Monuments (The Run Diary #13)

The view from Riverdale Park, where I often end my long runs.

The view from Riverdale Park, where I often end my long runs.

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.

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Ownership (The Run Diary #11)

 

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.

Freezing in the lead-up to the start of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Image via Tribe Fitness.

“So, why, mortal men, do you pursue happiness outside yourselves, when it lies within? Error and ignorance derange you…as long as you are in command of yourself, you will possess what you would never wish to lose, and what Fortune can never withdraw from you.” -Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy

The marathon doesn’t truly get interesting until around the 35K mark. If you trained sensibly, there was never any question in your mind that you would make it to this point. Strength, form, pacing, and fuelling, all the external physical factors that make a runner, have carried you.

Suddenly you have only a short distance remaining, one that is almost laughable in its smallness to you who have made 30 kilometres a mere formality. Nonetheless, as if almost on cue, the entire dynamics of the race have changed. Looking around, you see that more and more runners have stopped to walk. You see that their form has become a bit more hunched and you know that yours has as well. The distance markers that were plotted throughout the course to mark the passing of each kilometre seem to take longer to appear.

Physically, you have reached your capacity. You trudge along constantly repeating the mantra, “Almost there. Just finish.” You might take a glance over your shoulder or to the other side of the course to see runners still completing the “out” of an “out and back” portion of the course. You, or at least I, wonder if I were in their position, with so much time already elapsed, with the the majority of runners having already crossed the finish line, and yet with so much distance and time to go, whether or not I would have the strength to continue.

The intangibles now propel you. In the course of your training, you’ve built character as well as fitness. You’ve become quite adept at suffering and have accepted discomfort as a constant companion. More importantly, you’ve learned not to quit in the face of these malevolent forces. You have grit. You have desires that are stronger than anything that may deter you.

If you shed tears along the way, if you look somewhat foolish, if failure feels imminent at points, that’s fine. Such is the price you pay for your ambition. We often find ourselves dangerously addicted to comfort because we are so fearful of these things. It is why perhaps we refrain from setting goals that are out of the ordinary because such aspirations mean a commitment to constant setbacks and failures. Indeed, you will shed what feels like a million tears and look foolish a million times before you experience one triumph.

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Open Spaces (The Run Diary #10)

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. 

At the Collingwood half-marathon finish line with fellow Tribe Fitness runners. Image via Tribe Fitness Facebook page.

At the Collingwood half-marathon finish line with fellow Tribe Fitness runners. Image via Tribe Fitness Facebook page.

Even during the fall, when it remains pitch black until nearly seven o’clock in the morning, I still prefer to run in the very early hours. Schedule doesn’t always permit it, but my most enjoyable runs are those when my feet are the first to touch the sidewalk for that day.

I’m entirely unaccompanied save for the occasional vehicle, but there is never any need to share the sidewalk. The roads I run alongside, which will be swimming with traffic by the time I return home to shower, eat breakfast and leave the house again, are at this time empty. If I wanted to jump on the road and run right down the middle or even zig-zag, I could do so without worry.

I crave open space when I run. Just as much, I crave the absence of sound. In the city, the former is incredibly rare, the latter is impossible. Even before the sun rises, I hear occasional signs of life, perhaps a plane overhead or a vehicle taking off in the distance that I cannot see. These early morning runs, when I can hear my own breath, are the closest I come to any such conditions.

The open space for me is a reminder of the folklore that’s been built around running, a folklore no doubt based on historical evidence, but one that through generations of oral history and re-interpretation is no longer just plain history but scripture who those who pound the pavement; a testament that simple motions of putting one foot in front of the other, breathing rythmically, and swinging our arms naturally at our sides are not just mere recreation, but the essence of our very nature. It’s the folklore of our ancestors running into wide open planes to hunt their prey, of tribes in the Copper Canyons who run hundreds of kilometres at a time not as a matter of competition but as rituals of friendship.

In these very early hours, I look forward and run as my body feels like running. With an empty stretch of sidewalk before me, I push myself to a gruelling pace or trot comfortably. All that matters is that there is an open space before me that I’m running into it.

I trust my body to do what’s right, however fast or slow and for however long it feels like doing it. There are no other runners or pedestrians to share the road with. I don’t worry that I’m moving too slow in comparison to someone else or that I have to hold back to not inconvenience others. My mind is on nothing in particular. I don’t think about running as a matter of fitness, recreation, or even training at this point.

I’m running because it is perfectly natural to run into that open space. This is when I’m happiest that I run.

***

Standing at the starting line of the Collingwood half-marathon, I was elated that I was going to have that open space. The field was small with just under 300 runners gathered. The Blue Mountains were at our backs in the distance. The course was arranged in a rectangular pattern without fancy twists and turns. Other than a brief jaunt through the main street, we would mostly run alongside rolling expanses of farmland.

With such a small field, it would be easy to spend all twenty-one kilometres with a comfortable cushion around me, free to move as I pleased. Perhaps this is why I didn’t feel a hint of nervousness. There was no hype or pre-race festivities. Just a few hundred people gathered on an open road whose name I didn’t know. I agreed to this race only a few days before on suggestion from a friend, so there was no time for overanalysis.

The gun went and I took off into the open space.

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Joy (The Run Diary #9)

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. 

From an especially humid summer run. This was only 5k.

Joy is the only sustaining force in life. If you cannot find it in something you undertake, you are bound to fail.

I was coming down Avenue Road from St. Clair Avenue, about fifteen kilometres into the twenty planned for my Saturday group run. Though it was the downhill portion of the run, it was supposed to be the most gruelling and difficult, the final stretch of a long run after you’ve already climbed your hills, hit your peak for speed, and logged more miles than anyone should care to on a Saturday morning.

At this point, you’re just trying to get to the end, praying that your legs will hold up, that you’re not about to suffer the consequences of failing to hydrate or fuel properly. If it’s a group run, you’re praying that you won’t experience the dreaded bonk and have all those who were trailing you fly past while you fall to the back of the pack and waddle your way to the finish. When it comes to the long run, these last few kilometres are usually the least pleasant.

It was our custom to run at 9 am on Saturdays, but this week we moved our start time to an hour earlier. Doing so afforded crisp breezes throughout the route which ran across Lakeshore, up the Don Trail, and through Riverdale Park and its unforgiving Rocky-esque stairs that I climbed onto Sumach Street. From there it was through Wellesley Park and onto Rosedale Valley Road, which also presented a gradual climb onto Yonge Street. Then it was up the not so gradual climb on Yonge to St. Clair, the latter of which we crossed to Avenue Road, where we started this story, to come south.

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Philanthropy (The Run Diary #8)

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 and find them on Twitter @Tribe_Fitness.

Come run with Tribe.

Come run with Tribe!

On the day I ran the Goodlife Half-Marathon in Toronto, I was walking back to a friend and fellow runner’s car to head home for the day. By this point, we had already met with some other runners and friends to celebrate crossing the finish line with brunch. We walked along Lakeshore where the full marathon was still in progress, well into its later stages. Runners came east for finishing times past the four hour mark to now empty sidewalks that were once filled with spectators who saw the winners cross the finish line two hours previously.

This is the most inspiring part of any marathon. Certainly, it’s nice to see elite runners sustaining superhuman speeds and perfect form hitting the finish with what looks like no effort at all. There’s a little something extra, however, in witnessing the quiet little triumph of those who had the courage to stay on their feet for longer than any normal person would care to early on a Sunday morning.

For one thing, among this group, there’s diversity. Elite runners all look essentially the same, at least in terms of body type. Their stories are often similar as well. They have sponsors and follow a strict training routine that lends itself to high performance running. A few nations now dominate the sport.

Those who fight their way to the finish are a wonderful rainbow of body types, age groups, and abilities. Most had a training plan, but they also had families and careers that got in the way of that training plan, so their journey to the finish line became its own unique path riddled with detours. Among this group, grandparents are running alongside college students. Parents jog along while pushing strollers. Disabled runners share the road with those who at first glance don’t look much like athletes. They’re here, though, so they are.

In my time becoming immersed in Toronto’s running community, having the opportunity to share stories with those who are not at any major race to win, but to face down a monumental challenge and say “I did it,” I’ve learned that every maniac running around the block possesses a brand of determination that goes far beyond meeting a physical challenge. It’s not just that they ran 26.2 or 13.1 miles and did so by pounding the pavement day in and day out. It’s that before they hit the pavement, a significant amount of these late finishers hit rock bottom.

Stand at the finish line of any major marathon past the four hour mark and what you’re seeing is a parade of recovering addicts and alcoholics, victims of severe injuries,  runners who were once at risk of death before they hit thirty, survivors of childhood abuse, and representatives from every point along the bipolar spectrum.

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My Own Private 30K (The Run Diary #6)

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.

My Around the Bay shoes.

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.

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Aging Gracefully (The Run Diary #3)

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.

 

From Tribe Fitness’ Long Run on January 12, 2014. Strongest winds of the year that day. Image via Tribe Fitness Facebook Page.

The day after my weekly long run, I sat around a table with friends in a Cabbagetown cafe conversing over tea. The friend sitting across from me had her birthday coming up the next weekend. It would not be a landmark birthday or one of those supposed milestones that are arbitrarily assigned to certain ages. Nonetheless, a birthday is always a mark of aging, something we’re supposed to fear.

“I’m not worried about aging at all,” she said.

I took another gulp of my chai, using both hands as required by the gargantuan teacup, which was really more of a bowl. That’s not a bad thing. Tea, especially good tea, ones with distinct and strong flavours which we would disgrace by adding milk or sugar, should not be consumed in polite little sips out of cups that couldn’t hold portions fit for even children. It should be savoured in quanities large enough to go beyond a mere sampling. A cup should last long enough to let the drinker experience its flavour more and more with each sip. It should last long enough to serve as accompaniment for long conversations or moments of reverie and contemplation.

I digress.

I didn’t have much of a response to the comment in the moment, but it lingered in my mind for some time after.

There comes a time in a runner’s journey when every single thing in life is analogous to some aspect of running and running is a metaphor for every aspect of life. Everything is seen through the lens of running. Everything you encounter reminds you of a recent run or someone you ran with. Your anecdotes at parties all involve running and it’s probably insufferable.

I thought then about what running meant to the aging process. Simple facts indicate that running has made the aging process more pleasant. I am healthier at 25 than I was at 20, both mentally and physically. I am running greater distances now than when I first started and there are still greater distances to go. I love myself a hell of a lot more since I’ve been able to call myself a runner. If aging is judged to be positive or negative depending on how comfortable you feel in your own skin, then the past few years have been undoubtedly positive.

***

Six of us gathered at Canoe Landing Park on a Saturday morning. The conditions were the most pleasant they’d been all winter. The cold was there, but not overbearing. The sun was visible if you stood in the right place. It felt quite mild and no violent winds were blowing.

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Unconditional Love (The Run Diary #2)

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.

***

“There can be no fairer spectacle than that of a man who combines the possession of MORAL beauty in his soul, with OUTWARD beauty of body, corresponding and harmonizing with the former, because the same great pattern enters into both.”

That’s Isocrates speaking in Plato’s Republic. Obsession with the human form and lust after its dazzling beauty, especially in displays of strength, are not new. The athlete’s body is and always has been revered, sometimes in its execution of a brilliant physical achievement, sometimes reduced to a mere object in neglect of the athlete’s actual skill and ability.

We’ve accrued well over two mellenia of praise for the athletic form and I won’t be adding to that. I won’t be adding to it because I am a long distance runner. There are few statues, poems, or etchings glorifying the long distance runner, his seemingly malnourished upper-body perched magnificently atop long, sinewy legs. Having run seriously for about two years now, I know that where beauty is concerned, there’s not much to say for the long-distance runner.

Pheidippides statue along the marathon route. Image via Wikipedia.

When Ancient Athenians first gathered to pay tribute to the gods, there was no marathon.The marathon finds its origins in myth. After the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, Pheidippedes runs from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greek victory, instantly collapsing from exhaustion after having done so. There is no evidence of this having actually occured, and there is no such run recounted in Herodotus.

The contrast is perhaps a tad morbid. Where sprinters, javelin throwers, charioteers, and fighters are celebrated for raw power, history’s most famous long-distance runner is etched in our consciousness as succumbing to a more gruesome fate. While the original Olympians are celebrated across every artform, Pheidippedes’ run was not actually written about at all. Modern times have been kinder and he now has a statue along a highway in Greece.

***

Five of us gathered at Canoe Landing Park on a Saturday morning. The temperature was in and around -20 degrees celsius. I was the first to arrive and spent the time waiting for others running laps around the park and being chased by dogs so that the cold wouldn’t pierce my bones.

Our intention was to run north along Bathurst until Davenport Road. From there, we would cut right to the bottom of Casa Loma, which happens to be on top of a hill. We would climb that hill and turn right again once we hit the top and find ourselves on Spadina Road. After reaching the top of Spadina, which also boasts a gigantic hill, we would then head down Bathurst Street, one street west of Spadina, to find ourselves back at the bottom of the hill, which we would repeat two more times.

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Uphill (The Run Diary #1)

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.

Getting up hills is the necessary evil of long-distance running. Inclines provide a form of resistance training that strengthens one’s calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, all of which when stronger produce greater speed and endurance on flat terrain.

Especially for the novice runner, hills are an exercise in extreme cruelty. Your strides shorten, requiring your body to expend more energy. You fight to hold your body upright against its urge to fall forward, leaving you hobbling in a stupor of physical pain. Your breath becomes short.

The pain persists even after you’ve reached the summit. Your muscles want no more and as your feet hit the ground after an uphill climb, you feel that you are pounding the pavement with ten times your actual weight.

Hills slow you down. No runner enjoys this. Hills rob you of the joy of flying downhill or speeding across flats with no resistance, times when you fantasize that you are about to speed past the finish line at Boston. This is when you are invincible and possibilities are infinite.

Going uphill, your mind doesn’t have the luxury of wandering. It is too busy pouring every last iota of its capacity into getting to the end of the ascent. It is locked into a vicious confrontation with your body, which does not understand why you are inflicting this ordeal upon yourself.

The body, conditioned as it is to the sedentary nature of modern life, does not understand your demand that it traverse hills and continue moving for upwards of three hours. All it can do is react to external conditions and realities.

So cliché is it to say that long-distance running is as much mental as it is physical. Anyone who has ever hit a significant incline, especially one more than halfway into a long run, would probably also say that it’s false – it’s more mental than physical. There comes a point where your mind begins to agree with your pain-ridden body. While it began with the notion that your body will thank it later, your body begins to win the argument.

***

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Motivation (Road to the Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon)

This piece continues to document my journey toward the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon. All pieces that I write in the lead up to race day will be collected here.

1. Failing Alone

All athletes lead a double life. On the one hand, an athlete is cheered by an adoring public so emotionally invested in their success that an alien observer might think the audience has the same stake in the contest as those actually competing.

I felt the truth of this that night in May of this year when the Toronto Maple Leafs, for the first time in a decade no longer seeming like a living punchline, collapsed in spectacular fashion and in a matter of ten minutes went from being the hope of a city to once again being a punching bag for every Canadian hockey fan outside of Toronto. The pub suddenly went silent. No brawls, no beer flying, no tables flipped. Just a sudden jump from one end of the bipolar spectrum to the other.

In moments of success, the athlete is celebrated, deified, and elevated to the status of hero. The energy that the public exudes is almost tangible and the competitor feeds off of it, at least if we are to believe post-game interviews. They did it for the fans, they share the victory with the fans, they are so grateful for the support of the fans, they are so sorry to disappoint the fans. When an individual athlete or team succeeds, it’s standard protocol that they should be humble enough to acknowledge that “they didn’t do this on their own.”

When the game and with it the Leafs’ season was over, however, the players had no public energy in which to bask. Rather, they had to make their way back to the locker room and somehow move on with their lives and careers. Individually, and as a team, they would have to dissect what went wrong. They would have to continue on with their strict training regiments, perhaps modified, and come back and do it all over again with no guarantee of success.

Most of this would be done out of the public eye. Somehow, without a city cheering them on and without a significant audience, they would have to continue being athletes. The motivation could not and would not be drawn from others. You may succeed with your adoring public, but you fail and rebound almost entirely on your own.

2. The Anatomy of Motivation

This has been my personal experience with motivation and how I’ve come to understand that process. Motivation has two parts, external and internal. The external comes from that adoring public and as silly as it might seem, to hear the cheers of others is an incredible source of motivation. I do not have an “adoring public” or throng of fans to speak of. I am, after all, just one of those idiots running around the neighbourhood every morning who will go unnoticed should I manage to cross the finish line.

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