Tuesday
Jul082014

Pain Train

I realized that the CBC Olympics site that I blogged on during the Sochi Games isn't up anymore, so I thought I'd re-post the blogs that don't exist anywhere else on the internet anymore!

THE PAIN TRAIN

The Pain Train

Of all the attributes that differ sport from sport, I believe the most significant distinguishing factor, is pain. 

My objective is not to compare sports on their merits of anguish.  I detest that arbitrary discussion; “which sport is the hardest?” or “Who is a better athlete, a 100m sprinter, or a freestyle swimmer”.  I don’t like questions that don’t have answers, I prefer to analyze the relevant differences, and consider what unique role pain plays in different sports.

Every Olympic sport is hard.  They all take immense skill, effort, practice and determination.  But they don’t all inflict pain, and the type of pain they cause is as distinct as the event.

Endurance sport has a special relationship with pain.  It’s in the name. The whole idea of cross-country skiing is predicated on training your body to endure as much pain as possible, and then manage to keep skiing fast while you inflict a maximal dose during a race. 

That’s the game; maximum pain, everyday in training.  This causes a training effect known as enzymatic up-regulation.  The enzymes in your muscles responsible for turning all that glucose and oxygen stuff into power and energy become more plentiful and efficient.  Endurance athletes not only have a higher capacity to create lactic acid (a necessary evil unfortunately), but they’re also better at clearing it out of their muscles, and better at tolerating high amounts as well.

If you’ve been watching the Olympics, then you’ve probably seen a few cross-country skiers and biathletes embracing the white stuff in a heaving pile of torment only meters past the line.

It’s not soccer.  There’s no foul-call.  They are just completely empty.  Their throats are raw from hauling as much oxygen as possible into their barrel-like lungs, which are heavy and hot like molten iron. Their hearts are pounding on the inside of their ribcage like a subwoofer in a high school parking lot.  I haven’t even started to think about their legs, their backs and triceps from poling madly, over 100 times per minute in the final stretches of the race.  Cross-country is as tough as it gets from a pain perspective. It’s full-body and mostly uphill.  In a word: ouch!

The result of falling down after a race is the same as what happens when you faint.  Someone faints because their brain isn’t getting enough blood.  Putting your heart and brain at the same level means that your pumper isn’t fighting gravity anymore.  When skiers cross the finish line in a world of hurt, collapsing into a suffering mess of spandex accomplishes that same goal.  And misery loves company, so why not lie down with all your friends on the snow and experience that euphoric excruciation en masse?

I watched the cross-country team sprint today.  It’s two skiers per team; they do 3 legs each, head-to-head with 9 other countries. They tag off with a touch, and wait for their partners to return, and retrace their steps. While they wait the athletes jog lightly, shake their legs, some get massages and others hop on a stationary bike to keep the blood flowing, clearing poisonous lactic acid and CO2 from their muscles.

For the women, the course interval is about two and a half minutes, for the men it’s a touch less than four minutes.  So the work-rest ratio is equal, just enough rest to go 100% again, and then once more, for around 16minutes for the women and 24minutes for the men.  

Sound fun? Only cross-country skiers would call that a “sprint”.

For sports on the other side of the pain continuum, pain isn’t the main objective, it’s actually the thing they’re trying hardest to avoid experiencing.  If an athlete in freestyle aerials skiing experiences pain, it’s almost certainly due to trauma.  A fall or a tear owed to a slight miscalculation in the air or at the landing.  They screwed up. Put simply, pain in almost any sport involving tricks is to be avoided at all costs.

That’s an interesting difference. On one end of the spectrum pain is to be avoided, and on the other side experiencing maximal pain is tantamount to victory.

At the Winter Olympics, endurance sports are certainly a minority. Speed-skating and cross-country (including biathlon and Nordic-combined) are the lone-wolves of the winter games. While the summer enjoys running in distances from 400m to the marathon, cycling in myriad forms, rowing, swimming, canoe/kayak, and combinations thereof.       

Wait, I’ve got some good news.  These painful sports are still good for you, and fun (some may say even more so) at only moderate levels of discomfort!  So get out there and up-regulate some enzymes; your heart and lungs and brain will all thank you at some point, hopefully not by fainting.

Thanks for reading. I hope it wasn’t too painful. :)

 

Saturday
May242014

Sacrificial Spam

This isn't junk-mail. I'm actually writing a blog. It seems as though Marshall MacLuhan was right (at least about me) when he famously said that the “blurb” would one day replace the book. Twitter has given me fewer and fewer reasons to write a blog, now that I can get my thoughts out to the world in 140 characters from my phone... I suppose my creative outlet has been stifled by that modern convenience. I’ve promised this in the past, so it’s probably best not to hold me to it – but I’m going to write more.

Since my trip to Sochi with CBC in February I’ve been back in the boat, training my heart and muscles and lungs and brain to be great at kayaking. I was in Florida for about 8 weeks, raced and won the trials in Gainesville, Georgia (in K1 1000m). Since then I’ve been in Europe, racing some world cups (Milan ITA, Racice CZE and Szeged, HUN). A track n field pal of mine told me I could “race myself into shape”, which I have been trying my best to do. I came over to Europe with no expectations, I only wanted to get back into racing K1, and focus on what I could do in my boat, in my lane. After 2.5 World Cups (I’m racing the 500m and 5000m K1s tomorrow, Sunday) I have a really clear indication of where I’m at in my training and conditioning, and I know what I need to do... MORE HARD WORK!

What inspired me to tap these keys again, however, wasn’t a burning desire to update the blogosphere on my daily goings-on over here on the continent. I wanted to write and reflect on a decision I made last week, and the concept of sacrifice.

In January 2013 I decided to stop eating meat. My choice wasn’t borne out of a need to discuss dietary needs, decisions or my personal reasoning for cutting meat out, but that was definitely one of the most significant outcomes. People LOVE talking about food. It is the new religion. For the record, I decided to stop eating land-meats. Anything with feet, basically... Or hooves, I suppose. Are hooves feet? Whatever. I was to rely on fish and dairy and legumes for my protein. It was motivated simply by having more reasons in the “No Thanks” column than in the “Yes Please” column. Reasons for yes please include “tastes good, it’s available, it’s protein, I like it...”. Reasons for no thanks were more numerous, and also more complex; “it was making my stomach hurt, it sucks for the environment, the way we treat animals that we are going to eat is atrocious and terrible, my Dad beat colon cancer and veggie diets are good for colon health, and the list goes on. Health, Enviro, Ethical... they were all good reasons to say no thanks, and eat some fish/eggs/tofu instead.

Until this week, I was sticking to it, and I insisted that it was the right thing to do.

The Eggplant in the Room...

My primary concern now that I am preparing whole-heartedly for Rio, is my performance and physical condition. As I have mentioned in previous writings, being an athlete is one of the most selfish endeavours. It is all about oneself. Of course we have opportunities to be great ambassadors and involved in our communities (and I am truly thankful for these occasions for social-penance), but at its core... focusing solely on moving MY skinny boat in fast straight lines is quite self-centred.

For that reason, I’ve often danced around questions about sacrifice. Interviewers will ask about all the sacrifices I’ve had to make as an athlete, and since I’m enjoying myself and have everything I need, I answer that I don’t feel like I’ve had to make any. But it takes a tremendous amount of time to do a sport at this level, and the commitment is very much full-time. This has left me unable (or perhaps unwilling) to pursue education beyond my undergraduate degree, a career outside sport, or much of a relationship that could one day lead to a family of my own (yes, I’m referring to romance). All this to say, yes... I’ve made a sacrifice or two to have accomplished many of my goals, and to continue pursuing the ones that lie ahead.

However, I’ve never had to sacrifice a strongly held personal conviction.

I’ve always conducted myself in training and competition with integrity to the best of my ability. I am outspoken when I feel it is important to be outspoken. Fortunately, I’ve been able to do and say mostly what I want for most of my professional sports career.

But for the first time, I feel that I need to sacrifice a deeply held personal conviction to ensure my performance is where I want it to be. Last week I started eating meat again. Of course I know and believe that it is possible to be a great athlete and a vegetarian at the same time. But for so many reasons, I’ve decided that I need it to continue to race and train at a world-class level.

My teammates and friends and family have been supremely supportive, often choosing fish and veggie meals over heartier yummier meatier ones in order to eat together. For all of those times, thanks guys... I really appreciate it.

I’m going to continue to be an (only slightly hypocritical) advocate for the environment and the treatment of animals. When I have a choice, I am going to make every effort to make one that limits my footprint, and the degree to which I am a party to the mistreatment of our furry and feathered friends.

And for the next two years or so, I’m going to continue trying to be the best kayaker I’ve ever been.

Stoked to be racing here again tomorrow! Thanks for following along! :)

Wednesday
Feb192014

Flag-bearer curse is 'pure bunk'

This topic is so overly hyped and stupid that I’m typing with reservation.

I’m inclined to hold the backspace key down until the title line is erased in the hope that the whole conversation capitulates along with every word I’ve typed.

But that’s not going to happen, is it?

So despite my better judgement I’ll carry on with my blog assignment, tilting at the windmill that is this idiotic assertion that one of the highest honours an Olympic athlete can receive carries with it a mystical blight of underperformance.

Firstly, there is a precedent to bearing the Maple Leaf at the opening ceremony.

Typically, an athlete who won a gold medal at a previous Olympic games is selected. Winning gold at the Olympics is really hard; harder still is defending that gold four years later. Catriona Le May Doan is the only Canadian to ever defend an Olympic title in an individual event. She also carried our flag at the closing ceremonies in Nagano and opening of Salt Lake City. She is the poster child for the campaign to dispense with this curse rhetoric.

Beyond sorcery and abracadabra, there have been some tangible theories of how the act of carrying a flag around might impact performance. I’ll highlight a few of these gems for the sake of thoroughness.

  • Fatigue. Whether it’s from walking for a few kilometres, standing up for a few hours, or waving a flag high and hard, this argument fails to consider one critical factor: We are talking about OLYMPIANS. Not to suggest that pedestrian activities don’t sometimes make a high-performance athlete's body sore (my coach said a game of darts once kept him off the water for two days). But these folks know their bodies better than a millennial knows their smart phone. An athlete’s competition schedule and how the demands that the privilege could impact preparation and performance are always taken into consideration by the COC, the coach and the athlete. If there are any concerns, there is no shame or dishonour in turning the offer down. Unless Don Cherry finds out, then you are in deep with Grapes.
  • Added pressure. Every athlete knows when a water bottle is totally full, you cannot put any more water into it. It’s physics. Full is full. Athletes use pressure like koalas use eucalyptus, or sled dogs use, well, dog food I guess. They use pressure like fuel, that’s what I’m trying to get at. I used a Billie Jean King quote in my previous blog so I can’t use it again, but you catch my drift. There is full pressure, extrinsic and intrinsic. There isn’t any room for more and that's a good thing, so if you could add more (which you can’t) it would be a good thing.
  • The mortal fear of tripping while on television. Whether you are on your way to accept a Golden Globe, walking behind the weather guy in front of the CBC building, or the next contestant on the Price is Right, the terror of this possibility affects everyone, except Olympians. Olympians don’t have fear.

So that’s it. I got the last word on the dumb flag-bearer curse discussion. Case closed, no more talking about it. Let’s be positive folks!

And to our flag-bearer here in Sochi, three-time Olympic Champion, one-time silver medallist, and five-time Olympian (she played softball for Canada in Sydney! Whaaat?), Hayley Wickenheiser, wave that thing high and hard cause we are all going to be screaming at the TV!

Just don’t trip. 

Wednesday
Feb192014

Hope, Pressure and Expectation: Finding a Winning Combination

Canada's expectations are placing even more pressure on the shoulders of athletes like bobsledder Lascelles Brown. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

 

The Audacity of Hope is a book by the 44th and current President of the United States of America. He will not be attending the Sochi Olympic Games, but whenever I think about hope and expectation, as I have been in anticipation of Friday’s opening ceremony and the subsequent 16-day winter sport extravaganza, the title of Obama’s book springs to mind.

As an athlete, I’ve sometimes struggled with where on that hope-expectation spectrum I should gauge my confidence. Of course, I believe in myself, and I know I can win. Without getting too philosophical, I’ve wondered how close I can get to I should win, without crossing that threshold. 
I have never believed in destiny. I don’t believe that anyone is “supposed” to win. That’s why we compete. That’s the beauty of sport, there is no supposition.

Athletes need to be comfortable with the reality that it is their actions that will determine the outcome.

Hope isn’t enough for me either. It implies that I should simply have faith in some predestined result. 

As a sports fan, I’ve had a different relationship with the expectation vs. hope scenario. I hope our athletes win all of the medals and then some. I get more nervous for my fellow Canadian Olympians than for anything save my own races. But is expecting them to win everything overly audacious? 
I believe they can rise to the occasion and conquer the world in everything from alpine skiing to speed skating and everything in between (alphabetically and figuratively). But again, can and could, and shall and should are really different words.

It might seem like an entirely semantic problem, but I believe there’s something here. I’m constantly asked about the pressure we put on ourselves as athletes, and how the expectations of our great maple flavoured populace adds to that pressure.

First of all, athletes love pressure. They need it to perform. The great Billie Jean King (who Barack is sending to Sochi in his place) famously remarked that “pressure is a privilege.” If someone expects something great from you, then somewhere along the line you must have given them some reason to believe you can be great. That precedent of performance is crucial to an athlete’s ability to self motivate.

But what if instead of adding weight to the ample shoulders (Google: Lascelles Brown) of our Canadian Athletes, our expectations gave them a little spot, like in the gym (as if Lascelles needs a spotter). What if the pressure we put on our athletes to win, which is justified and important given our social investment, could give them that extra centimetre, that agonizing edge which is the difference between glory and disaster?

Trying to be the best in the world is innately audacious. That’s what makes these competitions so insanely exciting. Our athletes are willing to put themselves on the line, and do the most admirable thing. Try. They will sweat, bleed, gasp and cry, to try and get our maple flag up on the top spot and have them play our national anthem.

When our athletes win, it won’t be fate or a fulfillment of any destiny. The Canadian Olympic team has what it takes and they give their everything, everyday. They’ll win because they tried, and were the best.

So, I’m making a pledge. I am dispensing with any predestined expectation and prediction, but I’m going to do a heck of a lot more than hope. I’m putting my confidence in them. And I hope that helps.

Saturday
Sep212013

::BENIN::

 

After visits to 6 or 7 communities in and around Cotonou, Benin, it's time for us to go. We woke up before the sun came up this morning to catch an early flight to Monrovia, Liberia, only to find out at the airport that flight for the first leg of that journey, Cotonou-Accra, Ghana, was cancelled. No word as to why, but we're in transit limbo here so I've got a chance to blog-a-bit. Sadly, there's no rapidair service to Ghana or Liberia from Cotonou, so at this stage, it's not clear when we will be taking off. TIA!

The last couple of days have been an incredible whirlwind with visits with local RTP staff, urban and rural based play programs, local leaders (like a mayor and a king and the pope of voodoo, NBD), but most importantly kids.  Kids from Benin are like kids from anywhere - a little shy at first, but easy to break the ice with (various methods, including sharing your sunglasses, high-fives, taking their picture and showing them the screen, goofy dancing, sacred offerings like caramels or a chiclet, any kind of kickable object - ball shaped or otherwise, have all proven effective), once we were all friends the games could commence, and general silliness coupled with an eventual valuable life-lesson would ensue.

Our first stop was Ouidah.  As soon as we left the city we abandoned fairly familiar french for local languages like "Foh", with the exception of an occasional "d'accord" or "merci", Foh is impossible to follow along with... I mean, all native African languages are undecipherable for us, but Foh has a particular subtlety that renders my pathetically uni-lingual jaw agape. The kids in Ouidah formed two circles and we played some limbo and sang some songs. The lessons were based on avoiding peer pressure and being a confident leader. The games were meant to be embarassing, so that the older kids would fall on their butts (in limbo, being short is a massive advantage), and the younger kids would help them up. So when I fell on my butt, some younger kids helped me up... and we all high-fived. Then we danced around like goofballs and laughed at eachother and totally forgot that we don't speak the same language. We were speaking fluent goof-ball, so it didn't matter.

Benin was one of the 5 infamous slave trade ports, and there is a monument on the beach where countless men and women were treated like commodities and shipped off to Europe and North America as slaves. We drove down the slave road where men and women in iron shackles were lead and visited the beach called "the point of no return". As we listened to a short presentation by a man who works at the monument I couldn't help but be ashamed of humanity's most atrocious act. I'm glad we live in a world that learns generation by generation. I'm heartened that humanity tends to progress towards a more "human" ideal. 

Next we attended a short women's soccer game (game was short, the young women were mostly average height). Most girls ran the full pitch barefoot in higher-than-ankle grass. It was physical and intense, and the girls were excellent technicians.  After the game we watched a skit demonstrating a discussion between parents and an adolescent girl about her sexuality. It was an excellent forum for this demonstration - a captive audience of young teens, some community leaders, and the skit was performed by their peers. The parental roles were parodized by hilarious and oversized outfits (they wore their grandad's clothes, they looked incredible). Fun times were had by all!

Off we went to visit the Voodoo pope. I haven't done any research on who exactly we were to meet, but I will say that his house was... interesting, to say the absolute least. We were a little late, so after waiting for a little while outside in our sock-feet (no shoes in the Voodoo pope's house), we were told that the pope wasn't getting dressed for late people, so we left. I would have just as soon stayed on the soccer pitch.

On day 2 we woke up early and jogged on the beach, had a good breakfast of hardboiled eggs, pineapple juice, croissants with nutella-like chocospread and fruit salad. I had two large coffees with breakfast, but I still passed out hard in the van on the 3 hour drive on the bumpiest roads ever. While asnooze I smacked my head on the window so many times I'm almost certainly concussed, though the blurry groggy brain is also thanks to the anti-malarials we're all on. Hoppin' on goofballs!

We drove through the woodsy jungle for hours, and finally arrived at the King's abode. King Agbomansoatin Kponan of Ahouannonzoun is a the secretary general of Renafo, Benin, and he's also a Voodoo specialist of incurable diseases. We attended a kind of debate, or a forum, about child protection. There were speeches and presentations, thanks to RTP Benin's Jean most of it was translated to english or french... but I still may have nodded off once or twice. The king likes to talk! He's the guy in green garb, below. Yeah that's right, I had an audience with the KING. Take a backseat Lebron, this guy is the real deal.

After his speeches the neighbourhood kids put on a great skit about voodoo culture and staying in school. The king has recently made a judgement so that kids can fast track their voodoo initiation, which used to take up to 3 years, down to a week or two, so that they can concentrate on traditional education. He said that science and voodoo are complementary, so the kids need both in their lives to work and be fully developed. On our drive back we stopped for a really brave midday meal, spicy little whole fish on rice with smashed up peppers and Cocacola. I didn't eat the heads, but they were tasty.

Since we had a few hours to kill, CBC's Scott and Mark and I went into the central market of Cotonou to run around and grab some cool shots. I've been to markets in Beijing, Bamako, and crazy crowded places all over... but this was NUTS. You can buy anything. What do you need? Replacement parts for your Yamaha 125? An inflatable swan? A whisky bottle full of cashews? Textiles in every conceivable colour, shade and design? A goat's head? Sugarcane? A flip-phone? stereo equipment? smoked fish? spices, powders, grains and granulated who-knows-what? Yup, they've got it.

We just got some news... Ghana has granted us Visas for tonight and tomorrow, so we're leaving Benin now and staying overnight in Accra, and flying to Monrovia tomorrow.

My only problem is I have 0 blank pages left in my passport, so it better not be more than a stamp-visa, or I'm staying in the airport overnight. I need a new passport when I get home!

We're off, check back soon!

**UPDATE** Our flight to Accra went to Abidjan instead. I was keen to go to the Ivory Coast, but we decided as a team to go to Monrovia tomorrow... so I'm going swimming.