Athlete at the pre-race meeting for Ironman New Zealand realizes
what he got himself into.
23:39 hrs Local
Zone Time, Nice, France. 24 September 2004.
In 21 minutes the race will be
I am looking forward to the day
when the race was yesterday.
I’m scared. It’s Friday.
This race is big and bad, so much
bigger than me. So I would say being scared is pretty rational.
On Sunday I face 2.4 miles (4 kms)
in a choppy Mediterranean with wicked currents and notoriously
rotten course marking. Quite typically for me, I’ve
done no swim training. Too busy. To make matters worse, this
swim starts in the dark, before sunrise. Following that, if
I get through it, are 74.5 miles of what is likely the toughest
triathlon bike course in the world. A week ago in my store
a 3 time Tour de France winner and a 9 time Tour de France
finisher described the bike course as “very, very tough”.
Then there is a relatively easy 18.6 mile run along the sun-splashed
Cote d’Azur on the French Riviera, done on an ankle
that a week ago I couldn’t walk on.
So yeah, I’m scared.
I took the advice of friends and
experts and rode the toughest part of the course yesterday.
Huge mistake. I should have stuck to cruising the Basse Corniche
between here and Monte Carlo. It is a tame, picturesque albeit
busy piece of French costal road choked with Ferraris and
Lamborghinis. This black pearl belly chain of asphalt around
France’s abdomen is so luxurious Rolls Royce’s
borrow their name from it.
By contrast even the approach to
the monster of this course is bad enough. Murderously steep
in places and so serpentine you can scarcely ever see more
than the length of a U.S. city block in front of you. The
course twists and coils and whips and dives like a fire hose
let go. Then you enter a quaint little village with a series
of signs. One of the placards points up a steep, smooth, narrow
roadway that quickly hairpins out of sight, roughly angled
toward an enormous granite monolith that fully dominates the
landscape overhead. The black strip of pavement rears up like
a pissed off cobra. The placard reads: Col de Vence. 963 Meters.
The Col de Vence is an executioner
of ambition from the country that brought us the guillotine.
It is a brutish 6.5 miles long ranging from steep to seemingly
vertical. In my lowest gear, 34/23, I could barely maintain
forward momentum. My speed is 10 mph on the Col. That means
I will be climbing this mountain for almost an hour. In the
Tour de France this climb would be called a “Categorie
2” or third down the list of five levels of difficulty
used to rate the mountains in The Tour. Except for its relatively
diminutive, barely sub-1000 meter altitude it might rate a
“Categorie 1” (more difficult) depending on its
position on the course. The ultimate rating, “Hors Categorie”
(above category) is reserved for freakish torture chambers
like the Col de Tourmalet, Isola 2000, and the Col de la Croix
de Fer (Climb of the Cross of Iron). But the Col de Vence
is no less daunting to a flatlander like me, summoned to this
race by 20 years of ambition and its impending extinction.
Of even greater concern, let’s
be honest- fear, to me- are the descents. At one point this
course unloads a salvo of sixteen 180 degree switchbacks in
less than 3.1 miles- going down. Personally I would prefer
going up them at 10 mph rather than coming down them at 45
mph. On a sixteen pound bicycle with brake pads the size of
four postage stamps I have the distinct impression that I
am more passenger than pilot. I don’t like that.
My preparation for this race was
going quite well. That is, until one evening about four weeks
ago when I was putting down a record pace tempo run on my
eight mile run course in Dearborn, “Zone of Power”
along Michigan Avenue. That section of Michigan Avenue is
under construction and features numerous irregularities in
pavement. I found one of them and it wrenched my left ankle
at an angle that exceeded its range of motion. So something
in there tore. I’ve been doing R.I.C.E. on it ever since;
Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. It feels better today,
but telling myself it is 100% is a bold-faced lie. It is at
best, borderline. And the worst part is the “R”
in R.I.C.E. means I really don’t know how it will feel
in running shoes until I leave T2 in the race.
So maybe you can see why I am scared.
This race is important to me, I have dreamed of it since I
entered this sport 20 years ago this year. And this is the
last year they will ever have it. It is like removing Mt.
Everest after this climbing season. It’s now or never,
no second chances, no coming back next year because there
is no next year for this race. 2004 is the last year ever
for the Nice Triathlon.
Fear is an enormous topic. In all
its facets fear spans the spectrum from attractive to repellant,
from “thrilling” to “terrifying” and
everything in between.
Perhaps more than any other single
factor in the human experience, fear rules us.
This race is a good opportunity
for me to do some thinking about fear; I can see it when I
look in the mirror.
I would suggest that the difference
between the “everyman” and the “exceptional
man” is the degree to which fear influences their decisions.
For the majority of us decisions
boil down to how much fear we are willing to tolerate. The
unremarkable character succumbs more than not, basing every
decision on risk aversion and fear avoidance. In fact, the
mere act of deciding is often too terrifying for some people
so they simply do not decide. They let the cards fall were
they may, fate or chance becoming their course, fear the compass
they use to navigate it. This is a convenient arrangement,
since throwing yourself on the altar of chance or fate or
destiny gives you a convenient explanation for everything
that happens to you in life; “I can’t do this
because that happened to me… I never accomplished that
because of these things that happened to me…”
Let fear be your governor and you
will never be accountable for failure. Or success.
One thing I have learned about
life in the context of facing fear is that very, very few
things in life just “happen” to us. Somewhere
in the rearview mirror of our existence we did something to
attribute our current condition to. Just because we don’t
understand exactly what it is we did to cause our current
condition doesn’t mean it just “happened”
to us. We probably caused it through decisions made out of
fear, or out of non-decisions made for the same reason. The
greater the fear the more difficult it often is to decode
And the worst thing about fear
is that there is no freedom in it. Take tonight for example.
I am in France, on the Riviera. I should be living it up and
eating sumptuous meals in beach front cafes and swilling espressos
to stay awake all night while taking in the sights and sounds
only to wake in the morning on the beach with the sunrise
and do it all over again. That is what I should be doing.
But being the inmate of fear I am incarcerated to an existence
filled with hyper-hydration, the resultant frequent urination,
monitoring sodium intake, staying off my bum ankle and stressing
over tire selection and elastic shoelaces. I won’t have
my freedom on the Riviera until the ocean has been swum, the
Col climbed and the Cote d’ Azur run. Then, fears confronted
one way or another, well or poorly but at least to the best
of my ability 23 hours and 47 minutes from now, I will be
free to enjoy the Riviera, the food, the Formula 1 course
in Monaco and everything else this place has to offer.
But until then, I am just another
inmate of fear.
(If you are interested please read
the sequel, “Fear 2”, in two days here).