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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Can’t Stop (Running the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon…Finally)

On October 20th, 2013, I ran the Scotiabank Toronto Half-Marathon. This is a piece reflecting on the culmination of that journey. Other pieces that I wrote leading up to this run can be read here.

Every single day, several times a day, every single one of us calls into question our relationship with our body. Not necessarily in the sense that Descartes meditated upon the connection between mind, body, and soul, though that’s not so unusual in moments of existential grief, but more so regarding our love for our own bodies.

Often, it’s easier to hate than love our bodies. When the alarm clock alerts us of a new day, no matter how much we might try, our body simply doesn’t care to move and is quite happy tethering itself to the bed. Saturated with images of so-called perfection, we lapse immediately into cycles of guilt and dissatisfaction that no matter how hard we try, we will inevitably fail to meet the standards of beauty upheld by our culture. If you were born with the body type not prized among the images we consume every day, that dissatisfaction is damn near perpetual and inescapable.

For those suffering with depression, your body is perfectly willing, often for long stretches,  to deny you the energy for tasks so basic as standing upright or making breakfast or communicating with others. You are prone to negativity thanks to this condition, kicking off a violent cycle wherein you hate yourself so vehemently that caring for your mind and body just doesn’t seem worth the effort.

As we age, our body declines in ways that are both subtle and drastic. Wrinkles form, memory dulls, speed declines and illnesses and conditions previously thought to be reserved for those of a certain age can become a harsh reality as you find that suddenly you are of that certain age.

For most of us going through the conventional day to day life, one which involves work, school, commuting to and from both, getting food on the table, managing finances, fulfilling family responsibilities, it’s just so easy to feel that our bodies are in a constant state of decline.

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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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Defiance (Road to the Toronto Waterfront HalfMarathon)

1. Pleading Insanity

On October 20th, I will run my first half  marathon, namely the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. For the past year or so, everyone who would listen has been forced to endure my incessant and overly exuberant talk about running and my goal of completing a full marathon. Finally, by registering to run this race, I suppose my actions match the level of my talk, and I will soon face the first real test of whether or not I can run a full marathon.

The typical reaction to this decision has been an interesting mix of encouragement coupled with an allegation that I might be insane. Friends and family jokingly make mention of the fact that they tire from simply walking up the stairs or tell me how many cigarettes they’ve had by the time I’ve completed my morning training. It seems to be the typical way of providing encouragement, but also reminding you of just how unusual and absurd a task you’re undertaking as far as they’re concerned.

Running is a boon to both physical and mental health, that no one can deny. The fact is, however, that excellent health does not require that anyone run a full marathon or even a half marathon at any time. In fact, attempting to cover either of these distances without proper training, preparation, diet, and ensuring that you’re not at risk for incurring long-term damage, can result in more harm that good. In our busy modern lives, something requiring such dedication seems a bit much.

There was a time, which I have written about previously, when running was natural to our species and covering long distances was a necessity for survival. Scientists and anthropologists contend that our bodies evolved for running and perhaps this is why running just feels so damn good. This time, however, is gone. It’s no longer a necessity. Excellent health and conditioning is possible and achievable by so many other challenging but significantly less draining and excruciating means. The time investment and level of commitment required for a marathon is a full-time job in itself.

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