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.