September 13, 2009
The Nation’s Triathlon
Every race I need to prove myself again and again. Same as all competitive sports, work, politicians, and even for patriotic Americans. Imagine the world without spare time to allow Type A personalities to engage in the super competitive events. That world would be unbearable for Type A’s who like to compete in triathlons. Imagine the United States without free capital enterprise to motivate entrepreneurs putting on races with thousands of competitors. Imagine life in the US without the right to vote with our wallets in what races we want to participate in. Imagine a life where we could not choose who we wanted to lead our country every four years and allow them to live in the White House. With the thought of Washington DC, we imagine politics at its worse, politicians with egos bigger than the National Debt, and a government moving slower than a runner doing the Ironman shuffle. Imagine what the US would be without the founding fathers or the succession of leaders that led the nation through ebbs and flows of more wars, financial crisis, civil unrest, and other challenges. For a country that started as an experiment, our leaders and we followers continue to do more of the right things the right way as we successfully adopt, adapt, expand, and excel. The physical setting of our Nation’s Capital is filled with full-on symbolism: The White House, The Capitol, The Supreme Court, the monuments, the museums, The Mall, the parks, Arlington Cemetery, and much more. And with all of the above, Washington DC is one great place to compete in a triathlon.
Let me tell you a story about being humbled by racing amongst the immortals of my home country. Chris joined me for her first time to visit our Nation’s Capital. We left O’Hare Airport on Friday afternoon on a non-stop flight into Washington National Airport and were grateful for a non-eventful flight recognizing we flew on the anniversary of 9-11. We took the subway to within a couple of blocks of our downtown Marriott Hotel a few blocks from The National Mall, checked-in, grabbed some dinner, and hit the sheets for the night.
On Saturday morning I stretched and headed out for an easy and an early sightseeing run along The Mall. Tourist buses were being readied to be loaded and take their customers to the next stop somewhere outside of the Capital. Maybe Mount Vernon, Arlington, or some other early Colonial must see spot. I was content vacationing in the Capital proper for five days. Already on the move were other runners, walkers, a couple of people left over from the night before and the National Park Rangers headed off to work. Protestors for some cause queued up in line to walk The Mall and exercise their rights. By chance, I found myself standing at a red light beside a Park Ranger. I greeted him, “Good morning” and moved my head scanning the landscape and all its moving parts. Lingering on the forming protest group, well, since in Washington, maybe the people were a real life walking lobbying group. I asked him in a dry, black humor tone, “You’ve probably seen it all?”
He picked up on the inflection and barely cracking a smile replied, “I feel that I have.”
The light turned green and I took off running to be humbled first by the Washington Monument, followed by the Jefferson Memorial, Lincoln Memorial, The White House, Vietnam Wall, The World War II Memorial, The Capitol Building, and the diversity of the early morning audience. I had to keep my emotions and adrenalin in check to not exhaust my supply a day before tomorrow’s race.
With this being my fourth Olympic distance triathlon in 22 days over four weekends, I needed to remember to rest while training. I also kept my emotional race rollercoaster predictable over the time span. Harder for me to do than try. I carefully balanced responsibilities of family, work, and workouts to the races along the span of the journey. Keeping the environment fun for the whole family made life easier on all of us
I returned to the hotel, showered, dressed and we headed to the dining room. There, we witnessed history in the making. The place was packed with people dressed in campy Red, White, and Blue outfits. Handmade signs were stacked vertically leaning up against the tables. Most of them looked-liked kids’ art on a stick. Many were colorful, most them covered with a clever message, and all of them conservative to the core. Everyone in the room was giddy. All of them were excited about being in Washington DC. This was my first encounter with the Tea Party. And they were there to party, protest, and lobby. Lobbying for many is a negative aspect of the democratic process; the epitome of what is wrong with American politics. Being an apolitical outsider, I was there to race, and make a statement with my athletic capabilities, not to take a stand.
I learned when researching about races in Washington DC, race directors needed to lobby for a law to be passed to allow swimming in the Potomac River. Finally, after efforts to get the law passed to allow the competition and to improve the water quality, the race became a reality though with a single designated date to open up a brief legal swim for the annual race. Kind of ironic lobbying was needed to pass a law to allow a health related activity. And furthermore the race director carved out a significant portion of the race proceeds to be donated to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the world's largest nonprofit health organization dedicated to funding blood cancer research. Lobbying to keep the healthy, healthy; and the sick to be cured. Backwater politics at their best.
Part of the allure of triathloning, besides testing myself at races against others and traveling to places I would never go other than to race, is buying cool stuff. I use Thomas Jefferson as a guiding President. He captured the ideas of the founding fathers. He pulled their thoughts and structure from previous writings to organize them on paper that became the Declaration of Independence. President Jefferson moved forward the notion of traveling with justification when he sponsored Lewis & Clark on the Corps of Discovery Expedition through the then recently purchased Louisiana Territory. They bought a whole bunch of cool stuff to get ready for the journey. They started in the mid-west and went west. They cataloged all sorts of new findings. They met interesting people along the way. They overcame mental and physical suffering. Their course challenged them endlessly. Locals ignored them, welcomed them, and distained them in a mutual dance of who to trust and not trust. Triathlons in big cities block roads, overwhelm the infrastructure, and frustrates the townies all bare some similarities.
Look, I get it. Triathloning is not like starting a new nation and checking race boxes across the Louisiana Purchase some 200 years later. The sport is not the same thing as the Corps of Discovery Expedition. But we all need some association, motivation, and imagination to validate our passions.
I prepped the bike with race number, pinned more race numbers to the racing kit, bike helmet, and laid out everything else needed for the morning in a dedicated race pile. I then rode down to the transition area that used to be softball diamonds a couple of days before. These were located by the dock that marked our starting point of tomorrow’s race and almost in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial. Once checked in and bike on rack, I walked over to arrive at the pre-determined hop-on, hop-off red bus stop at the same time Chris appeared riding on top of the next bus. I hopped on and we headed out for a carbo-loading dinner at a restaurant we decided looked interesting earlier in the day.
Race morning came early as always and being in the Capital did not change it. The previous morning at breakfast, we met a doctor from St. Louis and his wife who came out for the race. We agreed to share a hired ride to the race start as neither of us rented a car. The hop-along buses were not yet running for the day and the pier was too far away to walk. We met in the lobby at the appointed time and arrived at the transition area 25 minutes later. Took about as much time to drive there as it would have to walk. We were in no hurry to get to the race since our age group wave start was over an hour after the first wave started. This turned out to be almost a race fatal choice on our part as the officials were less than five minutes away from stopping competitors to enter the transition area. I jumped over the fence way in the back to get to my bike. That gave me an extra five minutes to finalize my race set-up so I could hurry up and wait watching some 40 waves of competitors go off in front of my assigned start time.
Racers packed the transition area representing more tri clubs than individual competitors at some races along my journey. All the tri clubs’ members were competing for a cause. The Nation’s Tri was the biggest participation race for charity in the world. The biggest organized group was Athletes in Training. Their teal and purple colored kits overwhelmed the landscape and my senses. The size of the transition area covered multiple baseball fields. Balloons and other specialty markers were tethered to the racks to identify competitors’ bikes and outdoor changing rooms or at least changing spaces. I made a mental note of my row and told myself after the swim leg to head to the place not marked by a balloon.
The officials herded us out of the transition area. Early wave competitors queued up towards the pier and those in the later waves were compressed in the “swim pen”.
As we prepared for the swim the competitors walked out on a dock and leaped into the Potomac River. I didn’t question the quality of the water. The Potomac River’s cleanliness measured somewhere between what type of water I would not have swam in over in Thailand to the stuff I competed in in Iowa, Missouri, and Utah. I paddled to the middle of the front line of age group peers as we treaded water waiting for the air blast to signal the start of the race. We swam marginally upstream on the near side bank under Memorial Bridge, then further upstream, turned left for 100 meters then turned left again coming down the middle of the Potomac paralleling the river bank and back under the Memorial Bridge. I’m generally a right side breather and could make out the landscape to know we were going by Arlington Cemetery. It felt disrespectful not being able to show proper respect to all the brave people buried there. Our swim continued past the starting line and we turned left one final time to swim to the shoreline. I exited the water and ran towards T1 while stripping off my full body wetsuit. For a swim course in a major metropolitan area, where swimming is only legal for one morning, one day out of the year, I was grateful this one was the most mundane, big race swim legs I competed in.
From a mundane swim, albeit with some emotional views above the horizon of our river banks, to the most bike jammed, tree covered, cyclist talkative race of my career. The bike course took us on two different Parkways, up and down Rock Creek Canyon then the same for parts of the Potomac River Freeway. We went from man-made monument wonders to Mother-nature made tunnels of hardwood trees in a matter of minutes. Both roads were awesome: ascents, descents, flats, shade, smooth, car-free, and safe. The biggest challenge turned out to be passing competitors already out on the course from previous waves.
Though more conservative than liberal in political leanings, I crossed over this race and rode most of the bike leg saying “On your left” spinning by other cyclists. I played mental chess in thinking where the other bikers were headed. Were they going to stay straight or to veer to the left or headed to the same path of pavement? The safest ride was to keep saying firmly but not at a shout level: “On your left,” to influence nearby competitors to ride straight until passing them. I needed to coach and inform the cyclists to stay right if slower. I rode a steady state, as fast as I dared under the crowded conditions. Hard but short of red-lining lungs. I couldn’t go any quicker, had to keep getting the cyclists to move over to the slower side of the roadway on the right. Couldn’t tuck down into an aero position due to too much slower traffic. Kept my head up, hands on the break hoods, and continued to communicate my intent to pass. Always added a pleasant response of “thanks” when passing. Also internalized my Smith Driving skills learned at work, ensuring to leave an out.
Bikers were too close to be outside the draft zones but moving too slow to gain much, if any, of a time advantage. Few riders were in an aero position, tucked down with the chest about to brush their knees on their tri bikes. Most rode on their brake hoods or hands on bars instead of forearms. There seemed to be a correlation the slower the rider the more likely they were in aero position. Definitely form over function. Something many people who live outside of the Capital, think is the attitude of the people who work in the Capitol.
A few of the cyclist rode like they were out for a beautiful Sunday morning ride. Talking with each other. Talking with others while passing or being passed too. Many welcomed feedback of their progress or caliper of bike or level of bike handling skills. A few others barked out their displeasure with complaints directed at the faster riders who left little space when flying by. I learned space held both a relative and subjective length in the mind and what came out of the mouths of others at this race.
Coming off the parkways on the last downhill of the morning, cyclists found some open streets to race wide open towards T-2 back in the softballs fields. For this Sunday morning I was a leader of the left leaning, spin-master, Alpha-type triathletes and for a majority of the participants, The Nation’s Tri was everything I suspected a socialized race in a democratic Capital to be in America.
The run course of The Nations’ Triathlon was easiest the most of inspiring of any tri courses I competed on. We ran by monuments erected to honor the US’s greatest citizens, if not the world’s: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, and others. On the run my mind wondered of why these great men strove for the betterment of others, how they led with their energy, what they achieved with their actions, and where and how we live because of them.
The best coaches enable their athletes to reach levels they cannot reach on their own. And America’s best leaders motivated the living and enabled others not born yet to prosper and achieve their goals of themselves, a nation, and people of later generations.
The two loop race course was flat but the energy level of the competitors was high. Many of the competitors were associated with Team in Training. TNT members raised money through donations to help save the lives of blood cancer patients with a secondary goal to compete in some type of physical endurance event. The Nation’s Tri was one of their more popular event destinations. They ran in packs. They encouraged stragglers. They dished out encouragement to all athletes who passed them. They were everywhere. They fed offs each other’s excitement of being part of such a special event. They shared much more of the excitement with others to energize us during the run.
Hundreds of DC Tri Club members competed. Judging by the amount of jerseys observed in the race and knowing over 1,100 members belonged to the club, it seemed like every member was racing here. And plenty of other non TNT and DC Tri Club members competed in the race. The run course was loosely packed. Thousands of runners with space to run through them.
The postrace celebration was full of conversation with finishers, an enjoyable rock band, good food, and a surprisingly knowledgeable race director who seemed to know the athletes or at least about them. After the race we walked over to one of the most special places in the world that makes us feel proud of being Americans and inspires dreams of greatness, the Lincoln Monument.
On Monday morning went for an easy, early morning run down by the Mall, the run course, and beyond. Saw about a dozen other previous day competitors out there early too. These athletes though were dressed for work. Their business attire replaced their spandex racing gear. Their race bikes were re-purposed to commuter bikes but still labeled with race numbers. The race numbers now served as a Monday morning message, a proud badge of honor that communicated: “Hey, I raced yesterday!”
I ran to the Jefferson Memorial. Never visited it up close during three previous trips to Washington DC. Ran up the steps but stopped at the roped off area. Waved good morning to park ranger on duty. He returned my wave, then gestured for me to step over the felt like rope and view the Jefferson Memorial up close by myself. I stood mesmerized in awe of the man, his myth, and his lasting Memorial. The key founding father who pushed for the balance of our States to our Central Government. And he successfully ensured the checks and balance of our three branches of government. To classify Thomas Jefferson as a visionary, is being short sighted on his influence to the endurance of the United States.
After breakfast we went up to the top of the Washington Monument, checked out The Castle Building of the Smithsonian, and watched some bill making at the Capitol. I feel proud and think as Americans we have an obligation to learn US history to understand our heritage and no better place than to see a chapter of the history book in real life in our Nation’s Capital. We should be patriotic because it’s our America heritage to be thankful for the past but apply it for the future benefits of us, our families, and citizens of the US and the whole of the world. We toured the White House and even saw POTUS enter Air Force One. The Secret Service Agent/Tour Guide told us to pay attention to him and not look out the window. Collectively our group ignored his directions that were muffled under the “chop-chop-chop-chop-chop” sound created by the helicopter’s massive blades as President Obama flew away. Way cool.
Being in Washington reminded me of a training run with the Honorable U. S. Senior Senator from Indiana when attending college at Indiana University. Senator Lugar spent the night in my home town of New Castle. My dad let me know he was in town and cleared my participation through the Senator’s host. We met 6-6:30am and a small group of five went on a run. The Senator was known as an avid jogger but he was really a highly conditioned runner at age 46. Senator Lugar carried on a conversation through-out the 30 minute run. Lucky for him I didn’t push the pace and lucky for me he didn’t test me on any geopolitical issues, his known specialty amongst his peers in the U. S. Senate. Now in 2009, his staff was accommodating by granting us two passes to visit the White House and witness President Obama boarding the Air Force 1 helicopter out to Camp David and beyond.
Our country that started as an experiment over 23 decades earlier has come a long way. For a runner who experimented doing a triathlon 23 years earlier, I went a long way to race in our Nation’s Capital. Washington, DC was the most symbolic city for a patriotic triathlete to feel more like an All American than being included in the end of season age-group rankings from USAT.
Results: 57th overall. 1st in age group.