It’s the offseason, and with that comes the time of year when my body gets a little rest from the constant physical pounding of the
year. Most other triathletes I know take this time to eat, drink, be merry, and enjoy all of the other things in life that we miss during our usually disciplined existence. My teammates and friends all called me crazy, but I took this time to dive into the power of my mind by attending a 10-day silent meditation retreat. Keep in mind, I had never meditated a single day in my life, nor would I generally consider myself the typical meditation/yoga/spiritual retreat “type”, and here I was jumping into the life of a monk for 10 days; maybe I am crazy?
You may be asking, what is a “silent meditation retreat?” Well here are the basics:
- The meditation is called Vipassana, based on nonsectarian Buhddist teaching (any religious dogma would have sent me packing)
- The course lasted 11 nights and 10 days, over which time I took a vow of “Noble Silence” that included abstaining from speaking, reading, writing, eye contact, physical or any other form of verbal or
non verbal communication
- Each day had the same 17 hour rigorous routine beginning at 4am and ending at 9pm
- 12 hours of each day was spent in meditation with the other remaining 5 hours left for teaching discourse, meals and short breaks. (The vow of silence is maintained continuously for the entire 10 days).
- There were only two meals a day, and after 11am all you could have was tea and fruit until 630am the following day
- The meditation is guided by a teacher, so although students are completely silent, instructions are given throughout the course of the days to teach and guide the proper practice of Vipassana
- The retreat center is located in Onalaska, Washington amidst rural farmland in the shadow of Mt. St. Helens (about 30 miles south of where I was born in Olympia, WA)
- 33 Men and 47 women attended the course (about 10 quit midway through), but other then time spent in the meditation hall, the men and women are entirely segregated from each other; separate dining hall, residence, walking grounds etc.
- It is completely free to attend the course. All 250 Vipassana centers around the world exist solely on donations both monetary as well as voluntary staffing at the
Needless to say this was a huge challenge, considering I don’t think many people who know me would describe me as an introvert. My inspiration for going was to get in touch with the power of my mind since, in my opinion, the mental toughness required in triathlon is even more crucial than the physical demands it takes to achieve greatness. I certainly accomplished the goal of learning quite a lot about the power of the body and mind as it specifically relates to racing. Overall however, the revelations I had about my personal life upon this lengthy time of introspection were even more profound.
The part of the practice that pertained most to triathlon was the three, one hour “sittings of strong determination.” Each day morning , afternoon, and evening there were mandatory group sittings in the meditation hall. We all sat on our predetermined mat on the floor in any posture we wanted (cross leg, kneeling, half lotus etc). However once the hour began [..]
Sunday was the last race of my season and it was certainly one to remember. It was memorable not for all the right reasons
perhaps, but there were certainly some positives. It was clear before the race had started that the race organization paled in comparison to Zimbabwe. My hat is off to the Zimbabwe Triathlon federation for putting on the best run race I have ever seen in the entire world. I was in for a shock when I arrived to the race site in Pretoria, South Africa to find the polar opposite; the most poorly run and unsafe race I have seen to date.
Only one of five race officials bothered to attend the race briefing, and the meeting started nearly an hour late. It was 80 degrees outside, and the elite athletes were chastised by race organizers for asking for water while we waited for the briefing to begin. It was clear that this was not going to be smooth sailing from an organizational standpoint.
Race morning I felt relaxed and ready to go. I packed up my things, and with fellow competitors Omar Nour (Egypt) and Sean Jeffferson (USA), we drove to the race site. The swim was held in a pond directly beside three huge coal-burning smokestacks. The water was murky and the shore was littered with trash. I tried not to let the nasty aesthetic disrupt my focus. I went through my usual pre-race warm-up, and found myself at the start line feeling good.
It was my goal to stay with the leaders out of the swim. I hung on to the lead through the first half of the course. A couple of the top swimmers in the sport put in a surge on the second lap of the swim and I fought to stay on their feet. They ended up opening up a gap, and I exited the water alone, 45 secs down from the lead group of 5, but ahead of the rest of the field. It was not my best swim, as I know that I have what it takes to exit with the leaders, but considering the travel and altitude (5200 ft), I had a decent swim,
heading on to the bike ahead of the majority of the field.
I got on to the bike, and pushed hard up the first climb to see if I could gain on the front pack. It was a untraditional ITU course of just 2 x 20km laps. Immediately I saw an athlete who had flatted 2km into the race on the side of the road. This was a sign of things to come. The road quality was the worst I have ever seen in a race. The road was filled with deep potholes and debris. The race official told us that the race course would be closed to traffic, this turned out not to be the case as only the small shoulder was closed, and the road was a major thruway. To add insult to injury, there were at least 15 large speed bumps on the course and many railroad crossings. Some of the speed bumps came at the bottom of the long descents where we were reaching speeds of 50 mph. While riding with Sean Jefferson on the second lap I watched as his bike was launched several feet into the air each time he hit one of these bumps. Needless to say the course was not up to professional international standard.
My coach Siri gave me some great advice before the race. She urged me to stay in the moment no matter what was happening, and try to do whatever I could in each individual moment of the race to make the best day out of it. I used this advice to ignore the disaster of a course and stay focused on pushing my body to the max. I pushed hard for the first 10k mostly uphill on my own trying to catch the main group. They were pushing very hard and I rode most of the first 20k lap alone.
Disaster struck on the final descent of the lap. There was a major intersection crossing and the race official manning the intersection mistakenly directed me down the wrong street. I suddenly realized the mistake as I was headed into oncoming traffic at 50 mph.
I locked up both of my wheels skidding to a halt just 5 feet from an oncoming car. Screaming and adrenaline pumping I tried to drop to an easy gear to ride back up the 200 meter hill to get back on course. Unfortunately, it was impossible to shift from the hardest gear at a dead stop on the hill and I dropped my chain. I was forced to get off my bike, run it back to the top of the hill and put my chain back on the bike before resuming the race. I lost at least a minute, but in the big picture I suppose a minute is not so bad compared to what I could have lost crashing head on into traffic.
Again battling adversity I tried to stay in the moment. Fellow American Sean Jefferson caught me after I had lost time due to the mishap, and we rode the second lap together. We worked hard together to make up the lost time on the leaders. As we were descending the last hill, through the same fateful intersection, the race official made a critical error AGAIN! She sent a car through the intersection as four of us were riding through at top speed. Again locking breaks up and very narrowly avoiding a second crash the four of us all missed the car by inches.
My legs were hurting from my effort on the bike. I didn’t seem to have the usual pop in my legs. The reason became clear when I looked at my bike after the race and found that my rear was flat. It’s hard to say exactly when it happened, but likely when I locked up my wheels and skidded I must have flatted. Meaning that I rode quite a ways on a flat tire. Thankfully my adrenaline and focus got me through the bike leg.
My legs were pretty blown up from the effort on the bike, but I tried to stay strong on the run. I didn’t have the run I know I am capable of, but I tried to put my Achilles injury out of my mind and finish the season strong. I stayed focused and even ran down a Belgian athlete in the last kilometer, finishing 9th overall. Considering the high drama of the race I was just happy to finish healthy, and with two respectable top 10 finishes on my African adventure.
I recognize there are going to be challenges in every race, and not all racecourses can be the same standard. It is certainly not my nature to complain, but in this instance when the safety of myself and other competitors was blatantly at risk, I cant help but voice my opinion. South Africa has a very strong triathlon tradition, as well as the experience as a nation of recently hosting the world’s largest sporting event, The World Cup. It is my opinion that the South African Triathlon Federation and the ITU need to reevaluate their standards for safety in regards to this race. I was not the only person who had a close call during this race. Many other competitors at the finish line had similar stories. Participating in this event were former Olympians from African Nations. The South African Triathlon Federation should make it their upmost priority to protect the well being of their elite athletes.
The two races in Africa mark a successful end to my 2011 racing season. I am proud to have shown tangible improvement over the course of my first year racing the ITU circuit. I am certain that all of my hard work and experience gained this year will pay off as I continue to dedicate myself to my goals in 2012. I plan on posting a more thorough evaluation of my thoughts on the entire season. However today I am off to meditate in silence for the next 10 days (read more about it here: http://www.kunja.dhamma.org/index.html), and I wanted to at least get my race report posted. Stay tuned in the next couple weeks for my complete thoughts on the 2011 season, as well as my experience diving into my mind and solitude for the next week and a half. Wish me luck!
As always thank you for all of the love and support from around the world. It is all of you that make it possible for me to reach for the stars.
PS Here is a little two part video of Omar Nour getting detained in the Zimbabwe Airport on account of a broken bike box…we nearly miss our flight to South Africa as a result:
It’s been a few days since the race in Zimbabwe and I have wanted to get an update posted. Not surprisingly the internet in Africa is less than reliable. It has been tough to get more than a few tweet updates out to the world. This post will have to be without all of the pictures, and hopefully in the next day or so I can add the remaining pictures and video I have. Troutbeck was quite beautiful and the pictures are definitely worth a look.
Zimbabwe exceeded every expectation I had. The race was one of the best organized events I have ever raced in the world, and the way the Zimbabwe Triathlon federation treated the elite athletes was second to none. A special thanks goes out to Margot Littleford who we nicknamed “Mother.” She took such great care of us including picking us up at the Harare airport 4 hours drive from the race site.
The race was located amongst farmland in the Nyanga, Zimbabwe a few kilometers from the Mozambique border. The landscape was made up of productive farmland, and rolling green hills. The altitude of the race site was 6800ft, making the air thin and race extra challenging. Trying to push yourself at max effort at that altitude burns the lungs and slows everyone down a few steps.
The swim course was in a beautiful dam steps outside the door to my hotel room, making logistics for the race extraordinarily convenient. The bike and run courses were the most difficult I have ever seen in triathlon. As if the altitude was not difficult enough, the bike course consisted of a 6 laps of a 6.6km course where we had to climb 3km straight up at 10% grade hill on cobblestones, descend, and repeat. The run course took us four laps up and down the same steep hill. Contrary to most every other ITU course there was not a single flat section on the entire day.
The start list was a bit smaller than usual but still contained world class talent from Africa including the top athletes from South Africa and Zimbabwe Olympian from Beijing 2008. The swim started off well and I found myself leading the swim through the halfway point. I was feeling better in the water than I have all year.
The other swimmers in the front group train near this altitude most of the year so they were a little better acclimatized. I felt the effects of less oxygen on the second 750m lap and exited the swim 30 secs down from the leaders. I think this week at the race in Pretoria, South Africa I stand a solid chance of exiting the water in the lead.
The bike course was tough with the altitude and climbing. Despite all of that, I was able to ride rather strong. There were two of the best South Africans pushing the pace in the lead, and I settled in chasing the front and swapping leads with another South African athlete. There were not the traditional large packs forming on this course due to the intensity of climbing, and the bike segment resembled more of an individual time trial effort. Fellow USA athlete Sean Jefferson was having a great ride until he had a flat tire on the last lap. I passed him and entered transition two in 5th place.
I did not have too much expectation for myself on the run since I have been nursing an Achilles injury for the past 6 weeks and have done little to no run training the past month. I tried to push the run on the hills, but the altitude and lack of run fitness caught up with me a bit. I ended up fading to 7thplace overall. Still good enough for my highest
finish since racing the ITU professionally!
The overall experience in Zimbabwe was fantastic. As with every race this early in my career I learned from my successes and my failures. I am excited to be racing one last time this weekend in South Africa. We are still at altitude, but a bit lower (5200ft). Since I have now been at this altitude for 10 days hopefully my body is more adjusted. I am still feeling great in the water, and I’m making it my number one goal for this race to exit the water with the front group. From there I think the bike course suits my strengths, and then push as hard as I can for the last 10km run of the season!
Thanks to everyone who is following along. I will for sure update this post with more pics and video when I can.
PS I want to give a big shout out to Omar Nour (Egypt) and Sean Jefferson (USA), who have become my travel companions on this journey. We’ve kept each other laughing through all the ups and downs of Saga Africa.
After 34 four hours of door to door travel including a 10 hour layover in Paris I arrived to my hotel in Cape Town. My layover is Paris was actually quite enjoyable including watching a beautiful sunset over the Seine and eating a first rate Boeuf Bourguignon. I spent the day yesterday exploring the waterfront of Cape Town as I tried my best to fight the jet lag and stay awake until evening. After wondering around the city for a while I found a great local pool to get in a bit of training. Even after the long travel my body is feeling pretty good especially after getting a massage.
I finally allowed myself a much needed sleep last night after two nights spent on planes. That felt amazing to say the least. One of my favorite things about travelling abroad for races is that fact that I get to bring my bike with me. Now dont get wrong the logistics of travelling on planes/trains/buses/taxis etc with a bike can be a nightmare. But once I arrive to a place there is no better way to explore in my opinion than by bicycle.
I set off this morning and climbed up Signal Hill which is directly beside the famous Table Mountain overlooking the entire harbour of Cape Town. It was a stunning sight, and I took a great video of my descending the hill on my bike surrounded by the beautiful scenery. As you can probably guess the internet is not that reliable here, so I will have to wait to post the video…but keep an eye out, its worth a look. After the ride I got in another swim, and then relaxed most of the rest of the day. I wanted to ride the cable car to the top of Table Mountain but heavy winds kept it closed today. I guess now I have an excuse to come back. Quite honestly this is a fantastic city. I look forward to returning at some point.
These first couple days of travel and time zone acclimatisation have been great. But I am really excited to head to Zimbabwe tomorrow to get really psyched up for the race Saturday. My body is feeling good, and I am ready to be on site at the race course tomorrow.
Thats all for now. I will try and keep updating my blog but I am having a bit more luck tweeting messages out as it doesnt require a great internet connection. If you want follow along: @colinobrady Enjoy the photos!
I have a very exciting month ahead of me. Tomorrow I leave LA for my last two races of the 2011 season. I am racing two ITU African Cups back-to-back weekends. First up is Troutbeck, Zimbabwe the 19th of November, followed by Pretoria South Africa the 27th. All and all I will be in Africa for two weeks including a few days of time zone acclimatization in Cape Town.
Immediately following my return from Africa, I will commence a 10-day meditation retreat at the Vipassana meditation center in rural Washington State. I will take a vow of silence as well as abstain from reading, writing, and eye contact . You can read more about the meditation center here: http://www.kunja.dhamma.org/
I figure I spend everyday working on my physical capacity, why not use my offseason down town, when I am resting my body, to explore the power of my mind? Needless to say the next four weeks are bound to be full of adventure.
After racing in Myrtle Beach at the beginning of October, I spent the past 5 weeks in Santa Monica preparing to have a strong finish to the season. My goal for the Africa races are to get some solid finishes and ITU points to increase my world standing heading in to 2012. I have been slightly hobbled by an Achilles strain and as a result have had to modify my usual biking/running regime. But with the help of my amazing coach Siri I have been able to “stay focused on the positive” and just this morning I swam my lifetime personal best for 1500m swimming time trial. My leg is feeling better, and despite the small setback I think I am ready to have my best result of the season.
I am going to switch up my blogging style for the next few weeks and hopefully try and give quite a few small photo/video/written updates as long as I can find internet service along the way. So check back often to see how the final chapter of the 2011 season takes shape.