Quality. It’s a concept that’s been in my brain for the past few days as I reach the halfway point of reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values.
Granted, it’s not exactly light summer reading and I am no where near smart enough to understand everything going on in this particular Chautauqua, but I find the story entertaining and the philosophical meanderings thought provoking.
It’s the author’s (and narrator’s) thoughts on quality which went through my mind Saturday at the Fly by Night Duathlon at Watkins Glen International. The idea, as I’ve read and understood so far, is looking for an answer to the question, “What is quality?” In some ways, it seems like the classic, I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it type of debate. The notion is that quality can’t really be defined and when we try to define it, we seem to ruin the entire concept of quality. (Please note, these are my thoughts and meanderings on the philosophical nature of quality which in no way represent the actual representation Robert Pirsig intended or how a qualified English teacher would present the material.)
And so, as I struggled during some of the bike portions of the course, I wondered to myself, “what is quality?” Is it a time? A place finish? A feeling?
I went with feeling. And because of that, I crossed the finish line with that big smile on my face.
Let’s start with the journey there. Following directions taken from one online search engine, Mark and I ended up feeling lost as we took dirt and gravel roads through Sugar Hill Forest. Surprisingly, we were right where we were supposed to be, though at one point, when we felt completely lost, I did a poor job of hiding the onset of panic.
Once we got to The Glen, we picked up our race packets and thus began a day of really needing to go with the flow. Because this particular race is all about the flow of the day — not planning. The duathlon takes placeafter a day of Porsche Clash racing, which means transition (in Pit Row) can’t be set up until the auto racing is done for the day.
Chips weren’t even available until about an hour before the start, which was pushed back 15 minutes in order to accommodate the participants and the quick set-up.
This is not what I’m used to. I’m used to getting to a race right around when transition opens and wandering around the grounds, taking my time to set up. Instead, Mark and our friend John and I hastily looked for a spot, any spot, to rack our bikes in transition after getting our timing chips. This, quite frankly, freaked me out a bit. But onward we went.
We did a warmup loop on the bike using the long course at The Glen, but riding counterclockwise (the opposite direction from the cars). I knew there was a “hill” on the course but didn’t think much of it until … I actually rode it. There was a monster downhill before it, one that was on a banked turn and put the fear of God in me. Hence, I couldn’t carry much momentum up the hill which was a short, but brutal climb.
This might not be pretty.
But here we go.
The race started with a 1.75 mile run (which by my Garmin was longer than 1.75 miles which mattered only because at 6:30 p.m. it was still near 80 degrees with sun and no cloud cover and well, I was hot and not used to racing at night either. (This clearly was meant to a race that completely forced me to practice going out of my comfort zone).
The run course ran out of Pit Row up and over a pedestrian bridge, then around The Glen grounds. It included one very short but very steep hill, a few nice downhill stretches and finished with a gradual (but somewhat brutal) uphill that went either toward transition or the finish line. I started out pretty quick, as happens when you get sucked into the start of the race, but felt good. I felt especially good as I kept running, passing some who had already started walking.
Into transition I went for my first bike leg, which included three loops of the course for 10.2 miles. I started out fine, then hit the downhill and, oh yeah, that sound you heard was me furiously pumping my brakes and nervously looking around as my bike and I moved across the entire width of the track attempting to negotiate the turn and the downhill (two things which I’m extraordinarily weak on). Then came the uphill. I shifted. I shifted. I shifted again. Ah screw it … embrace granny gear.
It played with my mind a bit, this needing to slow down and use an easy gear. But I thought about the beautiful day. I thought about being outside, riding my bike, racing. The line from a Keith Urban song popped into my head: I’m alive and I’m free. Who wouldn’t want to be me?
Off to Run No. 2 and after running past my spot in transition with my bike (hey, part of the purpose of the race was to practice transitions and clearly I need the work) I felt pretty good. It took a while to get my legs moving, but I did and felt I was holding a pretty consistent pace.
Back to the second bike leg and three more loops of track. Three more curvy downhills and three more trudges uphill. As I got on the bike I heard “Go Amy!” It was Mark, who was starting his second loop of the bike. He was gone until I saw him as we approached the transition area. He was starting his third loop. I was starting my second. But I figured it would be a good game to play to see if I could catch up to him. At least it would make loop No. 2 interesting. At the start of the climb, Mark was about a bike length in front of me. “You’re my hero!” I shouted to him. He turned around. “I knew you’d catch me!” He yelled back and promptly took off.
Yeah, I wasn’t gonna follow that move.
I waited until our final slight downhill and caught him then.
“Ha!” I yelled as I surged past him.
“I knew it!” he yelled back. I almost caused him to miss the split which takes him into Pit Row, but luckily, he made the right move. We rode side by side, sticking our tongues out at each other. Off to my third and final bike loop. Just keep pedaling.
By the time I got to my final run loop, the sun had started to slip below the horizon. It was cooler and I was almost finished and I felt pretty darn good on my run, which, quite frankly, surprised me. As I came up the final stretch I passed one woman and worked to catch another guy. I heard Jon cheering for me and I saw Mark poised with his camera at the other end of the finishing line.
A surge in my run and a big smile.
That was a tough course, particularly since it was made up of five sprint legs. But it was fun.
Back at the car, Mark was frosting a cake he brought for my birthday. We shared it with people who had parked around us then headed over to the post-race party. There, we met a guy who was part of a relay team. He did the bike portion. He was a bigger guy, there with his wife, and told us this was his first race since being hit by a car.
Only he wasn’t just hit by a car.
The head-on collision threw him off his bike, through the car’s windshield and put him in the hospital for an extended stay. That was in August. He was in a wheelchair until December and had to learn to walk again. Five months from that, he was riding 20.4 miles in a race.
If ever you needed a perspective check, head to any race — running, triathlon, duathlon — and you’ll find at least one story like this, one that makes you appreciate the fact that you’re healthy enough in body, mind and spirit to do the things you love.
I needed that reminder the next day when I looked up my splits. They were much slower than I thought, particularly on the bike. And to be honest, it bothered me a bit. I let it linger for a bit, but then decided to drop it.
First, I reveled in the joy.
Then, I looked at what I wanted to do better. I want to get better climbing the hills on my bike. I want to get more comfortable and confident descending on the bike. I want to get a bit faster on the run. All things I can work on.
But mostly, I want to enjoy what I’m doing. And the things I did right? Well, they’re too numerous to even name. Because at the end of the day, quality is cake, beer, birthday wishes from friends, finishing a new athletic endeavor and sharing it with someone I care about.