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.
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.
2. My Own Private 30K
Over the course of training, I’d found myself giving in more and more to comparing myself to other runners, often to the detriment of my love for running. I had forgotten that I had never run out of any kind of competitive desire, but to teach myself to maintain a greater sense of resilience and cultivate a greater sense of self-worth by going further and further each time. ATB was going to bring that sense back.
The course was rerouted for 2014 and it was no longer true what everyone constantly said about this race, that it was flat for the first 20K and hilly for the last 10K. It was just hilly all the way through now. After running through Hamilton’s industrial center, “Steel Town” proper, you’re then trudging along the crests of the Queen Elizabeth Way. This includes running the on-ramps, which are steeper than you could ever realize when driving. They also turn sharp, forcing the runner to work every damn muscle to stay on course while also getting up the incline.
At the halfway point along Eastport Drive, I felt fine. I unzipped my windbreaker, and tossed my gloves down the front; they were held up by the fuel belt tied around my waist and I wasn’t bothered by them bouncing around as I ran. I had a hell of a lot more energy than I did three weeks prior when I had run a simulation of the course. That I would make the distance was a forgone conclusion.
Most importantly, I was running my own race. I ran at a pace that made me comfortable. I never run with a watch or timer, so I had no idea what that pace was exactly, but I was happy with my progress and didn’t feel that I was overdoing it or not pushing hard enough. In training for this race, I had grown increasingly familiar with my own body and running at the right pace was second nature. I found myself unaware of the runners around me.
I knew they were there and I exchanged glances with them, but never panicked if they surged ahead of me or constantly checked to ensure that those I passed were still behind me. Whether or not I had acheived that resilience that I first hoped to build through running had nothing to do with my performance compared to other runners. Resilience and self-respect are largely demonstrated when no one is looking. If I was truly going to prove that I had grown through running, it mattered only that I continued at all costs and finished this race.
It’s easy to suck it up and show yourself at your best when you’re under the pressure of being watched. It’s easy then, if not imperative, to do the right thing, lest you make a fool of yourself. When no one is watching, it’s convenient to cut corners. When I hit the rolling hills of North Shore Boulevard and my legs began to numb, I could have quit and it would have mattered to no one. I trudged on, clenching my left hand as I tend to do when the pain of running becomes strong, perhaps in attempt to distract from the pain with more pain.
I started to ask myself how much longer it would take to finish this damned race. I passed the 23K marker and thought, okay, only about thirty-five minutes left. This was delusional. Perhaps I could cover that distance in such a time if I was only just starting out and not constantly running uphill, but that wasn’t going to happen here.
I kept going. I remembered and practiced the fundamentals as I hit the final hill of North Shore Boulevard. Back straight, head up, forefoot strike, steady breathing and I hit the summit.
I was tired, but now running on adrenaline as I approached Valley Inn Hill. From across the water on Spring Gardens Road, Valley Inn Hill is visible as a long and steep incline. Also visible are the runners, most of whom have now elected to walk, marching their way up the hill. Off the water, a wind blasted me and could have put me down given how little energy I had left. Three EMS vehicles were parked on the hill, as many I’d seen in the rest of the race combined.
I climbed the hill and was one of the few runners actually running. I didn’t come to walk the hill. Though I knew my time would hardly be impressive as I hit the finish line, I at least wanted to preserve the dignity of having run the hill.
You are not done once you conquer Valley Inn. There are five kilometres remaining and they are hard. They are downhill, but they are hard. I stopped once or twice to walk and felt that maybe I had drunk too much Gatorade. It wasn’t until the final two kilometres that the adrenaline that was carrying me kicked in again and I bolted to the finish line inside First Ontario Centre.
I didn’t notice my time right away and it didn’t really matter. I had nothing to analyze or justify with regard to my performance. I did it. That’s all that really mattered. Thousands of races were run that day. I won mine.
3. Touching the Brink
Those who I had come to Hamilton with and who had completed the race already called at me from the stands. I waved and was quite happy that I wouldn’t have to run anymore and more to my relief, I would no longer have to convince myself to keep going.
That’s a real victory of any endurance event and for me the constant allure of long distance running, however masochistic it might very well be. With each greater distance you cover, you’re reaching out to that brink just beyond where you know you’re capable and testing yourself to see if you’ll back down or keep going. It’s a constant push to see what you’re really made of because the truth is you don’t really know.
I know a little bit more now after ATB and I still want to know more. I probably wasn’t going to run for a few days after crossing the finishing line, that much I knew. I would probably revel in not having to run and the well earned right to indulge in all that I had denied myself to complete this race. I would complain a lot. My mood would probably plummet in the following days – it did – because of all the adrenaline I exhausted in preparing for this experience and now having hit the plateau of it having passed.
For a few days, I wouldn’t think about running. Then I would. Then I would crave the presence of my fellow runners again and look inward for that brink, proud that I still haven’t found the point from which I would retreat, but all the more curious to seek it out once again.
Before that, however, I would just celebrate. I would bask in the love of those who ran this race with me because running is for me as much about love as it is about strife. It’s about loving myself enough to pursue a great passion and take my health seriously. It’s about serving as a model for pushing through every roadblock. It’s about having a space that allows my mind to be clear of anxieties for a time and to exert strength, when in real life I can often be timid. The best of me shows when I run, and I gave it my best that day. That day, I chose love for myself and for those who supported me. You can’t do much more.