Kinetic Motion - Blog

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

No Retreat, Baby, No Surrender

The protocol on race reports suggests this is way past due. Please forgive. I've needed to think about it for a while.

A mist hung over the deep darkness that enveloped the park in the hour before the morning dusk. Now and then, faint, muffled noises broke the silence, as if the city were rolling over in its sleep. I sat alone, by my bike, looking down from a high embankment at the line where the race would start and finish.
For three months, I had been living in the future. With the dawn that future would arrive. Until then, I had time to sit and think.
When Tom Slear, the writer for Triathlete Life magazine, talked to me about rebounding from injury he asked "How do you come back from something this serious?" I responded, "How can I not come back? This is what I do."
It was a simple answer that reflected a larger truth. The hand we are dealt in life defines much of who we are. We are haves or have nots, shaped for life by the quality of our childhood, blessed with natural talents or challenged without them.
All of that has defined us by the time we are 10. After that we morph from one identity to the next. We are a student, a lover, a mother, an employee, a boss, a caretaker and a spouse. Unless we resist, those roles come to most of us. From there, our identity is defined by the paths and patterns we chose.
I took inventory of my identity as I sat alone on the misty hillside that April morning. I am a dad. I love my job. I am an athlete. I am a survivor. I am going to Rimini.
The last three -- athlete, survivor and Rimini -- all became intertwined this year. Athlete was my desire, survivor was my good fortune and Rimini was the goal that fired my recovery.
As a child I adored the Olympics above everything else in sport. They had become the stage for a bizarre Cold War struggle that suggested if we couldn't nuke the Commies the next best thing was to win more gold medals. That Superpower tussle heightened the drama but held little interest for me. I was in love with the athletes and their quest for glory. Medals were fabulous, but to me the athlete chosen to carry the American flag at the closing ceremony had achieved the highest honor.
As an adult the fantasy that pushed me through the last miles of many a hard run was the vision of chasing down the final adversary on the track in the stadium to win the Olympic marathon.
The notion that I every would chase anybody while wearing "USA" across my chest was notthing more than fuel for fantasy until last year. The honor of representing my country in the World Championship of any sport -- lawn darts would be fine -- had been so distant from reality that it was beyond comprehension. But in 2007 it happened. Three world championships, two of them as a member of Team USA.
I chased down a bunch of people without coming close to winning any gold medals, but racing for something larger than myself was a heady rush that changed the way I thought of myself. Ego, yeah, maybe, but at this point in life I too well grounded to get carried away with accomplishments that are modest by any standard other than my own.
But, geez, it felt good. And it gave me confidence that in 2008 I would qualify to race the World Championships in Rimini, Italy. Then, in January, came the crash.
I have not wanted to talk about the pain, but I thought about it that race-day morning as twilight and the first race volunteers filtered into the field below me.
I'm told that now my body twitches as I sleep, and sometimes I sit bolt upright in the middle of a deep sleep, shaken but unsure by what. All memory of landing head-first at 20 miles an hour or skidding down the pavement has remained buried in my subconsciousness, but it seeps into my dreams.
My vocabulary has expanded to include "starburst pain." Picture the starburst rocket in a fireworks display, a violent explosion that radiates a flaming shower from its core. For three months my left side and right hand felt like the Fourth of July. I slept in a neck brace a cast an a sling, when I slept much at all, and it was painful to get out of bed, especially when the broken ribs got squeezed. I've always tolerated pain well. This year I have needed to.
And on race morning I was left with a shoulder that didn't work very well, and a hand and neck that never again would move as they once did.
None of that had mattered much because I'd refused to let it. Pain was in the present, the result a fleeting moment in the immediate past that I was eager to forget. I had escaped by living in the future, determined to race again, focused on getting to Rimini and visualizing the finish line below that now was coming alive with the people who were prepared to race toward it today in the national championship.
I got up and rolled my bike down the hill.


The startline was a reunion of Team USA 2007 that continued for the first few minutes after the the 10,000 meter leg of the race got underway. I pushed hard down a hill, across a foot bridge and onto the footpath of a big island park. As the miles passed the faces changed. The familiar ones disappearing ahead, new ones appearing from the rear.
A chilly rain spit down by the time I got the bike going. The 40 kilometer course was a bunch of loops over a bridge and through a neighborhood. The bridge was long and straight, and into a headwind half the time. My shoulder didn't work well enough to get down on the aerobars and cheat the wind. I rode tall in the saddle, like some statue of a Civil War general.
On the second run, 5,000 meters, a whole lot of people were headed in the other direction -- toward the finish line -- as I got started. A couple of miles later, I closed on the finish line that I'd crossed a thousand times in my mind. Tim Yount, the USAT team manager, was on the microphone and he made a big fuss as I came across.
I finished 18th in my age group. A year earlier at the same national championships I'd been 4th.
Rimini might as well have been on the dark side of the moon.
But this dismal day was in the present, soon to be the past, and I resumed living in the future, where all things are possible.


The town of Sartell is Garrison Keillor's Lake Woebegon. To get there, you fly to Minneapolis and then drive northwest for an hour or so toward St. Cloud. Sartell is small enough that it doesn't make the map they hand out at the rental car counter.
They have a race there every year -- the Apple Duathlon -- that draws the best competition from that middle chunk of the country.
As I drove toward it a month later I knew what had gone wrong that rainy day at nationals. While my head lived in the future for the three months before that race, my body was in survival mode. I had raced as a survivor, letting people slip ahead as I sought to reach the finish line. This time would be different. Coach Max had promised me "exponential improvement" after training hard for four weeks.
Folks in Sartell are characters out of Keillor's mythical Minnesota town. It is a factory town on the Mississippi, far north of wherever it is that the river gets broad and muddy. The police sergeant at headquarters made a few calls when I asked her about the race course. Then she pulled up the race website, printed out the course maps and spent five minutes explaining just how to follow it. The hotel clerk was all Boy Scout now grown up, who asked me if I'd be okay with a room upgrade to one with a jacuzzi because, geez, that room wasn't spoken for and somebody ought to have the pleasure. There must be a few unpleasant people in Sartell, but they were out of town the weekend when I visited.
I drove the bike course the day I arrived. Rolling hills for a several miles in the middle, a few of the low-gear variety, and then an eight-mile flat drag strip on the tail end.
Race day was perfect. The wind of the day before had died down. It was cool and clear. There were a couple of dozen guys registered in my age group, including the guy who blew away the field the year before and several others whose times in past races looked impressive.
The first 5,000 meter run began with a big hill and then flattened out. I sensed that everyone in my age group -- ages are marked on right calf -- was in front of me, but I wasn't in survival mode this time and held my pace.

The same big hill welcomed us on the bike. I felt good, down on the aerobars again, although every jolt in the road set of a starburst in my shoulder. I got into the groove and powered through the hilly section of the course, happy with an average just above 22 miles an hour, as the hairpin leading to the drag strip drew near.

I made the turn -- into what somebody said was a 20 mile an hour headwind. I slowed as suddenly as a cartoon character shifting into reverse. The next eight miles were a slog, with gusts slowing me to 15 miles an hour.

The second run was a push, passing a bunch of people after I got up the hill, but I realized that throughout the race I hadn't noticed passing anyone in my age group. It was depressing. Last year's winner was standing just beyond the finish line when I crossed it.

I hadn't beaten him, hadn't even come close, but this time I raced to win not to survive.

Not an outstanding race, really, but the improvement that Max had promised.

It's been a couple of weeks, and I've broken free of that ugly instant on January 19th and the painful months that followed. Now, I'm living in the present and looking forward to the future. This week I got an email from USAT:

Dear Athlete,
Congratulations! You are being contacted because you have earned a spot on Team USA for the 2008 Short Course Duathlon World Championships because of your outstanding performance at the 2008 Apple Duathlon. The 2008 World Championships are set to take place September 27-28 in Rimini, Italy.


No retreat, baby, no surrender.


Blogger Julee Waldrop said...

Ashley, my coach, Sage Rountree connected me with your blog. I too was at Du short course Nationals and performed at less than my best, but I too am going to Rimini and this will be my first World Championships and first time for team U.S.A. in the female 45-49 (I am unfortunately 49) age group. I had read your article in Triathlon life and was inspired, as I am once again by this post. I hope we meet in Rimini!

July 2, 2008 2:49 PM  
Anonymous Stephanie Pratola said...


July 9, 2008 6:57 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Follow us on: Kinetic Motion on Facebook Kinetic Motion on Twitter