Going Back To Triathlon: A Story.
When I left the sport of motocross for a stint, I meandered my way through several other sports before landing squarely in triathlon for the better part of a decade. I competed in more than 100 events and then suddenly hung it all up. My last event was the Whistler Triathlon in September of 1998. Yes, that means I've been away from the sport for 14 years. This is the story of what happened this past summer and why I found myself charging into the open water with several hundred of my closest friends.
I’m not sure when it all happened, I just know that the result of this decision would put me in a position I haven’t been in for almost sixteen years. You see, back in 1990 I did my first ‘multi-sport’ event. I had raced motocross for the better part of the 1980s and when I finally ‘hung up my muddy boots’ I got into beach volleyball. While I was traveling around hanging out at beaches throughout Ontario, my father had gotten into this strange sport that saw him getting very fit while riding really impressive equipment. The more I watched my dad enjoy the competition—and get more and more physically fit—the more I started paying attention to the sport of triathlon.
It started out the same way it does for everyone: you enter your first race with the simple goal of making it to the finish line. Well, what happens next is that you say to yourself, “Ya know, with a little bit of training, I could probably do a lot better.” Bam! You’re in up to your eyeballs.
What happened next is a blur, but I managed to take the sport to the Olympic Distance World Championships and to the Hawaii Ironman World Championships a couple of times. That’s how a lot of sports addictions happen, I believe—they begin as a challenge or a fascination and evolve into full-blown obsessions. I always tell people who use cycling as training for motocross, “I guarantee you that you start out doing it as cross-training, but it will turn into your main sport, eventually.” I’ve seen it happen many, many times. (I’m looking at you, Heidi Cooke and Tyler Medaglia!)
Ok, getting back to my story…
At the beginning of the summer, I contacted Scott Canada and the great folks over at Mica Sport Canada with another one of my many hair-brained ideas. This time, I wondered if, in exchange for media coverage etc., they would consider lending me a cheap-but-decent demo bike for the summer as I criss-cross the country. We went back and forth a couple times and, in the end, they were sending me a $5400 Scott Addict R15 road-racing bike! Considering I hadn’t had a new bike since 1992, this was going to be a huge step up.
None of this is the bikes fault!
When I received this full-carbon work of art, I decided to do something I never thought I’d do again—I shaved my legs to look the part. Hell, if Scott was going to give me the use of this beauty for the summer, I could at least look like I was an actual cyclist. It was a small price to pay, but I will add this: It is 100% impossible for a grown man to look cool as he shaves his legs. Seriously, don’t even kid yourself, it looks ridiculous.
Anyway, the more I rode this thing, the more I got the bug. I was really enjoying cycling again! When I decided that I would check the triathlon schedule to see if there was anything during the time off between the Ste. Julie and Riverglade rounds, I was surprised at what I found. Back in the day, the Northern Triathlon Weekend was my favourite race of the year. It took place on Lake Couchaching in Orillia, ON and, wouldn’t you know it, it was July 29th this year. There are two things perfect about this date: 1) It was the weekend between the two nationals and 2) It was basically in the town where my parents have recently retired.
I don’t think my parents have missed more than three of the races I’ve ever done. Seriously, we were and are a tight-knit family. I actually have almost every triathlon I’ve ever done on video. It was settled, I’d train hard and get ready for the Orillia Triathlon.
The other thing I should add is that the last time I’d done this particular race was in 1996. Yes, that’s 16 years ago! The other thing that had me a little leery is that back in 1996 I won my age-group. I tried hard to tell myself that how I did wasn’t important, but, truth-be-told, I was looking to do pretty well.
After a great early summer of training, the time was drawing near to actually ‘toe the line’ and get into this competition. “No big deal, I’ve probably done over 100 multi-event races, so this should be old hat,” I assured myself.
When the morning of the race came, I was ready. I’d put in the miles on the bike and in my running shoes. I hadn’t been able to swim in over two months, but this was only a 750 metre swim and I figured I could do that in my sleep. Well, it turns out I have gained about 25 pounds since I used to do this competitively. More on that in a minute...The distances were: 750m swim, 33km bike, and a 7km run. Enough distances to make training very important, but short enough to still be fun.
The morning was sunny and hot and I’ve always enjoyed racing in those conditions. I grabbed my race package and headed to the transition zone to get my area ready for a quick enter/exit. I normally wouldn’t waste time putting on socks for such a short distance, but since I really wasn’t overly concerned about winning the thing, I planned on taking the necessary time to make this race hurt as little as possible—I’ve bled through my fair share of racing shoes, I my day.
I wandered over to get my legs and arms marked with my age and number (Wow, I’m that old?!). I then went back to my bike and placed everything in their specific spots: helmet open on the aero bars with glasses set for quick placement, cycling shoes on the outside of my little towel with my running shoes neatly in behind them, number affixed to the number belt for easy put on, shorts to throw on after the bike (so as not to run in only my cycling shorts with overly large chamois in them), and socks placed neatly over my cycling shoes to put on after the swim.
As I headed down to the shore in preparation for the sound of the horn that signals the mass start, I repeatedly told myself to relax and just enjoy the morning. HONNNNKK! The horn sounded and off I rushed into the water, ‘porpoising’ until I hit the deeper water. Again, I told myself to relax and just ease into the swim, remembering my lack of swim time leading to the event. To my amazement, as I looked around when I got to the first marker buoy, I was well out in front! Interesting, I thought. I was going at a nice, easy pace and I was out front. Perfect.
What happened next falls into the category of ‘do as I say, not as I do.’ I had gone for a very short swim a couple days before race day at my parents’ beach on the lake in very choppy conditions in my swimming wetsuit. It was so rough that I only did a few strokes and concluded everything was fine. Well, this brings us back to the point I made earlier about being heavier than I was last time I used this wetsuit.
It tuned out that every time I was taking a breath as I swam, absolutely no air was getting in because the wetsuit was basically putting me in a ‘sleeper hold’ every time I turned my head to the side. This was bad. Upon this realization, I also noticed I was losing all feeling in my arms and hands. Hmm, what was my next move? I pulled off to the side and began to tread water while unzipping my suit. Great, this just went from trying to be fairly competitive to a matter of simple survival!
As I relieved the pressure from my jugular vein, oxygen began getting where it was supposed to and I felt myself starting to relax a little. Of course, a girl had now paddled over on her paddle board to make sure I was ok. I told her my story (as briefly as I could) and she paddled away after assuring me she’d keep an eye on me. The competitor in me wanted to get into a long story about how many of these races I’d done and blah, blah, blah, but I managed to resist that urge and began to try to make my way slowly back toward the shore.
The effects of no oxygen to my brain or body took a while to shake as I back-stroked and breast-stroked my way to the back of the field. Part of me (that pesky competitor part again) wanted to just call it a day for fear of looking foolish after such a bad swim was sure to handicap the rest of my race. I managed to fight off that demon and told myself to just finish the swim so I could get on my Scott bike and slowly pass the field and get back into contention.
As I ran for my bike, I looked up at the race clock and confirmed that my swim had been as bad as I had feared—I was in the water 5 minutes longer than I should have been. No big deal, “Get to your bike and start hammering,” is what I told myself.
I took the time to sit down and put on my socks and cycling shoes (back in the day, my shoes would have already been attached to the pedals and socks would have just been a waste of time), latched my helmet, put on my glasses, and ran for the bike start. “Ok, here we go,” I told myself. “Get into your aero position and start clicking off passes.“
I made it to the top of the first hill and prepared for blast-off as we cycled along the Highway 11 frontage road. Down onto my borrowed clip-on aero bars I went, grabbed the big chain ring, and started to crank. SPROINNNGGGG! There goes my lower back. Dammit, now what?! I tried to stay low and push through the pain, but it was just no use—I was not going to be able to stay on the aero bars. I couldn’t even ride comfortably on the brake hoods. I was forced to alternately touch the left then right side of the handlebars with one hand and stretch out my lower back. It was all I could do to not pull over and do a full-on stretching routine!
Instead of flying past countless racers who had no business being ahead of me after the swim, it was now time for the rest of the entrants to slowly leave me in their dust on the roads. Wow, I was disheartened. Again, I had that familiar talk with myself about what my next move was: Do I wave down an official and take the embarrassing car ride back to the transition area or do I tough it out and just get to the finish line no matter what? I chose to keep going. There’s an old saying that says, “If you quit once, it gets easier” and I did not want quitting to start getting easier.
If you’re wondering why my back went out on me like this after doing lots of cycling throughout the summer, it’s because I failed to do any training in the aero position on the clip-on bars. Yes, for those of you scoring at home, that’s my second basic error made. It takes your body a while to get used to being in that position and pushing hard with your legs for extended periods of time. I knew that and yet failed to fulfill that pre-race requirement.
So there I was, working my way even farther back in the field in the one event of the three I was confident I was somewhat prepared for. As the ride progressed, and I found myself wheel-to-wheel with those of a much more ‘advanced’ age, I began to simply laugh and continued to think of the experience as yet another in a long list of memories. I started looking around at all the nice farm land we were passing and also began looking at some of the amazing cycling equipment that was slowly leaving me behind. Once you decide you are not going to be setting any personal bests, you start considering whether or not you are closing in on a personal worst.
I had a long way to go to topple that feat! I once did a race that I don’t remember finishing and woke up to medics dunking me underwater in a canoe filled with ice water—true story. I’ll save that one for anyone who has a few free minutes and wants to know what ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’ feels like. To sum it up here, I thought I was about to be carted off to psych hospital for the rest of my life; it was that bad.
Getting back to my current predicament, I was sure I could run the remaining 7 kilometres and not end up risking my life, so on I pressed. As I got to the end of the bike segment, I saw my parents and felt the need to speed talk my way through an explanation as to why I was so far back. They are my parents, so they listened with interest; it falls into their job description. With all of my excuses out of the way, I plodded off onto the run course in the now-sweltering heat and direct sun.
The run course is actually pretty nice as it runs alongside the lake on an out-and-back route. As I was still a long way from the turn-a-round, I started recognizing the racers who had passed me fairly early during the bike ride and couldn’t help but place myself somewhere up in front of them, if only in my ‘perfect scenario’ scenario.
I told myself to just keep heading forward and to not worry about my pace, as the race was a write-off, and I now focussed on ‘finishing with some dignity,’ as my old, two-time Olympic marathoner buddy used to always say. I actually had a very enjoyable run and struck up a conversation with several competitors who were back there with me.
In the end, I crossed the finish line in 81st place out of 286 (or something). That put me 14th (out of 46) in my age group. It may not sound that bad, but considering I was in the Elite field the last time I’d done this event, it isn’t a result that I will talk about without any self-deprecation, that’s for sure. On a positive note, I was the first person wearing shorts!
The great thing about these events is the post-race food. They are always sponsored by some grocery chain or another and put on a pretty good feast. To be honest, the thought of the food was another element that kept me moving forward in an otherwise pointless morning’s work.
As we loaded up the car and prepared to head back to my folks’ place in Lagoon City, we began going over the race and what I’d done wrong and how easily most of the mistakes could have been avoided. I started out this summer with a reluctant promise to do one triathlon ‘for old times’ sake’ and, after a horrible event like I’d just gone through, the only thing I could say was, “Well, it looks like I have to do another one!” You see, that’s exactly how these things happen, whether it’s your 1st event or your 101st.
See you at the races…
Note: I know that most, if not all, motocrossers use cycling and/or running as cross-training. If you ever feel like putting the two events together (and including swimming), I suggest you go for it. It's a great way to get, and stay, fit as you prepare for a long summer of moto. Heck, what's the worst that could happen? You have a terrible race, tell the story, and line up for another one!