Racing is the Best Training - or, Sleeping in a Haystack
Life was golden: A senior at a northern California University , I was enjoying the sun and elegant architecture of campus life in California and reveling in my lot as an upperclassman close to graduation. I was in love with my remaining classes in engineering and art design required to complete a degree in mechanical engineering - product design in June.
I was also coming off a successful speed skating season: national and world team member, second in the national championships, and a 10th place finish at the world speed skating championships in the 500m despite training on my own in California of all places, while completing one of the toughest curriculums in the country.
Newly single, physically at the top of my game, ready to graduate, the world was my oyster.
During that spring of 1990 I made a significant decision – to put all my eggs in one basket and pursue speed skating with all the passion I had and let my new degree sit on a shelf: after graduation, I entered, for the first time in my skating career, the full time summer training program of the national speedskating team.
That July I moved to Colorado Springs to train with the national team along with Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and about 20 other top U.S. Speedskaters and participate in a number of tests including V02 Max (ability to process oxygen), BMI (body mass index), Max Power Output (peak watts on the bike), Max Squats (lbs. lifted), Vertical leap and others.
To say that I failed these tests (for the most part) would be an understatement – as it turns out I had the lowest test VO2 Max of anyone on the team – held to be the single greatest predictor of success in the sport. Other tests results were middling at best except for the peak power output.
As the season progressed, after a strong start, my world started falling apart. Training always hurts and you learn to ignore the pain and focus on the future, but at some point that autumn, my lap times – which were always a bit unpredictable, began to have a pattern to their unpredictability – they were bad and worse depending on the day. By the time of the trials for the world cup and world championships, they were so bad that I had to face the fact that I was not going to have a shot at making the team – despite being in the top 5 the last two years – without consistent training – living in California.
I think I ended up 12th.
People patted me on the back at the national team trials – “next year Coyle – this year doesn’t matter.” And it was mostly true – the next year, the same competition would be the selection for Albertville : the Olympic trials – the true goal of all this suffering.
The rest of my training woes and eventual recovery I’ll save for a separate write-up on principle #1 “Race your Strengths,” but for this report, I’ll focus on a very important decision that came next: I still had the remainder of a full winter season ahead of me – without the support and funding of the team – what should I do?
I didn’t qualify to travel and race on the national team, supported and paid for by the Olympic committee funds (like I had the last few years), so I had only two choices:
- Stay back in the U.S. and train (fully funded) at the U.S. Olympic training center with the other members of the team who didn’t qualify for travel team support and funding for travel or…
- Find a way to get overseas and travel the world cup circuit on my own dime, racing in the ‘open’ category in the competitions that would allow it.
The coaches’ perspective was as predictable as it was compelling: “Stay back John, focus on building your aerobic base, make up for all those lost years in California ” (by the way… lost years? What about the successes during that period?)
I felt like any other choice than that recommendation would be stupid – that those ‘in the know’ knew what was best for me. These were smart people who cared about me and were unilateral in both wanting me to succeed and in recommending the best way to do so.
But…there was that other part of me – the rebellious part - the part of me that didn’t relish in training for its own sake – that found little gratification in posting laps and times just for the sake of laps and times - the part of me that loved the thrill and unpredictability of racing.
The idea of spending the rest of the winter pounding out laps in the cold and dark of Lake Placid , New York had me in a state of depression… yet I felt like I couldn’t really justify any other choice.
Fortunately I do have that occasional stubborn and rebellious streak – and that side of me came to the fore during those days and it was then that I remembered the words pounded into my head for years and years by a different coach at a different time...
“Racing is the best training, Coyle, racing is the best training.”
I can still hear Walden’s voice and, more importantly, the overbearing conviction that came through that an alternative viewpoint was not only without merit, but would not to be entertained. (In many ways Mike Walden reminds me of our CEO and my occasional mentor, Jack Rooney of U.S. Cellular®).
Discussions with Mike were nearly entirely one-way.
After the speedskating world cup team trials, as the ‘official’ team was preparing to leave for Europe , decision time for me came. When asked for my decision, suddenly those words came tumbling out verbatim to my coaches Stan and Susan. I said, “You know, as much as continued training in the program is compelling and I appreciate the offer, I think that for me, racing is the best training, so I’m going to find a way to get over to Europe for the world cups.”
It was rather interesting that by embracing one set of conventions, I was bucking another. More importantly, since that day 18 years ago, I can say with complete conviction that any other set of training or racing guidelines not in agreement with those held by Walden have inevitably led to failure.
The reality of confidence is much more ephemeral and emotional in nature than the logic of time suggests: it comes minutes at a time. A perfect extension, a pair of straightaway strokes, fast lap, a winning race - these feelings ladder up and can build confidence - particularly when there is a progression. Ultimately though confidence can be a house of cards undone by the faintest breath of weakness.
A slip? Getting passed? Dying on the final corner in an important race? Back to back exhausted practices where form seems to disappear? Like water in a drain, the tide of confidence washes away quickly and leaves no reminder of its presence. As each week and hour and second and skate stroke grew consecutively weaker and more anemic, so my confidence atrophied like light from the stub of a dying candle.
It seems hard to fathom – that ones’ results and confidence could be so high one year prior, only to fall so low. But in the mirror of hindsight and distance it becomes easy to gloss over the weeks and days and hours and suggest, “Well, you were great the year before – you knew you’d recover…”
I DID NOT know. Part of me believed the test results – that I was a poor athlete and that I didn’t belong… Part of me didn’t know what, or who to believe… If someone stopped me and said, "4 years from now you'll be standing on the podium at the Olympic games with a medal around your neck," I would have nodded and smiled - but deep down I had begun to accept the possibility that I really wasn't very good. Fortunately a small part of me believed what Mike Walden, and Mark Affholter, and Stan Klotkowski had told me – that I could be world and olympic champion. So I chose to try and believe that…
...and prepared as if it were true...
By January of that season I was no longer the celebrated “ California skater who won the 1000m time trial at the world team trials and was 10th in the world” the year before, I was another burnt ember: the “low V02, ‘lucky’ guy, who couldn’t hack the realities of ‘real’ training for the sport.”
Unsurprisingly to those of you that know me now: despite all the advice and signs, I decided to buck convention and all of the advice: I went to Europe anyway.
I sold one of my bikes and received a little gift from my parents and raised a total of $1500 for my 2 month trip (which became 3 months by the way) to Europe . The $1500 I needed had to cover round trip airfare, 2 new pairs of skates, housing, food, and travel for 90 days....
I was all set.
I got a roundtrip fare from Chicago to Amsterdam for $400 and negotiated with the Viking skate factory in Holland to give me the national team discount and provide me new skates for $150/pair, so I spent another $300 on new skates. Now I had $700 left for 2 months. $1.33/day – perfect.
My parents helped me by springing for a Eurail pass in addition - good for 60 days and 15 rides. I hoped to stay beyond the skating season and see a little bit of Europe so I decided to not activate it for those first 30 days. I got on the plane to Europe .
I arrived in Amsterdam in the early gray of morning after the usual overnight flight, exiting the white modern white terminal filled with the acrid smoke of European cigarettes to a typically gray, moist and damp Dutch day. After some navigation between the train station and the closest tram, I managed to find public transport to the Viking skate factory on the outskirts of town.
After a quick tour of the massive warehouse, I spent about 2 hours in the factory trying on skates barefoot in order to find a pair that fit perfectly. Sure they all “look the same” but the reality is that minute differences in the shape, stretch, and contours of the leather and blade made for significant differences. I’m a size 43 but I bought two pairs of size 41 skates for a tight fit, and added to that a custom distinction – switching the standard set of 16 ½ inch 1mm wide blades blades for 17 ½ blades and carrying a spare pair in a cardboard poster tube. I was set for the season.
I left the huge factory (the interior of which looked much like the end of the first Indiana Jones movie) where there were aisles and aisles of speed skates – primarily for the domestic public (there are over 1.2 million registered Dutch speed skaters – vs. about 2000 in the United States ) and walked back to where the main highway cut through town and followed an entrance ramp down to the viaduct.
First stop, Munich , and then onto Inzell, about 800km away. Ready, set, …. THUMB. I had never hitchhiked, but the concept was easy to understand.
Standing by the roadside next to the roaring traffic I was carrying a number of objects that, as it turns out, would become important later. I had my large black backpack with an internal frame full of about 50 lbs of clothing, shoes, and gear. I also had 2 boxes of skates, and one small poster tube with a spare set of blades. And then I had my 40lb duffel bag with all my skating stuff: sharpening jig and stones, oil, tools, skinsuits and warmups. All told I had about 100lbs of stuff – both hands were full and I had a back full of a backpack.
Other than the recent massive failures with regards to my training I generally considered myself as serendipitous – having a ‘green thumb for life’ – and on that day I got four aces. Not 20 minutes after I first stuck out my thumb, a rusty old jalopy pulled up and 4 doors popped open full of friendly, smiling young faces with Australian accents who asked pleasantly, “Where you headed mate?”
I told them.
“ Munich ? No shit! That’s where we are going! We just bought this old beater and are heading to Munich for Octoberfest! Climb on in!”
I had to tie my backpack to the roof and then held my skatebag and boxes on my lap in the middle seat of the rear of the old jalopy, but the warm dutch beers they passed around quickly had me laughing and jabbering away with the rest of them and we headed on our way all the way to the German border (OK, that’s like 30 miles – Holland is tiny).
Serendipity then lost her grip and a god-awful shaking took over the car and then shiny metal disks began to shoot from underneath the car in all directions to an incredible cacophony. At first I though the engine had exploded – except it was still running – but our forward progress began to slow as we coasted: we had dropped the transmission.
My newfound pals immediately began the mourning process but I had no vested interest in the bum auto deal they had made that morning and instead untied my backpack and resumed what would come to be a very typical posture over the coming months – standing with a slight lean at the edge of the road, arm curved with thumb out, trying to look ‘safe.’
A tow truck came and I said goodbye to the Aussies but an hour went without anyone stopping for me. Then two hours. I began to despair… and then it began to rain… hard.
I began to panic and ran for the next overpass and stopped in the shadow underneath. Now dueling needs began their wrestling: stay in the dark and not get picked up? Or be wet and miserable but visible?
I opted for a compromise and would choose cars that looked “kindhearted” and would dodge out into the light and rain with my thumb out.
This went on for quite some time and finally after another 2 hours (which is an incredibly long time by the way) suddenly my luck turned again. Behind a “kind looking” Euro station wagon was a large Euro truck/trailer combo that put on its air brakes and roared to a stop about 100m beyond the overpass.
I was overjoyed and sprinted up to the bright red cab.
I’ll never forget the face of the man who swung open the door – not because he was so memorable or unique by his-self – instead because his visage was so much like another – that of “Timmons” - the unfortunate wagon train driver in the movie “Dances with Wolves”. The same greasy hair, pudgy face, and the same cigar clenched firmly in his brown molars.
The difference in this case was that when he spoke, instead of a patois of redneck English, my driver spoke only in French and I had not the slightest idea of what he was saying. He didn’t seem to care, and jabbered away for quite a while until I was able to squeeze in, what seemed to me, an important verbal salvo: “ Munich – Munchen” – my destination.
“Deutschland!” I added, and he nodded and smiled and then began talking again and then began working the gears judiciously.
I was wet and tired (I was up all night on the overnight flight) and it was warm and dry and despite the smoke and the ambiguity of where I was going I just decided to trust in fate, and close my eyes.
Still talking my driver put the pedal to the metal and off we roared, crossing the German border shortly thereafter.
Sometime after a laborious dispute with the border guards and the repeated exit and return of my cigar smoking driver to review the contents of his load I fell asleep. It was just twilight, but the 36 hours I’d been awake, combined with the Dutch beers and contrast of the damp cold and the sudden warmth found me susceptible and I slept for hours without a care for where my wagon-train driver was taking me.
I was dreaming. Somone was fighting with me – buffeting me around my head and shoulders, intent on delivering a message. Finally I opened my eyes to find that I was being shaken.
4 inches from my face was the stub end of a dead cigar and my driver was shouting in French, roughly shaking me, stopping only when I finally moved an arm to indicate I was alive. I lifted up groggily looking through the windshield – seeing nothing but black.
The impassioned dialog and gesticulating continued but my head swam in a fog and it wasn’t until Timmons reached across me and unlatched the door and waved his finger that I finally understood.
Translation. “Get out.”
That’s what all that meant…
So I got out.
What else could I do?
I grabbed my backpack, my two boxes and tube and the heavy duffel bag and climbed down the steps of the big red cab, black in the darkness.
I first noticed the cold when the winds of the departing trailer swirled around me – it must have been only 35 degrees – and damp...
Then, location: where was I? Ahead there was a lit sign over the highway and seemingly the only illumination for miles. Like a moth I staggered with my load to the flame.
I drew close enough to read the sign even as in the brightening gloom I could see the sudden division of the highway. The sign read, “Franzosich Rechts, Deutschland Links” – “ France left, Germany right.” My driver and his big red truck has gone right, the streaks of his disappearing taillights still remaining imprinted on my retinas – to France.
Thank you Timmons.
As if on cue, it began to rain. At first it was a smattering of drops, but it then quickly settled into one of those steady downpours that last for hours.
The drops were initially stopped by hair and clothing, but within minutes they began to find channels through the already damp materials of my clothes and course down my back and into my shoes.
I began to shiver – violently. I immediately began walking as a defense mechanism – my 100lbs of ‘stuff’ burning more calories than a brisk walk would. But.. I hadn’t actually eaten.. and only a feeble warmth was generated from the effort. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. I still remember it. I kept thinking of George Washington for some reason. Wooden teeth. Mine sounded wooden – and it was so clichéd to have them bouncing up and down like as if they were in the hand of a spastic mannequin.
Worse still – with my forward progress, all light disappeared and I found myself sloshing through inky blackness, just the twinkling of the drops and the occasional glint of road markers flashing wetly against the black giving any indication of time or space.
As my clothes became more thoroughly sodden it suddenly occurred to me – not one vehicle had passed in the last half hour… So I checked the time: 2am.
As I walked, I began to dissect what I knew about hypothermia – how your energy fails and instead of fighting you start to give in and then a calm begins to permeate your limbs. With a start I realized I had stopped walking. My jaw was still chattering though.
I began again – but back towards the light.
I crossed beyond it and then turned around, and then headed back again. One foot in front of the other, arms aching with the load.
So I began what became an incredibly long military drill of marching and discipline. Suffering.
My hands turned to ice, and my feet too. My legs and arms grew numb and I stopped wiping the water from my eyes and stopped hunching my shoulders to protect my neck. I just walked and when I grew tired of walking I began an ugly sloppy jog, lead footed and sloppy, but I jogged.
Sometimes I carried my stuff, other times I set it by the side of the road. I kept moving. I have never, ever been more tired… leaden, deadened, numb, cold.
At some point I began to realize that I could die.
Right there on a lonely stretch of highway I could just stop walking and die – and that in fact it could probably happen in less than an hour. I was so cold that it didn’t really phase me… and the lack of emotional response did scare my rational mind…
It was then that a sudden light grew behind me. Headlights.
Life resumed and hope grew and I marched back toward those lights waving my arms. The headlights remained dim pricks in the inky blackness for a while an then suddenly became bright with that weird sound familiar from TV – “wreee-oooowwwww” and the car erupted from the distance to directly in front of me to long gone in a matter of seconds.
My despair reached new levels.
3 am and I’m wearing dark clothes and I’m sopping wet in freezing temperatures while in the middle of f!#ing nowhere and I’m trying hitchhike on the goddamn autobahn! People are driving 120 mph! Who in their right mind is going to stop for the wet madman hitching on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?
I might die. Maybe I’m ready to die. So tired, so cold, so hungry, so weak. No fire stoked below as I walked, no warmth stole through my limbs, but I knew if I stopped walking I would die and I didn’t want to die – I was too young to die, I had too much to do to die.
So I walked – away from the light, toward the light, away from the light, toward the light..
After about an hour and a half more of marching I decided to do some more exploring. There was an embankment to the right and I re-climbed it and saw… nothing. Not a light, not a house, not even a telephone pole – just the grass underneath my feet, and blackness…
Still, I resolved to pick a direction and assume that this, this hay, or grass or whatever that had been neatly mowed into rows, that someone – somewhere had done this work.
I resolved to follow a row.
I followed that row.
It didn’t take long before two things occurred: one, it began to get extremely dark – and hard to find my footing, and two, I began to think about all this grass, this neatly manicured row of grass… maybe…. maybe I could…
I stopped. I turned around.
I saved my own life.
I walked back as close to the light as I could while still up the embankment and then I implemented the plan that had been slowly gestating in my head for the last 10 minutes.
First, I set down my bags and boxes, and then I began to gather the grass. Shoving, combing, lifting, gathering, I quickly developed a coffee table sized mound, and then it grew to the size of a doghouse, then two doghouses. For once the exertion warmed me and in about 15 minutes I had gathered a mound of grass about 5 feet high, ten feet in length (including taper) and 6 feet wide. Think about it – that’s a HUGE mound of grass – and fifteen minutes in the dark can feel like forever…
What came next took the most courage of all: after shoving my bags and boxes under protective cover of the grass, I then stripped down, exposing my body to the 35 degree downpour, and I removed every single bit of sodden clothing I had on including my soaking wet shoes until I stood naked in the field under the pouring 35 degree rain, shivering violently, hardly able to control my hands which were becoming more numb by the second.
Next, I pulled my one dry warmup jacket out of my backpack, and 3 dry racing skinsuits out of my duffel bag. Draping the jacket over my head like a floppy umbrella, I proceeded to put on all 3 spandex suits – one over the other, while staying mostly dry under the jacket.
Finally, I grabbed the heavy cardboard tube with the spare set of blades and shook the spare blades out onto the grass and then pushed them underneath the pile. I then pulled the tube under the protective cover of the jacket and then shoved it through one of its arms.
Finally, I got on my hands and knees and, with my head draped in a shoulder of the jacket, used it as protective cover against the wet outer layers of grass and burrowed carefully into the interior of the grass mound.
I had been careful to layer the dry bottom layers of grass from the mown rows into the bottom of my mound and quickly my problem became breathing amongst the dust and tendrils of dry grass versus the expected battle against drowning in the wet drops.
I wriggled carefully into what I conceived of as the middle of the mound and felt a million pricks of grass around me itching and catching the fabric of my skinsuit. But what I also felt was unique again that night – the sudden return of warmth reflected to my limbs from these same pricks.
Finally I reached out an arm and pushed it through the grass until I could feel the damp of the rain and then jammed the cardboard tube, along with the arm of the jacket through that tunnel in the hay and then adjusted the drape of the jacket – which still remained over my head – such that the arm and the corresponding tunnel of outside air created by the tube was right in front of my mouth and nose.
I blew out hard through the tube like a snorkel to clear the passage and then took a deep breath. I was pleased to receive not the dusty air of the interior of my new straw home, but the cool damp oxygen of the outside world.
It may sound odd, but in about 90 seconds I was 100% out-cold asleep: warm, dry, a little itchy, but safe.
I was dreamless in my little cocoon – the long flight, the endless walking and worrying, the rain and shivering all passed into the warm depths of sleeps’ embrace.
Finally, the noise and rumble of passing traffic woke me up. It was still dark – yet I woke feeling refreshed as though I’d slept a decent long time. I figured I better wait until it was light before I began hitching, but I went through the exercise of pulling my arm up into my cocoon under the jacket and pushed the button to glow the light to see what time it was…. 2pm! I had managed to sleep nearly 10 hours under a pile of grass – but wait – it was still dark – how could that be?
When I finally lifted an arm and parted the grass, a few faint streaks of light began to penetrate and I realized that it was, indeed, midday.
I stretched a little and then decided to burrow out through the top of my lair. Sure enough when I finally began to extricate myself, the brilliant afternoon sun of a clear day began to shine through.
It was then that my senses tingled… with the sudden quiet – the traffic noise and rumble of the autobahn and suddenly, inexplicably been, well, ‘turned off.’
The traffic noise and vibrations I had felt from the nearby autobahn had entered a deathly erie silence that seemed, oddly, to correspond with my recent exit from my cocoon.
Shaking off the straw, I opened my eyes fully and saw nothing at first but the brilliance of the midday sun and the shining piles of straw and grass littering the field in front of me. Beyond that I could see a corner of the autobahn with no cars navigating its long stretch.
Another run of cold blood… with that sensation I began to turn.
Behind me – not 15 feet away was one of the world’s largest pieces of machinery – a 20 foot high behemoth of modern industrial capacity – a ‘thresher’ collecting the fruits of the summer harvest – stopped dead in its tracks due to the odd formation of grass – the nest of which I had suddenly hatched…
I’ll never, for as long as I live, forget the next few seconds – both what actually happened, as well as the processes in my brain that finally switched on at this opportune time.
The door of the bright red cab swung open and out popped the head of a German farmer – at exactly the same time that I registered his expression – a face I’ll never forget in its openmouthed astonishment - I realized exactly what it was that I was wearing.
I had changed in the pitch black of a downpour without a thought to style or color. I had only 3 skinsuits in my possession at that time – two blue USA skinsuits, and one rather odd trade – a purple, pink and silver suit from the Belgian national team. Most notable was that this was the last one I put on, and furthermore I was wearing the purple hood – overtop the other 2 hoods and suits.
So… to conclude this interesting convergence of events, let me play it out from the farmer’s perspective: A long, stormy night… a huge field finally drying up in order to gather up the grass for market – let’s fire up the big machine – but Achtung! What’s this weird mound of grass… better slow down…
And then it happens – the mound moves and an appendage appears – it looks like a hand… but it is shiny and purple…
Out of it next comes the rest of this.. thing. Purple, pink and silver and shiny, no hair to be seen, this alien creature stretches as though it owns the place and then turns – and…
And it LOOKED RIGHT AT ME!
I began to laugh. The ludicrousness of the situation suddenly permeated my core and I began to laugh and laugh and laugh. I bent over, rustling in the pile and pulled out my pack, bag and boxes and then carried those, along with my semi-scarecrow jacket with the tube still in the arm down the embankment to the autobahn still laughing.
I didn’t bother to dress – just stood by the road in the purple, pink and silver spandex and in less than two minutes a couple in a Ford Probe pulled over and picked me up and drove me not only to Munich, but the 30 miles beyond to Inzell, where they dropped me off at the rink in time for the Dutch national team training session.
I had missed the USA practice, so I asked for, and received permission to skate with the Dutch national team. Bart Veldkamp and Rintje Ritsma, famous in their roles within their country and for brief periods during the Olympic games, these same skaters were on the ice when my awkward limbs finally made their way out onto the rink.
I was doing some warmup laps, trying to gain some semblance of form and a couple of the younger Dutch team members formed behind me, but after a little while a chorus of curses rang in my ears and finally one of them skated up on the outside of me and said – “whats with all the grass?” They had been slipping on the bits of hay and grass continuing to escape from my skinsuit.
Chastened, I retired from the ice, entered the restroom and threshed my skinsuit like a doormat, finally returning to the ice without complaint.
After the session, Dutch laughter rang around the room, and finally someone switched to English and asked the inevitable question – “why so much grass? Old skinsuit? Sleep in a hayloft?” (laughter)
I finally explained my ordeal and they laughed, but now the distance was gone and many came by to thank me for entertaining them.
Even in Torino , 16 years later, I saw several of these Dutch skaters and without hesitance the called me by the appellation coined that day, “Hey Grasshopper!”
I would have quit speedskating for sure if I hadn’t had that miraculous tour through Europe 18 years ago. Mike, like always, was right: racing is the best training.