Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Coming Ice Age

I want to know, even if I trip and break my femur on the way to the starting line, that I have succeeded.”
Written by me shortly after entering my first Ironman, September 2001

OK. So, snow.
The weather outside is frightful. It has been frightful every winter since at least the last Ice Age. Still, like the chronic speeder pulled over for the umpteenth time, we seem surprised each time that it has happened to us once again.

Really there was just a smattering of snow in Toronto this week, although this is usually enough for us to consider ourselves part of the next Armageddon. Here in our town we have twenty-five different words for snow, and they are all swear words. We get snow here, and while we do not get battered nearly as much as our neighbours less than a hundred kilometres to the north or south, we manage to whine far more. One year the city actually called in the army after a particularly heavy snowfall. We were laughed at by the rest of the country.
I am one of the whiners. My Ohioan friends Pam and Dave embrace the drifts of winter and head for the trails on bikes slung with tires that look like they belong on a monster truck. I am envious of their spirit, and wish I had the [insert body parts here] to love this season myself. I don’t. I have paid my dues in the past: biked to work all winter through puddles of salty slush; run through the snow in shoes with screws drilled into the soles. I'm over it.

Get inside you fool.
So my outdoor training season is effectively over. What this really means is that I can no longer blame the weather for missed workouts; for the fact that the pages in my training log look as blank as the expanse of unmarked white snow I can see today outside my window.
Yesterday I mounted the red training tire on my bike, clamped the bike onto the trainer, and spent some quality time with Coach Troy Jabobson on one of my dozen Spinervals DVDs. Today I’ll hop onto the treadmill and begin a winter of running nowhere.

My training for my planned 2015 season, including Ironman Muskoka next August, has begun.
What was driven home to me after I was carted off the course on a stretcher at Mont Tremblant in 2013 was that although race day is important to me, it is only the terminus of a months-long process of mental and physical preparation. I had better love that process, because life is too short to wallow in months of misery for the sake of the single day at an athletic event. Winter training is part of the process. And I will happily do mine indoors.

I intend to relish every minute of my triathlon training over the winter months—even the unenjoyable minutes: evenings in a tepid, pee-filled public pool, navigating myself over and around unidentifiable flotsam and dog-paddling folks who have no grasp of what a lane swim is; pounding away on a moving rubber tread with the overhead furnace vent blasting hot air over me and Frasier reruns on the TV; cranking away on my trainer-manacled bicycle pretending to be climbing a hill in Muskoka by grinding the rear derailleur down to the smallest cog and standing on the pedals so that my head hits the ceiling.

It doesn’t get any better than this. Well actually it does; once the snow is gone and I can get outside again, I know it will be more fun. But I still plan to cherish any hours I spend working toward my goal, indoors or outdoors, and intend to be grateful that I can.

Crossing the finish line at Ironman will never stop being a singular thrill. But after many finishes over the past dozen years, it has stopped being a mystical, spiritual, life-changing experience. What it represents to me is the fulfillment of a promise made to myself, the realization of a plan followed to the end. The hundreds and hundreds of miles of training ahead, even those in my basement that move me nowhere, are the real reason I do this. The destination is indeed the journey, as so many have said, and I’m on it once again.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Greater Expectations

To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target, reads an aphorism by Ashley Brilliant.

Although I embrace the concept of venturing into the unknown when I start a race, I do feel that one should have some kind of goal in mind in order to help resist the temptation to just run off the road at the first Tim Horton’s and spend the morning eating TimBits. At the Angus Glen Half Marathon, my goal was the amorphous and always disclaimer-friendly “JTF”. Just to Finish.
Set a PB, Pip.
I wonder if my expectations were a bit too modest.
The Angus Glen races are held in Unionville, an affluent dormitory community just northeast of Toronto. There is a 10K, a family 5K, and the Half Marathon. Because it’s November, bad weather is possible and is not feared. The race start and finish are at the clubhouse of the Angus Glen Golf Club (once a Black Angus cattle farm), a beautiful course that hosted the Canadian Open in 2007.

The golf club facilities are terrific and welcoming, with lots of indoor square footage so that everyone can stay warm while waiting to run. Warmth was a cherished commodity on race morning, as the temperature outside was around minus 1 Celsius, although the sun shone hopefully. The start time is a sleeper-inner’s dream: 9:00 am, which includes an extra hour as the clocks go back.

I wanted to run in this race because it is small and rural, the opposite of the manic Waterfront Marathon I have run the past few years. The race organizers place a cap on entries to make sure the facilities aren’t overtaxed and the resources aren’t clobbered. It works. There are not a lot of volunteers (in fact there was no one at all at the far turnaround of the course), but not many are really needed, and the ones who stood swathed in goose down and GoreTex at the aid stations to hand us our water did so beautifully.
After all 350 or so of us half marathoners got started, I began running with an easier and slightly faster step than I can remember taking lately, as I was carried along with the others. The first few kilometres wound through a neat, trim housing development at the edge of the golf course. I could picture the real estate agent saying to prospective house buyers, “You do golf, don’t you?”

Heading away from the populated areas, the course traces the outlines of farms that in another ten years will be housing developments. Many farmhouses along the way were empty and boarded up, the properties for sale.
I tried to keep an even pace as we ran up and down the long rolling hills at the base of the Oak Ridges Moraine. I was bundled up against the cold, which was good a thing while we were running northward into the wind. After the northernmost turnaround, all of a sudden I had the wind at my back and the sun in my face and I was actually too warm.

The last couple of kilometres winds along the cart paths of the golf course itself. There are surprising twists and turns and some steep, sharp hills, which can be depressing if you are not expecting them, which I wasn’t. An older gentleman—who obviously had a loftier goal than I had—passed me on one of the hills, and I watched him disappear into the distance to claim  whatever place I might have had just off the bottom of my age group.

With running and writing friend Sam after the finish

I had low expectations for myself in this race. I haven’t run the half marathon distance in at least a year, so I was ready to treat myself gently and plod along. It was one of those races where I was going to be happy just to see how things went and not make a fool of myself. As the morning progressed, I began to ask more of myself, trying for (and getting) even splits between the kilometre markers. As we got close to the end, I pushed harder. Amazingly, my body, which has spent most of the summer building a deck instead of running, responded to my pushes. I crossed the finish line with just a bit left in the tank, a few minutes faster than my most optimistic plan. I expected more and I got more. Go figure.

Low expectations are being retired for the foreseeable future. There is no place for them in my life over the coming months.  As I get ready for Ironman Muskoka in August 2015, it’s time to start thinking like an athlete again.

Friday, October 24, 2014

My Un-Tights

“I get older. They stay the same age.”
Wooderson, Dazed and Confused

Beautiful autumn run through the valley yesterday.
I took the car to the dealership and ran home—not far, just about seven kilometres, but enough to get my legs warmed up.

Not that they needed it, as I was wearing my favourite pair of tights, an old pair that I have had for many years. In fact, when I got home, I walked past a photo of me in the Vulture Bait 25K trail race back in 2007, and noticed I was wearing the same tights (and the same blue running jacket, as it happens).
I remember when I bought them. It was just after the Rideau Lakes Cycling Tour in 1999. The Rideau Lakes is an enjoyable 360K round trip pedal between Ottawa and Kingston. You bike down on Saturday, stay the night at Queen’s University, and head back to Ottawa on Sunday. The first year I did the event, we had beautiful weather on the Saturday; but overnight, wind, rain, and cold moved in. Some people (including me) were taken by surprise by the sudden weather change. I had only a little jacket and some tissue-paper thin nylon warmup pants with me. Many people abandoned that day; oddly, I didn’t, but I was wet and freezing for every minute of the ride back. At one point I recall standing in the public park washroom in Perth, about 40K from the end, trying to thaw my hands out under a weak stream of hot water from the tap so I could hold onto my handlebars. The finish line seemed a long way off that day.

I don’t mind running or biking in the cold and wet. But I hate being cold and wet, and I was annoyed at myself for not having had the foresight to have brought the proper cycling kit for bad weather. Tim Noakes, in The Lore of Running, agrees with me. “Almost without exception,” he writes, “Fatal cases of hypothermia occur in people who underestimate the cooling capacity of the environment.” Yikes. That is exactly what I had done.
Right after that first Rideau Lakes, I decided that as God was my witness, I would never be cold again. I went to Mountain Equipment and bought a carload of weather-resistant clothing. The next year at the event, I was outfitted with enough gear for an open boat journey through the Drake Passage in the gales of winter. Of course, that year the weather was warm and sunny all weekend.

All these years later, my tights are anything but tight; they have all the elasticity of a pair of Pa Kettle’s long johns. After I’ve been running for a while they tend to bag around my ankles like a pair of 1980s aerobic leg warmers. Somewhere along the line they acquired a rip in the thigh from an unfriendly bicycle component. It’s a cinch that they slow me down considerably by wind drag alone.
New paths; familiar clothing
I have lots of other tights, warmer, stretchier, more waterproof, and one X-rated pair of compression ones that cling to me like shrink wrap. But I seem to keep coming back to the familiar old floppy pair. I probably will, until I need to wear suspenders with them to keep them from falling down.

Maybe it’s because they link me to all the races we have done and all the places we have been together: countless early morning training rides in Algonquin; the Waterfront Marathon in Toronto; the Blue Mountain Century in Collingwood; winters of biking to work downtown. On my desk, as I write, is a photo of my wife and me on a chilly morning ride to Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. I’m wearing the tights. There is a timelessness, an agelessness about these almost indestructible tights that I am loath to let go of.
Next weekend, failing an unprecedented increase in global warming, I’ll pull the tights on one more time for the Angus Glen Half Marathon. I’m really looking forward to this run, a small, friendly race just north of Toronto, which I’m doing for the first time. Except it won’t feel like the first time. As I flop down the road in my baggy old tights, each step will feel like every one I’ve ever taken.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Runner Runner

"When I first started running, I was so embarrassed I'd walk when cars passed me. I'd pretend I was looking at the flowers!"
Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic marathoner

We are all in the same race, we who call ourselves runners claim, but the race that women had to run to get onto the track was longer and more arduous than mine ever was. That my own daughter has been able to enter and finish several Ironman triathlons, and that her childhood friend, Kate, is currently a world-class professional 1500-metre runner are direct results of the vision and fortitude of the early twentieth century female athletes, who ran toward a finish line that was so much farther away than it is today that it must have been almost out of sight.
Carrie Snyder’s fine book, Girl Runner (Anansi), tells the story of Aganetha Smart, a fictitious but very believable middle distance runner who competed in the 1928 Olympics. Aganetha’s career as an elite athlete (which is inspired by the real-life Canadian women--the Matchless Six-- who went to the Olympics that year) is described alongside her life as a farm girl, and both stories are bound together by that of the present-day 104-year-old Aganetha, who is spirited away from her nursing home by a mysterious young couple. Gradually we become aware that the young lady in the couple is also a runner, and the plot begins to turn, like a running trail leading into a new part of the forest.

Women were not always encouraged, or even allowed to run. The sport was considered unladylike,
An official tries to pull Kathrine Switzer off
the marathon course.
and women themselves were thought too frail to survive the physical travails of a running race. (This assessment would come as a surprise to any woman who has gone through childbirth.) Young female runners (who make up the majority of most half-marathon fields today) might not know that in 1967 an official tried to throw athlete Kathrine Switzer bodily off a marathon course, which at the time was open only to men. “Get the hell out of my race,” the official is supposed to have snarled at her. Five years later, women were officially “allowed” to run this race, which was, and is, the Boston Marathon.
And yet, through everything, women ran. They ran because something inside them demanded that they do; because they were good at it; because running was part of their shape and definition, even if it defied reason or custom.

When 104-year-old Aggie asks the young woman who has inexplicably taken her away from her home why she runs, the woman responds: “I don’t know….I think I would run even if I knew I would never win another race again. It’s weird. I can’t explain it. It’s like something I can’t turn off.”
The prosaic and earthy aspects of running always intermingle with the metaphysical. There is sweat, and mud, and having to pee behind a tree (if you can find one). Our bodies are constantly reminding us that they are there, working for us, no matter what lofty visions we may have started out with. There are few runners who can’t relate to the unattractive physical realities of the sport. Ms. Snyder (a distance runner herself) hardly makes the life of the elite athlete seem glamorous with descriptions such as:

“I am hiding in the change room…staring at my bared feet, blistered and red… Directly across from me is a toilet perched oddly on a high concrete pedestal…and beside that a cold-water shower spout over a drain in the floor…It is a dismal space and I’m a dismal mess of dismal emotions: I thought I was fast?
Ms. Snyder mixes details of the lives of her rural Ontario women with the ineffable need to run that has always driven athletes of both genders. She also describes, in a near-breathless cadence, the cathartic cleansing of running that many runners know. “I run strong. I run fine. I can feel my sadness running out behind me, like it’s being spilled on the ground…”

We run with our girl runner, our legs barely touching the ground, but we also muck out the stables and feed the chickens and bake Crumb Cakes with her. It is in running, though, that Aggie tries proactively to assemble the person she wants to be. Does she succeed? Looking back at her life, she seems to summarize everything with a Fitzgerald-like observation: “We are old. But we go on.” This phrase reminds me of the mantra I sometimes use in the closing miles of Ironman: “I’m alive. And I’m moving forward.” Sometimes, this is all we have.
The original "Matchless Six" Canadian Olympians in 1928
I quibble slightly with the story's depiction of my own gender. As with so many novels about women, the men are often drawn as simple backdrops or springboards to advance plot: the father, possibly heartbroken but stolid,  with his perpetual home improvement projects; the thoughtless boyfriend; the faceless corporate benefactor; the clumsy cinematographer. But Girl Runner is not a book about men, and who knows, maybe this is really how men seemed to women in the twentieth century, before the women were allowed inside them.

You do not have to be a girl or a runner to love this book. As a male runner, I was able to marvel at the path that Aganetha Smart followed, even while acknowledging my own distance from it. The story itself is compelling and timeless and the female characters are as sharply drawn as if they had been carved from the unyielding earth of the Ontario farmland. Carrie Snyder’s precise images and clear sentences carry the action forward, and her expert handling of the changes in setting make the shifts almost seamless. Like a racer in perfect form rounding the final curve and sprinting towards the tape, there is not a wasted action, an unfocussed thought, or a shallow breath in Girl Runner.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Over My Head

“Success is a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don't quit when you're tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired.”
Robert Strauss

 “Why,” someone once asked me, “Do you like doing so many things that you are no good at?”

He was referring to my love for (and slowness in) distance running, but as I lifted another bag of cement mix off my driveway where the Home Depot truck had dumped it, I remembered the question. I was covered in powdered cement dust, which clouded into my mouth and eyes. My arms and back were a symphony of muscle pain. Each bag weighed 66 pounds; I was on my 17th bag, and there were 52 of them. It was like Mile 18 of the Ironman marathon.

I wondered if this time I really was in over my head. Here I was, at the beginning of another project for which I had absolutely no discernible talent: to build a deck all by myself in my backyard.

Once begun however, I knew that this project was going to get finished no matter how hard it was or how long it took me. The deck is part of a larger backyard improvement initiative that we hope to get finished before the snow files. More important, I need to finish what I start, even if finishing involves a lot of work or discomfort, or spending a long time without being able to touch bottom or see the finish line.

I ended up taking time off from running and other athletics to do this project. The sabbatical wasn’t planned, but I found that at the end of each day’s labour I was ready to do one of several activities: collapse, sleep, ice my sore muscles, or stare catatonically at America's Got Talent—anything but work out. It is no exaggeration to say that every day was a marathon of effort. Lifting, sawing and hammering I lost ten pounds and gained unprecedented upper body strength.

I am a slow, plodding construction worker, mostly because I don’t know what I’m doing. In my life, I have been an opera singer and a financial analyst, and I am now a writer; nowhere in my CV is carpentry mentioned. I therefore have to learn as I go, by trial and error. Second, I like to work alone, with no help or advice from anyone else. I get nervous when I feel someone looking over my shoulder, especially if there is the likelihood that they know more than I do.

Not that there was much assistance being offered anyway. “Just give me a holler anytime you want a hand,” said my neighbour Bill, immediately before heading off to his cottage for two months. The only real help I had was from a man with a machine that looked like a ride-em lawnmower with a giant corkscrew attached, who came and drilled the holes for my cement footings. He seemed to think I had a lot of them. “You could build a whole damn house on this foundation,” he said. I admit that, like the guy who wears both suspenders and a belt, I was nervous about everything staying up.

The only time I really missed having an assistant was when I needed someone to hold one end of my measuring tape. I used nails, rocks, or pure will to hold one end the tape in place while I tried to measure something. As often as not, the far end of the tape would let go of its mooring and hiss and snap toward me like a python after a swamp rat, and I would have to start over again.

Every morning for a month, I went out alone to my yard with very little notion of what I was going to do that day, or how to do it. But I loved the smell of fresh-cut lumber; the heavy usefulness of the tools; the sharpness of screws as they burrowed into the wood; the strength of heavy, straight boards laid side by side that made me think of the self-sustaining synergy of a choir.

The finished product - mostly straight and level
I took extra care to make sure the whole structure was exactly 24 inches above the ground and completely level. I was haunted by the vision of that scene in Titanic, where people and string quartets are sliding off the end of that deck into the ocean; especially that one guy who bounced off the propeller on the way down. I spent more time fussing with my level than making sure the boards were the right length.

From the get-go, I knew I was in over my head trying to do this all project by myself. I had recurring muscle spasms in my back from holding boards in place with one foot while lying upside down to join them together. I had to stop after each step and figure out what I was supposed to do next.

Yet, there was not one moment when I wished I were somewhere else. There was never a time when I considered that I could have paid someone else to build the deck for me.

I realized many years ago that when I am in over my head is when I feel most alive. I have always cherished the adventure of starting a journey without knowing exactly how I am going to get to the end.

As I treaded water with 1800 other triathletes at the starting line of my first Ironman in Wisconsin in 2002, I was quite literally in over my head. Somewhere in my brain was a question: “What in Heaven’s name am I doing?” The answer came back from somewhere inside me: I haven’t a clue; let’s see what happens.

A place to have coffee 24 inches above the ground.
I’ve started running again and have entered a small half-marathon in November to help motivate me. I have also entered both the 70.3 and the full Ironman in Muskoka next summer. I wonder if my newfound upper body strength will last that long.
The deck is beautiful; it is solid and welcoming and is a joy to sit on. It is held together by a month’s worth of imagination, labour, and perseverance, and by my constant desire to head for the deep end of the pool, to go somewhere I have never been, and to see what things are like when I get there.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Marilyn and Me - Great Lake Swimmers

Toronto Triathlon Festival

I was in an uncooperative mood when I woke up at 5:00 am to head down to the Toronto Triathlon Festival at Ontario Place. Rain was forecast, making the prospect less attractive, but above all I wasn’t looking forward to jumping into frigid, choppy, murky Lake Ontario for the 1500 metre swim. Some Ironman I’ve become I thought; cowering at the thought of a little rain and chilly water. Still, I said to myself as I lay in bed, if it’s pouring outside, I’m Not Going. It wasn’t, so I went.
If wet weather was to be, it actually couldn’t have been kinder to me. It rained on us a bit while we were standing in wetsuits waiting to get into the water. Obviously not a big deal there. Then it was dry for the entire event until just at the end, when the Heavens opened briefly as I walked away from the finish line.

Ontario Place in the sunshine.
A good venue for an urban triathlon
An urban race is a bit of an anomaly in triathlon. While marathons are often run on city streets, we usually find triathlons in smaller, less dense venues: parks, conservation areas, resort towns tucked into mountain ranges. The difficulty of finding places to swim, then bike, then run—all close to each other—probably limits the sites available in a big city.

Toronto has a large body of water right beside it; not exactly a pristine northern lake, but apparently swimmable. For biking, the race organizers managed to talk the city into shutting down parts of the two major arteries into and out of town: the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, usually crammed all day and all night with seething motorists. It was bravely decided by someone (not our mayor) that they could seethe somewhere else for a few hours. The run takes place along the waterfront trail—not ideally, right beside Lakeshore Boulevard where many of the above- mentioned motorists sat idling in the dense, damp, air.

As I moved towards the water with hundreds of neoprened athletes, it occurred to me that in the 60-odd years I’ve lived in Toronto, I have never done anything more than paddle my feet in Lake Ontario. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it would not be a hot tub. When we jumped into the water, the guy next to me said “Jesus, this is cold. I don’t know if I can do this.” My body was thinking something similar, but before I had time to mull the water conditions, the horn sounded and we were off swimming.

In about 30 seconds the cold water had become a non-issue; it was just a swim, a few degrees cooler than my own cottage lake. As I swam, I realized that a lot of my anxiety had been fuelled by
She finished just a short distance
from where I was swimming
lifelong images of the very first trans-Lake Ontario swimmer, Marilyn Bell, emerging from the dark water in September 1954, blue from the cold, covered in grease and slime after twenty hours of dodging lamprey eels. She had finished her swim just a few hundred metres from where I was now.

Expecting the worst, I was happily surprised. To me, the water seemed reasonably clean—or at least it tasted all right from the several involuntary mouthfuls I got—and it was not nearly as weedy or grungy as lots of other places where they hold triathlon swims. Even though we were inside the breakwater, there was some chop and swell, but this just made it seem a bit interesting—like one of the rides at the Exhibition across the street. I ended up enjoying the swim as much as I do all my triathlon swims.
I don’t get a big rush from cycling up the deserted Don Valley Parkway, although it’s nice to see it in a sort of post-apocalyptic, I-Am-Legend state, free from the ceaseless gridlock that has become its trademark. In fact, for me, the bike was a bit of a yawn, with no interesting technical details or scenery. I had to remind myself to get out of the saddle now and then just to stretch my legs. The road surface was great, except for the odd pothole hidden under a pool of rainwater. My son Duncan, who was doing tech support on his motorcycle, changed a couple of tires for people who had come to grief in these hazards.

As I was running down the trail beside the lake, I realized that I was probably enjoying myself too much. I thought of the words of Troy Jacobson on one of my workout DVDs: “You’re not working hard enough pal.” I listened to Coach Troy enough to pick up the pace slightly for the second half and finish with a negative split. I was just thrilled that nothing in my whole body was hurting, even my long-suffering feet. The run felt terrific the whole way.
Marilyn nearing the end of her lake swim.
Notice the lack of wetsuit or goggles.
Just after I crossed the finish line, it began to rain again, first gently, then hard. I couldn’t really complain about this; it was kind of refreshing and I got so drenched that I didn’t even feel the need for a post-race shower.

Water was a theme of this triathlon. I feel a new kinship with Marilyn Bell, whose adventure I read about as a child. Of course her accomplishment was light years greater than my little wetsuited, marshalled swim 50 metres from shore, but now I have known the same water and waves around me. I feel closer to all those who have swum in this unwelcoming Great Lake with the hope of moving through it by means of their own power and will, and I honour them all the more.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Winding the Clock

Guelph Lake Olympic Distance Triathlon

While I was trotting steadily along the path under the warm solstice sun during the run portion of the Guelph Lake Triathlon last weekend, it came to me that one of the things I enjoy most about triathlon is the continuity of effort that it both provides and demands.  Unlike the sports of swimming, biking, or running by themselves, in triathlon there is no real finish line for the first two events. Unless you are part of a relay team (which sort of defeats the purpose of entering a triathlon in the first place, doesn’t it?), you can’t sit down and rest after the swim or the bike; there is more to be done. The end of the swim is the start of the bike; the end of the bike is the start of the run.
After each event, a clock somewhere is reset to zero. I love the contiguous challenges of the three disciplines, whether they stretch over a couple of hours in a Sprint distance race, or fifteen in an Ironman.
At Guelph Lake this year, the first day of summer lived up to its name, with blue skies, warm temperatures, and light breezes. When the gun went off, I splashed into the water with the last wave of racers and quickly got left behind even by them. The effort of the continuous stroking over the 1500 metres felt familiar and relaxed. Of course I wasn’t working hard enough, but I knew I was working. I trotted up the long hill to transition leaving only a few folks in the water behind me.

Although it’s still early in the season for me, I got on my bike and started pedalling as if I had been doing it all winter—which I had… but mostly on my indoor trainer. It’s funny how I still think of my P2 as a newish bike even though I have had it for six years. The bike and I have been through a lot together: many slogs up Richter Pass at Ironman Canada; a hot, dusty century in Death Valley (before I had my road bike); humidity-drenched rides in the Florida 70.3; a clavicle-snapping crash in Muskoka; and countless rides in all weathers through Algonquin Park. The bike and I fit each other so well that I sometimes feel I could fall asleep in the aerobars during a long ride.

The Guelph Lake bike course slipped quickly past farm fields and cow pastures. There aren’t many thigh-burning hills, and the road surfaces are worn but navigable. My legs just kept pushing the pedals, the big wheels kept on turning , and, as often happens with an Olympic bike distance, the ride was over before I had truly settled in.
I don’t know why it had not occurred to me that it might be hot on the run. I suppose I thought that since it was a short race, the air would still be morning-cool before the run was over. It wasn’t. I felt very little breeze or shade along the paths through the park that made up the run course. In some places the heat rising from the grown-over roadways reminded me of the tarring scene in Cool Hand Luke. Except for the noisy enthusiasm of the aid station volunteers, it was warmly quiet and peaceful as I ran along with a slow and easy pace. I was so immersed in the constant rhythm of my footsteps that I barely looked up when I crossed the finish line.

Still, there's no stopping. The end of the race is not really an end, but the beginning of other things: you have to pack up your stuff, drive home, and then start planning for the next race: swimming, biking, and running. A triathlete’s summer is a continuum of activity.
Set the clock back to zero.
Do it all again next time.

There is an ongoing forward motion to the best parts of our lives, where one step leads to the next and one road gives onto the next. The end of a thing is always the beginning of another; this is how we make sense of our existence, and how we maintain hope.
E.B. White once wrote about the ritual act of winding up the grandfather clock each Sunday, to give structure and continuity to the week ahead. I metaphorically wind up the clock after each athletic challenge in the wishful hope that there will be another one ahead for it to measure, and that I will be ready to meet it.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

I Love the Smell of Neoprene in the Morning

“My motto is: live every day to the moderation"
Lindsay Lohan

This summer, in terms of endurance athletics, I have set my sights a bit lower than in previous years. For “lower” I am thinking “fun.” I’ve entered the Guelph Lakes Olympic distance triathlon, a race that I haven’t done since 2001. When I was looking at the results, I couldn’t help noticing that the guys last year in the Men 60-65 age group were all faster than I was thirteen years ago, when I was in the 45-49 group. So with little to lose and nowhere to go but up, what else could it be but fun?
The last Olympic race I did was the now-gone Muskoka 5150. I remember the 40K bike as nothing but enjoyment; long enough to get your legs warmed up but not so long that you start to hate your saddle. The distances are so reasonable—1500 metre swim, 40K bike and 10K run—that it’s almost impossible not to have a good time on some level.

I have a good history with the Guelph Lakes triathlon.
I wore my first wetsuit there, back in the last century. It was a used Quntana Roo with a broad silver front that made me look like a metallized, bowling-pin-shaped penguin. I was so proud of it, I wore it till it fell apart—which it inconveniently did several years later just ten seconds before the gun went off at the Peterborough Half Iron race. I remember standing on the beach and taking a deep relaxing pre-race breath, and feeling all the neoprene along my ribcage come apart along the seam.
The Old QR - more water in than out
There wasn’t time to do anything about it—not even to strip it off and go without—so I swam the whole 2000 metres scooping in lake water like a bomber off to a forest fire as the rubber flapped and dragged around me. As it happened, it was one of my fastest swim times ever at Peterborough.

Wetsuits are amazing things. They actually make me think I can go faster, the way that tying a red towel around my neck as a kid made me think I could fly like Superman. A myth. It’s true that they add buoyancy and help me keep swimming flat, but for me this probably knocks about 15 seconds off my total swim time. They also help keep me warm in cold water. I will test this out at the cottage next week, where I believe the ice has been off the lake for about 4 days.
This year I am hoping I can fit into mine, as I am still carrying some of the blubber I put on during our long, long winter. The blubber may assist the wetsuit in keeping me afloat, and in keeping me warm, provided no seams burst. I do not plan a fast swim at Guelph Lakes, or ever.

I like the swim part of a triathlon. It’s a nice private, muffled, green time, where there is nothing to look at and where I don’t have to listen to the hectoring voice of the announcer or the raucous finish line music coming through the loudspeakers. I am lazy swimmer, and I take my time. (I was once passed by a fellow doing the backstroke.) I know that when I get out, I have to get on my bike and face whatever elements are waiting for me in the world. My time in the water is amniotic.

The Fly goes for a swim
Back at my last Guelph Lakes I wore a mask made by AquaSphere that covered most of the top half of my face and gave me a panoramic view of—nothing, actually. It was very comfortable, but some more aggressive swimmers probably felt the drag slowed them down, so the design gradually morphed into a more compact version, which I now wear. I have not noticed a marked improvement in my speed, but I look less like I belong in a Cronenberg movie.

Even though I am shamefully undertrained, I am really looking forward to upcoming race. I need to push myself, physically, in a way that is not as labour intensive as I have in past years. Guelph Lakes is it.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

How We Spend Our Days

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.
Annie Dillard

This week I begin my second year of retirement from the mainstream business world. Although we are much poorer and may finish our lives in the Pythonesque luxury of a cardboard box at the side of the road, I can’t help looking back on the past year with something like satisfaction. A new job has a learning curve. So does the loss of one.
Whereas my lunch hour 6K run used to be a welcome escape from the sometimes tedious tasks I was engaged in at the office, nowadays a workout session is something I can do when I am ready; I need no escape routes. On weekends, I used to feel slothful for not making the most of my free time and getting my run or bike session done early and earnestly. Today the concept of the weekend—and what has to be squeezed into it—is somewhat less distinct than it once was. Efficient and effective squeezing is not required.

After nearly thirty years, I have finally admitted that I hate exercising early in the morning; now I don’t have to get the workout done early make to way for my day. A workout is part of my day.
(I’m actually terrible at everything when I first get up: this morning I poured my orange juice into my coffee cup. This hypnogogic ineptitude extends to writing as well; unlike many writers, I rarely produce anything coherent or sensible until at least noon.)

 The difference between how I allocate my time now and how I did it a year ago is that when I was at the office all day, I had to make the time to train and write. Now, I choose the time.
How to spend a  day

In fact, being retired from a nine-to-five job is like being handed a whole book full of blank pages. Unlike the early days of parenthood and mortgage-paying work responsibilties, there is now more choice among which pages to fill in and which ones to leave blank.

This freedom of course comes with its own pitfalls. I could end up staring out the window all day or straightening my sock drawer for hours. For this reason I’ve always found it easier to plan my time well when I have a goal, whether it’s to deal with the dandelions or to finish an Ironman.

To this end I went and entered my first race of the year, an Olympic distance triathlon in Guelph in June. The last race I did of this distance was the Muskoka 5150 (now sadly no more), and it was a great warm up to the season. The distance is just right to get all the right parts moving, but is not destructive or debilitating to those parts.

Entering a race is like buying a new hat. It offers new possibilities and places them squarely on my head. It makes me decide what training steps I need to take in the next six weeks. It gives me something around which I can plan other activities and obligations (and they do exist). I have home improvement projects. I need to earn some dollars working at various professional projects. To top it all off, this spring I have been somehow talked into singing in a small concert in June, my first such outing in years.

Me in The Magic Flute, 1987
Singing, writing about singing, athletic training, and improving the cardboard box we call home. The pages of my days are filling in, but in the past year they have become my pages and my days. How good to have finally recognized, now that I am in my sixties, how I always wanted to spend my life.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Three Tales of the Tape

“Begin as you mean to go on, and go on as you began...”
Charles H. Spurgeon

Several years ago, when I was wondering whether I was an alcoholic, I learned the phrase “play the tape all the way to the end.” It’s a quaint, almost archaic image; I don’t think it works with digital technology. But it's useful. I take the metaphor to mean that however attractive an idea might seem at first glance, we should look at the end consequences before charging in with all guns blazing.
I have always hated labels, whether on clothing or on me, and I do not know whether I was an alcoholic or not. Organized, anonymous alcoholics themselves might say not, because it was apparently so easy for me to quit and never start again. Whatever the label, one day I simply decided I had had enough, and I never drank again. Maybe, like Ringo Starr, I was just tired of waking up on the floor, and when I played the tape to the end, that is precisely where I saw myself.

In other areas, I am not so successful at playing that tape through to the end. It’s an exercise that can be difficult and unpleasant, because it forces us to look not at delightful prospects and happy fantasies, but at the reality of what deep down we know is going to be an unhappy ending. Who wants to spend time doing that? Who wants to contemplate the long-term effects of a Tim Hortons apple fritter? Who wants to think while basking in the desert sun that one day a blotchy bump will appear on your nose that will require surgery?
But playing the tape works two ways, I have found. On a chilly morning when I wake up with stiff and sore legs, usually the last thing I want to do is go for a run or get on my bike. (I am finding that this reluctance is more insistent the older I get.) I have finished a boatload of endurance events in my life, I tell myself; surely I don’t have to prove anything anymore. But if I search further along the tape, I feel muscles warming up; I feel my feet propelling me across the earth; I see the almost imperceptible misty spray of spring green appearing on the branches of the trees over my head. And when I picture myself arriving home, I feel a body that is tired but fulfilled; a body that has been well-used, and that responded to the challenge I set for it; I sense a mind that is at peace for having made the decision to get up and get out.

Something new just around the corner
Make that three ways the tape can work: When I start an endurance event, there is no way that I can know what is at the end of the tape, because this one is blank. Goodness knows I have had my share of surprises over the years; challenges and showstoppers that have sprung at me out of the forest at the side of the path, unexpected and unwelcome like wild things from Maurice Sendak. If I had known the outcome of some of those events before I started, I might never have started them at all.
The first tale of the tape helps highlights the folly and futility of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

The second shows me that it is sometimes a good idea to begin with the end in mind, as Stephen Covey taught, and to let that vision carry me forward.

The third one celebrates the uncertainty and anticipation that comes with heading down a new road; this is a large part of what motivates me to do what I do. As all athletes know, every race is truly a new road, a chance to roll the tape back to the beginning, erased and ready to record. That part of the road hidden just around the corner is what makes us look forward to discovering what awaits us. It is what reminds us that we are alive.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Winter is Going

Summer friends will melt away like summer snows, but winter friends are friends forever.”
George R.R. Martin

Even a snowman would admit that this winter has been abominable; it is all the more frustrating for the fact that we apparently set so few all-time records. There have been days in the past that were colder, snow that was higher, wind chill  that was chillier. So we don’t even have the distinction of having survived the coldest, snowiest winter since they began keeping records; just one of them.
Statistics aside, though, no one will dispute that for pure orneriness, the past three months have taken the prize. My friend Pam from the U.S., normally an upbeat, no-nonsense type, has lost all patience, and is raving about nightmares with fictitious drunken uncles. If it’s too much for her, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Closer to home, people in Toronto are as sick and tired of this winter as they are of our mayor, and that’s saying something.
In the spirit of making snow cones when life hands you a blizzard, I have made friends of my indoor equipment this year. I have fallen half in love with my trainer and treadmill, if you want to know.

I spend most days of the week going nowhere on my bicycle trainer. Coach Troy Jacobson leads me though my sessions with his Spinervals videos, of which I own more than a dozen. Each one features an opening legal disclaimer with a grammatical error so appalling that it always gets my blood flowing enough to start turning the pedals, no matter how lazy I feel. It’s not Death Valley or Ironman, but I am on a bicycle and I am pedaling. And smugly grammatical.

On my treadmill I have found that I can run 10K in the time it takes to play a recorded episode of Mayday, a TV series that re-enacts plane crashes. Mayday is not a show in which the dialogue is subtle (“we’re going down!!!”) so I can easily hear and understand what they’re saying (and screaming) above the sound of my feet hitting the rubber. To help me forget about the wind chill outside and pretend I am running along the beach in Laguna Phuket, there is a heating vent just above the treadmill that somehow cannot be turned off.
Indoor training is a necessity in a northern climate, so the best thing to do is to get the most value from the time you spend on the equipment. It’s possible to perform a bike workout with an efficiency that isn’t possible when you are outside observing stoplights, swerving around potholes, and dodging the gloating victors in my city’s War on the Car (we cyclists are their spoils). And of course the treadmill surface is much kinder to my aging feet than the streets are. I have formed a comfortable friendship with the equipment in my little basement gym.

Is that the sun?

Too comfortable. It is time to get out and breathe some air that is not filtered through the dust bunnies in our heating ducts. Time that my efforts moved me forward across the earth. And I will do all that, as soon as I can get down the front walk without slipping and falling into a snowbank.

Environment Canada forecasts above freezing temperatures for most of the coming week. The best thing about the dying of this cruel winter is that anything spring can throw at us will be welcomed like a wealthy relative to a family funeral. Look for cyclists slithering through the sleet of April and runners skating happily along the trails as soon as the current patina of rock hard ice has softened.

Bring it on. We’ll be there.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Over the Hills

You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.
George Burns

When I was in my early thirties, I had decided that my life was pretty well over. Not my actual life—not my professional life or my social life—but my physical life. I had determined that after someone reaches the venerable age of thirty, it was pretty much downhill as far as one’s body was concerned. Muscles would deteriorate; heart and lung power would degrade; bones would snap, crackle, and pop. I would never run a marathon or climb a mountain or bike across a desert, because it was too late; I was too old to get any better at anything physical.
Never mind that I had never come close to doing any of those things anyway. By the age of thirty-two I was a heavy smoker and an epic drinker. I had never run around the block, let alone imagined finishing a marathon. And now here I was heading into my declining years. My thirties.

What happened was that instead of lying back and enjoying the ride to decrepitude, I detected a very faint interior voice urging me to change tacks, and for some reason I still don’t understand, I listened to it. The voice was telling me that I could be more than what I was. Readers of my blog know that, inspired by Terry Fox, I started running, quit smoking (in that order), and became an endurance athlete.
In the past thirty years, under my own power, I have travelled the equivalent of the distance from my house to Tierra del Fuego—farther than I could ever have dreamed. I have pushed my body hard, but I have also assumed stewardship of it in a way that I could never have conceived when I was a younger man. It is as if I spent the first three decades of my life living inside someone else, only discovering my own physicality just before it was too late.

Next week, the body I once thought was ready for the scrap heap will be sixty-two years old. Once again I find myself asking whether I have peaked; asking whether it is downhill from here; asking what I can get better at; what is left.
I can’t run as quickly or easily as I once could. My muscles take longer to recover. I am not controlling my weight as effortlessly as I used to. When I am on my treadmill and feel twinges of tiredness after only 45 minutes, I idly wonder if I am about to become the opening teaser on Six Feet Under.

And then I think of my father, who is now 92. When he was 80, my brother and his family invited him to go with them on a trip to Scotland. There would be a lot of hiking and climbing involved because this is the type of family my brother’s is. They don’t sit on a tour bus to be driven around when they travel; they go out and find the country.
My father knew that the physical demands would be great. In the months before the trip he began walking, a little more each day, gaining fitness, and teaching his muscles to carry him places that would daunt people half his age. He got better at it. He made the trip and thrived. One of our family’s prized keepsakes is a photo of him standing on the summit of a mountain, arms outstretched in victory, with Northern Scotland spread out thousands of feet below him.

On top of the world at 80.
This week, as my body and I complete our sixty-second circuit around the sun, I feel like I am finally getting it. In my optimistic moments I remind myself that I am most likely fitter at 62 than I was at 32.
When I think about being over the hill, I try to embrace the idea that there are many hills, each one a little different, a little more demanding than its predecessor, but each one eminently conquerable. Not barriers but challenges.

Maybe in terms of than swifter, higher, and stronger, I am now a little less of each; but my goal is not to be what I was, it is to look up the next hill, to see what I can be. To step off this path would be truly to get on the tour bus, and to stay there for the duration; there is no way that is going to happen, now or ever.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


“Tell your story. Roll the truth around your head.”
Bound for Glory – Tedeschi Trucks Band

The gifted Canadian author Carrie Snyder has a custom of choosing each year a single word to be her mental talisman. This year her word is “success”. She writes expressively in her blog that she chose the word not just for its positive aura, but also because it frightens and challenges her, a valid emotion that brings to mind that famous quotation by Marianne Williamson:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

Moved by Carrie’s honest attitude towards her word, I chose one for myself.

My word is “bound”.

I chose it for precisely the ambiguous impression it gives when you look at it and wonder why anyone would choose a word for inspiration that describes limitations. Boundaries. Restrictions.

What I found surprising though, is that among the many definitions the Canadian Oxford Dictionary for this word, the very first one is “spring, leap…walk or run with leaping strides”. Another definition is “moving in a specified direction, or toward a specified goal”.
I am planning to do all those things this year. I have some long term goals and will continue to develop short term ones as I go. I plan to do more actual walking or running with leaping strides this year than I have in the past, possibly on trails yet to be discovered. I have determined that my sundry muscular and plantar complaints might slow me down, but they will not stop me.

A recent article in the Globe and Mail about the science of endurance investigates the relationship between mind and muscle (making my last blog post somewhat prescient, I thought). One of the subjects of the article is an adventure racer, Simon Donato, who hosts a reality show called Boundless. Mr. Donato speaks of redefining personal limits in order to achieve the push needed to overcome obstacles—mental and physical. I am hoping to redraw some of my own athletic boundaries this year, in both arenas.
As for a specified goal, it is not lost on me that “bound” can also describe what is done to a book after it is printed. I am under no unrealistic expectation that there will be a published book written by me leaving the loading docks this year, bound for Indigo; but I know that there will be a finished manuscript, if only in a binder. This is my specified goal; beyond that, we shall have to see.

I can’t ignore the second definition of the word, which is “a limitation, a restriction”.
This year more than others, I am bound by some realities. Since I left full time work in the corporate world last year, our family no longer has a comfortable buffer in our income, so travelling to far-off venues for exotic athletic events is on hold for the time being. I will get back to Ironman and to romantic cycling locales soon, even if I have to, as my friend Pam offered, “hold a bake sale”, but this year I will be staying close to home. My aim will be to succeed within the tangible limitations that influence and sometimes overwhelm me.

Bound for trails yet to be discovered 
The COD’s last meaning for “bound” has several variations. One, “required, obligated”, reminds me that my success in any of the goals for which I am bound is tied, more than anything, to my dedication to that goal.
This—my “bounden duty and service”, as the Book of Common Prayer so elegantly puts it—is something that no talisman, no motto, no inspirational quote can supply. It will arrive only from deep within, or it will not arrive. The degree of my dedication towards my goals will either result in my spending the year bound by constraints, or bound for greatness.