Who would guess that this innocuous email would provide a vital opportunity?
Opening the link immediately brought up an action shot of a dozen riders on gravel and cyclocross bikes pedaling side-by-side along a wide beach, and announced that the Cannondale Ontario Beach Race Championships would be held at Turkey Point on Saturday, April 9, 2022.
The promotional blurb on the website began: “What could be more fun than hanging out on a beach and riding bikes with a bunch of crazy people? There was no mention that April 9 in southwestern Ontario was not peak beach season and that this winter, which was not yet over with us, had been the snowiest and the coldest in ages. Even so, pictures or ravings of Baywatch and wide flat Southern California beaches filled my imagination.
“The Cannondale Ontario Beach Race Championships are the first race of its kind in Ontario (possibly in Canada),” was the organizer’s next lure.
“Wow! How many times in my life have I had the chance to compete in a premiere and a championship on top of that?” I wondered.
There was also a weather guarantee.
“The weather can completely change a race, which is why we have developed the 100% weather guarantee. We guarantee that 100% of the course will have time. If a section of the course has no weather conditions, we will refund that percentage of your entry fee.
The race is said to have an official “No whining” policy. I could feel the noose on sales tightening. Admission was $90 and I arrived at Turkey Point around 10:30am, leaving for home at 3:30pm. This meant that for $18 an hour, I could enjoy a complaint- and whine-free environment for five hours. How refreshing was that thought? Sounded like a good deal to me.
As intriguing as it may seem, there were also harsh realities. The race would start on the beach between two inflatable plastic palm trees. We rode, ran or bike 2K west, battling sand, then back 2K east along a paved road before veering into a sand and gravel parking lot for 500 yards.
This would be the support area or the aid station. The organizers had in mind the Gatorade and the energy bars, I was thinking of the oxygen mask and the defibrillator. We were back on the road for a few yards, then back up Old Hill Road for a 33 meter (100 vertical foot) climb. After descending back down to the base of the hill, we lifted our bikes over a low stone wall, carried them over deep white sand to the water’s edge, then rode another mile of beach to the Palm trees. Piece of cake, and we only had to do it six times.
The rider categories were simple: women under 50, women over 50, men under 50 and men over 50, all in a mass start. None of the usual ten year age groups.
“We keep it simple,” organizers said.
Tremendous. I would be staged with riders young enough to be my grandchildren, and I was two decades older than the 50-year-olds I was directly racing against.
I had three weeks to train to be ready for the race, which meant it was already too late. It is recommended that top athletes reduce (rest) the week before an event to recover their energy, so it would only be two weeks of training. No need to overdo it.
Fortunately, five reps of a hilly loop at Short Hills, including Hansler Road, Orchard Hill Road, Overholt Road, and Hollow Road, would give me perfect climbing practice for Old Hill Road. An unexpected benefit of this training route was making new friends. Walkers and owners usually flagged me down and asked if I was lost or needed directions after my third or fourth pass.
Rolling in the sand was still an unknown. There are no fat bikes in my stable. How could I run on sand for 18 km with Snickers bar width bike tires?
I put on my marine geologist helmet and went to Camelot Beach west of Port Colborne in search of the ugly truth. If Lake Erie was calm, the beach would be passable, sort of, in places. A narrow strip of relatively compact wet sand half a meter wide adjacent to the water could support a gravel bike and a cyclist. If the consistency of the sand was perfect, rolling in the water very close to shore also worked. The dry sand was impossible, as were the many piles of shells, rocks and rubbish debris. Spring runoff streams crossing the beach can be shallow and firm, or quicksand with a soft bottom. Add the odd beached, half-buried log that required lifting the bike, and 18 miles (3 km x 6 laps) of Lake Erie beach, barring the perfect day, might as well be the distance to the moon.
There were so many reasons not to do this race, but of course that was ultimately its appeal. How often do we choose to attempt something publicly, knowing that the results will be posted on the internet for all to see, when there is a significant risk of mental and physical failure?
As children and teenagers, we spend up much of our time testing our limits, learning new physical strengths and new mental skills. What can I get away with, how far can I push? We understand that we have to fail to progress, so we don’t dwell on it, we just go for it.
In adulthood, the process continues, but we are much better able to judge the risks and the possibilities of success, and then decide if the effort is worth it. Each of us finds our personal tolerances and begins to prioritize living within them if we can.
The real challenge this race offered was not the beach or the climb, but a chance to see if I still valued the opportunity to test myself physically, and in some way mentally, for no other reason than the test itself. -same. There would be little external reward, a podium was quite impossible. The risks were also minimal. Not finishing could be embarrassing at worst. The “attaboys” of friends and competitors would come to win or lose, finish or not.
So I signed up to run, and it was exhilarating.
A library full of essays and commentaries consistently lists health, routine, relationships, food, respect, comfort and community as the things seniors value most after retirement. Where are the experiences of challenge, learning, creativity and growth on the list?
The anticipation, the fear of failure and the challenge of unfamiliar conditions were really exciting. The training, however short, provided routine outings with purpose and purpose. Waiting for the opportunity to test my physical capacity in front of others, to experience perhaps this perverse pleasure of emptying myself, was invigorating. Temporarily avoiding comfort and routine for a few hours to enjoy this little challenge was liberating.
The start was like no other I had experienced. Absent was the shoulder-to-shoulder jostling at the line. We self-seeded in single file along the thin ribbon of wet sand at the water’s edge, the only place there was traction. We questioned ourselves to make sure as best we could that the rider lined up in front was faster and the one behind was slower. I started in the end position, guaranteeing that I wouldn’t get in anyone’s way and could make a pass or two.
Within minutes, it was obvious that there were two races going on: a fast and strong group vying to win, another group, my group, just hoping for the strength to complete the full event. Pedaling the paved road was our rest, hopefully a chance to recover enough energy to climb Old Hill or tackle the beach once again. The sand got our cleated cycling shoes stuck on our pedals. We would often fall uninjured, going too slow to warrant calling them falls.
Some determined that finishing was not worth it and gave up. Others just couldn’t go all the way. In twice the time it took the winner to complete the course, I completed all six laps. Not last of the finishers, and ahead of the DNFs (Did Not Finish).
After the race, while chatting with the other competitors and the organizers, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. Just by participating in a bike race, I was part of this community, “Hanging out on a beach and riding bikes with a bunch of crazy people”, as advertised.
Never give up your little bit of craziness – it can be life affirming. ◆