Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Butterfly Effect

Chaos theory postulates that when a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, a hurricane could possibly result somewhere far away.

I like to think of the butterfly theory as a concept that we are never totally in charge of what happens to us. There’s always a butterfly flapping somewhere far away. As the beloved Gilda Radner used to say, it’s always something.

So what happens when a hurricane occurs far away? Does a butterfly somewhere get blown off course? Tropical Storm Isaac made landfall in Louisiana on August 28. Its force knocked a series of weather patterns like billiard balls into Central Ontario on Saturday September 8, the day before the Subaru Ironman Muskoka 70.3 triathlon. What had been basically a perfect summer became a perfect storm.

Wind and cold rain swept the transition area as we dropped off our bikes and picked up our race kits. I once heard Lance Armstrong say that he liked it when the weather conditions were awful; it weeded out the weaklings, he said. Personally, as an avowed weakling, I prefer it when the weather is agreeable. Although the forecast for race day was much better, it was difficult to get into the spirit of the event as I splashed around tying plastic bags over my headset and saddle and spraying my chain with WD40.

It was a relief when the system passed through and race morning dawned clear and mostly windless. A triathlete’s dream, although a bit cool, if we are nitpicking.
A Swim in a Northern Lake
The swim start went off in waves spaced six minutes apart and mine was the last wave. It was a treat not to have schools of young, speedy age groupers swimming overtop of me. Of course this also meant that I began the race already half an hour behind most of the field. As always, I enjoyed the feeling of plunging my hands into the lake over and over to grab handfuls of water, and the sensation of that water bubbling past my face and neoprened body. I was out a little faster than I had expected, with a pace slightly quicker than what I had swum at the 5150 race in July. The run from the lake to the transition area should be an event in itself, as it is about 300 metres long and straight uphill.

What to say about the bike course of the Muskoka 70.3? We have a history together. I have cycled on these roads scores of times; I snapped a collarbone on one of these hills two years ago and I have summered near here since I was little. And yet each time I ride here I am thrilled with the beauty of the landscape, the cleanness of the air, and the extraordinary difficulty of the hills. This is not a course to set a PB on unless you have a jet pack embedded in your bottom bracket. No one of the hills is an endless thigh-burner but they work together synergistically over the 94K distance to wear you out. The road surface ranges from pool table smooth to bronco-bucking wild.

A Rare Smooth, Flat Section
Winter weather conditions in Muskoka have the effect of making the pavement on the secondary roads heave and crack, producing a surface that can make it a challenge to stay upright on your bike. So a past cause drives a current effect: a winter frost plus a spring thaw equal a cracked road in summer, causing water bottles to bounce out of their holders and land on the road. Riding down steep hills, unable to dodge these obstacles, some riders were thrown onto the road themselves, with unhappy results. I survived by holding on for dear life on the roughest parts, and was lucky enough not to run over any water bottles. Once again the roads of Muskoka and the butterfly proved we can never count on anything.

Three kilometres before the end, on the last major climb, my chain slipped off my front ring and I had to get off and reset it before trying to get going again, never fun when you're halfway up a hill. It's always something; if it's not water bottles on the road, it's a derailed derailleur. I pulled into T2 a little later than I had hoped, but in one piece and, as the Dixie Chicks sang, ready to run.

I enjoyed all 21 kilometres of the run, feeling better and stronger the farther I went. The run course heads mildly uphill for the first half and then back down for the second, making it possible to pick up a little speed if you like. Much of the run course travels through quiet neighbourhoods and along a forested pathway, which makes up for a boring and distracting 3K stretch along the main highway.

By the time I crossed the finish line, I had run my fastest half-marathon ever in a half Ironman distance race, although my overall time was slower than I had planned. But I had enjoyed the effort, and I revelled in the atmosphere of the day and cherished the end of the race too much to care about times. As always, I breathed a thank-you to whatever butterfly had set in motion the chain of events that allows me to participate in such magnificent adventures year after year. To quote Lance once again, "it's cool to win, but even's great to be [my age] and be fit and healthy."
Still the Best Feeling Ever -- The Finish

Later, as I was packing the car to drive home, I noticed a Monarch butterfly overhead in the calm blue dusk, possibly heading for its winter home in Mexico, possibly instantiating the next mid-Pacific typhoon.

“So, how about this weather?” I asked.