Thursday, November 10, 2011

Post-Idiot Stress Syndrome

We may not be able to prevent every fatality on our roads but we owe it to those who have died — and to each other — to do what we can to make our roads safer”.
Toronto Star op-ed article, August 28, 2011

Call me prejudiced. To me, a person who would get in his car, drive a few blocks, line up with other cars, and then remain seated behind the wheel to order, pay for, pick up and consume his breakfast would not seem like a big supporter of cycling in the city. I’ve often joked to myself that it can be dangerous to get between a McDonald’s customer and his Sausage McMuffin. This morning I did, and almost became a Sausage McMuffin myself.

I was riding to work, westbound in the bike lane on Cosburn. A car turning left very rapidly in front of me into the McDonald’s drive-through came within inches of knocking me down, hard. Did the driver later think later about the fact that he could have killed me? Or did he think: “stupid bikes; shouldn’t be on the goddamn road”?

I don’t think I am a stupid bike. I try to be a safe rider. I wear a helmet, signal my turns and use lots of bright lights at night. I actually come to a stop at stop signs. This last action causes some bemusement among drivers, who take it as an invitation to roll on through in front of me without stopping themselves. So what more can I do?

This section of Cosburn is a bit of a graveyard. There is always a crowd of vehicles trying to squeeze into the hopelessly un-supersized McDonald’s parking lot. The last thing any of the burger-for-breakfast club are looking out for is a bicycle, despite the fact that a painted bike lane runs right down the side of the road. Should I expect less from the drive-through demographic then?

The frightening thing is that this morning’s scare was only one of many such near misses, and every cyclist has a compendium of similar there-I-wuz stories. (As I write this, a driver has been charged with driving up onto the sidewalk and knocking a woman off her bike with his car following an altercation, then fleeing the scene.)

What defense do we have against this? Almost daily I have to take some kind of evasive action to escape a sloppy or selfish driver while I’m riding to work. The other day I was cut off by a car making a last-minute unannounced exit off the Bloor Viaduct towards the Don Valley Parkway. His car sported a bumper sticker reading “Jesus is the Answer”. No, I thought, signalling your turns is the answer.

I can testify that nearly being run over, even if it happens often, is not something you get used to.

A female cyclist was killed the other day by a right-turning truck. Although there is no way to know if this particular accident could have been avoided, what I do know is that the circumstances of her tragic death lessen the value of living in this city. To borrow from John Donne, the death of anyone on our streets diminishes us all.

Bike lanes are not the answer; side guards on trucks are not the answer; pitched war between cyclists and motorists is definitely not the answer. Awareness and enlightenment might be the beginning to an answer, and sadly I suspect that neither of these things will happen here any time soon. Our mayor has implied that we cyclists – along with streetcars and other forms of above ground transit - are part of some perversely imagined ‘war on the car’, which he pledged to end when he took office. He was elected by a landslide.

Mayor McCheese and his Sausage McMuffin Brigade have won this battle for now; I am weary of the stress. After this week, my commuting bike is going away for the winter. Even though the roads are still clear and there is plenty of autumn riding left to do, it is getting too dark and cold and mean out there.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Season for New Promises

Toronto Waterfront Marathon and Beyond

All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.
James Thurber

Although most of the leaves are still clinging stubbornly to the trees and serious snow is still more than a month off, it is finally time to admit that my racing season is over. It’s a funny feeling; since last January I have given myself something specific to train for every day, and now I’m running in place for a while. I managed an 80-minute spinning workout and a 10K run this weekend, but these are maintenance activities only. It’s really time for a rest.

As always, I had some unexpected challenges thrown at me this year: blistering headwinds in Death Valley and mechanical problems and dehydration at Ironman. I really do try to allow these curves and speedbumps to add to the richness of the experience. After all, what’s the point in entering one of these things if I know beforehand exactly how it's going to turn out? It would be like starting to read a mystery when I already knew who done it. I subscribe to the truism that a success is deeper in proportion to how well you maintain your focus after sudden changes in fortune.

I finished my year by setting an unplanned goal; because I was slowed down so much in the marathon at Ironman in August, I was determined to run a more satisfying one, so I entered the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on October 16. Having spent all summer training at Ironman pace (i.e. slow) I was under no illusion that I would set any personal records for speed. Nor would I try; I just wanted one more chance to run the distance.

The Waterfront Marathon is a beautifully organized event and offers one of the best race routes I can think of. Not only is it flat and fast, it nicely limits the runners’ exposure to the snarly entitled automotive element that even on a Sunday morning clogs and cheapens our city. This year the route looped through the Beach area; this is a great addition as the Beachers are refreshingly welcoming and supportive of special events that take over their streets.

After battling the wind in Death Valley and the cold at Blue Mountain this year, I was provided with a brisk mixture of both at the Waterfront marathon, with a few raindrops thrown in. Bundled up in running tights, gloves and a jacket I was nicely buffered from the unfriendly weather, although some people showed up in just a singlet and shorts. I hope they survived; I am not nearly that tough.

I seeded myself toward the back of the field of 4,000 marathoners, crossing the starting line about twelve minutes after the gun went off. To me there is a mystique and a romance to a marathon and I always start out suffused with uncertainty and anticipation. No matter how many I have finished, and no matter how well-prepared I am there is a sense each time that I am running into unknown territory and that the outcome will remain a mystery until the last few steps. After having run this distance for a quarter of a century, I still regard every step as an adventure and a gift.

I trotted comfortably westward along Lakeshore Boulevard and back along Queen’s Quay and at the half-marathon point I joined a Pace Bunny and his group. I’ve never done this before and it felt good to have someone else keep track of the time and speed for a while. In the Comrades Marathon in South Africa this is known as ‘hopping on the bus’ and the simple act of falling in with a group has helped many runners to complete that 89-kilometre distance. By the time I joined these Bunny folks there was not a lot of casual chatter occurring; at this point most runners are in conversation with their bodies, feeling the accumulated kilometres and negotiating with their pounded feet the distance to the next aid station.

At about 39 km I was becoming tired and sore myself, but decided I wanted to push myself a bit harder, so I left the Bunny bunch and dashed toward the finish. (Actually the official splits for the last few kilometres show that my speed wasn’t really much faster than it had been all along, but I felt like I was dashing). I flew through the final blocks and hopped across the finish line. I had run at a strong, even pace and I finished feeling wearily refreshed. By my count this was my twentieth marathon; each one is uniquely remembered and treasured by me.

So after two marathons, two cycling centuries and an Ironman, I am calling this season complete. I gratefully managed to avoid serious injury, either from overuse or accidental trauma. I set goals and achieved them and I kept the promises I made to myself. Now the cold months ahead will be a time for resting, for reflecting and for dreaming of new promises.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Cycling Big Blue

Blue Mountains Century – September 18, 2011

"It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them".
Ernest Hemingway

Shortly after leaving the starting line of the Centurion Cycling Canada Century, I noticed a road sign that read: “The Blue Mountains Welcomes You”. Grammatical ambiguity aside, it didn’t take long for it to become clear that the Blue Mountains did indeed have a welcome for me. In the form of five magnificent climbs, each one challenging in itself, which collectively made up one killer bike ride.

About 950 cyclists began the century ride, which was billed as 168 kilometres but actually came out a bit farther on my computer. No matter, it would have been a darned good workout at half the length. In fact it was: there was also a 50-mile event for those who were of a more reasonable mindset. Between the two events there were about 2100 bicycles on the road, a terrific turnout. The coordination was admirable and the Centurion Cycling folks did a very slick job of organizing everything.

The morning was clear, calm and quite cold for mid-September. I had brought long sleeves, arm warmers, tights, full-fingered gloves and a vest and I was still shivering when we started (giving new meaning to the term ‘Blue’ Mountain). The conundrum of the day was that the air stayed cool and the chill wind picked up, but the sun grew warm, which made hill climbing a hothouse experience. The early part of the day became an exercise in personal temperature control. Dripping sweat going up the hills; chattering teeth coming down.

The aid stations were well-placed, well-manned and the volunteers did a great job of feeding us, as well as rising to the Augean task of cleaning up after us. Bicyclists must be the sloppiest athletes on the road. At least in a triathlon we triathletes make an effort to throw our used bottles and Power Bar wrappers somewhere close to the aid stations where they can be picked up by the crews (in fact, we risk disqualification if we don’t). The riders in this event managed to strew trash along the whole course with little thought of who would have to clean up after them. A popular dumping ground seemed to be people’s driveways; I could just imagine some poor farmer coming home from the hardware store to find a gaggle of empty Gatorade bottles blowing across his property. There must be a way to change the culture.

The countryside was stunning in the bright sunshine. The sounds from hundreds of derailleurs clicked and whirred in the air like crickets as we rode up and down the wild topography of the Niagara Escarpment. There are Mennonite communities in the area, and as I passed one church I noticed dozens of black horse-and-buggy combinations lined neatly up in rows in the parking lot, waiting for their owners. I wondered how the horses liked the hills.

The course is a big loop, thereby offering both headwinds and tailwinds and favouring people who like riding in pelotons. Being more of a tri-geek than a pure cyclist, I ended up working alone most of the time. At one point I came upon a lady who was grimly battling the wind; I began to suggest that we work together, but she was immersed deep in her task and didn’t respond, so I continued past her.

I had entered the Blue Mountain Century as a sort of treat for myself, a kind of low-stress day of cycling after the rigours and trials of Ironman Canada just three weeks ago, and a chance to ride my wonderful Cervélo R3 again. A noble and nurturing idea, if only I hadn’t committed to pedalling up 6,500 feet of vertical ascent in the bargain. Not exactly a day in a hammock with a book.

The course featured five tough major ascents (and a bunch of tough minor ones). None of them were real stand-on-the-pedal thigh burners, but all of them were long and fairly relentless. I tried to be gentle with my legs, telling myself that I was still recovering from Penticton and that - for me at least - this was not technically a race. It took me seventeen minutes to make the climb out of Beaver Valley at mile 80, and even with my 34/50 compact cranks, each pedal stroke was a test of the entire complex system that is my body.

The last climb, up to the Scenic Caves, was the longest and hardest, reminiscent of the trek up from Wilmington at Ironman Lake Placid. Reminding myself that there was no marathon to run afterward, I pushed my legs to their limit up and over the last hill. I took a moment to savour the brilliant sparkling blue of Georgian Bay spread far below me and then flew 900 feet straight down to the finish line at Blue Mountain Village. I finished with very little left in the tank, just as I had hoped.

In the end, this spectacular century was more work than I had planned on, but as always for me, that is what gave more allure to the goal, more meaning to the task, and more shine to the accomplishment.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Moving Forward

Ironman Canada August 28, 2011

“I’m alive, and I’m moving forward”
Ironman mantra

I have always said that I enjoy the process of training for an Ironman almost more than the race itself. However, I should never forget the fact that the Ironman race is also a process, a day-long odyssey of challenges. I once heard legendary triathlete Lisa Bentley say that your success on race day is proportional to how you deal with all the unexpected challenges that are thrown your way. This year, Ironman Canada threw a number of those challenges my way to threaten my chances for success.

Race morning as I stood in my wetsuit on the beach under the cloudless pre-dawn Okanagan sky, I felt the familiar combination of excitement and jangled nerves plus the heavy anticipation of a long day ahead. The feeling has been there for each of my Ironman races, and I hope it always will be. Hot sunny weather was predicted; hot and sunny it became.

Swim - 3.86 kilometres
When the starting horn sounded at 7:00am, over 2800 athletes splashed into Okanagan Lake. This is a few hundred more than have ever started before and the population increase was noticeable. The beach area at the start is wide but swimmers quickly began to converge on the seemingly endless line of orange buoys that stretched out into the lake. Even though I stayed near the back of the pack, I felt more crowded than I ever have before, as if I was trying to get out of a subway car that had somehow filled up with water at morning rush hour.

But having lots of close company is part of the Ironman swim, so we all did our best to make progress amidst the flailing arms and kicking legs around us. I never did find any completely clean water to swim in, but after a while, everyone seemed to settle into a rhythm and we all moved forward. My old clavicle injury was not really a factor and I was happy and relieved to exit the water at about 1:37, one of my faster times. My daughter Laura was already ten minutes ahead of me and I would not see her again until we met on the run, some eleven hours later.

Bike – 180 kilometres
My legs felt strong right from the beginning of the bike as I headed down Skaha Lake Road and up the first hill at McLean Creek.

I flew down Highway 97 and rounded the 60k turn at Osoyoos on schedule and feeling terrific. My habit is not to take any bottles of liquid up the long climb to Richter Pass with me, not wanting to haul them up 10k of mountainous incline. This strategy works fine as long as you don’t have to stop along the way and can get to the next aid station quickly. As it turned out, I couldn’t.

I had just started up the climb when my rear tire went flat. I have never had a flat tire in a race, and I suppose that it was bound to happen sooner or later. I quickly changed the tube and pumped up the new one, which also went flat. I had obviously pinched the new tube in my haste to get back on the road. I was just replacing it again when the race support van from the Bike Barn stopped by. They were kind enough to pump up my tire and I continued upward to Richter Pass. I had been quite a while without anything to drink, and I had nothing with me. It was hot and windless, but I was determined to make up the time I had lost so I hammered my way up to the top. In hindsight this was probably a dumb thing to do.

The thrilling descents and the rollers were just as much fun as they always are, and the slipstream breeze was rejuvenating. Just as I pulled into the aid station at kilometre 100, my rear tire went flat again. Once again the fantastic Bike Barn people were right there and this time we replaced my rim tape as well. They got me on my way quickly, but I reckoned I had lost about thirty minutes by now. Once again I pushed hard to make up for the time. Once again it was a dumb idea.

Some of the aid stations had run out of water by the time I got to them (and the sports drinks were bathwater temperature), which did not help anyone battle the oppressive heat.

By the time I got back into town and rolled into T2 my bike had taken over seven hours and I was glad to put it behind me.

Run – 42.2 kilometres
My run began under the relentless afternoon sun. I started conservatively as I always do, running slowly and walking through each aid station. I was trying to take in lots of fluids to make up for what I had lost on the bike, but by this point I was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

At about 15k I started to feel sick and light headed, as if I were either going to pass out or throw up - or both. I found that if I just walked it was slightly better, but as soon as I started running I would feel horrible again. I had obviously committed the cardinal error of becoming dehydrated out on the bike and now my body was making me slow down. My marathon and I were going downhill quickly. At 19k I met Laura, who was looking strong on her way back to the finish. I told her I would be finishing very late, if I finished at all.

Approaching the turnaround at 21k I began to consider the possibility that I might actually have to drop out if I started feeling any worse. The thought of a DNF depressed me beyond description, but I didn’t want to collapse right onto the road and be carted away by an ambulance; I’d seen this happen to other athletes throughout the day.

As I sat forlornly on the curb at the turnaround pondering my future, another runner eased himself down beside me. He asked me how I was doing, and I whined briefly about my nausea and light-headedness whenever I tried to run. Then just walk it, he said, but walk with purpose and determination and you’ll get there; you’ve got lots of time. It was then that I noticed that he was covered from head to toe with ugly red scrapes and bruises and that one finger was bandaged and splinted. Obviously he had survived a bike crash earlier in the day. He had to be in a universe of pain and I saw from the grease pencil numbers on his ankle that he was several years older than me.

I raised myself off the curb and started walking toward the finish. With purpose.

As the song says, if you’re going through hell, keep going; so keep going I did, one step at a time. After the sun went down I felt slightly better. Ironically my legs felt strong and there was no pain in my feet, but each time I tried to speed up the nausea returned. Although it was terminally frustrating not to be able to go faster, at least I was making forward progress. The mile markers appeared out of the darkness at slow but regular intervals: 19, 20, 21…

And so I strode purposefully and gratefully back into Penticton, down Main Street and across the finish line with my slowest marathon ever, giving me an overall time for the day of just over 16 hours. Of my seven Ironman races, this was the hardest of them all; but in the words of one coach, at least I “got ‘er done”.

Doing an Ironman is not heroic, despite the road-chalked encouragement slogans and heartfelt hand-lettered signs; but I believe that there is a degree of heroism in finishing what you start, in doing what you said you would do, in keeping your promises to yourself and others, and in honouring those who do the same.

I have no idea if that injured fellow I spoke to finished or not. I hope he did and I wish there was a way I could let him know how much he inspired me to heed my own often-professed advice: just get up off the curb and keep moving forward.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Running Wild

If you want to win something, run 100 metres. If you want to experience something, run a marathon.
Emil Zatopek, legendary Czech distance runner

Picture a small group of prehistoric hunters on the trail of a wooly mammoth; they crouch in the bushes and run through the tall grass for days on end, avoiding their own predators while chasing their prey. The survival of the tribe depends on the success of the hunt; they cannot fail.

We were not stronger than the mammoth or faster than the tiger. How on earth did we survive?

This is how I prefer to think of it: we have all of us been innately gifted with wit, wisdom and will. We required the wit to outsmart the wooly mammoth, the wisdom to draw upon past experiences – our own and others’ - and the will to stay with the task until the goal was accomplished. This is how we survived.

Nowadays, due to a dearth of available wooly mammoths we humans tend to build matrices for ourselves to exercise some or all of the three attributes we worked so hard to acquire all those thousands of years ago. And it is still about survival.

In the best of us, it is in our nature to test ourselves. Crossword puzzles, cricket matches and triathlons have all come into being because of our desire to push our limits, physical, intellectual or spiritual.

The primal, elemental aspect of running has attracted millions in the past three decades. Forget that so many have hijacked the sport in vain pursuit of longer lives, smoother skin or firmer thighs. Forget that high-tech shoes and Lululemon wardrobes have tried to make running a materialistic circus. It is still the simplicity of muscles driving legs to push feet against the ground in order to propel the body through space; this is the attraction. I can do this, not because of what I am wearing or how much my shoes cost, but because my ancestors possessed the necessary attributes, and so do I.

 The marathon, more than shorter distances, asks more from us than just solid strength or quicksilver speed. Because of its sheer length, marathon runners must be prepared to pass through a series of tests from start to finish. In the beginning the distance to run seems incomprehensibly long, so we don’t try to comprehend it; we just concentrate on the stride, the pace. Midway through we are still overwhelmed by the distance and need to push mentally to keep focus. Toward the end most of our physical resources are depleted, but the goal becomes realistic, so we continue, sometimes by sheer will alone.

When I run the marathon at the end of Ironman this Sunday each of my feet will strike the hot dusty pavement about 20,000 times, bearing all the dead, useless weight of my tired body. Although I think I have trained enough for the run, my various foot ailments could add a measure of discomfort to the effort. The high temperature is forecast to be in the thirties, adding further risks and challenges. But I will continue to move forward as long as I can. Discomfort is not the issue here; moving forward toward the goal is.

Running the marathon demands patience as well as fortitude. Because I am in competition with no one but myself, all my strategies and all my negotiations will take place internally. Whether my marathon takes me five, six or seven hours, I will impress no one but myself with the result and whatever outcome I achieve is for me alone. My success or failure depends on my ability to reach within and find some kind of acceptance of the status quo, some kind of quietude. If I slow down, it will take longer to finish. So it takes longer. As Coach Bill Bowerman said, running is not just about winning a race, it is about testing the limits of the human heart.

I hope Sunday to have a chance while running to pay silent tribute to the wit, wisdom and will of my prehistoric ancestors. Because they ran to survive, so therefore can I.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Two Centuries of Cycling

After a long day on my bicycle, I feel refreshed, cleansed, purified. I feel that I have established contact with my environment and that I am at peace. …Even if I did not enjoy riding, I would still do it for my peace of mind.
Paul de Vivie
early 20th century cyclist and writer

A Century Last Weekend
I did my last long training ride – a century - on the weekend. Everything felt great, although I am still fiddling with the positioning of my saddle to achieve something resembling comfort – of which there is not a lot after 162 kilometres on a bike. Somehow in the last year either the saddle has changed shape or I have. Otherwise it was a beautiful ride up and down the hills in Algonquin. A sort of Lite version of riding up and down the mountains of the Okanagan.

I have managed to complete my Ironman training this year without tumbling from my bike, a gift for which I am grateful. If the gentle motorists of this city will allow me to pass safely among them on my way to work for one or two more days, I might actually make it to the starting line in Penticton this year.

I had a few Whitman-like moments through the day, celebrating the strength and power in my legs as my muscles responded to my wishes and drove the bike forward. Not for the first time, I was reminded how much I enjoy training for a challenging athletic event; the rewarding process of growing stronger while gaining optimism and confidence. It is really during the training phase, not the race itself, that I feel the most in synch with my abilities and goals. To borrow from Robert Pirsig, it is the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.

The bike portion of a triathlon is the only segment that requires a mechanical device. The swim is immersion in an alien element. The run calls for a serious meeting of foot and pavement. It is during the bike that we get to explore our relationship with technology.

As I pedal, I notice the motion of my feet and legs. Clipped into the pedals, my feet are made to describe perfect circles approximately 340 millimetres in diameter. I can change the position of my leg muscles by standing up for a while, but the feet keep turning those same circles on their pedals, limited by the length of the crankset. In this way our legs become pistons and we become a part of the machine, governed by its specifications.

However it is an incomplete machine; a bicycle requires not only a power source but also a commanding will, or else it is just a piece of finely-crafted but useless hardware. The bicycle will carry us great distances at speeds and efficiencies we could never achieve on our own, but it requires active collaboration from us.

We are the engine and the will; the bike is the means. Neither operates without the other and each makes the other greater. Thus the act of cycling becomes a synergy of technology and pure human ability.

A Century Ago
The term century, which we use to describe a 100-mile bike ride, made me think of the beginning of the last century and the early days of bicycling.

Much like today’s urban cyclists, the riders of a hundred years ago seemed to regard cycling as the cure for many ills. “…already it’s in our midst,’ read an ad for Massey Harris bikes in 1902. “No fad now - just a sensible mode of exercise easy to take”.

Cycling in the early 20th century had its share of purists. There was resistance to the addition of variable gears because some thought they made it too easy to pedal up hills and thus detracted from the wholesomeness of the sport. One fellow of the time expressed the opinion that such mechanical fripperies such as “the artifice of the derailleur” should only be used by “people over 45”. As I am pedalling up to Richter Pass next weekend I will be thankful that his attitude didn’t prevail. Also that I am over 45.

I think that one of the attractions of cycling when it began was simply the notion of being able to travel swiftly under one’s own power. Think of it: there were horses, trains, trams and trolleys - plus the nascent automobile - but until the bicycle appeared the only method of self-locomotion was by foot. How liberating it must have been to hop on a bike and pedal through the streets of the city or out into the countryside solely by means of individual strength and skill; to travel in a machine that was not powered by an engine.

To me, the fulfillment from basic self-propulsion is the appeal of the bike portion in any triathlon. We can move great distances at great speeds along the road and our success rests on our collaboration with the machine, by the strength of our desire and by the mechanics of our legs powering the pedals through those 340 millimetre circles.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Head Above Water

WU: 4x50(5) 25drill/25swim 25BK/25swim 25drill/25swim 25kick/25swim MS: 100 (10”) steady 150 (20”) 200 (30”) 300 (40) 200 (30”) 150 (20”) 100 WD: 4x50 alternate drill and easy (10”) Total: 1550
Typical Swim Workout

“Pooh, did you see me swimming? That’s called swimming what I was doing!”
Roo, in Winnie The Pooh
A.A. Milne

I was slow to start my swim training for Ironman this year. Whether this was due to insecurity over my imperfectly recovered collar bone injury (possible) or just plain sloth (more likely) I can’t say. The fact is that I didn’t get into the open lake till the beginning of July and now I am trying to make up lost ground. Or lost water.

This season my shoulder joints feel like oars on an old wooden rowboat, creaking and clunking as they rattle around in the oarlocks. My body position is somewhere between pretzel and fetal.

My swimming technique, like my golf game, never seems to get any better or any worse no matter how I work on it. I am slow and passably steady and I will end my days that way. A revered triathlon coach once advised me to think of Ironman as one whole event rather than as three separate ones; meaning, I took it, that I should accept my swim as the talentless mess that it is and concentrate on not exhausting myself needlessly in the water.

And so my strategy for the 3860 metres of the Ironman swim is to keep everything as simple as possible: to aim to move forward in a fairly straight line and to conserve my energy. Of course, this strategy does not get me to the swim finish very quickly. Even at my best I am slow. In fact in my last – and fastest – Ironman swim I was 1975th out of the water, of 2210 athletes. Yet my time was so fast compared to my usual performance that my family on shore, still peering seaward, missed seeing me exit the water and were convinced that I had drowned.

There is so much that I like about a triathlon swim. There are no tires to go flat or heel spurs to become inflamed. Dehydration is rarely an issue. My wetsuit acts as a full body personal floatation device, supporting every inch of me like a neoprene mattress on a water bed. There is no weather to speak of. This morning it was windy, cool and rainy; I swam an easy and enjoyable 2000 metres in the lake, insulated from all elements by the warm, cozy water.

I relish the relative calm during the swim portion of the race, silent save for the sound of my own breath bubbling out of me and the muffled eggbeater swishing from the limbs of the other athletes. The embryonic quality of the water produces a sense of isolation that strokes my solitary nature; no one can talk to me, and vice versa. An old opera singing colleague once told me that she hated swimming; for one thing she couldn’t stand putting her face in the water: “Makes me gag,” she said. I recall that I used to have the same reflex when required to socialize at opening night receptions.

Aside from a little pinch at the apex of my stroke I am not aware of my year-old clavicle injury, which is a relief. All winter I had visions of the whole affair snapping in two again leaving me in the middle of the lake with my left arm flapping uselessly in the waves like a piece of driftwood. So far though, whatever grew back together in the past year has held.

There is a saying that you can’t win an Ironman in the swim but you can lose it. To me, who will in my life never win or lose an Ironman, the swim is a chance to warm up my body and to calm my thoughts for the rest of the day ahead. Twelve hours later, as I try to coax my tired legs to carry me over the last ten kilometres of the run, the brief swim that began the race will be long forgotten; and yet without it, the day would seem incomplete. Whether you are first out of the water or 2210th, triathlon is what it is because of the swim.

So up and down the lake I practice my stroke, my old oars called back to duty for one more year: creak, clunk, splash, creak, clunk, splash.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Who Are Those Guys?

“I couldn't do that. Could you do that? Why can they do it? Who ARE those guys?”
Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy

The astonishing Race Across America bicycle event has ended for another year, with an impressively large  field of finishers:  28 solo men and 2 solo women (plus over 200 cyclists in relay teams). I find myself once again wondering: who are these people? What drives these extraordinary athletes who can go basically without sleep for 10 days and nights while remaining upright on a bicycle, all the time pedaling and moving forward. One fellow cycled for half the race while suffering from Schermer’s Neck, a condition that makes it impossible to hold your head upright. He had his bike helmet duct-taped to an aluminum frame mounted on his back to support his head so he could see where he was going.

This coming week 95 seasoned ultra athletes (the average age is 45 years old) will run the Badwater Ultra Marathon, a 135-mile footrace across Death Valley and up the side of Mount Whitney. The temperature at the start is forecast to be 117 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are a sun-worshipper, Badwater just might cure you forever.

Who are they, these humans that can accomplish such miracles? Are they even human? Do they put their running shorts on one leg at a time just like I do?

To an extent it is all relative; in the eyes of couch potato sprawled in front of his 47-inch flat screen with a bowl of chips balanced on his 48-inch stomach, the idea of running anywhere even for ten minutes is inconceivable. To many 10k runners, a marathon sounds superhuman. And to most marathoners, an Ironman would seem like the very limit of endurance. Yet over the past 30 years we have arrived at the point in our culture where thousands of ordinary people accomplish these distances every weekend.

This is not so for an ultra endurance event. Aside from national institutions like South Africa’s 89 kilometre Comrades Marathon, which attracts over twelve thousand runners every year, very few people attempt to run or bike more than conventional race distances.

What does it take to be an ultra athlete? To ride your bike for days on end, to run across deserts and up and down mountain trails, to travel under your own power through withering heat, rainstorms and vicious headwinds; to endure? I have read many thousands of words on the subject and I have yet to discover the answer.

One opinion I have heard likens ultra running to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; the seemingly endless repetitive plodding over hundreds of kilometres at a pedestrian pace can only be accomplished by someone who has lost his grip on reality somewhere along the road.

Marshall Ulrich, the legendary ultra runner has just published a book about his 53-day run across the United States. It seems like he was in pain from about mile 10 onward, and yet he ran every day until he finished. Maybe endurance is about enduring pain for longer than the average person.

On the other side of the coin, Gordy Ainsleigh, the very first finisher of the Western States 100 Endurance Race has spoken admiringly of a fellow ultra runner thus: “…his own rhythm is strong enough and his own joy is great enough the he’s able to win [the Western States] more than anyone else”. Is it an indefinable, unfillable capacity for joy that drives an ultra athlete?

In To the Edge, his memoir of completing the brutal Badwater Ultra, Kirk Johnson paints an excellent picture of what running nonstop for two days through Death Valley in July was like, but he doesn’t tell me how he did it; what pushed him to finish when many others did not. He had warm and supportive family members in his crew and I have no doubt this helped him a lot.

Years ago in an essay on marathons, I wrote that we athletes were running out of mere being into our essence; that we ran in order to demand something supernal of our souls and bodies. Fine. But these poetic sentiments are not a lot of help when your hip flexors have seized up, your feet are on fire, your gastro-intestinal system is in revolt, your morale is in the cellar and you still have an inconceivable distance to travel before the finish.

What do I need to get to the finish? I’ve come to realize that my fascination with this type of athletic lies not only in finishing an extreme event, but also in discovering what it takes to do so. Obviously the answer here is not something that can be taught, but something that must be learned.

To be continued…

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I Was a Teenage Bodybuilder

Your body is the baggage you must carry through life. The more excess the baggage, the shorter the trip.
Arnold H. Glasow

It's simple, if it jiggles, it's fat.
Arnold Schwarzenegger

My son came home with a cool device a few weeks ago, a “Body Composition Monitor”, which means a scale with a bunch of bells and whistles. But what fun the bells and whistles are! I got on the thing for the first time today and learned what I am composed of.

The Body Composition Monitor (BCM) tells me such useful information as the percentage of water that is inside me, how much my muscles weigh and what my metabolic age is (apparently it should be lower than my real age; this should be an easy one for me since the scale only goes to 50).

The charts and tables in the BCM User Manual tell me that all my numbers are inside the acceptable range. I’m not sure what the BCM does if they aren’t; perhaps flash an LCD readout that says “Clean Up Your Act!”, beep three times and print an audition application for The Biggest Loser?

I am apparently 57.3% water. This explains the sloshing feeling I have occasionally, and why I have to pee so often.

As an athlete I am used to being aware of calories; for me calories are the fuel I require to burn in exercise rather than the Blue Meanies they represent to dieters. If I am reading the BCM number correctly, I need 1733 calories per day in order to survive. Although the readout does not specifically indicate this, I believe that a large number of these calories are allowed to come from ice cream. At any rate, whether or not they are allowed to, in my case they do. However, I interpret my relatively low body fat percentage number as positive reinforcement for my dietary choices.

The good news is that my muscles, fat and bone seem to add up to roughly my total weight, meaning that I am composed of not much more than these components (which of these three categories is the brain in, and how much does mine weigh? The BCM does not tell me this). I wonder what would happen if politician got on a BCM; they are often full of other substances.

And what are goosebumps made of? The BCM manual says you are not to wear anything while weighing yourself and it was chilly in the bathroom.

The most surprising readout was what the BCM calls my metabolic age, which came out as 14. I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand I suppose it is good to have body of a teenager rather than of someone four or five decades older, but I’m not sure I want to go back to teenhood, physically or otherwise. It took me a lot of work, suffering and angst to get to where I am today and the thought of metabolically starting all over again makes me want to start scarfing down the cookie dough and at least get myself up to voting age.

At any rate, what I am to do with all this information remains to be seen. When one has the body of a 14-year-old, where else is there to go? If I continue to get fitter will I also continue to regress and end up like Benjamin Button?

At my time of life I suppose the best thing to hope for is that my metabolic information (or the rest of me for that matter) doesn’t slide too much in the coming years. And now I have the Body Composition Monitor to help me with that; or at least to track the inexorable decline as I sink inexorably into my declining years.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Naming of Goals

Ottawa Marathon – May 29, 2011

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
The Naming of Cats
T. S. Eliot

Mr. Eliot tells us that every cat possesses three names: first, there is the name he answers to at home; the second is the unique name by which he is known to other cats; and lastly, there is the name he himself knows, the one he shares with no one else. I think that my athletic goals for the Ottawa Marathon were like this.

My public marathon goal could have been to finish the race in a certain time. The goal I shared with other runners would have had to do with treating injuries or maintaining a certain racing or nutrition strategy.

I had two private goals for the Ottawa Marathon on Sunday, and these were really the only ones that mattered. First, I wanted to run the race at a consistent pace, in control as much as possible, and finish, but without worrying about a finishing time. Second, I wanted to confirm that my body - from the feet upward - was still capable of a sustained running effort after the injuries that have hobbled me in past years. These two things – race consistently and keep it together - were my rhythm and my focus for the entire 42.2 kilometres of the race.

The Ottawa Race Weekend is a huge affair, featuring a marathon, a half marathon, a 10k run and several family fun runs. Altogether more than 15,000 people take part over two days. Many of my extended family members have run in these races over the past twenty years or so, and this year a dozen of us got together each to participate in at least one of the events (I say “at least one”, because one energetic young fellow ran the 10k on Saturday evening and then the half marathon the next morning). My son Duncan and my youngest brother Dave were running their first full marathon. My daughter Laura was running the half.

Race morning was mild and overcast with a prediction of light showers. As the starting horn sounded at 7:00am and 4,200 marathoners began moving forward, I had successfully managed to put aside personal speculation about how fast I was going to run, replaced by concern about whether the pinched nerve in my right foot would behave itself or take me out of the race as it had in South Africa two years ago.

After decades of being tweaked and redesigned the Ottawa marathon route is a brilliant one, flat and easy on the senses with lots of green space. The Ottawanian crowds were wonderful the whole way; they were so insistently cheerful that I couldn’t help feeling lifted and helped along by their noisy enthusiasm. It was difficult not to contrast this festive atmosphere with the sullen thrombosis of idling cars and seething motorists one sees at race events in Toronto, so many of whom seem to regard a marathon as nothing but an interruption in their busy important lives.

After running the first 10k in 57 minutes I decided that I was moving a bit too quickly so I slowed down just a fraction, passing the halfway mark at just over two hours. After that I stopped looking at my watch; it was all about moving forward at a steady pace. As we ran through the congenial and boisterous neighbourhood of New Edinburgh at 28k, a light rain began to fall; this provided some cooling relief from the pervasive humidity. Beyond that, I didn’t notice the rain at all.

I was tiring at 32k as we headed up the Rideau Canal, and my legs were starting to stiffen up. I knew there was going to be discomfort. No one who has participated in a serious athletic event - who has hiked all day in the rain, who has climbed a rock wall, who has finished an Ironman - no one is surprised at discomfort. It is part of the challenge, and we accept it. We are not masochists or freaks; we don’t like the pain, we just acknowledge it as part of what we have to pass through in order to reach our goal.

I was determined to stick to my plan of not walking except to take on fluids or gels at the aid stations. This is the first time in 20 marathons I have ever successfully done this; I have always talked myself into walking “just to the next lamppost” in the past. This time I didn’t; I remained in “profound meditation” of my ineffable private goals, and I ran.

In past marathons I have managed to stretch out my final two kilometres so that they have seemed to last for hours. This is easy to do if you are hurting and if you give into the temptation to walk. This year I actually felt like I was picking up speed as I got closer to the end. I felt as if I were being drawn to the finish line.

Running back down the canal toward the race’s ending, our stream of tired marathoners was joined by the (much perkier) half marathon people, who had started two hours after us, and the stream became a river. The noise from the crowds and the dense throng of athletes provided exactly the right mood of sound and colour. I flew under the finish line with hundreds of other runners and felt better post-race than I ever have.

Unknown to me, Duncan was just about two minutes ahead of me and Dave was just about two minutes behind me. And somewhere close by was Laura who was simultaneously finishing the half, as were most of my other relatives. Judging from our times, we must all have been within a few hundred metres of one another. There would have been no way to coordinate a chorus line finish, but it’s cool to think of us all so near. I congratulate them all and I am proud to be among their number.

My personal goals were met. It was not my fastest marathon nor was it my slowest, but it was my most consistent and ultimately the most fulfilling since my very first one in 1987. The best news of the day was that my body – right down to the feet – managed to respond happily (or at least uncomplainingly) to what my mind asked of it. For the first time in a long time I felt as if the two were one again. I have laid down a good foundation for my training this summer and I feel optimistic for the future. On to Ironman.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Then a Miracle Happens

“Today you are You, that is truer than true,
There is no one alive who is Youer than You”.
Dr Seuss

This month I ordered an item called a Road ID, which doesn’t ID roads, but rather me, if I am lying on one after possibly falling down and being unable to get up.

The Road ID website prompted me to include the following info on my bracelet: NKA NO MED HX. Which I gather stands for No Known Allergies, No Medical History.

I wonder if those abbreviations really mean that, or whether the EMTs will just look dumbly at them and think it is my Klingon name.

The bracelet will get its first real workout at the Ottawa Marathon on May 29, where presumably I will also be identified by other means – race number, timing chip, the finish line announcer. Not that I intend to fall down with no means of getting up next weekend but you never know. In the past twenty-four months I have pulled up lame in an ultra marathon in South Africa, collapsed in a helpless heap at the side of the highway in the Arizonan desert and launched myself over my handlebars in Muskoka. Worse could happen.

I have to run HOW FAR???
   I’m looking forward to the marathon, because I hope it will show me that I am not in nearly as bad shape as I currently imagine myself to be.

As an avowed goal-setter, I have conducted a symphony of marathon goals over the past six months. The original one was to carve a phantasmagorical 20 minutes off my best-ever time. Once I started training in earnest I began to see that the fast express train had left the station some time ago. No matter how limitless your dreams, you can’t build a house on a foundation of whipped cream.

(It’s possible I could set a personal best for the highest number of bad metaphors in one paragraph, however).

So, over the winter the progressive deterioration of my marathon goals has looked something like this:
1. Finish the marathon in under 3:45!!!
2. Finish the marathon in under 4:00.
3. Finish the marathon in a personal best time (under 4:04, run in 2001)…
4. Finish the marathon?

After a springtime of good, solid training, including intervals, tempos and my mandatory three 30+ km LSD (long, slow, distance) runs, I had decided that number one was out of the question; number two was probably a stretch; number three would be a gift.

All these years of experience might have made me a smarter runner, but not necessarily a faster one.

(Come to think of it, maybe I am putting too much pressure on myself with goal number four. Maybe it should read: Finish the marathon if you’re feeling good and your feet don’t hurt and the weather is nice and they have measured the course short by a few miles).

At the moment my race strategy reminds me of that old systems flowchart, where a number of boxes, lines and arrows all culminate in one final process, labeled “Then a Miracle Happens”.

Of course the prospect of the unknown outcome is part of what attracts me to this type of sport in the first place and I’m not complaining here. All variables aside, I have done the work, have trained myself well and this is not my first marathon but something like my 20th. Not counting Ironman, the last one I ran was in 2006. I did it with no preparation whatsoever, and it took me what seemed like all day; I must have stopped at a Starbuck’s along the way or something.

I guess what is nagging at me is this: what if after all my conscientious training this spring, I still do no better than I did five years ago? What will this say about my running?
1. I don’t know how to train;
2. I don’t know how to run;
3. My body is falling apart faster than I expected;
4. All of the above.

The answer to all this is that if I do no worse than I did the last time, I will be in no worse shape than I was last time, and this can only be a good thing. It will mean I still have my health and my motivation.

Running the same pace as last time will confirm that I have not turned into Paula Radcliffe in the past five years, but this is OK; my Road ID tells me I am still me, and I have come to terms with the fact that most of the world will always run faster than I will.

The true “miracle” in my racing flowchart is the one that happens every time I put on my running shoes or hop onto my bike and head out onto the road: it is the ability to perform the simple act of moving across the planet under my own power. There is a mantra in Ironman: “I am alive, and I am moving forward”. This mantra does not necessarily win races, but it helps me appreciate the journey to the finish line.

If I can’t see the miracle in this, then maybe I should have added “LOOZR” to my Road ID bracelet.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Vicious Cycle

Warning: rant alert.

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.
John Forester, Effective Cycling

Be careful or be roadkill.
Calvin and Hobbes

Item: As I was going to work the other day I heard a prolonged angry blast on a car horn, and I could see that it was aimed at a sweet thing on her bicycle who had just serenely sailed through a 4-way stop sign, oblivious to the cars that were waiting. I watched as she rode past me and proceeded to breeze through the next two stop signs as well, infuriating all those in cars. And infuriating me that she should be so blithely unaware of her environment.

An article by Andrew Clark in the Globe and Mail last week asked the eternal question: who ARE these people? Who are they that they dream they can participate in vehicular traffic without any concomitant responsibility, let alone the risk of injury or death? Do they just not get it? Do they think that those motorists honking at them are nothing but bad tempered old fuddy-duddies who should just chill or whatever? Do they know that section 136 of the Highway Traffic Act provides for a $110 fine if they are convicted of disobeying a stop sign?

Do they actually think they are contributing positively to the health of our city?

As a veteran cyclist and bike commuter who tries hard to ride safely, I am frustrated that I get tarred with the same brush. Here’s one reason: Each morning on my way to work I have to pass through a 4-way stop sign. I stop. I wait my turn and then I go. Several times I have been nearly killed by drivers who don’t stop. I can hear the apologia now: “Well, he just came shooting right out into the intersection. What could I do? You know how bikes are; they never stop for anything”. Everyone sagely nods in agreement. They know how bikes are.
Item: Cars were lined up at the bottom of Pottery Road yesterday during afternoon rush hour. One car stopped to let a bicycle cross the road. The driver behind him gave a blast on the horn. A simple act of courtesy is met with a haemorrhage of road rage. This is not a sign of universal acceptance towards cyclists. It is a sign of intolerance.

The relationship between motorists and cyclists - rarely cordial - seems to have taken a nose dive since the election of our current mayor, who according to Mr Clark's article has publicly stated that a cyclist
who is killed by a car basically shouldn’t have been on the road in the first place. “Roads were built for buses, trucks and cars,” he proclaimed back in 2007. (He might as well have said that they were built for horses and wagons, as no doubt someone did back on the 1890s when bicycles first began taking over the streets of the city. Buses, trucks and cars came later, I believe).

I used to think that the most damage a sloppy, selfish cyclist could do was to be a nuisance to those around him. But it could be far more dire than that. Bad cycling habits produce rage towards cyclists. All cyclists, not just the bad ones. And in a physical conflict between a pickup truck and a bicycle, my money is on the truck

The spring appearance of thousands of bike commuters who either don’t know the laws or prefer to ignore them could aggravate an already-volatile traffic mood, the situation is literally an accident waiting to happen. Except it won't be an accident; it will be a preventable tragedy.

Those cyclists who treat their bikes as toys rather than as vehicles are pouring gasoline on a fire that is already smouldering. The result will be no good for anyone.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

One More than Ten

“We’re all here… to see what is possible.”
Angelika Castaneda, ultra-legend, winner 1999 Badwater Ultramarathon

The word 'athletics' comes from a Greek word meaning a competition or contest. The idea of the contest was to run a distance faster, jump higher over something or throw something farther than the other competitors did, in which case you were the winner. Thus the modern Olympic motto: swifter, higher, stronger.

There are a lot of very competitive and talented athletes who are out there trying to beat someone – anyone - even if it isn’t the front runner. There are prizes for placing in all age groups and genders, as well as spots in prestigious world championships for those who are among the fastest in their races. The need to compete defines a good part of the culture of any racing event.

What about me then; someone who has no discernible athletic talent and no competitive gene at all? How am I an athlete?

I will never come close to winning an athletic competition. Much as an opera singer needs at least the physical reality of a voice and some musical talent in order to perform, a competitive athlete needs certain physical attributes and a front-running spirit in order to compete. I have few of these attributes and could no more be athletically competitive than Usain Bolt could sing Handel’s Messiah.

Obviously the 27,000 runners in the Boston Marathon last Monday did not all think they were going to win. In fact about 26,950 of them probably had no chance of coming close to winning. So why did they do it? Who were they trying to beat?

But as running coach Bill Bowerman’s character pointed out in the movie Without Limits, the Olympic motto doesn’t say you have to be swifter, higher or stronger than anyone else. It just says Swifter. Higher. Stronger. The object of the comparative is left up to us.

The goal therefore of many an athlete could be not to beat the guy next to him, but rather to run faster than he himself did the last time. After most races you will hear more talk of personal bests achieved than of who beat whom and by how much. Although the distance to be run is necessarily standard, can the success factors be defined by those who set their own goals?

This then for me is the essence of being an athlete:

It is a desire to go somewhere I haven’t been before in order to see what is possible. It is the idea of moving forward rather than standing still, of striving to be better rather than accepting the status quo. Of reaching the top of the scale and then reaching a bit more.

My training strategy this spring has been to push myself just a little harder than I think I can manage; just out of my comfort zone. If I get comfortable, I push harder; not a lot, just a little. My goal this week is to be farther along the road than I was last week. If the number ten on my amplifier was the best I could achieve last week, this week I want to try to reach eleven. It is my own personal eleven and it will most likely not win the race, but it helps me believe that I too am living up to the three-word motto.

My goal is to be swifter than I was the last time, by being stronger and reaching higher than the last time.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Citius, Altius, Footius

“The feet! What did you did to the feet?”
Ruth Cole in A Widow for One Year
John Irving

As I shift my training focus from cycling to running for my planned marathon in May, I am ever mindful that my success in the endeavour rests on the health of my two feet. Solely on them, you might say. Two years ago I had to drop out of a goal race because the Morton’s Neuroma (pinched nerve) in my right foot got so painful that I could barely walk, let alone run. About a month later - obviously charging back into training too quickly - I gave myself an epic case of plantar fasciitis in the other foot which hobbled me for nearly a year.

(Apparently it is not called plantar fasciitis any more, it is plantar fasciosis now. The former referred to an inflammation of the fascia whereas we are told that the new term describes a degeneration. Delightful. I take ibuprofen for inflammation. What do I do for degeneration, join a Fundamentalist church?)

Morton’s Neuroma – often aggravated by tight shoes - is possibly hereditary. My father had it - so badly in fact that eventually he could hardly walk home from work. So he simply had the offending nerve removed. Since he was a physician, presumably he just got one of his colleagues to yank it out during their morning coffee break. I do not really have this option, so I am trying to make do with watchful waiting plus a toe box on my shoe that is the size of a small garage.

It is a lot we ask of our feet. Whether we are lightly sprinting a 400-metre dash or lumbering down the Pacific Highway in The Biggest Loser Marathon, we are pounding the few square centimeters of flesh, sinew and bone that support us into the pavement over and over again. Maybe as many as 20,000 times per foot over a marathon distance. Is it any wonder the poor underappreciated feet sometimes break down?

And feet don’t operate in a vacuum. As the song says, the foot bone’s connected to the leg bone, and successful running biomechanics will be a synergistic function of all of our 2000 body parts. I believe this is the key: treat the whole engine with respect and the components are more likely to look after themselves.

In The Lore of Running, Dr. Tim Noakes reminds us that previous injury is a main indicator for subsequent problems. Age is another one, as is a sudden increase in training volume. Since I can’t do anything about my age or my running history, I am paying special attention to the intensity and volume of my runs this spring. I am trying – as much as is possible in marathon training – to ramp up my distance sanely and to keep my plans reasonable and attainable. If this means modifying my original time goals, then that is what I will do. My mantra will be:
He who runs a little way,
Survives to run another day.

Anyway, today I had my first outdoor run of any length, a 20k long-slow-distance. It was a great workout. I was happy that I managed to keep an even pace the whole way, and this was enough for me. My quads reacted as expected to the shock of running on concrete as opposed to the nice bouncy treadmill they've been enjoying lately. My lower half is currently squeezed into compression socks and tights in an effort to mollify these effects. I feel like a half-used tube of toothpaste.

But so far my feet show few signs of the threatened degeneration. As I move into my longer weekly runs over the next month, the challenge will be to keep all of my 2000 parts cooperative and functional and my feet happy.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Daring Lachesis

Thanks to Pam S. for the photo
“I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time”.
Bond’s epitaph in You Only Live Twice
Ian Fleming

This month I entered my sixtieth year (which is to say that I turned 59; unlike the Christian calendar, I had a year zero).

Milestones aplenty lie just beyond the horizon. Significantly, if I were to wait one more year I could practically walk my way into a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, instead of trying to knock 20 minutes or so off my PR, which is what I am aiming for this spring.

A recent book by Susan Jacoby, Never Say Die: The Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age suggests that if we think that by exercise and healthy living we will stave off the effects of aging and delay senility, we are dead wrong. This might be true; there is evidence on both sides. In any case it is an issue I care nothing about, since burning and raging at the close of day has never been included in my life plans.

And yet my generation is apparently bug-eyed with panic in its frantic attempts to keep from getting old. Billions are spent every year trying to outrun time and genetics. We will do almost anything, from grinding grimly away at lunch hour kickboxing sessions to injecting botulinum toxin into our bodies just to convince ourselves that the train is not about to leave the station.

One of the things I have finally learned in my 59 years is that not everybody is me, so I should not scoff. But I will, because this is my blog.

Several years ago a running shoe company ran an ad that suggested we runners were actually fleeing old age itself and that we would succeed if we bought their product and just did it. Did this sell any shoes? I would like to think not, but it probably did.

Rather than trying to outrun time, isn’t it better to run well with the time you have?

My participation in endurance sports has always been based on three keys: setting a goal that is somewhere beyond my reach, planning and working towards it and then pushing myself to achieve it. Side effects include a focused mind, a healthy cardio-vascular system and a strong sense of direction and adventure. There is satisfaction and validation if I am successful, and humility followed by renewed determination if I am not. Occasionally I have raised some money for a worthy cause.

Never once have I considered the idea that I might look younger, that my mind might stay clearer or that I might die later. To me, the very notion that anyone could have such an objective is laughable. It is King Canute seated on his throne at the sea’s edge with the waves splashing over his feet, trying to order back the tide. It is hubris, a double-dare to Fate.

(To his credit, good old Canute admitted defeat and acknowledged that there were things even a king couldn’t control. My generation should take note).
I began running in the nineteen-eighties, passionately inspired by the example of Terry Fox and his Marathon of Hope. To this day he remains my hero, and his self-determination is my touchstone. Of course he was not able to delay his death from cancer, but he made valuable the time he was given. He was successful at keeping hope alive, if not himself.

None of what I do guarantees me a long and healthy life, or even that I will survive the next 24 hours. But I don’t want that guarantee; I just want the next 24 hours I am given to be as valuable as I can make them.

“You can live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to live to be a hundred.”
Woody Allen

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Into the Valley

The Death Valley Spring Century

“Oh, a mighty wind’s a blowin’
And it’s kickin’ up the sand”
Mitch & Mickey

 Driving through the town of Shoshone on my way into Death Valley National Park, I passed a billboard advertising the ‘Death Valley Health Center’. I wondered if anyone else had ever seen a paradox in this.

But Death Valley is all about paradoxes; it doesn’t quietly satisfy your expectations, but rather surprises you into redefining them and then waits to see how you adapt. This was only my second trip to the area but already I have immense respect for this most starkly beautiful and placidly terrifying of places.

The day before the Century I couldn’t resist driving the route of the Badwater Ultramarathon from beginning to end: Badwater to Lone Pine and as far up Mount Whitney as I could get until the snow stopped me. I might never run the race itself, but at least now I have seen what awaits those who do.

As I drove back to Furnace Creek in the afternoon a wicked wind whipped up from the south. A few miles from the Ranch I came upon two cyclists – Dave and Pam from Cleveland - who were walking their bikes; the wind was so fierce it was hard for them to make forward progress. I drove Dave back to the ranch and he went back later for Pam.

All afternoon the wind whistled and howled outside my hotel room, making me feel as if I were in a Quonset hut at the South Pole instead of a resort in the desert. I could only hope that it would die down a bit before sunrise.

Race morning dawned clear and bright, and still windy. The moment we rode out of the Furnace Creek Ranch driveway and turned south toward Badwater the vicious headwind hit us, slowing progress down to a crawl. Roaring up from the south, it was as strong a wind as I have ever experienced. An immovable object which we cyclists were trying to move. It can’t keep up like this all day, I thought. Or can it? And can I?

It was a perfect storm of wind. Here we were in Death Valley, with mountains climbing heavenward on both sides - no hills, trees or even boulders to slow anything down - forming a funnel for the force of the gale to be aimed straight at ME. There was nowhere to hide. Whether you picture it as a giant hand relentlessly and repeatedly slamming into my body, or a giant rubber band pulling me backwards toward the start, the fact is that it was the wind and not I who was in control of this ride. Every pedal stroke amounted to an effort just to keep upright on the bike. This went on for hour after hour after hour.

As the wind pushed at me I saw that this was not going to be a day of high speeds. My expectations of finishing 150 miles before dinner needed some rethinking. In my mind I heard the crabby lady in my car’s GPS: “Recalculating”.

It took five hours to travel the 45 miles to the Ashford Mills aid station, where I reconnected with Pam, the cyclist from the day before. At Jubilee Pass, the turnaround for the 100-mile distance, I spoke with Race Director Chris Kostman who advised me to downgrade my 150-mile goal and work on finishing just the Century. I didn’t take much convincing. Not only was I tired, but we were already so late that it was not likely the aid stations on the route could stay open much longer. And without aid stations there is no way; there are no Seven-Eleven stores along the road to Badwater.

So along with several others, I became a Century rider and headed back down into the Valley. Hitting the desert floor and heading north, we now enjoyed laughing at the headwind which had plagued us all morning and had now become a tailwind. For the first time all day I got into my big chain ring and sailed along at speeds up to 28 miles per hour. I actually found myself wondering how I was going to fill the rest of the afternoon after I got back to the Ranch.

But Death Valley was not finished with us yet.

Seven miles south of Badwater another vicious headwind slammed into us without warning or mercy. A Bermuda Triangle-like mist spread across the valley floor, possibly indicating where the north and south gales were charging head-on into one another, like opposing armies. My speed dropped to eight miles per hour again. This wind seemed stronger than it had in the morning, and I was about ten times as tired. And there were still 25 miles to go. There was no point in bemoaning the unfairness of it all; it is not about fairness. It is about handling what is thrown at you.

My arms were aching with the effort of supporting myself down on the drops; I had not expected to be cowering from the wind for so long. I would have killed for the clip-on aerobars that I had left at home, thinking they would be too clunky and dorky-looking for this ride. Fool.

At the Badwater aid station, with 18 miles still to pedal on my silly putty legs, I spoke with Pam and her friend Jill who were wisely about to call it a day. They were going to wait for Dave to come and get them in the car. Would I like a ride? I wasn’t quite ready to drop out but I asked if they would check on me later.

I started pedalling toward home, one stroke at a time. The mileposts passed so slowly that I kept thinking I had missed one. Twelve miles… eleven miles… ten miles. At nine miles Dave pulled up in his car offering a lift; this was my chance. For better or worse I decided to try to tough it out till the end, and watched my last opportunity for a ride disappear up the road. The wind had been roaring in my ears and tearing at my body for ten hours.

All I could do was to look at the four feet of pavement passing under my front wheel, and grind the pedals around: down, up and over, down, up and over. There were riders strung out ahead of me and behind me at hundred foot intervals doing the same thing: heads down, minds locked in negotiation with bodies, asking for just a little more of the impossible, the supernal. It wasn’t a lot of fun, but then I hadn’t come here to have fun; I had come to place a challenge before myself and to see how I responded. To see what was possible. For in the end, it isn’t the elements we battle, is it?

As we passed Golden Canyon about three miles out, I began to realize that I was going to finish this sucker. I made one last imprecation to my weary legs and summoned up the strength for a final push.

The last mile into Furnace Creek is downhill. With impeccable timing, the wind decided to die down right about this moment. I had indeed managed to get near my goal of 11 hours elapsed time, but for 100 miles, not 150. However I was not complaining; this was a JTF day – Just to Finish, and finish I did. Just. I coasted joyously past the finish line feeling - as I always do - like I could do it all over again.

Just not today.

To be sure of hitting the target, shoot first and call whatever you hit the target.
Ashleigh Brilliant

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Back in the Saddle

“The backside of heroism is often rather sad.”
Ursula K. McGuin, ‘Sur’

I’m back on the bike once more after an annoying chest ailment that made it difficult to exercise. I should be philosophical about illnesses. I get very few of them and there is not a lot of personal choice when something does come along; you just have to go with it. We get our bodies for free - at the start anyway, not counting any cosmetic or prosthetic enhancements along the way – so we can’t really complain too much when they don’t always behave exactly as we expect. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein and the Law of Identity, a cold is a cold is a cold.

All the same I’m frustrated that I haven’t done nearly the preparation I wanted to for my upcoming century-and-a-half in Death Valley next week. However I am not above lowering my expectations, to use a somewhat bipolar metaphor. My true aim is to enjoy the day, even if it takes all day.

I am trying a new type of saddle, the ISM Adamo Racing. Actually it is my wife’s saddle – she shares my Cervélo R3 with me – and because I was too lazy to swap saddles every time I wanted to work out on the trainer, I have gotten used to the ISM over the past three months. Bonded with it you might say. So although it isn’t new to me as a person, I have never used it in an actual long distance cycling event before. If I end up pedaling the last 50 miles standing up I will, as Edison put it, know one more thing that doesn’t work.

No matter how hardy or experienced a cyclist you are, you have to admit that there are many more comfortable positions for the human body than sitting astride a bicycle for hours. On end (as it were). If it were a pleasurable way to sit, then Barca Loungers would be shaped like bicycles. Some people profess not to notice any saddle discomfort after six hours in one, but these people are lying. Among online bicycling forums you will find as many discussion threads about finding a comfortable saddle as you will about any piece of equipment. Let’s face it: we are all of us – male and female – pretty vulnerable around that area of the anatomy.

What to do? Well there are a few motherhood issues such as proper bike fit and decent shorts. In addition to height, it helps to pay special attention to the way the saddle is tipped fore and aft. A little adjustment can make a big difference. I have found that my discomfort in the saddle is inversely related to the amount of time I spend out of that saddle. In other words if I am riding a very hilly course, I hardly notice my saddle at all. Therefore one of my remedies is to make sure I stand up every once in a while even if I am on a dead flat course. A little relief goes a long way because I recover quite quickly once the pressure is off; I used this technique in Ironman Florida several years ago and felt great the whole way.

So my Ideal Saddle Modification partner and I will try out the not-always-smooth road surfaces in Death Valley. Hopefully we will still be speaking to one another at the end of the ride.

Monday, January 31, 2011

A Winter Stale

Hiver, vous n’êtes q’un vilain.
(Old French Folk Song)

Talk of your cold: through the parka’s fold
It stabbed like a driven nail.
The Cremation of Sam McGee
Robert W. Service

Goodbye and good riddance to a very cold, dark, dreary month. Hello to another one. The temperature today was minus 18 Celsius and a snowstorm is planned for tomorrow. The climate in my part of the world is unpredictable during the wintertime: we can have mountains of snow or no snow; deep freeze temperatures or clammy thaws. It is never comfortable. This year we are enjoying what some would call a ‘real winter’, with below normal temperatures and lots of snow. I wonder sometimes at the motivation of those who came here first, and stayed.

I have in the past ridden my bike to work during the winter months, but no more. The combination of utter darkness plus car windshields gummed up with salt and sludge makes me feel invisible on the roads. And it is slippery out there. What few bike lanes we have here are not plowed; in fact the snow from the street itself is plowed onto the bike lanes. I used to tempt both gravity and ice, but their collusion with the visually-impaired car drivers creates an axis of evil that defeats me. In short, I am frightened to ride my bicycle in the city in the winter. I’ll remount in March when Daylight Savings resumes and the roads clear, at which time I might have a chance of making it alive through the streets of this sadly bicycle-averse city.

The winter conditions present a challenge to anyone who is trying to train for a cycling event such as the Death Valley Spring Century. Where would I be without Coach Troy Jacobson and his Spinervals DVDs? Think what you like about Coach Troy’s approach, I am a fan. He gets me spinning on my trainer, gets my heart rate up, works my legs and pushes me to do more than I would just pedalling away in front of Jeopardy every night. Spinervals workouts are not a complete solution, but they contribute strongly to my survival as an athlete at this time of year.

For good measure I managed to contract a personal cold as well, which hit me mid-month. It lingers - as they do - with the nagging vestiges of a cough. I felt the best course was to lie low while I was sick and not to irritate my battered lungs with gulps of furnace-dried air. As a result, training has come to a standstill over the past ten days; with the Death Valley event less than a month away, I need to get back on the bike. I want to get back on the bike; I miss it like anything.

But it’ll be the trainer and rollers I’m afraid, until I get away to Furnace Creek.