TRUNK BOY AND L’ALPE D’HUEZ

I had been a track and field coach for ten or so years, and this was the first time that the boys’ team had a legitimate shot at the Greater Montreal Athletic Association City Championships.  Like for real.  Finally. 

We had several boys who would most likely score points in pretty much all the field events.  Our distance runners were #1 and #2 in the city, and we had three relatively capable sprinters who could probably make the final in the 100, 200, and 400.  There was one standout, who I’ll call Cameron (not his real name), who had been winning every sprint so far that season, most of the time by quite a bit.  He was the anchor for the relays, which I was counting on to score significant enough points for our school to take the overall meet banner.

The season had been quite successful so far and I was looking forward to having the opportunity to hang the championship banner from the rafters in the gym alongside those from the sports our school was better known for: curling and golf.  In almost 100 years of existence, we had never won the track and field banner, but we all felt that this was to be our year…especially with Cameron sprinting as he had been all season.

On the day of the meet I showed up to school early so I could gather what equipment we might need and to make sure all of the rides were organized.  Being a public school with a limited budget for athletics, we had no funding for a bus to take our teams to sporting events, so we relied heavily on the parents of the students to volunteer to shuttle their kids, along with three or four, sometimes five or six, of their teammates to the meets.  Most times there were a few students left over, so I would pile them into my car and drive them myself.  There was always a little tension the day of a competition when I would wonder if we would be capable of transporting the entire squad as it was not unheard of for a parent to cancel at the last moment or forget altogether that it was their turn to drive (and it always seemed to be the one with the seven seat minivan).

As the athletes began to arrive at school long before the first bus arrived, everything seemed to be in order, at least initially.  With the arrival of each student, I would check off his name and direct him to the car in which he would travel.  Eventually everyone arrived and all were accounted for and placed in the appropriate vehicle. 

Everyone, that is, except for Cameron who was nowhere to be found.  For some reason he was late which was.  I was left with four athletes who would be accompanying me for the fifty minute drive, so I gave them the keys to my car and told them to put the equipment bag full of track spikes, relay batons, and tape measures, in the trunk while I worked the phone in a last ditch attempt to locate Cameron. 

Unfortunately, no one was home and we could wait no longer.  It seemed that we were going to have to wait at least another year before we had a shot at the championships.

During the ride I tried to remain calm and positive in an attempt to buoy the spirits of the students in the car.  I told them things that I didn’t remotely believe.  Stuff like, “we still have a really good shot.  We’ll take care of this even without Cameron.  We got this.”  It was a pile of crap and I knew it, but it seemed to be working because the boys didn’t seem to be phased at all about the absence of the team captain.

We arrived a little later than I would have liked due to the delay we experienced in our wait for Cameron, so I didn’t have time to go over the track conditions and do a walk around with the boys before attending the scratch meeting with the coaches from all the other schools in the city.  As we exited the car, I told the boys to go do a warmup to get a feel for the surroundings while I grabbed my clipboard so I could scratch Cameron from all his races and see if I could use a substitute. 

Normally my athletes do pretty much whatever I ask of them right away, but on this morning, they hung around the car with hands in pockets trying desperately to avoid looking at each other.  I shrugged my shoulders, assuming that they were just nervous, and turned to make my way to the meeting when one of the boys asked me, “Uuuhhh sir, can you pop the trunk so we can get our spikes?”.  I was a little annoyed and told them that wouldn’t be necessary. I just wanted them to jog a couple laps with their running shoes on, but they persisted telling me they really wanted to get used the spikes because, as one of them said, “you know, cuz it’s the city champs and all”.  Feeling like a bit of an asshole for not having patience, I walked back to the car, apologized, and proceeded to open up the trunk.

As soon as I turned the key and heard the ‘pop’ of the lock disengaging, the lid was forced open abruptly, almost glancing off my chin, and Cameron sat up, pointed at me while making a clicking sound with his tongue and said, “GOTCHA!”.

From that day on, Cameron came to be known as ‘Trunk Boy’.  And yes, we won the banner.

I have been spending my evenings this past week watching the Tour De France and lamenting at the absence of racing this summer.  Watching this iconic race snake its way around some of the most beautiful, majestic landscapes, I was reminded of an event I participated in last July.  The Triathlon de L’Alpe d’Huez is one of the toughest races in the world and is held in a quintessentially stunning location.  Ever since the first time I watched the TDF, I have dreamed of racing my bike in the alps on that very course.  When I heard that there was a triathlon there, I told myself that one day I would have to do it, and so that is exactly what I did.

Upon arrival, I just knew that, although it appeared this would be a very challenging event, I knew I was going to love it.  Even driving up the twenty-one switchbacks, was exhausting and the car was pushing its limits trying to complete the journey.

The event did not disappoint. 

The swim was twenty-plus kilometres from the top of Alpe d’Huez, where all the hotels and other lodging were, so, just to make the day a little more challenging, we had to ride our bikes to the start line on the morning of the race.  The good thing about adding an extra 20km to an already long day was that it got the body nice and warm before the swim (which was a good thing because it took place in the frigid, 13 degree Celsius waters of Lac Verney). 

Once out of the water, we hopped on our bikes, still freezing cold from the lake.  It didn’t matter, however, because almost immediately we began what felt like a 141 km climb.  I am sure that we actually did descend at some point (in fact I know we did because I will never forget the risks some of those French dudes were willing to take going down at around 100 km/hr), but it did seem like we were always climbing.  Kilometre after kilometre we went up, up, up in stifling, 40-degree heat.  Just when it seemed like we could climb no farther and that the sun could get no hotter, we went through a roundabout in Bourg d’Oisans and were confronted by the first pitch of the Alpe d’Huez. 

At that point, I instantly came to the terrifying realization that
1. The climbs I had silently complained to myself all day about which were harder than any I had ever done before, were mere speed-bumps, compared to the wall that lay before me,
2. My bike was vastly inadequate for the arduous task I was about to demand of it due to the fact that I ran out of gears (and talent) 30 metres into the climb, and
3. There was a better than 50/50 chance that I would have to do the unthinkable and walk my bike during a race.

I put my head down, stood up on the pedals, and began to climb. 

It became evident early on that I was not the only rider experiencing difficulty, because I passed dozens of the riders that had made me look like an over-cautious wimp hours before on the descents.  I made it through the first 10 or 11 switchbacks believing I could probably make it to the top.  As you ascend the Alpe, the switchbacks are numbered, starting at 21 and counting down to zero. 

When I hit Dutch Corner at switchback #7, my entire body ran out of fuel.  There wasn’t a calorie left for me to burn and I felt as though I was dying a thousand deaths.  Somehow, my body learned how to metabolize what little fat there was, along with some muscle, skin, fingernails, vital organs, and thousands and thousands of brain cells to keep me inching forward. 

At bend #1, I rode past my girlfriend and son who swear they were cheering me on just metres from me with all they had.  I will have to take their word for it because my radically diluted brainpower was over-circuited with two main functions: 1. Trying to get my eyeballs to uncross themselves and see through the stars so that I could focus on the three feet of road ahead of me, and 2. Trying to figure out how to abandon the race when I reached the transition zone. 

Luckily, I did not have to bother wasting energy debating with myself whether or not I would quit.  That was a done deal.  There was no way I would be able to run twenty feet let alone 20km at altitude after the torture I had endured on the bike. 

Absolutely out of the question.

When I finally got to the DISMOUNT line, the slope was still steep enough, and I was travelling slow enough, that there was no need for me to apply the brakes to bring my bike to a halt.  Lifting my leg over the saddle to put both feet on the ground required no less than six or seven distinct and separate movements, and walking (yes walking) my bike down the chute and out onto the synthetic soccer field to my slot in transition, resembled the gait of a 93 year old man with advanced stage 4 osteoarthritis who had just recently taken a shit in his pants. 

Let’s just say I was a little stiff-legged. 

I knew, with complete certainty, that my race was going to end on that field.  All that was left for me to do was to get to my spot, sit down, and figure out who I needed to ask for help to 1. Get up, and 2. Get the hell out of there.

Once I sat down, I felt instant relief.  I knew I would not be continuing, so I was no longer in any kind of rush.  I decided to take my time and have a little picnic.  I took out the food I had intended to ingest on the run, along with a can of Red Bull, and began to feast on all of it, content in the knowledge that I had made the correct decision to not attempt to finish the race proper. 

As I wiped my mouth and looked up for the first time in ten or twelve minutes, I noticed athletes here and there racking their bikes and preparing to head out on the run course and was enveloped in a blanket of guilt for having decided to quit.  I felt so low and like such a loser, but there was simply nothing left for me to give.  My body was locked up tight as a drum and I had barely enough energy to blink. 

Just as I was about to start crying because I was so upset, two words escaped from a tiny wormhole deep in the recesses of the tiny functioning part of my grey-matter, and began their journey to my consciousness finally stopping at my lips. 

I whispered the words softly to myself: “Trunk Boy”. 

I thought back to that track meet when I was certain our hopes of winning had been dashed and Trunk Boy said, “GOTCHA!”.  The thought brought tears to my eyes and I began to cry out loud. 

Just then, a race official, who had seen me sitting there for ten minutes, came over to see if I required any medical assistance and asked, “are you okay, sir?”. 

I looked him right in the eye, nodded and said, “of course I am.  Trunk Boy has returned”. 

He was understandably quite confused and left me alone.  Then I laced up my running shoes and made my way towards the exit for the run course. 

I WAS going to finish after all.  Trunk Boy had once again saved the day.

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