Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Yea, Though I Ride Through the Valley

The Death Valley Century is a cycling event organized twice a year by Adventure Corps. It is actually both a century ride and, for those who crave a little more challenge, a double century. And in fact the century itself is more than a century as the round trip is 108 miles - or 175 kilometres - just shy of the Ironman distance. And in fact, the century distance is a staple of ironman training. We do a lot of them.

As much as I had been looking forward to this event, I was uncertain how it would go, given my serious cycling injury of three weeks earlier. My shoulder was still hurting a lot and hauling my bike box around various airports wasn't going to do it any more good. At least swimming wasn’t going to be part of this event.

My Cervélo and I got to Las Vegas, found our rented car and after a few wrong turns headed west toward Death Valley National Park in California. My destination was the Furnace Creek Ranch, the only resort in the park, at 200 feet below sea level, and the starting point for the Death Valley Century . Furnace Creek is a spring-fed oasis in the desert, dotted with date palms and featuring a golf course (“the world’s lowest…”). The spring water fills the swimming pool, which is always pleasantly warm, a nice place to relax in the cool desert evenings.
Death Valley is described as the lowest, hottest, driest place in North America, and after having been there, I am not going to argue. Really, the only word I can think of to describe the environment of Death Valley is thermonuclear. Everything you look at gives the impression of having been blasted, baked and scattered. The air is crackling dry, the sky so clear it is almost invisible. The sharp mountain peaks pierce the horizon like black sawblades. It is easy to see how the sun - which makes a hurried dawning over the Black Mountains and an equally hasty exit over the Panamint Range – can become an enemy while it lingers overhead. There is no shelter anywhere. The vista is so stark and so immediate that you can’t take your eyes off it. I loved it on sight.

The day before the event I drove 18 miles south to Badwater, the lowest point in the western hemisphere, and the starting line of the Badwater Ultramarathon – also organized by Adventure Corps. It is one of my dreams to stand one day on this starting line (and of course to cross the finish line, 135 miles later).

The century route would take us from the ranch and up the highway (it is hard to get lost as it is the ONLY highway) to a bizarre architectural horror known as Scotty’s Castle, at mile 54, over 3000 feet above sea level. “Scotty” was an early 20th century bagman and flim-flam artist who talked a wealthy mining investor into building him a mansion high up in a canyon at the north end of the park. As H.L. Mencken pointed out, no one ever lost a fortune underestimating the intelligence of the American public. After a food break, the route returns back down to the ranch where it began.

Race morning was cool, clear and mostly windless, a cyclists’s dream; the rising sun would be at our backs all morning. The forecast high temperature for race day had been around 90 Fahrenheit (which is the quaint, archaic way the Americans say 32.2 Celsius). As it turned out, the air stayed a little cooler than predicted, completing an ideal weather day.

The redoubtable double century folks started at 7:00 and we less adventurous single centurions went off in waves at 7:30. I offered imprecations to whatever desert gods there might be that my battered and torn AC ligaments would not trouble me too much, hopped on my Cervélo and we started northward up highway 190. The mountains and desert rolled by on either side. We passed signs indicating that we had reached sea level, 1000 feet above sea level and so on. There were photogenic landscapes everywhere and I snapped a few pictures from the saddle before remembering that it was this sort of inattention and capriciousness that had caused me to crash a few weeks ago. I put the camera away, drank a lot and faithfully kept my nutrition and electrolytes up; there is a terrific aid station at mile 18 featuring all sorts of food and very friendly, helpful people.

The outbound route offers about 30 miles of relatively easy pedalling before the road starts to slope upwards. It is an insidious grade, one you feel in your legs and notice in your speed before you see it. By the time we entered the canyon leading to the turnaround at Scotty’s Castle, the hills had become thigh-burners and the grade steepened around every corner. For a strong climber this would present no challenge at all, but I am neither strong nor a climber. As I strained up and around what seemed the hundredth hill I bellowed at the canyon walls: “Where the Dickens is this Gosh Darned castle? Golly!” At least that is what it would have sounded like if they had aired it on The Disney Channel. Finally, after one last push up and over, we were on the grounds of Scotty’s place. Food, water, shade and green grass to sink your toes into. I dallied longer than I should have before heading back down the canyon for the 54 miles of the homeward leg.

Returning to Furnace Creek was a much easier ride, so I treated myself to some good speed and high cadence work. Rather than slowing me down, the slight headwind served to cool me a bit in the afternoon heat. If the trip upward had taken around four hours, the return trip took about three. I coasted back into Furnace Creek sometime after 3:00pm and dove into the provided pizza, followed by the pool. My shoulder injury had indeed nagged me all day, like an unpaid bill, and I was never unaware of it. But neither was I sidelined by it, and the sheer enjoyment of biking through this spectacular, extreme part of the world was more than enough to compensate.

I left Furnace Creek for home before dawn the following morning. As I drove out of Death Valley, a fingernail moon was shining over the mountains, completing a perfect picture which I will keep with me. There is no question that I will be back.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Because I Can

On one of the Ironman highlights videos I own there’s a quick shot of a guy on his bike talking to the camera, energetically answering the age old question:

“Why do I do Ironman? Because I CAN!”

I responded to similar questions in a similar fashion for several years, consciously self-satisfied and content with the sentiment. I train hard all year, in all conditions, and I put everything on the line after the cannon goes off. I push myself physically, mentally and emotionally as hard as necessary get myself to the finish line. I have earned the right to feel self-satisfied. I “do Ironman” because I can. (And you can’t, is of course the unspoken postscript).

Recently it has occurred to me that my smug little comeback really means much more than I thought. It’s true that I race because I can, but the ability to say this is a product of more factors than simply my training regimen or my commitment to the sport.

I can because I am fortunate enough to be physically able.
I can because I was born into an established, stable society and grew up wanting little.
I can because I live in a part of the world that is not touched by war, pestilence or natural catastrophe.
I can because more than any other generation before me, and more than most of the world today, I am empowered to make choices about my life.

I won’t go off the deep end and say that I am humbled by the previous statements. In spite of being a large winner in the lottery of globalized life, I am also very un-humble that I set and achieved the goal of finishing an Ironman when I was 50. And prouder still of shaving over 2 hours off my original finishing time 6 years later.

Rather, I would like to think that everything we are, dream and do are responses to the gifts we have received. If we have the gift of free choice, how will we choose to live? If we are given affluence, what will we choose to do with it? If we are successful at maintaining healthy minds and strong bodies, how will we use them?

Instead of a smug aphorism, the phrase “Because I can” should be a holistic acknowledgement of the myriad factors and forces that have allowed one to be capable at all.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Well-Tempered Clavicle

Riding home from work along the bicycle path in the dark last week, the flow of my life was interrupted as my bike and I lost an argument with a large boulder, which had placed itself in our way. I was obviously riding too fast for my lighting system; I missed a turn and rode off the path, hitting the offending rock. Lessons learned: go slower when you can't actually see WHERE you're going. I must have gone over top of the handlebars since there aren’t that many other options when you meet an immovable object at speed. Luckily I was not far from home and managed to ride the rest of the way with one hand (the right) to steer, the other one (the left) dangling uselessly by my side. The pain was transcendental. When I finally arrived home my offspring, both trained in first aid, diagnosed shock and whisked me off to the hospital, where I spent a pleasant few hours in the hallowed halls of socialized medicine.

The nice young doctor in the emergency department (who could have been Vincent Lam but wasn’t) told me I had a Type 1 injury to my acromioclavicular joint. Common parlance is a separated shoulder. I can believe this: there may still be pieces of my shoulder out on the bike path, separated from me. Looking up the injury later I learned that the main symptom is pain, a symptom for which I can vouch. Like the Inuit and their myriad words for snow, I could without difficulty find dozens of synonyms for the feeling generated by my battered brisket. If Type 1 feels this bad, I am sorry for those whose have attained a higher Type. The blessing is that I didn’t break my clavicle outright, and sometime down the road, I will count this blessing. Not now.

So began a week of convalescence. It would have been a lot easier were it not that this is the busiest week of all at my job, so my acromioclavicular and I found ourselves working 12 hour days and presenting financial results to inquiring minds. It is fair to say that I was not at my best, gritting my teeth through bond and stock analyses and cursing the flaccid markets.

At home, I have hated the sense of feeling useless and unhelpful, like Dylan Thomas’s ‘few, small aunts, not wanted in the kitchen or anywhere else for that matter”. I am very bad at being waited on or fussed over, which is just as well, since no one offered any such service. Small blessings. So I try to look after myself, only with 50% of the brachial resources. Common everyday tasks like getting dressed become projects, in need of advance planning and logistics and about twice the time. Failure to acknowledge this need will find you standing with your pants around your ankles clutching your shoulder in agony.

As we stand now, nine days After The Fall, the shoulder feels slightly better. There is still pain, although it now resembles being stabbed with a screwdriver instead of a carving knife. I still can’t really lift my left arm above chest level, but I’m working on achieving some more mobility. I believe that I need to move it and use it now.

I am supposed to fly to California in about 2 weeks to ride in the Death Valley Fall Century; I booked this long ago as a special treat for myself (I am aware that only certain folks would understand the allure of cycling 100 miles through Death Valley). I’m sure I will have recovered sufficiently to ride adequately by then but I’m not looking forward to hauling my bike box through the airports.

If, as Ecclesiastes says, there is a time for every purpose, it may be that the purpose for the next week or so is to convalesce and not push the return to cycling too aggressively. Generally I would rather push a wheelbarrow of wet cement to work than take public transit, but as we occasionally need to be reminded, you can’t always get what you want.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Ironman Canada, August 24 2008

Wednesday August 27, 2008
“I do not know how to instil a taste for adventure in those who have not acquired it, and yet there are those who suddenly tear themselves away from their comfortable existence and, using the energy of their bodies as an example to their brains, apply themselves to the discovery of unexpected pleasures and places”
Pierre Elliot Trudeau
Exhaustion and Fulfillment: The Ascetic in a Canoe; 1944

On Sunday August 24th I finished my 6th Ironman race, at Ironman Canada in Penticton BC. In many ways it was my best ever, and the most satisfying since my very first one in Wisconsin back in 2002.

I had an unremarkable summer of training, interposed by an ankle sprain, annoying occurrences of burning forefoot pain while running (alarmingly named Morton’s Neuroma) and finally, a spectacular spill off my bike while riding home from work just 10 days before the race. The crash left me scraped down the left side of my face, arm and leg and bruised in the upper ribs – typical cycling injuries – and left me wondering if I would even make it through the swim. Or have the strength to get into my wetsuit.

At any rate I got myself to Penticton and joined my family, who had been in Kelowna the week before where Duncan had aced an Olympic distance triathlon. I got registered and survived a few pre-race day warm-up bike rides and swims so I decided I could start the race and just see where the day took me.

I Love the Smell of Neoprene in the Morning

I splashed into the waters of Okanagan Lake with 2,209 other hopeful triathletes when Ironman Legend Peter Reid fired off the cannon called Maranatha at 7:00 am. The water was a little colder than most people wanted it (about 66F I heard) but this was not an issue to anyone who has learned to swim in a Haliburton lake. I managed to get swimming with a pack of people who all seemed to be going in a straight line. This is a Good Thing as I tend to wander a bit on my own. The 3.86k swim went by easily and quickly and I exited the water in 1:35, still glacially slow on a global level but a personal best for me and about 14 minutes faster than last year. I was so unusually quick in fact that my family on shore missed me coming up the beach and were sure that I had been pulled out by the lifesaving staff. It wasn’t till they checked the times on the Internet that they realized I was already out on my bike.

Over Hill Over Dale, and Over Hill and Over Dale….

Heading southbound on the first 60k of the bike, my new Cervélo P2C sliced through the slight headwinds to Osoyoos and I started the 11k climb up to Richter Pass feeling very fresh. Of course this lovely feeling faded as we climbed and climbed and climbed and I, like everyone else, was glad to get to the top. The weather was beautiful; sun and cloud and not too much wind. The rollers between 80 and 100k were quite fun; I was energized grinding up each hill and roaring down the other side. The whole 180k of the bike passed enjoyably and I went flying back down from Yellow Lake into town (I got the Cervélo up to 74 kilometres per hour) to finish in 6 hours and 35 minutes, another personal best, even beating my time at the pancake-flat Ironman Florida in 2004.

Far: A Long, Long Way to Run

Coming out of T2 into the run my legs felt strong and supple; this is a feeling I’ve had before at this stage (and one that frankly always surprises me), but it usually fades in the first miles. This time however I managed to keep up a steady jog through the whole run, stopping to walk only at the aid stations and up one steep hill. The marathon course at Ironman Canada is very straightforward: 21.1k south to OK Falls and then 21.1k back. As I approached the southern point of the run some rain started to fall, so at the turnaround I took the plastic Special Needs bag that had been left there for me, punched three large holes in it and made a sort of rain tanktop to wear on the run back; it looked unfashionable but kept me somewhat warm and dry while the rain lasted. Coming back into Penticton with 7k left to go I met Laura who had run out to see where I was. She travelled along with me for a while and then trotted back downtown to let Karen and Duncan know I was on the way. I continued my slow but steady pace all the way to the finish, crossing the line with a 5:19 marathon at 8:47pm, for a total time of 13:47:03. This is my best result ever by about 25 minutes and is an hour and a half faster than I did this event last year. Since I do these things only to challenge myself, not to race others, I am quite thrilled with the outcome. I truly feel that after 6 Ironmans I am finally figuring out how to approach my potential.

Basically I think my Masters Swimming classes helped my swimming this year, the light carbon fibre frame of my new Cervélo helped my bike time, and improved nutrition habits on the run kept my legs moving to the end. The metaphysical aspect (and there is one) I will leave for another journal entry.

I am skipping Ironman next season to try some different events, although I haven’t figured out which ones yet. Flagpole sitting or marathon ballroom dancing have not yet been ruled out. I’ll let you know.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


I have no idea what to put in a blog, so I am going to copy in an essay I wrote several years ago about running. Maybe this will get me primed.

The Exquisite Loneliness of the Marathon Runner

I have a vision of a visitor arriving in Toronto this autumn from a distant war-torn country. As his host drives him into town, their trip is temporarily interrupted by a marathon race; 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 in the back half 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. There is conversation and laughter. As we reach the halfway point, people are making plans for brunch afterwards. Later we fall silent as our muscles stiffen and our feet begin to hurt.

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. Neither is a lot of sensual pleasure generated by clomping along the road mile after mile as your legs turn to painful stumps and your body becomes caked with a layer of sweaty salt.

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?

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 self-satisfaction in listening patiently to someone tell me of 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 smugness I seek?

Am I fleeing our pervasive modern technology by attempting to rediscover something primal, more basic, something that people have been doing naturally since our species first walked upright? There could be something in this, although the theory is discredited somewhat by the computerized timing chip strapped to my ankle as I run through the urban jungle.

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. Let’s face it, we are part of a society that is transfixed by televised reality stories of dysfunctional wannabees all trying to claw and backstab their way to a million dollar prize. Are some of us looking to endurance sports as a way to become real survivors in our own lives?

Some 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. The fact is that 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 despair, with their dreams or determination. This is a time of transcendental solitude, when no external source - no self-help book, no friendly coaching, no high-tech shoes – 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 exhausted and you are literally running on empty. No one is quite sure what powers you through the last 10K, but this much is known: you are given an opportunity to reach deep into yourself to achieve personal greatness. By accepting this opportunity, you become extraordinary. In the end, it’s not your legs that carry you across the finish line. It is your heart and your soul.

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 ordinary man, from the purgatory of spiritual indifference, and ultimately we are running out of mere being and into our essence. We run in order to demand something supernal of our bodies and our souls, and to feel them respond.