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On The Bubble

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When I was a kid, I loved to watch the last day of Time Trials for the Indianapolis 500, known as “Bubble Day.”  It was simple:  There were 33 spots in the race, but often you’d have 45-50 drivers trying to qualify.  On the final day, you would have 10-15 drivers making their last runs at glory, a last-hour dash that often combined engineering, desperation, and bravado.

Margins were always impossibly small.  Those left on the outside looking in would be so very close, seeking those last hundredths of a second.  At the same time you’d have the man in 33rd position – the man everyone was trying to bump out: The man on the bubble.

It was easy to imagine what both sides had to feel like – the desperation of trying to find more speed when you’ve done all you can, and the opposite feeling that you’ve already done all you could as you sit helpless, run finished, as everyone takes their final desperate leap at the time you’ve set.

Though I will never attempt to qualify for Indianapolis, I have found that in my own racing life – trying to make National Teams via the Time Trial process – I have learned that my gut read as a child sitting on the living room floor was pretty damn close to how life on the bubble really is.

In a Dragon Boat you race with twenty one teammates – twenty two of you working as one.   To make that team, however, you must do so alone.  Trials are held using an outrigger canoe – a single-seat racing boat.  When it’s time to be tested it’s just you, the boat, and the clock.

The clock has no heart, no feelings, and no respect.  It doesn’t care what you did last week, how much you have to do at work, or how little sleep you’ve had.  It doesn’t care about the blood donation, the regatta you ran, or your daughter’s graduation.   It doesn’t care one bit about what life has done to you before you’ve arrived to be judged; You stand before it, you run your test, and the clock simply gives you the number.

There is an elegant, pure clarity to the time trial: You are either fast enough, or you are not.  Period.

In this life where participation awards seem to be everywhere, the nature of a time trial appears to be exceptionally cruel – it has to be.  You can be as fast as you’ve ever been; you can find speed you’ve never found before, and lay it all out there in a blinding white inferno of hope and fear, and you still might not be fast enough.

Approaching the line…Attention…

Because making a team – any team at the National Level – is never easy.  It’s not supposed to be easy.  You go into the game knowing that the odds are stacked against you every step of the way.  You will train with your teammates, encourage each other, and work side-by-side to get stronger to find the time you need.

But at the same time you realize that in the ultimate irony of ironies, you are working together towards something that you cannot possibly share.  That’s simply the deal.

In 2009 I made it to the last day of trials for Premier Open.  I ended up racing against five other men for the final seat – came in fourth.  I never expected to be that close, but it was an eye-opener to realize just how intense it was.

I came back in 2011, and once again found myself involved in a fight to the end: Six weeks of trial after trial, of being in the top-3 the whole way.  On the final day, it was one time too many to the well for a mind that had been “all-in” for weeks.  I couldn’t find the speed, Jim, Andy, and Ed could.  I went first, and then watched as my time fell down, down, down the board, my bubble, and my heart, burst.

I endured what it’s like to be cut on the last day, again.  When you ask the clock if you’re fast enough, you either are or you are not.  Doesn’t matter if you’re faster than you’ve ever been, the clock will only tell you if it was fast enough.

In 2013 I finally broke through and made Premier Open.  I held on to my spot in the lineup in a seat race in July, and had my chance to finally race at the highest level.  I honestly never thought I’d be there; after 2009 and 2011, I had resigned to always being within sight of the top step, but just unable to take it.  Perhaps it was that surrender that gave me the last bit – you get rid of the weight that worry brings, and you never know what you can do.

2015 was a year I hoped I would build on that step, but sometimes sport can be…complicated.  I made one lineup for the IDBF World Championships – a lineup that was picked in August, 2014, a full year prior to Worlds.  The Premier Open Time Trials wouldn’t be held until the following Spring.  I’ll never forget the conversation when that coach called me and laid it out: “If you want to try out for the Premier Boat, you can do it…but know that you won’t have a seat in this lineup if you don’t make it.”

“If you want to be a Premier, go be a Premier.  But I only want men committed to the team in this boat.  You need to decide.”  He pushed back.  I said I’d have to think about it for a few days.

Cut twice, made once.  In 2013 I was 24th in out of 24 selected.  Was it lightning in a bottle, a coming together of form and passion at the right moment, or was I really strong enough to take the gamble?  Could I give up a solid selection to take a chance, knowing that if the speed wasn’t there I’d be staying home?

I took the safe play.  I opted out of Premier Open testing.  I didn’t even take my shot.

When Worlds came to pass, Senior A Open and Mixed would spend a week chasing a Canadian boat we simply couldn’t touch; on the first day the mixed boat finished off the podium in the 2000 Meter for the first time since 1995.  I remember looking at the results sheet, hearing the words of the guardian in that last Indiana Jones movie, “He choose…poorly.”

Premier Open would go on to medal in three out of four events in Welland, including Gold in the 1000.

I left with the most expensive emotion that can possibly exist – regret.

I can handle not being fast enough to make a team.  What I found I could not accept was not even trying.  For the rest of my life I will be left to wonder, would I have made it?  Could I have been there?

There is nothing more expensive than the debt left by regret – nothing will ever pay that back.

I have spent the last two years trying to chip away at that regret, day by day, workout by workout.  I have kept my weight low.  I have run the miles.  I have lifted the weights.  I have been to Training Camps, and pushed myself into the red with my teammates under a baking Florida sun.  I have shivered in the morning shadows of leafless trees along the Schuylkill River in April, pounding out the miles.

I found out in early May that I would be selected once again for Team USA Senior A Open and Senior A Mixed – my fourth selection – my fourth opportunity to wear the uniform.  But more importantly, I found out that I have a coach that understood what I was carrying, what I was still chasing.

“I know you’re going to try out for Premier again, so go for it – you won’t have any of that Welland stuff this time around.  But know that I don’t want you to make it.  Good luck; you know what you have here…”  I could ask for no more – I would have my chance.

Anne, Andy, Jim help send me off (Photo Credit: Dave Lee)

On Saturday, June 10th I joined the pool of candidates to make their runs down the D&R Canal in New Jersey.  I took my warmup run along the towpath, and got into the boat first, carrying the rocket Katie had drawn for me the night before – as she always does since my first selection in 2011.

My mouth went dry as I sat on the starting line, staring down a perfectly straight, endless green hell.  I counted down the seconds to the start line, knowing that soon I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore – I’d be much too busy trying to suffer as much as I could bear.

Every little bit helps.

Andrew McMarlin ran me down the course, giving me splits every 30 seconds.  He reminded me to breathe, to keep it long, to keep my head up.  I stayed on top of the stroke the best that I could, and held it together through both pieces.  And as I gave Andrew the boat for his turn, I did the same – I ran him down, and knew even before he did that he was going to beat me.  Coming back from a torn ACL, his was a tremendous comeback story.

So was Jonathan Rivera, whom was going so quickly I could barely manage to run at his side.  From 2015 Premier Sub to Starter, he crushed his piece.  One by one, they came, they flew.

My time started the day at the top, and then fell, fell, fell.  Each run slightly faster than what I’d done.  As I left the canal that day I knew I’d been close, but I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be fast enough.  I waited all afternoon for a phone call, a message, an email.  Each hour of silence told me all I needed to know.  I dared ask the clock if I was fast enough, and the clock replied, “No.  Not today.”

When the result sheet was released, the numbers told the story – I’d missed it by about 5 seconds on combined time for a 1000 and 500 Meter run.  I’d gone 3:55/2:02, the line was at 3:52/2:00.

When I had a chance to talk to Coach a few days later to find out where I stood, he was surprisingly candid.  “You’re under consideration.  I have a lot of right side guys to look at, but you’re there.”

My next chance, my last chance, would be scheduled for June 24th, the final Premier Open Trial for 2017.

This, of course, tossed a wrench in my nice, neat plans: I had been training to race the Cape to Cape Delaware Bay crossing in my OC1 on June 25th, an 18-mile, open-water race that should take me close to 4 hours.  Now my final tune-up for that race will be a short workout, just shy of six more minutes in hell.

But that’s the game.

I’m writing this all down not to ask for likes, or cheerleading, or sympathy, or kind words, or wishes, or prayers.  Someday when this is long since passed into my life’s rear view, I want to remember what it was like – the good and the bad – to step into this arena, accept the terms, and play the game.  To know that the odds are stacked well against me, but to put everything on the line and leave nothing to chance.

As I finished my final run on Wednesday after a solid practice with the sunrise, it was the Summer Solstice.  The sun was beaming through the trees, the winds were light.  As I thought about how I could possibly capture what it was I was feeling.  In 2011, it was fear to the end.  In 2013 it was shock, then fear, then desperation as I barely held on.  2015 was surrender.

But this time I was surprised to feel peace.  As I ran down the path beside the water I’ve spent the last 14 years on, I felt nothing but peace.

I have done all I could do with the time that I have.  I am going up against the best in the country for a shot I’m lucky to have.  As my friend and racing colleague Brian Gatens reminds me often, “We are lucky, lucky men, to have pursuits such as these.  We will never be here again.  This moment, it’s here now – there may be others – but this will never be here again.”

I passed by Belmont Stables and remembered how we used to wrap up Ironman training, “The hay is in the barn now.  Nothing left to do but wait, and see how race day goes.”

I am the Man on the Bubble.  But the crew is going to set the wing flat, trim the car completely out, and send her on a last, blinding, desperate run as the final hour draws near.

I can ask for no more than this chance.  I’m not throwing away my shot.

When it’s over, the little girl who makes the rockets, and my teammate and best friend who’s put up with my pursuits will be there to hold me up, or hold me down.

Regardless of what the clock says to me on Saturday, I know I can’t lose.

Share The Shambles!
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