PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Sunday, October 26, 2008
First off, this was probably the one and only time I’d attend a retirement party for a guy who is only 37 years old. It’s not too common to be retiring from a long career that early in life. The reality is that his retirement from professional racing does not mean he isn’t capable of continuing as a triathlete; it just means he’s no longer got the drive to train and race at the high level of competitiveness that he has for the past 23 years. 23 years?!? Amazing.
The next thing that occurred to me is that I’m losing one of the best training partners I’ve ever had. Throughout my journey as a triathlete, I have trained with a lot of great guys, nearly all of whom are still my good friends. Early on in my days, I was schooled by guys named Ivy Koger and Jon Hill. Later on I linked up with the legendary Todd Gerlach, a dominant figure in Austin, Texas’ early nineties tri scene. After that I made my way to Boulder where a fellow named Cam Widoff showed me the ins and outs of Boulder and its surrounding mountains.
At the start of 2003, I was invited to join Simon and Dave Scott for ride out to Carter Lake. I had been swimming with Simon for a few weeks, along with Dave, Matt Reed, and Monica Byrn (then Caplan). I was the low man on the totem pole in the pool (I’ve since overtaken Dave), and I was a bit desperate to prove myself out on the bike ride. We went out at an easy pace, with Simon in front, and Dave and I bringing up the rear. I did not know anything about Simon’s personality and certainly not his sense of humor.
He gave Dave a hard time about the condition of his bike (it was squeaky and dirty). And he gave me a hard time about sitting in for the first hour or so. I figured he was about to get a rude awakening, when I, the long course, non-drafting athlete put the hammer down and made the swimmer/ runner suffer. I figured he was a better swimmer and a faster runner than I, but I could not conceive that he could hang with me on the bike.
I dropped the hammer, made my move, and powered up the switchbacks to Carter Lake. Dave was long gone, Simon was not much ahead of him, and I was victorious in dropping the five-time (and the six-time) world champ. I waited up for Simon, as I caught my breath. I was waiting for him to submit to my dominance; to acknowledge that I was the superior rider; to compliment my awesome climbing prowess. He did no such thing. When Simon caught up to me, he did not say much as he blew by me on the flats. I was off to chase him.
Descending from Carter Lake, Simon managed to put more time on me. I told myself he was just a better bike handler than me because he trained for ten years on the twisty mountain roads of Southern France. I would catch him on the flats. Dave was nowhere to be seen.
We hit the flats, and Simon waited up for me. I rode up, he asked me what the hell I was trying to pull on the previous climb, and I told him I was just riding moderately… no big deal. I mentioned that I thought he wanted me to take a pull. How was I to know that he would get dropped. Little did I know that while climbing those switchbacks, I had sealed my own fate. Simon applied the pressure. And I was in trouble.
The bonk had set in, and I was not even aware of how bad off I was. This early season three-hour ride was taking its toll on me. Maybe I should not have been so confident (but he did call me out!).
I got dropped again.
Then Dave caught me. Then Dave dropped me.
I was in big trouble. I started counting calories, and I realized I was way deficient. I started counting miles back to my house, and I realized I might not make it. So much for showing Simon how strong I was on the bike.
When Dave and Simon both had to wait for me to catch back up, I knew I was in serious trouble. I asked, pleaded, and finally TOLD them to leave me. I told them I was hungry, and that I did not want to slow them down. And leave me, they did.
After a somewhat unpleasant beginning, the training partnership we formed became very strong. It turned out we were very compatible riding partners that first year. Simon was racing only short course events, while I was doing Half and full Ironmans. We rode four of five times a week together, and along the way we helped one another get faster and fitter.
And we had a lot of laughs.
The next year, Simon decided to test himself at the long-distance events. We began doing our long runs together, and I ventured out with him on his first ride over three hours since the mid-nineties. Those rides and runs got me fitter than I had ever been, and they gave Simon the confidence he needed in order to tackle is first Ironman, which he did in record setting fashion.
A funny thing happened that year, as folks began referring to me as Simon Lessing’s training partner. I had found my stock rising, by merely linking myself up with a highly respected athlete like him. I even found myself sitting for an interview in Germany, and having the reporter ask me what it was like to train with Simon. I was an Ironman champion, and the top American hopeful at that event, and all they wanted to know was what it was like to train with Simon.
In fact, I gained a healthy dose of respect from my competitors when a reporter at the press conference asked me if I was able to keep up with Simon. In true Lessing fashion, I quipped that he was only sometimes able to keep up with me.
In this day and age, where every athlete has a coach, a plan, a power meter, and a schedule, it’s very rare to find someone who is willing and able to push you in your training. In this triathlon mecca of Boulder, Colorado, most folks are too unwilling to be flexible, and to change up their programs in order to train with his competitors.
With Simon I found that athlete. He was strong enough to swim, ride, and run in front of, next to, or behind me. We covered a lot of miles together, and we bettered ourselves by bettering one another.
I am happy that Simon has found comfort in moving on with his life. I know he’ll still be involved in the sport, and I know he may still join me for swims and bikes and runs; however, I am also aware that with the retirement of the British South African American athlete, I am losing a highly compatible, very entertaining, and extremely punctual training partner.
And hopefully by posting these embarrassing photos, I won’t be losing him as my friend.