I haven’t run a real race since the Longest Day 5K of June 2019. Yet I still like to challenge myself, and every summer since 2013, I’ve insisted on completing my own mini-triathlon course, starting in downtown Port Moody. I ride up to Sasamat Lake (8K) and run the 3K trail around the lake, followed by a swim triangle of about 500m, finishing with the ride back to Port Moody.
My only competitor is myself—but I’m a tough cookie! As a senior athlete, part of this exercise is documenting the physical decline that inevitably occurs. But more importantly, I’m celebrating what I can still do! I recognize that my expectations of myself have changed. Also, I can recognize that my own drive to excel still exists: on the one day each summer I choose to do my triathlon, I will do this ride faster than the countless other times I’ve ridden to the lake this year. I’ll do my swim faster, and I’ll complete a run that I don’t do otherwise because its small hills and many steps are rough on my arthritic knee.
I’ll never forget this summer—the summer of the Heat Dome. In late June, we experienced record-breaking heat for several days, with highs of up to 41ᵒ C in the Vancouver area. Lytton got up to 47ᵒ C and then burned in a fire that took away 90% of the town. Hundreds of forest fires are raging in BC’s Interior, with states of emergency in many places. Smoke is heavy and air quality is terrible in many parts of the Interior.
But here in Vancouver, the whole month of July has been a summer paradise, with seemingly endless hot, golden days. I’ve been able to swim almost every day at Sasamat Lake. I don’t do workouts there, like the real triathletes do. I just want to cool off and enjoy myself. That means spending 10-15 minutes in the water, including some vigorous swimming, but also some easy breaststroke when I’m just taking in the beauty all around me, or lying on my back, kicking and knowing how good the cool lake water is for tired leg muscles.
My bike course to Sasamat Lake is kind of goofy because I refuse to ride the route that most cyclists take—busy, narrow Ioco Road. Too many cars. Plus, I don’t want any traffic lights interfering with my time! So I take the bike path and Alderside Road to Ioco. This means the cycling portions of my triathlon can be influenced by runners, walkers, dogs, and other cyclists on the bike path. The bike path is also degenerating year by year as tree roots assert their primacy over the asphalt, so it’s a super bumpy ride in places. That’s fine, my mountain bike has shock absorbers. It’s not built for speed.
Once on Alderside, I never know what construction projects might be underway on this ocean-facing street where most of the houses have their own private docks. So during my triathlon, I face the contradictory challenges of trying to ride fast without killing any pedestrians or being hit by a car or a giant construction vehicle. Oh, and a few days ago I was racing a train to the railway crossing at the end of Alderside!
My partner Keith is an essential part of my triathlon every year. He’s my photographer. He cheers for me and shares my excitement. This year, Keith wanted to support me again, although we knew it would be difficult for him. For about three months he’s had an extremely painful knee (diagnosis still unknown), and even walking is a struggle. We knew he wouldn’t be able to stop as many places on the route as usual, and his walk down from the parking lot to the beach at Sasamat Lake would be slow. But you’ll see he got awesome photos anyway!
This year the Olympics made my triathlon especially memorable. Friday morning CBC was live with the second day of track coverage. I had just finished an editing job and now I had lots of free time to watch. I got psyched up for my triathlon by watching the men’s 10,000m final! I was pretty choked up seeing Canadian Moh Ahmed run so bravely (front-running with 700m to go) and finishing 6th in the world.
It was yet another perfect hot day and I was ready to ride at 8:00 a.m. I pushed hard; my legs felt weak on the big hill going up to the lake; I flew into my picnic table destination at North Beach and stopped one of my watches. My time was OK; best of the year, but how would it compare with previous years? Slow, I thought. I would see later.
I quickly took my cycling gear off and shed my singlet.
Off into the trail. I was hot but running mostly in the shade was fine. How would my knee and hamstring hold up? I expected my run to be very slow this year. I had barely run at all for two months because of my hamstring insertion injury. I felt a little cramping in my left leg while negotiating the steep little hill in the first kilometre, but it eased as I started getting some small downhills.
Other than being awkward on the many stairs on the route, which are hard on my knee, I felt good and was able to put on some speed near the end as I ran across the two beaches to the finish.
Now, time to cool off!
I was surprised how tired my arms felt on the swim. Then I remembered: Yeah, it’s always this way when I swim after cycling. And why did I do that tough upper body workout at the gym yesterday? Nevertheless, I was confident my tired arms could power through the swim without a break: I had a solid month of swims behind me. When I stopped my watch at the beach, I saw my time was good—but how good, compared to other years? I would know later.
My swim-to-bike transition was not done like a pro’s. I was enjoying the feel of the sun on my slightly-chilled body as I chatted with some women at a nearby picnic table. Unhurriedly, I put on my gear for the ride back.
Once again I thought I “sucked on the uphills” as I slowly rode up from the beach and up out of the park. Then I had the joy of flying down the big hill. I was expecting another injection of speed as I made the turn from Ioco down to Alderside and then—damn! Instead of flying down that hill, I had to brake hard as two construction vehicles were blocking my way! I carefully rode by one truck, but then I was stuck behind a very slow dump truck and there was no room to pass on either side. I rode behind, hoping the truck would pull to one side enough to let me pass, but no. After a minute or so, I decided to go back to the start of Alderside and redo that portion at a faster speed. My Garmin could tell me later how much time that extra part had cost me.
True, the dump-truck incident gave me a bit of rest, and I gritted my teeth and powered as hard as I could for the remaining 3K of the ride. I could see Keith with his camera as I flew towards my finishing mark on the bike path!
After the finish, even before I examined my times and compared them with my times from past years, I was filled with gratefulness simply for being able to complete my little athletic test once again. Neither my bad knee nor my hamstring were hurting! Now it was time to relax with an iced vanilla creme cold brew from Starbucks and watch the REAL athletes in action! What a high, indulgent day I had.
I did look at my results unflichingly, though—and was pleasantly surprised by what Garmin told me.
Stage 1: Bike up. Only 2 seconds slower than last year, despite my thinking my time was slow! (Actually the big gap was between 2019 and 2020, when I did slow down significantly.) Best-ever time was in 2015.
Stage 2: Run. Almost a minute slower than last year—but this was still better than I expected. Best-ever time was in 2014.
Stage 3: Swim. My PB for the course—by 3 seconds!
Stage 4: Bike back. This time was a guesstimate because of my dump truck encounter, but it was ~ 20 seconds slower than last year. Best-ever time was in 2014.
The Covid-19 Olympics—emerging from the shadow
My mini-triathlon 2021 is part of one of my favourite summers of all time. The heat and the Olympics bring back so many memories of other hot summers. When I was at the Olympics in 1988, I remember thinking how surreal it was to be part of the athletes’ village and the competition stadium, self-contained worlds that were not part of “normal“ life, yet completely dominated those of us who were involved for those intense two or three weeks. During that time we narrowed our focus to that surreal experience: it would shape the rest of our lives.
I have the same sensation of surreality about these 2021 Olympic Games. There was so much controversy about whether they would or should happen at all. Yet they have been an astonishing success. The organization is superb; the theatricality impressive; the announcers are top-notch. They can hardly contain their enthusiasm for the performances they are witnessing. But it’s the athletes. These are only Games, after all—yet these supermen and superwomen are doing something important. This is a celebration of health and spirit after so much sickness, death, and anxiety, our world’s being turned upside down. Not only are we seeing human beings at the absolute pinnacle of physical performance and beauty, but they are sharing their emotions with us so freely! I think we had forgotten just how moving and entertaining the Olympics could be.
Maybe we had even forgotten that the physical, mental, and emotional strength of the world’s best athletes is a metaphor for the excellence that human beings can display in any arena. Covid-19 is not over. Climate change is here. Fires are raging. Let us take hope from these Covid-shadowed Olympics to believe that our species can solve our real-world challenges after these surreal Games are over.