“You’re the laziest athlete I know,” my friend Ryan often quips, and in certain respects, he’s right (e.g., I’d rather drive to Cowtown Beef Shack at lunchtime than walk the 700 yards). And whereas I should have been writing race reports after every race, just like my coach tells me to, it’s now mid-October and I’ve managed only one report all season.
So for the benefit of the one or two people who might read this, allow me to indulge in a little stream-of-consciousness reporting, to try to make sense of this year. It’s been a curious year, this—though, come to think of it, not as curious as 2010, but high up on the scale nonetheless—and I’ve been acquiring mental post-it notes along the way, but I haven’t yet tried to assemble them so as to come up with a coherent narrative.
For what it’s worth, I know where it starts. It starts where every good narrative starts: the breakup.
“Do you want to stay over tonight?” (Okay, this is the pre-breakup, and it happened in 2010.)
“Yeah, of course. Uh, I’m gonna wake up early to go for a swim, but I’ll be quiet.”
“But it’s not in your training schedule,” she says.
“Well, baby, I know, but my swimming needs help, and you’ll still be sleeping anyway, so I’m just gonna wake up an hour early and go for a swim. You won’t even know I’m gone.”
She pauses. The wheels are turning, I can see, cranking inexorably toward some logical, irrefutable conclusion: “But…it’s not in your training schedule.”
Fast forward a couple months. We’d reached the denouement of a curious third-act which saw, in somewhat predictable manner, the two main players reveal themselves to be oil and water. The writing on the wall, the conclusion all but spoken, a last hail Mary into the infinite: “How long are you going to do triathlon for? Like, the rest of your life?!”
Well you can imagine how the rest of it went.
So that was 2010, or part of it, the early part of it, and notwithstanding that interlude was relatively brief, it set the stage for a lot of subsequent introspection, a lot of second-guessing.
And so we pick up, dear reader, in early 2011. It’s April, and I’m running through Stanley Park (the non-glamorous Stanley Park of Calgary, not the sprawling historic park in Vancouver) at lunchtime on an overcast day. It’s a fast pace for me, maybe 4:00-4:15 per kilometer, and it hurts more than a bit, and my legs and my lungs send a telegraph upstairs: “Won’t it be nice later on life when you don’t have to do this anymore?”
And when that missive comes through, it only takes one or two seconds, and I find myself at once strangely dissociated from, and acutely self-aware of, myself in my workout—dissociated in the sense that I feel the neatly Cartesian distinction between mind and body has just been smudged, and self-aware for…well, self-aware for the same reason—I feel I’ve just been pushed more into my body, more into my legs, more into my lungs. I feel, I guess, closer to myself?
To digress for a moment, back when the good ol’ internets was just getting started, one of my Vancouver friends used to email me anything that was remotely objectionable, including a 7-second video file (which I happened to open in front of a female graduate student who happened to be in my office at the time), in which video we saw the following, uh, props set out near the edge of a table: (i) hammer, (ii) nail, (iii) two-by-four, (iv) some guy’s Johnson.
Whenever I’ve thought about that file—and believe me, it’s like having a 7-second VHS tape that you cannot shred or tape over, no matter how hard you mentally try—I’ve always thought, “Okay, there are a lot of weird fuckers out there, but in no possible world could that ever be enjoyable, for anyone, ever. Ever.”
Now, I’m not saying I’m about to rush out to Home Depot or anything, but getting back to my run, when I had that Matrix-esque shift in perspective and perception, I knew, to paraphrase (forgive me for this) Montell Jordan, ‘this is why I do it (baby).’
And sure, I don’t know if you’ve already had this sort of realization yourself, but it was new to me. Yeah, I loved Ironman Canada in 2010 because of what I had to go through mentally, but during that race, and during every hard workout, I’ve always thought about the payoff. I’ve always thought the pain is the sacrifice to get the reward.
No, my friends. This run was different. This wasn’t just about “being in the zone” or whatever you want to call it. That’s only part of it. This was about the pain itself. The pain, the pain is the reward. It hurts, but you feel alive. In the moment. Vital. Here.
Like I say, maybe you’re thinking, “Tell me somethin’ I don’t know, muthafucka,” but then again, maybe you like being strung up in an indoor swing and getting kicked in the cojones by a fiery redhead in stilettos and leather. I’ve not yet tried that.
In any event, I find it interesting that I’d hit upon something quite profound during a quite prosaic lunchtime run. Out of all the training sessions I’ve done this year, that one stands out as one of my favorites.
Yes, maybe I will do this for the rest of my life, thank you.
My first triathlon this year was at Wasa Lake in British Columbia, an Olympic distance race on a largely flat course. In fact, Wasa was the very first triathlon I ever raced, two years ago, and of course I was hoping to improve upon my time this year. I managed to book a gorgeous condo for myself in Kimberley for $100 a night, and I drove out after work on the Friday.
The race itself was relatively underwhelming. I had a predictably average swim, no surprises there. I did push myself on the bike, however, as my past results reveal my bike placing in my age group hasn’t been commensurate with my run placing, so both my coach and I wanted to see how much I could push the bike before it started impacting my run. I only mention this—since, like most of this, it’s probably not that interesting from your perspective—because it is a good example, in my view, of early-season “tinkering” with race strategy so as to set the tone for one’s later season “A” races.
Anyway, I posted a strong bike and, while the run hurt more than usual, I may have negatively impacted my 10k time only by a minute or two. So, given that I posted an 8-minute faster bike split than 2009, this was probably a worthwhile trade-off, and my bike placing is now more on par with my run placing.
After the race I went to A&W, got myself some onion rings, gravy, and a Grandpa Burger, then went to the liquor store to get six Traditional Ale, then went to hang out with (if I may name drop here) Grant Burwash and Hillary and Holly Higgins. We sat in the hot tub, then made dinner (well, they made dinner, a very fine dinner), then watched the animated film Up. The movie itself is incredibly touching—the opening sequence, which takes the viewer along Carl’s and Ellie’s life together, had me welling up a bit.
Of course, as the old cliché goes, I choke up over the proverbial Hallmark commercial, so this was nothing new, but I think it’s worth mentioning I had a couple other things on my mind as well.
For instance, you may have heard the story, just prior to Up’s theatrical release, about the 10-year-old cancer stricken girl who was too sick to see the movie. A family friend called Pixar and Disney, and the next day a Pixar employee showed up at the girl’s house with a DVD of the film for a private screening. The girl watched—or, rather, heard the movie, as she was too sick to open her eyes—and died later that evening. She was 10 years old. I thought this was an incredibly touching story when I’d heard it, and of course it figured prominently as I was watching the film.
The other thing that was on my mind relates to a phone call I had with my Mom before I went over to Grant, Hillary, and Holly’s condo. I called her to say hi and tell her about the race. She sounded a little down, and after engaging in the usual “how’s the weather” talk, she told me how a close family friend had just lost his daughter. The daughter had died in a car accident a few weeks’ earlier. This alone was pretty sad news, of course. However, there’s more to it.
Many years ago, after my father died of cancer, I went to live with my Mom, and at that time I met this same gentleman and his family. He was basically my Mom and Stepdad’s business partner in a health-oriented multi-level marketing company, and he went from near bankruptcy—where he literally had to sell his family’s television to buy the company’s product to sell—to being the most successful distributor in the organization. Sure, my parents were doing alright, but his family was in. the. money. I was pretty close with his two kids our first summer living in Los Angeles, and he gave them everything that they couldn’t afford just a few years’ earlier. Then, later that fall, the son got leukemia. I believe he hung on for a year or two at the most, but the money wasn’t enough to save him.
Then, just a few years ago, I remember my Mom telling me how this gentlemen’s wife passed away. She was relatively young. And now his daughter?
Back in Los Angeles, I can remember how he was incredibly good-natured, generous, optimistic to a fault. By all accounts, this was how it was even when he and his family were living hand-to-mouth, and over the years, whenever my parents have mentioned him, I’ve always had the impression that the same disposition’s never left him. (Just two months ago, he came with my parents to watch me at Ironman Canada, and he was able to smile.)
So I was thinking about these things when I was watching Up, and it just, I dunno, it just got me thinking about all those trite expressions we hear, and sometimes use—you know, “carpe diem”, “life is short”, “smell the flowers” and all the rest of it—and how those same expressions do in fact mean something when you actually give them a moment’s honest reflection.
Wasa itself was just an okay race, but the weekend on the whole was one of the most enjoyable I’ve had all year. Originally, I didn’t even want to race Wasa, given the fact it would take up an entire weekend and I would have to pay for accommodation, but when I was booking the condo I thought, “What the hell, I’m going to book three nights so I can stay an extra night after the race.” The return on that $300 was well worth it. I had a full day before the race to mess around on my guitar, read books, watch TV, and enjoy the B.C. interior, and I had an extra day after the race to decompress and spend time with good people. To be in the moment, as they say.
You do these out-of-town races because you have to (there are only so many in Calgary), but if all you do is spend 24 hours in a state of heightened anxiety, rushing out to get your race package, only to rush back right after the race to make it to work the next day, what’s the use? And so that weekend at Wasa, the news about my Mom’s friend, the backstory behind the movie Up—it was just, to use another cliché, a good wake-up call. Do your best to enjoy your time here, folks. You don’t know when your last day is.
Heading into July, my legs were feeling really strong. I’d put in close to a half dozen solid cycling and running workouts at Highwood Pass, including running leg 5 of the K-100 (the uphill leg that ends at Highwood Pass) and posting a solid time, followed the next day by a hard climb up the other side of Highwood on my TT bike. It was probably the strongest I’ve felt all year, and I went out to Osoyoos in mid-July to race the Desert Half.
Turns out, it was my best race this year. My coach asked me what kind of watts I’d try to post for the bike. I told him. He said, “I don’t know…that sounds kind of high.” I said, “You have to climb Richter Pass in both directions. Even if I spin it’s going to be hard to keep the watts down.” So we settled on a target range that was, at the high end, admittedly a little aggressive. For the run, we broke it down into four, 5k segments (we don’t really count the last kilometer—all bets are off at that point), with the first 5k being about getting my legs under me, the next two 5k segments about maintaining target pace, and the last 5k about “hurting” myself.
The horn went off and I started out pretty hard for the swim. Everything felt fine, but I wasn’t finding any good feet, so I relied on my sighting quite a bit. I have a tendency to veer left in open water, and given that the course was two counterclockwise loops, this actually helped me hug the buoys.
Around 200 metres into the first lap I could feel that my timing strap was dangling a bit. I tried to slow up and reattach the velcro, but that didn’t appear to help, so (regardless of what I should have done) I think I favoured that leg a bit in terms of kicking, as I didn’t want to kick the strap off.
When I got out for the beach run in between the first and second laps, I tried to firm up the timing strap. Again, 200 metres into the second lap, I felt the strap dangling, and a couple metres later it came all the way off. I stopped quickly, turned my head in the water, but the water was too turbid, so I said goodbye to the strap and continued my swim.
Came out, felt fine, and as I past the timing mat I yelled out my number and told them my chip was gone. After posting a 13-minute T1 time, I was out on the bike! (There is a connection between the previous two sentences—see if you can spot it.)
Felt pretty good starting out on the bike. It’s not long before you hit Richter Pass, and begin the steady, half-hour ascent. Even with the 11-28 pancake on the back, I couldn’t stay under my target watts for that climb. The descent on the other side was fast, and then there are a series of rollers on the back side. As with other races, lots of riders will pass me on the climbs, and then I’ll re-pass them on the descents or the flats. I kept trading places with one guy in particular on the bike, and it was starting to piss me off. Was he deliberately fucking with me? Heading into the second climb up Richter, he passed me again, and at that point I wrote him off as a jerk, as I knew I wouldn’t see him again on the bike.
Near the end of the climb, and for the first time ever during a race, I thought to myself, “Cripes, my legs is startin’ to hurt. Run’s gonna be interestin’.”
And interesting it was. I came out of T2 thinking, “slow down, sloooow down, you’re never gonna be able to hold this pace.” In retrospect, this is a good place to be. Whenever I’ve found myself in this position at the start of the run, it’s turned out to be an awesome split. I’d much rather be in this position, as opposed to having to add effort just to reach my target pace (the tricky part is putting in just enough effort on the bike so you don’t start out like this).
About two kilometers into the run, I realized how hot it was. My legs were with me, but I knew the heat was going to become a factor, so while I kept an eye on my pace, I knew my “perceived effort” was going to carry the day—focus on how you’re feeling, not on what your watch says. It felt like forever just to get to the 5k mark, and I was running about 5 seconds slower than target. Nevertheless, I felt I could kick it up just a notch. Over the next 5k I was two seconds faster than target, and things were starting to hurt. I couldn’t imagine laying down another 11k, but I could imagine another 5k, so I kicked it up another notch. Near the end of that third 5k, I saw the guy I’d exchanged places with on the bike. He had passed the turnaround point and was coming back toward me. He was about a minute up, with just over 6k to go, so I kicked it up another notch. It was all pain from here.
Three kilometers from the finish I came up on him. He knew I was coming because he’d looked back a couple of times at me. I wasn’t sure whether to expect some sort of exchange; I just knew I wanted to pass him. And just before I did, he turned to look at me. Here it comes, I thought.
“Great pace,” he said, nodding encouragingly, and smiled.
Well shit—that disarmed me completely. Here I had ascribed every undesirable quality I’ve ever seen in many a triathlete to this one individual, just to find out that it was I who needed a lesson in sportsmanship. Funny how it works, I guess. Lesson: I should spend more time running my own race, instead of allowing myself to be engaged by or with others.
In any event, that last 6k saw me running 10 seconds faster than target race pace. I crossed the finish line in a sprint, feeling as if I were seconds away from blowing up. That went well, I thought.
And then there’s Ironman Canada.
Everyone has crappy races, but not everyone has crappy races. While the race itself was interesting, for reasons I explain below, I really don’t have a whole lot to say here from an athletic perspective. No quaint little anecdotes, nothing really memorable. Any kernels of wisdom or insight from this particular Ironman event were extracted when I did it in 2010.
This year, well, as for the swim, I felt like had been dropped into the set of Mr. Magoo Goes Swimming. Picture yourself in the middle of a lake surrounded by one hundred of them. I was feeling a little guilty because I thought I seeded myself too optimistically at the start, but 10 minutes into the swim I was still running into people. Some were treading water, others were swimming sideways. It was mayhem. I’d be swimming in what I thought to be a relatively straight line toward the next buoy, when someone would come swimming across the general direction of travel, disrupting the relatively orderly flow of every other swimmer. Where in God’s name are you going, sir?
It was a tough swim. I swam most of it without the benefit of some good feet to follow, and by the end I was feeling tired, and 10 minutes down from my 2010 time.
The bike was somewhat improved—about 15 minutes faster than 2010—but still not as much of an improvement as I’d hoped for. The highlight of the ride came on the backside of Richter, just before the rollers, when two guys had an entertaining little spat about bike etiquette. I didn’t catch all of it, but I could still hear them arguing right up until they were out of earshot—great way to conserve energy, guys.
It was near the end of the bike that I realized all wasn’t right in Dodge, and by “Dodge” I mean “my GI tract”. You see, my coach and I had discussed the forecasted temperatures, in the neighborhood of 35 degrees, and the critical need to keep my hydration and electrolytes up. So I took extra salt stick caplets, and upped the concentration on my EFS drink. All through the bike I took in nutrition like clockwork, and doused and drank water at every aid station. However, the issue, rendered ever clearer as the ride went on, was that I hadn’t peed since before the start of the race. “Ruh roh,” I thought, “this ain’t good. Let’s see what happens when I get off the bike.”
Five minutes in T2 was what happened. I did manage to go, but the amount of fluid coming out of my body surely wasn’t commensurate with what had gone in, even after factoring in the heat and my sweat rate. “Let’s just get out on the course and not think about it for now,” I thought. Similar to the half-Iron distance, my coach and I broke up the marathon into (roughly) four 10k segments, the first segment of which was all about getting my “legs under me”—that is, that point where you feel like you’re actually running, not pedaling an imaginary bike like a methed-out Jerry Lewis doing slapstick. In 2010 I managed to get my legs under me within 3k, and from there until about 30k it was all about making minor adjustments to my pace to stay on target.
This year I never got my legs under me. Worse, my strategy of “getting out on the course and not thinking about my” GI issues only lasted until about mile 8, which marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship…with the porta-potties. Without going into the unsavory play-by-play, and at the risk of mixing a few metaphors (it’s for your own benefit) let me just say road conditions were, uh, slushy until mile 23.
Still not sure exactly what precipitated this most unfortunate turn of events—I’ve used chocolate milk on 25 degree long rides because I’ve been out of product, without incident—but I think I can guess what was happening on the inside: digestion had largely stopped. Probably at some point on the bike I figure, and so whatever it was I was putting in my mouth (which was all liquid, I might add) was going no place. This seems consistent with the fact (i) I could not slake my thirst no matter how much water or electrolyte I took in, and (ii) my gut felt (and sounded) increasingly waterlogged the more I took in. On I went, splosh splosh splosh, a watery reminder punctuating each footfall. At some point (i.e, mile 8), I think my body started jettisoning as best it could, with the percussive splosh splosh crescendoing as I neared every porta-potty, which porta-potties, it’s bears mentioning, were about 10 degrees hotter than the outside temperature. Have you ever tried to pull a skin-tight tri-top over your nose?
TMI? Yeah, TMI.
Not that I was alone out there. People were melting down all over. Christ, Calgary’s annual Zombie Walk isn’t as convincing. It was surreal, and slightly comedic. A fleet of ambulances, lights flashing but sirens eerily silent, crept up and down the course. Herds of athletes, dehydrated and crestfallen, inched forward together in a sort of death march. I came up on one guy who was running along at a relatively decent pace, and at least looked alright, when, about 20 feet in front of me, he quite abruptly stopped, turned sideways toward the ditch, pitched forward a little, and commenced an episode of projectile vomiting unparalleled by anything I ever saw in all my years as a nightclub bartender. Others clearly weren’t as diaphragmatically gifted, as the shoulders were peppered with large, soupy puddles of second-hand supplements.
I crossed the finish line thinking, “Well, that day was a waste of makeup,” and that was it. I spent about 20 minutes massaging my legs in the finisher’s area, gathered up my bike and my bags, rode back to the motel, watched some TV, went to A&W, went back to the motel, and went to bed.
Rather anticlimactic, I’d say. I think what I’m most impressed with about IMC 2011 is how quickly I was able to put it behind me. At first I wasn’t really sure why I wasn’t more disappointed, other than the acknowledgement going into the race that I knew I wouldn’t qualify for Kona this year anyway—even with a perfect race, I’m just not physically there yet.
But equally compelling an explanation, I think, goes back to what I was writing about at the start of this lengthy rumination: when I engage, as I often do, in mantic speculation about the future, I can’t imagine not doing this, or something like it. I can’t imagine not plotting out the course for my two-hour training run on a Sunday morning, or not feeling the pain in my legs when I’m halfway up Mt. Seymour, or not raiding the A&W because I can, having just expended 2,000 calories. Perhaps most of all, I can’t imagine not trying to figure it out. And there it is: The main disappointment of IMC 2011 was what didn’t happen at IMC 2011: I never got the chance to push myself on the run, to tackle the skein of fear and self-doubt that only manifests itself when you’re laying it all down with 10 miles to go. As James Dean once said, “We are all impaled on the crook of conditioning,” but in the gastronomic thriller, GI Tract vs. Will, there’s no question which opponent wins.
But, while IMC 2011 was a bad race—okay, who’s kidding who, it was the worst race, triathlon or otherwise, I’ve ever had—it’s not as if the road ends there (or at Kona for that matter), and it doesn’t derogate from the workouts or races I’ve done this year. There will be others. And it doesn’t diminish the value or validity of the insights I’ve made this year. There will be more. So, ask yourself what went wrong, what you may have been able to do differently, but don’t dwell on it, and don’t regret. Instead, throw yourself forward—yes, I’ll say it: seize the day, and the next one, and the next one, and figure it out.