1. Digging Deep
Strictly from appearance, the neighbourhood of Three Valleys isn’t necessarily aptly named. Three Hills would probably be more accurate, and short though steep hills at that. No traces of the wilderness of the Rockies are visible in this highly developed and more upper-middle class section of the York Mills/Don Mills part of Toronto, though an abundance of beautiful parkland is available and the streets are well lined with trees offering shade, a godsend on the runs I’ve been taking through this part of town as of late.
It’s on those runs, when judging Three Valleys not just by appearance, but by the experience of having to get up and down its hilly terrain that it might as well be called Three Mountains. My run begins by following nearby Brookbanks Drive, which is primarily flat before becoming gradually downhill over a long stretch and then coming to the three “valleys” that take you past the DVP onto Three Valleys road itself, the first of which begins with a long descent the likes of which often tempt amateur runners to pick up too much speed and exhaust themselves early.
If one follows Three Valleys Road to its end, and I do, you will come to a cul-de-sac after which your only option is to turn around and begin following Three Valleys Road in the direction in which you first came. No matter which route I decide to take back home, even if I take side streets to avoid the three hills on Brookbanks Drive that initially brought me down to Three Valleys, the way would still be uphill.
That long downhill stretch that I followed to get to Three Valleys is now entirely uphill on my way back, including that first long plunge that feels akin to a downward glide before facing the hill that awaits. Facing that plunge from the opposite direction, the ultimate clichés of athletics begin to assert their truth. Now comes the moment when one has to “dig deep” and give “110 percent” in the sprint to the top, which as mentioned is not particularly long, but long enough for the average non-professional runner and certainly steep enough that one rarely sees a cyclist riding up rather than walking their bike. Once I reach the top of this hill, I cut right off Brookbanks and begin moving downhill again before making a loop to move toward home, once again facing another steady uphill climb. The geography isn’t especially important. Just that there are a lot of hills.
2. A Brilliant Addiction
Initially, before making that right turn at the top of the big plunge into Three Valleys, I would slow down and walk for about 200 metres or so before I began running again. In earlier days, when I rode my bike through this part of town, I would have to stop at the top for several minutes – that is, if I actually managed to ride to the top, which of course would only be done by coming all the way down to first gear.
It was only last week that I did what I initially thought to be impossible when I first began taking these runs just about a month ago, having previously relegated myself to flatter areas of town. After digging myself out of Three Valleys and moving to make that aforementioned right turn, I simply kept running without slowing my pace, which I kept up throughout the duration of the run.
Moments such as the one above are the most euphoric ones a runner can experience, and if you run consistently you will likely experience them on a daily basis. Running half a mile longer than you did the day before, stopping one less time than you were a week prior, losing that pain in your heel that came with your initially poor technique. Each of these instances, no matter how small and trivial – running a mile in twelve minutes on a flat surface once seemed impossible to me – are precisely what make running such a force for positivity in one’s life. On an almost daily basis, I have been exceeding my previous performance and having to reassess my conception of what was possible and what my body could achieve.
It sounds so incredibly contrived, but to learn each day that your body is capable of so much that is often inconceivable in our sedentary modern world provides an adrenaline and positivity that seeps its way into every other aspect of your life. We know from copious medical and scientific studies that physical activity is not only good for our bodies but also our minds. Nonetheless, the truth of this comes only with experiencing that benefit firsthand. This is what spurs the addiction to running that makes one feel super-human, maybe even god-like. At the same time, however, running feels natural and like something that one should have been doing all along, as if it were an irrevocable part of what makes us human.
3. Something Like the Gods
Running is something I took seriously in my high school years but let fall by the wayside throughout my university years, during which it was present but hardly consistent. It came back into my life earlier this year as part of a lofty aspiration to run a full marathon. This goal arose out of the fact that fatigue become my default state of being during my university years, as it is for many students. I left school mentally exhausted and physically out of shape. When it was all said and done, I needed something to instill a sense of confidence that I too often lacked, one that came with exceeding one’s greatest expectations of oneself and accomplishing a goal that one sets and conquers step by step. I can’t say how, but running a marathon became that goal.
To complete a full marathon, just to cross the finish line, is indeed an awe-inspring and unquestionable achievement. Athletics and demonstrations of physical strength were revered by ancient civilizations and continue to be so today in the modern reincarnation of one of the most well-known ancient traditions, the Olympics.
In his superbly addictive exploration of the cultural significance of the athlete throughout history entitled Something Like the Gods: A Cultural History of the Athlete from Achilles to LeBron, author Stephen Amidon recounts that the Greek athlete was revered almost to the point of worship. Pointing to the funeral games staged for Patroclus in the Iliad, Amidon writes that athletic competition among the Greeks was a means of pleasing and demonstrating courage to the gods:
As with their primitive ancestors, the Greeks are performing not just for each other, or even for any Trojans who might be watching from the ramparts. Their audience is the gods. These are, after all, funeral games. Athletic intensity is intended to impress the heavenly spectators waiting to usher Patroclus to the next world. It is only by competing as hard as possible that these Greek warriors can truly honor their fallen comrade (p.8).
So it is that the origins of the Olympics were likely religious in nature, though this is something we cannot know for certain. Amidon does note, however, that they took place where Zeus supposedly wrestled Kronos for rulership of the universe. The athletes, adored for their skill and courage, were accorded the same worship reserved for mythical heroes. Amidon continues,
…there was something special about the games at Olympia. It was here that the athlete became a figure who bridged the gap between the sacred and the secular. Godlike in his aura, he was also very earthly in his sweat and struggles. Greek myths were full of epic contests and examples of heroism; in the Olympic games, people could see them play out before their eyes (p.15).
Surely to many it will sound silly to claim that my newly adopted hobby and ultimate goal, which is still incredibly distant, gives me a sense of identification with the Greek tradition of athletics elevating one to god-like status, especially as I happen not to believe in the gods of Greek mythology or any god for that matter. Nonetheless, and again this might sound straight out of a flavour of the month self-help book, but it seems to me that the sense of euphoria that these competitors must have felt and still do feel can be felt by any of us in small ways. What these Greek heroes did was exceed expectations and push themselves to win at all costs. This is something we can all surely can do.
To me, running has been a competition with myself and each win is more thrilling than the last. One does not need the lifetime of riches and adulation attained by the legends of the ancient Olympiad, but one can have the out of body experience that comes from pushing beyond our personal limits.
These experiences can start with the small steps discussed earlier, and if you are truly diligent, they can accumulate substantially over time. On Amidon’s interpretation, the Greeks understood that there was a need to challenge ourselves, to prove our courage, and when we met those challenges we realized that we are much more than we may have initially thought ourselves to be. Maybe not literally god-like, but certainly extraordinary.
4. Curro Ergo Sum
Strangely, while running conjures emotions that one is pulling off a super-human feat, it also seems to make your body want to do nothing else. Since delving into this hobby, I’ve come to anticipate my runs, especially the longer ones, more than I could ever anticipate sitting at a desk or getting in a car, plane or train. Having developed a consistency in my running habits, my body constantly wants to move. If getting somewhere requires less than a half-hour walk, then there is no way I’m getting there by any other means. It feels so natural to be moving, a necessity to our mental and physical well-being. No matter how super-human it may make us feel, it is at the same time fundamentally human.
Supposedly, this feeling is founded in our very makeup and history as a species. According to the CBC documentary The Perfect Runner, human beings are just that. Us bipeds ran as a matter of survival. Given that we could not match our predators, also our prey, in terms of speed given the makeup of our bodies, we in turn developed the skill of endurance running as a means of adaptation. Anthropologist Niobe Thompson writes,
For the past 2 million years, humans have proactively hunted the four-legged animals in our environment, and it appears we did it by running. Using a practice called “persistence hunting”, hunters tracked and ran their prey to exhaustion. We can infer this because while we were eating meat from our first days as Homo, sophisticated tool cultures emerged only about 200,000 years ago; before this, the human body itself was our primary weapon.
Thompson adds that our physical bodies were simply made for endurance running rather than sprinting,
The body of Homo sapiens can do two things remarkably well: stride efficiently and regulate body temperature. The human leg, from the build of the arched foot to the network of long tendons running up the calf and thigh, is a perfectly formed marriage of muscle and energy-returning “springs”. The large bum muscle – the gluteus maximus– is unique to humans among the primates and propels us forward while stabilizing our torso as we stride. A large rope – the nuchal ligament – runs up the back of the head to stabilize the cranium during running. Our withered arms, in comparison to our primate cousins, are structured to swing as counterweights to our body’s motion without tiring our shoulders.
The result of this pattern of history was the advent of the aforementioned persistence hunting, whereby humans would track and follow prey over an extended period of time, allowing themselves to cool down in the process, which our body accomplishes through perspiration, while their prey heated up and eventually collapsed from exhaustion. Our survival and development of our species, according to proponents of the “born to run” thesis, was contingent on our ability to run for extended periods of time.
Persistence hunting has now died out thanks to guns and for us in the West, the local grocery store or supermarket. Nonetheless, the abilities so well honed by our ancestors continue to call out to us. Sedentariness, not running, the latter now surrounded by a billion dollar industry that Thompson rightly points out our ancestors never required, is a modern invention. When we run, we are simply doing what we have always done because it was necessary. There is no debating the horrors of inactivity on both our mental and physical well-being. Just as the earliest hominids ran from predators and to find food, we too run from our own modern predators, namely the disease and depression wrought by inactivity.
Running has now become so addictive that my goal of running a full marathon has expanded to a desire to run every major race. Berlin, Bordeaux, Toronto, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, London, Athens, and dare I say it, Boston. Like Dr. Thompson in The Perfect Runner, I have even toyed with the idea of an ultra-marathon. As progress builds day by day, I feel that these growing ambitions speak to the aforementioned ability of running and athletics as a whole to force individuals to reconsider their conception of the possible. Suddenly, twenty-six miles seems quite feasible, and not just once, but several times over the course of a lifetime that values and respects our capabilities as natural athletes.
As much as we are thinkers, builders, innovators, and creators of convenience, we are also movers. Run to the best of your ability, no matter how slow and how short a distance you might be able to manage. Then run again, maintaining caution and not pushing yourself beyond your capabilities. Keep running. Build your capacity day by day and it will leave no doubt in your mind that we were built for this. We were, in the words of a great man, born to run.
The NOVA documentary Marathon Challenge takes a group or ordinary folks, including one who has suffered from heart disease and another who is HIV positive, and puts them to the test of training for and eventually running the Boston Marathon. It can be viewed on Youtube and comes highly recommended (link).
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