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A GranFondo Retrospective. Try It, You’ll Like It.

September 23, 2011 5 comments

The beginning to a long day

My first hitch of the day was applying sunscreen to my arms, and then trying to roll up my arm warmers. The forecast for the day was hot: yet leaving my house by the light of the moon and riding to the start of the GranFondo required warmth, thus the sunscreen/arm warmer combination. The two don’t mingle, it turns out, and I think all of my sunscreen was scraped off by the time my arm warmers were in place.

These are the things you just can’t plan for, but they always make race days memorable.

I left my house at 5:45 am to ride the 10 kilometers to the start (in effect making it a 132 km event, since my mind did record every kilometer we passed), when the second hitch struck. There are no streetlights on my road, and I couldn’t see a thing. I gingerly glided down the hill in the dark, hoping I didn’t spill before I even got to the starting line.

Once down on the well-illuminated main road, I was immediately caught up in a cheerfully growing peloton making their way over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, to the start of the race on Georgia Street. Thus began the camaraderie – I knew no one, but felt a common bond. For those who don’t do these races, this a big part of why we do them.

A full hour before the race, thousands of riders were already in place for the start. It was a sea of spandex and rubber, so I had to text to find my friend. Once in place, we watched the circus unfolding around us. Finally at 7:00 am, Barney Bentall and Jim Cuddie sang our national anthem, and then hopped on their bikes for the 122 km ride to Whistler. I know, cool, right?

This beginning section was what I feared most: bikes everywhere in a narrow corrider, unclipping from my pedals hundreds of times until we got some space between us to ride freely. But my fears were unfounded: race organizers did a bang up job and it went off without a hitch. We were on our way.

Riding through West Vancouver was so much fun – it was thrilling to have our own lane on the highway, and spectators huddled on overpasses and along the exits to cheer on riders. I was so relieved to be actually on my bike and upright after the start, I felt rather invincible.

That wouldn’t last long however: shortly after Horseshoe Bay riders were off their bikes and motioning for us to slow down. A rider had crashed and looked badly injured, medics were already on the scene. One look at the accident and I lost my mojo, slowing considerably for a while after. A split second can change everything.

View from Horseshoe Bay (taken on another day)

I had lost my friend but found her again as we rode up the Furry Creek hill. We decided to stop at the next rest stop in Britannia Beach and grab some food. The rest stops were somewhat of a party, with hundreds of bikers milling about and always familiar faces. It was nice to get off that seat, if only for a couple of minutes. We refueled and hit the road; it was literally all uphill from here: the biggest increase in elevation occurs between Squamish and Whistler. I had ridden to Squamish and back in training, but didn’t have much knowledge of the road from that point on.

It is drastically different when driving.

As luck would have it it was getting hot as we started the uphill slog after Squamish. I noticed lots of riders beginning to slow down, and could see the distance was taking its toll. My knee was starting to throb, and getting up out of my seat was painful. I kept my head down and hoped the pain would subside eventually, since I otherwise felt fine, if a tad tired.

I pulled into the rest stop at the Salt Shed, with about 30 kilometers to go. Thankfully the medical tent was even closer than the water station. I walked in and asked, “What do you have for pain?” One volunteer sat me down and started rubbing what I hoped was miracle cream on my knee, while another got me Advil and refilled my water bottles. As this was happening two other riders came in asking the million dollar question, “What do you have for pain?”

With 30 kilometers to go, I was fairly certain I could finish, even if I had to pedal with only my left foot. But eventually either the Advil kicked in or the cream started to work, and I felt better. This was fortuitous because this is where the killer hills lurked. The sun was beating down on the asphalt and reeking havoc with tired riders. Many were pulled over during the last fifteen kilometers trying to stretch out muscle cramps, while others were losing their lunch. I focused on the road in front of me and counted down the distance; the kilometers at this point passing almost intolerably slowly.

I like to think I was passing this car...

Finally we were at Function Junction, and the tree cover provided a break from the unrelenting sun. The undulating hills that brought us in to the village were much kinder than the previous steep climbs, and of course there was the knowledge that the finish was near. Things were getting better.

Riding the last couple of turns were actually pleasurable – despite the pain running through my body, from a sore neck to an incredibly sore butt – knowing the race was behind me, the finish line in sight, and a beer would taste incredibly good soon.

Sitting on the grass later that evening, listening to 5440 play an outdoor concert as the sun fell behind Blackcomb mountain, it was hard to argue this was not an amazing event. I had been nervous about making the jump to road riding, but was euphoric I had done it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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For GranFondo Virgins, Myself Among Them

September 9, 2011 4 comments

If you plan on heading to Whistler this weekend, pump up your tires and join the crowd: you will be served better by two wheels than four. The RBC GranFondo is in town. If your Italian is rusty, GranFondo translated means long race, massive pain. The upside is that cyclists will have their very own precious northbound lane along the Sea to Sky corrider from early morning until late afternoon.

For this special day, cyclists will not have to choke on exhaust. They will not be forced onto the gravel shoulder of a road by cars insistent on hugging the white line. They will be able to enjoy the breathtaking views in their peripheral vision without the distracting roar of engines.

Combine these attractions with the aging demographic, who find cycling easier on the joints if hard on the pocketbook, and you get 4000 participants in last year’s inaugural event. A huge turnout by any race standard. This year the event has almost doubled in size – it sold out in April to 7000 riders.

And yes, I’m one of them.

I have logged hundreds of miles, much of them uphill, in preparation. I’ve gone from shakily practicing those damn toe clips in my driveway to manouvering skillfully through intersections. I’ve only fallen once this summer (and that was down stairs without my bike). I feel ready for this challenge – but for one caveat.

I’m used to avoiding hulking weapons of steel, otherwise known as cars, on my rides, but what about the 6,999 other cyclists? I’ve ridden with the occasional friend in my training, but it’s hard to practice riding in a pack without, well, a pack.

So I’ve been busily interviewing every cyclist I know and Googling the hell out of “Tips for cycling races.” The best advice I’ve had so far has been from my friend and uber-athlete, Chrissie, who told me NEVER, in any circumstances, take your eyes off the road. This may seem obvious, but I frequently shoulder check while I ride, which entails taking my eyes off the road for a millisecond. This is a no-no. I am to use my peripheral vision to shoulder check.

Eyes front.

The other thing she told me was to not watch the wheel of the rider in front of me, but rather look through them at the level of their hips, in order to see the road in front of that rider (as best you can without possessing x-ray vision).

So eyes front and slightly raised.

But what about all of those obstacles that we swerve to avoid, like broken glass and large potholes? Cyclists that I know will point these out with a wave of their hand if they are in front of me. If I’m alone however, I sometimes don’t see them until the last second. The answer, according to bloggers, is to slowly and steadily steer around these obstacles, with the emphasis on slowly and steadily. If you see it too late, and if it’s not big enough to swallow you and your bike whole, then ride through it rather than swerve and risk the rider behind you crashing into you.

Once again, the message here is eyes front. I’m getting it.

So it goes without saying when reaching for water bottles or fuel, do it without taking your eyes off of the road. My friend caught grief from riders in the Napa GranFondo when she inadvertently dropped her water bottle. Of course it was a mistake, but one that could have had consequences. I’m planning on not touching my bottles until well out of the pack.

Eyes front, steady hands.

Of course there are other niggling worries for the 120 km ride: proper nutrition and hydration, fatigue, my incessantly complaining ass. But they all pale in comparison to staying upright through the thickest of things. My biggest challenge will be to remain focused on the road in front of me, even if the rider beside me is naked.

Eyes front, smiling permitted.

Grief, Considered

July 5, 2011 8 comments

This night we danced

Grief is radically different when viewed from arms length. I read about it everyday in the news, it is almost as benign as the weather. I easily gloss over its bottomless depths when it applies to others.

Or I might begin to imagine what it could feel like, shudder, and then continue reading. Or perhaps skip to a different article altogether.

This one I can’t skip. Grief now covers my life in the same way as a heavy snowstorm can alter a landscape. Normalcy is buried far below the ground cover, and you don’t know where to begin to shovel.

The new normal is far less colorful, far less welcoming. Better to dwell in the subconscious of sleep.

The feverish hope we had been clinging to each day and night has been replaced, leaving in its place a cold grief. An unending sorrow.

Physically, this grief manifests as a faint feeling of nausea, 24-7, mixed with lethargy. You realize you need to eat, just to keep moving, but whatever you’re eating tastes like leather. It’s pure sustenance, nothing else.

Limbs that dove into exercise, previously, are hard to coax into action. The energy required to move them could be better put to use – just remembering. Remembering a recent past that was subtly different.

A time when someone was okay, that now is not.

Grief, I’m realizing, is really a mixture of sadness and anguish. Sadness because you miss this person, and would do anything to have them back, just for one more second, but preferably until you die first.

Anguish because we live in a world where extremely wonderful, physically superior, morally impeccable and outright supreme beings can be extinguished by disease, although they have lived their lives so carefully.

And yet so many others live on, careless to their humanity.

It seems so unfair. So unjust.

Rightly or wrongly I am furious at the medical community who didn’t know anything about his cancer, a sarcoma so out of the limelight that it receives no funding, no benefits of research.

Although he was accepting and gracious with the outcome, the one we feared most and could barely turn our minds to, I am not. I can’t stop thinking about the what if’s and the if only’s, desperate to piece together a different ending.

At this juncture, I remind myself that this has happened to countless others throughout existence, to mothers, fathers, lovers, friends, sons, daughters, friends, brothers, sisters.

Others, too, have been taken from this world far too soon.

But this, this is personal. This grief is a permafrost.

We can’t choose our family. But being his sister was fate’s greatest gift.

A New Star in the Sky

June 9, 2011 4 comments

Look out, there will be carnage.

We are hurting acutely, our star center forward has left the building, and we are yearning for him. This adjustment to a lacklustre life, sans John, will not be an easy one. We are broken.

But we need to remember, in our darkest moments, that someone who contributed so much, and lived so large, can never be gone. He’s everywhere, his spirit is so strong it encompasses all of our senses. His personality was so big it left indelible marks everywhere. We have indents on our hearts and in our minds. Not to mention his beautiful wife and amazing son and daughter; John, thank you for these gifts, these pieces of you.

He lives on, but in a different way.

I’ll get you across the finish line, Dee.

I’ll be the first star you see in the sky every night.

Who else in the world could sing, in the midst of being transferred to palliative care two days ago, On The Road Again? To have the breath, let alone the humour, boggles the mind.

His brother said, I’m sorry for hacking you at hockey. He replied it’s okay, I deserved it. This was all they needed to come to terms with, some tiffs after twenty years on the same hockey team. Between that and some stolen socks, not bad after fifty years together. Many have fared worse.

And that’s as spicy as it gets. No drama, or fences to mend, just pure and simple. Love, the biggest kind imaginable, from every direction you turn, for the greatest person you could imagine knowing.

If we could all be a little more like John, live and love and laugh as much as he did, the world would be a better place. Big shoes to fill, but is that the message here?

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Christine Fletcher: Modesty Is Everything to this Triathlete

May 9, 2011 6 comments

It’s Motivational Monday, and today I want to tell you about a friend of mine who is charming, thoughtful, intelligent and beautiful. She is passionate about life and throws herself hook line and sinker into her family, business, friendships, and her active life. Christine Fletcher also happens to be a professional triathlete, but she doesn’t exactly wear that on her sleeve.

I met her in my book club, a motley mix of incredible women (I look around the room and wonder how I sandbagged my way in), largely of the sporting persuasion. There is often talk of a race experience, training regiment, or an outdoor adventure. But not from Christine, who more often than not has won a race since our last meeting. We need to pry this information out of her, her modesty is legendary.

This is in stark contrast to myself, who wears my finisher medal for days while doing errands.

Her ability to train 3-4 hours a day, and be so accomplished and recognized in her sport, yet rarely mention this tidbit, is a feat unto itself.

Whereas I ponder the incredible act of will required to complete one Ironman triathlon (just to recap, an ironman is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, followed by a full marathon, 26.2 miles), and then roll over for my afternoon nap, Christine has completed this distance nineteen times in races. Imagine the thousands of training miles she has logged to prepare herself.

I try, but frankly find it difficult to imagine.

If pressed, she will reveal an encyclopedic-like knowledge of anatomy, nutrition, sports-related injuries, and optimal training practices. Knowing her is like having a coach, sports medicine doctor and nutritionist at your fingertips. She is much more forthcoming and willing to share her knowledge, less so with her victories. In the past few months, her off-season, she won the Vancouver Diva on the Run 8 km race, and the Sigge’s 30 km Skate Ski race in Callaghan.

In the last couple of years she has focused on the Half Ironman distance, and success has been rolling her way, finishing on the podium frequently at major events. Last week she was named to the team representing Canada at the Elite Long Distance Triathlon World Championships that will be held in Nevada this fall.

“This sport is a stimulus for challenge. I believe the human body has a limitless potential if trained properly, and love to see how well I can hone this,” she says, when I ask her about her continual dedication to her sport.

A little story to illustrate her passion: I remember I was training for a race when my knee started hurting. To me, this meant I was injured, and I needed to halt my training until it passed. When I mentioned this to Christine, she asked me what I was doing about it. Confused, I said, well, nothing, I’m injured. I told her my symptoms, she diagnosed them instantly and sent me to a chiropractor. After a few sessions of active release therapy I was back on the road.

To many people, pain is a reason to stop. But for athletes like Christine, pain is simply a puzzle that needs to be solved. She just works harder until it’s fixed, whether the answer is massage, stretching, a nutritional change, physiotherapy, active release or rest.

Whereas I would take hundreds of training miles a week as license to eat freely and with abandon, Christine looks at nutrition as the cornerstone of a successful training program. She focuses on a balance diet of protein, carbohydrates, and fats by eating fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins, with an emphasis on foods rich in antioxidants. She is a big believer in additives like Udo’s Oil for recovery and stamina, and sips on things like Vega shakes between workouts, an optimal combination of carbohydrates and hemp protein.

She is currently being coached by her long time training partner, friend, and hero, Jasper Blake, a Canadian icon in the triathlon world. He has been focusing on speed, intensity and strength, while integrating rest weeks into her program. As a result, she feels energetic and excited about her upcoming season, which kicks off this month and will culminate in the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in September, and now the Long Distance Triathlon World Championships in November. Both events will be held at Lake Las Vegas, Nevada.

On top of everything she does, she somehow makes time to blog about her race experiences. I particularly love this because it is here, in her blog, where I see the dedication and focus she has for her sport, more so than the odd occasion where we meet for lunch or drinks. She writes poetically about this object of her affection, beloved triathlons. It’s hard for readers not to be equally enamored, even from our armchairs.

Here’s to you, Christine, for motivating me to get out for my workout even when it’s raining, and for teaching us all that modesty is a beautiful thing.

Like Riding a Bike

May 4, 2011 2 comments

Similar enough, but one is twenty years younger

Life is like riding a bicycle – in order to keep your balance, you must keep moving.  ~Albert Einstein

Nothing says midlife crisis louder than a shiny new set of wheels. But in my case, it was a two-wheeled vehicle for which I pined upon hitting forty.

For the record I don’t think it was a midlife crisis. I just really wanted a new bike. It was time.

I watched with envy as cyclists breezed past me, shiny and sleek in their brightly coloured jerseys. I wanted a piece of that action, but my current mode of bike transport was twenty years old.

Looking at its mangled frame floods me with memories of Melrose Place, Desert Storm, cheap beer, and drama.

It had carried me around my university campus and around the streets of Vancouver before I owned a car. It had been run over by my roommate when I had dropped it on our driveway (sorry roomie; I know I was hard on you for that), was rebuilt and continued to roll.

More recently, the stuffing began falling out of the seat, so every year I added a piece of duck tape. Finally, when it was all duck tape and no seat, my husband said, “Really?” as I dusted it off for our family bike ride. I gave in and bought a new seat, but the bike continued to shine in my eyes, all fifty pounds of it. Rusty, but otherwise bright as the day I bought it. A perfect indigo blue with neon pink accents. A mountain bike built before shocks were invented, it was perfect for commuting, not so much for trails or triathlons. It had its limitations.

I loved my old bike, but even I, faithful as I was, recognized its shortcomings.

As my fortieth birthday loomed, there was one thing and one thing only on my list: a new road bike.

To secure my future purchase, I registered for the Granfondo, a bicycle race that starts in Vancouver and ends in Whistler, a 130 km journey with substantial elevation gain. My bright blue Trek was not going to cut the mustard, new seat notwithstanding.

On one of those spanking new road bikes, how hard can it be? They are so light that the mere thought of pedaling propels its slight form a kilometer or so. It’s not like I’m running 130 kilometers. Surely there will be coasting involved.

And so, for the sake of the race and to celebrate my midlife, I bought a carbon road bike. It is featherlight and built up in all the right places – a high performance model. In the small print I spied the words guaranteed to finish the Granfondo in four hours and it was a done deal.

It should be noted, I’m not the first to trade an old model in for a new one at this point in life.

A Charitable Force: Ruthie Shugarman

April 18, 2011 5 comments

Ruthie and her husband Danny at last years Ride to Conquer Cancer

It’s my first official Motivational Monday, and fittingly I am profiling someone who has actually been motivating me for a long time: my friend, Ruthie Shugarman.

She’s the kind of person who goes a mile a minute, but has all the time in the world for you. I’m not quite sure how she fits into the day all the things that she does – her efficiency meter works overtime, and I’m suspect that she squeezes thirty hours into each day, somehow.

Ruthie is passionate about a lot of things, among them her family, friends, real estate and charities. And now, thanks to the Ride to Conquer Cancer, she has a new passion and sport in cycling, and one more charity to add to her long list.  I’m not sure how she slots it all in, but like everything else she does in life, she has taken on the Ride to Conquer Cancer with energy and vigor, a force to be reckoned with.

The Ride is a two day cycling event that starts in Vancouver and ends in Seattle. Each participant is responsible for raising $2500 for the cause, with many riders exceeding these expectations. Last year Ruthie was part of Team Dexter, which raised $112 000.

I love Ruthie’s ability to turn negatives into positives. She became a realtor three years ago – after owning her own event planning business for thirteen years – because of her passion for the housing market. But just as she struck out on her own, the housing market took a drastic turn for the worse.

“It was actually a great time to be learning the ropes.” Properties weren’t moving as quickly so she could immerse herself in each transaction. Not only has she stuck with it, she was recently recognized as the third highest producer for individual sales in her company.

When times got tough, Ruthie got creative. During this down market, she had the idea of putting her event planning background to good use. She organized a clothing swap amongst her friends and clients (of which I am a huge fan, since not only is it fun, it seriously augments my wardrobe). Her plan was to host a social event that would benefit women at a time when money was tight, and at the same time introduce herself as a Realtor. Her clothing swaps have turned into a hugely successful biannual event, benefiting not only her clients and friends but also several local charities, such as Avalon Addiction Center, Covenant House, and Dress for Success.

Think about it: busy mother schlepping children to and fro, full time Realtor, decides to take up a new sport and a new cause.

Before joining the Ride, Ruthie didn’t own a bike, so getting suited up was no small endeavor. And then there is the small issue of the shoe clips.

“I was terrified to ride on the road at first,” she says, “ and only began clipping my feet in three weeks before the actual race.” But she was pleasantly surprised about how social the training was, frequently riding to Steveston, Deep Cove or Horseshoe Bay with groups of people. Stopping for coffee was an integral aspect of the rides, which suited her perfectly. Multitasking at its best.

The race itself she found inspirational. Survivors of cancer ride with yellow flags on their bikes, and several other riders have pictures of people they are riding for. “Seeing them is so moving, it doesn’t matter how painful things get out there, you are motivated by the cause.”

Ruthie is busy starting her training for the Ride to Conquer Cancer this June and has kicked off her fundraising campaign. Very appropriately, since April is daffodil month for the Canadian Cancer Society, a time to raise funds and awareness for the disease that impacts so many.

I am forever motivated by Ruthie’s ability to fit into an hour what I fit into an entire day. Her cup is full, yet she always finds room for more. Let’s help warriors like Ruthie in their fight to conquer cancer. Donate generously, and watch out for cyclists on our roads.

To donate to Ruthie’s fundraising efforts, please visit http://www.conquercancer.ca