As requested by some of you, here is my account of my racing at the ottawa race this weekend, it is quite long ( I did 11 races) and I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it and doing it.. If you are not one of those who requested this long missive in your mailbox, I apologize, writers always tend to think of their work as a gift, but I wrote this so I will remember all the details of this very roller coaster emotional weekend years from now, not so that my close friends will be forced to read this novella, so I will not be offended if you do not read it......
ok, now I have got to get back to work, I have spent more time on these 8,700 words than I should have....
Ottawa Skate Novella, january 11th-12th... 2003I remember reading a quote by Connie Carpenter Phinney, about her husband, Davis. Davis Phinney is a two time tour de france stage winner and has to be counted as one of the best 3 sprinters America has ever produced, and one of the top 10 American cyclists of all time. Connie said “you never stop learning, Davis has been doing racing full time for 18 years of his life and he is still learning and fine tuning things.”
If a guy like Davis, full time professional athlete, never has learned enough, I will never learn enough. I must always be in a mode of getting better at something, for every workout on the ice these days I am trying to learn something new, or trying to be better at consistently applying something that I have just learned. Last year all I cared about was to have a few moments of correct skating technique. Results, smesultes! But this year I am trying to really skate fast, Last year I learned what a good stroke felt like, this year I need to put long strings of them together in race situations, I need to keep skating right when I am tired. But there is only so much mental time available, and so much that I still need to work on.
I am going to this weekend’s race in Ottawa for several reasons. The first and main one is to continue gaining experience. I am strong enough now to win races, but I do not have the experience I need to be consistent in applying my strength, I need to make learning into action. The second thing is that during the season, you need to race, and you need to race as much as you can. Racing is always better training than training. I worked incredibly hard with no break for months and months this summer gaining strength. Crushing hill sprints on shoes and the bicycle and skates. Skipping beautiful blue sky days when my training plan told me I needed to be in the gym, all those efforts now need to be put to use in races that are incredibly quick, with no chance for recovery if you miss a step or make a mistake, and I still have a lot of mistakes to make, and steps to miss before I can be confident in my abilites.
These days I have cut my working out time way down and apply what I have gained during the weekend races. It is harder for motivated fellas like me to hold back than it is to work hard. And work was busy enough this week that the last week of working out has been very very light. I even had Wednesday and Thursday completely off. So I am somewhat worried about this race. Maybe I have backed off too much, I am rested, but I have lost my edge of speed. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and I still have so much to learn. I am gonna be great or terrible this weekend, there will be no middle road.
I leave Ithaca at 1pm, and arrive Ottawa at 6pm, and go right to the oval to do a light race prep workout, getting my feet used to the clap skates again. I have only had access to short track ice, and I have not had claps on my feet since dec 31s t. It is dark and brutally cold. I put everything I own on, and waddling like the Michelin man, I step on the ice and feel terrible, I am a cold and dispirited Bibendium. Too many days of not working out, drinking a lot of coffee, and not enough sleep, and I am only minimally competent on the ice. A race prep workout for me is very short, only 30-40 minutes, 5 laps warming up at steady pace, 3 300m accelerations, 1 2 lap segment at 1000m race pace, 3 rolling starts and 3 standing starts. I feel terrible for most of it. I can barely finish the 2 lap segement. But by the time I get to the standing starts my body is beginning to click in. And my last start is smoking. The ice is terrible, it has big rolling lumps in the outer lanes, it has holes and mud in a lane on the backstretch where people walk across it in muddy sorrels… and they are going to race here tomorrow?
I leave the ice with the first good feeling I have had in my legs in days. And chat with some very nice folks in the warming hut. For the race tomorrow, I am signed up for 4 olympic style sprint races, 2 500’s and 2 1,000’s, and 4 packstyle races, a 500, 1000, 1500 and 3,000
I get to my Hotel (also conveniently race headquarters), and run into the race organizers setting up the registration table, I give them a hand. As they are handing me my packet, they tell me there were no other older fellas like me who wanted to do the senior men sprint races, but there are quite a few signed up for the Allaround. So they put me in the allaround competiton! Warrgh! I have not trained to skate 1500, 3000 and 5000m races. Oh well. I suffered like mad doing a 10,000 a few weeks ago in Lake Placid. I can only imagine what this will be like. Again my depression comes back, I have traveled so far, and worked so hard for this sprinting specialty of mine! I talk to Jessica on the phone that night, and tell her that I will try and just have fun in the Olympic races, except for the 500m, I want to skate a good 500, and then maybe try to go out really hard in the 3,000 the first day and see what happens, but I will be pissed at myself if I don’t win the packstyle events.
Saturday dawns really really cold. I am glad I do not know the Celsius scale that well, because it was around –15 all day, that’s 5 degrees!! Stepping onto the track, and it is outrageously cold, getting up any speed at all is frankly painful.
I know a few of the guys I am skating against already. I know that my main competition will be Ryan Ogstead and Bob Laurence. Ryan is 32 just like me. He lapped me in that 10,000 I did in lake placid, and he is quite strong. Bob was the 2000 north American champion in the 40-49 category (and wears the skin suit he won in that competition), he is a firefighter and says that loves his occupation, its great to train with, and allows for many trips to ovals. He has skated world masters championships several times. Ken Wetzel is another skater who might play a role, his daughter Laren has dominated the junior women this weekend. Ross ???, who is also here with his wife, trains with Bob and has been skating forever as well. I think I will have more speed than these guys, but Olympic style allaround competitions are usually decided in the distance races, my weakness.
I step out to the rink to warm up for my 500m, the ice feels slow and it is snowing lightly. It is absolutely blisteringly cold. Getting any speed up sends icey knives through my body. I expect to skate between a 41 and a 42 second 500m. that seems to be my benchmark time these days, Below a 41 would be great, but I am not expecting it given the ice and snow. The ice is better than last night, they must have worked on it for hours, but I never thought I would call lake placid fast, but compared to this it is greased lighning.
The racing begins, the race organizers are calling pairs to the line astonishingly quickly. One pair finishes and the other is called to the line and sent off within 10 seconds. Several of the junior racers and one of the people in my category miss their start. Suddenly it is my name being called to the line. I am paired with Ryan, and this should be a good start to the weekends racing, a good gauge. If I can pop off a smoking 500, I will do well here. I am running through my race plan in my mind “skate after the first 4 runnning steps, plant really low for the first crossover, straightaways low and powerful, good tempo, drive the knees, nail the final corner.” It is so cold that we are all waiting till the very last second to take off our warm-ups. I take off my jacket and hat, change into my lightweight racing gloves, and step to the line as the starter calls “skaters to your mark”, I take a deep breath. “ready” I go down into my three point stance, but my legs look funny, oh crap!!!!! It is so cold, and I am so focused, I have forgotten to take off my big fuzzy warmup pants. In the split second before the gun goes off I say “oh shit” to my self, and all the visualization goes out the window.
I am off the line well, but the pants slow down my turnover, I beat Ryan to the first 100m, but not by my usual huge margin, the first turn is terrible, I can’t get a deep stroke going, the backstreach is better, and the final corner is awful, I feel like I am trying to race in diapers, I can’t sit low and snap out my strokes. I am losing speed. I can hear Ryan’s claps catching up to me in the last 100m. I finish ahead of him, but not by much. This is the worst 500m I have done this year, by far.
When the times are posted 20 minutes later, my fears are realized. I did the fastest 500m of the 7 men in the overall Olympic style all-around competition, but a 43.99 is an awfully slow time for me. Ryan was .3 seconds behind me, and Bob is .5 seconds further back. All the other men skated between a 48 and a 50. I am frustrated. But hey, I need experience, and this is a learning experience. I try to do the math in my head, of how much time the pants cost me, forgetting to take off your hat in a 500m is worth 1/2 a second. So what would rumply fleece pants with a zipper be? I give up this line of thought quickly, because the main problem was they got in the way of my stroke.
So I go to the line of the 3,000m race later filled with venom, and an attitude primed for taking a risk. I have nothing to lose by going out hard and seeing what happens, so I decide to do this race with the suffering meter pegged, I think of all the hurting I did during those 9.6 mile Thursday night hilly inline time trials I did this last summer, and I realize this 2 mile race can’t begin to be as hard as the last 2 miles of those, so I cheer up, and find a nice smooth stone of resolve in my heart. I remember a coach saying that the way to skate a 3,000m race for the 7 and a half laps is to start hard for the first 1/2 lap, settle in for 3 laps, build the turns for 2 laps, and then go all out for the final 3 laps. I am not sure that would be a good strategy for me. I might be better off starting out fairly hard and then just trying to hold it together. I am paired with Joseph. He is a weaker skater than me, I lapped him twice during my 10,000 in Lake placid. So I need to do this race vs my own pain tolerance.
The gun goes off and I find a nice hard rythmn fairly early. My straightaway stroke is long, slow and low, and I attack the corner every time I have an inner turn (its hard to accelerate when you are on the outer lane). The speed feels good. 2 laps in and I am hurting, but it is a good hurt, a hurt that means things are working. The coaches are calling out lap times between 34 and 38 seconds. I go quite hard for the first 4 and a half laps. Then my legs turn to wobbly rubber, and I go from building speed at every opportunity to simply maintaining speed as best I can. The lap times drop into the 40’s I sit a little higher and go for tempo in the straights and turns, I am slowing down, but this is a lot easier than those thursday night time trials! So the mind keeps the weak flesh at the task, keeps the strokes turning over. The last lap is hard, but I make it to the finish well.
The clock stops at 5:12, Averaging 21.6 mph for the distance (I will average almost 28mph for a good 500m race). I don’t know how that stacks up, and I don’t really care, the great thing about Olympic style racing is that you are just against yourself; the hard part is that you are against yourself. Today I beat myself. It feels good. I suddenly realize I am shivering almost uncontrollably, it takes me many minutes to get my warm-ups back on, my hands are frozen. As I am struggling with the zippers on my warm ups, I watch Ryan and Bob do a phenomenal 3,000m duel, they are very closely matched, trade the lead numerous times, with Ryan having a little more left at the finish, they both skate around a 5 minute 3000, they are practically tied for the overall lead,
I am solidly in third place of the seven men in the allaround, with some cushion between myself and fourth due to my 500 being much faster than his. That is probably where I will finish if I skate a decent 1500. Damm, if not for the mental mistake of the 500, I would have an outside shot at the first few spots. Oh well.
After a break for lunch, and a good nap in the warming hut (Ross, Bob and I just passed out, none of us can seem to get warm again, we step outside and start shivering immediately) it comes time for packstyle racing, my strength.
There are 11 master men registered for packstyle, and there are also 2 master women who have registered as well (they just threw them in with us, and they did not finish last! One of them won one of the B finals later in the day) so there are 13 of us. That makes it necessary to run heats and finals for each distance. In my 1500m, heat, I cruised with Ross and Ken, each of us pulling for a lap, and easily won the heat. Watching the other head, Ryan and Bob did the same thing, pulling away easily from the rest of their group. The final is going to be interesting. A 1500 is a true middle distance, and it can really hurt if the pace is hard.
In the 1500m final, itself, off the line I am in the middle of the pack, Ross leads the group out, Bob in second, Ryan 3rd, With 2 laps to go, Ryan notices that Ken has worked his way in line ahead of me, and I am fairly far back in the group. So he takes off and attacks hard. Bob goes after him, I sit on Bob for 150m, and the gap to ryan keeps growing, 500m from the finish, on a straight, I see Bob will not catch him, so I launch myself to my top warp speed to cross the 30 meters Ryan has on the pack. I close the gap and pass him just after we get the bell on the turn with 300m to go, I am worried about leading out too early, no matter how much speed you have in these races, if you are my size someone can just grab the draft my big ass makes and slingshot around you in the last few meters. But Ryan looks pretty cooked as I pass him. In the last corner and final straight my technique is ugly, but fast enough, I win the race with gas still in the tank. I am happy, I should take the 1000, and the 500 with no problem if I won the 1500 feeling this good. Anything can happen, but part of my heart feels like the pack style races are in the bag. After the race a coach in a yellow parka skates over to me and says “nice second to last turn, really nice”. The people here know their skating, this is a cut above milwaulkee in the ability of the general skaters I see around me.
My 1000m heat was no problem, they seem to have the same groups in each heat, Ross, Ken and I cruise easily, I warmed up with the usual care, but don’t even breathe hard during the race, as Ken had some score to settle with the 1000 and went hard the whole way, pulling Ross and I along for the free ride, I passed him with 200 to go, mentally making this a rehearsal for the final, Ryan and Bob do the same thing in their heat, saving energy for the final.
A lot of races happen, hundreds it seems, the sun goes down and the cold becomes extreme, it must be close to 0 degrees out, with a light wind. All the refs are in parkas, moonboots, the lights surrounding the oval come on, and the scene becomes surreal, I visualize attacking this race early, I want to not get stuck in traffic, I have the speed, if I execute I can win it. On the last resurfacing, the Zamboni does a great job, and the ice is super hard and as fast as this rink can be. There are 150 skaters at this meet, and there is the constant sound of cheering from the oval, even in the warming hut you can hear the constant racket.
The time for our final eventually comes, warming up is so hard to do when it is this cold, but we all make ourselves circle and do a few accelerations. I can feel the tension in the seven of us lining up for the 1000, everyone is serious, everyone has done this before, we all have the wheels turning in our own minds about what we need to do to make this as good a race as we can. The gun goes off and I let myself fall into the middle of the group again. Bob takes the lead, he does not want it, and pulls outside, Ross slides through on the inside from the back of the group and takes the lead, Ryan takes it back, this race is short, our pace is not fast, and we are playing this like a chess game. I am on Ryan like glue, he is the strongest skater here next to me, watching him cross the turns I can see the pop in each stroke. He is not going hard and looks back at the pack snaking along behind him, he does not want the lead either, we all follow him down the backstretch, he goes wide out of a turn with 600m to go, and I can feel several people coming up on the inside. Crap, this is too tactical, not good, I don’t want to get boxed in at the sprint, I hate that happening, I have had enough experiences in bicycle races where I have suffered for seemingly endless time to get to within sight of the finish, only to coast across the line completely boxed in and unable to maneuver as I watch people ahead of me sprint for the win. I have adopted the philosophy of going early, of saying, “here I am, beat me” I could not pull that off as a cyclist when I was 20, but by the time I was 27 I began to be able to. So I attack on the outside, everything I have, I can feel that I have a good gap and take the turn hard. I have a separation from the group, I can feel that I am alone, the bell for the final lap rings. 400m to go, and I can feel the good physical groove happening, I have a lot of speed, the strokes are coming fast and furious, I hit the final turn and for a split second I can see my shadow cast to my left by the stadium light.. I am alone, good, I come out of the final turn with 50m to go and suddenly Ryan is right there on my shoulder coming out of nowhere like a lightning bolt from a blue sky (he is in a blueish skinsuit), I go as hard as I can, my technique is breaking down, but I make good strokes and still have top speed, and he beats me to the line by one a skate length!!!! The crowd goes nuts. Ryan coaches one of the local short track clubs, and has a lot of friends here. Bob is directly behind me too, all of us finish withing 7/10th of a second, Ryan beats me by .08 of a second. I am shocked to lose the 1000! I have never lost a 500 or 1,000m pack style race before!! (I was Dqed once, but I still won the race).
As soon as I slow down In the extreme cold I can feel this weight like a clamp on my chest, I start shaking.. I need to get my warm-ups back on and skate some of the crap out of my legs for a few laps, But can barely function, Ryan comes up to me and says “yaknow, I caught you with glide, you were taking twice as many strokes as I was, I just was stroking KA-BOOOOOOM…. KA-BOOOOOMM......KA-BOOOOOM and I was able to catch you”
I feel something in my chest just fall… I am pretty sure about the 500 tomorrow… but the 3000 is Ryan’s territory, and he just showed a lot of speed, enough to catch me and pass me when I throw down a good sprint. Usually in these events the distance race is the tiebreaker so he is likely to win the packstyle meet as well as the allaround. Damm damm! This is just a race, but I am very competitive about this kind of stuff. I need to think about Ryan’s comment, and change how I skate at maximum speed during packstyle races. Learn learn learn. This is what I came here to do, results be dammed, I will not make this mistake at nationals because I made it for the first time here.
Back at the hotel, I am amazed by how tired I am after I take a shower, something in my body is fundamentally wacked by being so cold for so long. It takes me almost half an hour to figure out a very simple room service menu, I am so brain dead, I think I stand up maybe 4 times the whole evening (that is counting the going to the door to get my room service). At 4am I wake up shivering and soaked in sweat, the sheets and my pillow are like a swamp, My body is really upset with me, but this is a queen sized bed, I roll over to the dry side, trade the sopping pillow for a dry one, and return to my coma. Getting up the next morning is amazingly hard. I struggled out of bed and into a hot shower wondering how the hell I am going to race a 5,000m today, I feel like I have been hit all over with hammers. I watch the Canadian version of the weather channel, and luckily the weather does not look quite as brutal, it seems a comfortable 10-15 degrees outside, instead of the under 5 of yesterday.
Every Olympic distance has its own feeling, its own character, they are all very different races to skate they all have unique personalities, and a 1500 is one of the more challenging and nasty personalities, it is the true collision distance between sprinters and distance guys, half way between each, whoever is better at their weakness will win. You have to open up hard, hit almost your top speed, back off a bit, for the middle of the race, and then still have enough left to really work the turns and the last lap. The 1500 is also the most painful distance of any of them, blood lactic acid levels in 1500m skaters are consistently the highest. Again I need to use my strengths and minimize my weaknesses. I need to use my speed in the opening laps to get ahead, I might be able to grab big gobs of time in the opening laps, and then try not to die too much when Ryan and Bob will come on strong for their finish.
I line up with Ross for the 1500. He and I are 3rd and 4th in the overall, I am sure I can beat him, but by how much? And can I make up time on Ryan or Bob? I have done a lot of 1,000’s recently, and have learned how to skate middle distance races, but I have not raced a 1500 since July in Calgary, and I was a different skater then.
I am visualizing a very fast start, and then going efficient with my straightaway strokes and working the turns hard. They call us to the line and the adrenalin is firing full blast. The gun goes off and I open like I am doing a 500, hit the first turn at full speed and blaze the first straight at maximum warp, 3 laps to go, I pump the second turn with big strokes and cross over in the backstretch, I am already way ahead of Ross., I am feeling the strokes coming well, coming up to the 2 to go sign and my legs suddenly start to lock up, I back off somewhat but I have started way way too fast, I hold it together in a mediocre fashion, 600 meters to go and I am struggling in the turn, I can feel myself slowing with every step. I get the bell for the final lap and things are really ugly, really stupid ugly, I finish the final lap as if I were skating directly into the sun, blinded and burning, swinging both arms trying to get everything from staggering stupid tired legs.
A few minutes after I finish I realize what I did. I knew mentally that I was skating a 1500, but my body has trained and visualized skating a 1000, and I visualized a 1000, I started way too hard and died 800 meters into the race, and that is the correct way to skate a 1000m race, you go so hard you die just before the finish and hold the technique across the line. But not a 1500m. Ideally you want to skate a 1500 with each lap within 2 seconds of each other, mine were like 33, 36, 41. I screwed up, but I know my opener was truly smoking, Ross told me that I had almost a whole straightaway on him at the end of the first lap (he ended up closing that gap some by the finish, but I still beat him by 9 seconds, further cementing my solid hold on 3rd place, the 5,000 will now be a formality). I am interested in seeing how Rob and Ryan end up. My final time was 2:20.
As I put my warm-ups on over my heaving chest, I see Rob and Ryan do a truly great duel, they are very close for 3 laps, and in the last 300 meters ryan hits the warp speed button and crosses with a final time of 2:18, Robs was a 2:21. So I beat one of them, probably appropriate, I heard a coach call out Ryans final lap as a 38, so we were essentially tied going into the final lap, hmm…. Then I hear the announcer blare “Due to crossover violations the last two racers are both disqualified” Wow!!! A huge shocker! How did both of them get disqualified? Was there a fistfight on the backstretch that I missed? Did they both run over an official? I have never heard of both athletes being Dqed in an Olympic style race. A few minutes later I skate up to a very dejected Ryan and ask him. He says “We were just chatting before the start, and when they called us to the start, we went to the wrong lanes than the ones we were supposed to, we started in the wrong lanes, and after the race the Ref Dqed us..”
When pairing are listed before a race, also posted is who is starting on the inner lane and who is starting on the outer lane. It is important. When you go to the start before a race, there is a ref with a clipboard who hands you an armband, red if you start on the outer, white for inner (the only way I can remember which is which is to think of an apple, red on the outside, white on the inside) and they keep track of you in the race that way.
I have great empathy for Ryan and Bob, it was a simple mental mistake, just like me forgetting to take my warm-ups off. It is so hard when you are trying to focus on doing a good race, and getting your mind and body ready, to remember all these essential little things.
But the really good thing about this, is that this means I am solidly in first place, and with my 1500 opening a big gap on Ross, I will win the overall at the meet, unless I lose like a minute and a half to Ross in the 5,000, which will not happen. Or something else weird occurs. But weirdness seems to be happening in this meet.
I am sad for Bob and Ryan, Ryan is kind of ticked, Bob doesn’t really care (he has done too many big races to care a lot about this small one). I had a meet in Wisconsin taken away from me by a ref recently too. It was a 3 race meet, a 1000, a 500 and a 1500 packstyle race. I won the 1000 with ease, and in the 500 I was leading by a lot and I tripped and fell, slid partway into the warmup lane, regained my feet, and still won the race. A ref Dq’ed me with a judgment call the same way that the Ref Dqed Ryan and Bob, the Ref's had a choice what to do, and chose the DQ. I later won the 1500 easily too at that Wisconsin race, and took second place in the meet. I was mightily ticked, It sucks. Yeah, they did something stupid, just like my tripping and falling on my face was stupid. But it did not benefit them one second in the race, Just like my face plant did not benefit me. So maybe this is the Karma angel coming back to me. If I win the overall here, as I seem to be headed to, I debate handing my first place medal to Ryan, because after all, it really is his by effort and time, but the Karma angel stuffs my outstretched hand back into my pocket, after all there is a Wisconsin skater that has a first place medal that should have been mine too.
When the points standings are posted (all of these races are divided into point, so that 1 second in a 500m = 10 seconds in a 5,000m, etc etc), Bob and Ryan have huge penalties added to their time. They are now 5th and 6th overall. They can catch other skaters, but Ross and I are too far ahead. I look at the times and realize that the penalty they got was only somewhat more than the points that I would have scored if I had skated a really super smoking 500m. So my mental mistake has karmically somewhat equaled their mental mistake.
Going into the final 5000m race I am paired with Ross again. I am frankly a little fearful of the 5,000, I really had an awfully hard time in the one 10,000 that I have done, and this is also a long race, I can't just go off the line like an idiot and expect to survive. As I am taking my warm-ups off I see Ross and Bob doing duel again in the previous pair. Ryan trips and falls on one of the straightaways on lap 3, of this 12 and a half lap race, and then, chases Bob the rest of the way with a lot of heart, passing him with one to go and beating him by a few seconds again. Ryan is smoking this meet, he is gonna be hard to beat in that pack-style 3000m this afternoon, I bet he is internally just raging at his bad luck, he a thin, even tempered and calm natured fellow with piercing eyes, and you can tell that there is a strong heart there.
I am mentally visualizing a steady race, it is more important to not blow up and lose gobs of time to Ross than it is to go for the best time I can possibly skate, I skated 44 second laps on average doing that awful 10k at lake placid, and I skated an average of 41.6 second laps skating my 3,000m race yesterday, so I think that if I pace myself between 42 and 44 seconds during this race, I will do just fine. Ross is a heck of a nice fellow, and will be a good pair, we should be well matched.
We go to the start line (I check my armband about 5 times beforehand to make sure I am in the right one) and we go. I start pretty easily, but even with an easy start for me I open up a good lead on Ross. I go steady and the speed is coming easily, by lap 3 I am breathing hard. Ross gets a great draft off of me in the crossover, and then takes the lead briefly. I take a draft off of him the next crossover and take the lead back, and begin putting a little more into each corner. By lap 6 I have a solid 30 meters on him. What this means is that he is getting good drafts off of me every couple of laps, but I am just far enough ahead that I don’t get a draft off of him. We battle back and forth and the coaches are going nuts giving us our split times, They know this is going to be very close at the finish as Ross speeds up and I slow down at the end. I am holding my target 42-43 second laps pretty well. This really is beginning to really hurt, but I am still in control of my stroke. 4 to go and I can feel the finish coming. My laps are now high 43’s Coming up the finishing straightaway and I can hear Ross’ claps, he is just off my shoulder, he must only be 5 or 10 meters back there now. I think to myself “I need to really go hard now because I am not sure if he passes me if I can pass him back”. 2 to go and I am on tunnel vision auto-pilot, I am swinging both arms in the straights for more speed. I still am ahead, the bell rings for the last lap and I feed the last scraps of my brain into the fire fueling the body. The coaches on the backstretch are screaming at both of us, but I can’t make out words. Nothing exists but the line, nothing exist but making good strokes from wobbling limbs. I can hear Ross’s claps but I can’t see him. I keep expecting him to pass but I somehow make it to the line first. Beating him by a scant 2 seconds. I skated a 5,000m in 9 minutes flat. My last lap was a 44.6. Most of that race was like running from your own shadow behind you, that you know is right on you, nipping your heels but you cannot see.
After a lap of coasting with our heads between our knees and heaving lungs, Ross and I high-five, you can make real friendships out of sharing battles like this one. At this moment it does not matter that this is a small meet in Ottawa, not some prestigious competition, I feel on top of the world, I have taken the all-around. Ross says that time for him is within 5 second of his 5,000 PR, and that day was on very fast ice, not windy and slow like today. So he is happy. Drool frozen on his beard and he his happy. What a bunch of strange fellows we all are. I can’t believe I have won the overall of the all around after dreading it so much. I feel a huge weight lift, not a weight that anyone put on me, I put it on myself, but it feels good. Ross finished second in the overall, and Ryan leaps all the way up to third with is 5k time of 8:40.
After a long delay, the pack style races began. I know right now what I need to do to win the pack style meet. First of all, I need to not fall in my 500m heat, and then in the final I need to skate an error free race. If I screw up one little thing, especially the start in the 500m, Ryan will be right on me and draft me all the way to the finish. There are warmup huts scattered all around the oval, I lean back against the wall in one of them, sitting right next to the heater (aaah...) and close my eyes, and see the 500m race over and over again. I have been reading this book recently called “mind gym” that essentially introduces the concept that good athletes live their lives backwards. They define goals, see themselves achieving their goals, and then clearly imagine all the parts of the performances they perform get there, they mentally rehearse aspects of performance over and over. By the time the event comes, they have done it already. I am rehearsing everything about my 500 over and over again, sometimes in slow-mo, sometimes at real speed.
I see my self lining up, going into my 3 point stance, I feel the explosive reaction to the starting gun, going from running to skating after two or three steps, I see myself sitting really low making full long strides all the way to the first turn, in the turn I see my first left foot crossover planting low and the cross over ending early as I keep the tempo as high as I can make it. I can feel the acceleration through the turn. I clearly count each one of the five steps it takes me to cover the 100m of the backstreatch, I feel my knee driving through so hard it touches my chest between each stroke, I hit the final turn at top speed with no hesitation in stroke turnover, and I can feel the pressure of the G force of the final turn, each stroke of mine putting more power out than the turn is forcing back against me, with as much pressure as 400lbs on the squat rack, I feel myself leaning at 45 degree angle at 30+mph putting all my power through a 1.1mm thick blade that only has one inch of its length at a time touching the ice (this is why speeskating is such a technical sport!)… I can see the critical last strokes exiting the final turn as snappy, and the last 100m I see at good tempo, maintaining all the speed I have built. Each stroke has a complete weight transfer. I feel the speed and I see myself crossing the line first, if someone challenges me in my visualization, if I feel someone trying to come out of my draft, I do not panic, I push harder, not faster, they fail and I win.
Does this sound boring to read once? Well it gets boring to think about 30 times in a row too… But it is essential to think about and see when you are trying to race well. When you are living your life backwards to a good performance
I cruise through my 500m heat without even really trying hard, my 500m time is 4 seconds faster than the next closest challenger. In the hour and a half between the heat and the final, I am completely focused, rehearsing over and over in my mind what I am going to do (and I go back for another cup of soup). Warming up for the final, I see the ref with the start positions sheet walking along the warm-up lane. I stopped and asked to see it, so I could continue visualizing with my start position in line as part of the picture. I see that I have the worst start position, on the far outside of the track, from positions 1-7 I am in position seven. Ryan and Bob are in 2 and 4. They will have an advantage right off the start. Even though my start is faster, I will have to cross right in front of them. If they are quick off the line, they will grab my draft.
But I can’t be negative, a coach once told me a story about talking to Eric Flaim a few weeks before his 5,000m race in the 88 olympics. Eric said to him “I have to have 100% good thoughts in my mind about this race, I have to be 100% positive that I am doing the right things and that I am 100% prepared, 99% is not good enough, if I am 99% positive I will lose. I have to be 100%” Eric went on to win the silver medal.
Taking a page from that book, I think about start position #7, I convince myself that I have an advantage, that position #7 is perfect, because I will come to the line with nobody on my right, and I can squeeze into the person on my left when I line up, and give myself more space, so I can start at 100% full power, with as big strokes as I can make them, and not worry about getting kicked or tangling up with other skaters on the line (always a worry with a 500m). #7 position is the best! I have the advantage!
They call us to the line "skaters to your mark". Ken is on my immediate left, I give ken a wide eyed look and say “Lets not collide off the line, I have a really big first step from my 3 point start, I just wanted to warn you.” (I use a 3 point start that is still fairly uncommon, but it works well for me) Ken smiles and says “no problem’ and shuffles a few inches over. The command comes "Ready" I smoothly step into my 3 point stance and focus, The gun goes off!
How did the race go? You have already seen it, and when I did it, I had already done it at least a dozen times before in my mind. I beat Ryan and bob by at least 40meters, and my time of 41.7 was the fastest pack style 500m time in the whole meet of 150 skaters by over two seconds (that is the 3rd time I have done that). I felt like I skated a high 40, but the ice is really not fast here in Ottawa. One funny thing about this race is I usually try to exhale steady and hard for the first maximal effort five or six steps, sometimes I make a sound like a growl when I do it, afterwards Ross comes over and ribs me "nice banzai war cry" I must have been a little loud today.
I feel a great wash of relief come over me, relief and tremendous tiredness, my legs are rubbery for at least an hour, my body is shaking, I buy a pizza pocket and a cup of soup from the concession stand and try to relax. The race between Ryan and I for the pack style overall will come down to the 3,000m. There will be a very long wait before the start. We will be the last race on the program, the feature event. It will be dark again by the time the race goes off, it will be cold and the ice will be fast again. I try to relax and jog lightly to shake some of the tiredness out of my legs. Bob and I are sitting together in the warmup hut, Bob went to Masters world championships last year in Norway, and he tells me that I really should go this year to worlds in Akemarr, Holland, and that I would do very well in my age category. He is a hell of a nice guy. His daughter is competing this weekend too, and Ross, Bob and I all talk and chat and share stories.
There is no heat for the 3000m, just a final based on the overall packstyle standings so far. Warming up we see the sun setting and big cones of fire spilling around clouds. It is beautiful. The races right before us are the 4-7 year old 100m final races, and there have got to be at least 200 cheering parents lining the final straightaway. It is amazing the sound they are making for every kid. Many of the masters skaters stop warming up and cheer the kids on, sometimes a warm up like that is better than just skating.
I know Ryan is going to try and break me this race, a little voice in the back of my head is saying over and over “skate with courage, skate with courage and you will win, determination! Courage! Determination! courage! You have the speed, just hang in there.” (someone told me later that Ryan was saying before the race “I don’t know what to do to beat Andrew, if I go out early and hard, he is going to sit on me and pass me just at the finish, if I wait, he will out sprint me”)
The lights come on and the ice takes on the same unearthly tone as it did last night, the cold feels like an iron band around our chests as we strip off our warm-ups and go to the line. I am in position 7 again, but this time I am going to go really slowly off the line. I do not want to pull in this 12 and a half lap race, The distance guys are going to have to burn me out before the last 400 meters. The gun goes off and the pack forms up behind Joseph, I am in 6th place of 7. He pulls hard for a few laps, then Ken takes over and pulls, I feel really relaxed, using every trick I know to save as much energy as I can, Ryan is 2 places ahead of me in line, also looking really relaxed and keeping tabs on me to make sure he knows where I am. I make my crossovers in the turns really small and higher tempo, even losing a little ground on the skater in front of me each turn, ground I make the lost distance up in the much easier straightaways, saving every scrap of energy I can. Bob now goes to the front and takes a lap pulling, the pace is really steady fast, but not terrible. Bob pulls off the front, drifts back in the line, I am now in 4th, Bob slots right in behind me, my hands are on my back and if I wiggled my fingers it would tickle his salt and pepper handlebar mustache. The large numbers of parents that were watching their kids have stayed to see this battle, and the crowd is making quite a racket. Ryan coaches at one of the local clubs, Bob has skated Ottawa meets for years, and so most of the yelling is for them, I hear things like “you have the sprinter sitting on you! Make him work!” “Go Ryan! Harder Harder!”!” “Come on Rob, you can do it!” There is one voice going “Andrew! Andrew! Andrew!” but I am not sure who it is.
Ross takes over at the front and the pace picks up, 4 to go, Ryan is in 2nd, I am in 4th, Ross pulls off and Ryan does not want the lead, but the pack is right on him, we are all still together. He hesitates for a few strokes, and then throws down a steady hard acceleration. This is it, I pass Ken, who is between us, and get right on Ryan, I am feeling good, Bob is on me like glue. 2 laps to go and Ryan is swinging both arms, I am so focused I feel no pain, and swing both of my arms to match his acceleration. The three of us break clear of the other 4. 1 to go and the bell rings, Ryan is sprinting all out, in the turn he gets a step on me, something is protesting mightily in my body somewhere, no pain, just focus, just see his blue skinsuit and the two swinging arms, I make myself sit lower and make the crossover strokes big as I can for the first time in this race, I close the gap coming out of the corner, sit on him for a few steps. If Bob starts his sprint now, there will be no room for me to pass the two of them, so I must go! Now! I kick in as hard as I can, claw my way past Ryan just before the final corner. In the corner I have good strokes and can feel the speed building, someone is right on me, I can hear claps. In my memory of the final straightaway, I see the pictures of what it looked like, but I cannot tell you what I was feeling, I don’t think I was allowing myself to feel anything, I was all skate, the yellow floodlights tinging the open creamy ice of the straightaway, the wall of people on the right, the knot of refs on the left at the finish line, there was no noise at all. My brain had hit the mute button. I feel someone coming up on my right but I can’t see them. My strokes are getting ugly, but I make it to the line first!!!!!! I stand up and every muscle in my left leg feels like its coated in molten lead, it can barely flex or move, like I have fallen hipdeep into a hot snowdrift… the rest of me is strangely fine… It was Bob right on me, he finishes ahead of Ryan for the first time this weekend. Ryan, finishes 20 meters behind us. We high five, Ryan skates by me, says “I looked back at you when I was in the lead, and I saw you smiling, I thought to myself, “dammit!”
I feel so damm proud, I have worked harder and been pushed more by my competition here than I have in a long time. As I warm down, and stagger around the track, a little kid, also warming down from his races, skates with me, and tells me about all the races he did today, he is so happy in is blue onesie snowsuit and plastic Zandstras (very cheap long track skates). I love this sport, I don’t want to step off the ice. I want to stay in these moments forever. I am freezing again, sweaty, exhausted, talking to someone 1/5th my age about our shared passion, my mind releases all the tension I have built up in the last 72 hours. I would not be anyone else in the world for a million dollars, as the steam from our breath rises away from us into the dark.