*** many thanks to Patrice Brunet for this race report ***

It’s not about the overall defeat – it’s about the small victories

I have never trained so well, hard and long as with TriDubai for the past months. Attending 7 to 9 sessions a week, I sure got my money’s worth of the free subscription fee.

My overall fitness level improved along the way, and last month, with my weight locked in at 86kg, I decided to change my diet and went paleo. Essentially, I reprogrammed my body to mainly burn fats instead of sugars. While training at the same level, I happily saw my weight drop 1kg per week over 4 weeks. Great for my run splits.

First event out of these changes is Drummondville Olympic distance triathlon. This race held in mid-June is a season-starter for most Montrealers. The event is in its 23rd year, and was host of an ITU World Cup for a few years in the mid-90s, back when Emma Carney was at the top of the world.

It is a mostly flat, closed-course 2-loop swim, 4-loop bike and 4-loop run which allows you to complete each leg with some familiarity after the first loop is completed. But the course is nothing but easy…

Dubai-Montreal takes 20 hours to complete via Europe. I did that 48 hours before the race. Perhaps not what the coach recommends, but hey, I’m tough and travelling is really just about sitting down, sleeping and watching movies, right? I would soon find out on the race course.

The day after my arrival (and the day before the race), I went out for a light 5k jog at 50%. I felt fine, and even pushed to 80% for about 1 km, just to get the oil flowing in the engine. All lights green.

Day of the race. I wake up at 6am to sunny skies, 15C, forecast to climb to 21C. Perfect. Race start is at 11:30, a 90 minute drive from home. I make myself a non-paleo homemade pancake breakfast with maple syrup and lean ham to stoke my body with carbs and protein. I drive out at 8:30 and burp the carbs all along the way. I arrive with time to spare and get my registration stuff.

Grandmothers tend to give their telephone numbers to Patrice...

Entering a race when you reside in Dubai always solicits the curiosity of the volunteers at registration, and I scored the phone number of a grandmother whose niece is married to an engineer who lives in Dubai, and would I know him? I need to call her tomorrow, because she couldn’t remember the name of her niece’s husband and wouldn’t it be great if we could get together in Dubai sometime? Yes, landline phone number for the grandmother in case you were wondering.

Approaching start time, all’s going well, paleo says not to eat for 2-3 hours before the race, but to down a gel 10 minutes before race time, which I did. I get in the frigid water and swim about 150m to get the blood flowing and confirmation that 17C water is ice-age water temperature. I remind myself that paleo and ice-age go well together. Funny what goes on in your head before and during a race. More about that shortly.

The swim course is a 2-loop, counter-clockwise rectangle in a river. Minutes before the start of the swim, one of the marshalls wisely advises us NOT to aim for the first buoy, about 250m away. We need to aim about 20-30 degrees right of it. That’s how strong the current is. And was.

Horn. 200 swimmers make the beach start and soon enough we’re flailing about in the water. I’m attacking like I would be sighting for the mosque minarets or the big flag on sunset beach. Although I sight to the right of the buoy, I’m still deported ever slightly to the left. I reach the first buoy, turn left and then boom! Going downstream, but with a 20km/h headwind makes for what, ladies and gentlemen? Yes, some choppy wave-action (1 foot), water-in-mouth and challenges sighting. The water is still 17C.

As I’m trying to catch my rhythm, my left calf starts talking to me. “Hey, buddy, it’s cold down here. I think I’ll take a break for a while.” “Ummm you can’t do that, I’m barely using you.” “No, no I’m serious man. This water’s cold, and your light kicks are annoying me. I’m going on strike, dude.” So barely 300m into the swim, I had a war with my left calf, which started cramping up on me. I decided to let it have its way for a while, kicking from the right leg only. Of course, the right calf became jealous, so I started the same conversation with it and soon enough both calves had cramped up. Very painfully.

For the first time I looked around for the rescue kayakists. And then my voice of reason chose against it and started to stretch the toes in the water. Small victory against defeat.

Slowly and painfully, I was still swimming, sighting, getting battered by the waves and stretching both toes at the same time. Which reminded me of the joke where the guy says to his wife “Hey you must really like it when we’re in bed, you always curl your toes” to which the wife replies “It would help if you let me take off my stockings first”. Anyways, brought a smile to my face in the frigid water and helped me not to raise my arm to concede victory to the river. Another small victory against defeat.

I found my rhythm after 750m, and the cramps subsided but I could always feel they weren’t very far. In another one of those cramping moments when I just wanted to raise my arm to finish it all, I had a vision of a Lime Tree brekkie in the future, with Guy asking me to describe the time I quit (I had cramps and it was so cold – bouhouhou), and then just looking at his “tomatto” and pityingly asking me if I wanted it. As I would have none of Guy’s “tomatto” for this reason nor pity, I kept on moving.

I finished the swim and as I exited the water and stood upright, my legs completely froze. I was crippled, could not move and bent forward in pain on the beach. Both calves and quads. After 30 seconds, and waiving off the concerned volunteer, I managed to limp over to my bike and do a mental 30-point body check. I sat on the ground, removed my wetsuit and my legs cramped up like I have never experienced. My muscles were rock-solid, but not in a good way. In a very, very painful way. I started to self-massage my legs thinking this is no use. I remember looking around and thinking “This is crazy, my race is over. There is no way I can bike and run with these cramps.” I silently cursed the volunteers who were nowhere in sight to help me, and bring a stretcher, because this was what I needed. It was so painful I was on the verge of screaming. I remembered I was wearing the TriDubai suit and chose to stay silent. Pride.

Then I saw the water bottle on my bike, and thought maybe it’s not only about the cold, but perhaps also a bit of the dehydration of my recent travels. So I drank a couple of sips. Well, ho and behold, my muscles relaxed ever so slightly and 2-3 minutes later the cramps had lessened, but not disappeared.

All thoughts of quitting immediately left, I was able to rise up, put on my helmet and started heading out of T1 with my bike. I had left about 10 minutes behind on the clock in transition. Strangely, I was now happy no volunteer came to see me. Another small victory against defeat.

Overall, the bike went ok, and no cramp happened. But I could feel it linger on the horizon and decided not to push it too much. Oh, and remember that headwind in the water? Well funny thing, that wind was also ON LAND. Imagine that. So half the bike was with a slight downhill, but a 30 km/h headwind, the opposite was a slight uphill, with tailwind. No speed records were beaten. I emptied both my bottles and took a gel.

Getting back to T2, I was worried about the upcoming run. I knew my overall time was fried and there was nothing I could do to correct it even if I had a stellar run. Which I already wrote off, since my cramps were still talking to me and telling me they would return with a vengeance if I dared to awake them.

So, decision time in T2: quit and avoid going on the internet with a forever-searchable horrible time that will survive for generations, or finish the race like a good triathlete does, suck it in and let sport have the better of it, rather than ego. I chose the former and headed out in my running flats. Another small victory against defeat.

Running a few kgs lighter made a big difference. I adapted my stride to take slightly smaller steps to save my legs, augmented the cadence and was happy to feel that the cramps had subsided, and I was on a 4:40 pace with a 160 heart rate. I could still push it!

… for the first kilometer; then my cramps returned and I had to stop and stretch. There were 8 water stations on the course and every time I reached one, I stopped and gulped a full cup of water. The cramps subsided every time.

I reached the finish line in 2:51. My swim was 32 mins, 7 minutes slower than expected. My bike 1:26, but this included my spa-massage relaxing time in T1, as my computer tells me 1:18.

Run was a surprising 52 minutes, including my drink stops and slowed pace. Happy about that. Would have run sub-50 without the cramps. But as we all know, “would-have” is for wimps.

I finished last in my age group. But I finished. There was no way I would DNF in a TriDubai uniform, aside from major medical or mechanical issues.

In conclusion, the paleo diet works, but I need to fine tune it. A nutritionist at the finish line told me I may have been low on potassium, so I need to increase my intake of bananas. Dehydration was also definitely a factor, and water-retention following a 20-hour flight.

I have another race next week (sprint distance). Can’t wait. It’s all about what’s next, and learning from the past, isn’t it?

And about the small victories along the way, not the overall defeat.