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.
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.
On race day, the streets we ran would be closed, but for this run we shared them with pedestrians and vehicles. We hit stoplights that put a brief pause to our momentum. We zigzagged on and off sidewalks that were still caked with ice and snow, which itself takes a bit of energy. It’s always advisable to maintain a straight line when running, but this was not possible. Again, it was not meant to be a perfect run.
An hour in, we had our first pit stop. I stretched and had some orange slices. We mostly had the road to ourselves along the residential streets we were running. It was uneventful thus far. It was cold, but having run throughout the unusually cold winter we had been having, that meant nothing.
Around the Bay is a cruelly designed course where things don’t get interesting until the second half. The first two-thirds of the course or so along Burlington Street and Eastport Drive are flat and straight.
Cutting west off Eastport onto North Shore Boulevard, the experience becomes suddenly less inviting. North Shore Blvd is esentially a series of rolling hills that continue for about five kilometres. They are all steep and they are all long. For the last ten kilometres of the race, your quads are absolutely shredded and your core is massacred from constantly being in climbing mode. Getting out of the North Shore portion of the race also means climbing a short, steep incline and making a sharp left turn to continue the course.
It was by this point that I was experiencing a type of pain that set this apart from any run in the past year. While I had become used to my heart and lungs pushing to their maximum capacity to keep me going up hills and across distances, my legs have usually felt strong. This run was different. After our final pit stop before the final five kilometres, I felt it the most. As we got moving again, my legs seemed as if they were resisting my attempts to move. They dragged as if they were shackled. Every time they hit the ground, I could feel the weight.
During the pit stop, I could tell that my energy levels were severely drained. I grabbed all water and Gatorade in sight and couldn’t seem to stop drinking. In the few minutes before we got moving again, I heard the phrase “Are you okay?” more than I probably had throughout the rest of my life combined.
I trudged the final five kilometeres on the verge of tears. I started to fall back from my group. I was moving against my own will with a voice in my head constantly telling me, “I don’t want to do this.” Every few minutes or so, it would say “I don’t want to run this race,” referring to the upcoming Around the Bay. I had never had such negativity in my mind when running. Running was supposed to be my time to be fearless, confident, and strong.
I finally hit the bottom of the notorious Valley Inn Hill, sometimes known as Achilles’ Hill or Heartbreak Hill. It’s really two hills, the first a moderate incline before a sharp left turn, again a drain on energy, that leads into the final ascent, a short climb but one which looks endless. It’s no exaggeration. While running Valley Inn, you have to crane your neck to see the top. At this point, you’ve already run twenty-five kilometres.
I made it to the top to the cheers of our pit stop crew. “Are you okay?” they asked.
You’ll reach the top; close to death, but you’ll get there. Then you’ll finish your run along York Boulevard, which takes you past Hamilton Cemetery, another cruel aspect of the course design.
Now I was fuelled only by a desire to finish. I knew I was close, but I had fallen back far enough that I couldn’t see any of my fellow runners ahead of me. I was slow. I was wet. I was cold. I was tired.
I heard their cheers again in the distance. I wanted to sprint, but my body wouldn’t have it. I got there when I got there. I was embraced by my running family. “Are you okay?” they all asked.
I devoured the remainder of the oranges and I saw myself in the rearview mirror of the car. I was white. I looked like someone who just saw death. I felt like it too.
At the time, all I could think of were the negatives. I fell too far back. I made the group wait. I felt too exhausted after the distance and had severe doubts that I was capable of running on race day. I still wanted to cry.
Doing something for the first time is always special. The memory is always strong and powerful in shaping you from that point on. What these “firsts” are not, however, is perfect. No one, at least that I know of, has gotten on a bike for the first time and ridden out into the distance. No one has produced a perfect piece of writing on their first go.
Learning can be damned uncomfortable. The whole purpose of learning is to become comfortable with something you are not. For some, the process produces so much frustration and embarassment that giving up feels like the only option. Humans are addicted to competence and the comfort that comes with it; the comfort of predictability and looking capable. We can be so insecure that admitting and exposing our shortcomings is too much to handle, despite the fact that nothing is more crucial to growth.
I felt this as that run ended. I hated being the last to reach our finishing point. I hated looking so haggard that everyone had to ask if I was okay. I hated having to show that I was not the perfect runner, as if there is truly such a thing.
What I needed to understand about this run is that it was one of those “firsts.” I had never run such a long distance before and over such difficult terrain. Though I have been running seriously for about two years, I had only recently began running distances in and around twenty kilometres. This was after a long period of running an average of three kilometers each day and then moving up to five. Eventually, I ran ten.
Each progression yielded a similar ordeal. As a graduate student at Queen’s University, I was incapable of running five consequtive kilometres without stopping to walk. Side stitches were constant companions. Moving up to ten and fifteen kilometres proved to be equally difficult.
Running five kilometeres is not the same as running ten, and it is certainly not the same as running thirty. The progression is not simply a matter of doing the same thing for a longer distance. It’s not even the same physical pursuit. The runner for whom a half-marathon was their greatest distance covered and is now attempting to double that distance is no different than the golfer who suddenly decides that he’d like to train to be a cagefighter.
Running longer distances means you have to start smart and not blow through all your energy. It means that you have to fuel constantly throughout your run. It means that you have to stretch afterward, something that many runners neglect when covering shorter distances. It means wearing the proper attire so that you don’t heat up too fast or experience chaffing. It means understanding every incline and turn along your route. You can go full steam ahead over five kilometers and a hill likely won’t matter at the end. If you’ve already been running twenty kilometres and then encounter an incline, you’re now risking death. Experience and knowledge are the key variables that you can control in running distances over twenty kilometres. Commit to building that experience. Commit to knowing yourself and the course you’re running.
It will take time to get comfortable with thirty kilometres. I will feel this pain again when I go for fourty-two. Running is never the same as you chase new goals. Every distance, and I understand how contrived this may sound, is a new journey. With it comes the opportunity to make the choice to continue or stop; to see these periods of discomfort as growing pains toward greater achievements or to walk away.
Committing to experience is vital to that growth if you truly want it. It’s a matter of accepting a certain paradox that comes with long distance running. The further and the more you run and the further you want to go, the more often you’ll have to feel like a rookie. Experience is nothing more than cumulative failure and discomfort. Sucess is nothing more than experience in action.