Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Water! de l’Eau!

Mont Tremblant Ironman 70.3 - June 23, 2013

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.
Mohandas Ghandi
The Mont Tremblant Ironman 70.3 and its big brother, the full Ironman, both have a special niche among the North American Ironman races. Located in the Province of Québec, the predominant language and culture of the Tremblant event is French, and this adds a unique atmosphere to the proceedings. Although almost everyone will speak fluent English to a visitor, the signage and background chatter are all in French, a reminder of the distinct identity inherited by the Québeçois on this continent.

On Sunday my daughter Laura and I spent six hours at Run Aid Station #12 (station d’aide #12), at 17 km into the run portion of the Ironman 70.3. There were about two dozen of us volunteers, handing out water, sports drink, pretzels, and other essentials to the 2,000 runners as they ran, walked, or staggered past. It was an inspiration to help every one of them.

Laura in action at the water station.
For most of the long day I filled up and gave out cups of water; maybe a thousand cups of water.  We advertised our wares like vendors at an open air market.

“De l’eau!”
It was a warm, humid day so I got a lot of business. I also directed the runners for a while.

I always consider it a privilege to help out in the sport that has given so much to me, but we also had one extra motive this time. The two of us are entered in the full Ironman in August - which is two loops of the same course the athletes were doing Sunday - and we wanted to get a feel for the layout of the event. It is a beautiful course; one of the best I have ever seen. We watched the swim, checking out the long walk to the start and the long run out of the water to transition; the day before we had ridden on some of the bike course, where my Garmin clocked a 17% grade on one of the hills, not too long, mercifully; and we walked the hardest part of the run course up to our aid station. I say “up” because the first three kilometres of the run are all uphill. Now we know. Lots of hill training in my future.

Having been in the shoes of those triathletes more times than I can count, I know the criticality of the volunteer crews. The event would not just be more difficult or less enjoyable without them; it would be simply impossible. Whatever the number of athletes in a race, there are usually twice that many volunteers, performing services from bodymarking at dawn to lifeguard duty during the swim to picking up the garbage after everyone has gone home, and everything you can think of between.
Some of the volunteers at our aid station were not athletic types, and might never participate in an event like a triathlon themselves. But there they were, supplying nutrition and hydration, and cheering on the runners with shouts of “Good job!”; "Bravo!";“You’re looking strong!”; “You’re amazing!” They were there because of their true admiration for the athletes and what they were trying to do; and because they wanted to be part of a special event celebrating body and spirit.

There was a purity of attitude that moved me. Not once did I ever hear anyone question why anyone would want to race in a long distance triathlon. Not once did I hear anyone demean or diminish the efforts we were witnessing by using the term “crazy” to describe thousands of runners who streamed past our station. From my fellow volunteers I sensed only admiration and support for the dreaming, planning, training, dedication, focus, and perseverance needed to get to the finish line.
We should all experience such undiluted positive energy at least once in our lives, no matter what we are trying to accomplish.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Deflation and Metamorphosis

“Corollary to Murphy's Law: If you tell the boss that you were late for work because you had a flat tire, the next morning you will have a flat tire.”
George Edward Woodberry
When I raced in my first triathlon in July 1994, the only thing that really worried me was getting a flat tire. At the time, the idea of having to sit at the side of the road trying to replace a blown inner tube while everyone else was zooming past was somehow a Titanic-like prospect to me. I was doing the triathlon on a borrowed road bike and I had also borrowed a pump, which I clumsily duct-taped to the top tube; during my ride it shifted position and poked into my stomach each time I tried to bend over into the drops.

It was one of those old-fashioned pumps, the kind I used to have attached to my bike as a kid: a long silver tube with a little hose that was stuffed into a hole in the handle and which you screwed onto the valve to use. Of course in the race, the Presta valve on my road bike tires would not have fit the Schrader valve on the little hose, so I had also borrowed a brass adapter to make it all compatible. I was ready. As it happened, somewhere along the bike ride, the little hose slid out of its hole in the pump, fell to earth and, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers, was lost forever. But I didn’t know that at the time so I finished my maiden 40k bike feeling safe, protected, and chastely unpunctured.
My fear of flat tires that first day nearly twenty years ago must have been born of prescience, as I have had more of them than any cyclist I know. I am actually one of those people you see during a race at the side of the road - bike upside down with one wheel lying on the ground and a discarded inner tube curled around his feet - and are glad you are not him.

Most recently, the rear tire on my commuting bike experienced a series of slow leaks. Each morning I would come out to find the tire flat, with no apparent cause. I could find nothing whatsoever wrong with the tire or the rim, and stupidly I kept replacing tubes at the rate of about one a week. For a while, I actually suspected that a neighbour was sneaking into my garage each night and letting the air out. Yes, I did eventually go out and buy a new tire, and yes it’s fixed. The functionality of my commuting bike has recently become less relevant, as I will describe below.
At the Race Across the West in 2010 we were puzzled about repeated flats in the desert until we noticed that there was a large spike-like thorn from a cactus embedded in what had been advertised as an unbreachable tire. Luckily I had my crew to change the tires for me; if I had had to do it myself at that point in the race I probably would have just lain down and let the vultures have me.

My T1 prayer:
just this once...please, no flats
At Ironman Canada in 2011, I had two flats: one while climbing Richter Pass and the other just before the out and back section at 100k. I was lucky enough to have the second one right next to the terrific support van from The Bike Barn. The observant tech volunteer noticed that my rim tape had shifted, exposing my tube to the holes in the rim, which explained the recurring blowouts. A new piece of tape, a replaced inner tube and I was on my way. Like Chrissie Wellington blowing away her one CO2 cartridge without getting any into the tire while leading the race in Kona, two flats in one Ironman comes under my personal definition of Worst Case Race Scenario. Having undergone it once, I like to think that if the Universe is inflating as it should, I should be exempt in the future.
One good thing about every flat tire I have ever had is that somehow I have gotten each one fixed and then carried on. I have learned to say "OK, it’s happened; now what do we do?" Those who have never flatted have not had this opportunity; they are still waiting and worrying about what they will do when it eventually does happen. I have learned what life is like on the far side of a flat and I feel somehow richer for the experience. And I’ve learned that the only wrong thing you can do is to do nothing.

A flat tire during a bike ride is an event that requires that you stop, assess the situation, consider the options, and choose your next steps: you can sit at the roadside communing with the mosquitos and looking forlorn until someone comes along to help; you can call your wife to come and pick you up; or you can fix the problem and get on your way. A world of choices appears that wasn’t there before.

A few weeks ago I was presented with another such challenge when the financial industry job I had held for many years was erased from existence by the company I worked for and I was suddenly unemployed. Not their fault any more than a flat tire is the fault of the bike, but the feeling was somewhat the same: OK, it’s happened; now what do we do? I have found myself presented with myriad choices that weren’t there before. And like standing beside my disabled bicycle in the blazing August sun halfway up Richter Pass, doing nothing is the only unacceptable option.

Many choices. All the better for getting on my way again.