My No Good, Horrible, Very Bad Year, So Far

“It’s not how many times you get knocked down,” Stuart Smalley, Socrates or some spandex shorts wearing high school football coach once said, “it’s how many you get back up.” I’m not sure who to credit with this well intentioned quote because 2014 has not just knocked me down, it has damn near knocked me out.

To fully appreciate my wretched present, we have to rewind to October when I tore a calf muscle while doing too many hill repeats in prep for the Seattle Half Marathon which I ended up missing. Even writing “half marathon” makes me laugh now. I took four weeks off and then returned slow and easy. On the fourth recovery run the calf again rioted. So now I’m not even half way through an eight week hiatus. The other day I started corralling wayward Christmas tree needles when I had to turn the vacuum off and sit down and rest before continuing. All this, eighteen months removed from long distance triathlon success. We are always the last to know when we’ve peaked.

Add into the mix an enlarged prostate which means sucky sleep, contacts that are shot meaning sucky vision, and an unplanned trip to Dante’s Inferno compliments of an influenza roundhouse that left me too sick at times to watch television. Somewhere along the long downward spiral, I went from thinking “I should probably try to get back up and do Stuart Smalley or Socrates proud,” to “Screw it, I’m just gonna curl up in the fetal position and stay down. If I tuck tight enough it may not matter if 2014 continues kicking me in the gut.”

A part of staying down was going to the dermatologist who always smiles when she sees me. You’re thinking she’s probably turned on by me, but I looked liked I just returned from the lower levels of Hades. She always smiles at me because my tired skin pays for her boat. She has zero interpersonal skills, but she’s damn good with a liquid nitrogen canister. It was as if 2014 asked her to liquid nitrogen me until I begged for mercy. So now, a few days later, red blotches are forming all over my formally handsome self. And I haven’t shaved for ever, I need a hair cut, and if my sinuses weren’t completely blocked I’d probably lay on the floor of the shower for awhile.

Like a paratrooper who perfects her aerodynamic tuck, I thought if I just give in to my cosmic fate, I’ll hit bottom faster and bounce higher when I do. So why not roll the dice with one of the things I most cherish, my marriage.

“You know when I asked if you’d get me some 7-Up or Sprite?” “Yeah.” “Well, the funny thing about that is that’s what my mom always gave me to drink when I was sick as a kid. It’s funny, there’s something about a near-death experience that makes a part of me still want my mom. That’s probably the least masculine thing I’ve ever said, huh?” “A mother’s love is primal.” Say wha?! The first sign yet the calendar may not have it out for me.

And then I visited Australia, well actually an Australian blog after the author visited here. And I read this:

People often ask me what it’s like living with a chronic illness. And by ‘often’, of course I mean never.

So, for the benefit of absolutely no one, allow me to explain. You know that feeling you get when you start to come down with something? Your throat starts to hurt and your glands swell up. Your sinuses block and your nose starts to run. Your head hurts and you can’t think clearly. Your bones ache, your body feels weak and no amount of sleep seems to make a difference.

Well, to the best of my admittedly limited scientific knowledge. . . these are actually the body’s natural defences for fighting off infection. It’s your immune system switching on and kicking in to gear.

And these are the symptoms I’ve had 24/7 for the last seven-and-a-half years. Because, as I’ve explained before, my body has been fighting off an infection it can’t beat and my immune system remains permanently in the ‘on’ position.

The good news is that it means I rarely get whatever bug it is that’s going round. Happy days. The bad news is that I permanently feel like I have the flu. Not so good.

Of course, there are other symptoms, too, like sensitivity to light, noise, cold and heat, significant memory impairment, insomnia, chronic pain and various bodily dysfunctions not appropriate to discuss in this type of public forum. And that’s without the introduction of any number of medical treatments — and believe me, I’ve tried a few — which inevitably make you feel worse than you did to begin with.

So, in short, living with a chronic illness is a real party and that’s your answer.

The first gift of 2014. Perspective.

I am fortunate that the relentless attack on my body is abating and that most of my many ailments are fixable. I will ask the lifeguard to roll my pathetic, coiled bod across the deck and into the pool in a day or two. I will try to ascend the trainer tonight and soft pedal while watching college basketball. The torn fibers in my calf muscle will eventually reattach. I will start running in mid February and should be back to semi-normal in June. Meds make the prostrate manageable. I will make an appointment with the optometrist. My ugly sores will heal. I will shave my face and head. Then I will shower, put on clean clothes, and resume my rightful place among the mostly living. And that is the best I can do.

What Excellent Teachers Do

Last Saturday morning, as I prepared to lap swim, I couldn’t help but notice the tumult in the lane next to me. A college-aged swim instructor held a red-faced, frantic three year old who was crying uncontrollably. The three-year old’s exasperated dad squatted like a catcher at the edge of the pool and attempted to explain to the instructor everything that had gone wrong in recent lessons.

Maybe you’ve seen That Dad. I was That Dad.

As I did my best Michael Phelps impersonation, I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my eldest daughters introduction to swimming. The more I wanted her to put her head in the water, the more she resisted. Fast forward to today. She’s in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On a Winter training trip with her college swim team. Her head completely in the water four hours a day. Co-captain of the team. And worst of all—faster than her dad.

The best teachers look at their sometimes immature and frustrating young students and see their best future selves. Peace Corp volunteers and program directors. Therapists. Farmers. Speech pathologists. School teachers, nurses, and artists. Loving parents. Mechanics. Authors. Carpenters. Docs. Citizens making their communities better places.

Similarly, when the best youth coaches look at their sometimes clueless and hapless athletes they don’t see future college or professional athletes, they see responsible, resilient, mindful adults.

Likewise, when enlightened parents watch their children struggle in and/or out of school, they know “This too shall pass.” They offer love, encouragement, and care. They convey confidence in their children’s abilities and see their best future selves. They know, some day soon, they’ll put their heads in the water and swim like there’s no tomorrow.

Forget Mayweather-Alvarez, Seahawks-Forty Niners, Alabama-A&M

The best matchup of the weekend is Byrnes-Kennett.

Black Diamond Half Ironman Saturday morn @ 0900 at Nolte State Park.

Last year Kennett destroyed the 50-54 year old division by 22 minutes. I was recovering from Iron Canada. My plan tomorrow is to sneak up on him and make him earn the victory.

Swim Transition 1 Cycle Transition 2 Run Total
2011 Byrnes 30:42 3:12 2:42:54(road bike) 1:52 1:40:09 4:58:49
2012 Kettering 33:37 3:12 2:39:32 1:20 1:39:51 4:57:33

I’m fit, but not as fit as 24 months ago. Unlike the run up to Canada, I’ve missed workouts. I feel undertrained and it’s going to be unseasonably warm (70s), but I will empty the tank and report back in case no one from SportsCenter shows.

cropped-sierra-killer-climbs-5-2012-151.jpgPostscript—I got spanked.

 

Maybe Our Most Perfect Drug

Lots of people are seeing therapists and taking meds to combat anxiety disorders and depression. Stacy Horn suggests a much less expensive alternative, join a choir. She explains:

. . . as science works to explain what every singer already knows, no matter where you fall on the voice suckage scale—sing. I know of no other activity that gives so much and is this eminently affordable and accessible: Just show up for choir practice. Singing might be our most perfect drug; the ultimate mood regulator, lowering rates of anxiety, depression and loneliness, while at the same time amplifying happiness and joy, with no discernible, unpleasant side effects. The nerds and the church people had it right.

In high school, following the lead of some close friends, I sang in a large Lutheran youth choir. We toured for two weeks each summer, wowing Lutheran congregations all over the fruited plains. One summer at Indiana University in Bloomington, we even won a large national competition. But, as any Lord’s Joyful alum will tell you, no thanks to me. When you look up “voice suckage” in the urban dictionary, you see my larynx. Little known fact. Kool Herc, Kurtis Blow, and The Sugarhill Gang started rapping in the late 70s so that I’d have an alternative to singing.

Horn earns my enduring affection with this confession:

One of my main goals in our weekly rehearsals is not being heard. Over the years I’ve become a master in the art of voice camouflage, perfecting a cunning combination of seat choice, head tilt, and volume.

As they liked to say on The Wire, I feel you!

My alternative drugs of choice, by which I mean social activities that help me maintain some semblance of mental health, are swimming, cycling, and running with friends.

The GalPal and I recently enjoyed catching up with old friends from the state that just decided to stop paying teachers extra for Masters degrees. One whom struggled with depression recently. Her most perfect drug? Caring for and riding a horse. Almost daily. At first glance, this activity isn’t as social as the others, but in fact, our friend always looks forward to seeing the same few horse owners at the medium-sized, community-based barn. A couple of times a week, after grooming and riding their horses, they cross the street to a golf course restaurant where they eat and visit. Her mental health in tact for another day.

Reduce anxiety and depression without therapy or meds. Follow Horn’s advice and join a community choir. Or follow my lead and swim, cycle, run, hike, or walk with another person. Or if you can afford it, horse around with friends. You feel me?

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Me at my last concert performance

A Panacea for Improved Health

I have a neighbor who makes money off of his car. He carefully shops for an underpriced used one, then takes immaculate care of it, and then gets reimbursed by his employer at 50+ cents per mile.

I admire his fiscal discipline, but who wants to spend their weekend washing their car the way he does? One time he yelled at another neighbor who was washing the bottom 90% of her van. “You gotta start with the roof and work down!” Best comeback ever, “No one’s gonna see the top!” Blood pressure spike. And he routinely rips me for using the last bit of dirty water in the bucket to wash my wheels, but I tell him my goal is for my car to be 90% as clean as his in 10% of the time. And normally it is.

We’re all obsessive about something. One could argue I substitute exercise for car washing. Last week was pretty typical for April. Four runs for 28.7 total miles. Two swims for 6,000 meters and two bike rides for 90 miles. And an hour lifting weights. Total time, 11-12 hours. People like me tend to have a lot of fitness activity-based friendships and we often find the swimming, cycling, and running enjoyable in and of itself. We’d still go out and run, swim, and cycle even if there weren’t empirical health benefits tied to those activities. We’re lucky that our hobbies come with health benefits.

Some people no doubt think about my commitment to fitness the same way I think about people who obsess about the stock market’s every move and spend their days thinking, talking, and writing about money. There’s an opportunity cost to finance tunnel vision. Life passes by. Investing wisely is a means towards other more meaningful ends—like learning about other people’s interests and engaging with them.

Like extreme car washing, there’s a tipping point where a person’s fitness routine can detract from their physical, emotional, and spiritual health. That’s where “Doc Mike Evans” comes in. He asks a great question near the end of this high-speed informative whiteboard lecture—Can you limit your sleeping and sitting to just 23.5 hours a day? 

Like my quicker, more casual approach to car washing, Doc Evans explains how you can achieve most of my health benefits in much less time. Walk 20-30 minutes a day. Even better if you integrate walking as a means of transportation by living within a mile of your work, a grocery store, and other stores. And of course driving less is good for your pocketbook and the environment too.

Forget my approach of driving to the pool and overdoing it in the form of occasional marathons and triathlons*. Instead, as Doc Evans advises, walk 20-30 minutes a day and enjoy markedly improved mental and physical health.

Maybe you’re already a walker, but wish there were even more tangible health benefits. Evans explains how you can reap additional benefits by extending the time and distance of your daily walks. But since time is most people’s greatest obstacle, I suggest picking up the intensity by choosing more hilly routes. My running teammates probably get tired of me saying, “The hills are our friends.” When I don’t feel like exerting myself much, which is a lot of the time, I sometimes commit to a hilly route because hills force me to increase the intensity. As an added benefit, when I’m running up hill, my conservative Republican Nutter friends don’t have enough oxygen to complain about the current political scene. If you’re a Florida or Texas flatlander, move.

We expect complexity today, but this isn’t. If you want to enjoy an improved quality (and quantity) of life, take a ten minute walk sometime today. And then repeat tomorrow. And the next day. Extend it to twenty minutes next week. And repeat. Every day.

* This summer I’m going to be more family focused than last year. We’re looking forward to a fair number of visitors from afar, and at the end of the summer, launching Seventeen at a still-to-be-decided college. I’m #34 on the RAMROD waitlist which means I’ll definitely get in and Danny and I plan on running the Wonderland Trail in mid-August. I may throw in a few short/medium distance triathlons on unscheduled weekends. Or maybe I’ll just take a walk.

Betrothed and I walking

Amazing she’ll still hold hands with me after all these years

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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Newsflash—Missy Franklin Forgoes $6m to Swim in College

Seventeen year-old amateur swimming phenom Missy Franklin’s countercultural decision isn’t getting nearly as much ink as it deserves. I’ve lauded her parents’, coach, and her before. I’ll have to plead guilty if accused of putting a 17 year-old athlete on a pedestal.

If Franklin turned pro sports marketing experts agree she’d earn about $2m a year through product endorsements. Instead, she’s decided to swim at the University of California for a few years and then turn pro in 2015, one year before the Rio Summer Olympics.

Here’s the conventional wisdom on her decision:

While the opportunity to earn money from endorsement deals will not completely evaporate should Franklin delay becoming a pro-swimmer by competing at the NCAA-level, it will drastically impact the amount of money she will earn from endorsements. Not only will she miss out on a lot of money in some prime earning years for what are normally short Olympic careers, but she will likely also miss out on the chance to build her brand on a larger stage by way of the promotion and visibility that would come from advertisers using her in campaigns.

Another sports marketer adds, “I think it’s hard not to justify waving her amateurism.  If I was an objective advisor to her and her family, I would advise this way:  Her window to reap the rewards of her life’s work is relatively limited when you consider it over a traditional working career.  As such, her potential earnings in the next four years will be five-times greater than what she’ll be able to make in the subsequent 30 years.”

My brother, who I may have been a tad too hard on the last several months, weighed in more creatively, “Missy-stake! Shoulda took the money.”

She’s rolling the dice on avoiding injury, finishing third in 2016 Olympic Trial races, and having Michael Phelps pressure her into a bong hit.

All you have to do for an alternative perspective, is turn to Franklin herself:

“Someday, I would love more than anything to be a professional swimmer, but right now I just want to do it because I love it. Being part of a college team is something that’s so special. I went on my recruiting trip, and the team was so amazing. Just being with those girls, I really felt like I belonged there. The campus itself is gorgeous. Everything about it was just perfect.”

Borrowing from the linked article above, Franklin said the opportunity to compete with close friends to earn points toward a team total, rather than simply attending school with them, was an allure stronger than the potential millions of dollars she could earn in endorsements. She actually wanted to commit to a full four seasons of swimming for Cal, but her parents told her “that would probably be the biggest financial mistake” she “could ever make.” Franklin acknowledged, “This can pay for your future family. This can pay for your kids’ school, things that I really have to think about. So that’s been the hard part.”

The materially minded majority will lament, “She’s paying about $6m for the opportunity to ride on busses and stand in security lines in airports with her college teammates in order to score points in college meets.” The assumption being she’d be two and half times happier with $10m in 2016 than $4m. What’s lost in that calculus is the fact that her parents are professionals and she’s grown up economically secure. She’s comfortable, she’s a good student, and with her family’s resources and a Cal degree, odds are she’ll continue to be comfortable.

And if comfort was her primary goal, she’d cash in now. She’s saying you can’t put a price tag on some things like memories of close friendships strengthened through athletic competition. She’s wise beyond her years. She probably knows that multimillionaires tend to get caught on an ever speedier treadmill, and as a result, never pause long enough to ask, how much is enough? Franklin, who I suspect is extremely confident she can swim as fast or faster in Rio, is saying $4m is enough.

And what if somewhere in the world right now there’s a 12 year old girl who out touches Franklin in Rio?

I have no doubt she’ll handle it with grace and dignity. “Honestly anything can happen,” she recently reflected. “You can’t predict the future, so whatever God has in store for me I’ll just go along with it.”

Stop Trying to Control Things Outside of Your Control

William Irvine, in A Guide to the Good Life, explains we’re susceptible to negative emotions like anger, fear, grief, anxiety, and envy because of our evolutionary programming. Each of those negative emotions increased our earliest ancestors’ odds of survival, so overtime, they became engrained in us. For example, early humans who weren’t afraid of lions were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes. Similarly, those that didn’t worry incessantly about having enough to eat were less likely to survive long enough to pass on their genes.

Irvine explains the good news. Since we can reason, we can understand our evolutionary predicament and take conscious steps to at least partially escape it. For example, the pain associated with a loss of social status isn’t just useless, it’s counterproductive. We need to learn to “misuse” our intellect to override the evolutionary programming that makes us susceptible to negative emotions.

In short, Stoics pursue tranquility. The major impediment to tranquility is our evolutionary programming. Tranquility and inner joy is achieved by “misusing our reasoning ability” via repeated practice at using specific Stoic psychological techniques.

For example, we must overcome our evolutionary tendency to worry by determining which things we can’t control. Irvine labels this the “trichotomy of control.” Once we identify those things we have no control over, we can use our reasoning ability to eradicate our anxieties related to those things. Doing that improves one’s chances of gaining tranquility. To better understand the trichotomy of control, take a piece of paper, and using a ruler or folding it, make three columns. Label the first “absolutely no control”, the second, “total control”, and the third “some control”. It’s easy to quibble with “absolutely” and “total”, but work with me.

Here are some possible items for each column just to get your wheels turning. No control—the weather, the eventual death of loved ones, our own gradual physical decline, and how fast a competitor might show up at your next race. Total control—to eat nutritious food, to exercise daily, to get adequate sleep, to marry or not, to have children or not, to vote or not, to wear boxers or briefs. Some control—to shape your children’s values, to reduce your commute, to make your work environment more pleasant, to protect the environment.

It doesn’t take long into this exercise to realize the lines between the columns should probably be dotted since there’s often blurring. Not as fancy sounding, but a continuum of control would be better than Irvine’s “trichotomy”. The whole point is to learn to let go of everything that makes up the “no control” anxiety-producing end of the chart or continuum. Accept the fact that if you live in the Pacific Northwest it’s going to be overcast for seven or eight months of the year. And there’s going to be an incessant light rain for those seven or eight months. I originally wrote, “incessant, annoying light rain,” but that’s the exact point. Only things we have some or a lot of control over should have the potential to annoy us.

One last example of learning to let go of those things beyond one’s control. One night last week I asked Seventeen what she was swimming in the meet the next day. “The 50 and 100 free I think.” Internal dialogue. “What?! That’s what the beginners swim. That’s embarrassing for a fourth-year co-captain.” Actual response, “Really?!”

Parenting fail. She could feel my disappointment. In a bathtub (too much information too late alert) partially filled with very warm water, I replayed our brief exchange in my mind. I realized I could give in to negative emotions and be frustrated that she doesn’t approach high school athletics they way I did or the way I think others should or I could recognize that she’s an independent young adult who can choose not to train until the season and who thinks of athletics first and foremost as another way of having fun with friends.

It doesn’t matter whether she swims a slow 50 or a fast 500. Positive parenting rests upon unconditional love. Post bath I attempted a recovery. “I’m really looking forward to watching you swim the 50 and 100 tomorrow afternoon.” “Good!” she said in a way that communicated forgiveness. All was well with Seventeen. And the world.

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!

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.