Choosing The Passing Lane

Embracing my killer instinct on the bike portion of Orillia.

Embracing my killer instinct on the bike portion of the Subaru TriSport Canada Orillia Duathlon.

I just completed my sixth duathlon in two years, and it was one of my best yet. But what was truly great about it was the realization of how far I’ve come in this sport, mentally and physically.

The Orillia duathlon is a nice long sprint, featuring a 2km run, 33km bike, and a final 7km run, all at a gorgeous location in Couchiching Park and on the surrounding roads.

Heading into this race weekend, I finally felt loose and ready to race. Over the past few months, marred with injuries as they were, I have been frustrated and feeling under-prepared for races. But despite still not being at my ideal for training and health, this weekend dawned with my head in the exact right place. What a relief. With your head in the right place, your physical preparedness can usually shine.

One of the upsides of taking up racing is that I’ve gained confidence along with a more competitive spirit. Not only to push myself harder or further, which is the chief goal, but also to put myself ahead of other competitors. No longer is “finish, don’t finish last” the mantra.

While I know winning is not the point — and is an impossibility with pro and elite athletes competing in the same events — my personal goals for distance, pace, and technique are supplemented with a few for placing relative to the rest of the field. This weekend, I even managed to hit that goal, placing on the podium for third in my age group.

What was most important wasn’t the medal, though it was a nice shiny reward, but the fact that I’d bested my goals for the short run and cycle pace, and held a great long run pace. All this because I didn’t hold myself back mentally.

As someone who has played hockey for about 30 years, you’d think I would have a competitive streak. And to a point, I do. But it’s not a very big streak. In fact, it’s a wimpy competitive streak, so far as they go. Like maybe a rivulet, more than a streak. But it’s there.

What I really haven’t had at all in my life as an athlete, young or old, is confidence.

When I started road cycling a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about road bikes, technique, or training. Everything I have learned since has been gleaned from reading, chatting with shop staff, and keen observation. Oh, and more reading. WIth its big price tag, strong culture and snooty reputation, cycling is an intimidating sport. So my confidence starting out was pretty low, even though I thought that a good portion of my athletic strengths suit pedaling.

As for running, it’s a sport I’ve treated as a necessity more than an undertaking that I liked. I have always felt slow, though I do know from various points in my history that I’m good at pushing myself to run farther, harder, or in horrid searing heat. Recently, however, something shifted, and I started to actually crave a good long run or hills session. I also started to notice I was going faster than I used to, without particularly trying to do so.

Duathlon, combining these two disciplines, has sparked a whole new competitive streak for me. Apparently racing brings out my competitive self, even if my primary goals were actually fitness based.

But duathlon has also pushed me into having a level of confidence that I might previously have thought impossible. How do I know? Because I now pass people.

While I’m nowhere near to being the fastest runner, or the fastest cyclist, I have learned that it’s okay to pass others when they’re moving slower than you want to be going. And I’ve also learned where my strengths lie.

Show me a hill, and put a person in front of me, and I’ll dig in and crest the hill, likely ahead of them. Whatever our paces on the flats, I’m likely to be able to crest the hill faster. Not only that, but once I’ve topped the hill, I’ll dig deeper than I knew I could to keep on my pace and stay ahead. It’s likely ugly to watch (see notes above about being a self-taught cyclist). And it may not be a sound strategy. But it seems to work for me on both the run and the bike (and especially the bike, my stronger discipline). Part of this is the road bike advantage — climbing hills on an aero or tri bike is tougher than it is on a roadie — and part of it is just that I’m built to be a climber. 

As for the run, in my first ever duathlon, I set out on the run start line from the back third of the pack. Within 100 metres I was frustrated, wanting to go around the people ahead of me. I had misjudged. Unlike a marathon with pace bunnies, there’s no way to know how other competitors will run at that start line. Without confidence, I assumed everyone would be faster.

The only thing holding me back from making that initial pass, at the time, was that I thought I was a slow runner, and therefore couldn’t actually need to pass anyone.

Well, that clearly isn’t a good race strategy, and now, having completed my sixth race in two years, it’s a monkey long shed off my back. By my second race, I was noticing where people were backing off on hills and gnarly trails, in transition entries/exits, at mount and dismount lines, and have no fear of taking the opportunity to get past them and gain a placing or two.

I may not have much form or finesse, and I may still be fighting injuries and racing over ideal weight, but I do have power and tenacity. Whether it’s because I’m a Taurus or because I grew up playing sports and being pushed by coaches to do one more set of gassers, one more lap, or one more drill, I fully know that I can make myself go faster, harder, or longer if I need to. There’s a saying in the Marines (and among ultra-marathoners, from what I understand) that when you think your body is ready to quit, you’re actually still miles from being done. Dig deeper, and you’ll find the reserve tank.

And thanks to my training, and the experience from a half dozen races, I now know that my base fitness supports me in those pushes.

If I’m going faster than the person in front of me, or want to be doing so, I should absolutely carry on and pass. It’s not about that person, it’s about keeping your own pace. I’ve learned that there’s no real shame in being passed, but there sure is a lot of frustration in being stuck behind someone going slower.

Whether I’m on the bike or running, I’m no longer hesitant to pass — on flats or hills. The worst case scenario is that someone passes me again after I’ve done so. But most of the time, once I have completed the pass, I find myself pushing slightly harder, avoiding the likelihood that they will pass me again.

And this holds true on the sidewalks and roads about town as much as it does on the race course. Whereas I used to assume everyone was faster than me, I’ve managed to shed the baggage and either carry on with my pace, or build more speed. Whether someone looks more like an athlete, has a more expensive bike, or a better gait than me isn’t consequential.

If keeping my pace means passing that person, well, that’s what it means. I can smile, wave, nod, or say something positive as I do, if I feel that badly about it. But no longer will I hold myself back. Maybe to other runners and cyclists it’s no big deal, but for me, this marks a pretty big shift in confidence that translates to a lot of areas of my life.

That’s yet another pretty good side effect of this duathlon business, I have to say.

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