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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Aging Gracefully (The Run Diary #3)

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 Tribe Fitness’ Long Run on January 12, 2014. Strongest winds of the year that day. Image via Tribe Fitness Facebook Page.

The day after my weekly long run, I sat around a table with friends in a Cabbagetown cafe conversing over tea. The friend sitting across from me had her birthday coming up the next weekend. It would not be a landmark birthday or one of those supposed milestones that are arbitrarily assigned to certain ages. Nonetheless, a birthday is always a mark of aging, something we’re supposed to fear.

“I’m not worried about aging at all,” she said.

I took another gulp of my chai, using both hands as required by the gargantuan teacup, which was really more of a bowl. That’s not a bad thing. Tea, especially good tea, ones with distinct and strong flavours which we would disgrace by adding milk or sugar, should not be consumed in polite little sips out of cups that couldn’t hold portions fit for even children. It should be savoured in quanities large enough to go beyond a mere sampling. A cup should last long enough to let the drinker experience its flavour more and more with each sip. It should last long enough to serve as accompaniment for long conversations or moments of reverie and contemplation.

I digress.

I didn’t have much of a response to the comment in the moment, but it lingered in my mind for some time after.

There comes a time in a runner’s journey when every single thing in life is analogous to some aspect of running and running is a metaphor for every aspect of life. Everything is seen through the lens of running. Everything you encounter reminds you of a recent run or someone you ran with. Your anecdotes at parties all involve running and it’s probably insufferable.

I thought then about what running meant to the aging process. Simple facts indicate that running has made the aging process more pleasant. I am healthier at 25 than I was at 20, both mentally and physically. I am running greater distances now than when I first started and there are still greater distances to go. I love myself a hell of a lot more since I’ve been able to call myself a runner. If aging is judged to be positive or negative depending on how comfortable you feel in your own skin, then the past few years have been undoubtedly positive.

***

Six of us gathered at Canoe Landing Park on a Saturday morning. The conditions were the most pleasant they’d been all winter. The cold was there, but not overbearing. The sun was visible if you stood in the right place. It felt quite mild and no violent winds were blowing.

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Unconditional Love (The Run Diary #2)

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.

***

“There can be no fairer spectacle than that of a man who combines the possession of MORAL beauty in his soul, with OUTWARD beauty of body, corresponding and harmonizing with the former, because the same great pattern enters into both.”

That’s Isocrates speaking in Plato’s Republic. Obsession with the human form and lust after its dazzling beauty, especially in displays of strength, are not new. The athlete’s body is and always has been revered, sometimes in its execution of a brilliant physical achievement, sometimes reduced to a mere object in neglect of the athlete’s actual skill and ability.

We’ve accrued well over two mellenia of praise for the athletic form and I won’t be adding to that. I won’t be adding to it because I am a long distance runner. There are few statues, poems, or etchings glorifying the long distance runner, his seemingly malnourished upper-body perched magnificently atop long, sinewy legs. Having run seriously for about two years now, I know that where beauty is concerned, there’s not much to say for the long-distance runner.

Pheidippides statue along the marathon route. Image via Wikipedia.

When Ancient Athenians first gathered to pay tribute to the gods, there was no marathon.The marathon finds its origins in myth. After the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Pheidippedes runs from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory, instantly collapsing from exhaustion after having done so. There is no evidence of this having actually occured, and there is no such run recounted in Herodotus.

The contrast is perhaps a tad morbid. Where sprinters, javelin throwers, charioteers, and fighters are celebrated for raw power, history’s most famous long-distance runner is etched in our consciousness as succumbing to a more gruesome fate. While the original Olympians are celebrated across every artform, Pheidippedes’ run was not actually written about at all. Modern times have been kinder and he now has a statue along a highway in Greece.

***

Five of us gathered at Canoe Landing Park on a Saturday morning. The temperature was in and around -20 degrees celsius. I was the first to arrive and spent the time waiting for others running laps around the park and being chased by dogs so that the cold wouldn’t pierce my bones.

Our intention was to run north along Bathurst until Davenport Road. From there, we would cut right to the bottom of Casa Loma, which happens to be on top of a hill. We would climb that hill and turn right again once we hit the top and find ourselves on Spadina Road. After reaching the top of Spadina, which also boasts a gigantic hill, we would then head down Bathurst Street, one street west of Spadina, to find ourselves back at the bottom of the hill, which we would repeat two more times.

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Uphill (The Run Diary #1)

Getting up hills is the necessary evil of long-distance running. Inclines provide a form of resistance training that strengthens one’s calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, all of which when stronger produce greater speed and endurance on flat terrain.

Especially for the novice runner, hills are an exercise in extreme cruelty. Your strides shorten, requiring your body to expend more energy. You fight to hold your body upright against its urge to fall forward, leaving you hobbling in a stupor of physical pain. Your breath becomes short.

The pain persists even after you’ve reached the summit. Your muscles want no more and as your feet hit the ground after an uphill climb, you feel that you are pounding the pavement with ten times your actual weight.

Hills slow you down. No runner enjoys this. Hills rob you of the joy of flying downhill or speeding across flats with no resistance, times when you fantasize that you are about to speed past the finish line at Boston. This is when you are invincible and possibilities are infinite.

Going uphill, your mind doesn’t have the luxury of wandering. It is too busy pouring every last iota of its capacity into getting to the end of the ascent. It is locked into a vicious confrontation with your body, which does not understand why you are inflicting this ordeal upon yourself.

The body, conditioned as it is to the sedentary nature of modern life, does not understand your demand that it traverse hills and continue moving for upwards of three hours. All it can do is react to external conditions and realities.

So cliché is it to say that long-distance running is as much mental as it is physical. Anyone who has ever hit a significant incline, especially one more than halfway into a long run, would probably also say that it’s false – it’s more mental than physical. There comes a point where your mind begins to agree with your pain-ridden body. While it began with the notion that your body will thank it later, your body begins to win the argument.

***

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An Atheist Reads the Bible – Part 3 (Rocky Road to Redemption)

Part 3 of my series An Atheist Reads the Bible. This piece covers the first half of Acts of the Apostles. Other pieces in this series can be read here.

1. Preaching to the Converted

The most iconic story in the Book of Acts is the transformation of Saul of Tarsus into Paul the Apostle, brought about by his pledge to accept the teachings of Christ and begin preaching to Jew and Gentile alike. This sudden turnaround, and it is quite sudden, comes for Paul after a career persecuting the early followers of Jesus.

The story is familiar. On the road to Damascus, Paul is met with a vision of the resurrected Jesus who says, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me (Acts, 9:4)?” An awestruck Paul asks what he must do, to which the vision replies, “Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do (Acts, 9:6).”

Paul is left blind for three days before being cured by Ananias, a recent disciple who was commanded by a vision of Jesus to find Paul and restore his sight. Jesus informs Ananias that Paul is “…a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles and kings, and the children of Israel (Acts, 9:15).”

When Ananias reaches Paul and lays his hand upon the latter, the scales that blinded Paul fall from his eyes, restoring his sight, and “straightway in the synagogues he proclaimed Jesus, that he is the Son of God (Acts, 9:20).”

Saul of Tarsus, who previously “laid waste the church, entering into every house, and dragging men and women committed them to prison (Acts, 8:3),” is now Paul the Apostle, to whom a significant chunk of the New Testament has often been attributed, and the founder of Christianity’s first established churches.

Paul’s work dominates much of Acts and so too does the theme of conversion. The number of disciples increases throughout the text, beginning when the Apostles choose seven men to take up the responsibility of preaching Christ. Among them is Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (Acts, 6:5),” who, “full of grace and power, wrought great wonders and signs among the people (Acts, 6:8).” Those within the synagogues who engage in disputes with Stephen over his preachings are “not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spake (Acts, 6:10).”

Stephen becomes the first martyr of Christianity, stoned to death for what at the time were heretical beliefs.  Stephen, however, is ultimately the victor. Though he dies, he is willing to die. The Apostles as a collective are willing to defy the authorities in the synagogues. They are the conveyors of a truth received directly from on high and will not be silenced. They are at all costs to bring the teachings of Jesus to the masses.

This is very much a text for the faithful. It may seem silly to say such a thing about a section of the Bible, a book dedicated entirely to faith, but Acts is without question the most religious section of the Bible that I have read so far. Here, Christianity is becoming a religion, transforming a collection of fragmented teachings of a single preacher from Nazareth into a cohesive movement that is rebelling against existing institutions and in the very early stages of becoming its own institution.

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