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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

Gebremst!

In Australia, there are some serious insects: spiders the size of dinner plates and tiny spiders with red stripes on their backs that can kill you, plus ants so big they’re called “bull ants”, and cockroaches as long as your index finger.

In Germany, insects aren’t really a problem, but in summer, there are Bremsen. These nasty horse flies can sting you through your clothes.

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When I get stung by one, I have a bad reaction about 24 hours later, with a racing heart, dizziness and trouble breathing. In German, “bremsen” also means “to brake”, which is about right, because I feel these flies put the brakes on me when I get hit by one.

Or by three, which is what happened on Saturday afternoon. 24 hours later, I was at the start line for the Q-Tri in Bornhöved, struggling to breathe and feeling like my heart was going to pound out of my chest. Put that together with the usual pre-race nerves and I was on the verge of an all out panic attack. But there wasn’t time to think about it, because the race started.

I could barely swim, and even had to stop at the first buoy and hang onto a lifeguard’s board for a minute. I asked her to follow me, and she kindly did. I somehow managed to get through the swim, thanks to the help of the Bornhöved lifeguards. Without their assistance, I would have stopped.

The rest of the race was tough. It seemed I was fighting for air the whole time (and riding with the brakes on). Not a nice feeling when you’re racing and trying to do your best. It was satisfying just to finish, 24th in the end, which wasn’t so bad, given the circumstances.

And Germany is not that safe after all. The country needs some big spiders that will eat the Bremsen.

 

Back to the Bardowick Beach

Last year, the inaugural  Bardowicker Strand Triathlon helped (briefly) restore my faith in the sport. The second edition of this fantastic race wasn’t quite as low-key, with a few more competitors, but it has retained its relaxed, enjoyable atmosphere and smiling participants.

And it’s such a delight to be involved in races like this, because they remind me of everything that’s good about triathlon. Most weekends, I find myself at races with pumped up, hyper-aggressive, very serious competitors who elbow and kick you in the swim, yell at you to get out of the way on the bike and generally make the entire race a stressed-out, unpleasant affair. Not to mention that their impressive feats and surprising times may be the result of chemical help.

So, it’s really nice to suit up at this race in Bardowick and just enjoy it. To compete for the fun of competing and to not have to worry about all the ‘roid rage’. Credit has to go to the organisers, who told me they want to keep this race as a family triathlon. There is even a stipulation that holders of a German Triathlon Union ‘startpass’ are not allowed to participate. That’s another really nice thing: the participants talk with each other and half a laugh together.

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Normally, at other races, the athletes keep to their triathlon clubs and focus on the event. If there’s any talking, it’s all about the course. There’s a lot of sizing up of the opposition and giving some hard stares, but not much relaxed conversation, and no laughing. I’ve always thought this was a bit sad, because it really should be just a bunch of folks on a Sunday morning doing a race together. No, it’s seldom like that. These races make me think reputations are on the line, bragging rights need to be won and that there’s a very large amount of prize money on offer.

That’s not the case in Bardowick, and that’s such a pleasant relief. You even get a bag of carrots when you cross the finish line. Participants interact with each other. People actually smile while they’re running. And there’s absolutely no sense that anyone is cheating or gaining an unfair advantage.

Thank you to the organisers of the Bardowicker Strand Triathlon. I wish there were more races like this one.

The beginning of the end

I did my first triathlon in 2001, riding a mountain bike and running in tennis shoes. Since then, I’ve done around 10 races a year and was lucky enough to represent Australia at the World Age Group Champs in London in 2013.

After nearly 17 seasons competing in triathlons, I can feel my enthusiasm for the sport waning. Sure, I’m kind of fed up with racing against people on the juice, and the seriousness and aggression of these people also take a lot of the fun out of the races, but I think my time has just about come. I’d also like to start playing sport again, namely basketball and tennis.

I thought a lot about this while racing the Ostseetriathlon in Eckernförde yesterday. This race makes a good example of the current state of triathlon and my feelings towards the sport.  This small town on the Baltic Sea attracted some amazing athletes, and also plenty of ordinary-looking athletes who could somehow pull off extraordinary feats. There were old men running faster than guys half their age, while the elite in the field would have been competitive against professional athletes.

But the real problem is that it wasn’t much fun. Because triathlon used to be fun. Now, it’s a very serious affair, with athletes who have invested in their gear (and in what goes inside their bodies), and they’ve invested lots of time into training, and they’re determined to do well. They are racing for success, and not for the joy of taking part.

It used to be there were a few guys in each race with that attitude. In Eckernförde, it seemed just about all 300 had that attitude. It was a very serious, competitve race. Nearly everyone was grimacing and not grinning.

So, I’ve decided to sell my triathlon bike and will next year participate in only a few races, if any. Those races will be selected on how much fun they are, and Eckernförde won’t be on the list.

The old man and the Kiwi

7am really is too early to be pulling on a wetsuit and jumping into the water. But the Hamburg Triathlon is the world’s biggest race of its kind, with 200 eager athletes starting in waves of 200 every ten minutes, from 7 in the morning until around lunchtime. That’s the better part of 4,000+ people. I had the second slot, at 7:10am.

The winner of the whole day was a young lad from New Zealand, with two first names, or two last names, depending on how you take it: Saxon Morgan. Good on him!

He scorched the sprint field, clocking one hour for the 500m swim, 22km bike and 5km run. His bike and run splits were comparable with the lower finishers of the elite mens race. He’s clearly an up and coming young racer, and is certainly a name to remember. I just managed to see “Morgan” on the back of his triathlon suit as he flew past me on the run. He was motoring.

In his wake was a parade of grumpy old men, who were (somehow???) able to match this soon-to-be-pro athlete despite them being twice or maybe even three times his age. Yes, all within striking distance of the Kiwi with two first names were men aged 40-55. I guess Saxon will have to wait another 20 years or so before really hitting his prime.

And sure, I was one of the old men in pursuit, but I was a fair way back, loping along as best I could.

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Old “Chicken Legs” was good enough for place 241 overall out of some 2,700 men, but I was 17 minutes behind the Kiwi, which was how long it took him to run 5km. It took me 24 minutes.

No matter. It was fun and I was glad to get through it. I even met a couple from Queensland at the start of the race, who also had the early start time I had. I hope they enjoyed the race.

There were eight Aussies in the sprint, and I was lucky enough to be the first. So, in some way, I got to share the podium with Saxon, as the first from our respective countries. That’s worth smiling about.

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Tough luck

In German, Glück is one of those words that has several meanings. Depending on the context, it can mean luck, happiness or chance.

Located 60 kilometres north-west of Hamburg, Glückstadt, hosting its first triathlon, was a little down on its luck. The day before the race saw torrential rain, and this rain washed all sorts of crud and dirt and detritus into the city’s harbour. Thus, when the athletes got into the water to start the race, they stuck their faces in the most disgusting of water. It was also very cold.

In fact, the water was so bad, I had to swim stretches on my back, because I couldn’t keep my face in the water. It was like swimming through farm mud. It became about survival: getting through the swim without swallowing any water. Not easy, and not exactly a lucky day for all the participants.

The swim was disgusting, and the bike leg wasn’t much better, followng a dyke where sheep regularly graze. The rain combined with the droppings to send a not-very-nice spray up onto my legs and back. And I have to add here that there were some guys on their bikes who had no reason to be as fast as they were.

You could say the same about the run. When the day comes that I stop racing, it may well be because I’ve grown tired of being beaten and/or passed by old men and guys carrying ten kilos too many and not running like athletes at all.

So, not such a lucky or happy day in Glückstadt, and I didn’t feel I had much of a chance against athletes who are somehow able to defy their age, body type and ability to post exceptional times. To paraphrase Shakespeare, something is rotten in the state of triathlon.

Glückstadt is certainly a nice city, but I don’t think I’ll be back to race there again.