Nixing “I don’t know how”

To the average person, duathlon is a mystery. They recognize triathlons, largely due to the rise in popularity of the Olympic and IronMan events. Or they mistakenly picture the Olympic sport of biathlon, which is that fascinating blend of cross-country skiing and target shooting. Same athletic physiques, but a radically different sport.

So often, if it comes up that my main hobby (or second job, albeit unpaid) is duathlon — the training and of course the racing — I have to explain what the sport is: a cousin of triathlon, without the swim, but an extra run in its place. Run-bike-run, I say, instead of swim-bike-run.

And in response to the inevitable next question of why a person wouldn’t just do triathlon, I would say, equally inevitably, “because I don’t know how to swim.”

Late last summer, I decided that I didn’t like that answer. I don’t like “because I don’t know how” in any facet of my life, really, but in this particular case, it smacks of the kind of self-limiting, self-defeating attitude that I find quite exasperating.

I grew up, for the bulk of my adolescence, on a country property with waterfront on a quite bay of a large lake. If I wasn’t in the water there, I likely was in the water at the much less weedy beach which was down the road, around the corner and down another road — a perfect bike ride away for a youngster with wheels. So my inability to swim wasn’t related to any fear of the water, just a lack of instruction. I could keep myself afloat with a doggy paddle or a rendition of treading water, and I became an expert cannon-baller. I just never learned how to actually swim. Nary a swimming lesson in my youth. Instead, I took to sports on frozen water and on land, from ice hockey to soccer with a whole lot in between. I could skate on or bike around the lake, but I couldn’t swim across it.

Late last summer, we spent a day at our friends’ cottage. It’s on the man-made lake/reservoir Lake Conestogo, which is a long, narrow body of water. As we’ve done before, we headed out on their pontoon boat and anchored in a deep spot at one end of the lake to jump off and swim. It was a breezy day, and the water was wavy enough that the boat was dragging its anchor, pulling away from those of us in the water. After a bit of treading water in the waves, I was feeling out of my comfort zone and wanted to head back to the boat. But this was difficult, and for the first time in as long as I can remember, I was a bit panicked about making it to safety. It was an incredibly unsettling experience for someone who’s generally quite fit and confident in his body. The one pool noodle from the boat was already in use by another friend, so they threw me a life jacket to use as a floatie. It was, without anyone meaning it to be, rather humiliating.

So add this to the life of needing a pool noodle to enjoy cottage dips in deep water, and more, to being tired of the “I never learned how to swim” script, and I came quickly to the conclusion that it was time for me to learn how to swim.

Yes, at 42 years of age, I wanted to learn how to properly swim.

Not only that, but I set myself the goal of taking on at least one “try-a-tri” in the 2017 season. Because… why not? Surely being able to do triathlons in addition to duathlons would be a benefit. Less running, easier on the legs. More race options. And yes, less explaining my sport. I would keep training and competing in duathlons, but throw at least one tri into the mix as a goal.

I started looking at my options for instruction that would fit into a busy life and accommodate my absolute lack of swim experience.

Enter the City of Guelph Recreational Aquatics program. Adult swim classes on offer at levels I (unfamiliar with and uncomfortable in the water), II (learning common swim strokes and more advanced self-preservation), and III (advanced use of swim stroke and perfecting technique).

In early October, nursing my poor hamstring, I stood shivering and intimidated on the deck of a pool in Guelph’s west end, embarking on 11 weeks of instruction in Adult Level II. Along with two others in Level II, and one in Level I, I would spend these three months at the mercy of a teen-aged swim instructor (who reminded me so much of my niece that I almost called the wrong name on a weekly basis).

It was, from the first moment in the very first class, to the final moments of the final class, a humbling experience. For a person who played sports of all kinds, the pool was a foreign environment, with a whole new set of rules and etiquette. My wife grew up in swimming lessons and on a swim team for a while, and didn’t understand my questions until I reminded her that if she suddenly took up hockey, she’d have the same type of anxiety. Equipment, change-room and shower requirements, deck etiquette, it was all brand new.

While I navigated that all rather diligently, I also had to make peace with the fact that there was not only a pool full of children staring at me, but worse, a crowd of parents watching their offspring get their own lessons, parents who suddenly had a much more entertaining group to watch from above — likely while patting themselves on the back for getting their kids swim instruction (as well they should. If your kids aren’t in swimming lessons, heed my words — start them now!).

Not to mention said offspring, who were quite entranced by us grown ups in the next lane, learning very slowly what they had mastered some time before. It’s one thing to willingly humiliate yourself. It’s entirely another to do so for an audience.

I am a person who, despite my fitness, and despite my work in the weight room over the past decades, is rather shy about appearing in public in spandex (getting better, thanks to all those race days) and more so, without a shirt. Suddenly, doing this for a 45 minute class with such an audience, I had to get over an awful lot of body shame and just focus instead on learning to swim. As a 42 year old man, under the instruction of a 16 year old.

And speaking of fitness, all my cardiovascular fitness was suddenly — completely — for naught. Breathing on land, whether you’re running, skating, or cycling, it seems, does not prepare one for the breathing required in swimming. The guy who routinely self-propelled for 50+ kilometers at top speed was suddenly reduced to a gasping mess, unable to swim even 25 meters. That’s right. One length of the pool. Impossible.

Humbling, indeed.

And a wonderfully, painfully frustrating challenge.

So it began. Saturday mornings, swim class. One other day per week, into the pool at my gym, where I’d try to practice what we had learned, even if it was just for 15 or 20 minutes before hitting the treadmill or heading off again to hockey. All of it, I’m sure, a spectacle for anyone watching. Splash splash gasp. Repeat.

Each week, learning more about how a body works in the water vs on land. Learning about pool environments and lane swims and how nasty chlorine is on your body. Learning to look for the best hotel pools when you’re travelling for work (The Auberge Hotel in Vancouver has a 25m 4 lane pool, with ozonated water, that is quite underused by other guests. What a gem!)

At the end of this class in December, I was declared ready for Level III, where, I was told, I’d get the finer points of stroke technique and an opportunity to learn swim drills and build endurance. This was what I was waiting for!

Level III was, from day one, a frustrating challenge for all the wrong reasons. Other participants in the class had already done it, and just wanted the lane time. They could do multiple lengths and were, in a word, rather unfriendly. The instructor, plunked into the class at the last minute, was chronically unprepared and unresponsive. I was doing more self-instruction than anything and found myself dreading every class more than the last. I can take humbling. I don’t need humiliating.

So after four weeks, I bailed, shocking myself by quitting the class outright. I redoubled my efforts at the tiny but serviceable gym pool, and wrote a respectful, but strongly worded email to the City of Guelph explaining my disappointment in the Level III class. I wasn’t looking for anything in return, just expressed that I had been hoping to use the winter to get ready to try-a-tri or two this summer, and that their instructor had clearly just missed the mark in terms of what the class was supposed to offer. I had tried very hard to make it work, and was disappointed that it proved to be so terrible.

Fortunately, and to my surprise, that email generated a tremendous response. Big kudos to the City of Guelph Aquatics folks, who not only owned up to that class’ shortcomings, but made good on the situation. As a result, I’m now in 1:1 swim instruction, hitting the 25m pool each Tuesday morning before work with their top lifeguard, someone who’s done triathlons and is determined to get me into my first.

With the pool essentially to ourselves for that half hour, Patty has already done more for me in 3 classes than I would have thought possible. She’s the coach I needed to push me, encourage me, and tap into the elements of my strength and fitness that do apply to swimming, while building my swimming fitness and confidence. The added bonus is other aquatics staff who are around at that hour piping in and cheering me on. I’ve been promised a “chase” swim or two near the end of our time together with all of them in the water, so I can get a sense of what it will be like to swim with other triathletes knocking me around and running me over.

Gosh, doesn’t that sound… challenging. Deliciously, excruciatingly challenging.

There are moments, still, as there were all winter long, where I question my choice to take this on. Surely I could spend as much time improving my run and cycle, more comfortable zones for me. Ones in which I get to wear more clothing, inhabit more familiar environments, and use more familiar muscles and body movements. I could just stop now, happy at being better able to swim, and keep it at that — a better swimmer for those cottage and vacation beaches, who can even sort of dive now.

But where would be the challenge in that?

I’m nowhere near able to swim the 400m of a try-a-tri quite yet, but I’ve got my sights set on the Subaru series’ Niagara race in late July. The swim, parallel to the shore but in Lake Ontario, will be very long for me compared to the nominal bike and run legs. I can only imagine the nervousness I’ll feel as I wait for the start on that day. If I thought I was nervous before my first duathlon a few years ago, I didn’t know what nervous could be!

But I won’t be alone.

What I’ve discovered, since signing up for my first lessons, is that people are incredibly supportive of my goal. From the swim instructors and Aquatics Program manager to random triathletes (one of whom gifted me a free wetsuit after I shared my story in a small contest he was running — tell me, who owns a tri wetsuit when they can’t even swim 100m in a pool? This guy, that’s who!), to my boss, who didn’t even blink when I said I’d be coming in late Tuesday mornings for 10 weeks and my coworkers, through to the various friends and relatives who check in on my progress, it seems that people can get behind someone taking themselves way out of their comfort zone (again) and tackling a whole new challenge.

Who could ever give up with that kind of support behind them?


The Bell Lap

Last week brought with it the fifth race of my duathlon season, a strong outing at Guelph Lake II that resulted in a third place Age Group medal, a top 15% finish overall, and some restored pride in my abilities.

More on the race and results later — but in short, this could easily have served as the final race of the Team McKnapp season. I’ve completed more races than I had intended (which was four), made some progress and endured a few difficulties along the way. My body is reminding me that we’re 42 now, and that recovery is a requirement, not an option. The ever-patient Chef d’équipe has let it be known that she, too, is tired of races.

And let’s face it, wrapping up “at home” on the Saturday of Labour Day weekend would make a nice ending point.

But there is still a bit more to be done.

Today marked Lightning McQueen’s final chemo session. The last few have been tougher than the ones before, remarkably so. So it would make sense that Joanne’s excitement about wrapping up the chemotherapy portion of her cancer treatment was also marked with trepidation about having another couple of weeks of misery from that treatment. And maybe even trepidation about the next course of treatment itself. Understandably so.

A mind-boggling schedule of radiation awaits Joanne, as do other forms of treatment and follow-ups. But this final round of chemo marks a huge milestone. The grit and determination of this woman and her family as they persevere from one set of unknowns to the other is admirable.

As Joanne rang the bell exiting her treatment today, she entered the bell lap.

The bell lap, in many race events, is the final lap – the one in which racers know just how far they have come and how far they have to go. Whether it’s a 400, 1200 or 10000 metre race, whether running, cycling, or swimming, the bell lap is where competitors dig deep and find the last reserves they have to bear down to the finish line.

So for Joanne, one more lap.

And for me, as one small gesture of support, it’s one more race – the sixth of the summer – a bell lap for Joanne. Saturday morning, I’ll tackle Multisport Canada’s Lakeside sprint duathlon. I have no idea how this race will go, given what I laid out in last week’s event. It’s a short race, which means finding a fast gear early and staying in it. And for this friend I call Lightning, it’s got to be nothing short of top gear.

I can guarantee that every single cowbell and bell a spectator rings on Saturday will be bringing to mind (and heart) the incredible strength of this friend of mine – and everyone else I know who has gone through chemo and rung that bell on their way out.

The fight for one’s life isn’t a chosen one. But takes a tremendous strength and fortitude to stay in the race, from the first lap all the way to the finish line.

It’s your bell lap, and you’ve got this, Lightning. You’ve so got this.

Race Report: Niagara Sprint Duathlon



Switched up the uni — blazing red for Niagara!

Four races down, and now a few weeks to prep for the fifth — and maybe final, or maybe not — of 2016. So this would be a good time, then, to catch up on the last two outings, the Niagara Sprint Duathlon, in Grimsby, ON, and the Kingston Duathlon, my “A” race for the season in my hometown of Kingston, ON.

Here, to start, a snapshot of the Niagara race.

There’s no better way to put it than this. I was not into this race.

When I signed up, immediately after my 5i50 at Guelph Lake in June — which to review, was an immensely tough challenge — I wanted something  in the mid-sprint distance falling halfway between then and Kingston at the very end of July. Niagara is one I’ve done before, and enjoyed greatly, and it can be a day race with no major travel — plus the run distances were long enough to be pushing me towards Kingston’s longer sprint distances — so I signed up.

Unfortunately, as I’ve chronicled, we had to put our dog down a couple of weeks before the race, just before we headed west on vacation . Add on to that the post-vacation “I’ve trained but I’m not sure it was hard enough” doubts I always have and add on a very tender IT Band, and I was feeling quite out of sorts about entering this race. Registration was paid, though, and my body was more or less ready, so I followed through.

We drove to Grimsby the morning of the race. With a later start time of 9am, it gave us time to make the hour plus trek and still have lots of on-site time. Because this race site is small — Nelles Beach Park is not a big venue — and we’d been here before, I had little in the way of nervousness about arriving in time to get set up.  Sure enough, despite an unannounced and rather major highway closure, we made it in plenty of time.

[How do you know I’m not into a race? I don’t listen to a single track from my pre-race playlist in the car. Whoa.]

I was set up at a decent rack position in transition and doing my warm-ups well in advance of the race start — in fact, we had time to watch a bit of the triathlon starts from the roadway above Lake Ontario. It was a gorgeous day — sunny, low humidity, and very little wind, even beside the lake. Still, my head wasn’t in the game.

As the starter called us to the line, I was not even close to being mentally set. In a funny “does this mean something?” moment I also realized my heart rate monitor had stopped registering my heart rate — so my heart wasn’t in the race either, at the start. (Luckily that problem was quickly sorted out with some fresh water on the strap!)

I figured at this point that at the 2/25/7 distance, I could just go through the paces and get to the finish. Long story short, it went like this:

First run: The run course is longer than the posted 2km — about 2.4 km. My goal pace was around 4:30 min/km, which I thought was a wee bit aggressive on my part given my last race here, where even if you factor in the course length discrepancy, I ran about a 5:10 km pace. Granted that was two years ago, but still — this run course is about 1/3 wood-chipped trail with lots of tree roots to pick around and over, which is interesting but slows you down.  All the same, I hit a 4:20 pace.  Guess my fitness has improved since my first season of duathlon!

T1 was my usual minute-and-a-half range, at 1:35, which is still just slow.


This way to the hill, guys!

Bike: I chose to ride my road bike out of respect for the escarpment climb. This is a good quad- and calf-burner in the first 5km of the course, which leaves many an amateur walking their bike up the final portions. It’s hardly Tour de France material, but the 9% grade is more than most of us get to climb on a regular basis, at least not over the span of a full kilometre. Fortunately, the bike course is only 25km, and there was a sub-10km/hr wind, so the time lost by not being aero on the tri-bike was bound to be minimal. Sure enough, I cranked through that climb and still made a pace of a hair over 30km/hr. Very pleased with my focus on the bike, which I’ve worked on. Even with the nice Ontario wine country views, I was focused on the race.  And descending that escarpment? So sweet. I descended at 67km/hr, even with my usual abundance of caution.

Second Run: I had a bit of a slow-down in transition. Due to the heat, I drank some water at my mat before heading out. Unfortunately then I choked on it. So I had to turn back for more water, which added a few extra seconds on top of the first delay. At any rate, I was back out on the course within 1:34.

Unfortunately, this is where my psyche just up and called it quits. I was barely even on the course and I was questioning why I was doing this — nobody was forcing me to be there, I reasoned. Why didn’t I just stop? Despite the good first run and bike, I didn’t want to be doing the rest of the race.

But the deal is that I don’t get to call it quits for a lack of mental stamina — so I distracted myself by counting  the signals from my watch for 500m segments to make myself feel better. Only 14 beeps of the watch ’til I’m done. Only 13 beeps. Only 12 beeps… 11 beeps… by the time I was down to 7 beeps remaining, I knew I was halfway and could just suck it up to the finish.

Finishing strong, with nothing left in the tank both physically and mentally.

Finishing strong, with nothing left in the tank either physically or mentally.

Trail sections and mental defeat aside, I held a 4:55 pace on the 7km run. When I crossed the line, I knew I’d done all I could.

I finished 17th of 50 duathletes overall, with a total race time of 1:38:43. I placed in my now predictable 5th in my age group (of 11) — about 3 minutes behind 4th place and well over 4 minutes behind 3rd. Not my best race for placing, but also not my worst. Mediocrity is becoming my specialty!

Positives: The run course has been tweaked to be better than it was last time I did it (2014). The Subaru Series from Trisport Canada is a great set of races, and this one especially showcases their organizational skills, passion, and dedication to multi-sport.  I quite like the Niagara venue for its smaller footprint and atmosphere, and the course itself with the quirky climb and trail runs, so it was too bad my head wasn’t in it. But my body was ready, even if my mind wasn’t, and I think that with all things considered, I did okay.  I was pleased with my ability to overcome the mental battle and put trust in my body. And again, I was pleased to nail my hydration and fuelling both pre- and during the race.

Next, it was time to rebound — to physically recover, yes but more so, to rejuvenate myself mentally in order to be prepared for Kingston, just two weeks later.

No Excuses.

We’ve all seen the t-shirts and the memes: “No excuses”.

Usually it’s on a black oversized t-shirt, written in a gimmick font that looks like a stamp or rusted metalwork, worn by some scruffy 19 year old whose idea of sports is watching the MMA or scuffling up the street with a cigarette in his mouth. Sometimes, it’s emblazoned over a black & white picture of The Rock or some other muscle-bound guy who clearly takes it to heart.

In any case, it’s an oft-repeated cliché.

Cue the scene.

Yesterday was cloudy. It was windy. And due to both of those, as well as a current low front, it was cold. Colder than forecast, even. When I popped out at lunch to go get a coffee down the block, I was chilled, even though it was 1pm and it was supposed to be 17 degrees Celsius. I was in pants and long sleeves and I can say it was not even close to 17.

Add to the mix that I was feeling bone tired. My workout loads have been higher and harder, and my body is reminding me that I am supposed to introduce more rest into my schedule. Because… 42.

The night before, after hockey and a quick sprint, I came home lamenting that my legs just have nothing in them. While I’m skating fine, I feel like I’ve got no gas in the tank while I’m on the ice. And worse, I feel like I’m making no progress on my run times. There’s no zip in the legs, no spring in my step, even though I’m in less pain than I have been in ages.

So at the end of the workday yesterday, when it came time to change into the cycling gear that I had dutifully packed the night before, to go and drive out to the middle-of-nowhere to go for a 40km ride on the aero bike I had wrestled into the car before work, that is when the excuses started lining up in my head.

“You’re overtired and there’s a race next week. You should rest.”
“The wind is 25km/hr with gusts of 35km/hr. Nobody should ride in that. You’ll blow off the road.”
“It’s cold and given what those clouds look like, it might even rain. You only packed for a chilly ride, not a cold one.”

It’s a solid 20 minutes from my workplace to the community centre where I planned to park. Of that drive, a good chunk is on open, un-windbroken roads, where every gust rocked the car. Further proof, said my fading willpower, that I should pack it in and head home.

“I could do my weight workout tonight instead.”
“I need a rest day. I can just ride more on Thursday instead.”

The problem is that the wind is only supposed to get worse all week. Much worse. And if I wanted to make a rest day work, it ought to be today, Wednesday, when I have a massage appointment and household obligations that make fitting in a run or ride almost impossible.

And yes, there’s a race next week, but I shouldn’t taper yet, though I definitely need to back off a bit on the training this week to recoil the springs in my legs. If I didn’t want to double up on some upcoming days, even closer to race day, I really needed to fit in this session as planned.

So I resolved, just moments after almost caving to my own arguments to head right home, that in fact, I would go as planned to the parking lot. I would get ready, putting on every piece of clothing I could, and get out on the bike. If I felt too cold, too tired, after 10km, or if I blew right back off the bike, I could call it a day.

This strategy has worked many a time for many a workout.

Don’t want to run? Get dressed, get out there and start the warm-up walk, and run the first two kilometres. Don’t want to lift? Go down to the gym and start with a single set of everything. Chances are, just about 100% of the time, that workout is going to not only get started, but finished.

Sometimes, legitimately, it’s not safe to train. The weather turns to snow or lightning threatens, or the body really honestly needs a break. But the body and the weather conditions should make that call, not my willpower, sitting comfy and cozy in the heated seats of my vehicle.

I start each week with a plan for the running, biking, strength training, athletic therapy, and cross-training I’ll do. Weather and other factors might cause some of those plans to change, but it at least defines for me what’s ahead, and how it fits in around work, social commitments, and the tasks that make up responsible adult living, like, oh, grocery shopping and ironing.

For the most part, if I’m dragging my feet on doing a workout, I can pep talk myself into getting out and doing the session because this is the path I’ve chosen. If I want to be Marshal McLernon, age-group duathlete of unparalleled mediocrity consistently finishing middle of the pack, I need to do my training.

Incredibly, this can work most of the time. But sometimes, you have to kick yourself harder. And so there’s the “just put on your shoes and start” approach.

And so, last night, I parked my car in the shelter of the treed corner of this community centre parking lot. I gritted my teeth and got out into the cold, and started layering my warm clothing. I had a race t-shirt and arm warmers layered under my long-sleeved jersey. Luckily I also had some compression calf sleeves in my bag, so I put those on to help keep my legs warm. With a set of light cycling gloves, I knew I’d be able to shift despite the windchill. And so, mildly chilled, off I went, fully expecting to have to turn back after 10k, but resolving to at least get my butt in the saddle and give it a shot.

In fact, the butt stayed in the saddle for the full 41.5km. The first 5km were terrible, as my body tried to warm up against the wishes of my sulking mind, which had clearly lost the argument with my willpower.

It wasn’t speedy, what with the winds, and at times it was a white-knuckle ride, due to same winds and a lack of shoulder room on one busy road. Though I wasn’t terribly cold for most of it, I was truly chilled by the time I finished — so cold that my feet hurt and my hands didn’t want to operate my car key — but I still managed decent time with a perfect amount of effort.

As I told my wife afterwards, it was a relief to be tucked in aero position — not only to cut the wind, but also because there’s warmth to be had when you’re all folded in on yourself like that.

Added bonus? There was some solidarity to be had out on the road as the few of us cycling passed one another and mentally high-fived our like-minded brethren.

And that decision to work out? I remain convinced that deciding not to work out can’t be borne of “what if” and “well but” thinking. While we need to cut ourselves some slack and ensure that we take the right amount of rest, it needs to also be strategic, and not based on a lack of willpower. It requires a fine balance and some reasoning skills, but also the determination to follow through.

That is “No Excuses”.


The [Much] Bigger Picture.

Pink“Hold a higher purpose in your mind. Think of someone, something, much bigger than yourself and race for that.”

Whether a piece of advice is helpful is hugely subjective. But when advice resonates, it can really touch your soul.

There’s a lot of advice to be had on just about any topic, so of course it’s also true of endurance sports. Some of that advice is conflicting, and some of it is pure garbage, but much of it can be helpful to the average age-grouper as much as the elites. From the scientific to the psychological, there’s no shortage of counsel to be had.

Sometimes, the advice is there, but hard to digest until you hear it phrased in the way that just reaches your soul. That line up top, well, that’s some advice that immediately touched my racing soul. From the moment I heard it, straight from the mouth of a pro Ironman competitor in a cheesy but inspirational video, I knew this piece of advice would be key.

For each race, I set tangible goals. But I also sit, a few days ahead of time, gathering my thoughts to bring forward the “something bigger” that I will bear in mind. Truthfully, it has frequently been my brother, who passed away three years ago after a brave lifetime of medical woes. I’ve finished races in tears because the drive to compete with him in my heart was so strong, so compelling, that it was as if he was there watching, every step of the way, every stroke of the pedal, right with me.

Racing, much as there is a strong tri and du community, can be a very solitary sport. After the starter’s pistol (or air horn) sounds, the masses thin out and it’s every competitor for their own self, and largely by themselves. You are left alone to battle your doubts, digest your thoughts, and overcome your physical limitations, be they perceived or real. Spectators see us and cheer at the key turns in and out of transitions, or the finish lines, but there are a lot of miles put in with nothing but your own thoughts or the sight of the next hill looming ahead.

I can’t imagine racing without my brother Adam in my mind or heart. But this year, someone else, and a cause ever so much bigger than myself, will be top of mind, and deep in my heart.

My former work colleague, and now friend, was diagnosed very suddenly with cancer just a couple of months ago. Without getting into telling her story for her, let me just say that she has been an incredible picture of fortitude, from when she first heard those words, to when she heard the next bit of bad news, and the next, right up to and including now, on the doorstep of a long, difficult series of treatments. Stoic, strong, and still sassy.

Tomorrow, this friend I call “Lightning” McQueen — a mother, daughter, sister, wife, and friend to a large crew who clearly love and admire her — embarks on what will be the better part of a year of chemo, radiation, and recovery. Her family is with her, and they and her friends will support her, but ultimately, this must be a terrifying moment, one where she steps over a doorstep onto a journey that few but other cancer patients and survivors can ever understand.

Nerves for an amateur athlete, toeing that start line? Nothing. Even. Close. 

Friends, family, and extended family (not to mention the family of our friends) have gone through their own cancer battles. It’s a horrible disease, and we know it will touch even more of us as the years progress. As soon as those words are spoken from doctor to patient, life has changed irrevocably.

For all the public face of the disease, the pinkification of sport, the fundraisers and the awareness campaigns — for all the support people have gotten, they still each had to walk down the hallway to start that road to treatment, one foot in front of the other.

Let us hope that nobody faces that walk alone.

And so here I am, starting race season #3. It is a completely arbitrary, self-imposed, self-indulgent thing. A glorified hobby. Just as friend Joanne’s first treatment fully kicks in, I’ll toe the start line in Ottawa. Much as I know it’s just a coincidence, the irony is not something I can shake. This hobby of mine does mimic what is true about life — that it’s sometimes hard, that it requires flexibility, and that we can push ourselves well beyond our perceived limits to endure.

Endurance, for those of you directly affected by cancer, is a very real thing.

I can not possibly complain about a tough training session or an injury, about race conditions or placing, when I know just how trivial it is relative to the real — yes, very real — issues people face. One can hardly quit because it’s uncomfortable, when there’s no such option to quit for people like Lightning, for all the Lightnings.

“Uncomfortable” pales in meaning.

This year, I’m adding a bright flash of pink to my race kit. Let this be my reminder, but more so, my shout out to this particular rock, Joanne, and to the rest of you touched by this stupid awful thing called cancer — in the past, in the now, and forever.

It takes a phenomenal strength to face down that which we have no choice but to face.

Mad respect, Lightning.




How Far We’ve Come…

My week was heavily front-loaded with workouts. Partly because social plans negated working out tonight, Friday, but also because weekends just allow for more time training.

After two bike-fittings last Saturday, I headed out to scout the Milton duathlon course, admittedly ignoring the bike fitter’s advice that I take it easy and avoid the escarpment for now. Sunday brought a short-but-intense brick – 4/32/1 – my first fully outdoor brick since the Fall. On Monday, after physio, a hard skate at hockey, followed Tuesday morning with my annual birthday run — just 6km, but including Guelph’s notorious 100 steps and some steep hills.

By Wednesday, my legs were pretty happy to have an easy day, with just a strength and core workout and lots of physio exercises and foam rolling.

All of this detail is leading to last night, Thursday evening.

With a shiny new Tri bike sitting in my dining room (sorry, honey, but it is temporary, I promise), I’ve been itching to get out and start riding aero. Since I want to start with some non-city routes (the shifters and brakes are a long way apart on an aero bike!) I had thought I might load it in the SUV to go out for a ride after work. Alas, weather reports were gloomy and I needed to be the one to head home after work to free the dog and his bladder from captivity.

So sure enough, I drove home from work in sunshine, cursing my choice to skip bringing the bike. No matter, I thought, I’d head out for a ride from home. Alas, as soon as I parked and went in the house, the dark clouds appeared, looming over the south end of Guelph. I threw dinner together and pondered putting a bike on the trainer, or heading to the fitness club for a dreadmill session. Blech. Having gotten back outdoors in the past few weeks, the last thing I feel like doing is an indoor session.

When the clouds passed back over, it was about 7:15pm. Sunset was pegged for 8:25pm, leaving me just enough time to grab my gear, pump up the road bike tires, and hit the road. Aero bike could wait for Saturday, when I will load it up into the car and head out to the quieter roads .

So back to the front-loaded week.

I’m working back up to full training volume, now that the intensity is back, so I’m wary of over-taxing my poor SI joint and IT band. Between the physiotherapist, my new RMT, and the bike fitter, I’ve been told quite clearly to be careful. So yesterday’s workout was supposed to be just 40 minutes or so, capping my week at a decent amount of training and cross-training, with no garbage miles at all.

The route I chose for my last-minute sunset-beater ride is my go-to for short cycling portions of a brick — it can flex from 20 to 25km with strategic turns, and though it’s largely within city limits, it allows for some good hard time in the drops, thanks to lesser-travelled streets, fresh pavement, and great bike lanes with a minimum of traffic lights. By the time I hit the road, I had about 45 minutes ’til the sun went down.

And yes, I made it. With plenty to spare.

I’m not bound for an overall podium spot, not dreaming of elite status. But for a guy who used to be 70 pounds fatter, and a whole lot lazier, a quick, fast ride after dinner on a Thursday night at 28km/hour feels like something to celebrate. Especially with wooden legs from a good hard week of training.

This weekend, we finally go aero. Can’t. Hardly. Wait.

Rounding The Corner

As slowly as late Fall and Winter have gone, I was suprised to realise in the past few days that in just six weeks, racing starts again.

Team McKnapp has sat down to finalize the racing schedule for 2016, and I’ve locked in the dates as much as one can this far ahead of time. The goal is to complete the International Distance that injuries prevented me undertaking last year (the 5i50 was close, but a few kilometres short on the run). I’m aiming for a total of four races, and managed to select four that are spaced a month apart from each other. Recover, train, train more, taper, race, repeat.

All my hours in the gym this winter have maintained some fitness. Now we start to work at being race ready again.

Barring work, life, or injury interference, I’ve set my race dates as follows:

May 21: Ottawa Early Du – Long Sprint (2/35/5)
June 18: Guelph Lake I – 5i50 (2/40/10)
July 16: Gravenhurst – International (10/40/5)  “A” Race
August 14: Orillia – Sprint (2/33/7)

These are penciled in with room to flex if a particular race gets threatened – fortunately, there are lots of options to swap one for another. Holidays and work requirements are all slotted in, so we should be set to launch the season on this schedule in May.

I am looking forward to the May start. Last year I started at Guelph Lake I at the end of June, and it felt like a long wait. This May race is a Somersault series event, which will be my first du not in the MultiSport Canada or Subaru Trisport Canada series. It will be interesting to see how the organization and energy is. Energy will certainly be helped by my Ottawa family members coming to cheer me on!

More to come in the weeks ahead, but for now, we can all clearly see that my time in the gym and on the road is about to get serious.

And if I’m really going to go aero this year on a tri-specific bike, I had better get it soon!


The Adjustment Period

It’s been a long while between posts, I realize. I’ve been looking forward to getting back into writing about duathlon, training, life and more.

In the past month, we’ve done multiple family visits for the holidays; I’ve done a really stupid flip over my back porch railing, thankfully emerging with “just” a bit of facial scarring; and, the Chef d’équipe and I managed to make it for our week in sunny Mexico, where my “I love to run on vacation” came head-to-head with both a challenge and a reward — challenging due to the searing heat that made even slow 6 to 7km runs difficult, but rewarding in that I got to see real, live, crocodiles sunning themselves just 25 feet from the sidewalk. Survived the heat and the crocodiles, and got back in time for me to start my new job January 11, with just a hint of a black eye from the aforementioned flip, and a really nice tan.

My last post spoke to the pending job change, which was fraught at the time with both excitement and uncertainty. I’ve been in the position for just about three weeks, and the adjustment is taking a bit of effort. The commute is undeniably longer, the days in the office more demanding, my day-per-week of working from home is gone… and it’s all resulted in perpetually feeling rushed to get everything done.

That said, I’ve managed to keep training — to the point that I’m telling myself it’s time to ease up.

I’d like to be averaging 6 hours of solid training each week by May, and for the past few weeks, I’ve been logging 5 hours each week — a mix of tempo “dreadmill” runs and biking sessions on the trainer, plus my weekly cross-training in the form of a hockey game. This is topped off by another hour and a half, on average, of strength and flexibility work in the form of full body weight sessions and yoga.

Not only is the time taxing the household in terms of hours devoted to workouts, but it’s taxing the body — and, I realise, unnecessarily. Knees and IT band are starting to complain. As I learned last year, heading into the season injured doesn’t make for much of a season. So I’ll back off for a while and start building more training time back in by March and April.

The added bonus is that I’ll have a little more time for the new work demands to normalize before I start ramping up again.

More time, too, to finish mapping out the ideal race season, and to finalize my goals for a third year in duathlon. Because let’s face it — when I’m not training for it, I’m still thinking about it.

Must find new hobbies.

With Every End, A New Beginning

Today is my last day at my current workplace.

I’ve been in my role for three years and a couple of months, and it’s my second job at the level of a “senior manager”. So when the opportunity came to move on to a “director” level position at a local financial services company, I was happy to pursue (as happy as I was to be pursued by them. It’s really quite a flattering thing!).

Many months later, I’ve accepted the employment offer, presented my notice, and wrapped up all the work in front of me in order to move on. The change in position is as welcome as the change of company, and quite honestly, I’ll be relieved to move away from my not-for-profit salary, too.

With the new year will come a new role at a new company in a new sector, and of course, many new responsibilities. I’ll pretty much be a suit guy, which is exciting, and I’ll be running marketing & communications with a direct reporting line to the C-suite — intimidating as much as it is exciting.

One of the things I find myself fretting over, at least at this point in time, is the impact this change will have on my training.

The new job brings a bit of a longer commute — nothing horrible, just more to the tune of 40 minutes each way than my current 20. But it will also come with longer hours, and more travel. The prospect of losing time in my day terrifies me because I don’t want to lose the training time.

I’ve been fortunate in my old role, in that it was pretty consistently an 8-hours-a-day affair, with minimal evenings or weekends required. Over the summers, my otherwise maddening workload eased off a bit, allowing me to focus on my obsession with run-bike-run — and even to do some of that right from the parking lot of the office, as we were more rural than urban, and great riding was just outside our doors.

Those benefits, however, don’t outweigh the need to move onward, and upward. So training will become something I work at fitting in again. Some part of me knows that the drive to train is so firmly embedded in me that I’ll make it work. The other part of me is afraid that I’ll fail. With failure comes getting fat again, and I’m not interested in going back there ever again.

It’s not like I never had to make a squeeze to fit in the sessions of running or cycling, or strength training, in the old job. But I imagine that for the coming months, if not more, I’ll be working harder at working out when I’m not working. This may mean more after-dinner workouts (whereas I currently scoot home or to the gym right after work) and will certainly mean more long workouts on the weekends. Or, heaven forbid, I may need to tackle some morning workouts.

The company offers a health club/fitness benefit, which I’ll happily take. And I’ve heard that its president goes across the street to the gym at lunch each day. So that bodes well for a guy like me, who wants to be sure his fitness doesn’t fade to fatness.

After all, I’ve got some snazzy new suits to fit into.

Toe Cover Riding

This kind of view can make the chilly slog even more worthwhile.

This kind of view can make the chilly slog even more worthwhile.

It’s toe cover season.

Bike shoes are highly ventilated, which is great when the temps are over 15 degrees.  From there down the thermometer, not so much.

Toe covers are a lycra or neoprene fabric cover that goes over the front half of the bike shoe (or in the case of booties, the complete shoe) to keep a cyclist’s toes and feet warmer — and more dry — in inclement conditions.

Mine are a simple lycra affair, but they pretty much do the trick. As soon as “feels like” temperatures drop below 10 degrees Celsius, my shoe covers go on, and they stay there until I stop riding for the winter. Combined with some warm wool socks, this simple cover extends riding season by a good two months.

I’ve enjoyed cycling this fall, though I missed the warm sunshine filled weeks in late September while coming down off the summer of duathlon — while taking it easy, I was also doing such awesome things as stepping off a roadside curb and popping something in my leg. So the break was voluntary to a point, but also enforced by a tired body.

Though most cyclists appear to have decided to pack it in by early October, I was truly looking forward to getting out for some long rides that were strictly that — rides, instead of training sessions.

It’s been a long while since my bike and I were alone for anything approaching two hours or more. In the lead up to duathlon season, my spring rides were limited by an SI joint and IT band combo injury that restricted me to 25km of riding at a time, most of it in serious pain. As I got into the season, I was focused on race distances — I’ll generally ride race distances plus 10 to 15% while I’m training. There’s simply too much training to do, and too little time in the week to do it in, to be able to head out for more than 45km at a time. The time for building endurance is over the winter and early spring.

I think I treated myself to a 50km ride at some point in the late summer, for a break from my usual duathlon training mix, but that was it.

So the autumn rides, however bone-chilling, windy, and lonely, have been great, if only for the fact that I’m riding just to ride. My pace matters, but the fall winds have a way of making you forget maintaining high speeds to instead just focus on covering the distance.

It’s not glamorous in the least. Riding in temps between 2 and 10 degrees requires careful clothing choices — gloves, liner gloves, shirt and socks merit as careful selection as the myriad options of outer layers. Riding will generate heat from the workout, but unlike running, it also generates serious wind chill that negates the warmth. The difference between the warmth from climbing a hill and the chill from descending it is hard to manage with just a front zipper.

Winds seem even more harsh and unforgiving in the fall — harsh for the cold, unforgiving for the exhaustion that results from a 25km headwind or crosswind gusts of 40km or more. In the cold air, any wind makes my eyes tear up so badly that I have to stop and empty out my sunglasses a couple of times — usually after big downhills. And even if I empty them out, by the time I get home I can hardly see, because my lenses are actually crusted with dried salt from those tears.

Since the sun sets so early now, realistically, one can only ride on weekends. Even so, there are few other cyclists on the road, so it can feel pretty lonely out there — on a 2+ hour ride last weekend, I did not see a single other cyclist of any kind. I had not quite realized before how much one’s morale benefits from seeing kindred spirits on the road.

But on the plus side, and obviously there is one, fall in Southwestern Ontario brings some of the most spectacular views — gorgeous fall colours, and sharp contrasts between blue skies, dark gray storm clouds, or a field of verdant green amidst the dull browns of those that were recently harvested. The sun is at a different angle as we approach the winter solstice, meaning each weekend brings new light, new shadows. Whereas my fuelling on a training ride happens on the go, for these shoulder-season rides, I’ll often pull off to the side of the road and nosh while admiring the view — because a few minutes appreciating that makes one appreciate the riding even more.

Roadwork is mostly done for the season, leaving me dodging fewer potholes and enjoying some new pavement — although as the leaves pile up roadside, with no bylaw enforcement from the city, bike lanes and curb lanes do get perilous.

With the right clothing, we can manage the conditions. I’m a big believer in merino wool base layers, but lately, have fallen in love with Under Armour’s Infrared technology. Having had some success in other UA clothing featuring Infrared technology, I invested in a pair of liner gloves and a base layer shirt specifically to wear when cycling — and I am thoroughly impressed at how well it works. It’s as warm, if not warmer, but costs less than a comparable merino wool item. Whereas my hands used to be in excruciating pain in cold conditions to the point that I couldn’t effectively shift or brake, I can now keep my grip, hardly feeling any cold in my fingers. Frankly, little matter whether it’s classic wool or technical blends — thin, warm and breathable fabric is an absolute asset to cycling.

For reasons I don’t understand, motorists are being kinder in the shoulder season, much more patient and accommodating. Motorists with a clear right of way have been insisting that I go ahead of them. I’ve been waved through more turns and stop signs by drivers in the past five weeks than I was for the previous 5 months. It’s kind of nice to be given the space and the respect, even just for this short time.

Also on the plus side, a long session in the cold and wind is a true test of physical fitness and form. I may not be trying for race pace, but I’m not exactly cruising, either.  On a cold day, by the time I’m cranking out the last 7 to 10 km of my ride, I’ll be working exceptionally hard to stay focused and to maintain good form. Being cold doesn’t mean it’s okay to be sloppy.

And cycling in the fall presents a different kind of challenging workout from the run-bike-run of the last five months. While I’m still running, it’s a lot less than over the summer (and will pick up again over the winter). Long slogs on the bike in less than ideal conditions are a really good workout that challenges my body as much as a brick workout at peak fitness. It’s just straight-up endurance, not multi-sport endurance. I’m not saving my legs for the next round — just all out on the road in front. I welcome the change for the offseason.

This time of the year is always a bit gloomy as we cycling types get ready for a long, dark winter of training indoors. So each time I can hop on my bike and go out for that road-based session, I value that it’s time I won’t be inside, with another bracing shot of fresh air. You never know when the snow and ice will start, and bring toe cover riding to its end — so each ride is ridden like it will be the last for the season.

For that, I’ll deal with the layers, the tears and the wind — with a smile on my face. Okay, maybe it’s a grimace. But there’s also a smile under there, really there is.