Monday, July 14, 2014

Marilyn and Me - Great Lake Swimmers

Toronto Triathlon Festival

I was in an uncooperative mood when I woke up at 5:00 am to head down to the Toronto Triathlon Festival at Ontario Place. Rain was forecast, making the prospect less attractive, but above all I wasn’t looking forward to jumping into frigid, choppy, murky Lake Ontario for the 1500 metre swim. Some Ironman I’ve become I thought; cowering at the thought of a little rain and chilly water. Still, I said to myself as I lay in bed, if it’s pouring outside, I’m Not Going. It wasn’t, so I went.
If wet weather was to be, it actually couldn’t have been kinder to me. It rained on us a bit while we were standing in wetsuits waiting to get into the water. Obviously not a big deal there. Then it was dry for the entire event until just at the end, when the Heavens opened briefly as I walked away from the finish line.

Ontario Place in the sunshine.
A good venue for an urban triathlon
An urban race is a bit of an anomaly in triathlon. While marathons are often run on city streets, we usually find triathlons in smaller, less dense venues: parks, conservation areas, resort towns tucked into mountain ranges. The difficulty of finding places to swim, then bike, then run—all close to each other—probably limits the sites available in a big city.

Toronto has a large body of water right beside it; not exactly a pristine northern lake, but apparently swimmable. For biking, the race organizers managed to talk the city into shutting down parts of the two major arteries into and out of town: the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, usually crammed all day and all night with seething motorists. It was bravely decided by someone (not our mayor) that they could seethe somewhere else for a few hours. The run takes place along the waterfront trail—not ideally, right beside Lakeshore Boulevard where many of the above- mentioned motorists sat idling in the dense, damp, air.

As I moved towards the water with hundreds of neoprened athletes, it occurred to me that in the 60-odd years I’ve lived in Toronto, I have never done anything more than paddle my feet in Lake Ontario. I had no idea what to expect, but I knew it would not be a hot tub. When we jumped into the water, the guy next to me said “Jesus, this is cold. I don’t know if I can do this.” My body was thinking something similar, but before I had time to mull the water conditions, the horn sounded and we were off swimming.

In about 30 seconds the cold water had become a non-issue; it was just a swim, a few degrees cooler than my own cottage lake. As I swam, I realized that a lot of my anxiety had been fuelled by
She finished just a short distance
from where I was swimming
lifelong images of the very first trans-Lake Ontario swimmer, Marilyn Bell, emerging from the dark water in September 1954, blue from the cold, covered in grease and slime after twenty hours of dodging lamprey eels. She had finished her swim just a few hundred metres from where I was now.

Expecting the worst, I was happily surprised. To me, the water seemed reasonably clean—or at least it tasted all right from the several involuntary mouthfuls I got—and it was not nearly as weedy or grungy as lots of other places where they hold triathlon swims. Even though we were inside the breakwater, there was some chop and swell, but this just made it seem a bit interesting—like one of the rides at the Exhibition across the street. I ended up enjoying the swim as much as I do all my triathlon swims.
I don’t get a big rush from cycling up the deserted Don Valley Parkway, although it’s nice to see it in a sort of post-apocalyptic, I-Am-Legend state, free from the ceaseless gridlock that has become its trademark. In fact, for me, the bike was a bit of a yawn, with no interesting technical details or scenery. I had to remind myself to get out of the saddle now and then just to stretch my legs. The road surface was great, except for the odd pothole hidden under a pool of rainwater. My son Duncan, who was doing tech support on his motorcycle, changed a couple of tires for people who had come to grief in these hazards.

As I was running down the trail beside the lake, I realized that I was probably enjoying myself too much. I thought of the words of Troy Jacobson on one of my workout DVDs: “You’re not working hard enough pal.” I listened to Coach Troy enough to pick up the pace slightly for the second half and finish with a negative split. I was just thrilled that nothing in my whole body was hurting, even my long-suffering feet. The run felt terrific the whole way.
Marilyn nearing the end of her lake swim.
Notice the lack of wetsuit or goggles.
Just after I crossed the finish line, it began to rain again, first gently, then hard. I couldn’t really complain about this; it was kind of refreshing and I got so drenched that I didn’t even feel the need for a post-race shower.

Water was a theme of this triathlon. I feel a new kinship with Marilyn Bell, whose adventure I read about as a child. Of course her accomplishment was light years greater than my little wetsuited, marshalled swim 50 metres from shore, but now I have known the same water and waves around me. I feel closer to all those who have swum in this unwelcoming Great Lake with the hope of moving through it by means of their own power and will, and I honour them all the more.