This is now the third or fourth time I have sat down (ha ha) and tried writing about London since running the marathon Monday morning. I get a few sentences in and suddenly the words start losing their way as they travel between my brain and the keyboard. Part of it is that I don’t write nearly enough and am using road maps that haven’t been updated in far too long, but part of it is that it is hard for me to write about races that you are not pleased with. It seems a little counterintuitive. The greatest art in history has typically been fueled by emotional stress and unfortunate circumstances. I am by no means a great artist and am having a little trouble harnessing into coherent phrases the emotional distress caused by a couplet of poor races.
During the long journey home yesterday (London to Bloomington via Atlanta is a hell of a trek. Curse you Champaign for not having an international airport, or even a decent regional one for that matter), certain thoughts kept battering the periphery of my brain.
Home isn’t always the place I want to return. Sometimes for very good reasons, sometimes for no reason at all. Streaming across the globe at 34,000 feet for extended periods of time in an uncomfortable seat, no exit you can survive taking and nothing but the thoughts in your head and the collection of horrible movies streaming on a tiny screen as company. It is easy to become a little introspective. The plane is nothing but a stream of metaphors, all relating to time. Comings and goings, journeys completed, journeys beginning, past and future. You step onto a flying tube with nothing but time to reflect on what has transpired since a trip began, ruminating on how you have changed and anticipating how you are going to act and react when you are home again.
When you win, or even achieve the standards you have set for success, the return is easier. Positivity comes easy and no acting is necessary to survive the conversations about how your trip was. The trip may have effected you as much or more that when the results are poor, but the effects are the ones sought after, the ones that never stir up as much reflection (thought maybe they should).
Bad races are hard to return from. As far as my fourth running of the Virgin London Marathon I finally completed the race without an excuse. My previous three goes: one crash, two flat tires, one glove falling to pieces in the middle of the race. For the latest edition, after a week of nothing but rain and cold, the sun finally had the courtesy to break through the clouds and both my chair and gloves crossed the finish line in the same form they crossed the starting line. It makes what happened between the lines hurt a little bit more.
To put it bluntly, on that day, I didn’t have it. The race started really fast, countering the faulty air horn that hoarsely sputtered our cue to begin moving. Marcel Hug, a manchild of a racer from Switzerland, shot off the line like he was running a 1500m time trial, quickly gapping the field by 15 meters and forcing the rest of us to shape up real fast. The pace during the opening few miles of the race rarely dropped below 19-20mph (racing without my bike computer, choosing to go off feel, I cannot give exact speeds).
At high speeds wheelchair racers, without the advantage of gears, have to learn how to add power to an increasingly fast spinning push rim. It takes a lot of technique and practice and is one of the most challenging aspects of the sport. How do you apply more power to a ring spinning at 20+ mph?
This is also the one part of my racing that I felt I had been making good strides in over the past few months. I did a lot of training to specifically target the high speed portions of a race. Yet on Sunday morning I never felt comfortable. I never felt like I had full control of my chair and where it was going and my arms never responded to the speeds I needed them to take me.
I quickly drifted to the back of the lead pack and even dangled a few meters off the back for a half mile or so and reeling the pack back in before a section of the race that takes us down a street riddled with giant speed humps. I took the first few humps in stride, keeping with the pace, but when one of the humps shot me airborne, I lost a few strokes and could not reel the pack back as we rounded a bend to the one screaming downhill of the race.
With the pack out of reach I had to quickly swallow lump of failure that never fails to try a cloud such situations, regain a positive mind and refocus my body and my efforts. Five miles into the race my arms no longer felt as if they were flailing like an acid laced raver. I finally felt in control.
At this point I had been joined by my coach, head coach of the University of Illinois wheelchair racing program Adam Bleakney, and our favorite Spanish racer Rafa Botello.
With the two racers securely in my wake I put my head down and resigned myself to beating my brains out for the remaining 21 miles. I set the hardest pace I felt I could sustain and took long pulls in the front, with Adam coming up every mile or so to give me a break. We only slowed down as we passed groups of elite women runners, occasionally getting cutoff by both runners and the motorcycles accompanying them (London, is a race designed, from start to finish, for television. They insist on starting the elite women 20 min ahead of us so that they get an elite field crossing the finish line at 15-20 minute intervals; wheelchair men, wheelchair women, women, men. Makes sense from a spectator standpoint but it is a pain in the ass weaving through the lead pack).
I briefly gapped my two companions between miles 12 and 14 as we crossed the Tower Bridge and began weaving through the curviest part of the race. Around mile 18 I saw I had lost them again, but instead of waiting I put my head down and hammered through the slight headwind as I took the last few turns before a long stretch down the Thames.
As my field of vision grew narrower I gazed up at Big Ben and knew the end was near. I had chased as hard for the majority of the race and caught no one. I made up 30 seconds in the last 12k of the race on the two racers ahead of me, but finished in 14th, my lowest finish ever.
Meanwhile my counterparts from the Paign, were having their own struggles. Tatyana McFadden joined Amanda to represent our fair town at the marathon and, after setting the pace for the first couple of miles, both women were dropped on the screaming downhill at mile 3.
While they were poised to reel in the three that got away down the hill, Tatyana flatted at between miles five and six, and Amanda did not have enough help from the remainder of the chase pack to close the gap. Both women finished in their worst finishes ever as well; Amanda 6th, Tatyana 7th.
It was an anticlimactic end to an anticlimactic stay in London. Rain and inconvenient training times caused lengthy periods of time holed up in the hotel. And while I love all the people associated with the race and all the racers that were there, I went a bit stir crazy couped up in such a wonderful city. Plans to wander to the Tate Gallery were squashed by rain, theater tickets proved impossible to get and far too often the Starbucks attached to the hotel proved to be the ideal place for meals.
Race day turned out to be beautiful, however, and we all managed to squander the day. Though with all bad races the memories have to be short lived. Study the race unattached and unemotionally to glean whatever you can that leads you to improvement. Bad races will never define your career as long as they are used to create good races. I’m going to have to stay positive and focused over the next few months. The intensity of my training is going to be greatly increasing, as will the immensity of the races.
The season has only begun.