Friday, July 27, 2012


To get to the finish line, you'll have to try lots of different paths.
Amby Burfoot

Triathlon, more often than reasonable events such as biking or running, can be affected by wrong choices you make before the race ever starts: forgotten or lost equipment, too much or too little clothing for the elements, wrong bike cassette for the terrain, boa constrictor of a wetsuit. Even the way you lay out your stuff in the transition area can be a game changer. There’s nothing as comically pathetic as the sight of some poor sod in T1 crawling around underneath his bike on all fours like a blind beggar, groping for a missing sock. Sometimes though, you make some wrong choices that turn out OK.

It’s been a while since I participated in an Olympic distance triathlon. The first ones I ever did, back in the nineties, were Olympic: 1500 metre swim, 40k bike and 10k run. This was the time when the Olympic (or International) distance was all there was, unless you were doing an Ironman. Later, sprint triathlons took over most of the races and became immediately popular, probably because of the accessibility of a shorter race to more folks. Now the Olympic distance is making a comeback thanks to a new race series called 5150 (the figure represents the total distance travelled in kilometres: 51.50. If you are American you can think of the total distance as 31.93 miles, a number I imagine the organizers thought would not be as marketable).

The inaugural Muskoka 5150 Triathlon was held in Huntsville last weekend around the venue of the old Subaru Long Course races that were very popular for many years. The race routes this year were similar, but shorter. The swim followed a path out into the lake and back up the river; the bike was a terrific rollercoaster up and down cottage roads. The run was an odd little double loop, which I’ll discuss in a minute.

I had entered the 5150 event in a fit of guilt about how little actual race experience I was getting this summer in advance of the Muskoka 70.3 in September. Although I’ve done lots of biking and running, I have been in the water exactly three times since Ironman Canada last August, none of those times in a race.

For some reason this year I had despaired of shoehorning myself into my usual Blue Seventy wetsuit, so I decided to wear a floppy old Ironman Stealth that hung off me like a choir gown and collected water like a trawler. Thus when the starting gun went off I was under no illusions that I was going to Phelps the swim. I was right. In fact it was one of the slowest ever for me; a more lugubrious pace than any of my Ironman swims, which are more than twice the distance. But I did manage to stay more or less afloat on the surface of the lake, exited the water happily in the morning sun and trotted over to my P2C, which I have not ridden in a year.
Remembering how to ride my P2C

The bike course featured a lot of short steep ups and downs, with not much opportunity to settle into the aero bars for a little nap, as we do in Ironman. All the same, it was a challenging and fun course to ride, and it felt like it ended too soon at only 40k. The road surface was a pleasant surprise; I had been expecting much worse as these Muskoka roads suffer greatly from winter frost and are hard to keep wrinkle-free.

Then it was time for the run. The race organizers had chosen to route the course around a couple of high school tracks (one of which was all gravel) and then, incredibly, down a steep, rocky path. There were probably a lot of people cursing that part of the run course. Not I though, and here’s why: I had realized as I was getting ready for the race that morning that I had forgotten a vital component to triathlon success: my running shoes. All I had with me to wear was a pair of trail shoes. I wasn’t too fussed as I have worn these shoes to run to work many times, and aside from being somewhat clunky, they work. They would not, however, have been my first choice for the 10k run in a triathlon.

Never underestimate a good trail shoe
Except on this course. While others were shaking gravel out of their shoes and picking their way over the rough terrain, I was skipping merrily down the hill, yodelling a German mountain hiking song. Val-der-ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. As I crossed the finish line the warm sun was beginning to bake my feet and my trail shoes were  starting to feel a bit like army boots, but I considered this a First World problem at worst and chose to be thankful that I had so strongly completed my first Olympic distance in over ten years. I had a great day and enjoyed all of it.

I suspect the run course will garner some criticism from those who like to criticize, or who like to run fast. It is not built for speed, that’s for sure. As a result we might not see the steep downward gravel path through the forest again in the Muskoka 5150. But if we do, I’ll be ready with my trail shoes.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Hills Are Alive

Centurion Cycling - Horseshoe Valley

“I’m having such a good time,” I said to the volunteer at the aid station at 75k, “I’ll be sorry when it ends!”

Such was the euphoria generated by cycling a beautiful course on a beautiful morning—also of knowing that it was only another 25 kilometres to the finish of the inaugural Centurion 100k Cycling event in Horseshoe Valley, Ontario.

Of course I hadn’t felt euphoric all day. From the time I woke up at 4:00am to travel to the race, I was asking myself the usual questions: Why in Heaven’s name am I doing this? Why did I pay good money to drive for 90 minutes before dawn after three hours of sleep to ride for four hours with a crowd of people all of whom are better than I am? I should be in bed.

I was still wondering what I was doing as I stood with about 700 other cyclists and their bikes in the starting corral at the Horseshoe Valley Resort. Since I have only one goal race this year—the 70.3 in Muskoka in September—I am using all other events as training opportunities. Therefore I scolded my truculence by grumbling, “You came out here to train…so TRAIN!”

So I trained.

Like its older brother, the Blue Mountains Centurion, the Horseshoe Valley event is beautifully organized and expertly run by Graham Fraser and his team. In fact the whole affair is so slick it’s hard to believe that the entry fee isn’t higher (but don’t raise it, Graham). The concept of hosting a race that is 100 kilometres, rather than a true century, is smart. Not only would this route get repetitively tiresome if it were any longer, but the shorter distance is bound to attract many riders—novice and experienced—for whom a metric century is exactly the right distance at this point in the season.

Some days you love hills, some days you  don't
After a parade start up and out of the valley itself, the race course travels over terrain created when the glaciers pushed and shoved their way across the continent in the last Ice Age. This makes for lots of hills and lots of valleys. The hills are not endless, grueling thigh-burners though, and the up-and-down topography is great for holding your interest during the ride. Most riders would agree that there is very little chance to get bored. Honestly, it is one of the most uniformly beautiful routes I have ever ridden.

The second half of the route is (or seems) tougher, with more hills, but this is where I found my legs. Pumping up the hills, I reveled in the strain of my muscles and ligaments; I savoured the clean morning air moving in and out of my lungs. I loved this ride.

For the most part the road surface is terrific, although there is one bone-shaking section between about 70 and 80 kilometres that made me think of what Paris-Roubaix and its cobblestones must be like. I was grateful for the ancestry of my Cervélo R5; my new bike handled the rough road like an all-terrain vehicle.

I would like it if the race directors could do more to educate less experienced cyclists in the etiquette of keeping to the right while riding along the road. I encountered many people who were riding three and four abreast, thus forcing me over the far side of the road (and illegally over the centre line) so that I could pass them on the left, as any cyclist should do. I also watched as cars driven by local inhabitants patiently waited to pass these groups, who seemed too immersed in their conversations even to notice that anyone else was trying to use the road. I admire the way that Centurion is trying to bring cycling to a wider populace, but the generally accepted cycling rules of the road should be more rigorously enforced by the marshals. Equipped with cattle prods if necessary.

I finished the ride toward the back of the pack as usual, but with the feeling that I had pushed myself and my bike hard, and that both had risen to the occasion. I had come out to train, and I trained.

The road bike now goes away for a while as I get my P3 out of mothballs for some triathlon work. It will be a quick transition, as I have entered the Muskoka 5150 Olympic distance race next weekend. And yes, today I am wondering—as I will at 4:00am next Sunday morning—why in Heaven’s name I said I would do it.