“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that features pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com. Look back on the other “Baker’s Dozen” entries from Bennett.
The lesson learned from my July’s Baker’s Dozen race? Attitude truly is everything, and there are positives to each and every experience despite the derailment of the best-laid plans. Sometimes your body simply betrays you and what you had envisioned as a strong and speedy run to the finish becomes a barely coordinated shuffle. Still you can–and should–find reasons to remain upbeat, and later a lens of learning through which to view your experience. Oftentimes the most painful moments are the ones that provide the most fodder for reflection and positivity. Case in point, my marathon run at Challenge Roth.
I tend to think that becoming attached to a specific goal time for a race is always a dangerous prospect. But I couldn’t help myself at Roth, especially since I was only planning to race a relay. I mean what could really go wrong in a straight marathon as compared to a full iron-distance attempt of swimming, cycling and running? I also tackled the relay swim leg, but to me that was simply a great way to warm up for the day and to luxuriate in the energy of the crowds that flock to the Challenge Roth start. I intended to swim at a somewhat relaxed pace, saving my competitive mojo for the marathon where I had high hopes of posting a personal PR.
The swim went off as planned and I successfully checked that box–I was no longer a Main Donau Kanal virgin! I handed off the timing chip that served as a relay baton to my patiently waiting teammate Michael (the managing director for Challenge Taiwan who I befriended when I covered his inaugural race in May) and began preparations to more or less chill out for five hours. I showered, ate, plugged in my iPod earphones and found a quiet spot in the race’s media room where I could put my compression-clad feet up and wait. I followed bits and pieces of the pro race (which began two and a half hours before the relay wave) in between blasting inspirational beats and reading and rereading messages from my coach and close friends. I focused on my marathon strategy–start at a decent clip, settle into a sustainable pace, be prepared to push through the always-tough halfway point and finally kick into a higher gear (and don’t be afraid to hurt a bit) for the final 10 km. I converted my goal mile pace to kilometers and repeated it, along with my target heart rate range, as a mantra to myself. I downed a final few sips of electrolyte drink and an energy gel to top off my tank. I was ready to go.
I awaited Michael’s arrival in the T2 relay zone, and soon enough I saw him headed my way. As we again made the timing chip handoff he recounted his struggle with cramping on the bike course, despite posting a time that was near spot-on what he had predicted. I felt such appreciation for his participation with me on the team, enabling me the opportunity to race, and I was eager to hear more detail about his day, but with a gentle nudge he reminded me it was my time to run. Off I went.
Starting out I felt fabulous, both physically with my freshly tapered legs and in spirit with my confidence rising as I clicked off each kilometer. Within the first 10 km I passed by so many people that gave me a boost–my homestay family cheering and several pro and age group athlete friends making their way through the final portions of the run. I felt energized, enthusiastic and on target. I knew my time goal was a tight one, but I believed in myself and my practiced ability to stay on pace. Anytime even the slightest doubts crept in I replaced them with positive messages. I was determined to make this marathon mine!
The first 15 km clicked away according to plan. Five km more and I was feeling my effort, but still on track. Sure enough at the halfway point the expected struggle arrived, but I kept on trucking–slightly slower yet still no cause for alarm. Then came the 25-km mark, and with it my legs suddenly staged a revolt from the knees down. It was a battle I had not experienced before, cramping that alternated from my right calf muscle to the left, traveled to the balls of each foot and even had my toes tying into knots inside my shoes. I wasn’t sure why it was happening, and I was halfway tempted to stop and stretch, but stopping during a race (in my mind at least) is almost always a sure sign of defeat. Instead I stayed calm and collected and told myself I should take the next 5 km a bit easier, try to relax my cramping muscles, and then regain my momentum by the 30-km mark in hopes of finding that final kick.
The 30-km mark came and went. I tried many times to pick up my pace–I even resorted to walking some short stints to fully relax my legs–yet every time my effort increased even slightly the cramping kicked in with a vengeance. Simply put, my dream of a PR marathon was dashed. I was honestly embarrassed to be struggling so much while surrounded by numerous other athletes in the final stretch of the full iron-distance race as individual competitors and faring far better than me. My body had no right to complain compared to what they were going through!
But despite my physical struggle I did my best to keep those negative emotions at bay. I was in pain and dealing with a certain level of disappointment, but in the bigger picture I was totally pleased. After all, I was finally racing in Roth, Germany, in a marathon I had longed to run, surrounded by friends, extended Challenge Family and what felt like a bazillion spectators, all cheering their hearts out for us athletes. There was not a single spot on that marathon course that felt lonely, and I couldn’t imagine returning the spectator cheers and volunteer support with anything but smiles.
Michael was waiting for me as planned at the relay reunion spot 500-meters from the finish, obviously concerned when I arrived more than half an hour later than we had hoped. I grabbed onto him with one arm, stabilizing myself enough to high-five row after row of children as we rounded the final corners into Roth’s triathlon stadium. We crossed the line and there were Felix and Kathrin Walchshöfer and a number of other Challenge crew to welcome us home with hugs. We were wrapped in the roar of the crowds and the warmth of friends and it really didn’t matter one iota what our time was.
Over the next few weeks as I continue on preparing to race the full Challenge Penticton on Aug. 25, I’ll analyze the details of what might have derailed my run, and I’ll do my best to correct anything that I can control. But the bottom line is this: my actual race performance in Roth was unimportant compared to everything surrounding it. What mattered was the fun that Michael and I had as teammates regardless of our cramping foibles, the incredible support we received from the entire region of Roth, the energy of everyone packed into the late night finish celebration, the emotion inspired by the grand finale fireworks show and the multitude of friends that also raced or cheered. Ask me what my run time was in Roth and I’ll soon forget, but ask me who was there by my side, on the course and welcoming me across the line and I’m pretty certain I’ll remember forever.
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