Friday, November 27, 2009

Something More

In June 2010 I will be participating in the Race Across the West, a 1400 kilometre non-stop bicycle race from Oceanside California to Durango Colorado. This adventure represents a giant step upward in terms of my expectations of myself. I am not an elite athlete; in fact there is nothing particularly special about me at all, except that I have made the decision to complete this race. And I like to take giant steps upward.

A short time ago I wrote that while racing in scores of long distance athletic events over the years, I had always wondered if I was ultimately working towards achieving something more than a finisher’s medal or a T-shirt at the end of the race. I have also written of winning the “lottery” of life, since I have been blessed since birth with appallingly good health.

My participation in Race Across the West will be dedicated to raising money and awareness for the Canadian myeloma community.

Multiple Myeloma is a life-threatening cancer of the plasma cells. Although it is relatively rare - affecting about 6,000 Canadians – it is the second most prevalent blood cancer, after non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Myeloma is without a cure so far. But this doesn’t mean that it can’t be treated, and I believe that that the people who are fighting it deserve to be given every advantage possible. Their best advantage begins with our awareness.

We have Myeloma Canada to thank for spreading the knowledge. This dynamic grass roots organization is much of the reason that so much attention has been paid recently, and why so much progress will certainly be made down the road. Others are joining in. This past summer cyclist Shane Saunderson rode from Calgary to Toronto to raise cash and awareness for the myeloma community, and he succeeded spectacularly in raising both.

Myeloma knows no class, social boundaries or lifestyles. The two cherished friends whom I have lost to this disease were strong, healthy, vital people. The remarkable Canadian actress and model Lisa Ray was diagnosed last summer and she is lending her voice. Visit her blog for an eloquent insight:

Please join me in spreading the word about the quest to tame multiple myeloma and ultimately to defeat it. By the time I finish the Race Across the West next June I want many more people to know about this disease and to support the fight against it.

I will be building a website shortly that will contain more information, and I will continue to post entries to this blog, so stay tuned!

“With time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes satin”.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Daring Greatly

Over the past decades I have undertaken a variety of athletic exploits, many of which have raised eyebrows among family and friends who remember me as anything but an athlete. Despite my limitations or reputation I have managed to finish what I started in nearly every event (the painful exception being the Comrades Marathon last spring). Now, after completing half a dozen Ironmans and countless marathons, triathlons, cycling tours and other endurance events, I believe I am ready to try something more.

Cycling in the RAW
I am about to embark on a new adventure, which may end up being the eyebrow-raisingest of them all. I have signed up for a bicycling event known as the Race Across the West (hereinafter referred to as RAW), which takes place next June, 2010.

RAW is a subset of the famous Race Across America (RAAM) and is a non-stop bicycle race from Oceanside California to Durango Colorado, a distance of about 1400 kilometres. To put the effort into perspective, in September I raced in a 220 kilometre event in the Adirondacks and was pretty darned tired by the time I crossed the finish line. RAW is more than six times as long. Add being sandblasted and sunbroiled across the California desert and then climbing up the western slope of the Rocky Mountains and the whole thing seems more than just a pleasure tour. In fact, the Race Across the West is so grueling that since it began there have been only a couple of solo finishers. Mercifully, the race organizers have shortened the distance a little this year and allowed a more generous time limit.

Bringing Extra Sunscreen
I’m not sure when the exact moment was: when it was that I decided for sure I was going to ride my bicycle nonstop across all those vast kilometres of the American Southwest, but it might have been when I came across the following entry in the comprehensive rulebook issued by the race:

Rule 850(8)
Crew or Racers may not strip and dance naked for any reason outside of the support vehicle without appropriate coverings or curtains.

This was a rule that was obviously just crying out to be broken.

Team Lyricycle
In addition to the obvious physical commitment, the project promises to be vast in terms of scope and organization. In fact for me, merely getting myself and my crew to the starting line is the most daunting aspect of the whole thing. The coordination of vehicles, supplies people and so forth would be overwhelming if I had to deal with it all by myself. Luckily Team Lyricycle begins with my willing and able Crew Chief: my son Duncan, who also happens to be a bike mechanic. This is a great start.

Like so many of my other adventures, there is no guarantee of success and a strong possibility of, well...less than success. But that of course is one of the reasons I do it. As Edmund Hillary remarked, if you start out on a challenge with absolute knowledge that you are going to succeed, why bother starting?

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.”
Theodore Roosevelt.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Summer of my Discontent Made Glorious Autumn by a Sock?

Best Laid Plantars of Mice and Men
What I had planned as a season of interesting and unusual running events turned into a frustrating summer of soreness and annoyance. After my painful and disappointing DNF in the Comrades Marathon in May, I was just getting back to full strength running at the end of June when I was stopped dead by a serious case of plantar fasciitis. As very little within our lives is not connected to something else, I theorize that the one incident led to the other, directly or otherwise.

I last suffered through this nasty injury about twelve years ago. Back then I had tried to run through it, and ended up lame for months. There are palliative treatments to this insidious inflammation, but no matter what anyone tells you there is no universal cure for it except patience, time, and abstinence from running. Years ago one perceptive but honest doctor told me: “No one knows how to fix this. Whoever treats you just before it gets better will take credit for curing it.” As someone once said, the task of the physician is to keep the patient amused while nature heals the ailment.

Aside from one small 25k trail race at the beginning of July, I have not run in any events at all this summer. I have tried to fill in the gap with more cycling than usual, but as any runner would know, this is like trying to fill in the Grand Canyon with a teaspoon.

At the moment though, I am starting to feel some hope. This morning I didn’t notice the usual twinge in my left heel – or rather I noticed its absence – for the first time since Canada Day. And it might well be The Sock that is to be credited.

The Sock?
I ran for the last time for about 45 minutes, at the beginning of July. That day I was chatting with a running mate at the gym and I confided that I was off for a trial run to test out whether my plantar fasciitis was really as serious as it seemed (of course it was, and as a result of my trial run, I was in pain for the rest of the week). Six weeks later I ran into the same friend and admitted that the injury had kept me from running a step since our last meeting.
“You need The Sock!” he said.
“The Sock?”
“The Strassburg Sock.”
He explained that this strange device was the only thing that had cured his inflamed fascia many years before.

The Strassburg Sock looks like a cross between a surgical sling and a scale model of a ski jump. As its name implies, it is a long sock that comes up to your knees, with a small metal D-ring at the knee end and a long Velcro strip attached to the toe. You pull the Velcro strip gently up and through the D-ring and fasten it, and the whole affair keeps your toe from pointing downwards. This in turn should serve to keep your arch and accompanying fascia in a slightly stretched attitude. “Slightly” is the operative word; you don’t want to try to get your big toe to touch your kneecap, you just want a gentle pull. One is supposed to wear this to bed overnight - our feet like to point down when we sleep, apparently - but I had visions of having to run outdoors in case of fire and then explain its presence to my neighbours (my neighbours are not runners; if they were, they would understand wearing a sock with a Velcro strap to bed). So I use it mostly when sitting in front of the TV. I use it as an excuse to sit in front of the TV.

Aside from the obvious benefits of prolonged stretching, I have little idea why this invention is supposed to work. I know there are no magic bullets in physiotherapy, and I would not tout this one as a panacea, nor am I in a position to recommend it to anyone else. However at the moment, based on my own results I am loathe to look a Gift Sock in the mouth. Or in the toe.

The fact is that I don’t really know whether the sock had anything to do with my recovery or whether the recovery was just an event whose time had come, and the sock just happened to be along for the finish, like the last doctor who treated me 12 years ago and took credit. At least though, it did no harm, thus fulfilling the first requirement of the Hippocratic Oath. And it gave me the feeling that I was actively participating in my recovery, even if the tissue in my heel had its own agenda.

I have tried three short, pathetically slow runs of no more than 20 minutes each in the past week, with encouraging results. Having been laid very low by this vicious injury before, I will get back to running slowly, but at least there is a small glimmer of daybreak on the horizon.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ultra Cycling in the High Peaks

The Adirondack 540

Since 2003 when I did my second-ever Ironman, I have always loved racing in Lake Placid. At its best, the weather is clear and crisp and the high peaks stand out so sharply against the sky that you’d swear you can pick out every branch of every tree from miles away. Cycling up and down the Adirondack Mountains is as thrilling as it is challenging, with thigh burning climbs and screaming, white-knuckle descents.

Looking for an endurance event that would test me without requiring my injured feet to run, I found the Adirondack 540 , an ultra bicycle race held over the third weekend in September. The race, as its name suggests, is just over 540 miles – or 880 kilometres - long, consisting of four laps of 220 kilometres each. Luckily for those of us without the legs to pedal for two straight days and nights to cover 880k, there are options to do one, two or three of the laps as well. I modestly and realistically opted to do the one-lap race, nicknamed the Bronze Blast.

The course describes a sort of figure eight, part of which follows the Ironman bike route. It begins in Wilmington, passes through Lake Placid and continues through Keene. At this point cyclists head south to the halfway point at Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, then back through Westport, Elizabethtown and Keene to Wilmington. Before the start, Race Director John Ceceri warned us that even though the fiercest climbs were early in the race, we were not to underestimate the challenges of the second half. His words would burn through my head many hours later.

Race morning was clear and frosty with a significant wind from the north. I joined a small number of dedicated riders, bundled in layers, as we straddled our bikes in the parking lot for the 7:00 am start. As the only obvious tri-geek in the group, I received the expected jibe about my carbon fibre Cervélo P2C, and vowed not to show up at one of these roadie events again without a proper road machine.

We separated from one another almost immediately after the start; not much danger of drafting with only a couple of dozen of us in the race and 220k of state highway along which to spread out. The first 30k or so were very well known to me, having ridden the Ironman course many times. After the familiar breathtaking descent into Keene, I turned right down Route 9 into unknown territory. Most of the highway was bereft of traffic and the tall pine trees towered overtop like a cathedral ceiling. There were some rough spots in the road, but for the most part it was a smooth and enjoyable ride. At about kilometre 115 I stopped at the Super 8 motel in Ticonderoga, the halfway checkpoint. A highlight of this checkpoint, aside from the extremely friendly and helpful volunteers, was the presence of Fred Boethling, Director of the Race Across America. I got the chance to chat with Fred during my short break, picking up some intelligence on the chance that I would ever decide to do RAAM. I do try never to say never.

Coming from Elizabethtown to Keene, at around 180 kilometres, in what I thought was nearly the home stretch I encountered a section of road that the cue sheet had called innocently, “4 mile climb”. It was not so much a climb as it was a 45-minute torture session. The grade is not steep, but it is long and relentless enough to make you feel like you’re going backwards. By this point I was also bonking due to sloppy nutrition practices earlier. So my mood was anything but cheery. The words of the Race Director boomed through my ears with every pedal stroke: don’t underestimate this part of the course. I had, and I was paying. However, this too passed and eventually I zoomed down into Keene, through Upper Jay, along the Ausable River and up route 86 to the finish. This part would have been more enjoyable if I had not left everything I had on the gentle “4 mile climb”.

As I wheeled into the parking lot of the motel at the finish, I had the familiar feeling from my early Ironman days of being the last living soul left in the race (actually it turned out I was fifth out of eleven finishers in my category). My time was around nine hours and fifty minutes for the 220 kilometres. This is a glacial pace for me nowadays, but I had entered the race at the last minute with next to no training under my belt, and I was ecstatic just to finish. The good news was that my legs felt strong and I could have gone for a run if I had wanted. Let’s see the roadies try that.

That evening, comfortably rested, showered and fed back at my motel in Lake Placid, I strolled a ways down Route 73 and noticed a well-lit-up cyclist ride past me in the gathering darkness, perhaps a 540-miler starting his last lap with another eight or nine hours of riding ahead of him. They are made of different stuff, these ultra distance people and I was intrigued to be in their company on a couple of occasions this season. There is a step – a leap – I need to make before I can truly consider myself one of them. Defining that step will be my next challenge.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A View from the Sidelines

Ironman Canada - August 30, 2009

Volunteers are not paid -- not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.

A year ago when I decided not to enter an Ironman for 2009, I had in mind that I would like to try a bunch of different, more esoteric endurance events. As it happened this plan was not as successful as I would have liked, for reasons I will discuss in another post. I did however have the exquisite enjoyment of travelling to Penticton this past month to watch my daughter Laura race in Ironman Canada, and to volunteer along with my wife Karen at the finish line. Both of these activities are highly recommended.

Although I was not participating this year, I took my wetsuit and bicycle along, and during pre-race week I managed a few swims and rides, including a thigh-burning tour of the bike course against a healthy headwind. Riding up and down the taxing terrain was a humbling experience, and a reminder of what the triathletes were bound for on race day. It was also good fun to be able to stop every once in a while and admire the stunning views along the way, and to chat with other folks as one can’t when actually racing.

On race morning, the weather – as it usually is in the Okanagan in August – was sunny and warm, tinged with some smoke from distant forest fires. For some reason this year, Maranatha the old faithful cannon that has started the race in the past was replaced by an air horn. I hope they bring her back if possible. At any rate, at precisely 7 o’clock the race began and over 2600 hopeful athletes splashed into Lake Okanagan, with many, many hours of serious swimming, biking and running in front of them.

Aside from the experience of actually being part of an Ironman swim start, there is nothing that quite equals watching it from shore. The sight of over 5200 arms all paddlewheeling through the water resembles nothing less than a mass piranha feeding frenzy. It's worth remembering that each tiny splash represents someone’s months of training, their strong commitment to their goals and their hopes and dreams for the day.

As an athlete who spends most of my time near the back of the pack, I rarely get to see any of the pros, who hopefully are closer to the front. This year we were able to spend the day watching them all as they charged out of the water, headed out of town on their bikes, biked back into town many hours later and then took off on their run. These are people who spend every day of their lives perfecting every aspect of their craft, and it is inspiring to see them in action.

Karen and I saw Laura as she came back into town from the bike and headed out again on the run, looking (and no doubt feeling) as if she had been pushing the envelope of endurance for the previous eight hours. As in fact she had. I had no doubt that she would finish; her personal perseverance begins where other people’s leaves off.

Our volunteer job at the finish was to hand bags containing Finisher T shirts and hats to the athletes after they crossed the line. We were supposed to determine what size they were before giving out the shirts. Obviously this What-Not–to-Wear issue is not uppermost in the mind of a worn down athlete who has just endured a dozen hours of brain-fogging physical exertion.

“Small, Medium or Large?”
“Huh… Smee”.

I hope they all got something that fit them.

We started our T shirt shift at 4:00pm, just as the pro women were coming in. My daughter, who hates it when I fawn over superstar triathletes, would have been mortified when I congratulated Belinda Granger on her second place finish (and got a friendly arm squeeze in return). I also got to speak briefly to Ironman legend Joe Bonness as he once again won his age group.

Of the hundreds of finishers we watched during our four hour shift, the most exhausted appeared to be those who came in between 5:00 and 7:00 pm, whose elapsed times were from ten to twelve hours. They had so obviously left it all out on the course, and had nothing even to carry them through the finishing area. Many of them would have been trying for Hawaii spots, so this was a serious business to them; more than a few were limply dragged off by the Catchers and plopped into wheelchairs for a possible trip to the Medical tent. As the timer moved onward past twelve hours and darkness began to fall, the mood of the finishers was more celebratory; here were people who had faced the rigours of the day and were justifiably thrilled with the result. I envied every one of them.

We were not expecting Laura till later in the evening, so when our volunteer shift ended we wandered a bit up the race route where, sentry-like, I took up a position atop a concrete tree planter and watched the runners through my binoculars. Sure enough sometime after nine I caught sight of her familiar stride approaching down Main Street. Our volunteer wrist bands allowed us to enter the finish area and greet her as she crossed the line. This, her third Ironman finish, was now in the books.

One of the most valuable perqs of volunteering at Ironman Canada is that I was able to go to the front of the line to sign up for the race in 2010. Next year, inshallah, I will be back in the pack, experiencing the bubbling witches’ cauldron of the swim, the wind-burning speed of the bike, the pain of the run and the thrill of the finish. I will take a moment to thank the finish line volunteers and will try to communicate an intelligible T shirt size.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Move Swiftly on those Mountains

Comrades Marathon May 24 2009,

The Pietermaritzburg-to-Durban direction of the Comrades Marathon is referred to as the “Down Run” because the net decline in altitude is about 655 metres. But this net change is comprised of about 3,100 metres of quadriceps-jarring descents offset by 2,450 metres of climbs that reduce many runners to a walk. In fact the dramatic topography of the race’s path makes you wonder why anyone would ever consider having a footrace there in the first place. Although the Comrades is run on roads, it has the feel sometimes of a trail race. The length and grade of the climbs and descents can cause even veteran runners to quake in their Reeboks.

For this year’s Comrades I had much going for me. I felt I was in my best running shape ever, and had trained diligently all winter and spring with no injuries to speak of. I was well-rested and well-nourished. I had been looking forward to the race with an eagerness similar to that of my first Ironman. A guided bus tour of the route, sobering though it was, did little to dampen my enthusiasm.

The Down Run of the 89 kilometre Comrades Marathon begins in the cool darkness, at 5:30am in front of the Pietermaritzburg Town Hall; it is one of the most exciting and moving race starts I’ve ever experienced. The music is wonderful, culminating in a singing of the traditional South African folk song, Shosholoza:

Ku lezontaba
Stimela siphum' eSouth Africa

The words mean “move swiftly on those mountains”, an inspiration and a portent.

After the starting gun went off, the crowd of 12,000 runners was so dense that it took me more than six minutes to get across the starting line; this lag is significant and worth remembering, because many runners will need that six minutes at the end of the race to make the mandatory 12 hour cutoff. If you don’t finish in less than 12 hours, you haven’t finished at all as far as the Comrades Marathon is concerned. No medal. No results. No nothing.

The first part of the race was magnificent. It was a terrific feeling to be running effortlessly through 5, 10, 20 kilometres as a rosy pink dawn took shape to our left. Unlike most other races, the Comrades posts signs showing your progress in reference to how far you have yet to go rather than how far you have come (89k, 88k, 87k...). Each sign has an accompanying thermometer, which decreases in fullness like a fund raising graphic in reverse. The first big downhill – the saucily-named Polly Shortts – previewed the challenges to come, but at this early point it was just plain fun.

I was running exactly on my planned pace to finish somewhere between 11 and 12 hours. There is not a lot in the way of nutrition offered at the early aid stations, but I had brought a supply of gels with me and kept my carb intake at a good level. I found that I could walk briskly up the steepest hills at a strong pace. All was well.

At around 40k into the race I noticed that I was feeling some pain in my right forefoot; this is an old injury caused by a pinched nerve (neuroma) between the metatarsals, and one I had thought was dormant. I have only had problems with it once before, at the Ironman Florida 70.3 a year ago, and in that race the pain was so bad I had to stop at every aid station to massage my foot back into life. Likewise here, I had to stop frequently and my pace slowed down so dramatically that I only made the Halfway Point 6 hour cutoff by 5 minutes.

The pain grew more and more severe as I hobbled up and down hill after hill, and I saw my carefully planned time goals slip further and further away. I tried everything I could think of to alleviate the pain, which was by now spreading to my toes and across my instep: ice, extra padding, loosening my laces, tightening them…nothing worked for long. Eventually I could put no weight on my right foot at all. Finally after 7 hours and 45 minutes of running, with 55 kilometres behind me and 34 left to go, I made the sad decision to drop out of the race. I climbed aboard the ‘Runners Rescue Bus’, an un-air conditioned mini-van filled with sweating, suicidal dropouts like me; a cheery ride, you bet. We lurched and crawled along the race route to the finish and were deposited into the ‘Bailers Tent’, a depressing little fenced compound behind the stadium, well away from the official finish area.

Despite the disappointing and inconclusive result, my Comrades Marathon was a rich, vivid experience. It surpasses all other road races I have done in terms of excitement, challenge, tradition, colour and emotion. The Comrades must be run to be believed; no inspirational literature, advertisements or YouTube clips can do justice to the sheer magnitude and stark beauty of this race.

Naturally, having recorded my very first DNF in nearly 25 years of running I am tempted to climb right back onto the horse and return to South Africa for next year’s race, to complete what I started. But realistically, I will have to put any new thoughts of ultra running on hold until I can figure out a solution for my pinched nerve problem. If the true purpose of running is, as Bill Bowerman says, to test the limits of the human heart, I must - for the present at least - concentrate on testing the limits of the human foot.

Monday, February 16, 2009

To Test the Limits

When is a marathon not a marathon? Most runners (and very few non-runners) know that the marathon distance is 42.195 kilometres, or 26 miles, 385 yards. No farther, no shorter (unless you count Frank Shorter, who won the marathon gold medal at the 1972 Olympics). The distance was standardized by the IAAF in 1921 (not at the 1908 London Olympics, as held by popular belief). But the standard remains: if it isn’t 42k, it isn’t a marathon. Don’t listen to your neighbour who boasted to you that he did a 5k “marathon” last Sunday. He was short by about 37k. Tell him to go out and finish it.

Which brings us to the Comrades Marathon, a challenging jog through the hilly South African countryside between Pietermaritzburg and Durban. At a distance of 89 kilometres, give or take, it is technically an ultramarathon. The race was founded in 1921 to commemorate South African soldiers killed in the Great War, and as such is probably the oldest ultramarathon in the world. Over 12,000 runners participate every year, making it a very popular event, as well as a very historical one, so if they want to call it a marathon that’s fine by me. Especially since it’s been going on since before anyone really knew how far a marathon was.

Each year the race reverses direction. From Durban to Pietermaritzburg the topography is generally uphill, so it is called the ‘Up” run. The other direction is (by deduction) the “Down” run. Both directions have their challenges, as one can imagine. This year is a Down year, finishing at the Kingsmead Soccer Stadium in Durban.

So I’ve entered the Comrades Marathon for this Down year, May 24, 2009. Even with my past record of endurance sports, a few eyebrows (including my own) have been raised at my plans. I guess that an explanation as to why I would try to run such a distance might prompt me to offer Louis Armstrong’s reply to the jazz question (“if you have to ask, you’ll never know”). And I’m not sure I have a better answer at the moment. For me, discovering the reason I have set this goal is part of the goal itself.

Aside from the airy metaphysical aspects of my running that I have described in various essays below, the fact is that I like to try to challenge myself to go beyond where I should logically be able to go. To me, travelling to Africa and participating in the Comrades Marathon - whether I finish the 89 kilometres smiling or barfing, sprint to the finish or wilt in the first 10k - constitutes an inquiry into how much farther I can go.

A finisher of the notoriously punishing Badwater Ultramarathon once reflected on the inevitable question this way: “We are here,” she said, “to see what is possible”.

Heaven help me if I ever cease to explore what is possible.

Ultra distance-wise, I have a couple of things going:

· Slow running suits me. I am not fast and never will be. I have a feeling if I tried to get fast I would injure myself and come to grief.

· Long distances suit me. I am not prone to blisters, black toenails, shin splints, seized muscles or spasmodic tendons that stretch tight as piano wire and then pop, scattering animals and small children in all directions. In my case, after a certain number of hours, I hurt; later on, I hurt more. That’s about the extent of it.

· I am old (57 on race day). Older runners tend to do better at long distances for reasons that no one really understands. It might be that we are not in such a hurry to get to the finish line. Which is just as well since it is going to take a while to get there.

· I actually enjoy myself while 'racing' slowly. As a side benefit - not an end in itself - I find I do better in a longer event in which I am enjoying myself. An example is last year’s Ironman Canada, at which I was relaxed from beginning to end, had fun the whole day and finished in a personal best time.

Having said this, the sobering fact is that I have never run one step beyond the marathon distance in my life. I might turn out to hate those extra miles, my quads might turn to quivering mush and my feet might be pounded into instruments of torture, but I won’t know till I go there and try it. I think I can do it, but I don’t know, and therein lies the adventure. If I fail, then I will - to borrow from Edison - know one more thing that doesn’t work.

“…he finally got it through my head that the real purpose of running isn't to win a race. It's to test the limits of the human heart.”
Bill Bowerman, in his eulogy to Steve Prefontaine