Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Muskoka 70..3 – what a difference a year makes.

A few years ago I wouldn’t have understood the attraction of passing the day swimming, biking and running. Now, I understand endurance to be the very essence of what we, humans, are built to do. We are the only animal that can run prey to exhaustion. I think that’s pretty cool. And we do it together, in packs – that’s also pretty cool.

So, on Sept 13th if you consider a finisher’s hat, t-shirt and medal as good as an antelope, my pack of about 1500 and I pretty much ran that prey to exhaustion.

The chase started for me, as for everyone, at water’s edge. I was in the last wave with men over 50 and watched as everyone else started their races. Warming up I kept noticing that the right side of my lenses kept filling up with water. I’d stop, give them a snap to clear but the problem kept happening. Taking them off for inspection I saw that near catastrophe loomed. The gasket around the eye piece was off its tracking and as someone with no hand eye co-ordination or fine motor control (who else needs to wear a helmet when running) I knew that I couldn’t fix it myself in the next minute or so. Standing on the beach I yelled out “anybody know how to fix a Sable goggle?” in my best not freaking out voice. A woman called out that her friend did and the friend showed up and fixed it for me in her best not freaking out manner. Thanks pack.

I have determined this year, in both half Ironman races, that, if need be I can backstroke the entire swim in not much more time than freestyle would take me. I settled into my new approach of backstroke to about the halfway point to a buoy (I find it very comforting to watch the last one recede) then switching to crawl to watch the new one approach. I’m singing 99 bottles of beer on the wall the whole time and keeping the brain full of happy thoughts.

Whereas last year was wet and warm this year was cold. I had my wetsuit stripped but regretted not wearing it the 10k or so to the transition area. (that’s an exaggeration, Muskoka has a long swim to bike transition route but it’s really only about 5 k).

There was no picknick in transition, I was on the bike pretty quickly and took off like a very old, cold, possibly rheumatoid bat out of hell. This was a low point. Last year I remember flying out of transition hardly noticing the hills. Now, being in the last wave, the road was empty and I chugged along in my small gear with about 4 others. My muscles just felt so cold and unresponsive and I just felt so tired and depressed. My race plan would have me hold off on nutrition until I was throught the first technical 10k but my brain needed happy sugar and so I started in on the Cliff blocks. With my heart rate elevated, however, I just ended up with a big gluey block sitting in my mouth. I did spend some time wondering if anyone had died chocking on a block in a race. Not a lot of dignity there.

The ride went on cold, depressed, lonely. I was slowly but surely bringing up my average speed but not being in the main mass of racers it was hard to monitor progress. I did get out of the group I started with and managed to pass at least one or two more mini pelotons but it wasn’t until the sun came out that I really started to get my groove on.

Last year I think I walked about 4 hills. This year, coming out of Dorset towards the first of them I told myself that to just stay calm and wait and see THE HILL. Perhaps the road crew had levelled it over the winter – you never know. I rode the course a total of 3 times last year and never made that hill. This year, two young girls were at the side of road cheering and I called out to them that I had always walked that hill but I thought I could make it this time. Their dad pointed out my great pace and the girls said they’d run it with me. And they did. Do you think I could have gotten off my bike and let them down. Not a chance. With their help THE HILL will forever be just the hill now. Thanks again pack.

The Muskoka course is tough. The first and last 10k or so is the same road – you are either going up or going down and it really seems to nail you just when you are the most vulnerable. The other 3 hills were waiting on that final 10 k – no kids around this time but Susan 2008 is last year’s model, Susan 2009 pressed on and made it over all of them feet firmly in the pedals.

Back into transition I declined the second picknick and slapped on the runners for the half marathon. I decided to not make the same mistake as I did at Bracebridge in August and I resolved to walk all hills setting aside any thoughts of heroism. Combined with walking only the water stations that plan worked extremely well and I found a running buddy Allison who was also on the same plan. Some more great kids got me through the tough times running with me and telling me how awesome I was. Pepsi and discipline on the run/walk structure fuelled the last 10 k and Alex was, as always, waiting at the finish line. It was a personal best for the course and I feel some definite progress on the mental work I need to do to just get through a long tough course.

Ironman looms large in my mind but I mostly can’t even begin to think about it – I can only trust the training and focus on that one week at a time. The Susan who can complete Ironman Arizona doesn’t yet exist but I am creating her.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I had a bit of a pre-Ironman anxiety moment today. I had to hit the pool after work for an endurance swim and I suddenly couldn’t remember why I enjoyed that sort of thing, why the hell I was doing it, and how I was going to traverse 140.6 miles in less than 17 hours.

It doesn’t help that I hadn’t swum in a couple weeks. Last week was recovery week and I didn’t crack the ice at the cottage to get in that water on the weekend – even for fun. The previous week had the two aborted outdoor swim attempts with tornado accents. The joy of swimming had, as a result, been completely forgotten by my mind and body.

I dutifully got to the pool and started the workout. As I was working through my first few laps I found myself swimming next to someone doing the backstroke. That brought back memories of racing. Backstroke is my warm up stroke, my rest stroke, my anxiety stroke, but never my practice stroke. I put in lap after lap of freestyle, bilateral breathing from end to end. In races, when I’m not backstroking I’m single side breathing doing the front crawl. Why, I ask myself, don’t I actually practice what I seem to do in races?

I think it’s because, although one nice effect of backstroke in a race is to see how far you’ve come, the past should never be a reference. I am looking forward to a race that I can bilateral breath and swim fully immersed in the water and that’s what I’m training for. I had a taste of that last year at Muskoka 70.3 and hope to replicate that feeling a week from Sunday when I do it again.

I left the recreation centre at Ryerson University listening to a frosh week orientation party going on in the quad. Took a moment to remember my own frosh week all those years ago and take a quick look at how far I’ve come.