Living Healthily By Feel

As I wrote recently, modern life requires some dependence upon expert recommendations, but when it comes to our health, we’re too dependent upon scientists; when it comes to our money, we’re too dependent upon financial planners; and when it comes to our spirituality, we’re too dependent upon religious professionals.

A recent Wall Street Journal story described a study of older recreational athletes. The conclusion, past age 50, running more than 15-20 miles a week at faster than 7:30 per mile is associated with higher mortality rates. That makes sense since fast long distance running is a form of stress. So far, I’ve ran about 1,470 miles this year or almost exactly 30 a week. Most of those miles were in the 7:30 neighborhood (well, not the last 8 in Canada). In addition, I’ve swam about 185 miles and rode 5,272—all personal highs thanks to my Ironperson Canada prep.

According to some scientific experts, I’m killing myself in the predawn perpetual light rain, in the sense that I’m shortening my life. If you listen carefully, you can hear couch potatoes everywhere cheering lustily.

So do I dial things back? I accept the studies’ peer-reviewed conclusions, but I’m too skeptical to change my overly active lifestyle as a result of the study. When determining how far and fast to run, swim, and cycle; instead of living purely by science; I choose to live mostly by intuition or feel.

I know myself better than the scientists who conducted the study. Consequently, I’m just arrogant enough to think their study doesn’t apply to me. I’ve slowly built my endurance base over the last twenty years, I eat well, I prioritize sleep, and I’m pretty good about minimizing everyday stress. Regularly going semi-long contributes to the excellent quality of my life. I’m convinced I’m physically, mentally, and even spiritually healthier than I otherwise would be if I cut back based on this study’s recommendations.

I would like to live a long life, but I’m even more interested in maintaining a good quality of life. Late in life I want to remember my past; read The New Yorker; write regularly; and walk without falling down.

I could be wrong. About one of the most important decisions imaginable. The horrors, I may not be special. If some of you are at my funeral in two or twenty years, I give you permission to laugh one last time at me.

Saturday morning, I extended myself for only the second time since Ironperson Canada (the other was the Seattle Half Marathon two weeks ago). I ran 10 miles with my favorite right wing burners, inhaled a large bowl of oatmeal, and then celebrated Hob’s 52nd birthday by swimming 52 100′s. Dear longevity researchers, stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

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IronCanada 2012—Blood, Sweat, and Cheers

The Truthiness of Things

Swim 1:03:03 (6th out of 217 in 50-54 age group). T1 6:34. Bike 5:40:46 (33rd out of 217). T2 6:20. Run 3:50:30 (7th out of 217). Total, 10:47:12 (14th out of 217).

The Training

Twenty years ago I adopted an active lifestyle where I either swim, cycle, or run five or six days a week nearly every week of the year. I’ve done several Olympic distance triathlons and two half irons. I’ve long watched and puzzled over the 140.6 mile long distance scene. Eleven months ago, when intrigue trumped ambivalence and I registered for IronCanada, I had no interest in “just finishing”. Instead, I established one overarching goal, to complete the run in less than 3:59:59. I knew if I saw a “3” at the start of my run time, in all likelihood there would be a “10” at the start of my total time.

Once I started to train in earnest, I got more specific and thought if everything came together just right the following was possible—1:03, :06, 5:36, :05, 3:50, 10:40. To avoid unnecessary pressure, I kept that equation to myself. I also skimmed the results from the last few years to see how fast the burners in my 50-54 year age group were likely to go. Then, a month ago, when a serious heat wave settled over central British Columbia I decided it made more sense to shoot for a tenth place finish, whatever the conditions, whatever the time.

A healthy fear of racing the distances really helped narrow my training focus. There was little “I should probably work out today” dithering. Even if I was consistent I knew I was going to suffer mightily on race day. If I started cutting corners, I’d not only suffer terribly, but have the added disappointment of underachieving. Once in awhile I chose rest over a planned workout, but that was to avoid injury.

A typical training week was three swims for a total of 7-12 kilometers. No stroke work, no kicking, no drills, half with paddles and pull buoys. Two hundred miles of cycling. Typically two 60ish club rides (meaning intervals) and a solo 80 miler on my time trial bike on Saturdays. Four runs for a total of 30-48 miles. I almost always ran 8-10 miles off the Saturday long ride in increasingly warm afternoon temps. Two key workouts. I ran 15 rolling miles off a hot 70 miler and 4 miles off a 125 mile solo effort (ride time 6:32).

Early on I was dismayed by my average cycling speed, low to mid 18’s. In the last six weeks, without seeming to lean on the pedals any harder, I started to see improvements, regularly averaging low to mid 19’s and 20. And to my surprise, from the beginning of my five-month build, I always ran solidly off the bike. Maybe it was getting professionally fitted and my improved bike position, maybe it was the salt tablets that finally kept the cramping at bay, maybe it was my above average weekly run mileage, or a combination of each. I always ran between 7:45s and 8:15s off the bike, even on the hot and hilly 15-miler, even after 125 miles. I told the running posse that it was starting to feel easier to run 8 minute miles off the bike than fresh out of bed at 5:45a.

Running solidly off the bike built confidence. Confidence to post a “3” and a “10” given decent conditions. I also devised some unique mental strategies. One came to me at the top of a climb in the Eastern Sierras in May. As I sat by a beautiful mountain stream, I meditated on the water’s natural, effortless flow. What if I ran like that? Lightly, naturally, steadily. And then my most bizarre race prep idea of all time. The Canada run course borders Lake Skaha between miles 4 and 22. I started visualizing the lakeshore lined with Canadian Navy Seals (camouflaged and mostly submerged under water) who had “shoot to kill anyone walking” orders. The only way to survive would be to keep running, no matter how slowly. That of course introduced a real dilemma. How could I manage to adequately warn all of my fellow competitors who were slowing to a walk that their lives were in imminent danger?

Pre-race

I planned on traveling to the race solo, but I’m glad we turned it into a family vacay. We dig Penticton. Broke the bank on a house rental two blocks from the beach and start/finish. Sunday morn I left the house shortly before dawn with my wetsuit draped over my shoulders. Blue skies, next to no wind, a wonderfully flat lake. Athletes started appearing out of the glooming. It’s strange to train almost completely alone and then be surrounded by 2,700 other athletes. And to have lots of people watching what I’ve been doing in complete anonymity. I got somewhat veklempt walking down a semi-dark Main Street. Five months of anticipation finally giving way to racing.

Then, standing in the lake minutes before the start, the singing of the Canadian national anthem. A soul stirring rendition. From far and wide. O Canada.

Thankful to be healthy, to be in such a beautiful spot, for my family’s presence, and for all the friends and extended family monitoring and pulling for me from afar.

Act 1—The Swim

In the Torah it says, “We see things not as they are, but as we are.” This is how I remember the race. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the way it went down.

Lined up just right of center in the second row. Anxious as hell. Anticipating an alley fight. Then, somehow, I cruised to the first buoy nearly unscathed. Piece of cake. Why does everyone exaggerate how physical the start is? Just when I started to relax and get a little cocky, I got seriously squeezed by 20 people on my left and 10 on my right. The 130 meters between buoy one and two were the longest two minutes of my life. I panicked, breaststroked a few times, and thought to myself, “Straight lines and the race clock be damned, I just want open water.”

I wanted to get ten people to my right, completely on the inside, but it was like trying to walk across a 30 lane freeway moving at 60mph. I slowed my already slow breaststroking to regroup and turned backwards to see if I could slip back and to the right, but it was a constant stream of rubberized humanity. I now understand how even strong swimmers who are comfortable in the water can get in trouble.

I don’t know how, but I pressed forward. Gradually, it loosened up just enough for me to calm down and get back into a rhythm of sorts. I spent a quarter of the rest of the swim on other people’s feet and three quarters swimming into small open pockets of water. I knew drafting off other people would be faster, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to pretend I was at home in tranquil Ward Lake. By the end, I took three shots to the head, but nothing debilitating.

I always loose my balance and end up semi-dizzy after open water swimming. After throwing in a few dolphin dives for the crowd and staggering for thirty seconds well right of the ramp, I made my way into transition one.

As per tradition, my transitions were disasters. When you exclude them, I raced faster than the 10th through 13th place guys in my age group. Wish I hadn’t crunched those numbers. I have a bevy of excuses, but there’s lots of human error mixed in too. Excuse. I had to hit the sunscreen hard given my fair skin and history of skin cancer. Human error. I wore my swimsuit instead of cycling shorts for the first time ever in a race. It was also hard getting my arm coolers all the way on with wet skin. And I ran to the wrong side of my bike rack and had to crawl under to get it unracked. Comedy of errors. But I hadn’t drowned and I was ready to ride.

Act 2—The Bike

Realized early on I didn’t have my gel flask in my jersey pocket. Another transition fail. I did take salt supplements every 30 minutes, 13 in total. And two powerbars. Felt good and settled in through downtown and up McClean and into Okanagan Falls. High cadence, low effort. Riding like a mountain stream. Reminding myself that the ride begins at the Husky Station at mile 40, at the base of the 11 kilometer long Richter Climb. Between OK Falls and Osoyoos three different groups of riders passed me in blatant violation of the no drafting rules. Hardest part was spending five minutes watching them slowly pull away. I’m guessing there were some 50-54 year olds mixed in there.

I was gradually improving my position on Richter which wasn’t as tough a climb as I had remembered from five years ago when I did it on a training ride. Just past the top I pulled over at an aid station for a bottle. Another cyclist rode into me, I braked too hard, and went over my handle bars at about 4-5mph. Probably my fault for not signaling clearly enough. He was fine, but I had a short, very deep cut on my right shin and was bleeding badly. I’m guessing it took five total minutes to find three bandaids that would stick. I probably could have used a stitch or two, but to borrow from Frost, there were still miles to go. The blood ran all the way down my lower leg onto my white sock which turned light red. Total badass. Look out now mothers!!!

The most amazing aspect of the second half of the ride was the utter absence of wind. I thought there was always a serious headwind throughout most of the second half, but the anticipated press against the chest never came. Which was wonderful. Like the IRS saying, “We’ve decided not to audit you after all.” Loved the smooth pavement on the out and back, up to Yellow Lake, and back into town. Stood a lot on the short climbs and broke up the long ones by standing at times too, but was careful to keep it under control. I rode like I trained, at about 80% effort. Max speed descending from Yellow Lake, 48.3.

Act 3—The First 18 Miles of the Run

Ran like I trained. Went through the half in 1:48:25 and continued to run low 8’s through mile 18. Passed a fair number of peeps. Took salt supplements every three miles and sports drink and flat cola every mile. Drank approximately 120 ounces. Blood was flowing from underneath the bandaids, but there were still miles to go.

Act 4—The Last 8.2 Miles of the “Run”

The ex-7x TDF winner likes to say, “Sometimes you’re the hammer, sometimes you’re the nail.” The last 8.2 miles was ALL nail. The internal dialogue. “F$*# the mountain stream metaphor. And I don’t give a sh&t if the Canadian Navy Seals have me directly in their sights. Go ahead and fire. Put me out of my misery. That’s it, I can’t take it anymore. I’m walkin’.”

I walk 16 minutes a mile so if I’m running almost 8 minutes a mile, it’s an 8 minute penalty per mile spent walking. I think I lost a good 12-15 minutes over the last 8.2 miles which means I almost walked two of the last 8.2 miles. Put differently, I ran 24 miles, which I’ll take. Especially given the second half headwind and temps in the high 70’s, low 80’s.

The finish. Pardon the sexism, but when a female athlete passes you in the last 100 meters of a triathlon, it’s referred to as “getting chicked”.  With 100 meters to go I was “geezered”. A ripped guy with the number “60” on his calf passed me at the 140.5 mile mark. I was relieved to hear the announcer say he won his age group (by 45 minutes it turns out), but still, to spot the guy ten years?!

My personal fan club was at the finish cheering wildly in their iRONman gear. Just like before and after the swim, just like before and after the bike. And best of all, somewhere on the Southern California coast, WonderYears Wayne slammed his laptop shut, ruing the fact that his run as the fastest Iron athlete in the fam was finally over, forever and ever, amen.

Act 5—Post Race

I told the race volunteers who “caught” me that I needed to have a cut cleaned, looked at, and taped up. They immediately labeled me “Walking Wounded” and ushered me into the medical tent. The World Triathlon Corporation is a much maligned organization these days, and in many cases for good reason, but the Penticton volunteers were unbelievable. Maybe the WTC deserves some credit for that. One doc said I had a piece of gravel in my cut. How badass is that?! All that extra weight I carried over the last 90 miles!

After getting my cut cleaned and taped up I felt nauseous, tingly, and altogether terrible. Probably borderline heatstroke. They moved me to the second level of the medical tent where I sat for a half an hour drinking soup with ice on my head while being attended to by a nice nurse. Gradually I felt good enough to make the three block walk home. The GalPal and 17 picked up the bike and gear bags and 20 warmed up an assortment of leftovers. I woke up at 3:45a.m. and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

I had wanted to wade into the lake right after finishing to speed recovery, but didn’t because I was in such miserable shape. Nor did I eat nearly quickly enough. As a result, I’m still quite sore four days later.

Thanks to everyone who helped me train, offered advice, and/or cheered me on from afar. And thanks to my family for putting up with the extra training and fatigue.

And thanks dear reader for making it through the world’s longest race report. Congratulations, you’re an IronReader!

Olympic Medals and International Self Esteem

Poor Canada. They bombed at the 2012 London Olympics. One gold medal and it wasn’t even in a sport. Good thing Canada has an excellent sense of humor because their gold was in a childhood backyard activity. Trampoline.

Well, normally they have a great sense of humor. Apparently not when it comes to underperforming at athletic events on the global stage. As this Toronto Star headline illustrates, “Canada Ties Uganda, Uzbekistan, and Grenada in Gold Medal Count,” they’re beating themselves up over it.

Why do nations place so much importance on the Olympic medal count? It’s as if all of the world’s countries are fourteen year-olds starting high school with shaky self esteem. What will all the others think of me? China apparently feels better about itself because they kicked ass. Did you see the women’s beach volleyball finals? Or the gold medal basketball games? Maybe the U.S. isn’t in decline after all. In contrast, Australians, also serious underachievers, are mired in a post-Olympics depression.

The irony is Canada is excelling in a much more important “competition”, the overall quality of life of its citizens. According the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index, Canada is ranked 6th in the world in “human development” which is based on several quality of life indicators including life expectancy (81.0) and per capita income ($35,166).

First through fifth? Norway (gold), Australia (silver), Netherlands (bronze), United States, and New Zealand.

In what’s turning into a global medal arms race, Canada’s and Australia’s Olympic Committees will spend way more money than normal to turn things around in Rio. Less developed countries too.

Go ahead if it makes you feel better about yourselves, but don’t let it substitute for continuous investment and improvement in the quality of life of all your citizens. Otherwise, you run the risk of winning the battle of short-term national Olympic glory at the long-term expense of improved quality of life.

Oh, and Canada, don’t despair too much. Only eighteen months until the Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia.

Canada Seven Weeks Out

[Note to newer readers. I'm competing in a long distance triathlon on August 26th in Penticton, Canada—2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile "run".]

June was productive. I’m fit although I’m swimming, cycling, and running slower than I’d like. Rightly or wrongly I’m chalking that up to the higher than normal volume. When I shut things down for a day or two, I bounce back well. I’m looking forward to the August taper and to returning to more normal, sane levels of activity post-race.

Too soon for a definitive judgement, but right now, I’m even more convinced that repeat Iron-distance competitors have several screws lose. One problem is never feeling as if you’re doing enough. I’m training more than normal, but still often feel it’s not enough. Right now I feel especially badly since today is my second rest day of the week. Of course I nearly killed myself on my mountain bike yesterday, but still.

My suggestion, if you ever suffer the same kind of mental lapse I did and sign up for a similar “race”, is to design a standard week that is realistically repeatable. For the love of alliteration I repeat, realistically repeatable. I’ve had to adjust my original weekly swimming, cycling, and running goals down. I’ve also had to build in a weekly rest day (or two). Getting ready is more about consistency and positive momentum than uber-long workouts that often result in missed workouts.

Rereading that last pgraph makes me chuckle. I sound like I know what I’m doing, but I don’t. These are unchartered waters. I wish I could hit it hard this week, taper for the next three, and race, but most participants probably wish they could just be done with it as this point.

Last week, thanks to some of the more generous friends a guy could have, I once again trained at altitude, even if only 4,000′ plus, in and around Sunriver, Oregon. The week consisted of a mix of Benham Falls trail runs, Mount Bachelor cycling, North pool swimming, and a memorable Sunriver to Bend and back mountain bike ride. Even had great, built-in training partners for most workouts.

That was especially nice when I went over my mountain bike handlebars on the penultimate day. I rode smack dab into an 18″ vertical rock on the side of an easy trail. Total lapse of concentration that I paid dearly for. Quite possibly the world’s worst mountain biker. I thought I had broken my nose and lost a tooth and needed lots of stitches. Fortunately, I was cut up and badly bruised, but avoided the emergency room. Very sore, but I’ll be fine in short order. That sigh of relief is the worldwide triathlon media which is already downbeat with Lance on the sidelines.

Another training tip from the rookie know-it-all—be sure to throw your back out and face plant on your mountain bike at least eight weeks before the start.

In related news, I’m sorry to report elder brother, a 2002 Iron-distance Canada finisher, also known as Wonder Years Wayne, has already launched his psychological attack. I HAVE to beat his time of 11 hours, 44 minutes, and 58 seconds otherwise I may have to re-up and the idea of that isn’t very pleasant right now. He takes great pride in accurately predicting my finishing times. Last week he emailed ludicrous numbers in what was an obvious attempt to get me to swim fast, cycle faster, and then blow up somewhere along Shaka Lake during the run. In a shameless flourish even by his standards, he threw in a Hawaii World Championship reference. Not taking the bait. Wouldn’t be prudent.

Here’s to one more month of going long. One more update pre-race.

Postscript—If you’re interested in either writing and/or the importance of positive thinking in athletic performance dig this recent story.