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.
When you’ve immersed yourself in running long enough and have had to map enough weekly long runs, you will find that you have developed a proclivity for certain streets and routes. Such tendencies are underpinned by reasons or feelings that are entirely opposite.
You may decide from week to week that your run ought to include at least some stretch of the Don Trail because you crave an open pathway that for the most part drowns out the noise of the city through which it runs. You may find yourself making your way to the Martin Goodman Trail because even in the cruelest grip of winter, the waters are blessed company. You may choose to run along Queen Street in either direction because a new cafe is perpetually opening and you’ve heard that the pastries are just divine so you’ll need to end your run there.
On the other hand, you’ll accept the fact that your run might need a hill so you’ll make Pottery Road or Colborne Lodge or Mount Pleasant part of your route. Each becomes an accepted enemy that you begrudgingly set out to conquer time and time again, driven by a need to make a more powerful statement against long stretches of trail or concrete that you’ve determined have conscious intentions to take your soul.
This is not such a bad thing. It’s good to run along routes on which you feel comfortable and where your focus can be on the fundamentals of running rather than figuring out when your next left is approaching or having to recalibrate after taking a wrong turn. All runners have a stock “out and back” that they will take on days when they couldn’t be bothered to map out a route ahead of time. There are routes that they know will give them 20 kilometers and they can add on to the end should it be necessary. It eliminates some of the grunt work.
Landmarks provide predictability along these preferred routes. Buildings, slight changes in geography, bridges, and street names all give indicators of where you are and what might be coming. When you go south on the Don Trail and cross Pottery Road, you know that you are just about a kilometer away from the graffiti laden tunnel after which there is a slight hill, one just steep enough for you to feel it. It won’t take you by surprise. Along your more familiar routes, you’ll know every single coffee shop and water fountain where you can refill and the knowledge provides comfort as humidity smothers you.
When you run a route enough, a form of landmark that is not seen but felt will establish itself at various points throughout, a very powerful emotional response to a place. As far as running goes, they are reminders. Monuments might be the better term.
One of my favourite pieces of road has become the southbound stretch along Mount Pleasant Road beginning at Eglinton. Mount Pleasant eventually becomes Jarvis and ends at Sugar Beach, a sandy and isolated oasis in the city’s baselands scattered with comically large and flamboyant pink umbrellas.
It’s a mostly downhill stretch, though I’ve come to anticipate the brief uphill interludes so they don’t bother me, which is a welcome reprieve since my route through uptown to find myself at the top of Mount Pleasant involves constant rolling hills. Knowing that I have put these hills away in the first half of the run gives me permission to challenge myself to pick up the pace and earn a negative split.
It’s usually free of pedestrians early in the morning when I take my Saturday long run and is pretty well shaded all the way through. For twenty kilometres, I can take the stretch all the way down and end my run at the St. Lawrence Market or in St. James Park.
If I need more mileage, I take King Street east toward Riverdale and head north on Broadview so that the view of Downtown from the top of Riverdale Park greets me at the finish. If I need a truly long run, the aptly named among runners “long ass run,” I take Jarvis all the way to its end at Sugar Beach and head west along Queen’s Quay and eventually the Martin Goodman Trail.
One of my first such runs was in September of 2014 in the build toward my first marathon the following month. I was slated to cover 35 kilometres, 22 of which would have been complete by the time I hit Sugar Beach having flown down Jarvis. Then I stopped. I thought I would take it slowly for the remainder, but I knew in my mind that I wasn’t moving. I stared out at the pink umbrellas and almost wept, wondering if the marathon would just elude me after so much work.
I had run farther in the past but this was to be my longest run yet and I had failed. A whole host of factors, some my fault and some beyond my control, meant that my run for that day was over.
I still love this route and when I continue past Sugar Beach, either east toward Cherry Street or west along the Martin Goodman, I always recall that this was the exact spot where I once shut down and there’s a little extra triumph as I continue.
It’s the same as I run south on Victoria Park past Lawrence, which in the beginning was my self-imposed boundary as I tried not to venture too far from home out of fear that I wouldn’t have the ability to make it back. Now I know that this point marks only the end of a warm up and it fills me with a bit of glee knowing that I will go at least another 20 kilometres.
Doubt will always plague the long distance runner, perhaps because there’s a sense that what you do is unnatural or overly ambitious and therefore can’t sustain itself. Even the seasoned marathoner in the midst of their build toward their next 42 wonders if mind and body still have the capacity to endure all that such a venture entails. These monuments remind us that we have put that doubt to rest in the past and can certainly do so again.
I’ve now left monuments all across the city. Along the east side of Casa Loma where I once struggled to breathe, I now attack that hill with a little extra intensity. These monuments don’t always mark points where I once failed. Armoury Road at Toronto City Hall, the official start of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon, makes me crave the start line again and its unique blend of nervousness, excitement, fear, and eagerness.
All victories and setbacks are now mapped across Toronto and I visit them frequently while running. It’s good to relive these memories, to visit these monuments, somewhat akin to opening a high school yearbook and giving praise for how much you’ve hopefully wised up over the years and how your horizons have expanded beyond anything you could have imagined then.
Your mind leaves them there for you to observe them. It leaves them because it wants you to remember that your current triumphs are sprung from a decision to continue. We are pulled back to them because we need reminders that current struggles were past aspirations.
Disgruntled students are trudged through a museum to instil some sense of nationalism by viewing relics of a nation’s past, the supposedly great accomplishments of dead men. Runners are more privileged, curating and growing their own private museum of living, breathing victories. We swell with pride as we encounter them and so we are right to revisit them often.