August 12, 2011

USA: URBAN ATHELETE - Victory, the Personal Kind

NEW YORK, NY  / The New York Times / Arts / August 12, 2011

Athletes in the Hudson River for the milelong swimming leg of the New York City Triathlon. Robert Caplin for The New York Times

By Edward Rothstein

“I CUDDA been a contenduh” was how Marlon Brando once put it.
Yeah, me too. I raced in the New York City Triathlon on Sunday, and I cudda gotten the gold.

About midway through the race, having finished the punishing milelong swim in the Hudson, I was furiously bicycling down the Henry Hudson Parkway and the West Side Highway. The northbound lanes were closed to traffic. There were more than 3,000 people in this race, but I, exhilarated, was speeding along without another competitor in sight. Approving cheers came from cars on the highway’s other side. Occasionally I trusted in the open expanse of that empty roadway and stared downward at the hypnotic rush of concrete, not wanting to be discouraged by glimpses of oncoming hills.

On completing the course’s 25 miles, I racked the bike and ran to 72nd Street for the final segment. Again, no competition: the 6.2-mile course was open before me. Spectators shouted encouragement as I propelled myself toward Central Park.

But the consequences of my hard-won highway victory began to tell. The muscles above my knees were starting to cramp: I slowed, mixing walking, loping, running. I was plagued by tempting thoughts of surrender. Then I heard the cheers: “Fantastic endurance!” “Almost there!” The final miles passed at a stutteringly uneven pace.

But, apparently, I had no rivals. The medal, I thought, was mine. And it was draped around my neck at the finish line, to the sound of hearty applause.

It just wasn’t gold.

You see, the reason I was alone on the course was not that I was ahead of everybody, but that I was behind everybody. Far behind. Very far behind. I felt destined to earn the rare distinction of coming in last: a gold medal loser.

But not even that honor was to be mine. I could have been in last place, I should have been in last place; for half the race I really was in last place. Yet it is possible that toward the park’s northern end, I passed another competitor. Was that a racer I saw, taking the course at a near stroll and talking on a cellphone? I don’t know, but somehow I came in only second to last, 3,135 out of 3,136, a silver medal loser.

Some readers may recall the column I wrote last year on the eve of this annual race, outlining my training regimen before my debut plans were derailed by torn ligaments. This year, despite my advancing years, the gods left my body intact but conjured other mischief. Soon after 8:15 a.m. the gear-changing mechanism on my bicycle seized up, twisting into the wheel’s spokes, making riding impossible. I was on a return route, with perhaps 12 miles to go.

What could be done? I futilely tried to bend the mechanism into place. Then I hoped to find the race’s bicycle repair vehicle on the road. But others were waiting with flat tires; I had no idea how long it might take. And a walk back to 79th Street would mean the end of the race.

Squinting through sweaty eyes at the unfamiliar twisted derailleur mechanism, I decided to take things apart, stripping away complications. The bike needed only pedals, a chain and a back wheel. So I would reduce the bike to one gear. And shorten its chain.

Until nearly 10 a.m. I squatted on the highway’s shoulder, removing the mechanism, punching links out of the chain and reattaching the ends. The air grew hotter. Racers sped by. Then, as stained with grease as the bike, I tried the pedals. They worked. For a half mile. But the chain slipped and jerked and broke apart. I repaired it again, and then yet again, making slow, unsteady progress.

Finally help arrived. In just a few minutes a bike repair team shortened the chain further and made the connection firm.

But standing over me now was a race official with a van.

I was, he said, the last cyclist on the highway. It was 10:52 a.m. By 11:30, I had to be finished. And if I couldn’t make it, I would be disqualified. I was near the Cloisters: I had to get to 57th Street, circle back and end at 79th. I had 38 minutes and one gear. If I succeeded, the best I could hope for was to be the race’s biggest loser.

And that’s why I was pedaling furiously down an empty West Side Highway. Trailed by the watcher in his van, I pressed ahead like the cyclist in the film “Breaking Away,” racing a truck. With minutes to spare, I reached the 79th Street exit. And then I had the running course to myself as well. Almost.

Such solitude is not as alien to the race experience as it appears. In some ways everyone who races, races alone. You have to decide what your limits are, when you can push and when you push too far. Most of us are competing not against a record but against our sense of the possible. “Personal best” is the overused phrase.

But spend enough time alone in a race and you see how restrictive that notion is. If your only standard is yourself, you have an imperfect sense of things. You learn about possibilities from others. They spur you to reassess what seems settled. Otherwise, a race could be a bit like my final run. For all the cheering, I really was alone. There was nothing to press against, no other racers testing limits, only a finish line to reach. My exhaustion was palpable. So I couldn’t — or didn’t — push as hard.

* Nautica New York City Triathlon 2011, 

EDWARD ROTHSTEIN participated in the 55-59 age group for men.
* In the final tally for his group he ranked 3139.
* He was placed 2784 in the Swim (1.5k), 
* 3135 in the bike portion (40k) and
* 3061 in the Run (10k). 

But when soaring solo down the West Side Highway, I remembered why many of us race. When the van trailed me, it provided the obstacle, the limit. I was not racing against myself but against the race’s boundaries. And when I took apart the bicycle, the mechanical world served as the demanding arbiter. Such things matter; boundaries actually expand possibilities. And they can have enlightening effects: Next time my gears are totaled, I’ll know how to get moving in 10 minutes.

That’s why, soon enough, I’m planning to be a contenduh again.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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