Not finishing a race sucks. It is the worst feeling in the world; that DNF sitting next to your name is the triathlon equivalent of the scarlet letter. No matter the reason, you never feel good about it. But you know what sucks a lot worse? Being hurt. Today I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to walk around on two legs, relatively pain free.
Yesterday (June 22nd) was the Philadelphia Olympic Triathlon. I raced it last year, and it was my favorite race of the season, if only for the fact that I vastly outperformed my expectations, finished 2nd in my age group, and began to think that maybe if I continued to focus and work hard I could make something of myself in this sport. This year was setting up to be a great day, after successfully completing the Triple-T, I felt fit, fast, and at peace with the preparation that I put in. My coach Marc was there with Team Challenge, and to put up a good result in front of him would mean a great deal to me. I was nervous, more so than last year, but I don’t associate a negative connotation to that because I was ready. Conditions were friendly, and I was all smiles before the race talking with new friend and fellow Brooklynite Michael Olzinski.
And so a little before 8 am, my wave’s whistle went off, and I started. The Schuykill River isn’t exactly the cleanest place to swim, but the water is calm and inviting, and there is an ever so slight current to make your experience in the petri dish of bacteria end that much faster. My arms felt like jelly in the water, the nerves were beginning to catch up to me, but I was moving, and I knew it. I focused on a long and smooth stroke the whole way. My time, 21:25, reflected an offseason of hard work and progress in the water, almost 2:30 faster than last year, and the swim was slightly harder this year. I’m a strong enough athlete out of the water that if you were to tell me I would be coming out 2 minutes behind the leaders in my AG, I would have taken that every day of the week and twice on Sunday. In and out of transition in 1:20 (RACKED RIGHT BY THE WALL?!? THANKS PHILLY ORGANIZERS!!!), and I was off and moving on the bike.
I felt good, knowing the course I was determined not to start hammering until after the first little hill, when I knew my legs would be able to shift up a gear. I picked out my rabbit (someone who I would use to pace me early on), and I stayed with him. About 2-3 miles in, I’m not sure when exactly, I got to the bridge that switches your direction from north to south. It was crowded so I went to the outside, and hit the turn hard.
And then I went down…
I haven’t crashed on the bike in a while. It was a surreal feeling. I had my eyes out in front of me, and a line picked out. For a split second I knew I was going too fast, and at that moment I lost control. I don’t know if it’s because I tried to resist the turn at the last minute or I took my eyes off the line and looked down, it just happened. I skidded, my cleats clicked out the bike kept going, and I went with it for a little bit before popping up.
My mind was racing, I stood up, and lied back down. I immediately checked all my joints, nothing was broken, nothing felt out of whack, my hip and elbow both burned like heck and it felt like my hip was bruised, but I was alive. I dropped my helmet and stared at the sky, unsure of what to do next. An incredibly nice police officer and spectator came over and checked on me, asked if I wanted rescue, and delivered my bike. I was there for at least five minutes, thinking about what the next step was. I had no idea what to do.
I envision a lot of things going wrong during a race and how I’ll react; a flat tire, other mechanical issues on the bike, stomach problems, and the heat, but I never imagine crashing. Eventually, I collected myself and continued. The front of my bike was bent way off center, but I thought I could finish. That was, until I reached the second real climb of the race, and my rear derailleur started screaming at me and wouldn’t shift, and my back brake was rubbing against the wheel. My day was over; I walked back to medical to get checked out.
I was disappointed and angry, I fell and I had no one to blame but myself. No one swerved close to me, the road was nothing that I haven’t dealt with before, and I have made that same turn hundreds of times. My attitude and ego immediately after the crash mirrored the condition of my bike, twisted and bruised. I walked back to medical thinking about all the work that went into today, a race that was going to be the barometer of progress for a year’s worth of solid work. A race I could point to and say, “Look at what I’ve done, look at how hard I have worked to get better.” I felt, for an instant, that that was taken away from me.
But of course, that wasn’t taken away from me. As is often the case, an hour or two provides some appropriate perspective. A bad result isn’t indicative of poor process or execution. As I mentioned before, not finishing just sucks, that’s all. No one likes going into a big race and not finishing, but not finishing doesn’t erase a solid swim time, or the fact that I am a far better athlete now than I was a year ago at this time.
Far more importantly, I am fine; sore, bruised, and burned, but fine. All things considered, there are a lot of things to be taken away from a day like this. The first thing that jumps to my mind is an unfriendly reminder that as athletes, we are not invincible forces of nature when we race, and things change quickly. There are an incredible number of things that happen, and suddenly your season is over. I am so fortunate that isn’t the case with me, and I might only miss a few days before being able to resume training.
My crash is also a reminder that it’s important to respect the sport, the different courses, and the challenges each one brings. I think that at my core, I am still a little unsure of myself on the bike, through no fault of anyone but myself. Because I performed so well at Philly last year, I wanted to use this opportunity to prove to myself and to others that I could hammer this course with fury. I make no secret of the fact that I race angry, but admittedly, that lends itself to emotional decisions at times, and mine is an example of how quickly that can spiral out of control. I love this bike course because it’s so technical, and the mix of techniques required to ride it strongly play to my strengths. Winding climbs, descents, and tight turns (feel free to laugh at this next part) are normally places I can put time into the competition, not fall. A tunnel vision attitude that screams, “FASTER BRIAN!!! GO GO GO!” is not the way a smart racer approaches terrain. Forgetting that cost me my day, and it is a lesson I’ll carry with me by way of road burn.
My last takeaway is much more positive. After the race I received texts and calls from those who followed along asking how it went, and why my name didn’t show in the finish. To hear from Coach Cane especially is indicative of how supportive our culture is not only as a team, but also as athletes in general. We can all relate to each other, and we all experience the same universal struggles. It’s nice to be assured of that from time to time. It’s a painful reminder without a doubt, but it makes me smile today, and it will going forward.
With those takeaways in hand, I call the 2014 Philly Olympic Tri a success, even if the right side of my body disagrees with me. Next race is less than a month away, plenty of time to work on cornering until then.