Forging Iron in a Canadian Furnace

“Tonight, now I see old friends
Caught in a game they’ve got no chance to win
Gettin’ beat and then playin’ again
‘Till their strength gives out or their heart gives in;

 

Now who’s the man who thinks he can decide
Whose dreams will live and whose shall be pushed aside
Has he ever walked down these streets at night
And looked into the eyes of…

 

None baby but the brave
No one baby but the brave…”

These lyrics cry out a question. If a game, or life, is always stacked against you, which to some varying degree, it is, then how do you figure out the way forward to give yourself a chance of achieving something worthwhile? Regardless of personal circumstance, this question remains, and remains universal. The answer is there, too. None but the courageous, will have a chance to do so. But it’s not always initiating movement towards something meaningful which proves to be the toughest and most testing part of a particular task at hand – it’s having the courage to see it through, when the lure of the voice questioning its necessity becomes too strong. At what point does any overly ambitious, quasi-reckless idea turn into something worth continuing to pursue? Or any idea for that matter. Necessity often takes this consideration out of our hands for many mundane yet essential tasks, but for the ones where the reward could be far greater, it’s often all too present and will always be so.

So, triathlon. This wasn’t something that was ever meant to happen. I accept no responsibility but remain fully accountable. It required both a drastic mental and physical transition. Yet to capture and retain the drive to complete a goal, you must, above all else, want to attain the result. Before any enjoyment of the journey to achievement, you must want to achieve. This was where my personal battle was fought throughout the year of my life that I set aside to train for the Ironman Canada; and all from the solid base of no endurance sport experience. This overriding question of justifying the value of an acquisition, with all the investment involved, was present throughout the injuries, the big training days, winter’s neuron-eroding pool swimming and the cartilage-compressing 20-30km runs. Still, I didn’t ever lose that desire to attain, and so kept pushing along, even though it often felt like I was getting pushed back harder.

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As an obstacle, the stress on the body was the most debilitating part of my journey. I mentioned in my previous article, how precarious my lower back had initially been, which then progressed into hip flexors that became so deeply locked up, riding the bike became a painful chore, and it was only a matter of time at the start of each ride as to when I’d need to stretch out. And yet this was meant to be my insurance policy for the whole deal. Screw up on the swim, together with no long distance running background, and the bike would be a safety net with little risk of tearing. Come race day, this had not been, and was not the case. Despite having spent as much on treatment as I had on the bike itself, and having done all I could to self-manage, and with the onset of deep arch pain when running, this was my biggest concern in the build-up.

After winter, the general burden of the training was made more tolerable with the physically and psychologically healing properties of early morning lake swimming, as well as trail running. Becoming comfortable in open water is a hurdle that only repeated exposure can overcome. In early June, with a water temperature of 16 degrees, the initial shock to the body is a brutal reminder that the security and familiarity of the pool isn’t to be relied upon. You must learn to embrace the cold and learn to breathe again; to regularly sight ahead even when you think you’re heading straight; and become accustomed to treading water. Come July, the lake was hitting 20 degrees, and so with the mountains as a backdrop, and a winter’s worth of training behind you, the confidence started to emerge from below the surface.

But by gradually increasing the weekly distances up to 6-7km on the water, 250-300km on the bike and 40-45km on the trails, my endurance capacity increased but so did the cumulative impact on the body. Treading that optimal line of maximising performance potential and mitigating injury risk, was the biggest challenge one must face in arriving in the best shape for the big day. So you muddle through.

Race Day

A forecast of 23 degrees and overcast had been sweet music twelve days before. In Whistler, if you don’t like the weather, you wait five minutes. The reverse applies to predictions. And so a linear trend set in. As the days counted down, the heat ramped up. One day equals one degree, or at least it did come the 29th. And as the Universe consists of patterns, it’s the trend that counts. And the music stopped…

35 plus, the hottest day of the year, and everything changes. It made for a perfect Alta Lake, with a water temperature of 22.5 degrees at 6am and no wind. I lined up at the self-seeded start line at the 1 hour & 20 minute mark, which 80 minutes later, proved accurate. My first taste of swimming in a mass crowd, and the two laps were as smooth as the Lake itself. But cometh the hour, cometh the bike.

I had prepared my nutrition with the extreme conditions in mind and so had included what I anticipated to be enough salt tablets for six hours… say fifteen. So, together with at least an hourly bottle of Gatorade, energy waffles and a gel or two, that should be enough to replace at least most of the lost salt. This proved to be a grotesque underestimation of what that kind of heat can do. Within half an hour in the aero-bar position, my hip and back issues were kicking in and locking up, and so I attempted any body manoeuvre possible to relieve and stretch them whilst trying to maintain a decent speed. For a period of time, this did something. But the furnace only ramped up, and after three hours of riding, my right thigh muscles were severely cramping. The left then decided to join it within the hour. In none of the training rides had this happened. With a road surface temperature hitting 56 degrees and running rapidly out of salt pills, I tried to take in as many electrolytes as possible. Come the final lap of the ride, I got off the bike three times to attempt to stretch out, but that only aggravated the spasms – the antagonist and agonist working agonisingly against each other in most painful sense. I could literally do nothing but ride.

Over seven hours later but not a moment too soon, I ditched the bike for some runners. Transition time came and went in a 13-minute-long instant, which dug into the clock but provided the chance to regain some comfort. But once cramped up, it was not going anywhere, and therefore hardly were you. And so, after beginning the marathon with a steady run, that very quickly evolved into a walk-run project and a personal quest to conquer the mind. After a 3-hour half marathon, my feet pain meant that even walking provided no guarantees, and the goal then simply became to keep moving forward. The support from one or two local friends and family made the final three hours if not entirely possible, then at least an amount more tolerable of which I cannot quantify – that’s as specific as I can, or maybe even want to be about my recollection of the final 20km.

I crossed the finish line just after 10pm – 15 hours and 50 minutes since entering the water. The atmosphere contained an electricity that had medicinal properties, as it provided a spark that allowed me to run the final few minutes. I then had an hour and a half in the medical tent to contemplate why I’d done so… or how I’d been able to.

A day of such extreme physical and mental exertion isn’t summed up by achieving any goal or crossing any line, but by the stories that remain with you. There was a level of camaraderie and mutual respect and compassion that was prevalent and almost unbelievable, amongst those you’re competing alongside – over two thousand people doing what they can to get to that line, in the most arduous of conditions. On the final lap of the ride, whilst pulled up in debilitating discomfort and with no salt pills remaining, one guy stopped his personal race and offered me two of his. That takes a true Ironman, and the day was full of men and women with the same concern for the rider in front.

The only regret that I leave behind, aside from a lack of salts, is that I couldn’t have enjoyed more of it, but for the pain. Yet my personal support, present throughout my journey and, more than ever, on the day itself, made it one to remember and on reflection, it’s gifted me far more than what I invested in. It’s the intangible nature of such a return that has made my Ironman journey a truly rewarding experience.

“…who’s strong enough to save
Something from the love they gave”

None But the Brave – B. Springsteen, 1983

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