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Fear 1.
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Athlete at the pre-race meeting for Ironman New Zealand
An 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 tomorrow.

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 our motives.

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).

 

© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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