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.