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The Ill Will Duathlon

April 30, 1998

[This article originally appeared in the April 1998 issue of Northwest Runner.]

I am a monoathlete, as opposed to a biathlete, duathlete, triathlete, pentathlete, heptathlete, or decathlete. The only sport I’m good at is distance running. To some, my body lacks versatility; I prefer to think of it as being highly specialized. Sure, it would be nice to be able to, say, dunk a basketball or do a half gainer, but how useful are these skills to a distance runner? My current goal is to run a half-marathon as fast as I can, and brushing up on my putting (or my topspin lobs or whatever) would only distract me from the task at hand.

Content to be a one-dimensional athlete, I have observed the rise of multi-sport events with resignation bordering on total disinterest. While I have nothing against triathletes or their pluripotent peers, I’ve never wanted to emulate them, either. And yet, at 7:15 a.m. on a recent Friday morning, I found myself pedaling madly around a well-known Seattle lake in hot pursuit of an old rival, contemplating wind drag and readying myself for the dreaded “bike-run transition.” Why?

Throughout history, man’s frustration with his limitations has inspired him to create many things: transcendent works of art, time-saving technological devices, pessimistic philosophical theories, and, in this case, the Green Lake Duathlon. The relevant limitation here was my inability to outrun my friend Will, and it was frustrating indeed. Last June, Will had walloped me in an 800-meter match race. Then in September, he had outkicked me in a 1500.

I’m not generally a sore loser, but I HATE getting beaten by people who don’t even train. You see, although Will used to be a standout runner, he has since become preoccupied with soccer, ultimate frisbee, cycling, softball, and skiing, among other things. Thus, it was galling beyond belief that he, a nonrunning dilettante of athletics, should humble me in the one sport I really care about in spite of his own indifference and lack of preparation. What’s the point of specializing if you can’t rise above the level of the weekend warrior in your chosen field?

I dreamed of revenge. A rematch on the track seemed imminent, but would a belated victory in this venue really make me feel better? Will had already beaten me at my own game, so to speak, so I needed to beat him at his. I needed to defeat this all-around athlete in a demanding test of all-around athletic ability. Or something like that.

Wanting to propose an event that I was at least theoretically capable of winning, I challenged him to a duathlon around Green Lake: one lap cycling followed by one lap running. Despite the unorthodox ratio of leg lengths — usually the cycling segment is much longer than the running segment — Will acknowledged the appealing simplicity and symmetry of my brain child, and he accepted my challenge. To further simplify things, we decided not to let anyone else into the race. It would just be the two of us — the prefix “du-” now seemed even more appropriate than usual — plus any bewildered pedestrians we might encounter along the way.

Ah, yes — pedestrians. So that we would endanger the health of as few people as possible, I suggested that the race begin at sunrise, when traffic on the paved path around the lake is relatively sparse. As an additional safety precaution, we agreed to forgo road bikes in favor of mountain bikes, which would effectively limit our top speed to 20-25 mph.

On the morning of my long-awaited duathlon debut, I rose before dawn and ate a bagel in a half-hearted attempt to fuel my body for the spectacle to come. I then biked over to Will’s house, where he pumped some extra air into his tires (an early sign of desperation, I thought) before joining me for the ride over to the course site.

Upon arriving, we picked out an appropriate start-finish area where we could lock our bikes after completing the cycling portion of the race. We discussed whether we would stop the race if one of us crashed or got a flat tire, deciding that we would in either case. I pinned on an old number (a personal favorite of mine: #349 from the 1993 NCAA Division III cross country meet at Grinnell College in Iowa) so that any spectators or race officials who happened to show up could distinguish between the two of us.

I approached the starting line with more than a hint of morbid curiosity. Just how bad a cyclist was I? I was about to find out. In my capacity as Race Director and Official Starter, I gave the time-honored commands, and we were off.

While I fretted over which gear to use, Will quickly established a lead of 30 meters or so. Once we settled into our respective cadences, though, it gradually became clear that the cycling leg (all ten minutes of it) would not last long enough for Will to achieve a true breakaway. He would be first off the bike, to be sure, but I would still have him in my sights when he dismounted. You can ride, I thought, but you can’t hide.

As I barreled down the homestretch along the lake’s eastern shore, I tried to make sense of the contradictory messages my body was sending me. My legs were churning and burning furiously, continuing their labored descent into Lactate Hell, but my pulse remained a modest 130. Then it occurred to me: my symptoms were simply those of a runner using his limbs for something other than running. My highly trained cardiovascular system was well within its comfort zone, but my undertrained quadriceps muscles, unaccustomed to this baffling new exercise, were not.

Will reached the park-your-bike zone with a lead of 20 seconds. He gained an additional 30 seconds on me while I fumbled with my bike lock and stripped away a couple layers of clothing. So far, his duathloning experience — he once won 400 pesos in a south-of-the-border race — was serving him well.

From my perspective, I was happy just to have my feet on the ground again. Running on tired legs is never an easy assignment, but at least it’s a familiar one; I was back in my element. I trotted briskly, if somewhat stiffly, through the first half-mile and wondered how long Will would be able to hold me off.

Not very long, as it turned out. Will was feeling a bit drained from a recent bout with the flu (I had considered naming the race the Ill Will Duathlon in reference to both his malady and our friendly rivalry), and I caught him shortly after the one-mile mark. For a moment, I was tempted to savor the moment and toy with him for a while. Then, recalling his penchant for dramatic finishes, I surged ahead remorselessly. Why tempt fate by sticking around to see whether he would get his second wind?

The sun shone brightly as contestant #349 crossed the makeshift finish line in 25:43, a full two minutes ahead of his unmarked adversary. Regardless of the dubious circumstances, I had, as they say, found a way to win. And in doing so, I had discovered that even the most single-minded monoathlete can find redemption in a multi-athlon of some kind or another.

I can see myself doing the Green Lake Duathlon again next year. Maybe I’ll even tag on a 50-meter swim at the start and call it a triathlon. In the meantime, I’ve got bragging rights over Will — at least until our 2K race at Husky Stadium next week.

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