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.