Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Lawnmower

“Winter is Coming”
Game of Thrones

Oh, if only I could be like my friend Dave who slaps oversized tires on his bike and pedals off each winter into the blizzard; the worse the weather the happier those Fat Tire Guys are. Or like The Frozen Logger, who until the end, was not slowed down by cold and ice:
The weather, it tried to freeze him,
It tried its level best;
At a hundred degrees below zero
He buttoned up his vest.

I am so not them. I am a hunkerer. When the cold weather comes and snow starts to fall, I do not go bravely into it. I hide inside till spring comes. I think of winter the way I think of getting a cold: it comes; you don’t like it but there’s not much you can do; life goes on around you; you wait in misery till it goes away; someday another will come.
Where does this leave me and my bicycle? Well, we are both hung up for the winter. As I write this my Cervélo P2, which so recently carried me triumphantly over the roads of this province, is hanging forlornly on a hook beside my desk, stripped of wheels and pedals, looking like a Mesozoic skeleton. In the wintertime, I stay inside and so do my bikes.

Several years ago I tried riding my bike to work through the winter. I ended up falling more than I cycled, and the constant effort to avoid sliding under moving cars detracted from the enjoyment of the moment. I also find little fulfilment dashing through the slush and snow in my running shoes. I will leave that experience to those riding in the one horse open sleigh (another activity that appeals to me not in the slightest). I like my fitness goals to be about elevation of the mind and body, not about survival from hypothermia.
I do my best to exercise during the coldest months. I run on a treadmill and pedal on a trainer. And I wait out the interminable, dark, northern winter.

Oh wind / If Winter comes can Spring be far behind?
Yes, it can. Here in Canada, it can.

In previous years I have managed to finagle a trip to warmer climates at some point during the winter. Not so this year. Because I am one or all of a) retired b) laid off c) unemployed d) a bum, we haven’t the money to gallivant about the continent in search of better riding and running conditions. This winter my Death Valley adventure will be me sitting on my trainer in the basement watching The Biggest Loser.

But we cannot live if not in sure and certain hope that spring will come again. And when it does, my lawnmower will be waiting in the garage, just where I left it, ready to start up for another summer of activity. It always has been and it always will be.
Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain….
Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.

Likewise my bicycle will feel pavement beneath rubber, and chain on sprocket. My running shoes will bounce down the path and slap through the puddles. My winter body will lose the extra poundage it acquired while I was cowering in my basement beside the space heater. Everything will be waiting for me.

Until someone irrevocably ruins the world’s climate, our boreal seasons are a cycle, which I respect. My life is a cycle. I live, therefore I cycle. And I will again.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

An Invincible Summer

“In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.”

I have a little spreadsheet that counts days; days till, days from. Days since I quit drinking: 2,857. Days to my next birthday: 132. I also use to it to count down the days until an upcoming race: an Ironman, a Death Valley Century, or some other athletic event. This week, for the first time ever, it has nothing to count down to.
The 2013 cycling and running year is basically over for me. The training tires are mounted on the bikes and the bikes themselves are mounted on their trainers. I have begun my indoor spinning (a session with Coach Troy today left me feeling as If I had just finished a Tour de France stage—without the benefit of performance enhancing drugs).

All I have left to remind me of the past year are some heavy medals, photos, and a still-discoloured toe from the marathon two weeks ago. And memories of sunsets in Death Valley.

It’s time to start planning what I want to do next year. For the first time since the 1980s, I don’t have the financial resources to do everything I'd like, so I will have to be more creative and selective about where I go and what I do. For the time being, there will be no trips to Ironman, no week-long stays at the Furnace Creek Ranch, no Races Across America.

I also have no idea what my body has planned for me down the road, in spite of whatever plans I might want to make. There have been some physical challenges this past season that suggest I should stop and figure out what to do about some things. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined body is probably not worth having.
I might never figure out what happened to me in the middle of the lake at Mont Tremblant that caused me to come staggering out of the water like a drunken sailor and wilt at the side of the path. It was a physical and emotional meltdown that still confounds me. All my other swims were fine this year; that day, something was out to get me.

So next year will be a time of keeping fit and nurturing a vision of greater things to come; a year of looking critically and realistically at my sexagenarian body to see what it is still capable of. I want to believe I am not finished with Ironman, or deserts, or epic bike tours. I still want to run a hundred miles, pedal my up bike to Dante’s View, or across Canada from St John’s to Victoria. I still want to break four hours for the marathon; I want to finish another Ironman before dark as I did once.
Hold That Thought
Meantime as Wordsworth suggests, I will be resting and being thankful. Next year if my muscles and feet and all the rest of the parts agree, I’ll do some local triathlons and road races. I will run some new trails and bicycle some new roads. The dream venues will remain dreams for a while. But there will be dreams—there are always dreams—even if for the moment, their glow is softened by a dusting of snow.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Baby Steps

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.”
Dean Karnazes

The first piece of good news about the Waterfront Marathon was that the weather, predicted all week to be rainy and cold, decided to be sunny and bright. The other good thing was that thirteen of my family and extended family were running either the Half or the Full (one niece calculated that collectively we would travel 358.7 kilometres).
Duncan setting the pace - one of 13
in our family who ran Sunday 
All told, about 14,000 runners lined up for the start (there had been another 6,500 in a 5K earlier in the morning; this is a huge event). I knew I was going to have a very slow day because of my pulled hamstring muscle, and I felt serenely fatalistic about the outcome. I seeded myself well toward the back of the large crowd of runners—as it happened, right beside the stage door of the opera house where I used to sing.

Once we finally got underway, the first fifteen minutes of running felt reasonably normal. It’s a great course, flat and open, with some typically rough urban pavement along the way to keep you alert. I basked in the collective energy of the thousands like me who were setting off on their adventure.
Then I took a large sidestep to hop over one of the zillions of streetcar tracks along the route, and felt my hamstring protest; painfully. OK, I thought, just baby steps today. And so the next 40 kilometres were run with a sort of half stride on one side. I couldn’t extend my left leg much more than 15 degrees forward from vertical, so I adapted.

My shortened gait certainly slowed me down. The good thing was that I wasn’t in a hurry, which was just as well, since I couldn’t have been even if I had wanted to be. If I had tried to move at any kind of decent speed I would have looked like someone running in one of those Keystone Kops movies, shot at 14 frames per second and projected at 24.
Hurts so good!

At about 7K I came up on my brother Gord who was doing the Half. He too had been suffering from injuries but had decided at the last minute to give it a go. So we travelled together for an hour or so, which helped pass the time, and the distance. At 20K most of the runners left the course and headed to their Half-Marathon finish, and the marathoners diverged to begin their lonely journey eastward. It was a distinct moment: we had taken the less travelled path that ends at the finish line of a marathon. We were defined.

I have run marathons that seemed effortless, or at least, that have gone by with relative smoothness. Every athlete knows the feeling of clicking on all cylinders, when your body seems totally onside with your heart and mind. This was not one of those days for me.
At about 27K, with my left hamstring hobbling my stride, my right foot decided to make it a duet by reminding me of my old pinched nerve, the one that had brought my 2009 Comrades Marathon to a crashing halt. I had to stop at every aid station to take off my shoe and rub some life into my poor metatarsals.

No feeling like that finish feeling
At least now I was balanced, with discomfort on both sides. It was annoying that I had plenty of life in my legs and could have quite enjoyed the run if not for the mechanical problems. But unlike other sports equipment, our bodies are given to us for free—and sometimes they do what they will in spite of our best laid plans.
“I am alive, and I’m moving forward”, is my running mantra. It began to feel as if I was barely correct on both counts. I basically shuffled through the closing 10K of the course, moving forward, albeit at a glacial pace. I entered the moments of transcendental solitude I have written about.

As I ran up Bay Street into the chutes to finish my slowest marathon ever, I was giving an audible thank you to my body for carrying me the distance in spite of the problems. I had been to the well many times that day, but was somehow filled just as much as needed. Marathon number 22 was in the books.
Basking in the sun at the finish line
It’s been an up and down season, with three good finishes at the Ironman 70.3 events, and a crushing DNF at Tremblant.  A long rest from running is in order. But there is no doubt that I will be back. There are still many finish lines waiting in the distance.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Footfalls - October 2013

He saw the shadow of an Average Man
Attempting the exceptional, and ran.
W.H. Auden

I have a vision of a visitor arriving in Toronto this weekend from a distant war-torn country. As his host drives him into town, their trip is temporarily interrupted by a marathon race and they must stop to let the runners pass. The perplexed visitor turns to his host and asks, “What are they running away from?”
I am one of those marathon runners and I have been asked similar questions. Why do I do it? What am I fleeing? The curiosity and cynicism is logical; we runners have been described as compulsive personality types, weight-obsessed and prone to alcoholism.  The average marathon field might be thought to contain a fair number of unbalanced, anorexic drunks trying to outdistance their own neuroses.
I am not an elite athlete; I neither win nor lose the race. I run near the back of the pack, with aging executives and heavy-hipped women in long white T-shirts. The folks running near me are there to go the distance certainly, but they are challenging themselves only; the winners have long since finished.
A marathon is 42.2 kilometres long. Some of these kilometres can be uncomfortable. To actually want to run such a distance can be puzzling to those whose hobbies are less exacting. There is no immediate gratification in pounding each one of your feet into the street pavement 21,000 times over a period of four hours or so.
Some of my friends wonder why I spend so much time and energy on a pursuit that  causes such apparent anguish among its practitioners - more so than, say, shopping for antiques on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Why do I run so far?
Is it because I want to feel superior to my sedentary friends in the same way that the aviator feels superior to earthbound mortals? Maybe I achieve a certain private smugness in listening patiently to someone tell me about the new vibrating Barca Lounger they’ve just had delivered while I am cooling down my tingling quadriceps muscles after a 20K training run. Is it self-satisfaction I crave?
Am I fleeing our pervasive modern technology by attempting to rediscover something primal, more basic? Running is after all something that people have been doing naturally since our species first walked upright. Am I paying homage to my hunter-gather ancestors as I run through my own urban jungle? There could be something in this, although the theory is discredited somewhat by the presence of a computerized timing chip laced to my shoe, beaming my progress to my wife’s I-Phone as she waits at the finish line.
Am I looking for the kind of challenge that is disappearing from my everyday existence?  Not many of us in the cities go off into the grasslands to hunt down our dinners these days. We do not have to cope with Bubonic Plague, sabre-tooth tigers or marauding bands of Vikings. We are part of a society that is transfixed by televised reality stories of dysfunctional losers all trying to claw and backstab their way to fifteen minutes of fame and a cash prize. Are some of us looking to endurance sports as a way to become real survivors in our own lives?
Several years ago a running shoe company ran an ad that suggested we runners were actually fleeing old age itself - as if that were possible - and that we would succeed if we bought their product and Just Did It. Did this sell any shoes? I hope not.
Popular lore holds that we run for cardiac fitness, weight control, or to find inner peace in an age of anxiety. In my mind, all of these things are a by-product of running, not a goal. No weight loss agenda will carry you through a three-hour run in the blistering heat. People speak of a “runner’s high”. These people are mostly non-runners. I have seldom been high in the final miles of a marathon; sore yes, high no.
But if you were a runner you would know this:
At one point in a long distance race, you will come to a place where all conversation ceases, and there is only the sound of rubber soles hitting the pavement and of runners evenly breathing. The people around you are deep in their own thoughts, alone with their discomfort or determination, with their dreams or despair. This is a time of transcendental solitude, when no external source - no self-help book, no friendly volunteers, no supportive coaching – can get you to the finish line. You are locked away in negotiation with your abilities and your limitations. It is an elemental moment that is redefined each time your protesting feet hit the ground.
About three-quarters of the way through a marathon, the fuel in your muscles is nearly depleted and you are literally running on empty. No one is quite sure what powers you through the last 10K, but this much I believe: you have had the courage to attempt just a little bit more than you thought you were capable of. You challenged yourself – mind and body - to try to do more today than you did yesterday. And by accepting this challenge, you have become extraordinary.
In answer to our foreign visitor’s question: we marathoners are running away, but not from old age or chubby thighs or the stresses of the world. We are running from the shadow of the average man, from the blandness of spiritual indifference, and ultimately we are running out of mere being and into betterness. We run in order to demand something supernal of our bodies and our souls, and to rejoice when we feel them respond.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

End of Season Blues

“What a drag it is getting old.”
Rolling Stones

I went for a long run last Sunday and it hurt all the way. From the very first stride, the hamstring muscles in my left leg protested. I thought to myself that if it got any worse I would turn around. But it never got any worse; it just stayed annoying for the whole three hours. It was one of those nagging injuries that are not serious enough to sideline you but just uncomfortable enough to slow you down and spoil your enjoyment of the run.
Not a flattering way
to view myself
I would normally call such a thing an overuse injury, except that I haven’t been overusing anything. I finished the Muskoka 70.3 a few weeks ago feeling terrific; not even a stiff quadriceps muscle the next day. Then just in the last week, everything seems to have fallen into disrepair, like a used car just past the far side of its warranty.

I am not ready for that just yet. I don’t want to be one of those people you see at races all wrapped up like The Mummy Returns in tensor bandages. I want to keep building up my body, not breaking it down; strengthening it with each workout, not clobbering it. When did all this change direction?
I wanted to get in another couple of long runs because I have gone and entered the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon which happens two weeks from now. I signed up because a large contingent of my family is also running and I wanted to be part of the crowd (even though we will all be running at different paces and in different spots in the field of thousands and thousands). Also, like the proposed Scarborough Subway line, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The problem with being an athlete over 60 is that every time an ache or pain crops up you wonder if This Is It: the one you won’t recover from. The one that will sideline you forever. The canary in the mine of your senescence.
There are still things I haven’t done, races I haven’t run, rides I haven’t cycled. I still have epic cardio-vascular capacity and my desire for adventure is greater now than it was when I was in my thirties. I am not ready for the muscles and tendons and joints in my body to start falling apart.

I am not ready to have already climbed the highest mountain I will ever climb.
There’s no question of being able to finish the marathon; I have done so many of them that I know how each kilometre feels in almost any circumstance. I would prefer though to know that my body is onside for the effort, rather than feeling that I have to coax it along like a recalcitrant child at the orthodontist. After the race, I will take a big break and see how much healing I can do.

I have spent most of the week cross-training on my bike, just to keep my heart beating. Tomorrow I’ll head out for a medium-sized run, maybe 16K. On an ordinary day I should be able to do that without even trying hard. After I run I will spend some quality time with my foam roller to see if I can steamroller out the soreness. Then we’ll see how it goes.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lessons from a Runner

“I am not a dreamer... but I believe in miracles. I have to.”
Terry Fox – letter to potential sponsors before starting the Marathon of Hope in 1980.

This morning when I went down to the valley to dash off a quick 10K--a recovery run from the 70.3 last weekend--I ran smack into a whole lot of people, all seemingly headed in the same direction.
Of course; I had forgotten. Today was the annual Terry Fox Run, which happens every September in cities, towns, and villages all across Canada, and which to date has raised more than $600 million in support of cancer research. The ten kilometres being covered by the participants I met this morning—runners, walkers and even people pushing strollers—took me back to my very first 10K event, nearly thirty years ago.

I was granted the gift of a healthy body at birth, but by the time I reached thirty I had allowed myself to become a physical train wreck. My lifestyle at the time lent itself to long bouts of self-indulgence; I was a heavy smoker, an epic drinker, and an avowed layabout. With the accumulated wisdom and certitude that only youth can claim, I had determined that after I turned thirty-five my body would begin a gradual but inexorable process of deterioration, which would end in utter decrepitude around the age of fifty. If such a slide was in fact beyond my control, I had decided I would settle back and enjoy the ride.
Of course I knew who Terry Fox was; every Canadian did. He had raised a ton of money for cancer research by attempting to run across Canada after losing his right leg to 
A Marathon a Day
osteosarcoma. During his Marathon of Hope in the summer of 1980 he ran 42 kilometres—the distance of a full marathon—every single day. As every Canadian also knows, he could not ultimately outrun his disease, which caught up with him near Thunder Bay in September 1980 and ended his quest, and his life.

Some years after he died, I happened to see a news clip of Terry running down the highway, with his recognizable hop-skip gait as he bounced back and forth from his artificial leg to his good one. What touched me as I watched him—this young man with so much stacked against him—was how completely calm and focussed he looked, despite the traffic rushing by him and the crowds pressing on all sides. However uncertain his future was, he had taken control of what he could by setting a seemingly impossible goal and then taking the steps—literally one at a time— to accomplish that goal. Looking back, I realize that this image formed the template for much of how I would try to live my own life over the next three decades.
If Terry Fox, by the singular strength of his spirit, could push his broken body to the ends of endurance daily, any healthy person, I decided, should be able to accomplish anything.

Although I had not run a step since childhood, I began to wonder if I might try to finish the 10 kilometre distance of the September 1985 Terry Fox Run. I started my training by running around the block, stopping every lap or so for a cigarette. Every part of my body violently protested against the intrusive new regimen. The first time I ran nonstop for fifteen minutes I coughed violently for hours afterward and my legs were so stiff I couldn’t walk down the stairs for two days.
I kept up the training and somehow completed the event.

That fall of 1985 I hacked and wheezed my way through two more 10K races. I found that I enjoyed the newfound sensation of pushing myself to test my limits. I had never had the slightest love or aptitude for team sports of any kind, so I embraced the solitude offered by long distance running. Equally important to me, my new fitness habit gave me the motivation I needed to quit my heavy smoking habit forever.
I became a setter of goals, some of them, like Terry’s, seemingly impossible. Right after my first Terry Fox Run I bought a book called “How to Run Your First Marathon.” Two years later, I had done what the book advised, and had, in fact, run my first marathon. In 1994, looking to broaden my scope, I tried a triathlon, adding swimming and biking to running. In 2002, the year I turned fifty (that prophesied age of decrepitude!), I completed my first Ironman. As of today, I have participated in more of these long-distance events than I can count. A few years ago my participation as a cyclist in the Race Across the West gave me the opportunity to raise money on behalf of Canadians fighting multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer.

The legacy Terry Fox left behind is immeasurable and the lives that his life has touched are uncountable, even in ways he could never have imagined.

Terry’s motivation was different from mine; he wanted to raise money and awareness for cancer research, whereas I wanted to validate my stewardship of my own body. I’m not sure that he intended to reach people like me when he began his journey, but his example inspired me to start down a road of my own towards a lifelong passion for endurance athletics. He taught me not to accept limits, self-imposed or otherwise. For nearly thirty years his passion has been my companion, my slave driver, my sparring partner, my confessor and absolver, my judge, and my therapist. I continue to set near-impossible goals for the sheer joy of challenging myself.
I started running because of Terry, and like him I do not mean to give up until the last step is taken.

Terry Fox Memorial - Thunder Bay Ontario
Terrific photo by Matt Kawei

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fluctuat nec Mergitur

He is tossed on the waves but does not sink.

The usual pre-race thoughts went through my head as I treaded water waiting for the start of the Muskoka Ironman 70.3 on Sunday: How will my day go? Why is the water so cold? Why did I say I’d do this? Plus one not-so-usual thought: I hope I don’t throw up.
After my heartbreaking DNF last month at Ironman Mont Tremblant due to dizziness and nausea during the swim, I was a mixture of resolution, defiance, and trepidation when the horn went off to start my wave. I began swimming with my customary slow stroke, testing my balance every time I turned my head. I had been in the water for about 20 minutes when I realized that everything was going to be all right. Whatever mysterious sprite had bedevilled me in Lac Tremblant was absent; forever, I fervently hope.

The water got a little choppy out in the middle of the lake, which made me think of the comment Lisa Bentley had made during the athlete meeting on Saturday. I rarely go to athlete meetings, especially ones where I am very familiar with the course, but Lisa has always been a hero of mine, so I wouldn’t have missed this one. During the meeting Lisa made a joke about how the lake was probably the flattest part of the course—which produced a laugh from the audience. Anyway, as the
Grateful to have an uneventful swim
waves danced around me in mid-lake I recalled her remark; not that flat, Lisa. The only real effect that the choppy lake had was that it was harder to sight on the marker buoys; every time I lifted my head I got slapped in the face with some nice, fresh Muskoka lake water. I quite enjoyed the swim—all the more so because I didn’t feel like barfing the whole way—and exited the water in a time that is close to my fastest ever for the distance. My mood was so good that I didn’t even mind the thigh-burning 300-metre climb up the path to T1 (an event in itself).
Everyone has an opinion of the Muskoka bike course. Lisa B. says it is a “fair” course. One guy at my bike rack said in frustration that it was the most difficult thing he’d ever ridden on. For sure, there are hills, combining to make a total climb of over 1200 metres, with countless grades of over 6% along the way. If you are looking to set a PB on the bike this might not be your course. But I like the challenge of putting out a constant effort, and the strategy involved in saving enough energy for the final few hills. Even though I have been riding these roads for years, there always seems to be one more hill than I remember.

The weather on race morning was a tintype of last year’s: sunny but cool, about 14C. I opted for arm warmers and a vest, which turned out to be the perfect choice. As my legs pistoned under me and my wheels turned over the familiar cottage roads and highways, I took time to be grateful for being healthy and fit, and for having the chance to be in such a spectacular event.
There seemed to be even more gel wrappers and water bottles than normal strewn along the roadside; even though parts of the course are bumpy, all of this thrown garbage could not have been accidental. Officials tell us that littering produces an automatic disqualification. I think a good codicil to that rule would be that an athlete busted for littering could have the DQ lifted if they spent two hours post-race picking up garbage along the way.

By the end of the bike I was getting pretty tired of hill climbing. Others were too; quite a few folks were actually walking their bikes up the last hill. The bike course is 94 km, and is therefore longer than standard distance (maybe they should call this race the Muskoka 72.8). The general mood is to want to curse those additional four kilometres, and to thank the cycling gods when they are over.
As I sat on the ground in T2 putting on my running shoes, I noticed an Official looking at me, and I wondered what I was doing wrong; whether I had taken my helmet off before racking my bike or something. Then as I was about to trot out of transition she said quietly, “Don’t forget to take your number”. Aha! Thanks to a welcome new rule, you don’t have to wear your race number on the bike anymore, but not being used to digging around for it along with running shoes and hat, I was about to go charging out without it. Muscle memory. I bet she probably pointed the same thing out to hundreds of people that day.

The run course is a new one that goes along the lake and into downtown Huntsville, and includes a quad-taxing selection of really steep up-and-down hills. The roads go through some beautiful neighbourhoods, and the volunteers at the aid stations were stellar in their dedication and cheerful support; I don’t know how they keep it up hour after hour, but I am so glad they do. We also got to run down the somewhat rough gravel road that leads to the swim start of many other Huntsville triathlons past and present, including the Muskoka 5150; it had a familiar, friendly feel to it.
I began feeling tired and started to stiffen up at around the 10K marker, but I just kept running along till I got to the end, only walking at some aid stations. As I ran down the finish chute at Deerhurst I felt I had left it all out on the course, with just a little left over afterwards to pedal my bike the few kilometres back to the airstrip where my car was parked.

After my previous outing, it was a relief to finish what I had started this day. It has been a tumultuous summer, and nothing could have calmed it more effectively than a solid finish at this most beautiful and challenging of 70.3 races.

Monday, August 19, 2013

My Seven-Month Ironman

It is good to have an end to journey towards, but it is the journey that matters in the end.
Ursula K. McGuin

The weather was just about perfect on the morning of Ironman Mont Tremblant.  Almost everything is perfect about this whole race, in fact. It is the best organized, most generously funded and supported Ironman I have ever seen, from the two air force jets that thundered over the beach at the race start, to the thousands of volunteers, both along the course and working behind the scenes.
My wave starts at 6:54. Pink caps are waiting their turn.
I had awoken that morning feeling a little odd—light-headed and wobbly—but I put this down to the ordeal of getting up at 4:00 am. Splashing into the water just before 7:00 I was looking forward to the long day ahead, biking on a beautifully paved course and running through spectacular Laurentian scenery.

I started easily with a smooth stroke, happy with how well I seemed to be moving through the water without a lot of effort. The sun was just coming up over the mountain, which reminded me of many swims in years past in Penticton at IMC.  The peaceful feeling was short-lived however. About 2000 metres in, the light-headedness I had noticed earlier got much worse. I started to feel dizzy and nauseated every time I turned my head to breathe. About ten minutes later I was sure I was going to be sick right there in the lake. Mercifully for the other swimmers, I wasn’t, but the feeling got worse, and swells from passing boats and wafts of outboard motor exhaust didn’t help. It was a feeling unlike any I have ever had while swimming and it began to drain my strength and my confidence.
I slowed down quite a bit at that point, concentrating on just getting to the end of the swim. My arms and legs continued doing what they were supposed to, but at much reduced power. My head—as well as my body—was swimming. I also began to worry about the rest of the race, but hoped that I might feel better once I stopped being horizontal. As I exited the water I must have still looked fairly miserable though, because a medical volunteer asked me if I was all right. I wasn’t and I knew it, but I continued walking past her towards my wife and daughter who were standing on the sidelines snapping photos of me. I weaved unsteadily up to them and said that I wasn’t sure I could go on.

The medical people must have overheard me because in a few seconds there were two volunteers at my side, helping me sit down as swimmers trotted past on their way to the transition tent. As I babbled and blubbered to them about this being my eighth Ironman and that nothing like this had ever happened to me, I began to shiver uncontrollably even though there was a warm sun shining down.

Eventually the volunteers half-walked, half-carried me to the tent, where I was laid out on a stretcher, still shivering. I must have realized that I wasn’t going to continue the race now, and told someone so, because I was quickly and firmly strapped to the stretcher like a Dexter Morgan victim and heaved onto a golf cart for transport to the infirmary. At some point my timing chip was removed from my ankle and my Ironman was over.
There were very few clients in the infirmary at this early point in the day, so I enjoyed the attention of about six medical people. I can’t say enough good things about them. They were efficient and competent while also appreciating the unhappiness of my situation. I was attached to a heart monitor by means of about a dozen electrodes stuck onto various parts of me. Apparently my symptoms resembled some of those of a heart problem. It wasn’t and I knew it; my heart muscle is indestructible, and the data confirmed this (in contradiction to a belief held by sedentary people that anyone foolish enough to engage in any athletic activity whatsoever is risking a cardiac explosion). After about an hour I was able to sit up and finally walk, and I was released into the bright morning sun to contemplate and live with the devastating reality of my very first Ironman DNF.

The mystery remains. As I write this a day later, I still have a light-headed sensation, but nothing close to what I felt during the race. A virus? Allergic reaction? Middle ear infection?
I have always believed that it’s a mistake to think of Ironman as a one-day event. Too many things can happen on race day—weather, equipment problems, old injures recurring or new ones appearing—to pin every success metric on that one 15-hour attempt.

Instead I try to think of Ironman as a seven-month process of planning, training and preparing mentally and physically. In this way I know that even if I trip and break my femur on the way to the starting line, I will still have had the advantage, the experience, and hopefully the enjoyment of all the months leading up to race day.
I know that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, just as I know that it’s an incomparable feeling to run under the finishing tower and get the T shirt; this is a given. But I have to believe that if you have been through the process, failing to finish the race is not a total failure, but rather something just short of a total success. My Ironman took me seven months, and all but the last day were wonderful; I’ll be back soon to capture that final day.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Distance Between Your Ears

Q: How do u find the distance between your ears?
Actual question submitted to Yahoo Answers
I’m sure am not the first person ever to run joyfully and effortlessly down the chutes at the Ironman finish line and wonder why, if I have all this energy, I couldn’t have run this way for the past four hours. Where was this exuberance when I felt like barfing at mile 18?

There is an aspect of the horse catching the scent of the barn here, a concept Wiktionary defines as “To experience heightened anticipation or to act with renewed speed or energy as one approaches a destination, goal, or other desired outcome”. And of course, in the closing miles of Ironman, the desired outcome is usually simply to stop moving.
 At the other end of the scale is the apprehension that arises—along with the excitement–in the days before the race.
Experience can be a good teacher, but also a harsh one. I have done enough events at this distance to know that finishing is not only possible, but probable. At the same time I have done enough events at this distance to know what could happen to me on the way to the finish.
Note the duct-taped front wheel
Worst case scenarios? I have plenty. In one of my first Ironman events, in Lake Placid, a spoke tore itself right off the hub of my front wheel at 60K into the bike (it poured rain all day to add to the fun). I couldn’t get the spoke off the wheel without major surgery, so I duct-taped the remnant of the spoke to its neighbor, disabled my front brake, and rode the next 120K with a seriously out-of-true wheel and minimal stopping ability.
At Ironman Canada in 2011, the annoyance of two flat tires I had on the bike was exacerbated by an unexpected shortage of water at the aid stations, which then contributed to a bout of dehydration on the run; this in turn caused me to walk much of the marathon.
Ouch. Only 40K to go.
In both cases I did get to the finish line more or less intact, though a little later than planned.
In the best of worlds I would use these experiences to teach me to prepare for any outcome, and to know that even if the worst happens, there are very few things that will keep me from finishing. In reality, I tend to fret about what new disasters might be waiting for me around the corner. Because I know what can happen, I worry all the more that it will.
Someone once said that the greatest distance an athlete will have to travel on Ironman race day is the distance between his two ears. I take this to mean that all my previous experience plus my concerns and expectations for the race ahead are rattling around in my mind, taking up space and energy that I should be using to enjoy the moment and to move myself to the finish line. In their book Thinking Body, Dancing Mind, Al Huang and Jerry Lynch remind us that letting go of preconceived expectations is the key to personal freedom and power. “Evolved individuals act without expectation” says the Tao.
Einstein said that imagination was more important than knowledge. But imagination can also be powerfully intimidating if allowed to run unleashed before a race. Therefore both imagination and knowledge must be combined; each to govern the other.
In addition to finishing the race, my goals each year are always:
  • to avoid speculating about all that could happen in the miles ahead and simply keep moving;
  • to know that there is a finish line, and that I am progressing towards it, no matter how fast or slow;
  • to simplify the effort so that my mind stays quiet;
  • to enjoy small successes and put speed bumps and road blocks behind me;
  • to celebrate the opportunity I have been given to participate in such an extraordinary adventure.
 The good news is that after I finish, all the fretting and fussing over real or imagined disasters is always quickly forgotten. Of all the final miles I have run and all the finish lines I have crossed in the past thirty years, there is nothing like Ironman and there never will be.
Is it all worth it? Ask me in a week.

Slowest finish ever - but still a finish

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Exactly What Part of This Are You Enjoying?

Say you’re running and you start to think, Man this hurts; I can’t take it anymore. The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not you can stand any more is up to [you].”
Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Last Sunday I finished off my peak pre-Ironman training week with a run of about three and a half hours. It was a beautiful run in every way; I ran at a very sedate pace and only started to stiffen up as I entered my fourth hour. I was wishing that the race had been that day.

The week comprised about sixteen hours of exercise all told, with lots of open water swimming and hilly biking as well as a couple of good runs. Although this doesn’t come close to the training volume of many other triathletes, it is about as much as I ever do. Over the next three weeks I will try to do something resembling a controlled taper.
The whole week was hard work. I biked for hours up and down the hills of the Muskoka 70.3 course, because it is close to my cottage, and because the topography mimics some of what Tremblant is offering up. I swam 120 metre laps in my lake over and over, trying—and seldom succeeding—to sight a straight line. I ran back and forth on my cottage road, a gravel trail with thigh-burning climbs and knee-crunching descents. It was hard work, and I loved every minute.

That’s not to say that I was completely happy, comfortable, or relaxed every minute. Exercise was not invented to be a soother. It is not lying in a hammock with a good book; it is not being cuddled and stroked; it is not a mug of hot cocoa. It is meant to place our muscles and our spirit under stress so that both can grow and strengthen.

Pedalling up a steep grade out of Death Valley one morning last winter I wondered how much I was loving it. We had stopped part way up for a group photo at Zabriskie Point and then continued to climb. It was a cool, breezy morning and my kit had turned cold and clammy against my skin while we were stopped. There was no respite from the upward grind and I knew it would be many hours before I was back in my hotel room under a hot shower. ”Exactly what part of this,” I remember asking myself, “are you enjoying?”
But would I have traded places at that moment with someone lined up at the all-you-can-eat buffet on a cruise ship? The answer is what it always is: not for anything.

Not a day at the spa
Of course, a training run or a bike ride can be totally enjoyable. On a beautiful course in perfect conditions there is no place I would rather be. But I do not head out the door in the morning looking for a day at the spa. I leave that to the spa lovers.
For me, the pleasure of a hard physical workout is a holistic thing. There are moments of discomfort interwoven with moments of intoxicating physicality and I embrace both. I am aware of every part of my body working together in concert, in a circular orchestration to move me forward; my legs pushing me along my path; my lungs processing oceans of oxygen; my heart pumping blood to power my legs. I live the effort. On top of all this is the sense that I am working toward a goal, literally moving toward it physically and mentally. I consider that each step in training takes me one step closer to the finish line in the race ahead.

On a more prosaic level, I train so that I will know what it is going to feel like to be called upon to run up a sharp hill at mile 18 of the Ironman marathon on race day, when my reserves are dwindling and the finish line still seems a long way off.  And it doesn’t always feel great. The closing miles of the Ironman marathon are seldom pain-free. Oddly though, merely being in the closing miles is one of my favourite sensations; it tells me that I might be stiff and sore, but that my training has paid off and I am close to achieving my goal.
Recently I received a note from an old friend asking if I was going to be participating in any extreme events or “other craziness” this summer. Once again I bit my email-tongue, trying not to go off on my usual rant about what I and tens of thousands of others do every year: we set a goal; we create a plan; we follow through; we work to achieve the goal. What part of that, I always want to ask, is crazy? But I never say anything anymore. There are people who understand, and people who never will. To them it is craziness not because they can’t do it, but because they can’t conceive it.

As an endurance athlete, I dream; I plan; I train; sometimes I suffer; I strive to achieve. As Margaret Mead reportedly said, we learn the value of hard work by working hard. The striving and suffering and achieving must always be their own reward. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Take it Back to the Start

Peterborough Half Iron – July 7, 2013

“…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started…and to know the place for the first time.”
T.S. Eliot
As I drove in the pre-dawn gloom to Peterborough Sunday for the Half Iron Triathlon, I couldn’t help recalling my first attempt at the distance, in 2001. That year, I took a wrong turn on the way to the race and got impossibly lost, arriving in transition about twenty minutes before the start, racking my bike in totally the wrong place, and madly scrambling just to get to the beach before the gun went off. In the dozen intervening years, I am proud to say that I have figured out how to get to the race site much more efficiently, although I don’t seem to have improved my racing much.

I have a longer history with the Peterborough races than with any other event— I did the very first triathlon of my life there in July 1994—and I like to think that as a triathlete, I grew up there. Although it has had more competition from other long course races in past years, the venerable Half Iron race is still a can’t-miss event in this part of the country. The combination of a deceptively hilly bike course and the open, shadeless run course make for a challenging and rewarding day, as well as a great training ground for anyone getting ready for an Ironman later in the season.

I had decided on short notice to enter this year because I wanted one more long distance race to set a benchmark for the last six weeks of my training before Mont Tremblant next month. I like to be reminded of what a mass swim start is like and how the sensations of transition between swim, bike and run feel; and I like to see what happens when I push myself toward a real finish line.
The skies stayed mostly overcast all day, with a hint of rain. I did not hear anyone complaining about this; the weather was warm and humid, and if the sun had made its usual appearance the run would have been an ordeal.

In a sprint for last place between swim laps
The swim course at Peterborough is two loops, where you get out of the water after the first loop and run along the beach a ways to dive back in and go around again. This presumably is a boon to those can’t swim 2000 metres all at once without drowning; plus, if you can do the  hundred yard dash in any kind of time you can pick up a few places in the standings.
Once we splashed en masse into the green, somewhat weedy water, I settled into a relaxed stroke, enjoying the familiar feeling of being a single sock in washing machine. I still struggled with swimming in a straight line as I have always done, but my arms and legs felt strong and I exited the water in about the same time as I had in 2001. Rather than thinking that this means I haven’t improved at all in that time, I choose to believe that age has not withered me too much. I would have been quite happy with any result that was even close to what I could do twelve years ago.

The bulk of the Peterborough bike course follows sparsely travelled country roads in varying states of smoothness. A lot of it is what the race organizers quaintly call “rolling”, meaning there are a lot of hills. No one incline is overly long, or a steep thigh burner— I noted a 9% grade about twice, with the rest between four and six percent—but they combine to reward good climbers and to slow down the unprepared. By the end I felt I had had a good workout without feeling trashed.
For several years the run course was a confusing set of traffic cone-delineated loops around a field that had a distressingly uneven surface. Runners had to pick their way around and through families who were walking through the park for a Sunday picnic. Now most of the run has returned to the road, where it was in the beginning. This makes for a much better experience, although it can be arduous if the sun is shining. On the main part of the course, there is no shade at all and I recall from previous years looking down the long straight road and seeing the black asphalt shimmering in the hazy heat, like the one in that road-tarring scene from Cool Hand Luke. If you ever have the urge to feel like an egg frying on pavement, this is the place.

I trotted slowly and (somewhat) steadily through the half-marathon, predictably tiring and stiffening, but immeasurably cheered by the wonderful volunteers. As I was near the back of the pack, there were not a lot of folks left on the course, and at lonely times like this the encouragement you get at the aid stations is often your only human contact. I hope the volunteers know how important they are to us and to the whole event.
 I finished, feeling tired but without major injury or calamity. A smaller racing field means that my slow finish time is all the more egregious than it would have been in a 70.3; I think all the fast guys in my age group must have shown up that day, because I was nowhere near them.

However, I realized afterward that I had actually knocked a few minutes off my best-ever time for the Half Ironman distance. It’s nice to think that even if I’m not getting much better, at least I’m not getting any worse.
The Peterborough race does not have as generous a time limit as the Ironman 70.3 races; they have a much smaller field, and there is a need to get the roads opened as soon as possible. About an hour after I crossed the line as one of the last few dozen finishers, I was driving out of town on my way home, and saw one straggler making his way in, obviously having a very slow day and way past the cutoff. Police protection on the roads had long since been withdrawn, and he was waiting patiently at a stoplight so that he could jog across the last intersection and finish his race.

I sometimes think that this is what it’s all about; to keep your focus even when everything else is blurring. To complete the course and finish what you start. Kudos.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Water! de l’Eau!

Mont Tremblant Ironman 70.3 - June 23, 2013

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
Mohandas Ghandi
The Mont Tremblant Ironman 70.3 and its big brother, the full Ironman, both have a special niche among the North American Ironman races. Located in the Province of Québec, the predominant language and culture of the Tremblant event is French, and this adds a unique atmosphere to the proceedings. Although almost everyone will speak fluent English to a visitor, the signage and background chatter are all in French, a reminder of the distinct identity inherited by the Québeçois on this continent.

On Sunday my daughter Laura and I spent six hours at Run Aid Station #12 (station d’aide #12), at 17 km into the run portion of the Ironman 70.3. There were about two dozen of us volunteers, handing out water, sports drink, pretzels, and other essentials to the 2,000 runners as they ran, walked, or staggered past. It was an inspiration to help every one of them.

Laura in action at the water station.
For most of the long day I filled up and gave out cups of water; maybe a thousand cups of water.  We advertised our wares like vendors at an open air market.

“De l’eau!”
It was a warm, humid day so I got a lot of business. I also directed the runners for a while.

I always consider it a privilege to help out in the sport that has given so much to me, but we also had one extra motive this time. The two of us are entered in the full Ironman in August - which is two loops of the same course the athletes were doing Sunday - and we wanted to get a feel for the layout of the event. It is a beautiful course; one of the best I have ever seen. We watched the swim, checking out the long walk to the start and the long run out of the water to transition; the day before we had ridden on some of the bike course, where my Garmin clocked a 17% grade on one of the hills, not too long, mercifully; and we walked the hardest part of the run course up to our aid station. I say “up” because the first three kilometres of the run are all uphill. Now we know. Lots of hill training in my future.

Having been in the shoes of those triathletes more times than I can count, I know the criticality of the volunteer crews. The event would not just be more difficult or less enjoyable without them; it would be simply impossible. Whatever the number of athletes in a race, there are usually twice that many volunteers, performing services from bodymarking at dawn to lifeguard duty during the swim to picking up the garbage after everyone has gone home, and everything you can think of between.
Some of the volunteers at our aid station were not athletic types, and might never participate in an event like a triathlon themselves. But there they were, supplying nutrition and hydration, and cheering on the runners with shouts of “Good job!”; "Bravo!";“You’re looking strong!”; “You’re amazing!” They were there because of their true admiration for the athletes and what they were trying to do; and because they wanted to be part of a special event celebrating body and spirit.

There was a purity of attitude that moved me. Not once did I ever hear anyone question why anyone would want to race in a long distance triathlon. Not once did I hear anyone demean or diminish the efforts we were witnessing by using the term “crazy” to describe thousands of runners who streamed past our station. From my fellow volunteers I sensed only admiration and support for the dreaming, planning, training, dedication, focus, and perseverance needed to get to the finish line.
We should all experience such undiluted positive energy at least once in our lives, no matter what we are trying to accomplish.