Friday, 29 October 2010

Feeling Awkward and the OSM

From time to time, we all find ourselves in situations about which we may feel slightly uneasy. I was reminded of this by the recent World Triathlon Corporation's Ironman Access program launch and almost immediate rescinding of that program after considerable customer outcry on social networking sites. I've said my piece on this issue elsewhere...

But what I am interested in is that moment of discomfort. That instant when an individual (or a corporation's CEO) has an OSM -- an oh shit! moment. Everyone has had these. Something that seems like such a good idea at the time, actually turns out to be the worst of all possibilities.

Think of how you felt while getting stitches after using the pocket knife to tighten a screw. Or standing awkwardly, alone, after sharing an anecdote with someone whom the anecdote was actually about! Or, realizing that 300m into a mass swim start that maybe going full speed and keeping up with the leaders wasn't such a good idea, especially with more than 3km more to go. Or, my favourite, having your partner photograph someone who is not your partner straddling you in the cockpit of a car.

I've had more than my fair share of OSMs. Some of them in triathlon, and just as many, if not more in the dress-up, adult world. What intrigues me is that the moment of realization is not after the gaff has occurred. For me, the OSM happens just before the damage is done.

As I'm forming words in my mouth, but have not yet recruited my larynx, I have found my self inexorably hurtling towards uttering something that should never, ever have left my lips. It is like a train wreck. Everything is in slow motion. It actually feels like I've left my body and I'm looking down at the show. The verisimilitude is stunning. Sometimes it is even in 3D! What always whips me back into reality is the sudden sick feeling in my stomach, the unexplainable clammy hands and the palpable feeling of sickness that floods my blood stream riding shotgun with the adrenalin release. 

In my life, OSMs follow patterns. I see them coming. It is like Tourrettes but with a built-in early warning system. When I pay attention, I can stop them before anyone but my inner self notices. No damage is done. And actually, sometimes I may even learn from the only-in-my-head experience.

I'm in the middle of an OSM right now. I have very few definitive races planned for 2011, no set training plan, no regimen to follow. I've been sticking to a training plan for the past four years. This!

My OSM? Oh shit! I'm starting to gain weight, I'm sleeping too much and not very well, I'm eating the wrong stuff - at the wrong time and I'm becoming more and more lethargic in my own sluggishness.

At the height of my Ironman training two years ago, I could tell, when on my bike or on the run, if something was about to go wrong. I had become so attuned to my body that I knew that a slight feeling of confusion and lack of conviction meant I was running on empty. A quick jolt of carbs had me back in form withing a couple of minutes. Similarly, a twinge in my quad while climbing out of the saddle reminded me that I was pushing too hard and maybe I was running a little low on electrolytes.

Just days before Halloween, I look in the mirror and find that I've started wearing a scary costume that I haven't worn in years - I'm dressed like a couch potato, albeit a sweet one, I'm told.

This is my OSM! It is time to change my course, and alter it before it becomes my reality. Some may call it a wake up call. I think it is the end of T3 for me. It is time to HTFU and get back to living the lifestyle that works. Back to training tomorrow.

Training for what? Training for life.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Leaving Footprints.

In a different era -- BTE -- before triathlons existed – at least in my consciousness – my sport of choice was walking. I used to walk everywhere. I grew up in a place where the transit system was cheap, convenient and efficient, yet I often would start the day a half hour early and walk the few extra miles or 5 to get to where I was going.
Walking was my outlet, my time with myself – a time of pure and simple self-sufficiency. With such a history of walking, it was no surprise when good friend, SP, suggested we explore hiking the Appalachian Trail, that I fell for the idea. 

It has not occurred to me, until now, how back then, decades before I knew anything about chaffed nipples, I was learning about pacing, endurance and mental toughness.
Thinking back to that glorious time of self-sufficiency, dried food and iodine water purification tablets, I learned a lot about myself – during that gloriously challenging month clambering and hiking among the rhododendron, wolf spiders, moonshiners and invisible bears on the Tennessee/North Carolina portion of Appalachian Trail.

Preparing for that trip involved countless planning meetings at Dunkin Donuts pouring over maps and supply lists and equipment catalogs and bus routes trying to plan for the big excursion. The parallels between how I approached this and my current race prep are unmistakable, except of course, there is no Dunkin Donuts where I now live and I prefer to not take Greyhound to race sites.

On the training side, the tools were different, but the methods and theory were no different than what I have done for Ironman.  I would fill my pack with books – 70 pounds worth and walk for hours and hours up and down city hills, uptown, downtown and anywhere that seemed would be a challenge in my urban landscape.

I would try different socks and shirts and pants. I practised walking with and without water.  I would try granola bars and GORP and Snickers bars. Occasionally, I even splurged on some Gatorade. When my legs or my back and neck started to ache from the strain, I would take a break for a day or two and ride my 10 speed.

And in so doing, I became more confident in my abilities and even a little cockier.  Even though, as a teenager, I was apprehensive about jumping on a bus and traveling so far from home, I was beginning to anticipate the challenge.

When we finally arrived and found our way to the trailhead, we were greeted with several days of non-stop rain. All my hopes and dreams for a great adventure into adulthood were dampening, like my wool socks. I still have my journal from that time and that section reads like the last words of a man forever trapped underground with supplies dwindling almost as fast as patience. 
This was the same experience I found myself in some of my first races. All of a sudden, 300m into the swim, wearing a third-hand wetsuit that was too big for me, I realized that my arms were already tired and I still had 1600m to go – just to finish the swim!

The nascence of the terms “suck it up, buttercup” and “Harden the fuck up” are unknown to me, but it is precisely those sentiments that got me moving. In Tennessee, where we were holed up in our tent for days, stupidly waiting for the rain to stop, I hiked up out of valley and realized it was only raining in the valley! 

In Morden, Manitoba, it was a kick to the head from another swimmer that made me realize that I was in a half-iron distance race and it just wasn’t going to get any easier. 

The interval between my Appalachian adventure and start of my life as an endurance athlete is just over 20 years. In that time, I moved and lived some great adventures and had wonderful relationships and found the love of my life and together we grew a family that I still have to pinch myself about.

At the end of some of my races, I feel great, but always find that I could have done better had I just pushed a little more, or spent a little less time in transition. This realization leaves me often with a feeling of a void – like I missed some opportunity. 

Looking back at the decades between my youthful adventures and my middle-aged athleticism , I don’t feel that void.  I can’t imagine getting to where I am now without having experienced what I did in those 20-plus years.  I am sure, on further reflection, I will also discover even more examples of experiences that made me HTFU and get on with it.

Just this week, I finally completed the tattoo on my ankle. I never really wanted a tattoo, but the accomplishment of three Ironman races created in me a need for some kind of footprint in sand of where I’ve been.   

This marker of where I’ve been reminds me of some words I first read many years ago while I was preparing for my Appalachian sojourn. 
It is reportedly a quotation from Chief Si’ahl, (c. 1780 – June 7, 1866), the leader of the Suquamish and Duwamish Tribes. His name, was anglicised to Seattle. Take nothing but memories and leave nothing but footprints, he is alleged to have said.
I took that line, apocryphal or not, to heart as I entered the wilderness with a sense of awe and respect. 

As I exit an entirely different sort of wilderness, I see the footprint in indelible ink that circles my ankle like barbed wire grown into the fleshy bark of a tree.  

I must keep stepping forward, making new memories, if I am to leave any more footprints in the sand.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Looking back at my life as an endurance athlete.

On August, 29th, 2010, I completed my third in a row Ironman Canada at a personal best time. I had some interesting struggles and some triumphs and a pannier-full of revelations about myself, my abilities and what motivates me. You can read all about the race, my actions and my times in my race report.  

But this isn't the place to go over the individual race. I deliberately took my time before I blogged, just so I could put some distance between where I am now and the four years of preparation, training and racing that went into three years of Ironman.  

During most of September, I also struggled with what I've come to understand as T3. In triathlon, one contends with two transitions - swim to bike and bike to run - T1 and T2.  T3 is the transition from racing to not racing. It doesn't matter if you are a professional, a serious age grouper or just some guy, like me, who one day decided to get up off the couch, T3 is something many triathletes and endurance folk will probably face after they have completed their "big" race. Google Marathon Blues or post race depression for some more specific thoughts on this. Or for a quasi scientific/scholarly analysis, read an Ironman specific analysis here

I've been to T3 before and got the Tshirt. The best way out of it is simply to plan another event or activity before the end of the "big" race. Then you have something to keep training for. You have good reason to rest and do very little (you have to rest up before the big push). This pre-planning (some would call it goal setting) also helps you answer that most annoying of questions - "so whatcha doin' next?" 

But this time, I wanted to try something different. I have been training so long and so hard, I had lost sight of what I was actually doing. Looking back at my training blogs over the past four years, I have seen reduced time in the pool and significantly less time on the bike. I did spend more time running this year, but that had something to do with a new goal - the Fargo Marathon. 

Despite the reduced training time, I still achieved a personal best. Not because I was in better shape, I would argue that I was in marginally mediocre shape, training wise. I did better because I raced smarter. I had a faster swim, despite ending up on the rocks and losing time there. I had a crappy bike ride. Mind you I got hailed and rained on and faced surprisingly strong winds. But my pre-race plan was to not push as hard on the bike and save something for the marathon run. 

The weather conditions forced me to not push that hard on the bike and I had a tremendous run - I actually ran! In my third year of racing I figured out how to race this race and was pleased with my results. I broke 14 hours by 10 minutes. If I were racing Ironman Canada a fourth year, I'd be focused on getting an even faster time.

But I'm not racing #4. Not this year. I'm looking back from the finish line. 

Over the past four years my family has been very patient and understanding with the absentee member of the family. Training 17 hours a week meant a lot of time out of the house and a little too much time in the shower. At least I was the one who did most of the laundry. My hope for this year and beyond is to synthesize everything I've learned about myself and coping with challenges and make our family life a little richer. (We will actually be a lot richer since I won't be spending all that money on race fees, travel  and hotel rooms this year!). My hope is to spend more time living my life with my beautiful family and looking for opportunities to train with them, whenever possible.

Over the past four years I've also made some friends through the sport and through the various blogs and websites I've trolled around. Some have become truly special confidants and albeit virtual, training partners and friends. I have traveled thousands of miles to see some of them, or traveled across the continent with them as athletic support. I've also texted with them from airports, Starbucks, hospital waiting rooms and roadside motels  for their words of wisdom, encouragement and acceptance.

Over the past four years I have met some others that I met have broken my heart.

Looking back beyond the finishing tape, what have I learned? More than I'm willing to admit. I used to joke that through this training I'm getting younger. And I did. Physically, I reversed much of the excessive living and corpulence that had taken hold of me. Similarly, I reversed some of the closemindedness and intolerance that I found myself experiencing. Ironically, when I was most alone - 30 km from home on foot or 120 km on bike, I was nearest to when I used to walk miles and miles alone after school as a pre-teen and teen. And, during those long, training sojourns, I found myself having the same rich, creative, expansive thoughts that I had believed were gone forever.

Looking back what have I learned? 
  • Procrastination is good, just don't make a habit of it.
  • Be prepared to improvise and you'll not have to...much. 
  • A little pain means you are doing it right. a lot of pain means you're not. 
  • Hear from everyone, but listen to yourself.
  • Those who have the least to give you sometimes give you the most.
  • The more you spend (time and money) the faster you will become, but then what?
  • Shower lots, but don't forget to moisturize.
  • Swimming in a chlorinated pool in your running shorts will get the stink out.
  • If you can't run, walk...but really, are you sure you can't run?
  • Make peace with the wind. You don't have much of a choice.
  • Experience fear, discomfort and disappointment during training - you'll respect them more race-time
  • Asthma drugs rob you of Potassium. Stock up on your bananas and Fig Newtons.
  • A little spit goes a long way...preventing fogging in goggles, for instance. 
  • A C02 pump will quickly inflate your tire. A conventional pump will get you home.
  • During a race, stopping feels great. Finishing feels better.
  • If your butt hurts on the bike, stop sitting so much.
  • If your loved one says she doesn't mind you training for 6 hours...again, spend time with her instead. 
  • Non racers don't care about the details of the race. It's the bloopers that are interesting.
  • There is no shame in lubing your nether regions. 
  • Regular running shoe laces still work better than speed laces during long runs.
  • You can save money by eating and drinking real food during training. 
  • There will always be people faster and slower than you. Who cares! Just beat the nun!
  • Every little while do a systems' check and see that you are on track, then adjust appropriately. 
  • Make your experiences available for others to read. Learning should never be kept secret.