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 CervĂ©lo 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.