THE ROAD BACK TO PARIS
1) MY FIRST YEAR IN TRIATHLON AND MY EXPERIENCE WITH ExpaTRIés
Last year was one of the best of my life. And the next ones will be even better. Yes, starting out as a Triathlete gives you a positive-attitude, and ExpaTRIés were the perfect bunch of guys to be with at the beginning of this journey.
How could I possibly forget my first Super Sprint, which I did after a hangover and without any sleep? Well, maybe these conditions really helped me relaxing my mind, getting a whole new level of awareness and peace: enough to accomplish something extraordinary… losing a team-mate race belt, messing up the swim time of my new team’s president, and putting my tri-suit on backwards 2 minutes before the start. Being goofy might be my fourth sport after all, although it doesn’t help slimming my times (filing out a petition to ITU for me, anyone?)
What helped, along the year, was the perfect balance between hard and sweating training and light and sweet picnics.
The easiest way to understand the team is to be there, in Paris, with this bunch of guys fully committed in having fun and training: which isn’t only about sweating but about acting like children in a playground (with very expensive toys) waiting to play together. We organize ourselves, we learn the rule of our game, then there is our good leader/teacher preventing us to do silly things, and funny moments when we naïve triathletes get something wrong.
In such a magic realm anything is possible: ExpaTRIés constitution is shaped like a living poem embracing a suspension of disbelief.
Someone used to say “All roads lead to Rome”. I don’t know who said that… but… no way!
We, the ExpaTRIés know every road leads to either Montherlant or Longchamp! It has been proved!
We, the ExpaTRIés are all created equal: Each one with the same second-skin called “team tri-suit” (which is very classy but can’t get into Irish pubs) and some strange numbers mystically appearing on our arms during a few weekends.
We, the ExpaTRIés despite our deep knowledge in advanced potions and our obsession in riding speedy things filled with magic tricks, we are not wizards. If we were, we would all be in Kona right now (and I wouldn’t be writing this article). Cergy might be our own Hogwarts.
We, the ExpaTRIés are fully living (and sweating) in the here and now, but we are never afraid of the there and later… that’s only a finish line! We are philosophers on lycra, a strange new creature able to approach time and space in a different way (We’re not magicians but we do have a bit of Dr.Who indeed: we go through several wonderful places and get great adventures!)
2) LEAVING THE GROUP TO REACH THE US…
…was very painful. But my parents being in the US, I realized I was actually living in Paris just to train with ExpaTRIés. I did my last race with the team in Chantilly, enjoying myself, but knowing that in some ways everything had to stop for me. As much as I loved the magical playground ExpaTRIés own, flying to Georgia was a way for me to look for a new purpose in life.
Even so, the first thing I did in the US (after recovering from attempted food poisoning from US Airways plastic-chicken), was to test-ride around 12 different bikes in 3 different local shops. Got to try TREK, Specialized, and Cannondale.
I wanted to race the local Hot Dam Sprint event, but the only available bike was my father’s bulldozer-like MTB.
Despite testing so many bikes, I found myself too picky and perfectionist and was never able to make a final call: so I didn’t buy anything in time for the event.
Besides, ten days had passed since my last serious effort (Chantilly Triathlon), and I was terribly under-trained.
I wasn’t so confident, despite knowing I was racing with only 6 other guys in my age group. I had memorized their numbers and previous years split-times, so that I could kick their ass in a very diligent way.
The 750m swim was wetsuit-illegal (Water was around 24 degrees Celsius)
But… my usual “lazy” tactic kept me going
(if you ever wondered how I managed to stay alive in so many races without any wetsuit, the secret formula is 1/3 front crawl + 1/3 breast-stroke + 1/3 front crawl… it helped me to improve my times in almost all events…)
After going out of the water third of my AG, I kept the position on the bike, and started to dig some distance between the fourth and me. Racing with that bulldozer MTB was “different” but it was actually very rewarding to pass a few road bikes with it.
Out on the run, I was solidly 3rd, and no AG-contender was in sight. While in Transition-area I decided to do what I could to just “defend” the podium, and try to hold whoever might be a menace. The legs were chewed by the MTB: I had pedaled with fury and climbed hills.
Like in all Triathlons I did in the past, the run was a total agony: people passing me, and my will diminishing meter after meter. My running time was by far the worst of my AG.
I knew three other athletes where not far behind me, chasing my third place, and that kept me going. After a (very long never-ending abnormally endless) while, I could finally do a sprint to that holy finish line… Just 20 seconds ahead of the 4th AG racer.
After the Sprint Event, I got my new bike. I tried to reach the local Triathlon Team, the TriAugusta group, very active and nice, but not very well organized.
The region is hosting the world biggest IronMan 70.3 event: it is actually considered to be the easiest IronMan course in the world.
Why? Well, the swim is done in a river, going in the sense of the current, so basically people gets to swim 30-40% faster than they usually do, and the bike course is extremely rolling and way easier than anything else you might find in Europe.
That’s the reason why Augusta, this relatively unknown city at the border between South Carolina and Georgia embraced Triathlon since 7 years and even the mayor became an ironman since! It has a huge economic impact for the region.
Truth is I was getting excited about this event, and I regretted not having bought an entry for it.
In the meantime I got my USAT Triathlon license (You can get a yearly Triathlon license for around 20 Euro per year, allowing to race all around the world)
Despite all the good advantages the US might have, cheaper prices and more jobs, easy-goingish attitude and so on…. I didn’t like it. Basically I hate driving, and the American Life would have forced myself to stay in the car half of the day.
I was a Triathlete missing a pedestrian life. And as I was officially on “brit accent abstinence”, a very serious condition for a once-ExpaTRIés, I started listening to TS Eliot and Coleridge poems while driving.
I’d I made the strangest dream ever about Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith dressed up as “Men in Black” coming to Montherlant to get a secret weapon, a tri-suit being assembled by a blacksmith on the pool sideline. Maybe it was reality and we forgot about it because they altered our memories.
Or maybe it was just my subconscious mind telling me “That is the place where special things happen: go back there!” Well, truth is I had enough of the US, but it was very difficult to get out of there.
3) LOST. AGAIN. AND BACK TO ITALY MORE CONFUSED THAN EVER
Last December, Having found a way to have my bike disassembled, I embarked on a long journey back to Italy.
Imagine yourself in a big empty house in a tiny boring town, without any reason to be there. Not so fun huh? At first, when back in Italy, I was focusing on the bike I brought from the US: trying to assemble it was like receiving a box of Lego. And actually succeeding was like Christmas day: going up the hills was like finding Santa.
Training helped me of course, and it was nice to rediscover my hometown in such a good way. But as I was needing for a goal, for a new path, I could not stay there in that boring town. Meanwhile I was getting Triathlon-obsessed again: if you don’t have a balanced life such a thing tend to become ordinary.
Anyway, that period of time proved to be useful, as while looking on the net for bargains I found out a professional cyclist was selling his precious top-tier full-spec De Rosa bike. When I set an appointment to see the bike I didn’t expect it to be so nice.
But when I first saw it, and rode it it was a question of real love at first sight. It’s a limited edition 2006 De Rosa, entirely hand-made in Italy, and with Shimano best-ever components. I was never able to get back to my old American bike.
As there is an heart painted on the frame, I immediately decided the name of my bike should be “Joli coeur”. Despite enjoying myself riding it, I still was missing a purpose in staying in Italy.
4) HITCHHIKING TRIATHLETE
When I heard my good friend Antonio was starting an hitch-hiking trip going north up to Poland, I imagined that could be an interesting way to enjoy myself.
Was I wrong. For sure I am not an hitch-hiking kind of person. Sure my back wasn’t hurting because of training, but it should not get so much stress in so little time. As soon as we left Italy, the pain came back and I understood the whole travel was a mistake. But it was snowing and we were crossing Slovenia, being stuck in a gas station just outside Lubjana. Not easy to say to my friend Antonio, an over 2-meter tall giant, that I wanted to go back. As night was coming we managed to find a place to stay in the Slovenian capital.
I don’t know why, but I decided to go on with the trip.
The following days we stopped in Wien and Brno a couple days. There would be a lot to write about the strange encounters we made, but I want to emphasize that I could still train despite everything. I had my running shoes with me, laced and pending from outside my backpack. And every city we stopped had a pool.
In Leipzig, I managed to get lost during a huge demonstration in town: it was snowing, I only had running leggings and a 10-km-de-l-equipe shirt, and I didn’t remember our host address. Strava had drained my iphone battery, so basically that night I was a trembling runner stopping random people on the street begging for a charger. It was a very interesting experience, with German students inviting me at their place to grab a cup of hot tea.
The hitch-hiking experience out of Leipzig was the biggest endurance effort I ever made, and it was a mental battle to fight the pain.
Basically it was snowing, minus four or five degrees Celsius, and no car stopped the whole morning. Feet and legs were completely frozen.
When we had lost all faith, a car stopped, going up to Berlin. That was perfect for us, except the car was crowded of barely understandable people from Balkans and it took half trip to find the most convenient seating position to avoid severe injuries.
But we still managed to reach Berlin, and there, to be honest… let’s say my athlete career stopped for a few weeks… My friend kept going up to Poland, and I stayed in Berlin.
5) BERLIN IS NOT GOOD FOR TRIATHLON
Several life changing experiences where around the corner, but while I was happy about them, I didn’t realize I was losing myself again.
In fact I hated the city itself, and I was missing both French and English languages. I tried to do some workouts, and reach Triathlon teams all around the town, but there was a tricky “No-foreigners” policy. When I finally found a team, it was so much different than expaTRIés that I preferred to go on training on my own.
Basically, Berlin is not a good city for Triathlon. First of all, there are no hills whatsoever. And while the city is huge, there are not as many pools as in Paris. Some of them are only “for leisure”, and on average they tend to be pricey. It is only by living in Berlin that I understood how privileged people in Paris are.
And frankly the tri team in Berlin was missing a spark of personality. When I decided to leave it, I wanted to go away saying something prophetically sounding, so I exclaimed, “You need to find your own way of training”.
Actually, what I really said was a Yoda-like “Your own Nick Lamb you need to find”. That way they mumbled and I could leave without too much hassle. Oh, if you ever spot a German spy watching our training sessions please prevent them to capture our president.
At the time, I really wanted to get back in shape I started to train for an half-marathon in Potsdam.
My runs were becoming faster and I realized I never had trained so well that discipline. Even with expaTRIés I had neglected the run. In that precise moment I realized how silly I must have looked talking about Half IronMan distances. But I had a new goal: finishing an half-marathon in less than 2 hours.
Nevertheless on race day something went wrong and I missed my goal shy of 50 seconds. That result was hurting myself a lot, as I really tried to pace myself to reach my goal. The last 2 kilometers I just could not sprint as I had planned.
Then I found myself in Berlin, having signed up for several triathlons in France, with my bike in Italy. And as it wasn’t enough, I had started a job in Potsdam to earn some money. “Okay” I said “Time to get back to reality”.
So I wrote a letter to my company explaining the Triathlon season was starting and as such my destiny wasn’t in Berlin anymore. It took 2 weeks of despair to assemble all the necessary documents to leave that horrible city.
6) LOST. AGAIN. AND BACK TO ITALY AGAIN
But this June, 2015, I was finally able to get back to my Italian tiny town. Finding again Joli-Coeur, unmoved faithfully, in the garage corner, and just mumbling “Please ride me” (At least, that is what I understood.
And so I rode.
Now I find myself realizing how much I love training, and how wrong I was looking for “different experiences” in Berlin. I could ride my Italian bike around local countryside, and swim in the empty local pool. It’s there that I realized how much I cared for swimming.
In Berlin I had read a book called “Total immersion” about how to practice swimming as a form of moving meditation, trying to shape our vessel/body to swim as efficiently and beautifully as possible.
At first I was struggling, even for a simple 25 meter lap. But changing the attitude, and going on with a “trial and error” attitude, I quickly realized how useful the book tips were.
By changing my body position, I was really able to “feel” the difference. Having changed the head position and trying to “reach” further with my hands at each stroke, my perennial sinking legs raised at the level of the water for the first time ever.
What a beautiful feeling. As soon as I reached that sensation, I started going to swim every day to get some good muscle-memory impact.
There was definitely a change: now my arms enter the water gently, without splashing, and I kept my exact same speed with less strokes.
Interestingly enough, as I struggled a whole season trying to have a 3-stroke breathing, just switching to 5-stroke breathing seemed to help me relaxing and slowing down my pace, which was probably too fast. By “trying out” breathing differently and shaping my hands and arms in various ways, I realized this might be the good approach to swimming for me.
And how amazing s it to find myself again in that tiny pool in Italy.
Here people are lazy and they just come to put their legs in the water. I was like them during childhood, and I remember staying forever in the pool corner, watching the other swimming and thinking “whoah, that is endless: how can they possibly swim so far!”.
Now the pool is so tiny, but it still is the very nice and pleasant countryside place I used to remember. Staying there and training alone helped me regaining conscience of what I am now. I like writing, philosophy, and triathlon.
Once upon a time, I was a bit lost. Then I found ExpaTRIés.
Since then, and with some magical friend such as “Joli Choeur”, I was able to fight my own dragons. Now I realize, it is time to move to a new exciting adventure: get back to magic, reaching the same exact place where everything started for me: Paris.
Someone once said you cannot step twice in the same stream.
Well… If you do, bring a wetsuit.