Open Spaces (The Run Diary #10)

This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here. 

At the Collingwood half-marathon finish line with fellow Tribe Fitness runners. Image via Tribe Fitness Facebook page.

At the Collingwood half-marathon finish line with fellow Tribe Fitness runners. Image via Tribe Fitness Facebook page.

Even during the fall, when it remains pitch black until nearly seven o’clock in the morning, I still prefer to run in the very early hours. Schedule doesn’t always permit it, but my most enjoyable runs are those when my feet are the first to touch the sidewalk for that day.

I’m entirely unaccompanied save for the occasional vehicle, but there is never any need to share the sidewalk. The roads I run alongside, which will be swimming with traffic by the time I return home to shower, eat breakfast and leave the house again, are at this time empty. If I wanted to jump on the road and run right down the middle or even zig-zag, I could do so without worry.

I crave open space when I run. Just as much, I crave the absence of sound. In the city, the former is incredibly rare, the latter is impossible. Even before the sun rises, I hear occasional signs of life, perhaps a plane overhead or a vehicle taking off in the distance that I cannot see. These early morning runs, when I can hear my own breath, are the closest I come to any such conditions.

The open space for me is a reminder of the folklore that’s been built around running, a folklore no doubt based on historical evidence, but one that through generations of oral history and re-interpretation is no longer just plain history but scripture who those who pound the pavement; a testament that simple motions of putting one foot in front of the other, breathing rythmically, and swinging our arms naturally at our sides are not just mere recreation, but the essence of our very nature. It’s the folklore of our ancestors running into wide open planes to hunt their prey, of tribes in the Copper Canyons who run hundreds of kilometres at a time not as a matter of competition but as rituals of friendship.

In these very early hours, I look forward and run as my body feels like running. With an empty stretch of sidewalk before me, I push myself to a gruelling pace or trot comfortably. All that matters is that there is an open space before me that I’m running into it.

I trust my body to do what’s right, however fast or slow and for however long it feels like doing it. There are no other runners or pedestrians to share the road with. I don’t worry that I’m moving too slow in comparison to someone else or that I have to hold back to not inconvenience others. My mind is on nothing in particular. I don’t think about running as a matter of fitness, recreation, or even training at this point.

I’m running because it is perfectly natural to run into that open space. This is when I’m happiest that I run.

***

Standing at the starting line of the Collingwood half-marathon, I was elated that I was going to have that open space. The field was small with just under 300 runners gathered. The Blue Mountains were at our backs in the distance. The course was arranged in a rectangular pattern without fancy twists and turns. Other than a brief jaunt through the main street, we would mostly run alongside rolling expanses of farmland.

With such a small field, it would be easy to spend all twenty-one kilometres with a comfortable cushion around me, free to move as I pleased. Perhaps this is why I didn’t feel a hint of nervousness. There was no hype or pre-race festivities. Just a few hundred people gathered on an open road whose name I didn’t know. I agreed to this race only a few days before on suggestion from a friend, so there was no time for overanalysis.

The gun went and I took off into the open space.

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Joy (The Run Diary #9)

This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here. 

From an especially humid summer run. This was only 5k.

Joy is the only sustaining force in life. If you cannot find it in something you undertake, you are bound to fail.

I was coming down Avenue Road from St. Clair Avenue, about fifteen kilometres into the twenty planned for my Saturday group run. Though it was the downhill portion of the run, it was supposed to be the most gruelling and difficult, the final stretch of a long run after you’ve already climbed your hills, hit your peak for speed, and logged more miles than anyone should care to on a Saturday morning.

At this point, you’re just trying to get to the end, praying that your legs will hold up, that you’re not about to suffer the consequences of failing to hydrate or fuel properly. If it’s a group run, you’re praying that you won’t experience the dreaded bonk and have all those who were trailing you fly past while you fall to the back of the pack and waddle your way to the finish. When it comes to the long run, these last few kilometres are usually the least pleasant.

It was our custom to run at 9 am on Saturdays, but this week we moved our start time to an hour earlier. Doing so afforded crisp breezes throughout the route which ran across Lakeshore, up the Don Trail, and through Riverdale Park and its unforgiving Rocky-esque stairs that I climbed onto Sumach Street. From there it was through Wellesley Park and onto Rosedale Valley Road, which also presented a gradual climb onto Yonge Street. Then it was up the not so gradual climb on Yonge to St. Clair, the latter of which we crossed to Avenue Road, where we started this story, to come south.

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Philanthropy (The Run Diary #8)

This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here. The group I run with is called Tribe Fitness and they are absolutely incredible. Check out their Facebook page and find them on Twitter @Tribe_Fitness.

Come run with Tribe.

Come run with Tribe!

On the day I ran the Goodlife Half-Marathon in Toronto, I was walking back to a friend and fellow runner’s car to head home for the day. By this point, we had already met with some other runners and friends to celebrate crossing the finish line with brunch. We walked along Lakeshore where the full marathon was still in progress, well into its later stages. Runners came east for finishing times past the four hour mark to now empty sidewalks that were once filled with spectators who saw the winners cross the finish line two hours previously.

This is the most inspiring part of any marathon. Certainly, it’s nice to see elite runners sustaining superhuman speeds and perfect form hitting the finish with what looks like no effort at all. There’s a little something extra, however, in witnessing the quiet little triumph of those who had the courage to stay on their feet for longer than any normal person would care to early on a Sunday morning.

For one thing, among this group, there’s diversity. Elite runners all look essentially the same, at least in terms of body type. Their stories are often similar as well. They have sponsors and follow a strict training routine that lends itself to high performance running. A few nations now dominate the sport.

Those who fight their way to the finish are a wonderful rainbow of body types, age groups, and abilities. Most had a training plan, but they also had families and careers that got in the way of that training plan, so their journey to the finish line became its own unique path riddled with detours. Among this group, grandparents are running alongside college students. Parents jog along while pushing strollers. Disabled runners share the road with those who at first glance don’t look much like athletes. They’re here, though, so they are.

In my time becoming immersed in Toronto’s running community, having the opportunity to share stories with those who are not at any major race to win, but to face down a monumental challenge and say “I did it,” I’ve learned that every maniac running around the block possesses a brand of determination that goes far beyond meeting a physical challenge. It’s not just that they ran 26.2 or 13.1 miles and did so by pounding the pavement day in and day out. It’s that before they hit the pavement, a significant amount of these late finishers hit rock bottom.

Stand at the finish line of any major marathon past the four hour mark and what you’re seeing is a parade of recovering addicts and alcoholics, victims of severe injuries,  runners who were once at risk of death before they hit thirty, survivors of childhood abuse, and representatives from every point along the bipolar spectrum.

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Reinvention (The Run Diary #7)

This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here. The group I run with is called Tribe Fitness and they are absolutely incredible. Check out their Facebook page.

My Toronto Goodlife Half-Marathon medal.

 

“Once this light changes, you’re going to go as hard as you can over the bridge until you hit the next light.”

“Okay,” I answered.

We were coming south on Spadina Avenue approaching Fort York, which was in and around the end of our route. We had started with a large group right where we were to end, but the two of us were now ahead by a considerable margin.

It’s not that we were consciously trying to finish our planned five kilometres faster than the rest of the group. Running groups all have a tendency to break into clusters, each maintaining a pace that’s comfortable for those in it.

I was running with a member of the group known to be notoriously fast. Even on this particular evening, when he was clearly pulling back, his pace was still frantic, knocking off a kilometre in well under five minutes at peak.

Where many runners welcome stoplights as an opportunity for a quick breather and drink of water, they are for him an inconvenience. When we were as far as fifty yards back from a crosswalk that began to count down to signal “STOP” to pedestrians, he’d say, “There’s ten seconds left on that light. We can make it!”

The light changed and we were off, as hard as we could go. With each second, he moved ahead of me, but I kept my sprint up and refused to stop until we hit the next light. I’d catch him there and we’d finish our run together.

Throughout the whole run, drenched in rain and generally exhausted from trying to keep up, I was determined that I wouldn’t fall behind. I wasn’t going to reward myself with a casual run. I was going to push with everything I had and prove that I was capable of keeping up.

We hit the next light and finished the final stretch of our run together.

 

***

Four days later, I stood at the start line for the Toronto Goodlife Half-Marathon. I was tired again. Work was demanding that week. I had come down with something of a cough and was hacking away even at the start line. I had previously pledged that I would complete the distance in under two hours. Given the circumstances, I began walking back on that goal to others in the days leading up to the race, though all I was really doing was trying to reconcile myself to the idea that I might not hit my target.

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My Own Private 30K (The Run Diary #6)

This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here. The group I run with is called Tribe Fitness and they are absolutely incredible. Check out their Facebook page.

My Around the Bay shoes.

1. You Got This

The night before the 2014 Around the Bay Road Race (ATB), which would be my first time running this race and covering a distance of thirty kilometres, I laced the timing chip to my shoe. Unlike other races, where your chip is attached to the bib that you pin to your shirt, ATB provides a chip through which you weave your laces. This requires that you unlace your shoes, place the chip flat on the throat of your shoe, and relace the shoe, running the laces through the chip.

I noticed that my shoes were worn down. Holes were visible in the fabric near the toe and around the sides. This wasn’t a major issue. The sole of both shoes remained firmly attached, but showed signs of wear and tear. Because I’m a writer, however, everything is a symbol of something and an invitation to reflection on something else.

I never counted the distance these shoes covered, but however many miles it’s been since I first laced them up, that distance includes navigating the Louvre and the halls of Versailles, roaming the grounds of Westminster Abbey, and climbing to the top of the Belfry in Bruges. They also included my first 10K race, my first half-marathon, and as of this writing, the 2014 ATB.

Truth be told, they had overstayed their welcome and would need to be replaced after ATB. I thought about how they survived training right through one of the harshest winters I’d known in my lifetime and figured that like a shopworn fighter, they would give me one more run.

I wove the chip into the right shoe and sent a picture to a friend to ask if I had done it right. I had an extreme case of apprehension that I would do it wrong and somehow my time wouldn’t register at the race. Then I would be considered as not having completed it after months of training and dragging my sorry ass up Valley Inn Hill. She said it was fine.

This type of anxiety is essentially part of my ritual before any event for which I’d long been awaiting. I contemplate all the things that might spoil the occasion. As we stood in the First Ontario Centre the next morning before making our way to the start line, I pondered trivialities out loud. Should I tuck my shirt in for the race? Am I wearing enough layers? Are these socks good? Do I have enough fuel? As if I could change any of these things at this point. With calm and compassion rather than the backhand slap that I probably deserved for all this neuroticism, my fellow runners all affirmed, “You’re fine. You got this. You’re going to do great.”

I suppose this anxiety can’t help but be present, but one thing that I’ve come to adore about running is that it vanishes immediately as I take off. As I run, imperfections never spoil the journey. A little cramping, soreness, or overheating are par for the course and I always find a way to continue. If I’m wearing a bit too much clothing, perhaps a hat or pair of gloves that becomes unnecessary, I tuck them into my fuel belt and continue. I never find this the least bit inconvenient. If I’m running, the desire to continue is so much more powerful than any minor imperfection. Discomfort is something I have learned to power through.

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26 Pieces of Unsolicited Advice

2014 marks twenty-six years on this planet for me. As I’ve done for the past two years, I’m once again taking the opportunity to look back at the people, events, ideas, and experiences that have defined me. At 24, I listed 24 things I learned in 24 years and for 25, I reflected on 25 things for which I was grateful (part one and part two). For 26, I’m running through 26 pieces of unsolicited advice that I feel make for a richer life. Make of them what you will. Here we go…

 

1. If you have the opportunity to grow your own vegetables or seasonings, even just a few tomatoes, do so.

2. Watch the Big Lebowski.

3. If you’re worried that others look down on you for whatever reason, whether it’s your career path, lifestyle choices, or politics, just remember that most people are too damned self absorbed to really care what you do or what you think. In fact, when they asked you about any of these things, they probably didn’t even listen to your response.

4. Read the poetry of Hart Crane.

5. Read the poetry of WH Auden.

6. Listen to the Smiths while reading the poetry of Hart Crane or WH Auden.

7. Specifically for my fellow Torontonians, your city is bigger than your neighbourhood. I understand that our less than stellar transit makes it difficult, but you have to put in the effort to explore all of Toronto. You need to soak up the culture on Queen West and stroll the waterfront, but you also need to bike Rouge Park, see Shakespeare in High Park, and head north of the 401, which is where the best food in the city can be found.

8. Once a week, call up a friend. Pick a coffeshop that you’ve never visited or haven’t visited in a while and go there. Sit across from your friend, or around the table with a few friends, and have a conversation over coffee.

9. Get a public library card and use it.

10. Should you ever find yourself in Paris, you may go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and take pictures. I understand that this is practically mandatory. In addition, however, climb the steps of the Pantheon and Sacre Coeur and take pictures from the top of both places.

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Affirmation (The Run Diary #5)

This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here. The group I run with is called Tribe Fitness and they are absolutely incredible. Check out their Facebook page.

From the Tribe Fitness Facebook page.

It's a paradox of long distance running that while it shows you that your body is capable of much more than you initially thought, you'll also find your limits. Common amongst almost all runners that I've met is a fierce resentment of these limitations and immediate urge to transcend them. They need to run the same hill again tomorrow. They need to immediately register for their next 10K and shatter their personal best.

I can't say that all runners are “type-A” personalities who are ambitious to a fault, but they certainly tend to be self-critical.

Immediately after every run, I briefly lapse into this type of thinking. It's not entirely a bad thing. Looking ahead and setting goals is vital. Outlining a plan for achieving those goals can be tedious, but it's necessary. If overdone, however, it can also suck the energy and enjoyment out of anything. It's a habit of mine that I've often employed professionally, personally, and academically; immediately jumping ahead of the moment to determine what I did wrong and what I'll do better next time.

It's ridiculous to exert so much pressure upon yourself when you're an amateur runner. You as an amateur, after all, have much to celebrate. You made the effort to make fitness a priority in the midst of your day to day schedule. You endured injuries and setbacks on your way to milestone after milestone. You also endured chaffing, and that's a heroic struggle.

***

Five of us gathered at Canoe Landing Park on a Saturday morning. It was the weekend before the Around the Bay 30K Road Race in Hamilton, so we were well into our tapering period, the time to ease off intense training before competition. Our planned route was simple. Fourty-five minutes westbound on the Martin Goodman Trail on Lake Shore Boulevard before turning around and following the trail back.

It was windy as hell, so we began our run going west on King Street. Snow no longer covered the sidewalks, though we did slow down in spots due to ice. King Street is relatively flat and proved a welcome respite from our previous Saturday runs, which were dominated by hills.

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Experience (The Run Diary #4)

This is part of a diary I’m keeping on this blog about long-distance running, which I’m calling The Run Diary. All pieces can be read here. The group I run with is called Tribe Fitness and they are absolutely incredible. Check out their Facebook page.

Fighting my way up the notorious Valley Inn Hill in Hamilton.

No run is created equally. No run, furthermore, is perfect. Every time your feet pound pavement, a wide array of variables, some within and some outside of your control, will leave you wishing something was different that day.

The amount of rest you had before the run, the adequacy of your warmup, your fuelling and hydration strategy, your mental state that day, and how strictly you’ve held to your regiment will all show up on any day. So too will the factors you cannot control, factors such as the weather, the conditions of the surface on which you’re running, and what you might encounter that day. There will never be a day on which all these variables are working perfectly in your favour.

We’re human and we will fall short when it comes to those things we can control. Some nights, sleep will elude us. We’ll give into temptation and throw our dietary requirements aside and this too hinders progress. This is to say nothing of those factors we cannot control.

Time is how most runners measure their success and every run will leave you feeling that you could have shaved a few minutes off your time. This feeling might just be what keeps so many runners chasing the perfect run.

Experience is an obvious factor in determining how well you’ll do on any given course. If you’ve run a trail several times, you know what to expect. Where it turns, where it inclines, even where you might step into a ditch or pothole.

When it comes to covering longer and longer distances, experience obviously matters once again. The longer you have been covering that distance, the more comfortable you will be. You’ll avoid the amateur mistake of starting too fast. You’ll understand how vital hydration and fuelling are throughout your run and that you cannot survive long distances on a few sips of water.

Before you can understand and adopt better strategies, however, you have to endure making every mistake imaginable and looking like a fool. Your body has to suffer the the pain of surviving ordeals it has not previously experienced. First, you have to lament your lack of experience.

***

Seven of us gathered at Canoe Landing Park on a Saturday morning. We would be carpooling to Hamilton to simulate the Around the Bay 30K, which was three weeks away. A few others would meet us in Hamilton, where hundreds of other runners would be doing their own trial runs. Two members of our team who were not running that day would drive the course as we ran and park at designated pit stops where we would pull aside for water, energy gels, orange slices, granola bars, etc.

The purpose of this run was not necessarily to complete it in the best time possible, but to become familiar with the course and get comfortable with the distance. It would be the longest some of us had ever run, myself included.
Understanding this course is especially crucial because Around the Bay is notorious for its hills. Knowing where along the course they lay is key for pacing yourself.

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Validity (Review of 12 Years a Slave)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave. Image via Roger Ebert.

As always, potential spoilers ahead!

When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” – Lupita Nyong’o accepting her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

12 Years a Slave is about life without validity. It’s about the brutality and wastefulness of a life in which one cannot dream their own dreams and where the roles that make a life rich, those of parent, lover, and friend, are forcefully divorced from an individual.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives a life that is rich, one crafted from his own ambitions and potential. He makes his living as a carpenter, kisses his two children goodnight, and accompanies them and his wife to purchase fine cloth. He is the toast of social occasions where he entertains attendants with his finely honed skill on the violin.

Early in the film, Solomon is introduced to two men, Hamilton and Brown, who request that he join them in Washington where their business can use his services as a violinist. When introduced, he is referred to as a distinguished gentleman and called Mr. Northup. He has a name and his accomplishments are lauded.

Hamilton and Brown drug Solomon over dinner. Solomon wakes up in a dark cell in chains, no longer dressed in the fine clothing and top hat he wore previously. He is to be sold into slavery. His jailer does not call him by his name, but refers to him only as “boy.” Where he was once Mr. Northup, a fine violinist with a family and a free man, without the papers to prove otherwise, he is now a Georgia runaway. He is just a nigger now.

In the journey that will take him on a ship to Louisiana, where he will be handed off from owner to owner, beginning with Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), not an outwardly cruel man but a slave-owner all the same, and eventually to the barbarous and unrelenting Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender), the story forces the viewer to witness in detail the gradual stripping away of humanity that was slavery. The film is, at the same time, the story of the struggle of every single person held in bondage to remember against all hope and cruelty that they too are human.

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It’s Complicated (Review of Her)

Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly in Her with Scarlett Johansson in his pocket. Image via Wired.

Warning: Potential Spoliers Ahead!

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) writes letters for a living. He sits at a pristinely organized desk in a pristine and sterile cubicle that’s located within a pristine and sterilized office where other letter writers ply their trade. The letters he writes are addressed to strangers and written on behalf of strangers. Theodore has been writing on behalf of some of these clients, if we may call them that, for years. He dictates the letters to a software that transcribes his words and produces a final document that appears to be handwritten.

When he’s checked out for the day, Theodore gets on an elevator and inserts the earpiece from his smartphone. He asks it to “play a melancholy song,” and in less than a second his command is met.

A melancholy song is fitting. For someone with a romantic attachment to the art of letter writing, these opening scenes can leave you despondent. The most sacred of emotions and actions have been outsourced and expressions of love and longing have lost authenticity because they come from a complete stranger

A handwritten letter is a unique treasure in that it does not strive for efficiency or even necessarily clarity, but instead for vividness. In however many words it may take, letters are confessions of very deep sentiments that we typically guard closely, conveying insecurities and vulnerability and absurd aspirations. We write someone a letter only if we trust them enough to show our scars and silly thoughts. We write to someone if they’re worth the effort of picking up a pen and paper.

The world that Spike Jonze has created in Her is one in which people do not have to expend effort in order for their needs to be met because they can rely on technology to satisfy most of their desires. It’s an intriguing world to look at as realized by Jonze. It looks like what living inside a Macbook might be like. The colour schemes are overwhelmingly simple, but with enough variety to avoid being bland. Nothing is out of place and in the major metropolis that Twombly inhabits, there is no litter and no immediate hints of diversity. Everything on the surface is safe and sterile.

Theodore is in the middle of a divorce from Catherine (Rooney Mara) and as a result is deeply depressed and unsatisfied. He discovers an operating system with aritifical intelligence designed to evolve and adapt. Twombly gives his operating system a female identity who names herself Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and immediately she begins to grow.

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