Here I am: the bigger pond with much bigger fish. I am a minnow. I am again alone for this triathlon as my partner’s conference travel schedule seems to continue to intersect with the competitions. Neither one of us are particularly thrilled about this.
The drive up from Ste-Agathe is pretty spectacular in the early dawn light. Pockets of mist slumber in the dales and valleys of the Laurentians, with even some sections of the highway blanketed by thick fog. As if to make sure I don’t feel too out of sorts, it is five degrees Celsius this morning – even colder than at Joliette.
It is not even 6am as I enter the strictly controlled transition zone at the base of the Mont-Tremblant ski resort. The MCs offer up a steady stream of energetic chatter in attempts to animate the early morning pal. I am fuelled by three cups of coffee. I wonder if anyone else has had a caffeine IV drip like I had this morning. The transition zone is in the shadow of the mountain and so it is accordingly chilly. The announcers’ recurring promises of an eventual warm-up begin to sound like wishful thinking on everyone’s part. There are many doubtful faces. As I open my cozy puff jacket to finish changing, whatever meagre reserve of heat I had, escapes into the morning grey. I chill instantly. Images of cramps and drowning in the lake shiver my mind. The temperature of the water is apparently 16C, a temperature that permits use of neoprene socks and hoods! I have neither accoutrement.
There is a slightly sharper edge in the air than at Joliette. Nevertheless the vibe remains easygoing – probably natural since most people around probably have resting heart rates in the low 40s! It is a big weekend for Tremblant. The Olympic and Sprint distances – part of the Subaru 5150 Triathlon series – take place today, Saturday. Tomorrow is the “main event” of sorts – the Subaru 70.3 Ironman. The 70.3 is another moniker the half-Ironman, meaning half the full Ironman distance of, 3.9km swim, 180km bike and 42km run (yes, that is a full marathon). The number indicates the total distance (in miles) of the three disciplines, just as “5150” is the combined number of kilometres of the Olympic distance. Every discipline needs its codes, and the World Ironman Corporation – the organization that controls and organizes globally these races – seems to know iconography.
I noticed yesterday during the orientation that some athletes are doing the Olympic triathlon as a warm up for Sunday’s half-Ironman. I find this just shy of certifiably insane. Then again, I am racing an Olympic distance just two weeks after my first ever triathlon. Moreover, I have already decided to do another Olympic triathlon this summer. Similarly inspired by distance, I ran a pretty long training run earlier in the week (15km), which has left my calves a wee bit sore. Adding to triathlon training, I am also flirting with the half-marathon in Montreal at the end of September! Perhaps they are not so insane after all, just better prepared.
The first rays of sun hit the far side of the transition zone, closer to the water. The announcers weren’t kidding. People saunter over to bask in the already warm sun like lizards on a rock. After the morning chill, the sun feels good. Wonder how it will feel during the run!
Today’s event is a so-called beach start. I remember seeing these types of starts on television and they seem pretty crazy. It is just before 7am – the time the transition zone closes – as I start the trek down to the swim start 15 minutes’ walk away. I am already half-dressed in my wetsuit – a size larger than last time, hoping I will feel less suffocated – and, having to leave my glasses behind, negotiate my way with my Rx swim goggles. People must be looking at me funny. I feel their stares. Of course, this is all just in my head. No one cares. People are busy trying to relax. The walk is a pleasant one. Everyone is in their various stages of dress or undress and people joke easily with friends or whomever they find themselves walking alongside. It is a happy moment. I feel I am exactly where I should be.
I hope that the various scenes never get old. Hundreds of people struggling into their neoprene skin suits is just plain comical – funnier still is that everyone knows they look ridiculous so it’s just one big inside joke. There is nothing natural about pouring oneself into a wetsuit; it is just uncomfortable, constricting and sweat producing. The organizers have given everyone a day bag to put our morning clothes in. There is a big (and I mean big!) red truck in the middle of the parking area by the start line into which people are throwing their white bags. It is so surreal. The lack of sleep, over-abundance of coffee and the scene make it almost emotional. I need to pee. I have to get half undressed and then soak myself back into this thing.
Finally, sort of zipped back up into my wetsuit, I hear a pair of familiar voices. They belong to perennial St-Jude members, Long Nguyen and Marlene Manzano. I knew they’d be here – Long is racing the 70.3 tomorrow – but it didn’t even occur to me that they would go to the trouble of finding me. I’m touched. They are awesome people! Suddenly, I have an entourage; I am no longer a ghost wandering among groups of triathlon buddies, friends and family. It is a good feeling to have someone cheering just for you. We chat easily, discussing times and such. They mean to follow me throughout the race. Again, I am touched.
After what seems an eternity of waiting and preparation, the organizers start to call the various groups to the start zone and time leaps forward. The starts go fast now. I say my goodbyes and rush into the start zone with only seconds to spare. I vaguely hear the start horn. The crowd amassed at the water’s edge surges into the water. I notice those around me – at the back of the class – start to saunter slowly into the water, letting the keeners get ahead of them. These, I discern are the realists. I know instinctively that I am of their ilk. There is no reason to sprint into the water only to get overrun by faster swimmers!
I’M A LITTLE SAILBOAT
The first part of the swim is chaos. It seems that the best way to prepare for a triathlon swim, is to abandon all notion of technique and learn to swim freestyle like your parents swim breaststroke – head above water at all times. I am a little sailboat again, tacking back and forth, bumping into my fellow swimmers. Other bodies are the only reason I don’t find myself at the opposite end of the lake.
The wetsuit is a “light” version of the nightmare of Joliette. I am now winded every 15-20 strokes rather than five. I begin to think that perhaps it’s not the wetsuit after all, just my lack of shape! Navigation continues to be a serious issue. I must slow every few minutes and pop my head above water like an otter to find my bearings. The crowd thins out as everyone settles into his or her rhythm. The big yellow buoys crawl by in slow motion as I fight lungs, neoprene, waves and turbulence of other bodies. As we round the first turn, I am nearly spent. I have no idea how to approach this type of swim. All the training I did in the pool seems ludicrously inadequate now.
It has been at least an hour. I think I am on the final leg, pretty sure that the race is officially over. I am waiting for one of the kayakers on guard to gently tap me on the shoulder and tell me I can stop swimming. My mind is playing with my body, cajoling it to stop, to give up, to find a decent pub somewhere. I begin to settle down a little and focus on the act of swimming. It has taken me two thirds of the swim to establish a semblance of rhythm but the liquid moment remains elusive. This is more gruelling than I had dared to imagine. It surprises me to start seeing bottom. Strangely, the current is stronger the shallower it is. I pass people who are trudging to shore having abandoned their strokes. I try this but it proves more difficult. I continue swimming until my hands scrape bottom.
Once up and wading toward the shore while tearing I slip off the top part of my wetsuit – somewhat expertly I feel. My chest expands, rejoicing in the freedom of unimpeded breath! The transition zone is quite far from the swim exit so we all trot woodenly down a carpeted lane thronged by cheering spectators. This trot on stiff legs, with wetsuit torsos and arms swinging around must be the weirdest part of a triathlon! I catch a glimpse of Long and Marlene. I believe I wave and think that I may be smiling. Both gestures are completely at odds with the slightly nauseating, hardly controlled motion of trying to stay on my feet and appear that I’m running confidently forward.
WHAT’S SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN AGAIN?
I totter uncertainly toward my stuff. Transitions are unofficially considered the sport’s fourth discipline and can make or break an athlete’s performance. No kidding. There seems to be a running gag that putting and taking off the wetsuit ought to be a timed portion of triathlon. I am confident that no one would actually want that! No matter how I approach it, I can’t get the damn wetsuit legs past my ankles and feet. There is an insistent, annoying voice in my head screeching, “TICK -TOCK, TICK-TOCK”. With wetsuit finally off, I turn to my stuff and freeze like a deer in headlights. Nothing happens. Despite the organization, I have momentarily forgotten what to do next. It is excruciating; everything takes two or three extra movements. I want to cry. About a week passes before I am trotting uncertainly towards the bike exit. The ZONE just kicked my ass.
68KPH FEELS A LITTLE SQUIRMY
The bike feels weird. Something is off. That would be me. I have lost focus. I barely make the sharp 90 degree corner into the course proper. I force myself to ignore the bike’s “weird” feeling. With a personality that could be described as mildly OCD, this is not easy. The course progresses up a false grade – actually it feels like a 12 percent. We snake through a round-about and hit the first climb.
Actually the first climb hits me and many of my compatriots. Like a schoolyard bully, it pushes me down on my butt, points and laughs. My legs shake. They are afraid, already anticipating the horror to come. I have thus far ridden 2km or so – a tiny fraction of the total distance. Around me cyclists are crashing into the first (mild) climb like flotsam against cliffs in a stormy sea. We’re in it now. Several riders flow past our gaggle of the defeated at WARP 6 while we desperately spin in granny gears. Some are pumping madly out of the saddle, pushing harder gears up the hill, which I have since dubbed “Reality Check #1”. There are many other reality checks to come.
This is insane. All the times that I chose to not ride this spring flash through my mind. The bully stands there, arms crossed, jeering. I am not having any of this. I may be the tortoise, but I will at the very least be a dignified tortoise. This is a mental struggle. I am not experiencing any physical pain. It is all mental! This is NOT a hill; it is a beginning of hills and I am a good climber. I want to give everyone around me the same pep talk but that could mean collapsing a lung. I attempt to control my breathing. Cresting the hill, I shift gears and dig in, picking up speed. I am going to flow – perhaps only at 1/4 IMPULSE, but I WILL FLOW!
The rest of that first 10km is a dogged struggle between mind and matter. My calves are overworked. I shift positions to engage the thighs but they are no more cooperative. I notice, however, that I keep passing very strong looking athletes on the climbs. They invariably overtake me on the level sections and descents but my mind and body slowly arrive at the understanding that it is not so bad. By the time I start the main climb of Chemin Duplessis, I feel somewhat in control and start to have fun again.
The return leg is harrowing. Short, intense climbs are followed by the long descents. I push my bike to speeds hardly ever experienced, quickly finding the balance between speed and stability that prevents sudden death. It is exhilarating for about 30 seconds before the terror of statistical probability creeps in. I prefer grinding up hills than bombing down them. Still, I make up time (or so I feel).
At the turn around, I again see Long and Marlene. I come into the U-turn fast and nearly skid out, eliciting a collective gasp from the assembled crowd. Overconfidence and dumb-assery are my weaknesses sometimes.
The second leg of the 40K bike is a pleasure. Knowing the obstacles is half the battle and I am able to gear and climb even better. This is NOT to say that I am doing super well but I find myself in a little side-competition with several cyclists, which makes the time pass faster and pushes everyone harder. I believe that these unspoken challenges happen in races; it is a lot of fun to play a little head games, against imagined or real opponents – at least it is fun for me. The turn-around at kilometre 30 comes faster this time and the last series of climbs and descents take on new meaning as I am already thinking ahead to transition and run. Finishing a discipline brings joy – at not having to go through that again – and excitement – at realizing that I have actually done it.
WHY WOULD THE RUN COURSE AT TREMBLANT BE FLAT?
I cannot answer that question even now. I somehow assumed that since the bike is hilly, the run – along the lake – would be flat. I was partly correct: the run course is flatter than the bike course! I cruise on stiff-calved legs along the first part of the course feeling just fine. The race belt securing my race bib without the use of safety pins feels good as does the knowledge of having some sports gels along.
Seemingly out of nowhere, looms a long, steady climb. Runners all around me drop dead, beaten by this deception. I guess I wasn’t the only one. Three or four super-athletes, who have obviously accelerated to WARP 8.3, breeze past me. I will have none of this. While all this, real and imagined goes on in my head, I fail to realize that my body just leans into the slope and accelerates into it. Lungs don’t scream; legs don’t protest. I wake up out of my Armageddon reveries and realize I am alive and passing a steady line of panting, wheezing runners. Apparently, they do not like hills. I like hills.
Another convoy of Flash Gordons pass by. I spy the 6K marker. Remembering a disastrous mind-bend of years past, I ignore it. It is on the other side of the road. I will not be suckered this time. I weave in and out of traffic, adjusting gait, cadence with little effort. The only discomfort is on the descents, which I take great care negotiating as it was on a descent that I injured my knee, putting myself out of commission for two years. I don’t want this to happen now (or ever); I am enjoying the feeling of running too much.
Funnelling into a bike path the course narrows and leaves the road. Here and there, well-wishers have set up impromptu attractions: a woman and her daughter stand by cheering on the runners and offering a cool shower from a garden hose for any who wish it; further on, two guys are painting a particle board silhouette of a cow named the Triathlon Cow. It is silly, spirited fun. I notice that some athletes are running with vestiges of costumes – a too-too here; a sweatband with a pink Mohawk attached to it there. Going into the turn-around, there is a dude – fully kitted out in race gear – on a road bike, who coasts along a short section of the course giving out stats and encouragement to the runners. At first I think he’s a coach giving vital info to his competitive charges. I then realize it is completely random. He is just a fan, “coaching” whomever he feels needs it, or wants it. People come out of the woodwork to encourage and entertain. It is energizing.
Past the turn-around point is a long uphill grade that crests at the apex of the run course. At 6km, comes the downhill portion. I feel fine. I accelerate. I set my sights on runners ahead of me and reel them in. I am firmly in control of my race and yet, something stops me from going all out. At 8km, I begin thinking of the final parts of the race. I know there will be a climb and a descent. How tough these will be is unknown. The climb turns out to be steep, sloping up to the base of the ski hill. Undaunted (much) I keep at it, tapping into reserves. I want to finish strong and pass the guy 10m or so ahead. We pass the Quintessence Hotel and turn up toward the village main street. The climb steepens! I have had just about enough of hills today. I enjoyed them but now, at this point in the race, I just want to be done. It is less than 1km to the finish. It feels like three.
We squeeze into the main drag, tired feet slapping against flagstones, crowds lining each side of the narrow corridor. Up ahead is an orange arch. Could this be the finish line? No, it is a false finish line. Why in the hell is it there? I am so close to the dude I wanted to pass but he is just as determined as I am. A steep downhill leads us toward the real finish. Almost there; up the carpeted ramp, through the arch and down the other side!
About five seconds after I finish a volunteer slings a hefty finisher medal in the shape of a fleur-du-lys around my neck. I am done. It feels right. Long and Marlene are there congratulating me. We chat for a couple of minutes. My head spins a little from sensory overload. Sweat streams into my eyes. They instinctively understand and send me off to cool down and stretch, amidst warm goodbyes. It was special to have had them here, following me through the race. I am grateful. They mentioned I was smiling throughout the race! I am happy to have kept some outward composure! I go into the feed tent and load up on calories. As usual, friends and race buddies huddle together sharing their post-race impressions. I feel alone and yearn for this camaraderie. I guess it is always a little anti-climactic after a race. All the energy and effort is projected onto an eventual finish. Once done, it is done.
I gather my stuff and leave. In the morning, I avoided the shuttle bus and rode the 3K or so to the transition zone. Now, on post-race legs, I repeat the slightly uphill journey, feeling good about being under my own steam, free of crowded buses and sweaty bodies. Moreover, it can’t be bad for recovery! The glow is there, deep inside; a quiet pride and a ticker tape of analysis of how to improve. Some of the more serious reflection will come later. For now, I yearn for rest, good food and drink. Fortunately, I am staying in Ste-Agathe with my mother-in-law and her partner. The food there is good as is the company. I feel pretty damned blessed.
EPILOGUE: THE COMPLEXITY OF PASSION
More than a month has passed since Tremblant. It has taken me this long to write and edit this piece. With a few days left before my next race in Ottawa on August 1st, I find myself looking back on a month of relative inactivity, which has led me to bemoan my lack of motivation and discipline. I found myself wondering where my passion has gone and why I’ve fallen off the bandwagon. Naturally there is more than a little guilt here. I’ve talked about this lack of motivation with some at Saint Jude. Everyone seems understanding, supportive and above all, forgiving. With so many dedicated and passionate people at Saint-Jude, from whom I have drawn much inspiration, I feel that my laziness is almost a disservice to our growing community.
Passion is a powerful force with tremendously destructive potential. That which can lift so high when the routine is strong can also violently undermine one’s efforts when discipline and motivation wane. For some, passion fuels and informs discipline; it is in the consistency of routine that some find themselves at their best. Japanese author (and multiple marathoner and triathlete) Haruki Murakami’s recent book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running perfectly epitomizes this inner discipline that forms a fruitful and long-lasting routine. I have always admired – and to a certain extent, envied – such individuals because I find these qualities so lacking in myself. For me passion burns bright and hot. Precisely for this reason, it burns quickly too.
Discipline has been a lifelong struggle. From an early age, my system rejected discipline as if it were some kind of pathogen. I often go to extremes in avoiding routine, preferring always the short-term intensity of an all-consuming focus with fallow periods in between. Somehow, this feels wrong. This feeling has haunted me since Tremblant and skewed my preparation for Ottawa this weekend.
Is this actually wrong? Of course it isn’t, though it makes it more difficult to stay on track. Discipline is a tough road and passion is a very important spark that moves us to action. Therefore for any out there who have struggled with discipline and motivation, remember to be kind to yourselves and try to understand what fuels your efforts and where your passion fits in. Set realistic goals and remind yourselves more often why you like what you do. Write a journal; capture the joys and defeats of your experiences and let these be a reminder when things get tough and complicated.
Most importantly, do not be glib — as I often can be — about your progress or your success. When others in your community express admiration or respect for your efforts or results, allow yourselves to feel good about it. This is hardly a call for arrogance; rather, it is a reminder to be proud of and draw inspiration from those moments when you feel you’ve surpassed yourselves. To be a first time 5K or 10K finisher — even amidst a gaggle of seasoned marathoners — is an achievement and, ultimately only you know how much went into crossing that finish line. Similarly, to make it to the gym twice a week while juggling professional and family demands is just as big an achievement. Always, you should be the measure of your own success.
I don’t know how much my month of laziness will cost me. Right now, I don’t care because I am once again excited to enter that atmosphere and to race against my own clock. This time, I am not holding back. Thanks for your help!