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The Ultimate Pass: Nice 1992

On June 14, 1992 I woke up to what I was hoping would be my ninth victory at the Nice International Triathlon in nine starts. Why stop now!

My year had not been “normal”. I was hit by a truck just a couple of months earlier and had my collar bone broken. The doctors said it would be at least six weeks before I could train again. Fortunately my spiritual teacher Brant Secunda, who is a shaman and healer, worked on me and got me back at it in less than two. But that’s a great story for another time!

The Nice International Triathlon was my first big race after the broken collar bone. What happened that day in June was something I’ll never forget. Sometimes you have a premonition about something that will take place during a race, but rarely if ever does that vision or feeling really make sense until it broadsides you in the heat of competition. As I was just trying to roll myself out of bed race morning I had a feeling as clear as any that have ever come over me.

I knew I would have to be ruthless in a moment when my instinct would be compassion.

I knew I couldn’t feel sorry for passing a competitor or give less than 100% of what I was capable of regardless of how it might affect someone else. Those weren’t exactly thoughts that seemed out of the ordinary for race day. Most of the top guys were also my close friends, so I knew I had to rise above that and put my best on the table with no regard for how each of them would handle things if I was faster. I had been on the slow end of that stick many times and knew that no one was going to slow down for me!

But this feeling was bigger. It wasn’t just the ordinary passing thought. It felt like a big warning to be ready and prepared to keep focused straight ahead no matter what. The thought passed. Onto the matters at hand. It was time to get to the start!

The Nice International Triathlon was almost always lead out by Yves Cordier of France. He lived in the area and knew the entire course better than anyone. A great swimmer, he always came out of the water in front of me. He was an even better cyclist. The only way I would ever come off the bike in front of him was if his bike broke, and that never happened. My main goal was to just try to minimize the gap Yves would have going into the run.

Unfortunately I didn’t do a great job of keeping close to Cordier. I came off the bike about 7:30 behind him.

It was larger than normal, but felt like it was still something I could close if I ran smart. But right away I was seeing that smart wasn’t cutting it. At the turn halfway through the run I was still over 5-minutes behind. And when we passed each other going in opposite directions he looked rock solid. This was not good, at least for me! I had roughly 10-miles to close the divide. If I kept steady and ate away at the same pace, Yves would finish more than 3-minutes ahead of me. I needed to double the takedown. But how?

As a triathlete pacing myself for an event that could last up to six-hours, I tried to be steady. But it was clear that winning with steady as the strategy would be impossible. What could I do? I was struggling. No logical idea would work. But then it came: I had to shift into running like a runner and start surging. So I surged hard until I just couldn’t take the pain anymore, then slowed to recover. I surged again, more like I was trying to do 1km repeats than to run another 10-miles to the finish. I backed it down to recover, and then upped it again.

This went on for over 10k. Finally as I was approaching the sign that said 5km to the finish I latched onto the back of a tremendous surge of people following Yves. He was the favored son. If he could pull it off it would be his first championship in Nice, and the first for France. The crowd surrounding him clogged the entire width of the road and seemed to stretch out in front of me forever. I had no idea how far up the road the entourage ended and Yves would be leading.

No one knew I was coming. The pack behind Yves was focused on what was going on in front of them. Just as I caught the back of moving cheering section one of them turned around and looked back. I thought he was going to have a heart attack right there on the spot!

I had a very small group following me. Yves was surrounded by a pack of hundreds following on bikes and mopeds.

I surged. It was tough to slowly wiggle my way through a sea of followers cheering Cordier on. There were now 4km to go, and still no site of him. Then it was 3km and still no Yves, just mopeds and motos and bicycles pushing him from behind with their shouts. 2km from the finish I thought I caught a glimpse. 1km left in the race and I was still seeing a gap that felt impossible to close.

Time was running out. I made one final surge and this time no backing off. The last sign I remember seeing was 400m to the finish. I was still looking at the back of Yves, still seemingly too far ahead to pass. Then the portent from the morning rushed over me like a cold crushing waterfall. I was going to have to make the pass. I was going to have to be ruthless and not worry about how that would affect Yves. He was a friend, a close friend.

Winning this race would be something that would be one of the greatest moments of his racing career. I wanted to slow just slightly, for Yves, but I knew I couldn’t. It was time. With the smallest of distances left in this epic day, I surged past Cordier, no look to let him know this was a painful thing for me to do, but something that I knew I must.

That’s sport. It calls up the most we can put forth. Our efforts are not only our own. They are only possible because of the greatness of our competitors. Everyone has risen above immeasurable odd to gain a personal victory at one time in their racing career. Everyone has been the inspiration for another to rise to that level even if it meant that we were not the ones to gain the glory. Yves Cordier forced me to a place I had never anticipated I’d go to, one that I didn’t even know existed where I rose up and lived a strategy that I’d never had in my playbook. Surge like a runner, and then back off. Surge then recover.

I finished just over a minute ahead of Yves that day in a margin that grew without bounds in the final meters of the race (5:59:43 to 6:00:50). We battled for six hours on a course that demanded both speed and endurance. It was the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. But underneath, it was a race inspired in both directions by the hunted being chased by the hunter and only possible, only epic, because of the two of us pushing the limits of endurance sports together.

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Blog Header Photo courtesy of Thierry Deketelaere.

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