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by Lucy Smith, September 3, 2003
It's easy to write about celebrations, to congratulate on a job well done and to record all the separate steps that come together to produce a satisfying result. Before most of my competitions, I can visualize my success and the feelings that come with it. Naturally, it is those moments where things come together favourably for us, where we realize our potential, that makes athletic achievement such a rewarding path to follow.
It is not so easy to sit down at the computer when things don't go as planned. I've had a few days to reflect on my race at the World Duathlon Championships: the race I went to win and where I ended up 19th. In the days after the race, I turned my attentions to the other great things about travelling to European races. The next day, I went out into the cold wet Swiss morning and cheered on the age groupers as they suffered their way around the steep and challenging course in Afflotern. Clutching my small cardboard cup of strong and fragrant "kaffee creme" I stood at the edge of the muddy field and smiled as men with grimaces of determination on their faces raced hard over the last two laps of the run, and I shouted "Hop, hop, hop!" to athletes from many countries: France, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, USA , Canada. I had a memorable meal in a restaurant in Zug that had been converted into a Moroccan style tent. Music, lanterns, richly decorated red, green and gold tents and curtains, grilled meats and olives and tagine. I got up and danced and clapped with strangers and I laughed my head off. You find out more about people, and develop a deeper connection when you share experiences away from home.
I also got in a wonderful and interesting day of sightseeing in Lucerne, wandering the ancient stone streets, having coffee and a piece of eggy plum tart, climbing the three towers in the ancient wall (my quads were complaining mightily about this--they were still stiff and sore from the race), and marvelling at the architectural grandeur and scope of the marvellous Lucerne concert hall on the lake. We walked the famous covered bridges and gazed at the Riggi and Pilatus mountains which look so majestically over the city. And in the back of my mind, I thought about my race.
Unfulfilled expectations are as much a part of sport as the satisfaction of meeting all one's goals. I always prepare for a race with the belief that it will be full of the magic and pure brilliance of sport: the transcendent moments where the ability to focus causes all other details to fade into the background. I think it is fair to say, that my race at the World Championships this year was not a race of magic and flow. It started out well enough, but somewhere, the race just went off track and I was left to draw on all my experience and maturity, all my powers of rational and positive thinking, to pull me through. I had prepared for magic, but the reality was, that on this day, I needed all the tools I had to deal with the conditions, the competition, the disappointment and the fact that, after a certain point, I actually didn't seem to have any control over the wooden sticks that my legs had become.
Afflotern, the site of the World Duathlon Championships, is a small Swiss town located in some good hills. The race was centred about a large grassy field at a sports complex and both the run and the bike were uphill/downhill courses, with very little flat at all. Typical of many European duathlons, the courses were much hillier and more technical than anything that we get in the usual circuit in North America. The run course was over half track and grass and harder even than World Cross Country Courses that I have done (expect maybe the time it was run in the pouring rain in Stavenger, Norway and whole course was deep black mud).
I arrived from Canada on the Wednesday before the race and performed my preparations well. I got a little run or ride in every day about the time that I would race, and surprisingly, I felt good even with the nine hours time difference. I saw the course and race site several times and talked to my husband and coach, Lance, on the phone, discussing tactics and race strategy for such a hilly, competitive race. I felt nervous, but not overly anxious. I felt in control of my race and my confidence and ready to go and test my fitness, which I knew was very very high. I relaxed and enjoyed myself, appreciating the fact that I was in Switzerland, a place that I have raced before, but I still managed to stay professional and not expend too much energy in the days before the race.
Race morning was cold and wet. We all searched the sky, looking for blue breaks amongst the swollen grey clouds overhead. I was, like most people, concerned about the steep downhill section on the bike course and the slick roads, but as I watched the juniors filing into transition after their bike, I felt reassured: they were, after all, finishing just fine. I knew my competition and felt prepared for the run, and for being on the ball during the bike leg, watching for breaks, keeping close to the people I wanted to be with at the end of the ride.
The start gun went off, and straight away we were running up the first of the four hills on the 10k run leg. We ran fast. At the Worlds, there is no tempo running over the first run: it's a race from the beginning. I had a good pack with past champion Edwige Pitel, Andrea Whitcombe, another French women, and Kiwi Fiona Docherty. We let French woman Corine Paux go solo off the front. The women charged down the steep hill helter skelter and I found that I moved well over the flatter grassy section through transition. At the end of the first run, I was in good position and headed out in the first group onto the bike leg. Things were going well until the fourth lap of the five loop bike course. I was doing all the right things, playing the game and being smart, tactical and on the ball with the course and the competition. The bike course, with a steep technical downhill through a narrow road was a challenge. Cycling champion Karin Theurig came by before the hill on the third lap and I hopped on her wheel and climbed with her. That valiant move might have been my undoing. Somewhere near the end of the fourth lap I just blew to bits: started seeing spots in front of my eyes as my legs went to jelly and I lost power. I had dropped my Powergel and had no instant calories to jump start things. It was a tough go after that and by the time I got to the last run, I had run out of gas completely. I stumbled up that hill another two times and back to the finish as if I was running in clogs. As soon as the race ended I scarfed a chocolate bar and a fruit cake. And, yes, I felt disappointed. I have been training so well, and really felt confident for this year. Simply, I had travelled all the way to Europe, leaving my family behind for a week, it was a tough course--a Lucy course, I called it--and I had hoped to excel over such a challenge.
Racing is a powerful mix of internal and external concentration and attention to detail. It is foolish to not pay attention to the race unfolding around you, and on the other hand, it takes a real focus to concentrate on your own process and skill and find that magical flow that happens when you are only aware of your own breath. There is a fine balance between knowing that you are racing to win the race, and out there to have your own best effort. From this race, I have the secure knowledge that I went into the race to win, but had to settle with my own best effort on a day when things didn't really go according to plan.
I raced at one o'clock on Saturday and the men raced at three. So it was at least seven o'clock in the evening by the time things were wrapping up and I had to find my way back to my homestay in Baar, about 16 km away. During a break in the rain, I put my sopping wet bike shoes back on, hefted my soggy pack on my back and rode through the Swiss countryside with a few of the other Canadian men. Although I was tired, it felt good to get back on my bike and move. I had to ride the last part of my ride alone, and as I peacefully spun along in the quiet evening, I noticed the sun breaking through the clouds low on the horizon, filling the sky with a golden light that turned the fields around me an exquisite verdant green. It was impossible to not be in awe of the beauty around me: the dark green forest and the lighter green grass and the golden tinged clouds. At that moment I realized about my self that I was not moved by how I had raced nearly as much as I was moved by the sheer experience of being there.