Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ultra Cycling in the High Peaks

The Adirondack 540

Since 2003 when I did my second-ever Ironman, I have always loved racing in Lake Placid. At its best, the weather is clear and crisp and the high peaks stand out so sharply against the sky that you’d swear you can pick out every branch of every tree from miles away. Cycling up and down the Adirondack Mountains is as thrilling as it is challenging, with thigh burning climbs and screaming, white-knuckle descents.

Looking for an endurance event that would test me without requiring my injured feet to run, I found the Adirondack 540 , an ultra bicycle race held over the third weekend in September. The race, as its name suggests, is just over 540 miles – or 880 kilometres - long, consisting of four laps of 220 kilometres each. Luckily for those of us without the legs to pedal for two straight days and nights to cover 880k, there are options to do one, two or three of the laps as well. I modestly and realistically opted to do the one-lap race, nicknamed the Bronze Blast.

The course describes a sort of figure eight, part of which follows the Ironman bike route. It begins in Wilmington, passes through Lake Placid and continues through Keene. At this point cyclists head south to the halfway point at Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, then back through Westport, Elizabethtown and Keene to Wilmington. Before the start, Race Director John Ceceri warned us that even though the fiercest climbs were early in the race, we were not to underestimate the challenges of the second half. His words would burn through my head many hours later.

Race morning was clear and frosty with a significant wind from the north. I joined a small number of dedicated riders, bundled in layers, as we straddled our bikes in the parking lot for the 7:00 am start. As the only obvious tri-geek in the group, I received the expected jibe about my carbon fibre Cervélo P2C, and vowed not to show up at one of these roadie events again without a proper road machine.

We separated from one another almost immediately after the start; not much danger of drafting with only a couple of dozen of us in the race and 220k of state highway along which to spread out. The first 30k or so were very well known to me, having ridden the Ironman course many times. After the familiar breathtaking descent into Keene, I turned right down Route 9 into unknown territory. Most of the highway was bereft of traffic and the tall pine trees towered overtop like a cathedral ceiling. There were some rough spots in the road, but for the most part it was a smooth and enjoyable ride. At about kilometre 115 I stopped at the Super 8 motel in Ticonderoga, the halfway checkpoint. A highlight of this checkpoint, aside from the extremely friendly and helpful volunteers, was the presence of Fred Boethling, Director of the Race Across America. I got the chance to chat with Fred during my short break, picking up some intelligence on the chance that I would ever decide to do RAAM. I do try never to say never.

Coming from Elizabethtown to Keene, at around 180 kilometres, in what I thought was nearly the home stretch I encountered a section of road that the cue sheet had called innocently, “4 mile climb”. It was not so much a climb as it was a 45-minute torture session. The grade is not steep, but it is long and relentless enough to make you feel like you’re going backwards. By this point I was also bonking due to sloppy nutrition practices earlier. So my mood was anything but cheery. The words of the Race Director boomed through my ears with every pedal stroke: don’t underestimate this part of the course. I had, and I was paying. However, this too passed and eventually I zoomed down into Keene, through Upper Jay, along the Ausable River and up route 86 to the finish. This part would have been more enjoyable if I had not left everything I had on the gentle “4 mile climb”.

As I wheeled into the parking lot of the motel at the finish, I had the familiar feeling from my early Ironman days of being the last living soul left in the race (actually it turned out I was fifth out of eleven finishers in my category). My time was around nine hours and fifty minutes for the 220 kilometres. This is a glacial pace for me nowadays, but I had entered the race at the last minute with next to no training under my belt, and I was ecstatic just to finish. The good news was that my legs felt strong and I could have gone for a run if I had wanted. Let’s see the roadies try that.

That evening, comfortably rested, showered and fed back at my motel in Lake Placid, I strolled a ways down Route 73 and noticed a well-lit-up cyclist ride past me in the gathering darkness, perhaps a 540-miler starting his last lap with another eight or nine hours of riding ahead of him. They are made of different stuff, these ultra distance people and I was intrigued to be in their company on a couple of occasions this season. There is a step – a leap – I need to make before I can truly consider myself one of them. Defining that step will be my next challenge.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A View from the Sidelines

Ironman Canada - August 30, 2009

Volunteers are not paid -- not because they are worthless, but because they are priceless.

A year ago when I decided not to enter an Ironman for 2009, I had in mind that I would like to try a bunch of different, more esoteric endurance events. As it happened this plan was not as successful as I would have liked, for reasons I will discuss in another post. I did however have the exquisite enjoyment of travelling to Penticton this past month to watch my daughter Laura race in Ironman Canada, and to volunteer along with my wife Karen at the finish line. Both of these activities are highly recommended.

Although I was not participating this year, I took my wetsuit and bicycle along, and during pre-race week I managed a few swims and rides, including a thigh-burning tour of the bike course against a healthy headwind. Riding up and down the taxing terrain was a humbling experience, and a reminder of what the triathletes were bound for on race day. It was also good fun to be able to stop every once in a while and admire the stunning views along the way, and to chat with other folks as one can’t when actually racing.

On race morning, the weather – as it usually is in the Okanagan in August – was sunny and warm, tinged with some smoke from distant forest fires. For some reason this year, Maranatha the old faithful cannon that has started the race in the past was replaced by an air horn. I hope they bring her back if possible. At any rate, at precisely 7 o’clock the race began and over 2600 hopeful athletes splashed into Lake Okanagan, with many, many hours of serious swimming, biking and running in front of them.

Aside from the experience of actually being part of an Ironman swim start, there is nothing that quite equals watching it from shore. The sight of over 5200 arms all paddlewheeling through the water resembles nothing less than a mass piranha feeding frenzy. It's worth remembering that each tiny splash represents someone’s months of training, their strong commitment to their goals and their hopes and dreams for the day.

As an athlete who spends most of my time near the back of the pack, I rarely get to see any of the pros, who hopefully are closer to the front. This year we were able to spend the day watching them all as they charged out of the water, headed out of town on their bikes, biked back into town many hours later and then took off on their run. These are people who spend every day of their lives perfecting every aspect of their craft, and it is inspiring to see them in action.

Karen and I saw Laura as she came back into town from the bike and headed out again on the run, looking (and no doubt feeling) as if she had been pushing the envelope of endurance for the previous eight hours. As in fact she had. I had no doubt that she would finish; her personal perseverance begins where other people’s leaves off.

Our volunteer job at the finish was to hand bags containing Finisher T shirts and hats to the athletes after they crossed the line. We were supposed to determine what size they were before giving out the shirts. Obviously this What-Not–to-Wear issue is not uppermost in the mind of a worn down athlete who has just endured a dozen hours of brain-fogging physical exertion.

“Small, Medium or Large?”
“Huh… Smee”.

I hope they all got something that fit them.

We started our T shirt shift at 4:00pm, just as the pro women were coming in. My daughter, who hates it when I fawn over superstar triathletes, would have been mortified when I congratulated Belinda Granger on her second place finish (and got a friendly arm squeeze in return). I also got to speak briefly to Ironman legend Joe Bonness as he once again won his age group.

Of the hundreds of finishers we watched during our four hour shift, the most exhausted appeared to be those who came in between 5:00 and 7:00 pm, whose elapsed times were from ten to twelve hours. They had so obviously left it all out on the course, and had nothing even to carry them through the finishing area. Many of them would have been trying for Hawaii spots, so this was a serious business to them; more than a few were limply dragged off by the Catchers and plopped into wheelchairs for a possible trip to the Medical tent. As the timer moved onward past twelve hours and darkness began to fall, the mood of the finishers was more celebratory; here were people who had faced the rigours of the day and were justifiably thrilled with the result. I envied every one of them.

We were not expecting Laura till later in the evening, so when our volunteer shift ended we wandered a bit up the race route where, sentry-like, I took up a position atop a concrete tree planter and watched the runners through my binoculars. Sure enough sometime after nine I caught sight of her familiar stride approaching down Main Street. Our volunteer wrist bands allowed us to enter the finish area and greet her as she crossed the line. This, her third Ironman finish, was now in the books.

One of the most valuable perqs of volunteering at Ironman Canada is that I was able to go to the front of the line to sign up for the race in 2010. Next year, inshallah, I will be back in the pack, experiencing the bubbling witches’ cauldron of the swim, the wind-burning speed of the bike, the pain of the run and the thrill of the finish. I will take a moment to thank the finish line volunteers and will try to communicate an intelligible T shirt size.