This was the most improbable race! A week ago, I said I couldn’t do it. The night before the race, I said I couldn’t do it. And, entering T2, I said that I certainly couldn’t do it. Never in the 35+ years that I’ve been a competitive runner and cyclist– and in all the hundreds and hundreds of races that I’ve done– I have never faced so much doubt about my ability to do a race. Yet somehow it came together. It wasn’t pretty or gloriously fast, but it came together nonetheless. This race report won’t talk about all the amazingly cool things about the race—it will focus mostly on my injuries and how a World Championship somehow came together despite it all.
A House of Cards
Why the doubt? Well, first my body this year has been an utter house of cards. For the last six months or more, I’ve had a nagging pes anserine tendon that has kept my weekly biking at a minimum—for over three months, it would ache for days if I pushed more than 20 watts above FTP. This is a relatively new injury this year and it’s as bad as any other. “Pes anserine” roughly translates to “goose’s foot,” which makes sense as three tendons all converge on this little pain point on the medial side of the knee. You’ll know it if you get it and you’ll wish you never heard of it. I’ve been trying to nurse it but it started to expand into the back of my knee.
When I went to my sports medicine doctor, he told me that I had somehow developed still another new injury (a small Baker’s Cyst) that made the back side of my knee ache as much as my pes anserine.
Then, after the Mount Rainier duathlon, my Achilles tendonitis has also been acting up, which has pretty much kept my long runs below 8 miles (and usually only 6 miles)—and has eliminated all speedwork. In fact, since the beginning of May, I hadn’t run any faster than about 9:30 per mile EVER.
Point of Doubt 1—The Appearance of the Back Ache
But the worst of my injuries was a back ache that had me flat on my back and taking prescription Flexoril and Voltaren. I was completely unable to walk while standing straight up for about three days. Jogging was completely out of the question—my back would instantly spasm and leave me on the ground after anything more than a weak shuffle. Plus, even shuffling couldn’t last for more than a minute or two—otherwise, I would have to sit (or preferably lie) down.
I pulled out my back after I fell on my butt practicing mounting my triathlon bike. My doctor told me that, when your body takes a firm hit to the gluteal muscles, other muscles in hip and back can go into a guarding protective made. When I pulled out my back, I started looking into cancelling my trip to Worlds but my doctor told me that I should wait and see—there was a chance that it would clear and that I’d be fine for Spain.
Of course, I have only myself to blame for all of these injuries. I’m convinced that a little dose of constant (but intelligent) strength training would have kept me in the clear. What kind of strength training? Well, something like the “Bulletproof Runners” program by Kinetic Revolution. I recently signed up for their program and I’ve been telling all my friends about it. I really think it helped save me on race day!
About three days before I was scheduled to leave for Spain, my back pain largely subsided. It wasn’t completely resolved—I could still feel it after sitting for long periods but it was good enough. So away I went to Spain—and after a dramatic 29 hours of travel hell—I made it to Spain with my ever-present World’s buddy Mary. Given the circumstances, everything seemed about as good as it could be until the day before the race. I knew that this would be a not-so-good race but I could finish.
Point of Doubt 2 – Day Before the Race
Then, tragedy hit! The day before the race, my back ache returned with a vengeance! The day before the race, everyone competing in the race had to register and get their team kits approved by the race officials. This meant wearing the team kit. It was a relatively cool day and, after registering and while sitting with some friends over lunch, my back must have gotten a chill because I could feel an electric shock go through my spine and down my leg when I stood up!
My symptoms were exactly the same as Point of Doubt 1—and if I couldn’t do something fast and was stuck in the same situation, there was no way that I could do the race. A slow walking shuffle for five minutes and then an equivalent amount of time flat out on the pavement isn’t any way to do a race no matter how much of a “never give up attitude” a person can have.
So the night before my big race and I’m popping a double dose of Flexoril and Voltaren. Of course, being a clean and conscientious athlete, I first checked the WADA list to verify that this stuff wasn’t banned. I did try jogging a few steps and it didn’t work—I was certain that, unless things improved drastically by the next morning, I wouldn’t even start the race!
Everything Tentative on Race Morning—and an Unintended Pre-Race Test
Flexoril definitely knocks me out and so I slept like a baby. I woke up about nine hours later and started getting ready for the race. Getting out of bed, it took a few minutes before I was completely straight and standing, but at least the pain wasn’t the electric sharp pain from the day before. I headed to transition and everything seemed fine.
Everything at World’s is always highly orchestrated. About 30 minutes before the race start and everyone needs to get ready in a bit open area nicknamed the “athlete’s lounge,” even though there’s nothing lounge-like about it. Right before I’m supposed to head in to the lounge, I realize that I left my timing chip in my hotel room! So I bolted back to my room, got my chip, and ran back to the race start. As the roads and bridges to the race start were a bit of a mess, this extra effort was quite nerve-wracking! But I was running easily at a sub-7:00 pace for the mile and my back felt fine! Maybe this race wouldn’t be so bad after all!
Run 1: 10K (47:19)
The first run was uneventful. It was a long boring course along an inlet in Avilés. There is a refinery nearby that billows sulfurous smoke that you can taste in your mouth and feel in your lungs as you run through its smog. Yeah? Who care! This is a race, damn it, and so I just tried to ignore it and pushed on. Despite not having run any speedwork in over a month, I was fine for some reasonable speed. My diet of exclusively 9:30 or 10:00 minute miles or slower wouldn’t prevent me from pushing at a 7:30 pace but anything faster might have been a challenge.
The photo at the right shows me on during the opening 10-K. My form is far from ideal, but my hip extension isn’t too horrible. And, yes, I really need to run with sunglasses– my expression always looks horrible.
Bike: 40K (1:19:17)
This is the slowest 40K bike I have ever done. No excuses here—training hasn’t been up-to-par and the opening 10K run just knocked the piss out of my legs. I had great aerodynamics but that wasn’t going to make up for less than 160 watts average.
To add insult to injury, on the first lap, my water bottle fell off my bike and broke. My friend Mark from Team Australia had told me earlier that there was a water stop on the far end of the course—and it was a good thing I paid attention when he told me. So, each time I came around, I slowed and gulped down almost a full bottle of Powerade. This didn’t sit at all well with my stomach—but I’m not a stranger to an upset stomach when racing! But an upset stomach certainly didn’t help my situation.
One advantage to lower than normal watts? The injuries that come with really high watts (i.e. my pes anserine and Baker’s Cyst) don’t come around. As a consequence, my right knee was the last thing I had to worry about.
Point of Doubt 3—Coming into T2
So remember that my back ache hates sitting down and then having to stand up? Unfortunately, that’s exactly what T2 is! Getting off the bike, I couldn’t walk. Even getting off the bike, I almost fell when my foot hit the pavement because I got an electric shock down my spine and leg when my right foot hit the pavement. So all I could do was just stand at the beginning of transition and let everyone pass me while I struggled to straighten out my back. I did this by tractioning my body by pushing hard against my saddle and handlebar. How was I possibly going to finish a run if I can’t even walk?
Transition at this year’s world’s is the longest transition I’ve ever seen. Really, I actually measured it. It required entering and going the full length (200m) and then the full length (another 200m) back out– a full 400 meters! I had to walk just about the full length of transition—first by taking tiny baby steps and, very gingerly, increasing my stride length. All the while, people were flying by me. Once I had walked one length with my bike, I turned around to get go to my spot. I then started experimenting with jogging a little bit, then a little bit faster, and faster. I never hit the jogging speed that everyone else was jogging. I managed to clock the second slowest transition of anyone—I can only imagine that the one person behind me was in agony.
Run 2 (5K in 28:34)
Coming out of transition, I didn’t look good. Jogging along at a slow pace, I was still bent over and not fully straight. My friend Mark gave me a cheer but later confessed that I was not looking good at all. With each step, I was expecting a misstep that would leave me on the ground and with my day just finished. You can’t really tell from looking at the photo at the left how bad it was, but it does give a few hints. I was really leaning forward– mostly because my back was hurting and my hip flexors were in knots. My rear leg has no hip extension at all and I’m extending way too far to get some kind of stride going. I’m aggressively heel-striking– something I never do in running– just to get something going.
The last 5K was two laps on a shortened version of the first run course. I really don’t know how I ever finished that first lap but by the end of the first lap, my body was slowly starting to unkink itself. By about the middle of the second lap, my back was now fully unkinked and I was running fine again. After over two hours on the course, I wasn’t exactly peppy and didn’t have much opportunity to leverage my improved running form—until I rounded the last turn and Tim handed me a USA flag.
At the team briefing, Tim reminded us that there are countless Americans who would give almost anything to wear the Stars and Stripes in a World Championship. The moment Tim handed me the flag, doubt and uncertainty just lifted. It was as if the short distance from there to the finish line was the only thing in the world that mattered. I was now running with great form and, despite being down on myself all day, I was now elated and couldn’t stop smiling. Yeah, this was my lousiest performance at Worlds. Sure, I could have done a million things better to prepare for this race. None of that mattered now. I had run the gauntlet through my deepest doubts and now was wearing the Stars and Stripes at the finish line of a World Championships! How cool is that?
There is so much to be thankful for. In addition to time and dedication, getting to Worlds takes a fair amount of resources that not everyone has. Sure, it’s a big investment for an average middle-class American but, as we’re competing with other middle-class Americans, it’s easy enough to lose sight of the fact that most people aren’t in our situation. Not by a long shot. And a lot of those people who would compete but who don’t have our resources could kick our butts if they only had the chance. We just happened to be born on the right side of the tracks.
I’m also really fortunate to have a (mostly) cooperative body and good health. I’ve worked for over 20 years advocating for the rights of people with disabilities and I know all too well how precarious my health is. Sure, I know some amazing athletes with disabilities, but we all know—whether disabled or not—that we’re damn lucky to be able to physically excel at the level that we do.
And, of course, I’m grateful for my friends and family who put up with my crazy demands and are patient enough to make all of this possible. I try to not make my passion interfere with their lives—but I know that I fail over and over again.
On a more specific level, this year’s Worlds were made amazing by a perfect storm of the talents of USA Triathlon, ITU, and the city of Avilés. USA Triathlon is such a class act—and it really shows at Duathlon Worlds where Tim Yount makes it a personal mission to make for a perfect race. I met Tim at my first Worlds in Nancy, France and, without him, it just wouldn’t be half the fun. Of course, none of this wouldn’t be possible without ITU. I have to say, however, that the city of Avilés deserves so much credit for making this year’s World Championship into the best World Championship ever. At the Opening Ceremonies parade, Avilés greeted us warmly and enthusiastically—I felt like the whole town showed up and was cheering us! The city’s police were incredibly protective and escorted all of our training rides (they did the same for the national teams from other countries) through the busy streets with a motorcycle escort. As I watched the (amazing) fireworks display at the closing ceremony, I was really sad to see it go. But I know that I’ll be back to Avilés!