Monday, April 21, 2014

My First* Time Mountain Biking

That “First” has an asterisk beside it, because I can think of another occasion that was my “first time” mountain biking.  I had been on a bike tour of the “Romantic Road” in Germany and on our final day, we climbed up the Alps on the German side and rode down on the Austrian side.  My bike did not have suspension but would still have been considered a mountain bike by some reckoning.  The year was 1994 - I was 21 years old.

I don’t think there’s been much since then, really.  Getting a mountain bike has been an oft-procrastinated goal for me, since I don’t know a lot about them and wouldn't be sure what would be practical for me.  The general idea would be to get into training for an off-road triathlon (like The Muskoka Grind, which sadly won’t be taking place this year).  Based on my informal research a hard-tail (no rear suspension) would be best for that since the trails aren't too technical/challenging (compared to hard-core MTB) and it saves some weight.  A bike swap seemed like a good bet to get a bike on the cheap, and I lucked out in having a little bit of free time for the Hardwood Hills Bike Swap.  I picked up this little number.  It’s a Trek bike with Bontrager components... like my current road/tri bike, so I guess, I’m either loyal or superstitious.

I don’t want to keep it at home - the garage isn't secure enough and I don’t want to clutter the basement any further, so the long-term plan would be to keep it at the cottage and use it on weekends.  I’ve seen a few triathlon training plans that will put mountain biking as a weekend cross-training opportunity.  I think it could work for my schedule as a substitute for long rides - I’m not training for any long distance (half-iron or iron) events and short and intense works better for my family schedule, even at the cottage.  As of Easter, though, the cottage still has snow, but it was beautiful in Toronto on Easter Sunday, so when the kids went down for their nap, I decided to sample the Etobicoke Creek Trail (my main running route) from a different perspective...
View from on top of the ridge

From my sitting position on the mountain bike (which I will call by its model name, Wahoo, until I think of a better name), the experience was more comparable to my hybrid/commuter bike, so I was a little surprised to find the handling so responsive (by comparison).  The Wahoo has disc brakes, which I expected to be super sensitive; this wasn't the case, and I wonder if they don’t need adjusting.  Still, I figured they were functional enough for what I would be trying in my novice’s trepidation.

The first part of the trail is some light gravel which I manoeuvred around easily.  When I had to climb a little into the forest, I had to deal with some roots and rocks, which made me giggle and whoop as I fiddled around them.  Local construction on Eglinton has blocked off access and exits to the trail in a way I find really annoying - right here I was going to go up to the top of the ridge where I know some mountain bikers have put some ramps and bumps.  Instead I carried on North toward the airport.

Shortly before I reached the highway, I came across a hill I’m well acquainted with from running.  This hill had a lesson to teach me - climbing hills on a bike is not just fitness/performance.  This is where bike handling technique comes in.  I've climbed much, much tougher hills on my road/tri bike, but I get into the right gear at the right time, I build up some speed before-hand, and I don’t get off my seat until absolutely necessary.  On my new Wahoo... I did none of these things and had to walk it to the top, and I wish I could say that was the only time on the ride that happened.
View from the top

It was on the way back that I found a way to get up on top of the ridge, and while I didn't try any of the bumps or jumps, I did find more mud than I would have expected on high ground after 2 days of great sunshine... so I got dirty, in true MTB tradition.

I came home with a big smile on my face... let’s correct that and say a Big Kid Smile on my face, since I felt reconnected to that primal sense of fun a kid has when tearing along in abandon on a bike.  I don’t know if an off-road triathlon can be fit into my schedule this year, but I really want to make mountain biking (if only, moderate risk mountain biking) part of my training regimen.

Are you a mountain biker (of any stripe)? What should I call the bike?

Monday, April 14, 2014

Toronto Yonge Street 10K Race Recap

With the summer being dominated by my triathlon season, in the past it's been nice for us as a couple for me to support my wife in running races in the spring.  Two years ago, she ran the Yonge St 10K and the Sporting Life 10K which used to be the same event.  After mixing the two up last year, she found she preferred the Yonge St 10K and wanted to do it again this year.
April 2012 - Human Totem Pole waiting for Mama... the Lightning Kid is around 6 months old in this pic
When she found out that there was a stroller division this year, she asked me if we should do it as a family.  While Shark Boy hasn't been too keen on sitting in the Chariot during runs anymore, we thought we could make it work, and got excited at the prospect of running a 10K as a family.  I started doing more runs on my lunch hour (perfect timing since the run club just started at work) and we got one 'dry run' as a family 2 weeks before race day - 8 km, with the Chariot and everything.  What we learned is that managing the boys would be as big a challenge as pushing the stroller, or dragging our butts across the finish line.

I also put out a few feelers prior to race day to see who was doing the Yonge Street 10k.  There were people I met through my outing with Tribe Fitness, as well as some of my favourite local fitness bloggers (who I'd met last year at the May Tweet-Up) like The Athletarian, Eat Spin Run Repeat, Work It Wear It Eat It, Robyn Baldwin, ElleSeeFit and Darwinian Fail... so many awesome people in one place.  Krysten (a.k.a Darwinian Fail) let me know that she was meeting people at a Starbucks at 8:30.

The problem?  Our corral (the stroller division) wouldn't be starting till 9:20 and I knew trying to keep the boys still in a crowded area for a long time was a recipe for disaster.  We ended up at the starting area sometime after 9:00 and I'm sure everyone who wasn't right at the back was in their corral chomping at the bit.  So...  a missed social opportunity, but at least there was no Amber Alert situation right?

Before the Start
My wife preferred the Yonge Street 10k to the Sporting Life 10k due to better organization, and boy does it show.  The stroller division/purple corral started at 9:20 on the dot.  And I mean, on the dot - (a nerd alert shouldn't be necessary here,  but maybe it's your first time on this blog, so... NERD ALERT!) My watch syncs nightly to an atomic clock with the exact official time, and it had just ticked over to 9:20:00 when they said go.  That's how on the dot, I mean.

We really enjoyed the run.  We got a lot of positive attention for having two handsome little boys along for the ride and people got a real kick out of Shark Boy's singing as we rolled along.  We also got a few laughs for having to do parenting/management mid run e.g. "No Fighting you two!"  The smart thing we had done was pack a ton of snacks, because it's hard to whine or complain with a mouthful of goldfish crackers.

I skipped the port-a-potties at 4 km, but by 5 km, I was regretting that decision a little.  I told my wife I was going to use them at the 7 km water station and when it got within sight, I let her push the stroller and ran ahead so she wouldn't have to wait as long.  Here's where things went off the rails - I thought she'd wait by the port-a-potties or maybe the water station, she thought she'd give me a chance to run at my normal pace by going ahead and letting me catch up.

When I got out, I couldn't see them anywhere; I back tracked till I could see Dundas St, where I'd left them - no sign of them.  I ran back (or more accurately, forward) to the water/aid station and couldn't see them there either.  I hesitated, then ran forwards for a while, at a near sprint.  When the route turned West on Richmond, I described them to a volunteer who said they'd seen them, so I kept sprinting.  I sprinted for nearly a kilometre and I still hadn't seen them anywhere.  My cell phone was in the back of the stroller, but a medical volunteer (from the Ski Patrol) offered me his.  They'd gotten just past the 9 km mark, but we still had a chance to finish the race together!  I'd been running around with the 'Baby Stroller' bib on my back, but no baby stroller, so I was relieved to 'take the wheel' again, so to speak.

We finished the race in a pitiful 1:31:22, and the MapMyFitness tracker shows the 10k route (with a bunch of waiting around near the end):

Yet with all the back tracking I did, as far as I can tell, I did about 14km.

We were still all smiles to be together as a family, and Shark Boy got his wish to run across the finish line (in fact he did the last 500 m or so); holding his mother's hand.


We chowed down on all kinds of snacks and drink samples, and I think one of the highlights was meeting a group (including Mark Sawh and Steve Layton) who decided to run the race as superheroes while raising money for the Hospital For Sick Children.  Shark Boy was thrilled to meet his heroes, and the heroes seemed just as thrilled!

They were taking down the festivities as we left to catch the very last shuttle back to the starting area.  Once we were back on Yonge, we opened patio season (sort of - we were near an open window at least) with a pub lunch.  Fulfilling our promise of ice cream was surprisingly trickier, but that was also a treat.

When I got home, I found my toes felt bruised.  It took me a while to figure out, but with the race's net downhill, I had spent a good deal of the course putting on the brakes trying to keep the stroller from running away on us, thus jamming my toes into the front of the shoe repeatedly!

All in all, a great day, and the Canada Running Series should be congratulated for running a great event.  It left us thirsty for more family 10k runs!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Our Family Trip To Grand Palladium Mayan Riviera

We’re big on travel in our family, and we want to give our kids great, diverse experiences, even from a young age, even though travelling with young ones can be very stressful.  So far, we've been going South in even-numbered years (it was Turks & Caicos for 2012) and ski vacations in odd years (Mt. Ste. Anne for 2011 and 2013).  I'm glad this year wasn't a ski year, because after the Polar Vortex(es) of this winter, I couldn't take more cold and really needed some sun and warmth.  We all did.

My Random Yet Awesome Playlist

On the last day of March, the sun came out, and it was time for an outdoor run.  I was so happy to get some sunlight on my face, and simply the ability to get out without a scarf or mask meant the run I was going to embark on could do no wrong.

I was using my phone for music, and the truth is, I've never quite mastered managing playlists or loading music on it, so what's on there doesn't represent anywhere near my whole music collection, but I put it on random and figured I could take it as it comes... here's what came out of my earphones that day:

“Don’t Call it a comeback!” though it felt like one, running outside in pleasant weather. Great start to the run
A U2 Fave - awesome tempo.
I have tons of STP on my phone.  At least one of their songs was bound to come up.
80s! An urgent beat to keep me going.
A cover from their Renegades album.  More like old fashioned punk than most RATM (it's originally by MC5)
One of their best tracks.  It’s baffling that this wasn't one of their big radio singles.  Bonus: the quieter parts seemed to line up with when I had to negotiate ice/puddles and the chorus would come in just as I could go fast again.  Perfect.
Well, I don’t want to finish last... Bonus: The guitar solo came in right at the bottom of the biggest final hill, causing me to charge up at 100% effort.  I love it when that happens!
“Fight off the lethargy...” the hill is done, and the run is nearly over.  A good rhythm for plodding to the end.
Heh.  Well, I was heading straight back to the office a.k.a. ‘The Man’. Less on the tempo, good for cooling down.

Maybe it was just the positive attitude I had that day, but it really felt like serendipity to get such perfect tracks at random.  I made a point to keep track of what I'd heard (thanks to the scrobbling - tracking what tunes are played) so I could share it with you guys.

Would you ever trust the shuffle gods to do your running playlist?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Active Family Vacation: Skiing in Mont Sainte Anne

I’m really behind on blog post topics.  As the subject matter becomes less current (or even irrelevant), I’m left with either abandoning the topic, or going ahead with a ‘better late than never’ attitude.  This one falls into the latter camp; I know you don’t want to hear about winter, but we had a good time, and maybe the information will be useful for next season.

Winter is tough.  For everyone, but even worse for families with small children.  If you’re a family with small children and want to lead active lifestyles, EVEN TOUGHER.  We’ve done a good job of embracing the elements that a Canadian Winter gives us, but the snow in Southern Ontario is inconsistent at best, and really immersing yourself in the winter environment takes more time than than the average weekend allows (think packing, driving, herding the cats kids).  Enter the ski vacation.

Two years ago, we shopped around at the Ski and Snowboard Show for ski resorts that could accommodate a family with a child less than 18 months.  All the reps at the show acted like it would be no problem, since they simply wanted to make a sale, but the truth was, that the 18-month mark is a dividing line for daycare licensing and insurance and most resorts didn’t have that capability.  Shark Boy was going to be 17 months old (close but no cigar) for the dates we were looking at, but Mont Ste Anne takes kids into it’s daycare from 6 months on!  Staying inside Canada meant no customs/border hassles, avoiding invasive TSA screening procedures and dealing in Canadian currency.   Long story short, we loved it and booked another trip this year, which we did in the end of March.

We flew to Quebec City with Porter Airlines from the Toronto Island Airport. That made for some excitement as the kids got to enjoy a taxi ride, a ferry ride and a plane trip... I made the pre-boarding a little more exciting by forgetting one of our suitcases, necessitating a panicked taxi-ride home and back (an extra hundred bucks, ouch), but we made our flight just fine.  

The weather in Ontario had been iffy, sometimes cold, sometimes mild, but not very good with snow, but immediately before we left, Sainte Anne got a dump of fresh snow.

From what I could tell, this wasn't powder of the very highest grade, but it was good enough for me. We were booked into the Chateau Mont Sainte Anne, and in one of their newer Studio (Nordik) rooms with a King bed. We had a crib for the Lightning Kid and Shark Boy slept on the pull-out couch.

The morning after arriving, we brought the boys to the daycare where they were welcomed with open arms. My theory on child-care givers is that experience brings an air of cool confidence that kids can read, and things tend to go smoother; the staff at Mont Sainte Anne has that air. We kept Shark Boy in for the whole day on Saturday which gave us the time to ski almost
all day.

Problem: I hadn't downhill skied in two years at least. We took mostly Blue runs, but we found we had to take frequent breaks on the hills, and even on the Blue trails we found moguls we weren't ready for. My theory is that downhill skiing is quite the opposite of most sports I do: rather than applying little to moderate force through a fairly large scale movement (like a running stride or cycling pedal stroke), you're mostly pushing with a great deal of force through very little movement at all when you're digging your edges in on turns. It's dynamic versus static muscular strength and endurance.

We'd pick Shark Boy up after his second ski lesson, and had a few runs with us so we could see the progress he was making - it seems like he's a natural. After that, we'd pick the Lighting Kid up (typically once he'd woken up from a nap) and take them for a ride up the gondola... and of course, back down.

He got frightened during a plane take-off but this didn't bother him a bit.

Dead times before (and sometimes after) meals were spent in the kids room in the basement of the Chateau (there is also a video arcade, but our kids are too young for that kind of thing, and we weren't going to encourage it - though later on, I got smoked at Dance Dance Revolution). The kids loved the toys in there and frequently played with other children - language barrier be darned.

I did have a little scare in the kids' playroom. One morning, the Lightning Kid woke up around 5, and wouldn't go back down. I had to dress quickly and hustle him out of the room before he could wake up his brother. I took him down to the playroom and let him go. I ended up finding a very large bug, which (to my surprise, since I was feeling sluggish as you can imagine) I was able to capture and bring to the front desk. Any parent wants their kids to be able to play in a fairly clean environment so my paranoia was going full tilt. When I followed up later, a member of the staff explained that they deemed it a grasshopper (rather than something more scary), and that these sorts of things could come in from all over the world in visitors suitcases. They take a lot of measure to prevent infestations like the kind my imagination was running wild with, and I had to admit, it didn't really look like a cockroach or anything like that, so I was basically satisfied.

There are a good variety of restaurants within the resort grounds, so we tried a new place every night. We also ended up packing up our food before we could complete a proper meal, because the kids wouldn't behave properly (I think they were a little overstimulated by the new environment and/or activities). Quebecers are really laid-back and don't bat an eyelid at kids' behaviour; unfortunately, I'm not a Quebecer, I'm an uptight Ontarian and meal-times ended up stressing me out.

The last gasp before bedtime was a swim in the pool (also in the basement of the pool). I was able to get Shark Boy to show me some of the skills he's been learning in his swim lessons, and we've long since discovered that swimming is an excellent way to tucker them out so they'll sleep.

Once they were out one of us had to stay in the room with them, so we weren't able to enjoy our evenings as a couple. We'd do a little solo (drinks, the aforementioned arcade) but conk out early from exhaustion. There were many wake-ups to deal with, so it was good to get all the rest we could.

The next day, I felt so much stronger and more confident on my skis. We still stuck mostly to Blue hills, but it really felt like the best I've ever skied in terms of technique. We made sure this time to put in a stop at the Maple Syrup hut on the East side of the mountain. Here, they pour maple syrup into a trough of snow where it congeals, then you pick that up on a stick by rolling it all up (see below). Delicious!
In the trough
I got all the syrup... LIKE A BOSS!

The other thing we made time for is making sure we caught some of Shark Boy's ski lesson. Then we took him for another run with his parents on "The Big Magic Carpet" as requested.

On our third day, I actually opted to head back to the room and sleep rather than ski. Normally there's a voice inside that makes me seize the day, and says:"You can only ski like this so often, but you can sleep anytime!" but that isn't actually true anymore. A chance to sleep without being woken up by the kids (or a phone call or whatever) is about as rare as good powder, which I missed out on that morning by all reports. I did manage a couple of Black Diamond runs in the afternoon, though the snow had gotten granular.

The vacation wound to an end... but they left me wanting more. There is an extensive network of cross-country skiing trails that we haven't explored yet, and other winter activities like dog-sledding beckon too. My one gripe is that access to other services isn't so great; two years ago I had to hail a taxi to get to a drug store for infant pain-killers because Shark Boy got an ear infection. There is also no shuttle to/from the Quebec City Airport making cab rides necessary.

Even as the kids get older and the daycare requirements get lighter, easier and more flexible I could see us returning to Mont Ste Anne. For another view on this trip, please visit the Lightning Kid blog.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Gear Corner: Apps That Motivate (Earndit, Pact)

We live in awesome times.  Information and mobile technologies enable us to get the most out of exercise, track the activities and help us stay motivated.  Today I’m going to look at two apps that do the latter: Earndit and Pact.

Earndit is not precisely an app, more like a website that connects to various other apps.  The premise is to reward you for working out, and of course that means some tracking.  It awards points that can be accumulated for rewards; more of that in a bit.

There are two main ways that Earndit awards workout points: exercise that is tracked, and checking into exercise facilities like gyms, parks, community centres, ski resorts, and probably more that I haven’t discovered yet.  The latter is accomplished through Foursquare.

For exercise tracking, I personally use Endomondo, though I also linked my Garmin account.  Other possibilities include Nike+, RunKeeper, FitBit, MapMyFitness, EveryTrail, BodyMedia, Omron, Moves and Jawbone.  Points vary depending on activity, and you can’t rack up more than 60 points in a day.

The rewards tend to be discounts or gift cards (with spending minimums) to online retailers in the health/fitness/exercise space, though I’ve also been introduced to Cory Vines (Active Wear), Blank Label (Custom Shirts) and Hugh & Crye (Men’s Wear) through these rewards. (Full Disclosure: those links contain referral codes that award me extra credits for referral if you make purchases). 
Cory Vines Top

The rewards available to Canadians are a little more limited, and though there’s a nice check box to limit rewards to those available in Canada, it’s best to double-check the fine print to see if they’ll ship there.  Most rewards are one-time only, so the selection drops once you’ve used up a few.  Except my favourite kind of rewards which are Charity Rewards.  So far, through Earndit, I have:

These rewards seem to come and go randomly, but it’s always nice to be able to give.

Earndit links with Twitter, Facebook and Google+.  You can ‘friend’ people within the system too, but I found it hard to find people I knew in general (exception: The Purple Giraffe!)

The other app I started using is Pact (formerly known as Gym-Pact).  Using this app, you commit to working out a certain number of times per week, and any workouts you miss you pay a penalty for.  The penalties for a given Pact go into a pot, which gets divided up and paid out amongst those that achieved their commitments.  You get paid to workout.  As in cash-money (it goes to PayPal or a credit card, but other than that, it’s money, not gift cards, or discounts or whatever).

I only just started using Pact.  I signed up for my first one mid-week, and the default Pact was 3 times per week at $10.00 a workout.  In hindsight, that seems a little steep (I think Fitness Cheerleader uses a $5.00 Pact, which seems more sensible). Still, I doubted I would have trouble making it to 3 workouts a week, all things considered...

Not so fast! Not all things can be considered! Home workouts can't be tracked; that just makes sense as money is at stake and people could fake it too easily. Still, when it comes to checking into a 'gym' the method they use seems a little...crude I guess. The geo-location function of your smartphone is activated and they take a satellite image of it, which gets verified by some person on their end before they will give you credit for it. My gym is at work which is a large corporate campus, so I wasn't sure if I would get credit for it until it was verified; because I signed up mid-week, I had 10 days to accrue 3 workouts for the week's pact. Not knowing whether or not I was going to be able to count that gym in was stressful, since the only way to play with these features is to commit to a pact. Partnering with another app like Foursquare or Yelp seems like a much more sensible way to go than inspecting satellite images to me. While those apps could theoretically be cheated too, any given location could be verified by seeing if other people are checking in to workout. A lot of gyms (like Crossfit boxes) are in industrial/warehouse areas and might not 'look' like a gym from a satellite image.

Of course, outdoor activities can be tracked too. Unfortunately, the only apps Pact syncs with are Runkeeper and MapMyFitness so no Endomondo for me (side bar: I'm shocked to not see Daily Mile on these lists as I thought that was an incredibly popular app). Activity tracker wristbands that sync with Pact are the Jawbone Up and Fitbit. The latter are good for tracking the over 10,000 steps you need to qualify as having worked out that day. For tracking runs (or bike rides or whatever) you need to rack up at least 30 minutes while moving an average of 2 Miles an Hour. That doesn't seem too strict, but I was still disappointed to find that our weekend outing to go cross-country skiing didn't count toward my pact, as we spent too much time waiting for Shark Boy (he's doing great, but he's only 4 years old!).

When Sunday midnight rolled around, I had my 3 workouts approved, and I waited till Tuesday for the payout. Well, I should have been paid on Tuesday, but it took till Wednesday to rack up.... $1.11. A buck for 3 workouts that could have cost me up to $30 for missing them. I think that means that few people miss out on making their committed pack, which is a good thing, I suppose.

We were going on our family vacation in the Mayan Riviera the next week so I put Pact on break (I was planning on getting exercise there, but wasn't going to be messing around with the app) till I got back (review of the trip soon to come!)

While there's nothing preventing me from using both (and I probably will, hopefully the weekly winnings will rack up to something I can treat myself with) I really prefer Earndit's ease of use, accessibility and no downside.

Do you use Pact? Earndit? Some other motivational app?