I stared out the window at the massive peaks, taking a minute to locate myself on the planet and appreciate the sublime beauty of the Alpe d’Huez valley. The car swung around hairpin the and with it my mind back to reality. As we descended, so did my perspective. I felt like a joke.
It was my first self-induced DNF. I had those letters on results sheets before but only for major mechanicals. It was a slow decision. An idea that my brain had quickly calculated after taking in all the signs and symptoms but one I shoved to the back burner, hoping things would change. As the kilometres ticked by, however, so did my fight and eventually I read the watts on my cycling computer as truth.
I started the day optimistic with the in-water mass start suiting my weaker swimming abilities. The water is notoriously cold at Alpe d’Huez so I warmed up as best I could, knowing that was crucial to my performance. It felt colder than last year and I actually felt a bit dizzy. As soon as we started, I couldn’t catch my breath…until the finish. I couldn’t put any power down and the congestion made everything feel worse. I slid farther and farther back and my plan-B to smash lap two was, instead, a repeat of lap one. It took forever, I felt terrible and if it weren’t for slipstream I’m pretty sure I’d still be bobbing in the lake.
The bike wasn’t better. No stranger to a bad swim, I can usually regroup well on the bike but things went from bad to worse kilometre after kilometre. I had fought through bad legs before but this was unchartered territory. I kept looking at my power with disbelief. I’d ignore it and ride on feel only to ride worse. I’d rest a bit and ramp up again only slip deeper into creep-mode. I stayed optimistic for a long time thinking things would turn around for one reason or another but they didn’t. On the second climb of the day, the shortest of them all, I knew my race was over. By the third climb, I had (mostly) accepted it. I hadn’t come to finish, I had come to compete but now I realized even finishing wasn’t a smart idea.
I tried a few more times to get going but eventually I changed my focus. I started cheering people on, I gave a guy my tire sealant for his third flat, I offered water to those who needed it, and paced a guy the last 5km up Alpe d’Huez. I felt somewhat selfish as I was desperate for purpose and distraction but I hoped my small gestures were encouraging to someone.
Eventually I got to the top of Alpe d’Huez and made the hard call I had been preparing to make for 80 kilometres. I could run but there was nothing to be gained for my not-quite healed right calf (my original concern for the day, which had actually held up perfectly). I dismounted, took off my shoes and walked my bike into transition.
Immediately I was full of questioning. I knew deep down I made the right call but this was my job. How could it have gone so badly? Was I just making excuses? I felt ashamed of my swim. I felt weak for my bike performance. I felt undeserving to call myself a professional athlete. Logically, I knew these things happened to even the best in the world but emotionally it was a different flavour.
I remember looking at the pros as an age grouper, admiring their speed, grit, and talent but I never imagined the emotional demands of being an athlete. I never imagined the weight of having your career depend on a handful of days a year. It’s days like this where it all just seems out of reach, no matter how hard you work or how positive your outlook. I guess I’m still trying to prove to myself that I am an athlete and my goals are achievable. Life goes on and eventually these days don’t matter but that doesn’t mean these days don’t ever matter.
Photos courtesy Laurent Salino.