When I was a Physical Education student at McGill University, I lived in run-down apartment about five kilometres from campus. The flat itself was in a seedy, inexpensive ghetto of Montreal called St. Henri (it has since been gentrified and is actually quite expensive and chic), and rather than take the Metro each day, I used to enjoy riding my bike to my classes, most of which took place in in the Arthur Currie Gymnasium adjacent to the Percival Molson Football Stadium. For those of you unfamiliar with the topography of Montreal, a large part of the city, and the McGill University Campus in particular, is built on the slopes of a mountain of modest elevation called Mount Royal, which made getting to school each day a bit of a bother. Getting home, on the other hand, was an exhilarating, urban, downhill thrill ride. So long as it wasn’t a particularly horrible winter day (and we endured plenty of them), the bike was a gratifying mode of transport that transformed a tedious day of classes into an amusing roller-coaster ride.
Of course, this was only the case if the bike was in full working order. I remember one day in particular when I readied myself to ride to school, and I noticed the rear tire was completely flat, and, not having left myself adequate time (or an extra tube) to rectify the problem, I opted to fish out a pair of in-line skates I had purchased the previous summer at a garage sale, that I only ever intended to use as part of a pathetic Halloween costume. Living close to the Lachine Canal, and thus at a significantly lower elevation to where the campus resides, I was a little apprehensive as I set off, wondering how tiresome the entirely uphill trek might be. I briefly wondered if I was being stupid to skate when the Lionel Groulx Metro station was a mere few hundred metres from my apartment, and there was an air-conditioned subway car awaiting to whisk me effortlessly to the McGill Street station. After brief consideration, I laced up the in-line skates and told myself that I was Canadian for Chrissakes. Just shut up and skate.
As it happened, I enjoyed skating uphill immensely, and the steeper it was (and, like San Francisco, it gets quite steep), the more I seemed to enjoy the workout. During the entire strenuous, skyward journey, two thoughts came to me: 1. How surprising it was that I was enjoying going up, and, subsequently, 2. Since the ascent was bringing me so much joy, the descent, which in every sport on the planet is always considerably more gratifying, was going to be spectacular.
Once my last class was done that day, I couldn’t wait to strap on the Rollerblades and ready myself for the effortless, downhill glide homeward. For some strange reason, it never occurred to me for a moment that being in a major metropolitan centre, I would, most likely, be required, at some juncture, to stop before arriving home. It also never entered the conscious part of my brain that I wasn’t even certain if there existed any specific, documented braking techniques or maneuvers that I could somehow employ. Perhaps, due to my extensive background playing hockey and downhill skiing, I neglectfully defaulted my awareness to believe that stopping on in-line skates would be similar, if not identical, to how it is done on ice or snow. Somehow, it never came up.
The moment I exited the building and began to roll, I was having a blast. It was a little slow going as I crossed the busy Pine Avenue, but once across, I was safely on campus paths and roads, all of which were gently downward sloping, but twisty enough to seem like a closed, controlled in-line skating racecourse paradise. There were no cars, only the odd student coming and going from the various buildings. I was having an awesome experience, and there seemed to be zero immediate danger, as the few people that were about kept their distance, and it appeared I was in complete control. Once I passed through the Roddick Gates, exiting the campus and entering the city proper, the gradient flattened out and there were hundreds of people and vehicles all over the place. I felt no danger, but I was extra careful not wanting to bump into anyone or get hit by a car. Everything was a little too ‘stop and go’ to be considered enjoyable. My little wheel-footed sojourn was beginning to feel like an average, monotonous commute and less like an amusement park ride.
I travelled west along deMaisonneuve Street until I came to Atwater, where I made an effortless left-hand turn and began, once again, to go downhill past the old Forum where the Canadiens won so many Stanley Cups. As I began to descend anew, I could feel the smile returning to my face, but it did not stay long. Yes, going down was easier and more electric, but there was a city teeming with cars, busses, pedestrians, cyclists, delivery trucks all wanting to inhabit the same piece of tarmac that I was attempting to navigate, and, unlike all of them, I had no capacity to control my ever-accelerating speed and zero aptitude for braking. In the space of twenty metres, I went from an invigorating joyride, to a rash, unbridled death romp. Nothing I tried restrained my acceleration at all. I tried dragging one foot, but that just resulted in a sore, but speedy, foot. Eventually, I was reduced to trying to slalom left and right, screaming as loud as my voice would permit as I blasted through red light after red light, dangerously Froggering my way through busy downtown traffic. Cars came to screeching halts, drivers waved fists and dished me the bird, pedestrians hollered insults with phrases replete with words beginning in F and ending in ‘asshole’. I was a maniac zooming down a hill, apologizing to everyone, but utterly bereft of any semblance of discipline. I attempted maneuvers and feats I had never before practiced, learning on the fly how to govern feet that had no ability, and seemingly no desire, to be controlled. I was on the razor’s edge and I was about to get sliced open; it was just a matter of time. The faster I went and the more out of control I felt, I was forced to study the landscape around me for escape routes and potential crash-landing zones. I was desperate to find a way to stop my rapid forward progress that would minimize the damage I would cause to the well-being of innocent bystanders and myself. Not crashing was no longer an option as all I could hope for was to mitigate the level of carnage that was sure to ensue. Eventually, after what seemed like hours, I targeted a lonely parking meter on Notre Dame Street and aimed for it at terminal velocity. I hit it very hard, but, luckily, I managed to escape with nothing more than a couple of cracked ribs, torn shorts and a hefty dose of road rash. Of course, I never Rollerbladed again.
My province’s recent reaction to COVID-19 feels similar to my experience with in-line skating, and I fear we are presently desperately searching for a padded parking meter.
When the pandemic started, training for triathlon was initially affected only peripherally. We all knew something big was afoot, but it felt, largely, as though it was happening somewhere else, so we just kept doing what we were doing. The only difference, for me, was that I wore a mask when I got close to other people. As the province essentially locked down, I became more uneasy because society as a whole began to take on the aire of a giant dystopic Hollywood movie. Streets were bare as many huddled in fear at home. After a couple of weeks or so, I noticed that training was, in many ways, more pleasant, because I seemed to have the trails, streets, lanes, and bike paths to myself. A feeling of freedom enveloped me, and I became more confident thinking that, though it had been several weeks since the world had changed, I hadn’t become sick. As a result, I began to push myself ever harder. At about this time, the government, and people in general, began to feel similarly, and many of the previous restrictions began to get lifted until it felt as though, by and large, life was almost ‘normal’ again. Other than the fact that we all sported masks and washed our hands upon entering the grocery store, life was motoring along just fine.
Now, however, it feels as though we are about to start paying for that premature free-for-all. I sense that we are about to make a left-hand turn on Atwater Street and are about to plummet downhill entirely out of control. Many of us have become too complacent and we have allowed ourselves to, wrongly, believe that we are past the worst of it. Schools have reopened and governmental policy hypocrisy abounds. On the one hand, we watch sporting events like the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, the NFL, and Major League Baseball happen on television, while on the other, small businesses, who are generally the most COVID careful, are being told they must shutter. The numbers of people getting sick are, once again, rising, and there is a general feeling that we are on the verge of losing control. It appears that North American society is experiencing a bifurcation of attitudes. I follow my social media outlets, which largely consist of triathlon and endurance athlete groups, and it seems that there is no slowing down. People are thirsty for, and are signing up for, races left and right under a general, and seriously dangerous, feeling of FOMO. They post pictures of themselves at races arm in arm with other competitors as though the world was still in 2019. In other places, it seems as though some folks are getting ready for Armageddon, and have begun, once again, to horde toilet paper and canned beans.
Where I live, restrictions are back: gyms and pools are closed, and schools are open but on high alert. Teachers have been prompted to be ready to go fully on-line with 24 hours’ notice. We all want life to be normal again. I would love nothing better than to book a flight and a hotel room for a race far away in the New Year. I desperately want my triathlon life back, but I understand that it will take more time and way more patience. I think we can do it. Aren’t patience, perseverance, toughness and a willingness to work hard now for improvement later, the hallmarks of what it means to be an endurance athlete? COVID is a very steep and dangerous hill, and I fear that we haven’t yet learned enough about how to deal with it to avoid harming ourselves before we can stop it. If we remain patient, we might not require a parking meter to slow the disease down.
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