I remember one year back in college, my brother and I dragged my father to Florida the first week of March for a little ‘escape the winter’ golfing get-away. On that trip I met a man whose real name I can’t for the life of me remember, but insisted we call him ‘Bun’, who, without knowing it, taught me a very valuable life lesson: if you focus too closely on one thing, something you may never have noticed will get you in the end.
The trip itself was only marginally successful due to the fact that the weather in Florida that year was just as shitty as it was back home in Montreal, only without the snow. It was cold, rainy, and windy every single day and we found ourselves covering the entire state several times in a vain and futile search for sunshine only to find more wind and rain. On the third or fourth day, we stumbled on grey, semi-dry weather and found the Oaks National Golf Club completely devoid of any other golfers. There were no signs indicating that it was closed for the season or even for the day, so we parked the car and made our way into the pro shop to secure a tee time. The shop, unfortunately, was as deserted as the parking area, forcing us to fumble our way around until we heard voices coming from the clubhouse, whereby we came across Bun chatting up a waitress, who appeared to be the only employee working that day. Though it was about 8:30 in the morning, a time of day, and given the weather outside, one would normally be enjoying a piping hot cup of coffee, Bun was gazing lovingly at his glass of Bushmills whiskey…on ICE. My father, not wanting to be overly intrusive, cleared his throat to get their attention to ask whether the course was open for play. Bun, shocked to see anyone crazy enough to actually want to play golf in such weather, and to be willing to pay for what could only result in a decisively unpleasant experience, almost fell off of his barstool upon seeing the three of us standing there, in shorts no less. Before my dad could ask if the place was open, Bun pre-empted the question by stating incredulously, though not entirely surprised (for he had seen this sort of thing a couple times before), “Y’all must be Canadian. I suppose you want to play a little golf”. Because we were the only people there that day, Bun charged us half-price and offered to ride a cart with the odd person out (me), to give us the insider information on the course.
Bun was your stereotypical, marginally successful, middle-aged, white American: Veteran, loud, polite in a slightly condescending, but utterly harmless way, overweight, confident, eager to help, self-medicated, and altogether charming as can be. He spoke in a guttural, fluid, easy to comprehend fashion with his voice sounding as though his throat was full of marbles. Every word he spoke was the perfect one for the situation and many were colourful in the most tasteful, inoffensive way. The only time there was a slight hiccup in his speech was when he would mention his wife, or as he would put it, his, “ahhh-wife”. He stuttered on no other word that I can remember, but every time he mentioned her, and there were plenty such times, it was always his “ahhh-wife”. Funny that.
Riding the cart with Bun was an absolute pleasure, and it didn’t take long to realize that he was the type of man who had seen many things, good and bad, and, as a result, was chock-full of a myriad of tiny little nuggets of wisdom that he was not shy about sharing. Every time I said something, mentioned anything, uttered displeasure or glee in anything (and most of what I talked about were the scores of alligators strewn across the entire golf course), he would reply poignantly and in a manner that instilled confidence. As we drove, he would recount stories from Vietnam, Disney, his previous job at Publix, and what he believed would make the country better. Though everything he said was utterly interesting, I would always bring the conversation back to the alligators. His reply was thoroughly consistent: “They almost never attack” and was meant to make me feel more at ease but had the complete opposite effect. He didn’t seem to understand that the ‘almost’ bit would cause anyone concern and that I was justifiably, in my mind anyway, terrified whenever I left the cart and baffled that I always played my smaller irons in an attempt to keep my ball on the fairway and out of danger from the gators. “Why don’t you take out the big dog?”, he would ask. “Because I really would prefer not to be eaten today, Bun”, I would reply, causing him to scratch his head and repeat, “but they almost never attack”.
After having kept my ball safely in the short grass for most of the front nine, I decided to pull out my three wood for my approach shot on a particularly long par four. My knees were shaking because of the cold as well as my fear of shanking the ball into the trees. As a result, I lifted my head way too early and pulled the ball deep into the forest on the left side of the fairway. As I pulled another ball from my pocket and prepared to take the penalty and try again, Bun asked why I didn’t just go look for my ball. “Are you nuts, Bun? I thought you understood that I really don’t want to die at the hands, or teeth, of a hungry gator today”. Again, he replied with his standard, “Yes but they almost never attack”, and added, “and they really don’t like moving around in the rain”. We went back and forth a couple more times with Bun making me feel, of course not on purpose, like a total pussy for not venturing into the woods. Finally, I gave up, put the spare ball back into my pocket, and made my way into the foliage. I was terrified and every single one of my nerves was on full alert, synapses just a-flyin’ out of control. Every time a leaf or twig rubbed against any part of my leg, I assumed there was a gator ready to tear me limb from limb. It felt as though I was in the woods for at least an hour, but it was probably no more than 30 or 40 seconds. Just as I got deep enough not to be able to see the cart, I heard Bun take a swig from his flask full of whiskey and call out, giggling, “Anyway, it’s not the gators you need to worry about. IT’S THE SNAKES”. Well, fuck that. I was out of the forest in two seconds flat.
Unbeknownst to him, Bun gave me an incredibly prophetic piece of advice that day that has taken about twenty years for me to understand and apply to my training, and I certainly wish I had figured it out a lot earlier. We endurance sports enthusiasts, and triathletes in particular, understandably tend to place an excruciatingly prodigious portion of our daily training focus on going longer, getting faster, improving performance, no pain-no gain, go-go-go, and “I’ll rest when I’m dead” without placing a commensurate level of emphasis on rest, recovery, and simple, basic health and welfare. When it comes to racing, we worry about stuff like how long the race is, how hard it is to train for such distances, have I done enough training, have I done the correct training, tire pressure, equipment failure, is my wetsuit too tight, is my stuff set up properly in transition, how is my swimming technique, will my goggles fog up, etc. These are all very valid and important concerns and I have spent several hours fretting over such things in the past myself. These matters, however, are represented by the alligators in the Bun story. What I worry about so much more now are incessant, constant, almost ubiquitous injuries that are the result of much of the training mentioned above. At my age, there is a 50-50 chance that I will be injured at any given time, and it is a total crapshoot whether my body will even be capable of racing on any given day, which generates quite a problem when trying to make air and hotel reservations for a race 10 months from now. So far, in the past ten months or so, I have had a long bout with plantar fasciitis, broken two ribs, struggled with patellar tendinopathy, tweaked the shit out of my soleus muscle, and, most recently, suffered through about six weeks of very sore hip bursitis. From the time I was 17 to the age of 50, I had been to the doctor twice: once for a typical physical to play college hockey, and once for a series of precautionary tests after a night with a woman of questionable sexual promiscuity. This year alone, I have been to an orthopedic surgeon twice (I now HAVE an orthopedic surgeon…WTF?), and I have consulted WebMD so many times that I can actually hear the website sigh and say “Ah, for fucksake…What now?” whenever I log on. Injuries are the snake, and, for me anyway, they are the direct result of spending way too much of my available time and effort focusing on the gators. All the stuff in the ‘gator’ category are important if you want to be fit, get fast, and compete at a relatively high level, but if you ignore your body and never bother with how what you are doing can adversely affect your health, then no amount of training will matter. Let me put it this way: it is damn near impossible to get fast enough to win your age category when your iliotibial band is sitting next to you on the couch wrapped in ice and Ace bandages, sipping a cup of coffee, calling you an asshole. Now, though I train as hard as I can, I spend a shitload of time looking out for snakes. And, for the record, I really hate snakes.
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