While clearing out my mom’s house a few weeks ago I happened to came across some interesting photographs of me as a child that she’s apparently been holding onto for all these years. And these weren’t your typical geeky grade school pictures I’m talking about here either, but pictures of me – *gasp* – doing (get this) athletic things; namely, swimming and running.
I know, right? Me! Who would have thunk it?
Apparently, I had all but forgotten my earliest endeavors into athletics as a kid. Not that I was ever very good mind you, but I did try and I’m sure I earned a fair amount of ‘Participation’ medals back in the day even if I didn’t hang onto them. If I recall correctly, through grade and high schools I actively participated on the cross country team, and played volleyball, baseball, basketball, tennis, badminton and, shit, I even curled. I also remember being on the local swim team at the Merritton Lions public pool where I took my swimming lessons and even participated in a few local swim meets (by ‘participate’, I mean I didn’t drown). Of course, later on I discovered beer, marijuana and candy bars so that ended all that. C’est la vie.
In fact, it wasn’t until approximately five years ago that I rediscovered sport and maintaining a healthy lifestyle and this blog serves as a road map of that journey. In that time, I’ve completed numerous half marathons, sprint and Olympic triathlons, a few half Ironman events as well as the grand momma of them all, Ironman Wales. There’ a few other things chronicled here like rowing, yoga, cross fit as well as a few other one-off events but, primarily, they all tend to revolve around swimming, biking and running. So these photos might just be the earliest examples of those beginnings and serve as some bizarre form of time capsule to what would develop later…much later.
This first picture is of me in the final stretch in the annual ‘Run for the Grapes’ 5k back in the mid-1980’s (coming up James Street just outside the St. Catharines City Courthouse). Note that I’m only wearing a cotton t-shirt and socks, polyester shorts and cheap running shoes that my mom had probably purchased at the local Bi-Way (think ‘Dollarstore’, but not so classy). I still wear the red headband, except now I call it a ‘bandana’ which is infinitely cooler. Now, why or how I ever got registered for this event, God only knows. It was only a 5k but it damn near killed me. It was all I could do but keep my skinny little legs moving towards the finish line where I would be finally rescued from my agony. Funny enough, the ‘Run for the Grapes’ event would also be the first half marathon I would ever run only a mere thirty-some odd years later (in fact, that was just five years ago). It hurt even worse, but, more on that to come.
I also remember participating on the cross-country team from Grades 4 through 6. I totally sucked there as well. Usually I would run alongside a fellow classmate of mine, Sipacert Changsovang, or ‘Sippachink’ as we typically called him. Hey, chill. I knew as much about political correctness back then as I did about molecular biology. Anyway, together, we would usually see-saw back and forth in last place from the onset. In fact, I think we only ever actually ran for the first few hundred meters until we rounded the first corner and out of site from the spectators and then again maybe when we came back in view towards the finishing line. But in between those two points we would usually walk, stop to pick dandelions, bait squirrels, roll in the grass, maybe skip stones across the little stream that the race course followed for a bit, but seldom did we ever run. Shit, running was work and I had no inspiration to be the next Alberto Salazar. Collecting tadpoles and skipping stones was – by far – more fun.
Even when I did first start running a few years ago it was only as a matter of necessity more than it was an inclination. As I had agreed to a dare from my little brother to compete in a sprint distance triathlon, it unfortunately meant I would have to run at least 5k, so run training was kind of inevitable. Running still sucked, but eventually I could do it without suffering as badly as I did in the picture above. That same year, wanting to go out with a bang, I also registered myself for the ‘Run for the Grapes’ half marathon. Perhaps I had acquired a death wish, or maybe I had gone entirely insane, I’m not sure which but, what the hell right?
Of course, by that point in my newfound healthy lifestyle the most I had ever run in training or in competition was 7.5k. I knew completing 21.1k would be tough but, seriously, how hard could it really be? Still riding on the laurels of finishing a few sprint distance triathlons I figured I was up to the challenge, so with only three weeks left to prepare I set about the ordeal of training. I had no idea how to train effectively for a half marathon or, really, running for that matter. My idea of a training run at the time was to simply lace up the runners and…run. At the time, I had no GPS or stop watch and had no concept of websites like MapMyRun, etc. I just went out and ran what I figured was a decent distance or time. Shit, I didn’t even own a decent dry fit top, so bloody nipples were the order of the day.
On my longest training day before the big event, I decided that I would run from my apartment downtown, up the escarpment to Brock University and back again. That seemed like a fair challenge to tackle before the half marathon and, surely, that would prepare me adequately. Again, I’m an idiot. So nearly two very painful hours later, about 3lbs lighter thanks to dehydration and whatnot (I never had the good forethought to bring water), and two thighs that felt like somebody had been lighting matches between them, I arrived home again to check Google Maps (something that occurred to me while out running) only to discover that I had run…13 kilometers. Uh oh. The realization that I was vastly under-prepared began to dawn on me. Whatever motivation I still had from my summer’s triathlon accomplishments quickly evaporated into a steamy puff of condensation on my forehead. There was only seven days left to the half marathon. Fuck.
On the day of the big event, I had agreed to run with two running partners, my squash buddy and a friend, Al, who I had met at work and had enjoyed some bicycle rides together. In fact, it was with Al on one of these rides that I first contemplated my ability to complete a full Ironman; the fuse was lit somewhere between Effingham and Jordon Station. Both guys didn’t really have a goal time in mind but were more out to enjoy the day and simply complete the challenge, which was fine by me. As such, we held our own towards the back of the pack and trotted along comfortably…at first.
However, that slow, comfortable pace soon (for me anyway) turned into a slow, painful shuffle shortly after I passed the 10k turnaround spot. By this time, I just wanted it over so I made a conscious decision to press forward at a quicker pace, the trade-off being that I would be done quicker. Likewise, I didn’t much like running in almost last place. I turned my cap around backward, bid my farewell to the guys and pressed on in a suicide-like mission for the finish line. Believe me, though, there was nothing heroic or admirable in what I was doing. It was pure agony and I was must have looked like I was running from sweet death itself. My finishing photos would later confirm that fact. I was being passed by grandmothers and not loving it. I would have happily given up National secrets to make it end. I only made the final few kilometers on pure will power alone and ultimately finished in an unimpressive 2:15:32. My partners would finish shortly afterwards looking a hell of a lot more comfortable and relaxed. It seemed my ‘big move’ at the halfway point, might have earned me, maybe, a 2 or 3 minute lead. Whoopee shit.
I couldn’t walk for a week – literally – and I figured that would be end of my “long distance” events. That opinion wasn’t long lived, however, as I would shortly make the decision to go whole hog towards my Ironman goal and that meant, of course, long distance training (click HERE for a review of my second half marathon). God help me.
Anyway, the rest of the story has been detailed over the years in these online pages, but this early photo of me running brought this part of the story back to light. Crazy, right?
The second photo is even more interesting. It’s of me at a swim meet at our local public swimming pool. Just look at the lanes buoys…does that date this photo or what? As it turns out, this pool in the photo is the same one I would end up running by during my long Ironman training runs over thirty years later (click HERE). Funny. Note the total lack of form and technique. It kind of looks like one of those grainy images of the Loch Ness Moster.
Anyhow, my past swimming career is even less spectacular than my cross-country career. Basically, I was forced into swimming by my mom in an effort to get me from out in front of the boob tube at home during the summer. Not that this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, and I now consider swimming as a life skill which is not debatable with my nine year old step-daughter now. But, back then, I just did as I was told. This included taking swimming lessons and participating on the local swim team at the community pool.
Back then, our races were only 50 meters. I could do it, but not quickly. During our lessons we learned how to freestyle, breast-stroke and back-stroke, but not well. Essentially, we learned just enough to get us to the side of the pool if we ever got in trouble…using either the freestyle, breast-stroke or back-stroke. There was little to no actual development on form and technique, well, none that I remember anyway. I always thought of myself as an accomplished swimmer as 99.5% of my time in the summer was spent at the pool, albeit mostly playing tag. Of course, mere time spent in the water does not automatically qualify one as ‘skillful’.
For the most part, these meets were an unwelcome disruption to our games of tag; usually once a month. I participated in most of the events including the relays and I almost always finished last. Again, lots of ‘Participation’ medals. Actually, that’s not true. I did once win the bronze medal for the 50m breast-stroke, but that’s only because two of the other competitor’s never showed up and there were only the three of us competing.
When I first joined a Masters swim group five years ago in an effort to prepare for my first sprint triathlon, we swam almost 400m…and it damn killed me. Are you picking up on the theme here? For the most part, I splashed to one end of the pool, rested along the wall, and then splashed my way back again. It wasn’t what you would consider ‘pretty’. Seriously, I thought I could swim. What I didn’t realize is that after all those years of swimming lessons and games of tag, what I couldn’t do was swim ‘well’. As it turns out, swimming well is much different than just going through the motions from end to end.
So for the first few months, I had my ass handed to me regularly at 6:00am each and every Sunday morning and if I climbed out of the pool after 60 minutes without drowning it was a total victory. Eventually, I even graduated to the ‘Medium’ lane. As the time grew nearer to my first triathlon, I knew I could swim the distance (750m) but, then it occurred to me…could I do it continuously? Shit. During Masters Swim the distance was all broken up into drills and segments with ample breaks to rest, receive feedback from the coach, joke, drink, etc., but never had I swam the entire 750m distance continuously. Fuck.
I figured I should find out. So the week before the event, I went into the pool on my own and I grinded out 750m. It wasn’t fast or pretty, but I did it. Thank God! The event went similarly well with me coming out of the water in the mid to near-end of the pack but I didn’t drown, so it was a total success. Furthermore, it was my favorite part of the event; funny given how much I stressed over it. With this realization, I took to the pool more often, did my drills, practiced my form and technique and in the past five years have made some huge strides in my swimming abilities. In fact, it’s the best part of my triathlon now and I typically exit the water in or near the front of the pack. It’s where I feel the strongest and most confident and that’s a long way from splashing from one end to the other just as I was doing in this photo.
What a long, strange (and painful) trip it’s been.