Thursday, December 30, 2010

Return to Death Valley

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans”
Woody Allen

A plan is the stairway between your vision and your goal. Each step brings you closer.

For me the past year has been one of plans, mostly interrupted or unfulfilled. Even a planned trip to see a movie the other night was cut short when everything – right down to Yogi Bear – was sold out.

Our family’s most recent plan, to visit New York City this Christmas, was foiled by that most capricious of spellbinders, the weather. The entire Eastern Seaboard was shut down by a spectacular snowstorm. The only way to have gotten into Manhattan would have been to ski in.

But plans continue to well up in my restless and ever-optimistic mind. My indoor training for my planned 2011 events is going beautifully. I have added a little speedwork to my running and I am amazed at how easily my body is adapting. It makes me think of how lazy I must have been for the past twenty-five years.

So that I do not blow my feet out before March by overtraining for my planned spring marathon, I have found another project to keep me focused: I’ve entered the Death Valley Century, the California bike event that I did back in the fall of 2008. There is also a spring version on February 26th, so I signed up. They offer distances of 100, 150 and 200 miles and I opted for the middle one, since 100 miles will not challenge me and 200 miles will seem too much like work at this point in my season. Also the double century requires night time riding, and after my experiences in RAW last June, cycling through the desert night just wouldn’t seem the same without the Scissor Sisters blasting through my walkie-talkie.

The Death Valley Spring Century will give me a non-running event to train for over the winter months plus a chance to take my terrific Cervélo R3 out on the road before getting into the triathlon season. Although the event is not specifically a race and most of the course is new to me, I would like to finish the 150 miles in under 11 hours. Unlike my marathon goals, this one is currently attainable. Yes, riding my bike through the desert does seem to be my idea of an ideal holiday, but I agree that it might not be everyone's.

To me, planning means looking forward, and I am looking forward to getting back to Death Valley. It is an extraordinary part of the world.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Outrunning the Grizzly Bear

Of course I’m ambitious. What’s wrong with that? Otherwise you sleep all day.
Ringo Starr

I’m just in from a killer run. (In 25 years I don’t think I have referred to any run workout by that adjective). Sixty-one minutes at top speed.

I am a laid back - you might almost say lazy - runner. My running has always been like the dancing bear; to me the wonder is not how well I do it but that I do it at all. In a straight marathon I like to push myself, but I have never achieved what I feel is my best. In Ironman I am content to jog and walk the marathon, knowing that there is very little chance I won’t finish sometime before midnight; my Ironman marathon times range from snail-like to glacial.

This fall, perhaps in reaction to the idleness my clavicle injury forced on me, I decided that I would try to leave my comfort zone and try to improve my marathon time. I don’t think I have too many years left to do this so there will never be a better time than now.

They say you should put your goals in writing, for it is only by creating an analog version of your dreams that they will ever materialize. I am not sure if this is always the best way, but I do know that that some of us build far greater castles in our minds than we do in reality.

I am shy about setting specific goals for running these days because so many things have gone wrong in the past few years. Plantar fasciitis, Morton’s neuroma; my feet are a compendium of podiatric pitfalls. But without a goal, I will end up going nowhere. In this case I need to see my goal written down with accompanying metrics.

So my running goal for the coming year is to complete a marathon next May in less than 3 hours and 45 minutes, a time that involves knocking about 20 minutes off my previous personal best. This would be quite reasonable, except for the fact that the previous personal best was set when I was younger…about ten years younger in fact. So in addition to running faster than I ever have before, I need to deal with an aging infra- and superstructure. It could be a mess.

One of the reasons I want to do this is that at the moment I can’t. I couldn’t run a 3:45 marathon if a grizzly bear were chasing me. The killer ‘top speed’ 61 minutes I just ran weren’t even close. So part of the fun will be to see if I can even get myself into the same time zone as my goal. The other part of the fun will be the sheer enjoyment of the training. It’s been so long since I have been able to run injury-free and to train with a purpose I that intend to treasure every minute.

Each of my three triathlon sports has its attractions. But there is a joy and simplicity to running that never leaves me. Like the golfer finding that sweet spot, a good run is indescribably satisfying. When all the components come together successfully, it is a marvelous way to fly across the earth.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Build Your Wings on the Way Down

Over twenty years ago I chose to abandon my life as a freelance musician to take a comparatively secure job in the business world. We were just starting a new family and I wanted to be able to help provide. I worried that indulging myself in something as apparently capricious as a music career would be selfish, and I truly believed that I owed my children the best I could give them in terms of stability and protection. To me this meant being Ward Cleaver.

In my mind I still believe it was the right decision, but not a day goes by when I don’t wonder what would have happened if I had possessed the courage and confidence to trust my natural talent and remain a singer. To an extent, my participation in endurance sports is a reaction to the stability I chose for the rest of my life. Although my day job comes with its own challenges and rewards, my goals at work are clearly attainable and my progress toward them is mostly predictable.

To me, the essence of a true challenge lies in the mystery of an unknown outcome. When we get on the subway every morning to go to work, very few of us consider the possibility that we might not arrive at the other end. But when I entered my first 10k race in 1985, I had no idea whether I could run 10k or not; when I signed up for my first Ironman in 2001, I truly didn't know whether I was capable of finishing it. Taking those steps into the unknown, large or small, is part of what attracts me to endurance racing. If I ever begin an event completely secure in the knowledge that I can trip lightly across the finish line a few hours later, I will begin to question why I am there.

As I have learned from tough personal experience, there is no guarantee that anyone will finish a long distance race. In the best light, it is the uncertainty that drives me forward; it is a need to know if I can do it. And the fact is that sometimes, I can’t.

I am in good company. Two examples that parallel my recent experience: during the 2007 Ironman World Championships, defending champion Normann Stadler had to drop out during the bike due to an inability to keep fluids down. The same day, six-time women’s winner Natasha Badmann crashed her bike into a traffic pylon, breaking her collarbone and ending her race. Both of them know as I do now, that the outcome of an event like this is anything but certain. I would bet that neither of them would have it any other way.

My own fulfillment comes from challenging these uncertainties to achieve the pure joy of pushing my body and spirit, and in doing so to discover places I might not have known before. To have both the opportunity and the ability to do this is a gift I will not ever take for granted. I would not trade places with anyone’s stability or predictability.

And as I know from my past adventures, there will be an instant in time in the midst of it all when I look up from my handlebars at the world I am traversing, feel the tautness in my muscles as my legs piston me towards my goal, inhale the clean air sharp as a laser in my chest, and know that there is no place else I would rather be. For some of us, the awareness of this will offset every other reality in a single moment; for others it never would in a lifetime.

Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build your wings on the way down.
Ray Bradbury

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Me, Undefined

We are a people starved for self-definition.
Ken Burns, documentary filmmaker

People talk a lot about defining themselves, how they are defined, what defines them. They tell us when they are in the process of redefining their lives (or reinventing themselves, a curious notion if ever there was one, as if we were light bulbs or mousetraps). A friend once lamented to me that a lot of her friends seemed to be redefining their lives and she wanted to as well but was having trouble thinking of a new definition. She wondered if I could help with some suggestions.

Without going to my dictionary, I am guessing that the word ‘define’ derives from the Latin meaning the ‘end’ or ‘limit’, as in ‘finite’. So by defining themselves, people are actually listing what their limits are.

It seems an odd thing to do, to draw an invisible boundary around yourself, like a Marcel Marceau cell, so that you or others will know what your limits are. A woman I know told me once: “I can’t ever imagine doing what you do”. I wanted to reply archly: “That is why you never will do what I do. It begins with imagination”. An answer like that would of course have been trite, self-serving, smug and unfriendly so I said nothing. But I thought it. (I reserve the right to be internally trite and self-serving).

I have another friend who, whenever she hears of an activity or undertaking that is new to her has a habit of saying “Oh yes, I could do that.” In fact she could never do a fraction of those things, but I have always admired the way she doesn’t set a limit on herself automatically.

Why can’t we discover our boundaries by testing them rather than defining them?

In the past year I have had some colossal athletic failures. I travelled all the way to South Africa to run in the Comrades Marathon and had to drop out after 55 kilometres. This year I failed to bicycle the entire distance of the Race Across the West, running out of energy and spirit after at the 540 kilometre mark. Then last month I launched myself over my handlebars during a routine training ride and managed to snap my clavicle in two, unequivocally ending my 2010 Ironman hopes and my whole season.

If my athletic self-definition were constructed of what I have been able to accomplish recently, my boundaries would be moving inward on me at an alarming rate, like Marceau’s walls. And if I placed limits on my own potential, I would never have attempted those races in the first place; would never have gotten on my bike; might, in fact never have left the house. Yet even sitting here with my clavicle fractured and useless in a sling and with two egregious DNFs behind me, I am still imagining Everests yet to be climbed, oceans yet to be swum, roads yet to be cycled and trails yet to be run. Challenges as yet undefined.

I think that if I were forced to, I would choose to define myself by the things I can’t yet accomplish. Western States 100? Badwater Ultramarathon? Race Across America? Oh yes, I could do that.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Head Bone’s (Still) Connected to the Collar Bone

They’re funny things, Accidents. You never have them till you’re having them.

I was thinking earlier this week how much I was looking forward to Ironman Canada. My favourite event ever: great swim, spectacular bike ride, relatively easy run and lots of enthusiastic spectators. And I was ready for it. With my biking in the best shape it has ever been and my running and swimming finally coming back after a long sabbatical I was all set to enjoy the race from beginning to end. Besides, after DNFs in my last two major races I could use a success; I could use a break, I remember thinking.

Be careful what you wish for, goes the saying.

This past weekend with the race three weeks out, I decided I might benefit from one last century ride, and I decided to do it on the Muskoka 70.3 course near Huntsville. It is terrain I know very well having driven on the highways all my life ( we have a cottage close by) and having done the Muskoka Chase many times. I parked my car at Robinson’s General Store In Dorset, about half way around the 78 km loop part of the course, intending to do the loop twice.

I was having my best ride in months. Sparkling cool, calm morning air, smooth road and a responsive bicycle. There are times when there is nowhere else I would rather be. Coming down a hill at a decent speed on South Portage Road, something – a pothole, rock, gremlin - grabbed the aerobars out of my hands. In a split second my bike shot into the soft sand at the side of the road, bucked wildly like an unbroken stallion and threw me over the handlebars onto the pavement. I hit with my chest, head and finally my knees, which acted as brakes, dragging along the road behind me until I skidded to a stop. I didn’t lose consciousness but was pretty frazzled.

My left shoulder had taken the brunt of my unscheduled aterrissage; the same shoulder that I injured in another fall two years ago. Now it throbbed and burned, sending streamers of pain through the rest of my body. Like most cyclists, naturally my first thought was for my bike: to get it off the road, where it lay impotently waiting to be run over by the next pickup truck that happened over the brow of the hill. If you had been watching from the sidelines you would have seen me staggering around like a drunken sailor kicking water bottles into the ditch and frantically dragging the frame of my P2 out of harm’s way, all the time voicing imprecations of outrage and pain.

As luck would have it, I was cartographically about as far away from my parked car as could be, and I had to pedal nearly 35 km to get back to it. The ride back was not the most fun I’ve ever had but was ultimately bearable. At Robinson’s I bought some ibuprofen. Walking across the parking lot to my car with road-burned legs and a deformed shoulder, clutching my box of Advil I must have looked pretty awful. Several people asked me if I was all right, and one very kind lady reached into her car and gave me a bottle of naturopathic pills to take with me. I was able to drive to Huntsville Memorial Hospital using all of my one good arm and the thumb from my bad one.

While I was waiting in Emergency the pain was present and insistent, but somehow not as bad as it had been two years ago with my separated shoulder. I fully expected that the doctor would smilingly tell me to take anti-inflammatories, ice the injury and it would all be OK in a few weeks. I began to feel badly for taking the time of the emergency room staff with my minor trauma. It came as a shock therefore when they informed me that my left clavicle was broken, (although after looking at the X-ray I agree with the diagnosis;  the two halves of my collarbone look like they are in different time zones). If I had been entertaining any hopeful thoughts of still being able race in Ironman, this was the end.

They gave me the CD with my X-ray on it, and I had to tell them what I was going to do with it, who I was going to show it to. What did they think I was going to do? Post it on my Blog?

So, for me the season is over: an enforced rest from swimming, biking, running and anything else athletic. Ironman is off the calendar for this year. I expect we will travel to Penticton anyway as the plane tickets and accommodations are all arranged. I can make it a vacation, cheer for the triathletes and take some time to consider the future.

As a postscript there is one point I want to make. I have always worn a helmet when I ride a bike – I wouldn’t feel dressed without it - and the tumble this weekend pointed up the value. There is a dent in the left side of my helmet where my head hit the pavement; this dent would have been in my skull if not for the helmet’s protection. As it is, my head doesn’t even have a mark on it – at least not one that wasn’t there before.

Anyone who rides a bicycle without a helmet does not deserve to own a head.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ease on Down the Road

Exercise: a series of strenuous activities which help convert fats, sugars, and starches into aches, pains, and cramps.

Just in from a terrific run: an hour and a half, bathed in the liquid summer heat. This is the longest I have run in over a year and I am stiff. But it was a relief for once not to have something snap crackle or pop in some part of my musculo-skeletal structure. Stiffness: yes, pain: no. After the beating-up my body and mind took last month in Arizona we are starting to wake up to the fact that we are not dead yet. The road stretches before us.

I am easing my way into Ironman this summer, trying to combine some sort of focused training plan with a reasonable demand on my body. Ridiculous, of course. Ironman requires a lot of time in the water and on the road, and there is no way to train properly for it without doing that time. You can’t “ease into it”. Do, or do not, as the annoying little Muppet said

Yet after 25 years of marathons, triathlons and dreams possible and impossible, I have learned there is a benefit to some sensibility when it comes to what we ask of our bodies. In the best of worlds, our older physical selves should be the beneficiaries of the accumulated experience and lore our minds acquired while we were getting older. Therefore my training this summer will not involve me trying to emulate some twenty-year-old steroidal Olympian in a Gatorade commercial. I will strive for modest gain with minimal pain. Lots of miles, yes. Lots of easy miles.

We athletes are a contradiction sometimes. Of all people we should be the most in touch with our bodies and the constant stream of physical feedback they provide, yet we seem to be capable of selectively tuning out what they are trying to tell us if it doesn’t elide with our plans.

Many years ago while out running I noticed a tight soreness just in front of my right heel. Since the pain it seemed to go away after I was warmed up, I ignored it and continued running for several months. (By now, any experienced runner will recognize the unmistakable signs of plantar fasciitis). One day I came back from a 20k run and my foot gave up on me. For several months I could barely walk, let alone run. It was what we call a season-ending injury and I was finally forced into treating it properly. With that proper treatment, it went away and never came back.

The point here is that we can push our bodies to accomplish amazing things, but they are not to be considered slaves to the demands of our dreams. Our hearts and minds need to treat the body as an equal partner, not as a mindless Morlock, toiling away unseen in the dark for our higher pleasure and fulfillment.

So I am going gently into my training this summer, and if I hurt, I am going to slow down.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Just Deserts

Race Across the West – 2010

“I’m pretty tired…I think I’ll go home now.”
F. Gump; Monument Valley, Utah

As I began pedalling my bike away from the start line of the 2010 Race Across the West, I was aware that I had joined a group of offbeat but determined athletes who were attempting something extraordinary. From every path of life and every level of ability, the RAW field had one thing in common: a desire to ride a bicycle from California to Colorado, across deserts and up mountains, through some of the most unwelcoming conditions on the continent.

The taxing 4000 foot climb from the Pacific Ocean up to Palomar Mountain was followed by a thrilling descent to the floor of the California desert. It took me hours to get to the top, and about 15 minutes to get to the bottom.

I was delighted to discover a strong tailwind blowing eastward across the desert; I grabbed hold of it and sped effortlessly along the highway at an average speed of about 25 miles an hour all evening. In the support van behind me, Laura and Duncan periodically blasted hip hop tunes through my walkie-talkie to keep my pedaling cadence upbeat. After riding for a total of 13 hours, we stopped and slept in the middle of the desert dunes under a black sky that was washed with stars. Although it was a restorative and pleasant break, it proved to be a rookie mistake; it would have been more prudent to have kept riding through the night. We left well before dawn, but the desert sun was waiting for me.

I cycled all day in hot windy conditions, the road curving gently but insidiously upward all the way. I had thought that I was taking enough salt, water, Gatorade and food but it became more and more difficult to process fluids and nutrition. I rode slower and slower as every pedal stroke became an effort. At the top of a long, long climb into Salome Arizona, I slid from my bike and collapsed onto the ground, every muscle in my body in spasm. On my knees at the side of the road, I threw up all the unprocessed water that had accumulated in my stomach over the past hours. I felt beaten up and utterly defeated.

In the Hollywood version of the story I would have climbed heroically back onto my bike and finished the race. My version was not written in Hollywood unfortunately. We took a motel room, paramedics were called and after an unpleasant and unsuccessful attempt to take in some more water (it came right back up), I was given IV fluids to rehydrate me. In many races this treatment is enough to disqualify you, but in RAW it does not, so there was still the option of continuing. Some hours of sleep later however, I still felt awful and the crew and I discussed my situation. After bicycling over 330 miles in 30 hours, with considerable mileage left to go, I made the very tough decision to withdraw from the race. It is a decision I know will be second-guessing for months, but at the time it was the only one I could see myself making.

Needless to say I am disappointed not to have made it to the end, but I choose to think of a project like the Race Across the West as a journey rather than a destination. My training these past seven months has taken me to new levels of fitness and endurance, and the race itself has given me an appreciation for the challenges and adventures that are available beyond the scope of everyday vision. The learning experience has been unparalleled for all of us; we are now a seasoned racer and crew, and are ready for the next challenge, whatever that might be. In short, I got far more out of it than I put into it.

I congratulate and thank my stellar crew, without whom I would not have made it 38 miles let alone 338. Karen: rainmaker, provisioner, helpmate and unfailing supporter. Laura: intrepid follow-vehicle driver, documenter and photographer extraordinaire. Duncan: Crew Chief, indispensable bike mechanic, who can change a tire in 30 seconds flat. Terry: flawless factotum, provider of exactly the right encouraging words, always there when needed. These four made the race for me, and I can’t imagine a finer team.

One of the biggest successes of my participation in the Race Across the West was the support I received for my chosen charity. Through the thoughtfulness of family, friends, co-workers and many Canadians I have never met, we achieved our financial goal of raising $5000 for Myeloma Canada. It’s impossible for me to express enough gratitude for this support.

The Team Lyricycle story is still a work in progress, and I look forward to musing on the topic of endurance athletics here in days and months to come. I now begin adding some swimming and running to my biking in preparation for Ironman Canada later this summer. After that we’ll just have to see where the journey takes us.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

End of the Beginning - Race Across the West 2010

“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Winston Churchill, 1942

By popular demand, here is an update; the first since New Year’s Day. We are at the end of the training phase of the Team Lyricycle / Race Across the West project. Laura is currently driving somewhere between Toronto and the Grand Canyon with all our bikes and equipment (don’t forget about that left turn at Albuquerque…) en route to the starting line at Oceanside California. The rest of us are flying this weekend. I will write more before the race begins next week, but here are some thoughts about what’s happened so far.

Just over five months ago I wrote here of my plan to train for, and to participate in the Race Across the West, 1400 kilometres across the deserts and up the mountains of the southwestern US. I am all about learning experiences and this one is turning out to be a postgraduate degree. More biking, more sweating than I have ever done in my life. And that’s just the training.

My log indicates that over the course of 280 hours of training, I have pedaled my bike more than 6000 kilometres. Truthfully, I didn’t travel quite that far since many of the kilometres were logged on my trainer in the basement during the winter, (when in fact I travelled nowhere). But each kilometre – real or virtual - on my computer represents a number of pedal strokes, and another training milestone reached. Over the past months I have pedaled hour after hour through long nights, headed out on cold windy mornings when the last thing I wanted to do was ride a bicycle and I have watched the sun set over my handlebars after riding since sunrise. Is it enough? I believe I haven’t even scratched the surface yet. How can anyone know?

I am lucky to have survived the training phase without developing any new injuries, although I have caused some of my old ones to look up sharply and take note, like wolves aroused from sleep. One of the challenges of the race will be to keep these crafty old wolves at bay.

One thing I hadn’t planned for was the wonderful response of family, friends and the myeloma community to my fundraising efforts. We are up around $4000 now and I hope the figure keeps climbing. The stories and notes I receive from Canadians who are battling this disease make it all very real to me. As I have said before, their best advantage is our awareness and support.

The world at large will be happy to see me safely away on my bike and happier still not to have to listen to my endless chatter about the Race Across the West. I am shameless in my self-promotion. At an upscale reception the other night I couldn’t resist telling person after person that I was about to try riding 1400 kilometres on a bike. Their reactions resembled what I imagine they would be if I had told them I was going to try to eat fifty hard boiled eggs. I have gotten used to that kind of reaction.

The training is over; now it is time to ride.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Race Across the West 2010 – Team Lyricycle

Welcome to our website!

In June 2010 I will be participating in the Race Across the West, a 1400 kilometre (860 mile) non-stop bicycle race from Oceanside, California to Durango, Colorado. The race route crosses the brutally inhospitable deserts of California and Arizona before climbing to the finish line high in the Rocky Mountains. This is an event to test the resources of the even most highly-trained and motivated of athletes.

My participation in Race Across the West will be dedicated to raising money and awareness for the Canadian myeloma community. Multiple Myeloma is a rare, life-threatening cancer of the plasma cells that currently affects about 6,000 Canadians. Over the past few years I have lost two close friends to this terrible disease. All proceeds from my 1400 kilometre ride will go to Myeloma Canada, a dynamic charitable organization uniquely devoted to supporting and strengthening the Canadian myeloma community.

To the right of this page is a link to a secure donation site, where you can help support the people who are fighting this disease. Please take a moment to visit my Gift Page by clicking on ‘DONATE NOW’.
If you would rather make your donation through regular mail, you can send a cheque payable to:

Myeloma Canada
P.O. Box 326
Kirkland, QC
H9H 0A4

Please indicate that you are supporting Team Lyricycle in the Race Across the West.

Myeloma is without a cure so far. But this doesn’t mean that it can’t be fought, 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 and support.