I remember chatting once with a friend of mine who raced bicycles in Belgium, and he had a coach there who believed that, until you are a pro, you should not compete in races that you can’t ride to the start for. Must be nice, to have that many races within a few miles of home. (also entry fees for these races were about $1, and you got 75 cents back when you returned your number… different world!).
But that is not the case with inline or ice speedskating. Traveling, and how you deal with it, can be as much a part of pursuing this sport as skating the races. No matter how much one may wish it, there is no getting around the fact that the alarm is gonna ring brutally early (4am for this race), and you are going to have to drag yourself into a car before the sun comes up (I was on the road by 4:30), and start that lonely & long car journey to far away races. It is made only slightly easier by the fact that other faithful in our strange religion are also traveling to as well.
This weekend the race was in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I have a soft spot in my heart for this race. 10 years ago (!!) in 1993, this was my first inline race. I had suffered a nasty crash racing track bicycles in NYC and could not hold onto the handlebars of a bicycle due to a shredded rotator cuff in my shoulder, but I was in the best cycling shape of my life. So I started skating a lot, and a friend told me about this race. Skating on 5 wheelers for the first time in my life (rented from the rollerblade demo van 20 minutes before the start) I won the citizens advanced race from 45 other skaters. That race was my first intro to speedskating. My prize was a pair of speed skates! I raced those plastic rollerblade racer blades for the next two years, and it got me into the sport. Thanks Rollerblade!!!!
Inevitably, returning to any kind of primordial source invites reflection, and that is what my mind was on as I traveled down I-81, and then the Pennsylvania turnpike, towards Allentown as the Sun rose and the rolling hills of Pennsylvania slowly came into view.
Arriving at the start, I was feeling pretty happy with my traveling tenacity. But as soon as I step out of the car, I see Herb Gayle, down from Toronto, after 7 hours in the car! No matter how many sacrifices and efforts and traveling one puts in. There always are those making more. Right in the parking lot I can see this will be a small race, many good skaters are at US indoor nationals this weekend, and the Canadian pros were all fried from candian nationals, (7 races in 9 days. By rumor some of them were attending Eric Gee’s birthday. I am greeted warmly by Marc Waiter, he raced yesterday in Maryland, and is happy with his finish there. He has some drive sports teammates here today, Marc is a good skater, I have beaten him once this year at the central park marathon, and he has beaten me once this year, at the first Empire series race, if his teammates are strong, this could get interesting.
Warming-up I feel terrible, my HR is singing along so high I want to take my monitor off, both of my calves are still sore from my track running workout on Friday. The course is deceptively hard, it’s a right hand turn, large square, with one side being a long fast downhill, one side being flat, one side have a fairly steep little climb with the finish line in the middle of it, and the final side being some really rough cruddy pavement that is a “false flat”. It looks flat, but it is definitely not, and the freshly painted lines on the sides of the road are quite slick. The first time up the hill and false flat I am waddling like a duck. My HR yammering along and protesting mightily. Not good.
I realize now that I have gone too hard on this last rest week, I have done too much, my desire, combined with the beautiful weather we have had recently, has not made this last week much of a rest week at all. I raced 3 times the previous week, and I needed to rest this week to absorb it and get stronger. Ugh…. For the rest of my warm-up I try to concentrate on skating the downhill and flat parts of the course well, to make my technique as smooth as it can be. My “spidey sense” tells me the race is gonna be myself and Mark Waiter going mano-a-mano on this hill today. I decide from looking at the course beforehand, that the false flat is the place to make the move on the final lap.
This course is fairly unusual in that it is all right hand turns, I can crossover well to the right, but many of the indoor folks are not as competent at that, So I plan to attack through the false flat, and then fly crossing over though those right handers on the downhill. I can probably get away from anyone who latches into my draft in the turns. I decide to not take any of the big downhill corners in the pack as fast as I can until the last lap, I don’t want my competition to know how fast I can cross through these corners until I need to, its my ace up my sleeve for the last lap of this race. Crossing to the right going downhill at top speed is a little bit scary, and in warm-ups I see an indoor kid in a kyrptonics skinsuit take a pretty nasty fall. Well, if one must crash, I guess its better to get it out of the way in warm-ups.
At the start I see just how small this race is (that’s me between herb and mark on the far right)
That’s good for the kind of day I think I am going to have. My head hurts too. 22 skaters, about 1/2 adults, 1/2 indoor kids, who did not want/couldn’t afford/didn’t qualify for nationals. Herb and Mark will be strong. And those indoor kids are always an unknown quantity. Some of them are absolutely stupid fast when it comes to a sprint, they can just move and move the feet. However they tend to fade on the hills, where brute strength and years of accumulated racing outweigh youthful energy.
The race starts steady, the indoor kids sprint off the line like it’s a freaking 500m race, not a 10k, and they are fighting for every place in line. Ahhh the exuberance of youth. I slot comfortably into the pack and let them lead for 2 laps.
Mark and Herb are marking me closely, we all know each other, and although I am pretty sure I can beat Herb this season, and I think I have a stronger sprint than Mark, Mark has terrific sustain. When he beat me in the Empire series it was in one of these final sprints that started about a kilometer from the finish line, and he just rolled by me with 25 meters to go. If I make a mistake they will both be on me like white on rice.
I am starting to feel good, especially on the uphills and the false flats, all of those stupid hard intervals I have done this year are paying off right now. You race on the strength you put in your legs before you ever step to the starting line. On the hilly terrain the indoor kids are starting to huff and puff, on the third lap I pass the 2 leaders (shown at the moment here) and put a pretty solid tempo on the backstretch and I take the downhill fairly fast.
My heart is hammering, I am starting to feel good, there are 8 of us left in the front group, but no one wants to lead. Over the next several laps I take every opportunity to lead up the climb and the false flat after the finish. Every time I do I can feel the group shrinking in size, and although it is by no means easy, I seem to have found some strength in my legs, and the hurt is good hurt, not bad uncoordinated wobbly hurt. It is up to me to make the race hard today. I do not want this be just a waltz to the finish (odd, I usually like slow races). Mark seems to feel the same way, and takes some pulls himself, and then directs one of the indoor kids from the SOS team, who was just sitting at the back of the pack, to do some pulling to, so he dutifully pulls for a few hundred meters. Herb (that is him in the orange white stripey jersey) is always smiling, even today, but he says his back hurts, and he never touches the wind, but just sits on the back of the pack the whole time (look at the perfect double push technique of the kid right in front of him, you can really see both skates applying power to the ground at the same instant).
Here is mark taking a pull up the hill, 4 laps to go. The Skater right in front of me was the one who crashed in warm-ups, and he was handed up a bottle by a spectator, and then handed it back to me to take a drink from too. Nice kid. There are only six of us left, as relaxed as I look, taking a quick drink made me gasp for air.
I must have lead about 1/3 the race by this point, especially on the uphill and false flat after the climb, as we sweep into the downhill coming up on 2 laps to go, Mark speeds by me on the side of the pack, and motions for me to follow him. He wants to make an attack. Cool. A smart move on his part, he knows that we are both the strongest in the group, and his chances in the sprint are a lot better if he is away in a break with me, and both of us are working hard and tired, and also he won’t have indoor kids sprinting by him at the finish. I hop into his draft as we charge the hill with 2 laps to go. As he passes the kid in the front of the paceline, his right leg is stroking at the same time the kid’s left leg is stroking, and their skates connect hard, both of them stumble, and almost go down at top speed, luckily they don’t cause I am right behind him! Mark’s momentum is gone, and he sits up and does not attack the rest of the hill. I can smell the finish, 2 laps to go, I sit in the draft and wait. There are 2 indoor kids leading at quite a rapid clip, Mark is right behind them, and I am behind him. Perfect, I can keep an eye on him.
But one of the cool things about racing, is that as tactically savvy as I think I am, others are just as smart and have as many races in their back pocket as I do. Mark tactically does something really bright, he starts going slow, a gap opens to the 2 indoor kids, and it grows. Its suddenly 20 meters, and here we are almost on the last lap. He is going to make me take the lead, and is prepared to let 2 kids roll away from us to make me take it. I have more to lose here than he does, as I am skating really well right now. Ok, I see how the game is. An indoor kid jumps around us and tries to close the now 30 meter gap, the one who has been sitting on the back most of the day. At this point I have to follow, I charge around mark and catch the indoor kid. The kid skates fast, but he can’t quite seem to close the last few meters of the gap, he is struggling. Now Mark and the probably extremely fresh Herb are both right behind me waiting for me to launch. We hit the hill and get the bell for one lap to go.
I am working hard, but there is no pain, I guess I have spent enough years doing this that I am good at turning the brain off in the last kilometer, I am just focused.
We finish the climb and hit the false flat. No hiding, no trickery, no tactics, its just effort time now, it’s the false flat and as I planned before the race (I always make my decision on where I want to start sprinting before a race starts) I launch into my sprint as if the finish of the race were 100m away, not 800. As a pure sprinter, I have a good jump to speed. I hammer as hard as I can, as low as I can make my screaming legs sit until the end of the false flat, I look back at the group as I fly through the corner. I am cleanly away.
I have a good lead, and my legs are starting to lock up, but I ignore them and keep up the strokes, I swing one arm and pretend I am racing an ice 1000m race i.e. a full out sprint, but with smooth control to each stroke. I take it extra safe through the final corners, but keep my straightaway strokes really hard and cross the finish line with a 50 meter gap on the pack. It was a 19:24 10k, a fairly slow race actually. But a win is a win is a win. I should have enjoyed the last meters more, but I’m numb, tired, kind of blank, I have no huge emotional surge after the finish. It doesn’t really sink in that I finished first at all, I don’t celebrate or put up a big whoop or anything. Weird. I just accomplished one of my season goals. And I don’t react at all.
I coast to a stop and look behind me to see Herb take the sprint from Mark for second (those are lapped skaters on the left) So I am now 2 for 2 in Allentown races, and at the awards ceremony I get $40! Yay!, With entry fee, tank of gas in the Subaru, and food on the way home, I have broken even today. Just for the real tech-minded folks in the reading audience, my average heart rate for the race was 190, and my max Heart race was 204 (I am sure I hit that at some point of my last lap charge) and my average speed for the 10k (assuming the course was exactly 10,000m, which it probably was not,) was 19.2mph.
Afterwards, it was really nice chatting with my long track buddy, Kathi Retocki, who came down to watch the race. She and I had shared accommodations in Butte, Montana this winter, and she gave me some pictures she pictures of my masters national record setting 500 meter race. It made me so happy to see them! Driving home, I celebrated my good day with a Krispy Kreme! When I finally got home, waiting for me in the mail was the official record certificate from US speedskating marking my record run in Butte in February. How odd, one of my inline season goals was to win a race, and now I see pictures and a certificate from my last season of racing show up in my mail the same day. All the emotion that I did not have at the finish of that race, comes welling up. And I start to think about next ice season, and the races I am peaking for this winter. I start to remember that the whole reason I do all this training, traveling, and inlining, is for ice, for those few times when it is just me and the clock, and a glistening sheet of frictionless ice stretching in front of me for 500 or a 1000 meters. More traveling, more early mornings, more racing, more good friends, more Krispy Kremes, I can’t wait!