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!

Ironperson Canada 2012—Almost “Go Time”

As ready as I guess I’ll ever be to swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112, and run 26.2 on Sunday, August 26th in Penticton, British Columbia.

I’m assigning myself an “A-” for my prep. I’m most proud of the fact that without being accountable to a coach, or anyone, I put the work in. I’m fit. There have been times in the last five to ten years that I’ve been faster in the water, faster on my bike, and I’ve ran faster, but I’ve never been as strong in all three disciplines. I am trained for a steady and solid all day effort. I’ve gone from doubting whether it’s possible to run a marathon off a long swim and bike, to dialing in the salt supplements, and thinking I can. When I get in trouble during the day, I’m confident I can pullback, regroup, and continue on. The half grade deduction is due to the record amounts of sugar I’ve consumed over the last few months. I’ve blown through pack after pack of Costco cookies and thoroughly tested a wide range of Dreyer’s ice-cream flavors. Someone asked Charles Barkley what he thought of my nutrition and his answer is below.

The four consecutive recent Tampa, FL runs were more important than meets the eye. It took me 15 of the 30 miles to learn to slow down and sustain anything through the heat and humidity. Mid-day Friday in Olympia I ran for an hour steadily and fairly hard in a long sleeve winter shirt. I couldn’t have done that before FL. I feel fairly acclimated to heat, an achilles heel of mine. Then again, it was 94 in Penticton yesterday. If it’s that warm on race day, all bets are off.

Recently, I met two people who couldn’t understand why anyone would voluntarily subject themselves to such extreme physical activity. I’ve wondered the same thing for years, but have made peace with my motivation which I’d describe as one part peer pressure and two parts the lure of trying to pace such an event correctly.

I am an ordinary age group athlete, but I am above average at pacing events correctly. I love the challenge of spreading out my effort as evenly and efficiently as possible. That’s part of my competitive advantage. I first learned to pace a 10k well, then a half marathon, then marathons, then half irons, then rides around Mount Rainier. This event intrigues me because it will be the ultimate test of that skill. The line between my “all day” pace and “too fast” is razor thin especially on the run. Even 10-15 seconds a mile too fast in the opening miles could very well cause me to blow up in the middle or late stages of the run.

The question is do I have sufficient self-understanding and body awareness? No power meter or heart rate meter for me, just g.p.s. and intense attention to my “perceived rate of exertion”. Put differently, for eleven hours I’ll be closely assessing whether I’m breathing too hard. I have a hard time living in the present for 11 minutes, here’s hoping I can do it for 11 hours.

My physical ordinariness is evident in the fact that true fish make me look silly in the water; I can’t hang with Cat 1, 2, and 3 cyclists; and the fifty year-old down the street would have to spot me at least 30 minutes in a marathon. But 90% of triathletes have a weakness. In contrast, I’m decent across the board. That’s another advantage. Being 50.5 in the 50-54 year old division is yet another.

Given my successful training and those advantages, what are some realistic goals? I’m conflicted. Half of me feels conventional, I want to start the run right around the seven hour mark and finish 10th in my age group (last year there were 245 in my 50-54 age group). The other half wants to have a spiritual experience and learn more about myself and life independent of the race clock. That’s vague because it’s not a goal as much as a tough to articulate feeling.

Recently, a friend and fellow long distance athlete had an epiphany. He realized that racing is about learning to set goals and persevere in attaining them and then applying those skills and discipline to his non-athletic life. For me, that’s too linear, or for lack of a better term, too Western. I want to experience something of the divine. Is that asking too much?

Post race I’ll share my more specific pre-race goals and my unconventional mental prep. Ultimately, finishing 10th in my age group will come down to one thing, being able to run steadily for the whole marathon leg. In training, salt tabs have been a godsend, keeping my chronic cramps at bay. I expect them to work on race day too. So then, only two things will determine my relative success, smart pacing, and mental toughness, or guts.

Do I have sufficient guts? I think so.

p.s. Noticed the dearth of pics lately? I gave my camera to 19 for her 20th b-day. I will buy a new one soon and jazz the place up. In the meantime, I will deputize 17 and 20 as race photogs.

Battling Self-Doubt—Who to Believe?

When I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, I remember being frustrated when home from college. I have three older siblings. One older brother is mechanically inclined, so whenever something needed fixing, it got fixed before I ever got the chance to swing the bat. And no one ever taught me how to work with my hands. Through teasing, I got put in a “mostly incompetent” box which hurt my confidence and zapped my initiative. Better not to try than to fail. A downward spiral of self-doubt. Alex Smith in need of a Jim Harbaugh.

Built like a pool cue, I was also labelled soft and spoiled. Truth be told, I shied away from physical contact, and by the time I came along, my parents were better off, the task master was often traveling, and Mother Dear had let her hair down. I did live a charmed life. I coasted through high school so much, my dad, who also thought of me as sheltered, discouraged me from going to college.

Proving him wrong was motivating. As a first year college student living on my own in a culturally diverse, challenging, and stimulating setting, I was transformed. Afraid of failing, I applied myself, studying intensely. I quickly improved as a thinker, writer, student. I gained confidence in communicating original ideas. I met lots of interesting people who had no preconceived notions about me. I spent a summer working at an inner-city Boston park and food bank with a dozen other college students from around the country.

Whenever I returned home though, time seemingly stood still. In the eyes of my family, I was still the mostly incompetent, soft, sheltered, spoiled seventeen year-old. The result was equal parts alienation and frustration.

So who to believe, others from the past or myself? Incompetent, soft, spoiled, sheltered, or increasingly capable, resilient, socially conscious, and experienced?

This “who to believe” dilemma is universal. Everyone has to contend with negative messages that go way back to parents, teachers, coaches, other authority figures, siblings. Why do some people succumb to long-running negativity and others rise above detrimental preconceived notions?

The single most important variable is whether you surround yourself with positive or negative people. A negative past can be blunted. Case in point, I love how my Better Half always goes into “compensation” mode and encourages me whenever I attempt to install or repair something.

Most of the time though, we have to confront our self-doubt alone. The way to do that is to build enough countervailing evidence to eventually tilt the balance from self-doubt to self-confidence. A marathon without shortcuts.

To illustrate, consider my preparation for IronPerson Canada in late August, a mere seven months away. Something about swimming 3.8 kilometers, riding 112 miles, and then running 26.2 sparks serious self-doubt. Athough I’m not building up for it yet, I can’t help but think about it from time to time. My mental prep is hampered by the fact that I’ve internalized the “soft” messages of my youth. I not only internalized them, I embellished them. Like a taller, skinnier Woody Allen, I even thought at times that I had a particularly weak constitution, and that I’d probably contract some chronic illness, and pass from the stage prematurely.

The self-doubt is playing havoc with my sub-conscious; consequently, I’ve had a series of disconcerting IronPerson dreams. In last night’s version, the brakes on my bike unravelled right before the start leading to the dreaded “DNF”—did not finish. I’ve had others where I swim completely off course and the race goes on without me. I probably haven’t dreamed about the most challenging leg yet because I haven’t worn out all the swimming and cycling nightmares.

Here’s the odd thing though, in the last two decades I’ve become an experienced open water swimmer, long distance cyclist, and marathoner. And while this is hard to admit publicly, I’ve gotten pretty good as an endurance athlete. Riding especially strongly at the end of RAMROD last July and my last half iron distance triathlon last September were major confidence boosters. Yet, I struggle to even write “pretty good” because deep down in my gut the cassette recorder quietly repeats “I’m soft, an impostor, a wannabe.”

I’m wrestling with who I am as an athlete. Ultimately of course, I’m an insignificant weekend warrior, but I have to get more specific to set goals and then devise and successfully implement a race strategy.

Am I still the third-grader who climbed down from the 10 meter platform too afraid to jump off, the scrawny junior higher who routinely got whupped in the 660 yard dash, the junior high cornerback who whiffed an easy tackle, the batter who was too chicken shit to hit a curve, or the long distance runner who was mentally tough and gutted out the last 10k of the 2010 Seattle marathon, or the cyclist who last summer got stronger the longer and tougher the mountain climb? If I’m more of the former, my goal should be the traditional “just to finish,” if more of the later, it should be to throw down with the fastest dudes in my age group.

Forget me and my inconsequential, irrational race. What negative messages limit your potential? Have you succumbed to the negativity of critical peeps from your past or are have you created a positive present?

[extra credit—What city is in the February header?]

I’m Registered for the 2012 Penticton BC Long Distance Triathlon

Assuming I’m alive and well, I will wade into Lake Okanagon around 6:45 a.m. on August 26th, 2012.

It’s only taken me about fifteen years to commit to going crazy long—2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile “run”. My brother, who calls it Ironman Canada, did it when he was in his early 40s. Me at 50, figure that’s a fair fight.

Why now when I haven’t been racing at any distance? A perfect storm of cognitive slippage, turning 50, watching my friends race all summer, getting stronger on the bike, and reflecting on the GalPal’s health struggles.

I’m more anxious than excited because it’s the most I’ve ever asked of my bod. The training is going to require unprecedented self-discipline and I’m going to suffer big time on race day. I’ve already lost some sleep with jarring images of the swim start and “running” for four hours plus in 90 degree weather after 112 miles in the saddle.

If it’s 90+ degrees on the run like it was this year, my brother’s family record of 11:45 is probably safe. I know he’ll be rooting for me. . . to blow up early in the run.

Can’t wait to embrace the triathlon subculture I’m so enamored with. I love the World Triathlon Corporation’s single-minded bidness focus so I’ve decided to rent myself out to the highest bidder. That’s right, I’m officially for sale. NASCAR has nothing on me. I’ve already been contacted by representatives from AAPL, Coca-Cola, and Tide. I’ll wear their logos, or if the price is right, have them permanently tattooed on the body part of their choice.

I’m going to use that revenue flow to hire a coach who I will pay more than two-thirds of the world’s people earn. Also, don’t tell the GalPal, but I’ll be tapping our retirement accounts to buy lots of very expensive bike equipment, shaving grams as I go. Hyperbaric chambers aren’t cheap either.

And rest assured, I’ll embrace the narcissism that often seems endemic to the sport. That means I’ll be posting pillions of pictures of myself getting fitter and fitter and blogging about all of my training details until every last reader’s eyes glaze over. And even though my brother looked roided up in 2002, I’ve decided to race clean, again in an effort to level the playing field.

Just kidding. My primary goal is to put in the necessary work without letting it take over my life. More easily written than done I suppose. Appropriately starting on April 1, just under five months of prep. Eight week build, followed by eleven weeks of high volume, and a ten day taper.

Ron Byrnes has agreed to coach me. And with the goal of not letting it take over my life, I don’t intend on blogging much about my prep. If all goes well, I will toe the line in the best shape of my life and then race smartly, meaning steadily.

Can I put in the work without breaking down or losing balance, survive the swim start, avoid tacks on Maclean Creek, run slowly all afternoon instead of walking, go sub 11:45, and get home without cramping up uncontrollably and driving off the road?

Stay tuned sports fans.