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.

Lap happy

Following the Hachede Triathlon in Geesthacht yesterday, I received lots of congratulations, with many kind people wishing me well for finishing second in my age group. Yes, sure, it was good, but first in my age group was the winner, who finishing the sprint (750m, 20km, 5km) just about 13 minutes ahead of me.

This super-human-42-year-old even lapped me on the 2.5km run course. So, he’d finished, having barely worked up a sweat, and I still had another 3km to run. WTF???

Anyway, on my second lap – running pretty well, feeling good and enjoying the race – I thought a bit about what it would take to be that fast in your forties (or even in your twenties). I concluded it would have to be a full-time commitment. There would be no time for a job, a family, friends or anything else apart from triathlon. There would only be training, racing, sleeping, eating and taking “vitamins”.

And what a boring person that would be.

So, as I loped through my second lap, I was completely fine with being lapped by the winner, who had probably already packed up and was heading home to spend the rest of the day training. I don’t want to be that guy, and I don’t want to take anything that would give me an unfair advantage.

On that note, I’m seeing this year that, while my results are pretty much the same, I’m finishing further down the field, often being beaten by guys far on the other side of 40 and by guys who don’t look like athletes at all. This makes me wonder if these triathletes, fed up with being unable to compete or improve, have reached for the “vitamins”. You know, if you can’t beat them, join them. If this is the case, and from the times being posted, it looks like it is, then I think it’s a real shame.

 

 

 

Methods of madness

I’m currently reading Blitzed by Norman Ohler. This fascinating book is all about the use of methamphetamines during the Nazi era, and how everyone from soldiers and workers to grandmothers and children were using the widely available meth drug Pervitin (also available in chocolates) to stay alert for longer and maintain their positive moods.

This goes a long way to explaining how the army at the time could move at such speed (with tank drivers and infantry able to go all night) and that the soldiers could be numbed to the effects of war. The book shows that the German army and the SS were using performance-enhancing drugs as they blitzed Europe.

Ohler’s book was very much on my mind as I got blitzed during the Auetal Triathlon, the winner of which was born in 1964 and was almost four minutes ahead of second place. I was back in tenth, a good twelve minutes behind, and I was beaten by another 50 year-old.

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While in former years I would’ve been very angry about this, these days I’m disappointed and confused. There’s no way someone who is 53 years old can be almost as fast as a professional triathlete. That does not compute.

For someone in their fifties to win a sprint triathlon with such a time, blitzing a strong field, should be a feat worthy of being reported in the local news. I mean, taken for what it is, it’s amazing. “Super-granddad wins triathlon”. He should be on television; he’s some kind of medical miracle.

It’s much more likley he’s mad. Because it would take a serious program of magic beans, special sauce, vitamin “D” and hard training to even get close to posting such times. A small motor in the bike would help as well.

Every weekend, I seem to end up in triathlons racing against a few guys like this. It’s such a shame, because these races, including yesterday’s very enjoyable Auetal Triathlon, are organised by volunteers with a passion for the sport. They run these races with the best of intentions, and then these amateur athletes show up pumped to the nines and posting pro times. These shameful athletes make a complete mockery of the fun weekend sport triathlon is.

If you’re stupid enough to fill your body with chemicals, that’s your problem. It’s a real shame that you then bring your madness to the race and ruin it for everyone else.

 

The joy of suffering

Training daily is hard, and I think it gets progressively harder each year past 40. It takes a lot of motivation to run, swim or bike each day when you’re not up for it. And if you train hard, it takes a few days to recover. Of course, all of this would be made a lot easier on the juice. But the juice is not for me.

While out today on my usual long Saturday morning run (this time, a 15km slog through Hamburg’s harbour), I got to thinking about suffering. Because after the first 30 minutes, I really started to suffer. My pace slowed, my breathing was laboured and my thighs burned. I enjoyed the run a lot, but it was tough.

As I suffered, I recalled some things Greg LeMond said when he was interviewed in the excellent Australian documentary Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story. When commenting on how Armstrong, at the height of his (fraudulent) dominance, was powering up the hills during the Tour de France and leaving a trail of cyclists in his wake, LeMond made the observation that Armstrong wasn’t suffering. It was easy. Armstrong was incredibly fast and he was barely breaking a sweat.

I’ve seen this in a lot of triathlons, where some of the participants seem able to excel far beyond their age, body type, and perceived athletic ability to post amazing times and results. And they do it all without suffering. I’ve seen these guys at the finish line, fresh and seemingly ready to do the whole race again. They’re on the juice. There’s no doubt in mind. At the finish line, I almost always collapse on the my back, unable to move, and smile broadly. I’ve suffered and survived and I’m happy.

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That’s me in green. Happy and with nothing left in the tank.

Armstrong was a professional athlete determined to be the best in the world, and there was a lot of money that came with his success. I can understand why he and other athletes got on the juice in order to compete, succeed and earn the money. I fail to understand why some amateur middle-aged triathlete pumps his or her body with performance-enhancing drugs just to do well at some small town race on a Sunday morning. I also fail to understand how they can do that and feel proud of themselves. There’s absolutely nothing at stake. It’s cheating, and it’s shameful. They should be suffering along with the rest of us.

While I’ll refrain from quoting the Bible, I do think there is joy in suffering, especially when it comes to sports, and not just during the race but through all the training as well. The suffering leads to happiness: the runner’s high at the end of a long run, the euphoric feeling of hitting the line in a race, the pride of doing your best, regardless of the result. For me, all of that would be tarnished if it was chemically driven, at which point the drugs were achieving the results, not me.

Armstrong ended up going through a very public downfall. His name is tarnished and he lives in shame. To all the amateur triathletes out there using performance-enhancing drugs, you should be ashamed of yourselves. To me, you’re a thousand times worse than Armstrong.