Monday, 31 January 2011

You can never go back.

I was watching Family Man while I was on the treadmill over the weekend. You know the movie - even if you haven't seen it. Guy (or gal)  gets a chance to do something over and get different results and in the process has some great epiphany and the world becomes a better place because of it. Think of It's a Wonderful Life, or Sliding DoorsFreaky Friday,  or even A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge).

So I was trying to keep running in Zone 2 while contemplating what is it about life that makes some people wish to go back to an unchosen path and select that one instead of the one they are now on.

I remember an assignment in grade school that required writing an essay about "what I would do differently if I had six months to live". I didn't do very well on that assignment because the teacher didn't believe me when I wrote that I was doing what I want to be doing right now. How could anyone be happy with the here and now? Really! That was her reasoning. I don't think she was very happy with her life choices.

I've never quite bought into that philosophy of "wishing for what could have been". Of course, I have done a number of things that, in hindsight, I probably should not have done. And those things are etched in my memory. They remind me. They define me. They direct my actions. Had I never done them, I would not be who I am now.

Of course there are also many things that, in hindsight, I probably could have done differently. I could have kept swimming and running in my tweens and might have tried competing. I could have not quit competitive cycling in my teens when, on the first time out, my used Peugeot Record's chain broke on the first climb.

I do think what if, now and again, but only as a mental exercise. More to remember and learn from  the elaborate tapestry of my past, than to try to capture that elusive unicorn that was never mine to ride.

I've often struggled with the concept of goals. On one hand, I know that goals can provide direction and motivation to strive and achieve things that can make life more pleasant and rich or interesting. It is these same goals that lead so many to the tri life. Training for a triathlon to lose weight, to prove something, to keep up with friends, to check off an item on the bucket list...

Goals and ambition are inexorably tied, but somehow so too is nostalgia, it seems - the nostalgia for achieving something that could have been achieved if only some different path was taken many moons ago. 

I find that line of thinking somewhat paradoxical. Things would be different if, some time in the past, things were different. Okay, maybe not paradoxical...perhaps somewhat tautological.

My goals are far less grandiose and more rooted in a compelling curiosity for what is next. I wonder what running a block without stopping would feel like? What if I wore goggles when I tried to swim? What if I did register for Ironman? What if I did most of my training before the rest of the family woke up? What if I made my own sandwich and swam over lunch, rather than spending money at restaurants?

So I'm running on the treadmill. Looking at Nicolas Cage and Téa Leoni. I can't help but make some comparisons with my life choices, my current situation and the family with which I've been blessed.

With sweat dripping, I increase my pace on the treadmill -- partly to get a better workout -- and partly to travel, if not only metaphorically, further along the road already chosen.

When the workout was done, I could step off the treadmill and get on my bike - or do something else. Similarly I could change the channel and watch Survivorman or any other show. I don't have to rewind anything because I am the product of everything that I have failed at and achieved.

Moving forward continues to define me, even if sometimes, moving forward means standing still - or dancing on a treadmill.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Mob Frenzy

People change - I change. When I  am part of a group or engaged actively in the same interest as others, I become something that I was not.

Someone I respect and consider a friend, recently got into a race that requires a lottery entry. It is an exciting and very challenging race. I'm thrilled for my friend. But as I was thinking about this race and what would be involved for preparation, I realized that I felt no envy. I didn't once think that I'm undertrained or could not be ready for such a competition. In fact, I thought nothing other than genuine happiness for my friend.

This is a big change. In previous years, whilst I was in the thick of training and preparing, news of someone I knew (or trained with or read about) getting into a fabled race would have resulted in emotions ranging from guilt to envy -- each one of them self reflexive.

It was as if others' accomplishments or challenges were like mirrors with which I compared, evaluated and judged my own goals and current state.

But that was when I was on the inside.

That was when I was part of a group. I was engaged actively in the avocation of triathlon and all the relevant training and lifestyle eccentricities that entailed.

I'm now on the outside. I'm still training. I still have a race or two planned for this season. Swim/bike/run is still an important part of my life...and my lifestyle. But the conscious decision this year was to let this all-encompassing and life consuming passion settle into an activity and let some of the rest of my life percolate back into relevance.

And I've changed. I don't feel the tug and pull of updating my equipment as often. I have a training plan that I follow and I don't have the urge to alter it to keep up with others who are training for events I am not interested in this year.
Surprisingly, as a result, I feel more mentally nimble . It is as if my mind has switched from a basic Behaviorist model of reacting predictably to any stimulus, to something more...relaxed.

Maybe it is because I am now, kinda-sorta, a veteran of this tri stuff. Not that I'm great at it, but I know I what I'm capable of and that gives me some inner confidence. I think this is obvious.
I believe though, it has a lot more to do with not having the constant stimulus and thought-altering influence of the  mob.

This year, I'm not really in the "group". Although I may feel the group's influence occasionally when I wade into training sessions with them, their actions don't exert the same tidal pulls that they once did.
Maybe this is why I feel free enough to explore other facets of this active life, such as ultra and trail running. This is why, maybe, snowshoeing is such a pleasurable activity right now. Sure it is pretty good cross training, but it isn't really preparing me for something. It is just fun.

So this too seems to have become another element of my evolution. And re-reading these words, I realize that eschewing the frenzy (friendzy?) of the mob may have actually made me more comfortable within and without it!

Training for and completing three Ironman races gave me the confidence to do more. Stepping back, albeit momentarily, give me the confidence to do less and to do different. People change. I know I have. 

Friday, 21 January 2011

Tri to run, run to tri?

I've found myself a little too interested, of late,  in the idea of running longer distances...and running those distances off the beaten path.

Now I don't have any idea if I can run these distances, or even if they would bore me, but, over the past several years, my most pleasurable workouts have been off road in places that I have never explored before - running, climbing, walking, taking pictures - and never overly concerned about pace.

I've also been living somewhat vicariously through the stories and experiences of some local amazing athletes, such as Johnny Venture and Stacey Shand. I've also been following the triumphs, disappointments and musings of some online friends' blogs On the Run and Back of the Pack.

Still trying to mend my Plantars Fasciitis, I'm not running as much as I would like. The -30 to -40c temps of late have not helped either. But I am doing lots of snowshoeing and still enjoying the outdoors.

I have no Ironman scheduled, this year. Although I am really looking forward to the Great White North HIM in July. I'm also looking forward to another Ironman and hopefully the Silverman in 2012/13.

So. I started swimming again this week and enjoyed the numb tired feeling afterwards. I have ramped up my indoor biking and am leading a class on Saturdays. This week, the session is called "spin 'til you puke" - although, after I did a practice run of it, I felt less like puking and more like having a long nap. And I have done a few longish runs, so I will be ready come tri season.

The question is, should I try to run off road and see where the road less traveled takes me? What if that choice indeed makes all the difference and leads me even further from triathlon. And what if it does? I am trying to find my bliss, or at least follow it. It is out there somewhere. And whether it is wearing spandex or gators or, maybe, crampons, I just need to go have a look at what is just beyond that ridge or coulee...

For the time being, I'll amuse myself with the ongoing debate about Ironman vs Ultra runner. Here's a recent installment from the interwebs for your viewing pleasure.


Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Waiting

As you may have read in the previous entry, I recently spent a long time waiting. I spent a long time waiting in places in which I didn't particularly wish to be.

A good chunk of my brainspace was consumed by feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness and the soupçon  of despair. At times, it took all my energy and patience to manage these emotions, especially while sharing the same experiences with my equally bewildered family.

We were waiting. Waiting to catch a plane, maybe. Or maybe waiting for something that would never come. It was an existential conundrum just to consider rolling out of the too soft bed every morning with nothing but a Pandoran suitcase and each other for comfort.

And although I wished not to linger, nor to be consumed any further by over-thinking our ill-fortuned displacement, I could not avoid relating this waiting to the time I've spent before races.

In a motel room, with nothing but a duffel bag, bike,  and my tri kit, I've spent many days waiting for the Saturday or Sunday race to come. Call it tapering, call the foreshortened bouts of  "race-prep". It was  waiting for the days and nights to pass. It was eating and drinking in restaurants that I normally would avoid - or taking food back to a strangely accommodating room to eat by the warm glow of network television.

Every waited day lead up to race morning to take that zombie-like walk to the still, dark waters of the lake that would shortly boil with the kicking of feet and flailing of arms. I'm challenged to see how this is any different from the daily routine we established in Chicago and London and Glasgow and Calgary.

The sole difference is, in race-season, the question is "will I be ready?". This differs only marginally from "will the airline be ready?" Does it not?

I continue to examine, analyze and interpret these experiences and thoughts. I marvel at my family's resilience, their good nature and drive, despite the onslaught of crisis after failure after calamity.

I still have a lot to learn.

Friday, 7 January 2011

How triathlon training can get you through the inconceivable.

I've written before about triathlon and improvisation. Simple principle: If you prepare to improvise, you probably won't have to...much. In a race, bad things can happen and usually do.

A short generic list could look like this:
  • Forget to pack race nutrition
  • Goggles break during race warm-up
  • Get a flat or two or three
  • Weather too hot, or too cold or too wet
  • Go out too fast, or too slow
  • Bonk, hit the wall, bite the dust, crash and burn...
How you respond to bad things is a small indication of how well you have trained athletically and a bigger indication of if you have the mental toughness  required to successfully complete any endurance activity.

During a race, bad things happen. Sometimes they come in clusters. Sometimes you can overcome and persevere. Other times it is best to just pack up and go home, knowing that you are not quitting, you are making a strategic race decision. The outcome of this decision will impact future races, training patterns, and even, potentially, how you deal with real life, non-sport situations.

Personally, in difficult situations, I have found myself repeating the mantra, "I can do this, I'm an Ironman!" It usually helps, or at least adds comic relief, especially when facing a toilet plunging situation.

But sometimes, in very rare situations, you may find yourself in a place where you cannot make a "strategic race decision". You cannot simply stop, you must endure. You must take everything that is thrown at you, make the best of it and just get through it. A good attitude is the only thing that can get you through these situations.

Think of bad work assignment situations, family crises, natural disasters and, in a very recent example from my life, international family vacations.

Those of you who know me, know that my family and I just completed a disappointing holiday. Because it involved air travel,  we were in a situation where calling it a day and going home was just not possible - or permitted by federal law and the Department of Homeland Security. But we endured. And even as things went from bad to worse to ridiculous and then changed gear into inconceivable and absurd, we got through it. My mental toughness and positive attitude kept me sane. My family? They probably kept it together after years of dealing with my mental toughness babbling.

We endured, we persevered, we finally got home.

How bad could it have been? Really? Here goes - in short points:
  • Journey begins pre-dawn December 18.
  • Plane delayed.
  • Arrive Chicago O'Hare. Connecting flight to London, Heathrow canceled.
  • Heathrow Airport closed for all air traffic indefinitely. Here is some related Airport closure news.
  • Stranded in Chicago for six days. Two adults, two teenagers - one small hotel room. (Did enjoy Chicago, great city!)
  • Fly to Heathrow Airport for transfer to Glasgow, Scotland.
  • Glasgow connection delayed because aircraft must arrive from Dublin and Dublin airport closed for two hours because of "pilot error". Some dude took wrong turn on main runway and got stuck. This was originally a link, but now longer works.
  • Arrive Glasgow, December 24th, 9 pm.
  • My suitcase is utterly destroyed and is only held together by luggage belt that I had put on it.
  • Our host, tour guide, chauffeur and close relative becomes ill and bed-bound for 5 days.
  • Coldest and snowiest December in UK on record.
  • Never saw the sun once, except in pictures and a documentary on the Discovery Network.
  • Swine Flu epidemic grows in UK.
  • Friends and one child all get sick to varying degrees.
  • I get sick for two days.
  • We do nothing that was planned during our vacation.
  • Spouse falls on ice and seriously bruises elbow. Can't use arm for one day.
  • The day before we are scheduled to leave, an elder and much-loved relative dies.
  • January 4th 2011, journey back home begins in the pre-dawn darkness.
  • Flight is delayed because fuel delivery system at Heathrow breaks down and no planes can be refueled.
  • Arrive at Heathrow, we missed our flight to Chicago on United. 
  • No flights available for a family of four going anywhere close to North America until the next day.
  • Booked in the Ibis Hotel, AKA the Abyss in London for the night. Not a hotel I would normally even recommend to enemies.   Edit. this hotel has cleaned up its act, since then. Probably because of this blog.
  • Spouse gets sick - has the same flu-like symptoms that everyone had earlier in the week.
  • January 5, 2011. Scheduled to fly with Air Canada from Heathrow to Calgary, Alberta, then home.
  • Plane is delayed one hour because air crew needs more sleep because of late previous night arrival.
  • On runway, plane has a generator malfunction and must taxi back to terminal.
  • Decision is made to use back-up generator, after refueling and going to the back of the take-off cue, plane takes off, three hours late.
  • Miss connection in Calgary. 
  • Get standby tickets for 9 pm flight, but that flight is overbooked. 
  • Spouse and one child manage to get seats because there are two no-shows. 
  • My other child and I spend the night in Calgary, arriving at Hotel just after 10:30 pm.
  • Leave hotel on January 7th, 5 a.m. to catch flight home.
  • Truly problem-free and effortless 45 minute flight home.  
Thanks to my triathlon training (and a two precious solo runs in Glasgow), we endured the bewilderment of the inconceivable, much like after a race where everything goes wrong, despite months of training and dedication.