I have a confession: I like to run. Give me a hard off-road trail with sneakers, or a beach where I can ditch the sneakers all together, and I’m a happy camper. I don’t get the “runner’s high” on the bike, no matter how hard I try, but I get it almost every time I run. I also like to swim. Pool, ocean, exceptionally clear lake: give me a water feature and I will make the most of it. So does that make me a lesser cyclist, or, even worse, a triathlete?
For most racers, spring and summer compose the on-season. But lately, there have been more and more people, myself included, who elect to make cyclocross in the fall their main season. So that makes road and mountain, by default … the off-season? For me, if you compare what happens in the fall to the last few months, I suppose that’s accurate. I race every other weekend, sometimes more, sometimes less, now. In September, it’ll be a balls-to-the-wall weekend-after-weekend jam-packed race season. If you asked me to do that on a road bike or a mountain bike, I might cry. But when you spend time dreaming of the perfect dismount/remount technique, it’s pretty clear where your heart is.
Second part of the confession (while I’m at it): mentally, much more so than physically, I find it nearly impossible to whole-heartedly commit to two serious seasons focusing on specific sport. I’ve tried the road and ‘cross thing, the triathlon and ‘cross thing, and now, the road and mountain biking and ‘cross thing, and so far, the best has easily been this summer. I gave myself permission to not take racing too seriously, to train hard and race hard but take weekends off. I bought a good mountain bike and … learned how to mountain bike. I raced road, I raced mountain, often with very mixed results. I got beat up, crashed out, crashed on, and I just plain crashed. Because I’d given myself permission to not take the season seriously, I wasn’t upset with a lack of major results on the road (some solid, some “mehhh”) and I was thrilled to not totally bomb at mountain biking. But for someone used to spending summers focused on triathlon, it felt like there was still something missing.
Then, last week, I was practicing my cornering skills in the park near my house. I rolled into my normal parking lot, expecting it to be empty, as usual. It was full, and I quickly saw why: the empty pool I had thought was a monument to summers past (who has community pools these days?) was full of crystal clear water and happy looking kids. “Just finish your cornering,” I told myself, sternly, out loud, eliciting a few weird looks. I finished the corners in another parking lot but the pool was first and foremost on my brain. It was actually a physical pang. So I did what anyone would do: raced myself home, ran in tot he house, past my confused housemate, tore into the basement and grabbed a bike lock, bathing suit and goggles, as well as my ‘cross/commuter bike, and rushed back out of the house.
Jumping into that freezing, glassy water was the best feeling in the world. Swimming laps and trying to adjust to the ice-cold temperatures, looking at the way the light was reflecting on the water, seeing the droplets flying up, executing my first flip turn in well over a year, it was magical. Diving low to swim under a pain-in-the-butt 12 year old who thought it would be funny to cannonball right at me, less fun. But when you’re a triathlete and used to starting races in what essentially passes for a washing machine, dealing with irritating pre-teens is nothing. I remembered: I love this.
The next week, I got another wake-up call. I was at the beach and after lying on the beach with full blessing from my coach to relax and recover from my crash at the mountain bike race in Windham a couple of days before, I realized what was missing. “I’m just going to run to the first hotel,” I told my dad. It would be a mile-long run, not exactly much of a trek.
“Sure you are,” he replied sardonically from under his shades.
He was right. A couple of blocks in, I felt it: the rightness that is barefoot beach running, for me. I ran, ran, ran, and found myself 30 blocks down. Still not a super-long run, but 45 minutes instead of the 10 I’d claimed. When I got back, I jumped in the water and paddled around. Dad was out there. “So, how was the first hotel,” he asked.
It seems that despite renouncing triathlon two years ago, my body is still screaming to go back to it. And I know, cyclists hate triathletes, as a whole. But does that mean we’re all bad?
Maybe, I’ve been thinking, it wouldn’t be so bad to be a triathlete in my cyclocross off-season. Not a super serious one or anything, but do a few local races, maybe an X-terra or two. I’ll still race some road, some mountain, and still be a bike racer, but is it so bad to want to swim-bike-run a few times? I can hear a chorus of people I know yelling, “Yes! It is bad!” but if it motivates you to keep training and working hard, can it really be that morally terrible?
There is an argument to be made that a little trail and beach running will get cyclocrossers ready for the inevitable running sections of races. And swimming works core and upper body, which helps with the remounting, dismounting and carrying during a race. Add in the X-terra element, and the mountain biking will only help with technical sections of a race. Of course, that only works if running and swimming are entirely secondary to riding, riding, riding, but nevertheless, I think it’s a reasonable proposal. I wouldn’t expect to be the triathlete that I used to be, where my swim and run were oddly stronger than my bike leg. I’d hope the opposite is true now. That said, I found that when I first started cyclocross, technical incompetence aside, it was a natural fit for a triathlete who wanted to have some fun: I was able to handle running sections (often longer for me, see above ‘technical incompetence’) and picking up and carrying my ludicrously heavy Surly wasn’t too difficult, thanks to the aforementioned upper-body strength I had that a pure cyclist wouldn’t.
To qualify: I am no longer a triathlete, nor would I want to define myself as one, ever again. But is it so wrong to want to get off the bike and into the water every so often?
I think everyone deserves an off-season. Or, in the absence of a real off-season, you, the racer, darn well better be loving every race that you do (or at least, be excited about each race that you do).