Planes, Trains and Too Much Time On the Hands

Story written by Eric.

I’m cruising high above the ocean – Amsterdam is supposed to be somewhere to my right, and there is nothing but a dark cloud of sky on the left of the plane. The sky seems to go on and on, as does this journey, and I’m only headed home from England.

Somewhere down below before the pilot jetted us into an atmosphere where the outside temperature is -45C outside my plastic window, I saw a few ants circling a track. Then I saw a few more.

It’s going to be nice to enter back into my normal time zone and back into a regular groove.

I’ve been gone exactly 36 hours, and it’s not like I’ve not done this before. In fact, I’ve now gone up and down 42 times over the past 16 months everywhere across Europe for work, for play, and even to catch a meet or three.

In fact, I’ve been doing this every year for the past five and counting, and haven’t found it to my liking yet to live out of my suitcase, pack down my gear and dine out or take-away.

This particular day reminds me of a conversation I had with a very good American 800m runner on a European flight quite a few years back, and got me thinking about how athletes spend days, nights, weeks and even months away from home slaving away at their sport from one venue to the next – travelling from one airport to another and, as it turns out, usually alone.

The most demanding part of travelling – to me – is standing in an airport queue waiting to be checked in, crawling through the security (despite a priority pass) and waiting the two hours between check-in and departure with nothing but time on my hands.

Imagine what it must be like for an athlete travelling thousands of kilometres from home to chase a qualifying mark or collect a bonus payment for putting their name and their spikes down on a track a meet organiser promises fans will bring plenty of action and an excellent performance.

The American runner said it wasn’t that bad.

“Not that bad” to me indicates that it is somewhat bad, but the female, who had broken 2.00 in the 800m run, didn’t want to sound like she was complaining. She had, for that matter, only met me – a stranger in an airplane who had recognised her from a magazine cover – a few minutes earlier at the front of the queue. And that was after I had bugged her whilst she was attempting to pass time by reading a book.

Stefan Holm reads a lot of books. He has a daily blog on his homepage where he tells his faithful readers along with anyone who happens to stumble across the site – scholm.com – what the flavour of the week is in exciting reading. Naturally he, like the lightening-quick 800m standout, has time – and much of it – to kill each and every day during the season.

So where were we again… yes, the top of the line waiting patiently for someone wearing a uniform to stop taking a break, log in to their computer, and give us the okay sign that all was good to go.

The 800m is a great race to watch, no? There are so many different tactics which can be employed during a two-lap race that it makes it very difficult at times to predict a winner before the first athlete crosses the finish line. This particular person had excellent 400m speed before she joined the middle distance fraternity and earned a partial cover spot with a woman who once thanked her dog for being an inspiration to her winning performance in a national championship. If you’re fast, you’re fast, I suppose, and certain things are easily overlooked.

An itinerary isn’t one of those things, however, which one can skip over and play things by ear. Three months away from home demands the most impressive attention to detail that one can imagine, as it’s not as easy as one may imagine phoning a sponsor and requesting training gear simply because you forgot them at home.

Moreover, making flight times after running an event, warming down, speaking in front of the press, peeing in a cup, getting a massage, taking a shower and grabbing a snack on the way to the airport can be challenging in its own right. Add to that the stress of having to have your bags randomly checked and your shoes run through an x-ray machine – two processes which demand even more time when you’re on your way somewhere and you’ve got the making of a small, stressful situation.

Jenny Adams would have been a good person to have interviewed had I taken the opportunity afforded me in June 2001 when she, after having won the U.S. Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, was about to make a mad dash straight to Europe.

I attended the 2001 meet whilst on holiday, and, had really gone there to see who this Alan Webb kid was (along with support one of my hurdler friends who eventually gave me a free press pass into the restricted, “athlete only” zones). Webb had run a 3.53 mile a month earlier, and had been all over the news.

Anyway, I’d put up a small fortune to make it there during a small tour and had missed my return flight to Chicago (and, eventually back to Paris) by 12 minutes, so I found myself hanging around the Eugene Airport watching stars come, and watching them go. Everyone had a destination, and some seemed less enthusiastic than did others as they made their way through the queues and to the check-in desk on the second level. That perhaps had something to do with who qualified to the IAAF World Championships and who didn’t – who knows.

I spent five hours in that small airport, and had all of my reporting done and all of my results neatly packed away during the first 45 minutes. What I didn’t have was any remaining patience to drag my feet another second, and it got old watching the same types of people – athletes – funnel through in single-file to places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Minneapolis.

I told my story to a middle-aged couple sitting on a bench downstairs, because they asked me whom I was visiting, and if I was there for the meet. We talked, I asked them the same obligatory questions, and, 20 minutes later, I was happy to have spent a good moment in time with the parents of Tim Montgomery.

Jenny Adams sat next to me on one of those raggedy, two engine planes which seated only 20 passengers or so as we headed to Portland... an up-and-down shot and just enough time to introduce myself. Adams was exhausted from all the week-end’s competition along with the stardom which came from placing well (winning the long jump and placing second in the 100m hurdles). I had no idea who she was – just that she was headed straight back to Texas, and, two days later, was headed to Europe to contest four races in seven days.

She’d have been interesting to speak with as she had to lace up and put in a whole lot of travel on short notice to get from Eugene to Houston and then on to Lausanne, Saint-Denis, Nice and Stockholm as well as eat, sleep, run and attempt to keep herself from losing her way as she travelled all alone in places both foreign and domestic.

I did get a chance to talk travels and athletics with the 800m runner, however, and she had grown tired of adjusting herself to different time zones twice a year (indoors and outdoors) and living out of a suitcase.

Back then, there wasn’t any internet and I haven’t the slightest recollection, truthfully, how she said she passed time; she mentioned writing a lot of letters and taking short walks through local parks to feel part of the communities she visited, but nothing more than so between her morning run and her afternoon workout.

I’m beginning to see the edge of my country approaching, which means that this short jaunt in the memory banks shall soon be over, and my inquisitive nature has to turn back to a more practical one like what I will eat when I finally do get back to Centrum – which is some 75 minutes by train from the airport.

I know where I’m going, how I’ll get there, and how long it will take me. I finally get to go home to the comfort of my own home, and I’ve only been gone for a day-and-a-half. Can’t imagine having to put in those four-day weeks on the roads hopping aboard and departing one plane after another in the pursuit of happiness – or business, as it is called.

I believe it a great test of resolve for young athletes to stay focussed as they journey away from their home countries and attempt to jump-start their careers in Europe. Some have the simple luxury of showing up where the trainer tells them, and simply following the lead.

At some point, however, that still takes a lot of faith to get through the tough days where ESPN doesn’t play on the hotel’s cable, and the internet service is only available for 30-minute windows in a hotel lobby for €2/hour… or if one runs out of magazines after having read virtually all of them on the long-haul flight from the United States to a destination near me somewhere here in the EU.

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