Downtown Lindsay’s Ironman steels himself to ride out COVID

By Jamie Morris

Greg Nisbett. Photo: Jamie Morris.

Greg Nisbett was well into a 150-kilometre training ride on his carbon-fibre bicycle when he was caught in a flash storm. High winds buffeted him, and he was soaked by freezing rain. Drenched and shivering he reached the turn toward home. Then, after cresting a hill by Omemee, he faced steady headwinds for the final 20 km. He never gave in.

Memories of that victory over adversity — along with restorative chicken broth at an aid station — sustained him later, during his first Ironman triathlon, at Lake Placid in 2006. He’d completed the four-km swim and the 180-km bike ride when, early in the final leg — a marathon-length run — he became dizzy and had to slow to a walk. In another race, he wiped out on his bike, sustaining road rash and a broken rib.

Greg has completed nine Ironman events as well as the Escape from Alcatraz in San Francisco (swirling currents and 11-degree water temperature, a run in deep sand and a 400-step climb up a “sand ladder”). Only once has he not finished.

Shoulder surgeries (most recently in 2018) have curtailed his athletic career, and when I drop in on Greg at Nisbett’s Clothiers on Kent St. in Lindsay, the menswear store he’s owned and operated for 35 years, I can see changes from the Greg I interviewed for a column eight years ago, back when he was training 12 to 30 hours a week.

He’s still dapper, dressed head to toe in the merchandise he sells. But what he’s wearing now includes microfibre slacks with some stretch to accommodate a few pounds he’s put on, and a Horst-brand face mask. His hair is greying a bit and verging on the pandemic shagginess so common now.

And though Greg’s happy to reminisce about athletics, “Right now my focus is on business,” he tells me. “I’m in survival mode.”

He’s ridden out many business challenges over the years, including recessions in 1981, 1991 and 2008.

This year began well, despite gas line work that affected sidewalk traffic. Sales were up and he had a business plan to allow him to manage downtown reconstruction.

Then came COVID-19 and unprecedented challenges. He had to lay off staff (including his daughter) and close his doors for 12 weeks, reopening in May. Fully a quarter of his business has been the formal wear trade: rentals for weddings, graduations, and other events (he has roughly 1,000 tuxes in stock). That’s been literally decimated — reduced to a tenth of what it was.

In addition, there are supply-chain problems: a big order he placed with the manufacturer Columbia has been sitting in a warehouse for over a month.

Most difficult for Greg, a meticulous planner who attempts to control what can be controlled, is the uncertainty. “This week has felt like a normal week,” he tells me, “but I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, or when there might be another lockdown.”

We’re in times that call for the business equivalents of chicken broth. Fortunately, they’re out there. Greg’s benefited from federal and provincial government support, including a $40,000 interest-free loan. And the business community is banding together. “We’re neighbours here,” he says.

The most important support has been loyal customers. Some of those coming in are the third generation of families he’s assisted over the years.

He’s in it for the long haul and, characteristically, ends our talk on a positive note. “COVID’s maybe helping us regenerate. People are increasingly community-minded and realize how important it is to support local business.”

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