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.
“Once this light changes, you’re going to go as hard as you can over the bridge until you hit the next light.”
“Okay,” I answered.
We were coming south on Spadina Avenue approaching Fort York, which was in and around the end of our route. We had started with a large group right where we were to end, but the two of us were now ahead by a considerable margin.
It’s not that we were consciously trying to finish our planned five kilometres faster than the rest of the group. Running groups all have a tendency to break into clusters, each maintaining a pace that’s comfortable for those in it.
I was running with a member of the group known to be notoriously fast. Even on this particular evening, when he was clearly pulling back, his pace was still frantic, knocking off a kilometre in well under five minutes at peak.
Where many runners welcome stoplights as an opportunity for a quick breather and drink of water, they are for him an inconvenience. When we were as far as fifty yards back from a crosswalk that began to count down to signal “STOP” to pedestrians, he’d say, “There’s ten seconds left on that light. We can make it!”
The light changed and we were off, as hard as we could go. With each second, he moved ahead of me, but I kept my sprint up and refused to stop until we hit the next light. I’d catch him there and we’d finish our run together.
Throughout the whole run, drenched in rain and generally exhausted from trying to keep up, I was determined that I wouldn’t fall behind. I wasn’t going to reward myself with a casual run. I was going to push with everything I had and prove that I was capable of keeping up.
We hit the next light and finished the final stretch of our run together.
Four days later, I stood at the start line for the Toronto Goodlife Half-Marathon. I was tired again. Work was demanding that week. I had come down with something of a cough and was hacking away even at the start line. I had previously pledged that I would complete the distance in under two hours. Given the circumstances, I began walking back on that goal to others in the days leading up to the race, though all I was really doing was trying to reconcile myself to the idea that I might not hit my target.
The goal nagged at me, however, and I wanted it badly. I wasn’t going to be satisfied with anything less and I would run with every intention of getting it. If the state of my body rendered this impossible, so be it, I told myself. I was not, however, going to back down from my goal before I even crossed the start line.
We were off and I settled into my rhythm quite easily. Heavy breezes were at the back of all runners as we made our way down Yonge Street from Mel Lastman Square. At the three kilometre mark, I pushed passed those who slowed on the serious piece of hill at Yonge and York Mills.
Around Yonge and Eglinton, I spotted the 2:15 pace bunny. I sprinted ahead to ensure that I had a good cushion of space ahead.
I was heating up as we ran through the Rosedale Valley, but had no reason to believe that I would not stay strong for the second half of the race. Emerging onto the Bayview extension, I spotted the 2:00 pace bunny. I bolted again until I was ahead by around 200 metres. My mentality was that I wasn’t there to just finish. I had a goal and I was going to hit it. I wasn’t going to settle for a nice race on a nice day. I wanted my goal.
Coming across Wellington, my legs began to hurt and blood rushed from my arms. This is to be expected. In the words of the wise runner who I described at the beginning of this piece, if you’re not hurting in those last few kilometres, you’re not running fast enough. You’re not pushing hard enough. It’s a race, after all.
About five hundred metres remained and I bolted one last time. This is perhaps my favourite moment of any race. After you’ve given everything and diminished your physical and mental capacity just to keep going, you suddenly find that your legs have a little something extra left in them. I crossed the finish line and breathed a sigh of relief. My goal was achieved.
The ways in which running has changed me are peppered throughout all the writings I’ve done on the subject and most are obvious and expected. Certainly, I am physically healthier. Running has been a weapon against depression and anxiety as effective as anything I can imagine. It’s introduced me a community of Toronto runners who have become a second family.
What’s become evident more and more lately is that running has changed the way I look at myself. In other aspects of my life, I have always been timid. I’m prone to selling myself short. I’m not what you might call a “type-a” personality. A lack of confidence has been a trademark for much of my life. My shortcomings and imperfections are often at the forefront of my mind and as much as I can be a target for others because of them, I just as often target myself.
Like any other human being, I have my insecurities and at times they have literally held me back. I’ve refrained from attending social occasions because I was sure no one really wanted me present. I’ve held back on submitting a job application because I sold myself short right from the get go.
Running has made a difference. When I run, no one can fuck with me. There is no way to deny all that I’ve achieved as a runner. When I run, I chase my goals aggressively. I do not question whether or not I am capable or worthy of pursuing lofty goals. I feel no intimidation at running alongside the fastest runners in a group run. There is no question to me that I leave others in awe when I run.
I am an athlete. I am not just some guy going out for a run. I made myself an athlete with every morning that I dragged myself out of bed before the sun was up to run, with every drink or dessert that I refused, with every godawful kale-laced smoothie I ingested, with every push I made beyond what I thought was my limit.
I build my life around my pursuits as a runner. It’s not something I do when I get the chance. If my schedule demands that my alarm goes off at 4:30 am to run, then I set my alarm for 4:30 am and run. I set my goals, put my head down, and go after them. I say that I am an athlete without any hesitation or shame and that is a forwardness that I only found in myself when I began running.
I was a different person when I ran, but slowly I am sensing a convergence between my running persona and my life lived outside running. Long-distance running is so wonderful because it consumes you and carries into your day to day life the more seriously you pursue it. There is no question now that confidence is within me and that I can love myself. I just needed running to show me that it was possible to feel such things. I am a work in progress, but there is progress and I’ve found within myself the energy to chase that progress with a relentless sense of desire and a refusal to be held back.