Saturday, August 27, 2011

Running Wild

If you want to win something, run 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.
Emil Zatopek, legendary Czech distance runner

Picture a small group of prehistoric hunters on the trail of a wooly mammoth; they crouch in the bushes and run through the tall grass for days on end, avoiding their own predators while chasing their prey. The survival of the tribe depends on the success of the hunt; they cannot fail.

We were not stronger than the mammoth or faster than the tiger. How on earth did we survive?

This is how I prefer to think of it: we have all of us been innately gifted with wit, wisdom and will. We required the wit to outsmart the wooly mammoth, the wisdom to draw upon past experiences – our own and others’ - and the will to stay with the task until the goal was accomplished. This is how we survived.

Nowadays, due to a dearth of available wooly mammoths we humans tend to build matrices for ourselves to exercise some or all of the three attributes we worked so hard to acquire all those thousands of years ago. And it is still about survival.

In the best of us, it is in our nature to test ourselves. Crossword puzzles, cricket matches and triathlons have all come into being because of our desire to push our limits, physical, intellectual or spiritual.

The primal, elemental aspect of running has attracted millions in the past three decades. Forget that so many have hijacked the sport in vain pursuit of longer lives, smoother skin or firmer thighs. Forget that high-tech shoes and Lululemon wardrobes have tried to make running a materialistic circus. It is still the simplicity of muscles driving legs to push feet against the ground in order to propel the body through space; this is the attraction. I can do this, not because of what I am wearing or how much my shoes cost, but because my ancestors possessed the necessary attributes, and so do I.

 The marathon, more than shorter distances, asks more from us than just solid strength or quicksilver speed. Because of its sheer length, marathon runners must be prepared to pass through a series of tests from start to finish. In the beginning the distance to run seems incomprehensibly long, so we don’t try to comprehend it; we just concentrate on the stride, the pace. Midway through we are still overwhelmed by the distance and need to push mentally to keep focus. Toward the end most of our physical resources are depleted, but the goal becomes realistic, so we continue, sometimes by sheer will alone.

When I run the marathon at the end of Ironman this Sunday each of my feet will strike the hot dusty pavement about 20,000 times, bearing all the dead, useless weight of my tired body. Although I think I have trained enough for the run, my various foot ailments could add a measure of discomfort to the effort. The high temperature is forecast to be in the thirties, adding further risks and challenges. But I will continue to move forward as long as I can. Discomfort is not the issue here; moving forward toward the goal is.

Running the marathon demands patience as well as fortitude. Because I am in competition with no one but myself, all my strategies and all my negotiations will take place internally. Whether my marathon takes me five, six or seven hours, I will impress no one but myself with the result and whatever outcome I achieve is for me alone. My success or failure depends on my ability to reach within and find some kind of acceptance of the status quo, some kind of quietude. If I slow down, it will take longer to finish. So it takes longer. As Coach Bill Bowerman said, running is not just about winning a race, it is about testing the limits of the human heart.

I hope Sunday to have a chance while running to pay silent tribute to the wit, wisdom and will of my prehistoric ancestors. Because they ran to survive, so therefore can I.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Two Centuries of Cycling

After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. …Even if I did not enjoy riding, I would still do it for my peace of mind.
Paul de Vivie
early 20th century cyclist and writer

A Century Last Weekend
I did my last long training ride – a century - on the weekend. Everything felt great, although I am still fiddling with the positioning of my saddle to achieve something resembling comfort – of which there is not a lot after 162 kilometres on a bike. Somehow in the last year either the saddle has changed shape or I have. Otherwise it was a beautiful ride up and down the hills in Algonquin. A sort of Lite version of riding up and down the mountains of the Okanagan.

I have managed to complete my Ironman training this year without tumbling from my bike, a gift for which I am grateful. If the gentle motorists of this city will allow me to pass safely among them on my way to work for one or two more days, I might actually make it to the starting line in Penticton this year.

I had a few Whitman-like moments through the day, celebrating the strength and power in my legs as my muscles responded to my wishes and drove the bike forward. Not for the first time, I was reminded how much I enjoy training for a challenging athletic event; the rewarding process of growing stronger while gaining optimism and confidence. It is really during the training phase, not the race itself, that I feel the most in synch with my abilities and goals. To borrow from Robert Pirsig, it is the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.

The bike portion of a triathlon is the only segment that requires a mechanical device. The swim is immersion in an alien element. The run calls for a serious meeting of foot and pavement. It is during the bike that we get to explore our relationship with technology.

As I pedal, I notice the motion of my feet and legs. Clipped into the pedals, my feet are made to describe perfect circles approximately 340 millimetres in diameter. I can change the position of my leg muscles by standing up for a while, but the feet keep turning those same circles on their pedals, limited by the length of the crankset. In this way our legs become pistons and we become a part of the machine, governed by its specifications.

However it is an incomplete machine; a bicycle requires not only a power source but also a commanding will, or else it is just a piece of finely-crafted but useless hardware. The bicycle will carry us great distances at speeds and efficiencies we could never achieve on our own, but it requires active collaboration from us.

We are the engine and the will; the bike is the means. Neither operates without the other and each makes the other greater. Thus the act of cycling becomes a synergy of technology and pure human ability.

A Century Ago
The term century, which we use to describe a 100-mile bike ride, made me think of the beginning of the last century and the early days of bicycling.

Much like today’s urban cyclists, the riders of a hundred years ago seemed to regard cycling as the cure for many ills. “…already it’s in our midst,’ read an ad for Massey Harris bikes in 1902. “No fad now - just a sensible mode of exercise easy to take”.

Cycling in the early 20th century had its share of purists. There was resistance to the addition of variable gears because some thought they made it too easy to pedal up hills and thus detracted from the wholesomeness of the sport. One fellow of the time expressed the opinion that such mechanical fripperies such as “the artifice of the derailleur” should only be used by “people over 45”. As I am pedalling up to Richter Pass next weekend I will be thankful that his attitude didn’t prevail. Also that I am over 45.

I think that one of the attractions of cycling when it began was simply the notion of being able to travel swiftly under one’s own power. Think of it: there were horses, trains, trams and trolleys - plus the nascent automobile - but until the bicycle appeared the only method of self-locomotion was by foot. How liberating it must have been to hop on a bike and pedal through the streets of the city or out into the countryside solely by means of individual strength and skill; to travel in a machine that was not powered by an engine.

To me, the fulfillment from basic self-propulsion is the appeal of the bike portion in any triathlon. We can move great distances at great speeds along the road and our success rests on our collaboration with the machine, by the strength of our desire and by the mechanics of our legs powering the pedals through those 340 millimetre circles.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Head Above Water

WU: 4x50(5) 25drill/25swim 25BK/25swim 25drill/25swim 25kick/25swim MS: 100 (10”) steady 150 (20”) 200 (30”) 300 (40) 200 (30”) 150 (20”) 100 WD: 4x50 alternate drill and easy (10”) Total: 1550
Typical Swim Workout

“Pooh, did you see me swimming? That’s called swimming what I was doing!”
Roo, in Winnie The Pooh
A.A. Milne

I was slow to start my swim training for Ironman this year. Whether this was due to insecurity over my imperfectly recovered collar bone injury (possible) or just plain sloth (more likely) I can’t say. The fact is that I didn’t get into the open lake till the beginning of July and now I am trying to make up lost ground. Or lost water.

This season my shoulder joints feel like oars on an old wooden rowboat, creaking and clunking as they rattle around in the oarlocks. My body position is somewhere between pretzel and fetal.

My swimming technique, like my golf game, never seems to get any better or any worse no matter how I work on it. I am slow and passably steady and I will end my days that way. A revered triathlon coach once advised me to think of Ironman as one whole event rather than as three separate ones; meaning, I took it, that I should accept my swim as the talentless mess that it is and concentrate on not exhausting myself needlessly in the water.

And so my strategy for the 3860 metres of the Ironman swim is to keep everything as simple as possible: to aim to move forward in a fairly straight line and to conserve my energy. Of course, this strategy does not get me to the swim finish very quickly. Even at my best I am slow. In fact in my last – and fastest – Ironman swim I was 1975th out of the water, of 2210 athletes. Yet my time was so fast compared to my usual performance that my family on shore, still peering seaward, missed seeing me exit the water and were convinced that I had drowned.

There is so much that I like about a triathlon swim. There are no tires to go flat or heel spurs to become inflamed. Dehydration is rarely an issue. My wetsuit acts as a full body personal floatation device, supporting every inch of me like a neoprene mattress on a water bed. There is no weather to speak of. This morning it was windy, cool and rainy; I swam an easy and enjoyable 2000 metres in the lake, insulated from all elements by the warm, cozy water.

I relish the relative calm during the swim portion of the race, silent save for the sound of my own breath bubbling out of me and the muffled eggbeater swishing from the limbs of the other athletes. The embryonic quality of the water produces a sense of isolation that strokes my solitary nature; no one can talk to me, and vice versa. An old opera singing colleague once told me that she hated swimming; for one thing she couldn’t stand putting her face in the water: “Makes me gag,” she said. I recall that I used to have the same reflex when required to socialize at opening night receptions.

Aside from a little pinch at the apex of my stroke I am not aware of my year-old clavicle injury, which is a relief. All winter I had visions of the whole affair snapping in two again leaving me in the middle of the lake with my left arm flapping uselessly in the waves like a piece of driftwood. So far though, whatever grew back together in the past year has held.

There is a saying that you can’t win an Ironman in the swim but you can lose it. To me, who will in my life never win or lose an Ironman, the swim is a chance to warm up my body and to calm my thoughts for the rest of the day ahead. Twelve hours later, as I try to coax my tired legs to carry me over the last ten kilometres of the run, the brief swim that began the race will be long forgotten; and yet without it, the day would seem incomplete. Whether you are first out of the water or 2210th, triathlon is what it is because of the swim.

So up and down the lake I practice my stroke, my old oars called back to duty for one more year: creak, clunk, splash, creak, clunk, splash.