Rotterdam: the end of the road

It’s a wonderful thing to represent one’s country. As a writer abroad, I’ve been lucky to fly the flag for Australian literature and culture at various festivals, conferences and events. I’ve also had the joy of racing in Aussie colours in triathlon, twice in 2013 in London, and again in Rotterdam this year. I’m very proud and honoured at have represented Australia.


For the continuing expansion of triathlon, those four years have made a lot of difference. The 2017 World Age Group Championships was a far more serious affair than London 2013. At least, that was my impression. And not just from the seriousness of the athletes and their level of fitness and competitiveness, but from the organisation and adherence to the (many) rules as well. Sure, this is a high level event, but it didn’t feel like there was anything fun about it.

I find that interesting, because I think, like me, a lot of people got (and get) into triathlon because of the fun factor: the joy of being outside and doing three different sports in one, the challenge of competing against yourself with the goal of doing the best you can do, and the enjoyment of being part of the triathlon community.

While those things remain, to a degree, they are being somewhat overwhelmed by the very serious amateurs who have taken over the sport. These amateurs are on a whole other level to the rest of us who are racing for fun.

The American writer David Foster Wallace, who wrote some wonderful essays about tennis, did some fine riffing on athletic plateaus: how athletes are at certain levels, and those of a higher level are on a separate (perhaps unreachable) plateau. He describes watching some pros play tennis, and delivers a verdict to a lower level player, that he could imagine being on the tennis court and playing against him. But he can’t imagine being on the court with a player of a higher plateau.

This was a bit like what I felt in Rotterdam. Just in my M40 age group, I didn’t feel like I was on the same plateau (turned out I wasn’t, by a long way). And it seemed wrong for me to be racing with this guys. They were on another level. To give an idea, the top ten in my age group could all just about have held their own in a professional race. Over this sprint distance, I finished 20 minutes behind the M40 winner. That meant he was headed to the finish line as I was starting the 5km run.

I can’t bring myself to look at the results from all the age groups, to see that maybe my time might have been good enough for the top ten in the M70 age group. Because if I start scanning results, I’ll most likely begin to question them. And I don’t want to do that. The vast majority of athletes were fit and trained and competitive, and how they achieve their triathlon goals is entirely up to them.

I’m not on the same plateau. I was glad to reach the finish line, and when I got there, I immediately knew I’d never do such a race again. My triathlon journey, which started in 2001, is coming to an end. The feeling at the line was relief: no more swimming in cold, filthy water; no more pre-race nerves and bathroom emergencies; no more racing in the rain and mud; no more nasty crashes and awful near misses on the bike; no more getting passed by everyone on the run; and no more spending a small fortune each year on races. (Another consquence of triathlon’s rise has been the rapid increase in race fees. It was €325 just to start in Rotterdam.)

I find so many of the races now aren’t fun. I’ll admit, this is probably me and my own impression, and that I have not evolved along with the sport. My approach to triathlon belongs to another (purer) era.




Pulling a Bradbury in Rotterdam

In the lexicon of Australian sport, Steven Bradbury holds a very special place. So special, his surname functions as both noun and verb. His gold medal in the 1000m short track speedskating at the 2002 Winter Olympics is considered to be one of the most unlikely and unexpected wins in the history of sports. And his underdog status meant he has become a cult hero down under.

As I prepare to race at the World Age Group Championships in Rotterdam, I feel like I need to “pull a Bradbury” just to have any hope of being competitive in the M40 age group. While I’m proud to represent Australia, I fear I will finish dead last. And probably with the guys cleaning up the streets, because the M40 sprint distance is the last start time for the day.

I keep telling myself to relax and just enjoy the experience, and to finish wherever I finish. But I’m still hoping to “Bradbury”, because I want to represent my country well. And as this is shaping as my triathlon swan-song, I’d like to go out at the very least a finisher (ahead of the street cleaner).

At the 2013 World Champs in London, I was a respectable 63rd (out of 110 in my M35 age group). But I was fitter then, more motivated and a far better runner. Triathlon has also evolved considerably since then, and I fear the M40 age group (and all the other age groups) will be packed with elite amateurs, perhaps with even the best amateur triathletes in the world.

I am not one of them. For me, this Sunday will be all about survival. It’s a draft legal race (meaning athletes can ride behind each other). I want to get through the swim alright, bike the course without crashing, then do my best in the run. Come to think of it, not even a “Bradbury” will help.

It’s best I go to Rotterdam and treat it like a holiday. And race for the fun of it, placing be damned. Come on, Aussie.