Calgary 70.3 2009

The last ten seconds of the race—when the finish line came into view, the crowd started to cheer, and I began to sprint—made it all worth it. If I could somehow unpack the elation, the feeling of invincibility, the Las Vegas style lightshow of neuro-chemical activity contained in those last 10 seconds, I could easily spread it out over every training session during the last year. And I’m pretty sure it’s registered on some sub-conscious level, because thoughts of future training and future events keep bubbling to the surface. Your body craves more.

On a more conscious level, I came to the realization after doing the Wasa Lake Triathlon in June that you really can’t do triathlon for only one season. Well, you can, I guess, but you may be doing yourself an injustice. For me, I see next year as being when the real fun begins. I’ve only now begun to identify my limiters, only now begun to understand the equipment, a few economy-enhancing techniques, the basis for periodization. To set that all aside now would be tantamount to purchasing all the brushes, the paints, the palette, the canvass; taking a full complement of first-year theory and studio courses; creating a couple of pieces that, in your own view at the very least, are relatively acceptable, enjoying the entire process, and then shelving it all in the back of the closet before the second year has even begun. Why bother?

So I’ve signed up to volunteer at Ironman Canada this year, and while I’m there I’m going to register myself for that race in 2010. I’m going to do the Vancouver Triathlon this coming Labour Day, possibly one more tri after that, and then I’ll get down to the process of season recovery and early-stage training for next year.

As for the Calgary Ironman 70.3 this last Sunday, I’m not sure it could have gone more according to plan. A couple nights before the race I prepared an honest assessment of how I expected to perform in each of the three splits and the two transitions. I finished within three and a half minutes (on the fast side) of that goal.

It was a beautiful morning. The pre-dawn anticipation as I boarded the bus for Ghost Lake far outweighed any sense of nervousness I had about the race. When we arrived at T1 I quietly set about preparing my bike and mentally rehearsing the swim and transition logistics. I spotted one of my Driven 5 colleagues—the ever-smiling Marc Morin—just as an auspicious sun climbed out from behind the foothills. We exchanged a few words of encouragement on what was going to be a glorious day.

The water was positively refreshing. I don’t know if it was the abundance of ice baths I’ve been taking after hard training sessions, whether my core temperature was elevated from standing around in my wetsuit, the pre-race adrenalin, or a combination of these factors, but when I dove in for my warm up, I couldn’t have imagined a more agreeable temperature for the swim. My wave start was immediately after the pros’. I seeded myself in the middle of the pack, and a little to the outside. The start went very well. At Wasa I found I (to borrow a term from Gordo Byrn, co-author of Going Long) “engaged” a lot of other swimmers, alternately getting clamoured over and swimming into others’ feet. I attributed this primarily to poor sighting on my part. For Sunday’s race, I sighted every couple of strokes at the start and managed to negotiate the chaos relatively unscathed. As the pack began to spread out I settled into my pace and kept my eyes on the buoys. Unfortunately I was not able to (and probably not skilled enough to do so at any rate) draft off anyone, so I heeded Gordo Byrn’s advice—that is, a two-minute improvement on the swim can cost you 20 minutes on the run—and held back a bit.

In retrospect, I think the swim was where I felt the most vulnerable at any point during the race, but at the same time, and with the exception of the final stage of the run, it was also where I felt the most exhilarated. There you are: in the middle of a deep lake; the sun, barely edged over the horizon; the water, black; the only sounds, your breath, the water, both muted by your swim cap. On the way out to the turnaround buoys I recall turning my head to take a breath and seeing three figures standing motionless on the ridge. I know now they were likely volunteer spotters looking for signs of distressed swimmers, but at the time they eerily resonated as solemn reminders of how very much alone I was out there. As I say, I felt strangely exhilarated knowing that it would be up to me to finish that swim.

About 300 meters from shore I switched from a two-beat kick to a six-beat kick to start getting more blood in my legs in preparation for transition, and came out 72nd out of the 174 competitors in my age group.

I question whether it would be too generous of me to say that my T1 transition sucked. I mean, I recognized from Wasa the epic crappiness of my T1 skills, and I attempted to account for this by pencilling in five-minutes on my pre-race estimate for this race, but 6:14? What on earth was I doing for six minutes and 14 seconds? Who knows, but it factors high on my list of limiters to address next season.

As for the bike portion, this was exceedingly enjoyable. I had done the first half of the course five times over the last couple of months, so I knew what to expect. For the first 15 kms I really held back, took in water only, and concentrated on getting my heart rate down. Shortly after the turn onto Grand Valley Road—and the ensuing downshift on the incline—I noticed my rear derailleur was behaving more erratically than the suspect vehicle in any COPS episode, so I lost about a minute making some much needed barrel adjustments. After that, I started the process of taking in nutrition and enjoying the course.

Although I maintained a relatively respectable pace (for me at any rate) on the first half of the bike route—aided most definitely by an aero helmet that Jon Bird graciously lent me—I have to admit that, just as Gordo Byrn indicates in Going Long and on endurancecorner.com, the bike leg is an exercise in restraint and humility. When you get passed on the downhill by someone on a bike thousands of dollars more expensive than yours, or by someone hammering on the flats, don’t sweat it. There are only two possibilities here: you’re either going to pass them later on in the bike or the run, or they’re faster than you to begin with. So yes, it happened to me a couple of times early on in the course, and I resisted the urge to grab another gear and attempt to keep up. My hedge paid off as I passed three of them on the hill coming out of Cochrane, and never saw them again.

As an aside, I found it particularly heartening to see some of the ranch families parked at the side of the road, old timers and babies and everyone in between, waving at the competitors. It’s become increasingly evident to me that cyclists and triathletes share an uneasy, often downright antagonistic, relationship with motor vehicles and the residents who (perhaps rightfully) consider the secondary highways abutting their homesteads part of their ‘hood. Ever since Wasa I’ve been unable to shake the feeling that, to the uninitiated, we cyclists and triathletes, what with our tight-fitting, multi-coloured lycra, look like little Hallowe’en candies whizzing along on multi-coloured bikes, as foreign to them as they may seem to us. A little preachy, perhaps, but to the extent we can manage a smile or wave back, and to the extent we can hang onto both parts of the empty gel packet, rather than spitting and throwing them out on the side of the highway (which I have seen a number of times), I think that will go a long way in ensuring continued support from those who came out early on a Sunday morning, and gaining support from those who, at present, consider us obstacles more than anything.

From Cochrane to Lower Springbank Road I continued to hydrate (plain water) and take in nutrition which, for the entire race (with the exception of an Enervitene “cheer pack” 5 kms before the finish), consisted of three Endurolyte capsules roughly every 50 minutes, and highly concentrated flasks of Perpetuem. I finished the bike 62nd in my age group, and went through T2 in 2:01, a marginal improvement over T1.

My strategy for the run was similar to my strategy for the bike. In two words: slow the @#$% down. As I noticed at Wasa, you feel remarkable coming off the bike, and you have to slow down to not blow up on the run. I was running 45 seconds per kilometre too fast coming out of T2, and it literally took me two kilometres to slow down to the pace I knew I could sustain for the run. And though I can run relatively well in the heat, man was I thankful for that early wave start, as I can’t imagine the afternoon furnace some of the later runners had to endure.

Whereas the swim was the most exhilarating portion of the race for me, the run was the most inspiring. This was primarily a matter of logistics because, since the course was an out-and-back, I got to see all the pros on the home stretch. I remember looking over at Mirinda Carfrae, the women’s winner, as she was about 2.5 kms from the finish, and thinking to myself how exceptionally strong she looked. What separates me from elite distance “runners” is the fact they do just that: they run. And to see these athletes at or near the apotheosis of athletic ability, chasing each other down the final few kilometres—well, it was beautiful.

So, as I indicated at the start, I got my little 10 seconds of fanfare for a relatively admirable sprint to the finish. My family—who’ve indulged my relatively ephemeral existence over the last 10 months—and my friends—who’ve indulged my relatively (and no doubt irritatingly) sober existence over the last 10 months—were there for the race, and insofar as triathlon is an intensely introspective, venturing upon lonely, endeavour, their presence made the finish that much sweeter. I ended up 35th on the run split and 44th overall for my age group. I’m satisfied with these results, but more satisfied with the fact my race strategy played out nearly precisely on spec. Something is working.

I may never be able to share—let alone understand—all the reasons I’m doing this, but I think my friends and family who were there on Sunday (especially my dear Mom, whose apple cake I’ve refused dozens of times over the last year) understand that, whatever reasons they are, they are compelling ones.

I am indebted to Endurance Training Systems and Talisman Centre; to my colleagues in the Tri-Club and Driven 5; and especially to Jon Bird, Megan Bird, Jack VanDyk, Kelly Drager, Paul Robertson, and Greg Cooper—coaches and advisors who not only taught me the material, but, like all good professors, how to start to make it my own.

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