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No Regrets Part 7

Continuing from No Regrets: Part 6, it’s the start of my final season on the ice.  What would happen?

Summer Training 2009

We got straight into summer training and it was on almost immediately.   We were on inline once per week, short-track twice weekly, drylanding, biking and doing weights.  And everything was clicking.  I was starting to get comfortable on the short-track and inline workouts were going well.  Dryland had always gone well and I was getting stronger on the bike.  My technique was finally catching up with my fitness which was at a lifetime peak.

I was literally on the beginner performance improvement curve again with nearly every workout a PR on both inline and short-track.  Either I’d skate a faster average lap time or the same speed for more laps or whatever.   After years of frustration it was a very nice place to be again.

For example, the previous year my best sprint lap on short-track was 14.5 seconds.  Towards the end of summer training we were skating repeat 12.8-13.2 for 12 lap warm-ups and I had gone 11.2 on a sprint lap (the top men can do an 8.5 second lap).  Most of that was corner technique, mind you, but that’s what I needed.  I had improved 3 seconds over 111m.

It was amazing and proved that, in the same way failure had beget failure earlier, success beget success.  A successful workout would allow me relax at the next workout and I’d skate even faster, so I’d relax more.  It was all falling into place.  After nearly 4 years of driving home pissed off and angry about another bad workout, it was nice to actually drive home ecstatic with that workout’s improvement.  Knowing that I’d have another one a day or two later.

But even as good as it was going already, it was about to get better.

The Offspring Still Suck (an inside joke)

Late in the summer, we got Eva Rodansky, a world class skater who I talked about in Winter of Discontent – Book Review, to come out for an inline workout just for fun.  She’d been at short-track the previous Thursday to ask me some questions about writing her book and we said “Hey, come out.”   I will never forget that day even if I don’t remember the date offhand, but that’s when it all came together.

Now, the previous week, I had skated a continuous set on the track starting at like 32-33 seconds and falling off quickly to 35-36 seconds before I was cooked.  It was good but not great and I expected a similar level of performance this week.  Eva and I started our set and came out at around 32 seconds on the first lap.  We were switching every lap and went like 31.8 on the next.

Usually that means a big blow up is in store for me and she asked if I wanted to slow it down.  I did want to but couldn’t seem to do it, my body wanted to go that fast.   We just kept going and switching and going and switching.  And my coach kept calling out high 31’s and low 32’s.  Every lap, without fail.

After 9 minutes, I was done and peeled off, Eva is so awesome she kept going to the 12′ mark and stopped because she was bored.  This was an absolutely inhuman performance jump for me.  Sure, I got a draft each lap but that had never mattered skating with Caleb, I always blew up at anywhere close to that speed.

My coach was stunned, Eva was stunned.  I was in shock.

That day Eva gave me perhaps the best (if not sideways) compliment I would get during my entire ice career “You know, last year we couldn’t have trained together but you’ve improved so much you’d make a great training partner for me now.”  Realize that Eva skated at the world class level and just missed two Olympic teams.  Many coaches thought she could have been one of the best had she not been so mishandled.

And basically had just told me “You really sucked last year but now you can at least keep up with a girl.”  Ok, I know that’s not exactly what she meant but it’s funnier that way and I like giving her a hard time.  We had only interacted briefly during my five years in SLC but became good friends after that day.  I wish I’d talked to her more sooner beyond making fun of the Offspring and asking her if she’d cured cancer yet (she worked in a lab) once every 6 months when she’d show up at the Oval.

In any case, it turns out that the women’s best times are right about the men’s qualifying standards for Olympic trials.  If I could keep up with her on inline and that translated to the ice, I really thought I had a chance.  She’d join our group going forwards and we tried to get her to take another run at making the Olympics (she had all the potential to do so).

I’d note that we improved that set for the next two weeks solid, skating even faster with Caleb in the mix and I even pulled a 30 second lap which I’d never even skated before much less done as part of a long set. It was an amazing three weeks, just going faster and faster for longer and longer.

While summer training was going well, a little bit of wind was blown out of my sails when I found out that they had made the 5k men’s qualifying standards faster. I was already on the bubble for making it with the old times but now it seemed to be getting further out of reach. Amusingly, this happened after I had had a nightmare exactly to that effect.

But I was in all the way at this point.

The Final Ice Season

Normally we targeted a March peak and got on the ice fairly late compared to everyone else.  This year December 17th was the key date since your last chance to qualify for December trials is about 10 days out and they always hold it right after Christmas for some reason.

I figure at least if they held it the week before you could either go home and celebrate…or go home and bury yourself in fudge to commiserate.  As it is, the athletes have to stay at the Oval through X-mas without family.  Why, you ask?  Because they’ve just always done it that way.

So we got on the ice after only 12 weeks of dryland training rather than our normal 20.  I was extremely optimistic about lap times given what had happened during the summer training.  But it wasn’t to be.  On the ice, the improvements that had been happening on inlines and off-ice still weren’t translating quite as much.  I was improving on sub-maximal stuff but not for top speed.

Admittedly, all I cared about was skating 12 laps at the new qualifying time (a cooking 33.7 seconds per lap) but I still wasn’t close.  I could stay with Eva on warm-up sets but rapidly she’d be 2-3 seconds faster than me on interval stuff.  Whatever I had done on inline with her just wasn’t translating completely.

Some of this had to do with the stuff I talked about before: efficiency, ice feel, all that stuff.  But another difference in how you skate/race on the ice vs. inline.  In an inline 10k, you just hold the same constant pace the entire time mostly.  I ride a bike in the same way.  But on the ice that’s not how you do it. Rather, it’s this weird interval style where you relax on the straights and just maintain speed by putting in pushes and then build the corners to get your speed back up.

But I’d try to skate every lap in this weird continuous power sort of way, putting the same effort into my pushes all the way through.  Since the straights don’t contribute much to your speed, it was a waste of effort to use up the energy there.  But it didn’t leave me enough gas to put into the corners.  It’s a hard/easy approach done every 100m.

I was starting to get the feel for it but it still wasn’t coming quickly enough and my times just weren’t where they needed to be.  Rex felt that if my corners made one last jump and I really got better at building out of them, I could make the final time jump I needed.  Maybe.

Oddly, I had figured out how to build corners skating behind Eva on inlines.  But for some reason, she had never linked what she did on wheels to what she did on ice and I had to keep reminding her to build out of her corners on the ice. When she did, she really dropped me.  I stagger to think how good she would have been had Rex had her for a couple of years of proper training.  She was world class doing a lot of thing badly.  Doing things right…..

Even so, skating with Eva for those few months was graduate school for me in skating.  She’s so smooth and such an incredible skater that just mimicking her was good for me.  Rex was fixing some minor technical issues but skating behind her daily taught me so many things.

And she could skate behind me and give me expert feedback on the spot, something Rex couldn’t do.  That was in addition to telling me what she was feeling during different parts of skating; Rex had been away from the ice a long time and while he could tell me what to do and how to do it, she could tell me what she physically felt on the ice.

Our Team is Complete

After a few weeks, our group was joined by Richard G., an older skater who had been to the Olympics twice for short-track and been high in the world rankings before switching to long-track when short-track got too fast and dangerous for him.  He had skated for nearly 30 years and was looking to take one last run at the games at 35 years old.  Eva pointed him to Rex and he joined our team.

Richard was another incredible skater with unbelievable talent, as well as being an all-around nice guy (and Australian, so he sounded funny).  And while he had some technical issues for Rex to fix as well, he also had 30 years of experience to share.  When he talked, I listened and I learned from him as well as Eva during that period.  He got me to really slow down my pushes, find that pressure, build it up and make each stroke count.  It was awesome and I thank him for it.

I will say that, in the entirety of my 5.5 years in Salt Lake City that roughly few month period was the best of it all training wise.  Prior to that it had been Caleb and I as various flaky folks had come and gone.  And Caleb had his flaky moments.  But the training group was never particularly intense except for me being psychotically driven all the time.

Beyond that, Caleb is a sprinter and much taller and faster than I am.  Skating with him was always tough because of mechanical and speed differences.  Our stroke lengths are different, I rush if I’m behind him, and he runs up on me if he’s behind me.  And I’d end up chasing if I was behind him (and I’d rush), and he’d have to pull way back to go as slowly as I was going.  But with Eva and Richard, our group was complete.

Richard was faster than Caleb by a bit but tall with similar mechanics and they trained well together.  Eva and I are built similarly (I can fit in her SwiftSkin for example) and she wasn’t so much faster than me that I couldn’t skate with her without having to chase (you tend to get forwards on your toes and it all goes wrong).

We’d all warm-up together in a group and then Caleb skated with Richard and I skated with Eva.  At least the view was nicer now; I like Caleb and all but staring at man-ass for lap after lap is not my idea of fun.  We worked well together, got along well, and we all improved.  Rex was loving it too.

At this point, Richard had at best an outside shot at making the Australian Olympic Team. He had the talent but there were two fast kids coming up and Australia only had one slot for each distance.  Things had to go very right for him to go.

Eva was on the fence for making another bid for the games, she wouldn’t have skated for the US in the first place and I told her to get in touch with Poland or Ukraine (where her parents are from) to skate for them.   Caleb was a lock for making trials and I had, at most, an outside shot for trials but I was giving it my all as I had done for the previous 4 years.

But there were four of us, all intensely pursuing the same goal and training like maniacs under the watchful eye of a master coach.  It was an awesome time for everyone involved.

October 11th, 2009

In the same way that I will never forget the first day inlining with Eva, I will never forget the date of October 11th, 2009.  That’s when it all came crashing down.  As I mentioned, the rules are that you can qualify for Olympic trials up until 10 days out from the event.  So were targeting the third week in December or so as the last chance.  Mainly for me, Caleb was a hair off the time and could qualify shortly.  He would have done it on that day if the ice had been a touch faster and he’d gone 100%.

Now, US Speedskating had opted to do two sets of Olympic trials for the 2010 games and we knew this.  The first was at Petit in Milwaukee/Wisconsin in about 10 days and the second in SLC in late December. Presumably the Milwaukee trials were set to see who could skate on slower ice and SLC for faster ice.  Vancouver was going to be slow and it makes a difference as some skaters do better on one vs. the other.  Ironic note: the ice in Milwaukee was actually faster than SLC most of the year for various reasons.

We went to time trials that morning, thinking that the October trials didn’t matter.  None of us were making the team so we didn’t need to skate them.  But there was this buzz going around the oval that a rule change has been made: the USOC had decided that since both trials were being used to determine the Olympic team that they were effectively one event.   You either qualified for both or skated neither.  Which meant that today was the final day to qualify for any of it.

That couldn’t be right, could it? My coach inquired and yes that was correct.  They had sort of hidden the change in this document on the US Speedskating main site that nobody reads.  It’s not as if they don’t have an email list, they could have made an announcement. This isn’t just sour grapes by the way: the NATIONAL TEAM SPRINT COACH didn’t even know about this.  He said he’d have changed his entire yearly schedule if he had.  How could we have possibly known?

Oddly, they didn’t even really dial up the ice to make it fast for what was ultimately the last chance time trial to make Olympic team trials.  The ice was slow as paste and for skaters right on the bubble, a half a second per lap (and fast ice can be worth 1 second per lap) can make the difference.  They knew it was the final attempt for many people and didn’t even make the ice fast.  US Speedskating and the Utah Olympic Oval seem to want folks to fail.

I’d note that many other skaters were affected.  One of Eva’s friends, who had been jerked around by US Speedskating almost as much as Eva, simply wasn’t told by her coach that this was the final set of trials.  She showed up to train afterwards to learn that the last 4 years of her life, possibly the entirety of her life’s dream was now gone.  Gone because some lazy bastard couldn’t send out a single email (they had no problems spamming my inbox that US Speedskating now had a Twitter page).  Like I said, the whole thing is run with less skill than a little league soccer team.

Oddly, I wasn’t that affected by it.  I had skated a mediocre 500m and set a solid PR in the 3k and continued my training with some technical work after racing was done as I always did (always finish on something good is my motto).  Caleb was mainly pissed but he never stays mad long.  Brain of a goldfish, that one (Look, the castle!).

In contrast, Rex was crushed.  He’s not usually an emotional man but he broke down in tears for about half an hour which I had never seen before.  He felt that he had let us down, how he should have known about it, he knew how much he and we (and especially me) had put towards this and now it had been ripped away from us.  I just kept skating and left him alone.

Frankly, even knowing wouldn’t have mattered, I wasn’t ready.  I maybe had a chance at the December trials but simply wasn’t fast enough in October to have had a chance.  In hindsight, I never really had a chance and that’s maybe why it didn’t affect me that much.

Caleb might have done stuff differently and Richard and Eva still had other chances since they weren’t looking at US trials anyhow.  This really only affected me and I think that’s part of why it hit Rex so much.  And while there was some talk that the rules might be changed, it was unlikely since it was a USOC choice, not a US Speedskating choice.

If you’re wondering how it all turned out, check this out.  Not only was nothing more ever said about the issue (I stopped asking after about a week) but they didn’t even use the Petit results to determine the Olympic Team.  Instead, they treated it as a warm-up event and solely used the December trials to choose that team.  All they did was ruin a bunch of skater’s chances to skate Olympic Trials for something that they ignored in the end.  Typical US Speedskating crapola.  Read Eva’s Book Winter of Discontent for more of this.

The Month After

Over the next month, things fell apart completely.  We had started with 4 dedicated skaters, one by one it all went to hell.

Caleb was the first to go, he had had enough. He’d been broke and unhappy for the past 4 years and couldn’t take it anymore, not with trials now out of the picture.  At practice one day, Eva told us that he had packed his truck and gone back to Vail.  I was glad for him; the sport is too hard, the rewards too slim to be worth being miserable all the time.  I’ve talked to him since and he’s much happier though he misses skating.  And then there were 3.

Shortly thereafter, Eva decided that she didn’t want to take a run at the Olympics.  She just wanted to enjoy skating.  She didn’t want to hurt that much anymore for a goal that she didn’t care about.  As she put it she had reached the ‘Whatever’ stage of grieving (DABDA-W).   She decided to target Masters Internationals in January so that she could retire on a high note (which she did by setting three records that will stand a long time).

Rex and I, who had both been upset by what skating had done to her, and been the ones to convince her to come back in the first place, supported her completely.  Her being happy was more important than whatever we wanted for her.  And then there were 2.

Shortly thereafter Richard left.  He had personal issues going on in Australia and was living in a single room chasing an insane dream. He’d lived his Olympic dream already, been to two games.  He was 35, scraping for money living on a mattress on the floor of some guy’s house.   Cool when you’re 22, not so much when you’re 30-something.  The odds of him making the team were an outside shot anyhow, it wasn’t worth it to him.  I took him to the airport in absolute confused thought: should he go, stay, this had been his life for 30 years and he would be done. He kept asking me what I thought he should do.

I think he wanted me to tell him to stay, maybe he just wanted to tell me he was making the right choice.  I told him what I honestly believed:  he had already been to two Olympics and had nothing to prove or even accomplish.  If he stayed and made it, he’d have done nothing he hadn’t done before (he didn’t have a medal chance, it was just going to the games and he’d been twice).

If he stayed and failed, he’d probably lose his house, lose a great job offer, maybe lose it all.  It was simple cost: benefit and it didn’t add up for him to take the shot no matter how badly he wanted to.  I wrote this up in a letter to him, gave him some cash so that he could travel comfortably and he got on a plane.   And then there was one.  Me.

I had spent that month training very halfheartedly.  While I wasn’t emotionally affected by what had happened regarding trials (I wonder if, in some regards, I wasn’t a bit relieved), it was hard to go suffer that much for a goal that, with 99% certainty, was now gone.  Even if I made the qualifying standard, I wouldn’t get to skate.  And I probably wouldn’t make the qualifying standard.  I didn’t see the point.

But I kept skating and kept training, just in case.  And then my legs blew up.  We had added an extra half-ice-session that year to try and get some extra work done and it was the proverbial straw that broke Lyle’s back.  Prior to that I had always adapted to the training even if my technique held me back.  This was a first.  I threw on my Suunto T6 watch that morning to see what the hell was going on.

My resting heart rate was up, my heart rate variability was all wrong and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t match my prior performances in practice.  I had fallen off the edge for the first time in 5 years.  Going into the middle of November, it was clear that I needed at least 2 weeks of easy training to recover.  Even if they changed the rules on trials, that would only leave 3 weeks to make an impossible amount of progress.  It was over.

I sat down and took a long look at things and made a decision.  Tt actually wasn’t that hard for reasons you’ll see in the final section tomorrow.  I was retiring from the ice and going back to outdoor inline.  And then there was none.

It’s amazing how quickly it happened, we went from having a group of 4 amazingly dedicated skaters to none in the span of a month.  Like I said, I won’t ever forget October 11th, 2009.  That previous summer day on inlines it had all come together; now it had all fallen apart.

Now what?

To be concluded in No Regrets Part 8.

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