race? The last thing you want running through your head during a race is worrying about getting your car fixed. Anticipating additional car trouble, I arrived at the event very early so I had plenty of time to clear my head. I sat down along the Deschutes and watched the water flow by. For about an hour I just watched the river flow and took in the beautiful morning. I prepared my transition area for the race and let my self get caught up in the pre race excitement as the other racers arrived. As my wave start approached, I put on my wetsuit and headed to the starting line.
Most of my wave lined up in the shallow area of the river on the inside curve of the river bend, but I headed out to the deep section. While it took a bit more energy to tread water further out, I had just spent the last hour watching this river and I knew exactly how the current was flowing through it. The starting pistol fired, and I dug into the fast water and rocketed past the rest of my starting wave. At this point, I had completely erased the rest of my worries from my mind. I let the river carry me along, and adjusted my course at the landmarks I had set for myself where I knew that the current changed. I finished the 1500 meter swim in an incredible 16 minutes which turned out to be one of the best swim times of the day. For the rest of the race I hammered away concerning myself with only getting past the next person in front of me. I finished the race strong, and after gathering myself, I head over to where the results were being posted. A quick scan of my place revealed something I had not prepared myself for. I had finished well enough to qualify for the USA Triathlon national championships.
I didn’t take very long to savor my victory though. Within minutes I was on the phone trying to find a mechanic that could fix my car. Fortunately I was able to find one that could fit me in, and I spent the rest of the day sitting in a waiting room still wearing my bike shorts and race suit while my car got repaired. Even though it ended up costing me a $1000 in towing and repair fees, everything ended up ok. Had I not competed in that event, I would never had made it to nationals which ultimately led to my current goal of making USA Triathlon. I wonder how much different my life would be at this point without that race. It would have been easy to justify giving up, or letting the stress of the moment ruin my day. But I am proud of the fact that I hung in there and was able to keep my head in the game. Sometimes in life, things don’t go as planned, but the way that we choose deal with those obstacles is ultimately going to define the type of person that you become.