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.
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.
We eventually cut down to the Martin Goodman Trail and were greeted by surprisingly calm conditions. In the few times that we ran along the water during the winter, waves were thundering and winds were strong enough to take you right off your feet. Our biggest worry this time around was estimating how deep the puddles formed by melting snow along the trail really were.
We were on the trail for about ten minutes when the three of us who had fallen back reconnected with the two speedier members of the group, who were already turning around after running as far as the Humber Bridge. We reformed as a group of five and began heading east.
I began to run with our two faster members. This had been a mistake in previous weeks when I tried to do the same early on and found myself exhausted halfway through the run. I figured it would do me no harm this week since we only had about foury-five minutes left to run.
“Are you ready for next week?” I was asked.
“Yeah, I think so,” I responded.
“You'll be fine. You're ready.”
“Yeah,” I tend to start a lot of sentences that way. “The distance doesn't worry me. It's amazing to think that I put so much into completing that half-marathon last October, but since the beginning of this year I've pretty much been running two half-marathons a week.” I'm sure I was less lucid in the moment, but that's the gist of what I said.
“What was once a goal is now just another training run,” quipped the other member of our group of three.
They eventually left me in the dust, but I continued without letting my pace drop. I found my way to our post-run meeting spot, not panting or drained, but feeling a bit of an ego-boost at not having to fight my way to the finish. I was standing straight and ready to go another ten kilometeres if I needed to.
Lord knows how many of us gathered at the Yonge Street Running Room the next morning. The store was packed to capacity for an organized tune-up run for the Yonge Street 10K, a race that I was not even planning to run. I was roped into being there by my fellow Saturday runners, most of whom would be running the Yonge Street race. I suppose they somehow saw through to my previous day's thoughts that I could handle another ten kilometeres.
We moaned about being up so early and snapped a few pictures with some Olympians and elite Canadian runners who were in attandance. It was the end of another week in which winter fully asserted itself. Though we had run in colder conditions throughout the winter, running in below freezing temperatures after the supposed first day of spring was irritating.
I didn't know the route beforehand. I just followed the crowd through Hogg's Hollow, one of Toronto's most affluent and impossibly hilly neighbourhoods. I don't know that any of my fellow runners who coaxed me into joining this run knew about these hills either, as they complained vehemently throughout the run. It's not just that there are hills in Hogg's Hollow, but that there is hill after hill after hill. Climb one hill and make a sharp turn to find another.
The hardest part of training for Around the Bay was supposed to be over. Winter was supposed to be over. Yet here I was feeling the coldness in my bones and fighting my way up the steepest hills I'd ever run. Not knowing the route made it feel like there was no end in sight. I constantly said to myself in my mind, “We must have run ten kilometers by now!”
I got up those hills. They were steep, but I conquered them. I survived the cold. Despite the frustrations during the run, I had no complaints at its end. I was asked how I felt. “Great,” I responded.
I was tired, but not defeated or exhausted. All I could really think about when it was over was how incredible it was that I slayed fourteen kilometeres on Saturday and came back for another ten on Sunday.
A few weeks before he died of cancer, college basketball coach Jim Valvano said you should do three things every day. You should laugh, you should spend some time in thought, and you should have your emotions moved to tears. If you do those things every day, Valvano said, you'll be living a full life.
Though I cannot say what prompted it, Sunday was a breakthrough in this regard. I took my focus off of what was next and where I would go from that point on and spent a few moments after the run in silence. I stretched and breathed in the morning's cold air before I mingled with the other runners finishing up. On past occasions, I have felt the urge to apologize for how I'd run when no one had asked for any such apology, but now the urge was absent.
It's a richer life that running has given me, though I sometimes fail to realize that. It gives my mind respite from the mundane and time to marvel at the wonderfully eclectic people and communities peppered throughout my city and who make up my fellow runners. It fills me to the brim with a sense of confidence and affirmation. When I run, after I've gotten over that brief moment of negativity, laughter and contentedness permeate my day.
My hardest runs are exercises in extreme emotion, from the feelings of near flight when I pick up speed to the battles my mind and body wage just to continue. Every run is a reminder of your very humanity, of your demons but also of your strength and resilience. Every run humbles me and instills gratitude for another day spent moving.
If you can keep the habit, every run becomes a reminder of how far you've come. As you cover greater distances and feel less aches and pains, as you maintain more energy throughout the day, you'll be grateful. That's a full life.
It's okay to celebrate this. It's okay to take a turn away from self-critique to self-affirmation now and then and be moved to tears by the fact that you refused to be stopped. The need to set goals and evaluate progress is obvious, but for me it's been less intuitive to just bask in the glory of my progress as a runner.
Long distance running, however, is about embracing the counterintuitive. It's about eschewing convenience and comfort in a world that's more convenient and comfortable than ever. It's about embracing a long journey in a world obsessed with quick fixes. Perhaps in a world filled with judging and critiquing, directing these actions at ourselves more than any other, every run should offer a moment to celebrate ourselves.