Book excerpt 2 – Ironman 70.3 Muskoka

“… In addition to calculating time, distance and so on, doing “Race Math,” as triathletes call it, I found myself honestly just having fun. I even pretended I was a pro, grabbing Gatorade bottles from the soaked and shivering but steadfast volunteers on the roadside aid and fueling stations. “Yay! A game to keep my mind busy. Let’s see how good I can get at this.”

You slow a bit, approach the poor bug-eyed, scared stiff soul, arm outstretched, offering a Gatorade bottle for the snatching and grab it. I actually got pretty good at it.

I also quickly figured out the experienced volunteers from the newbies. The tipoff was unmistakable. The newbies held the Gatorade bottles in their hands upright, which is fine. But here’s the kicker: way too tightly and with all their fingers. I mean, you’d have better luck prying a rifle from Charleston Heston’s cold dead hands than from one of those volunteers holding on so tightly. Do they want us to have the Gatorade or not? And with their thumb still wrapped around the bottle? Those volunteers obviously missed their briefing, as this is almost sure to guarantee, as it almost happened to one of my exchangers as I sped by them God knows how fast, an immediate wrist or finger fracture!

Ah, but the cagey old vets, on the other hand. They knew all too well to stand the bottle loosely, almost teetering, on an outstretched, nearly flattened palm, barely gripping it at all with their fingertips. A practiced and refined art, no less. While this may not 100% guarantee a successful snatch from the speedy rider — the athlete, after all, having a significant neuromuscular coordination role to play in this Tango — at least it will avoid the poor volunteer a trip to the emergency room. But seriously, what a job they have, and I must say, everyone was in awe of their dedication, and I, of course, learned to very much respect them and slow down at the aid stations for safety reasons, if nothing else.

Carried out successfully, this exchange, dare I say act of communion, between triathlete and volunteer, is a thing of beauty. And it was fun. In fact, I never drank so much Gatorade! It may have been one of the reasons I avoided cramping on the half marathon, come to think of it.

The fun factor is doubled when practicing the gentle bottle toss into the hockey nets, used as backstops for people to pitch their empty bottles into, at the end of the aid stations. After all, the rules for littering in Ironman races are strict and come with time penalties. So you “chuck your junk” only in a short, pre-defined zone. And knowing exactly when to let go of your bottle, so it rolls right into the net is also a skill. By the way, earlier than you think, as you have to account for your speed, of course.  High school trigonometry and physics finally being put to use after 45 years, I thought.

I practiced a lot that day. “He shoots. He scores!” Instant gratification. However, I did miss the net once and felt instantly bad for the poor volunteers having to chase after my errant bottle skidding past the net as part of their clean-up duty. “Sorry!” I yelled. I know, I’m so Canadian.

But there’s so much more to these exchanges. These brave roadside volunteers, you see, also offer up fuel in the form of carbohydrate gels. Now that’s what I call drawing the short straw! A bottle is bad enough, but a little gel pack? Are you kidding me? How the heck do you hold one of those tiny things up in the air to a rider and avoid a finger dislocation? “Oh, a gel! Cool, I want one of those” Grab! “Oh my God, is this a human thumb?”

But this year, the volunteers must have been thanking their lucky stars, for the company sponsoring the on-course gels, Spark, have a product that comes not in a small square-shaped packet but a more elongated tube. Perfect for holding upright. And at a fraction of the weight of the Gatorade grenade that can blow your hand off. I would have signed up for gel duty for sure that day. 

Every gel pass made me laugh. Volunteer, holding the gel loosely with two fingers and covering their eyes with the other hand leaning almost backwards, arm outstretched,  praying the grab will happen quickly and painlessly. It’s a sight to see.

But back to the Gatorade. What do these exchanges look like when they work well? It’s perfection. I had two good grabs that day, but one, in particular, will remain etched in my memory forever.

[ Grey Beard ]

He was an older man, with the requisite white and dark grey, yellowing beard and moustache. Sporting a soaked and dripping, dark brown, leather cowboy hat, a plaid shirt and one of those pathetic tiny excuses for a disposable rain poncho (more like a piece of plastic food wrap), barely covering his shoulders. While it may have been mine, this clearly was not his first rodeo. You could just tell the moment you laid eyes on him. Soaked to the core, but no less steely-eyed and determined. No hesitation. No fear. An old bear. I got the best of the best that day.

Now, I’m a quick learn, and I did my research, as I always do, and here’s how it went. All happening, by the way, in the blink of an eye. Imagine, if you will, this rapid-fire sequence:

1: I make eye contact with Grey Beard, and he instantly does the same.
2: I point to him firmly with my index finger as confirmation and to get him fired up.
3: With finger pointed, I yell, “You!” As in, I chose you.
4: He, and I mean, instantly replies, “I got ya!” He’s as psyched as I am, for he knows. And I know he knows. And he knows, I know, he knows. We’ve both been patiently waiting for a Pro of our mutual calibre.
5: Quickly but smoothly, his arm outstretches with German engineering precision, beguiling Grey Beard’s age. And then you hear it, SNAP! And it’s done. Just like that.

I tell you, if the Olympic judges were watching that day, we would have gotten all 10’s for that one. It’s like a fast pitch landing in a catcher’s mitt in baseball. You can just hear it. Snap. And this whole sequence all happens in less than two or three seconds. And is followed by an immediate “Thank you, you’re awesome!” from me and a “Go Go Go!” from old Grey Beard, his voice fading behind me in the pounding rain. The elusive flawless Gatorade Transfer. One of those perfect life moments. Bringing an instant sense of gratification to both the giver and the receiver of this critically important elixir of life. Who are we kidding, that stuff really is kind of disgusting.

Anyhow, anyone who knows me knows I’m never satisfied. Why stop there, I thought? So at the next aid station, I tried the unthinkable. A routine rarely attempted due to its sheer audacity and high failure rate and even less successfully accomplished by non-professional age groupers like myself. I’m talking about the elusive “Double Snatch & Grab.” The truth is, I have no idea if people even try this, but I thought, what the heck, why waste the opportunity for free fuel when whizzing by an aid station and settle for just one thing. These races cost a lot, so I’m getting money’s worth.

It goes as follows: Following a successful Gatorade Snatch (rarely as perfect as described earlier), given one’s bike speed, you have a tiny window of time to follow it with a second carefully but quickly orchestrated movement before the end of the aid station. The Gel Grab. Carried out individually, either of these two moves, the Snatch or the Grab, is sure to bring cheers of admiration from onlookers when carried out successfully. Done together? Well, it’s sheer lunacy.

The way I successfully carried it out, twice I will have you know, is by stretching open a space between my middle and ring fingers and, while still holding the Gatorade bottle, successfully snatched in that same hand with my index and thumb (I know, it’s just crazy), aiming the gel into my fingers and grabbing it. Y’know, like a plane with one of those V-shaped nose pieces. Y’know, grabbing a wire dangling from a hot air balloon and pulling up a harnessed James Bond and Pussy Galore from a life raft in the ocean, like in the ending of the movie Goldfinger? I digress.

All I know is that today the volunteers must have thought I was a magician, not dropping my Gatorade while snagging a Spark gel. At least, I’d like to think that. The truth is they probably thought I was a careless, greedy idiot. But that will not deter me. Next race, I will try the Trifecta, adding a Cliff bar between my teeth.

Did I mention I was having fun that day? Before I knew it, I was three-quarters done the bike.

The rain eventually stopped around kilometre 75. Too late to help with…”

… Buy the book here to read the rest