Coming To Grips With Reality

Last night, we started watching the movie Wild, which portrays Cheryl Strayed’s solo undertaking of a massively long hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. Unfortunately, yet another Rogers cable service glitch meant we couldn’t finish watching the movie. But I did at least go to bed having seen a good amount of grit and determination portrayed rather impressively by Reese Witherspoon.

Just before we lost the ability to watch anymore, a key moment in the film — at least for me — took place. Strayed is warned not to continue through an upcoming section of the trail due to unseasonably high snow/ice pack. Since her personal quest is much more than just “hike the trail”, Strayed is not pleased at the prospect of taking a bus and missing a significant distance of her hike. The suggestion given is that she extend her hike at the end. No point in being stubborn and doing the dangerous portion and risking not finishing at all (aka dying) just to prove something to yourself, when you can still prove that something with a bit of lateral thinking.

I’ve spent a long week mulling over whether I should still pursue my set-at-the-outset-of-the-season goal of doing an international duathlon to finish the year. Three weeks ago, I thought I would be doing it, willing to take a DNF over the prospect of a winter of “should’ve”.

Given how badly my foot felt after last week’s test, I’ve struggled anew with the decision this week in particular. While trying is better than not trying, I really want to complete my final race of the year. And while I don’t want to spend the winter wishing I had tried the longer distance, I also need to be realistic with what’s going on in my foot. This isn’t a question of my fitness, which I’m confident is there. It’s a question of being hurt. Given how the season started, I should be feeling pretty good that I’ve done what I have, not lamenting what might not be.

The season’s goals were, in a nutshell:

  • do four sanctioned duathlons, including one international distance
  • run 5-10k distances at 4:50/km or better (2014: 5:01 avg)
  • run 2-4k distances at 4:15 or better (2014: 4:23 avg)
  • average 32km/hr on the bike
  • place in my age group (top 3)

I’ve done fine of 4 of 5 of those goals — including exceeding the run paces, astounding myself in a season when my run training has suffered due to injuries.

Goals are there to guide us and inspire us. That doesn’t mean we’re beholden to them. Any good long-term goal-setting exercise includes a check in at some point to evaluate and adjust. I guess it’s time for me to do so.

When I picked Lakeside as my international distance race, I knew it carried an inherent risk — as the last race weekend, it could be cold and rainy (it sure was last year), I could be injured by the time it came, or a myriad of other things. If I couldn’t do the long race, I wouldn’t have another shot at one before winter. But this is how my race season shook out, so I took the risk.

If I complete one more race, I’ll have four races this summer. It’s just a question of whether that is at an international distance. While the Guelph Lake 5i50 race that started my season was close, at 52km total, it was 3km shy on the run.

And upon waking up this morning, I came to a decision. I’m going to pull a Cheryl Strayed — apparently my subconscious processed that movie overnight.

The international is out. But I’m going to end on two more sprints, making five total races for the season (assuming I finish them both!).

The brick sessions I did last weekend and again this weekend showed me clearly that there’s no way I can complete a 10km first run and carry on with my foot as it is. Since there are no other international races on offer before the season ends, I can’t find a replacement that puts the short run first.

Next weekend is Guelph Lake II, with a 2/30/7 sprint duathlon. I did this race to close my season last year, and while 7km running through Guelph Lake Conservation area isn’t exactly thrilling, the race is my home turf, and familiar — I’ve done GL I and II a total of three times so far. It’s generally a big race — last year there were over 125 duathletes racing.

One week later, I’ll race at Lakeside — where I had hoped to do the full distance duathlon on the Sunday — on Saturday, in a short sprint to end my season. It’s a 5/20/2.5 race — a true all-out sprint. There will be fast dudes to race against. This will be my final race of the season, and I’ll go into it aiming to beat my pace averages for each leg — whatever the weather!

While I’m obviously disappointed at the prospect of not meeting all my goals this year, I think this solution provides the best compromise. The challenges are there: whether it be my first try at racing back-to-back Saturdays, the mental hurdle of yet another Guelph Lake long run (so boooring!), or quite honestly, the hardest challenge of all — accepting my limitations.

And from there, off I will head into the winter, looking to resolve this foot issue so next year can be about testing my fitness, not my pain tolerance.

A part of me feels at peace with this decision. The other part still needs convincing. Chef d’équipe is working to support the second part. And at least, now, I can go register to race, and stop tossing and turning over a single goal.


The Best Laid Plans

In racing, especially multi-sport, you can’t control everything, though you can try to be prepared for as much as you might anticipate. You could do the same race five years in a row and never have the same results, because of all of the variables involved — whether it’s injuries or illness, weather, mechanical failures, traffic, or other competitors in the field. That’s part of the challenge.

I started this race season with optimism.  My goal for the race schedule was to complete four races, with one at least an olympic or international distance. Sprint races range in length –run/bike/run combinations varying from 2/20/5 to 2/33/7 or whatever else shorter than the olympic distance, aka international distance, which is uniformly set at 5/40/10, or the reverse, 10/40/5.

While I’ve met many performance goals (for long and short run pace, bike pace, and placing in my age group), in three races so far this season, a spate of injuries have not only threatened my optimism, but also the international distance goal. I did accomplish the next best thing, a 5i50 distance (2/40/10) at Guelph Lake in June, but I’m facing down the international race on September 12 with no idea whether I can overcome injuries to get there.

While injury risk is a part of any athletic pursuit, I feel like I can’t catch a break this year. Just when I rebound from one injury, another one crops up. Some are minor issues, like a recent achilles strain, while others just won’t go away — namely my lower back/hip and the foot issue.

That is part of the challenge of sport. Put your body through vigorous training, especially in what’s classed as an endurance sport, sometimes it results in pain (stairs, the days after a race, seem ever so tall!), or worse, injury. The best you can do is prepare with training geared to maintain health throughout the year. Then you treat what crops up — not just the symptoms, of course, but the underlying problem.

With any injury, my first question is “should I stop doing [insert sport here]?” The second is, “what’s the treatment, and what can I do to speed up healing time?” I have found that I’m able to carry on through a fair amount of discomfort, so encountering injuries that actually make me stop in my tracks is, frankly, always a surprise.

In an effort to be prepared for duathlon, survive hockey and slow the downhill slide of my 40s, I train in more than two sports, mix up my distance and intensity, do strength training, get massage and physio, stretch fairly diligently, and always take at least 1 rest day per week. I have stepped up my protective equipment in hockey, investing in some key pieces of higher-grade gear to compensate for my Crash Bandicoot playing style, ie to help avoid injury.

With a lifetime of sports behind me, and of course with the Internet at my disposal, my training intelligence is fairly high. When the time came to add volume to my workouts this winter/spring (going from 4 hours a week of biking/running/skating up to 6) I did so slowly and wisely. When it’s time to add intensity for race prep or to break a plateau, I do it in a balanced way.

Ironically, while my offseason gym work and training over the winter last year was planned to prevent me from getting hurt, it ended up causing one of the injuries I’ve been dealing with all season.

Somehow in January I lost form on a deadlift and twinged my back. Combined with a couple of bad tumbles onto my hip on that side in hockey, it led to some pervasive lower back/hip pain that I couldn’t quite fully shake. So I’ve been dealing with an SI joint injury and related IT Band soreness since April, when I actually had to stop riding my bike for a couple of weeks due to the acute knee pain. Your back bone’s connected to your hip bone… your hip bone’s connected to your knee bone… they’re not lying.

While physiotherapy and exercises have helped, the SI joint and the related IT band soreness flare up occasionally, negatively affecting both running and cycling. With vigorous work from my awesome physiotherapist, I’ve been trying to unlock the SI joint, strengthen and lengthen my hip flexors, develop stronger glutes and pay full attention to my hamstrings. I know the instant I’ve been lax on this, as the IT band will get cranky.

The real doozy, though, is dropped metatarsals on my left foot.  Yes, metatarsals, as in toes.

I’ve been diligently protecting my arches ever since my wife got plantar fasciitis, and also since I learned that with proper arch support, my feet are a half size smaller than without. So for everything from casual footwear to skates to cycling and running shoes, I’ve invested in quality arch-support insoles. What I didn’t know was that my forefoot arches were in peril.

Honestly, I didn’t even know I had forefoot arches!

Last summer’s mid-foot/forefoot numbness on runs over 7k became more pronounced this spring, despite my choice of cushioned shoes. A not-helpful local running shop suggested last summer that it was a lacing issue, but I was using elastic “speed laces”, so I knew that wasn’t it. All I knew was that my longer runs resulted in feeling like my feet were falling asleep from the mid-foot up to the toes.

By April and early May this year, that numbness was becoming outright pain. I could run my 10 to 11km routes, but the pain in my toes was building. By mid-May, it was turning into agony — the feeling after about 7km of running was akin to running on freshly broken toes. When I had to stop running and hobble home at the tail end of a brick workout, I knew I needed more than cushioned shoes.

The diagnosis from both doc and physio was a dropped metatarsal. My doctor’s response to my query about continuing to train was “go ahead and run until you can’t stand to run.”  When I asked how this injury might have happened, she shrugged and said “it just happens.” What she meant, I think, was “welcome to life at 41, Buttercup.”


The taped foot, ready for the first race of the year. Looks simple, but it certainly worked — I went from not being able to tolerate running 5km earlier in the week to running 2 + 10 on race day.

Thanks again to physio, I was taped up tightly for my first race of the season in June, the 5i50 including a 2k and 10k run; and for the second race, which had two 5km runs. For both, I wore metatarsal support pads glued onto my insoles.

This got me through the races, but caused blistering on my foot — a welcome distraction at the time from the pain in my toes, but not conducive to running comfortably. By mid-August, in my third race (this one with 2km/7km runs bookending a 33km cycle), I graduated to the metatarsal bump in my short run shoes, using orthotics in the long run shoes, and foregoing the tape altogether. By the end of that race I was in discomfort, but not in severe pain. And I had my gait back.

Still, though, long runs aren’t on the map. While I’m back to running further than 5km without acute pain, the limits are still around 8 to 9km.

While physio and orthotics are helping to support my foot, the dropped metatarsals aren’t going to go away. Discomfort, it seems, is here to stay. While I wait to talk to a specialist for a plan for dealing with or avoiding this discomfort longterm, I’ve been working at increasing my run distances.

In my season planning from in May, I had goals of running 13 to 15km per long run in August, preparing for my ‘A’ race in September — the Lakeside international duathlon.

Going to this du requires running the long run first: aka doing 10km, biking 40, and then running another 5km. From my 5i50 distance race in June, I know I can bike that distance, and then hop off to run 10km. What I don’t know is how well I’ll fare doing that 10km first, making my foot sore at the start of the race, as opposed to at the end, where the finish line promises relief. I’d prefer to do a shorter run to start, but this is the way the MultiSport Canada races are set up. And so the conundrum.

Last weekend’s brick workout was to be a preliminary test. It was a 7.5km run followed by a 32km bike ride. The run went well, with just a bit of foot discomfort, so I thought maybe I was doing okay. And the bike ride started out great. But by the 20km mark, I was feeling more than the usual bit of numbness — it was outright toe pain. By the 25km mark, I was in agony, dreading each hard push of the pedals.

So for the international du in September, who knows. I’ll know more what I can do after another brick this weekend. It’s not like powering through discomfort will cause further injury (unless I alter my gait to compensate). But when the pain is tremendous, there’s no way to finish. Sore toes might not seem like a big thing, but this pain can be unbearable, and even for a guy used to training and playing through pain, it’s too much to ignore.

Is it better to gun for it, and risk the DNF (Did Not Finish), or to amend the plan and do a sprint instead, saving the olympic race goal for a fresh start next year?

I don’t want to torment myself all winter with “I should have at least tried it”, but I also would rather end on a high note and complete my last race this year.

For the foot issue, I’ll try to see a specialist to talk long term. I’m not willing to give up running longer distances forever. I’d also like to be sure the same area on my other foot doesn’t become a problem.

For the hip/lower back/knee, a winter of diligent training will help rebuild these trouble spots and whatever else flares up. I know I need to strengthen some areas, increase flexibility, and compensate for weaknesses. Yoga is on the map, for sure.

There are six months ahead of “off season” in which to do this, which loom long and dark over winter, but will seem short and quick in hindsight come next May when the early season races start.

This off-season work, of course, only following a bit of rest. After the last race of the year, whether it’s at the sprint or olympic distance, I’ll try to take a couple of weeks to let my body — and mind — recover from this summer.

Just please remind me I said so — it’s going to be hardest to stick to that aspect of the plan, out of anything.

And then, we start setting goals and planning for next season.

PS: I do have perspective. I’ve raced three good races this year — okay, two good, one mediocre — despite the injuries. And even the injuries are a minor complaint. There are much worse things that people have to deal with in life than a few sport-related ouchies.

Things I Love: Bean Ladies Roasted Soybeans

SoybeansThe quest to fuel the machine with healthy and tasty foods means an ongoing search for new snack options. This is particularly true during race season, when my morning snack of a banana needs supplementing with some lean protein so I don’t get unbearably hangry before lunchtime.

A product I’ve found recently – which is not exactly new on the market but is entirely new to me – is The Bean Ladies roasted soybeans.

Offered in both sweet and savoury flavours, these crunchy little nuggets make a nice snack at almost any time of day. They’re offered in chip-like flavours, including smoky bacon, salt & vinegar, dill pickle and all dressed; as well as in sweet flavours like apples & cinnamon, Canadian Maple, chocolate. There’s an extensive range of more varied “nouveau” flavours such as cracked pepper and lime, honey ginger & lime, sweet & salty, garlic, balsamic & sweet onion, chai latte and my perennial favourite, Sriracha.

PS: Though I haven’t tried them, I did note that The Bean Ladies are also offering a similar snack based on dried chickpeas.

A bag of soybeans costs about $6 and is, in my opinion, competitively priced. Given that quality protein bars cost between $2 and $3, even bought in bulk, it’s quite a bargain, actually.

With the highly coveted combination of high protein, moderate fat, and low-to-zero sugar content, I’m thrilled to have found these snack options! Soybeans make a nice alternative to nuts, and soy protein gives me a bit of a break from the whey protein that otherwise constitutes a huge percentage of my high daily macros in protein. If you want to see some nutritional values (sadly lacking from The Bean Ladies site), I found some here.

And even more importantly, these are tasty. While roasted soybeans can tend to be rather dry, I find these more palatable than most. My sister wouldn’t try them when I was visiting her a few weeks ago, but two of her kids did, and they agreed that these were great.

With the huge variety of flavours on offer, one would be hard pressed to get bored of the available options.

There are all kinds of warnings out there on the health scene that men shouldn’t eat soy protein, but I’m a believer in varying one’s protein sources. I’m confident that choosing soy protein a few times a week isn’t sacrificing my masculinity in any way. No, really.

Now if only my local shops could keep these beans in stock. Seems I’m not alone in my pleasure at having discovered The Bean Ladies offerings – the last two times I’ve checked, my local store was in danger of running out. Might be time to buy online!

Choosing The Passing Lane

Embracing my killer instinct on the bike portion of Orillia.

Embracing my killer instinct on the bike portion of the Subaru TriSport Canada Orillia Duathlon.

I just completed my sixth duathlon in two years, and it was one of my best yet. But what was truly great about it was the realization of how far I’ve come in this sport, mentally and physically.

The Orillia duathlon is a nice long sprint, featuring a 2km run, 33km bike, and a final 7km run, all at a gorgeous location in Couchiching Park and on the surrounding roads.

Heading into this race weekend, I finally felt loose and ready to race. Over the past few months, marred with injuries as they were, I have been frustrated and feeling under-prepared for races. But despite still not being at my ideal for training and health, this weekend dawned with my head in the exact right place. What a relief. With your head in the right place, your physical preparedness can usually shine.

One of the upsides of taking up racing is that I’ve gained confidence along with a more competitive spirit. Not only to push myself harder or further, which is the chief goal, but also to put myself ahead of other competitors. No longer is “finish, don’t finish last” the mantra.

While I know winning is not the point — and is an impossibility with pro and elite athletes competing in the same events — my personal goals for distance, pace, and technique are supplemented with a few for placing relative to the rest of the field. This weekend, I even managed to hit that goal, placing on the podium for third in my age group.

What was most important wasn’t the medal, though it was a nice shiny reward, but the fact that I’d bested my goals for the short run and cycle pace, and held a great long run pace. All this because I didn’t hold myself back mentally.

As someone who has played hockey for about 30 years, you’d think I would have a competitive streak. And to a point, I do. But it’s not a very big streak. In fact, it’s a wimpy competitive streak, so far as they go. Like maybe a rivulet, more than a streak. But it’s there.

What I really haven’t had at all in my life as an athlete, young or old, is confidence.

When I started road cycling a few years ago, I didn’t know anything about road bikes, technique, or training. Everything I have learned since has been gleaned from reading, chatting with shop staff, and keen observation. Oh, and more reading. WIth its big price tag, strong culture and snooty reputation, cycling is an intimidating sport. So my confidence starting out was pretty low, even though I thought that a good portion of my athletic strengths suit pedaling.

As for running, it’s a sport I’ve treated as a necessity more than an undertaking that I liked. I have always felt slow, though I do know from various points in my history that I’m good at pushing myself to run farther, harder, or in horrid searing heat. Recently, however, something shifted, and I started to actually crave a good long run or hills session. I also started to notice I was going faster than I used to, without particularly trying to do so.

Duathlon, combining these two disciplines, has sparked a whole new competitive streak for me. Apparently racing brings out my competitive self, even if my primary goals were actually fitness based.

But duathlon has also pushed me into having a level of confidence that I might previously have thought impossible. How do I know? Because I now pass people.

While I’m nowhere near to being the fastest runner, or the fastest cyclist, I have learned that it’s okay to pass others when they’re moving slower than you want to be going. And I’ve also learned where my strengths lie.

Show me a hill, and put a person in front of me, and I’ll dig in and crest the hill, likely ahead of them. Whatever our paces on the flats, I’m likely to be able to crest the hill faster. Not only that, but once I’ve topped the hill, I’ll dig deeper than I knew I could to keep on my pace and stay ahead. It’s likely ugly to watch (see notes above about being a self-taught cyclist). And it may not be a sound strategy. But it seems to work for me on both the run and the bike (and especially the bike, my stronger discipline). Part of this is the road bike advantage — climbing hills on an aero or tri bike is tougher than it is on a roadie — and part of it is just that I’m built to be a climber. 

As for the run, in my first ever duathlon, I set out on the run start line from the back third of the pack. Within 100 metres I was frustrated, wanting to go around the people ahead of me. I had misjudged. Unlike a marathon with pace bunnies, there’s no way to know how other competitors will run at that start line. Without confidence, I assumed everyone would be faster.

The only thing holding me back from making that initial pass, at the time, was that I thought I was a slow runner, and therefore couldn’t actually need to pass anyone.

Well, that clearly isn’t a good race strategy, and now, having completed my sixth race in two years, it’s a monkey long shed off my back. By my second race, I was noticing where people were backing off on hills and gnarly trails, in transition entries/exits, at mount and dismount lines, and have no fear of taking the opportunity to get past them and gain a placing or two.

I may not have much form or finesse, and I may still be fighting injuries and racing over ideal weight, but I do have power and tenacity. Whether it’s because I’m a Taurus or because I grew up playing sports and being pushed by coaches to do one more set of gassers, one more lap, or one more drill, I fully know that I can make myself go faster, harder, or longer if I need to. There’s a saying in the Marines (and among ultra-marathoners, from what I understand) that when you think your body is ready to quit, you’re actually still miles from being done. Dig deeper, and you’ll find the reserve tank.

And thanks to my training, and the experience from a half dozen races, I now know that my base fitness supports me in those pushes.

If I’m going faster than the person in front of me, or want to be doing so, I should absolutely carry on and pass. It’s not about that person, it’s about keeping your own pace. I’ve learned that there’s no real shame in being passed, but there sure is a lot of frustration in being stuck behind someone going slower.

Whether I’m on the bike or running, I’m no longer hesitant to pass — on flats or hills. The worst case scenario is that someone passes me again after I’ve done so. But most of the time, once I have completed the pass, I find myself pushing slightly harder, avoiding the likelihood that they will pass me again.

And this holds true on the sidewalks and roads about town as much as it does on the race course. Whereas I used to assume everyone was faster than me, I’ve managed to shed the baggage and either carry on with my pace, or build more speed. Whether someone looks more like an athlete, has a more expensive bike, or a better gait than me isn’t consequential.

If keeping my pace means passing that person, well, that’s what it means. I can smile, wave, nod, or say something positive as I do, if I feel that badly about it. But no longer will I hold myself back. Maybe to other runners and cyclists it’s no big deal, but for me, this marks a pretty big shift in confidence that translates to a lot of areas of my life.

That’s yet another pretty good side effect of this duathlon business, I have to say.

Fight or Flight: Dealing With Stress

There’s a furry little bundle of fury occupying my attic right now. And no, that’s not a euphemism for anything.

Team McKnapp recently welcomed a rescue kitty into our home. Capone is a 12-month old Siamese whose “fight or flight” instincts are firmly stuck on “fight”. He was taken into a rescue foster home at 8 months, and just transferred to our loving home early this week.

At some point, he’ll calm down and chill out, but for the moment, he’s all hiss and spit and sharp fangs. Picture an irritated wolverine hopped up on caffeine and trapped in your living room – though Capone is decidedly a bit cuter than a wolverine – and you’ve got an accurate snapshot of this handsome devil.

I feel for Capone, whose cat brain and instincts are limited in regards to both his comprehension of and response to stress. But it’s also making me think about human responses to stress.

Go to a school exam hall, the transition zone at any race, or the locker room in any arena/sports complex, and you’ll see clear differences between competitors under stress. There are the chatty ones, who deal with nervousness by talking louder, or more frequently; and there are the quiet ones, who turn inward and become reflective and introspective under the pre-game or pre-race stress. [And of course, there are the cool cats who don’t get nervous. Those are the rare few, but I know they’re there.]

I know this isn’t what “fight or flight” actually refers to, but I think it translates fairly well.

Clearly Capone the cat would be a stress talker, with his “fight” button stuck on as it is. Myself, I veer towards the quieter end of the spectrum under stress.

Sometimes I wish race transition zones were categorized not only by age grouping (bike racks, the competitor’s home base in a transition zone, are generally categorized by discipline and/or age group to distribute competitors evenly) but also perhaps by introvert/extrovert classification, or more importantly, by whether one has a talk/quiet response to stress.

At a recent race, I watched as the transition racks near a particularly talkative guy cleared out well before start time. This fellow was talking loudly to everyone and anyone nearby, more than just catching up with old friends, which is of course to be expected. The amount of space he was taking up with his verbal outpouring was immense. I found myself rushing to get my gear set up so I could escape the range of fire.

There’s a moment before each race – well after competitors have shown up, registered, set up in transition, and warmed up – where everyone is milling about at the start line, awaiting the final minutes of countdown and the starter’s horn. The talkers take this time to chat everyone up, while us quiet ones stand, well, quietly. Personally, I use this time to stretch out any trouble spots, run through my strategy one more time, tell myself something positive, and do one last check of my heartrate monitor & watch. To me, these are valuable moments to focus. I don’t want to chat.

When I’m nervous, I want to be quiet and be alone. I want to deal with my shaky hands and a churning gut in solitude, to bring my head into the moment, get my gear ready and put my game face on without an audience or without feeling I have to engage in banter. I’m the same way at hockey. After some initial greetings upon arrival in the locker room, I generally want to get my gear on and head out rinkside take a bit of time to stretch quietly by the boards without chatting everyone up.

Once the race is on, or the hockey game starts, I’m back to being an outgoing and friendly guy – cracking jokes with others, thanking the traffic cops as I pass them, and encouraging other competitors as they pass me or I them. On the bench at hockey, I’ll crack jokes, compliment other players, banter with opponents and make friendly chitchat – to the point that my wife once told me I looked like I was “networking” on the bench when she watched me play a game.

To me, the game or the race is the fun part, as agonizing as it can feel as a workout.

Here’s hoping young Capone can relax soon and get into the groove of the game. ‘Til then, he’s living as a badger-like feline full of nervous aggression. Poor dude just wants to be left alone. And who am I to argue? Come Sunday, at about 7:15am when Team McKnapp arrives to the Orillia race site, I’ll be feeling exactly the same way.

Exquisite Agony

Good luck making sense of that graph. Red is heart rate. Blue is speed. Gray is the topographic profile.

A fantastic Sunday ride in the Gatineau hills captured by PolarFlow. Good luck making sense of that graph: red is heart rate, blue is speed, and the gray behind is topographic profile.

I was halfway up a long, slow grade when my grimace turned to a grin.

My hips were tight, my neck was tense, and the burning in my quads had already begun, though I was only about 1/8 of the way into the planned ride. But at that moment, despite the discomfort, I realized I was actually at my happiest.

This was exquisite agony. This was cycling personified.

I have just now returned from two weeks of vacation. While I let myself take it relatively easy the first week of vacation at a cottage near Tobermory, Ontario, I did ride and run to maintain my fitness. I was in need of a bit of rest and a break from the slightly obsessive training regimen, and that combined with the variety of cottage roads and new terrain gave me a great mental boost when it was so desperately required.

So for week two, I diligently returned to my training plan. I packed the bike and running gear along to Ottawa, which is one of my favourite training grounds – second only, I think, to Victoria, BC for its beauty and abundance of running and biking options.

With a race coming up next weekend, and still carrying the feeling that I haven’t had a solid running session in months, I knew that I needed to focus again last week in order to be ready to handle the Orillia’s duathlon’s long sprint format – a 2km run, 33km bike, capped with a final 7km run.

Having covered the roads around my region several dozens of times over and over already this year, I was looking forward to the variety offered up by our National Capital Region’s crown jewel, Gatineau Park. Managed by the National Capital Commission, Gatineau Park is an immense property in the Outaouais that seems built for cycling. Offering smooth pavement, gorgeous vistas, no commercial traffic, minimal cars (and vehicles that are there tend to show a lot of respect for cyclists!), and an abundance of other cyclists sharing the rides combine to make this a great destination. There are endless miles of roads to travel, all peppered with formidable climbing potential.

Upon arrival in Ottawa, I was feeling rested and relaxed. I had done a fun but windy 50km ride from Wiarton to Owen Sound upon leaving our rented cottage the Saturday before, followed with a day of rest Sunday, a light indoor recovery spin on Monday, and another day of rest Tuesday while we drove east to Ottawa. With a good run along the Ottawa river logged in on Wednesday afternoon, I was chomping at the bit to get out for a ride on Thursday.

Riding 40 km in Southwestern Ontario will usually involve some rolling hills, and maybe even a nice thigh-burning climb or two to give up to 300m of ascents over the span of an outing. But it doesn’t touch a comparable session road cycling in the Gatineaus, which will typically include 400 to 600m + of climbing.

After a 42km ride spanning 90 minutes in Gatineau Park on Thursday, I knew my planned brick session on Friday would be a leg-burner. I started with a short 2km trail run from the south gate parking lot, then transitioned at the back of my vehicle to the bike and did 34km of hills, before capping it off with another 3.5km run, this time on paved trails. The variety was refreshing in terms of both terrain and workout. Churning up the hills on this ride was hard – very hard – but the descents were sweeter for it. At one point, on a 1.5km descent where my speed was between 50 and 65km/hr, I actually exclaimed out loud in joy. Well, maybe also a bit of fear (at 65km/hr, you start to question whether you truly tightened your quick-release on that front wheel as well as you should have!).

Although I had come to Ottawa very much looking forward to training with my friend and inspiration, Carsten (aka The Gazelle), by Saturday, my legs were begging for a rest. The week had been front-loaded with rest, back-loaded with intense workouts. Definitely time for a rest day.

Carsten and his wife Alex were more than accommodating and agreed to swap workout plans for walking and playing tourist in downtown Ottawa. Weather reports were good, so we knew we could plan for Sunday workouts instead.

And so, on fresh legs late Sunday morning, it was back to the park one more time, this time with The Gazelle riding in formation. We had a couple of hours to spare, lots of water, and the kind of low humidity, gorgeous sunny no-wind day that cyclists dream of. Not to mention the promise of brunch with our ladies afterwards.

Cut to the climb in question, the tight hips and burning thighs, and the grimace changing to a smile – or perhaps more accurately, to a goofy grin.

Cycling is an exquisite agony, I caught myself thinking. It’s not easy, though it can certainly look like it is. It’s gruelling, grinding, and due to the long times spent in saddle for a good workout, can be arduous.

Inevitably, just when I am feeling good and fast, someone will pass me and show me how much faster a person can ride. For all the warm, sunny and windless rides, there are rides like the one from Wiarton to Owen Sound in headwind or crosswind hell, rides in sudden downpours, and cloudy day rides in cold autumn clippers. The challenge then is in getting on the bike to begin, as much as it is in keeping your legs churning, your core engaged, and your shoulders loose while you’re pedalling. Getting from start to finish requires pushing your body to power the bike over all the miles in between – as ugly or as beautiful as they might be.

But for all the ugly, there’s also the perfect. Two hours with a good fit friend covering 50km of smooth pavement, some 650m of climbs and descents, gorgeous views, and just the chirping of birds to compete with the whirr of other bikes whizzing down the hills you’re climbing?

Yes, that’s the kind of exquisite agony I can take over and over again. And with any luck, will do for years and years to come.

The Gazelle said to me at one point on our strolling around town Saturday afternoon that he can tell I love to cycle, because I seem intrinsically linked to my bike – that I’m clearly at one with my machine. And upon reflection, I would concur. Whether I’m grinding up a hill at 12km/hr or speeding back down it slightly over the posted speed limit, I feel like my bike and I are one. When my legs are burning and my lungs sucking air, I feel as if the bike and I become a singular machine of combined human power and cycling mechanics. The connection points – cleats/pedals, hands on brake hoods, tailbone perched on seat – are points of fusion.

Whatever the environment, the road, or the weather conditions, I love to ride. Even at the sore and stiff muscle, rain and cold moments, on steep climbs, mid-brick or mid-race, I can think of nowhere else I’d rather be than in that saddle.

Exquisite, with just the right dose of agony.

Meet Team McKnapp-Advil

Race season is half over, which means there are still two races to go. While injuries continue to threaten my goal of a full Olympic distance race this season (September 13 at Lakeside was the planned A-race), I can at very worst eke out two more long sprints before autumn takes hold.

So far this season, Team McKnapp-Advil has successfully completed a 5i50 at Guelph Lake, and a long sprint at Belwood. Each had its challenges, for sure, but both culminated in satisfactory results. At Guelph Lake, I proved to myself that I could run the 10k portion at a respectable pace, but more importantly, overcame huge doubts about an injured foot. At Belwood, I was taken out of my usual “short run first” format, in a different race series, and despite the hiccups, survived just fine. In fact, despite everything, I felt like I finished that one with the best mental strength of all my races to date.

Getting to the start line of each race, whatever length, will require further help from an amazing support team. Seems like a good time to introduce them, then, don’t you think?

Chef d’Équipe:

A rest day walk with the lovely chef d'équipe of Team McKnapp-Advil.

A rest day walk with the lovely chef d’équipe of Team McKnapp-Advil.

Team McKnapp rolls on because of the patience and dedication of its chef d’équipe. Not to mention her salary. In short, none of this would have gone beyond a first race without my awesome wife, Cherolyn.

Cherolyn has cheered me on and supported me through much in life – from the very days we started dating, in fact. Some 19 years later, she’s doing all of that as I make a go of this duathlon thing.

In just one year, Cherolyn’s gone from a curious cheerleader to my team leader, quite seamlessly. Pre-race, she takes on extra household responsibilities and works to get me ready. Whether it’s planning, packing, cooking or just calming me down, she steps up and treats taper week with the same reverence I do.

During races and immediately after, she takes care of many details, notes race features and quirks, and gets me to the race site and start line, then from finish line to home with all the right reminders to stretch, hydrate, re-fuel, rest, and so forth.

The long hours I train are accompanied by even more hours of sport-specific obsession, and the chef d’équipe tolerates it all. She knows when to draw the line, but also when to let me run free. Training has taken the space of a second job in our lives, and yet Cherolyn remains patient and understanding.

None of this would be possible without her.

The Soigneur:

Lisa is a local friend. We met about 15 years ago, before I moved to Ottawa. And when my wife and I moved back to Guelph in 2009, Lisa quickly became a close friend.

Lisa provides sage wisdom at key times – reminding me, when I’m doubtful, that I’ve come a long way, that I’ve got a lot to be proud of, and telling me to believe. Lisa’s one tough cookie, so her support and belief in me hold a lot of weight at those moments where I need it most.

Of equal importance, Lisa supplies “turbo muffins” in the days leading up to my races. These are simple oatmeal chocolate chip mini-muffins, but they’ve become both a staple and a superstition. Pre-race carb intake and race day breakfasts hinge on these muffins. Somehow, despite anything else she has going on at a given point in time, Lisa gets them over to my place without fail. Her poor kids might end up short on breakfast as a result — I’m never entirely clear!

When we were dealing with a sick dog and my darling Chef d’Équipe couldn’t attend my first and biggest race this year, Lisa stepped right in. Her kids and husband got up early and came along to cheer, and Lisa took on the role of stuff holder, cheerleader, stretch-nagger and chauffeur. All while trying to get me to eat. Constantly.

The Athletic Therapists:

I have never needed physiotherapy as much as I have since I started training for duathlon. The recommendation from my family doc was to go to Wellington Ortho & Rehab, where the local orthopaedic surgeons have also set up shop. In doing so, I was fortunate to land myself into the capable hands of one Susan McGregor.

Physio with Susan comes with a fair dose of sarcasm, wit, encouragement and just the right amount of tough love. She’s worked with me diligently on the injuries I originally came for, and has switched unquestioningly to the more urgent injuries that have cropped up.

Susan often tapes me up the day before a race, making it possible for me to power through an injury, and post-race, she looks for my updates. No matter how worried I might be about an injury or my lack of training, Susan is unflaggingly confident in her abilities to get me on the road – giving me an effective boost before the race.

Post-race, and sometimes pre-race, the guy down the hall gets my body back in-line with some very effective sports massage. I’ve held out for years on massage therapy, until injuries forced me to limp in for treatment with RMT Patrick Stiles this May. I’m so glad I did. An hour on my legs – or in some cases, on one leg – and I’m back on the road at full speed. Well worth the investment.

I’m spending so much time at Wellington Ortho & Rehab that I’m thinking I could just move in. Or at least get sponsored.

The Psychologist & Training Partner:

Mid-brick workout, with Carsten the ultra man.

Mid-brick workout, with Carsten the ultra man. He joined me for the run, and made it truly enjoyable, as he tends to do.

Carsten is a good friend dating back to our days in Ottawa. He’s German by birth, but now lives as a public servant in our National Capital with his own chef d’équipe, his wife Alex.

Carsten is an ultra man. Though he’ll never say so, from marathons to multi-day ultra races to Ironmans, ski loppets and snowshoe races to double and even (gulp) triple Ironmans, Carsten puts down serious mileage. And all of this with an incredibly easy-going approach. He’s self-effacing, modest, and likely the most laid-back endurance athlete I know. Last fall, after my sprint duathlon season was over, Carsten was so incredibly supportive and congratulatory that I was blushing. Only by happenstance did I learn that he had done triple-distance triathlons in his past.

I’ve done more training alongside Carsten than I have anyone else – and that isn’t even all that much. But each time we run or cycle together, despite the fact that I am most definitely holding him back for pace, he’s supportive, positive, patient, and wise. Carsten has given me invaluable support as I’ve undertaken my new’ish healthy lifestyle, weight loss, and now, duathlons. Carsten was so effusive in his pride over my racing last season that I felt like a gold medalist.

Makes me wish we lived closer. But without fail, when we visit Ottawa, the bike and running shoes come along so I can train with The Gazelle. I have a lot more to learn from this guy.

The Bike Guys:

I picked my local bike shop based on who carried Specialized bikes. Little did I know that I was choosing the friendliest shop in town.

When I went in the very first time to shop for a road bike, I was treated with respect, patience, and keen enthusiasm. A few years later, I still look forward to each trip to Paramount Bikes & Boards. Whichever of the team is in, I know we’ll cover off race results, riding tips, and other fun stuff. Each service visit results in a bike in great mechanical form. Lee and Gord’s riding tips – friendly, unsolicited as the advice is – have given me so much help along the way. And Tory’s gentle chastising has me  working to maintain my bike at a higher standard. Thanks to this team, my bike has not let me down on any ride.

There are countless other supporters and cheerleaders out there, and I appreciate you all. It’s a challenging and fun road, and it certainly is a lot less lonely with all this support.

Onward to the second half of this season, then.