Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Spectators at Scotia Toronto Marathon

We arrived at the Scotia Marathon finish area after the marathon had been in progress for a bit over an hour. The first finishers, which would certainly include the 2009 champion Mungara, were expected at around the 2:08 mark. I was looking forward to this, naturally, since I'm almost always out on the road while the first finishers shower, eat, and basically land back home in Kenya. What I didn't expect was just how intensely emotional this experience would be for me as a spectator.

I was completely blown away by the purely superhuman performance of the top four men and the top four women, all of whom blasted past the finish line faster than men and women had ever done before on Canadian soil. When you witness a historical, unparalleled performance in any field of human endeavour, it makes even the air around you feel different. It was one of those "I was there when..." moments for me, and I thought that was the highlight of the day. However, incredibly, there was a helluva lot more drama to come.

When you've run a race before and experienced the pain, glory, disappointment, joy, sorrow that come with it, watching tens of thousands of individual dramas unfold in front of you half a kilometre from the finish line is almost too much to take in. After you start cheering the runners on, after you start to will each one across the line just down the street, you no longer care that you're losing your voice and looking like a wildman. There are people limping on the arms of medics, runners who appear not to be breaking a sweat, others who look like they've reached the top of Mount Everest. Some are intensely focused on getting to the finish; others high five everyone along the route. Still others are practically dancing with the ecstasy of achievement. Tears are flowing everywhere from happiness and pain, sometimes both.

And when you see friends and they see you, it's a feeling that's hard to convey because you know what it means to you to have wild cheerleaders when you're within striking range of the finish line. The stories that have led each and every one of those runners to this point are written all over their faces; they don't run 42 kilometres for no reason at all.

So go to a marathon that you're not running in simply to cheer, and you'll see exactly what I'm talking about. After watching that you'll find action thrillers and dramas positively humdrum by comparison.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Barefoot Running

I think it's fine that increasing numbers of runners are shedding their shoes and pounding the pavement and cement on bare soles just like their prehistoric forefathers and foremothers did. I simply find it a curious thing for people to want to attempt. I also wonder how many runners try it and stick with it. I know, apparently there's scientific evidence that this prevents shin splints and knee ruptures and endless other things, and I wouldn't try to dissuade anyone from doing it. I just don't see these apparent benefits making sense when I see it in practice. For one thing, very few of us can go through the day barefoot, so we don't have an opportunity to toughen up our feet. Our prehistoric friends didn't have to run on cement and asphalt. They also quite likely impaled their feet on small sharp rocks on occasion. Most importantly, they didn't have shoes, so they were running barefoot for the same reason they climbed trees when a tiger showed up: because they had no choice.

I ran two marathons this year in which I saw barefoot participants in action. In the first, the barefoot runner completed the race in almost exactly the same time as I did, and there was a helluva lot of cement on that course. My cushioned feet were hurting more than they usually do after a marathon. So that runner had my admiration; she appeared no worse off than I was. In the second race, the barefoot runner was limping along on the outsides of his feet at about mile eight. He was toast; there was no way he was getting to the finish unless he crawled.

I like the cushioned soles on my extraordinarily light running shoes. I also like electricity and the endless things it allows me to do effortlessly. I like using matches to light fires (which is a rare requirement in my world) since I couldn't rub two sticks together effectively if I had to.

I'm probably missing something in this barefoot running thing. I love being barefoot, if it's warm and there's a beachful of sand surrounding me, or if I'm on the couch watching TV. I wish I understood the appeal of running barefoot, but I don't care enough to try it.

And by the way... Vibrams are shoes/slippers with thin soles. If you wear them, how do you figure you're barefoot?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Most Famous DNF in History

It was called the Marathon of Hope. It was never about Terry Fox, as he said endlessly. It was about declaring war on the Bastard Cancer that was eating away at his body, destroying him at an accelerating rate while he had barely reached adulthood. Terry Fox was on a mission to rally his fellow citizens to join in his war. He knew that he would likely die. He also knew that he wanted to prevent this terrible destruction from being visited on others. He asked that every Canadian donate one dollar toward cancer research.

So Terry hit the road, determined to run across one of the biggest countries on earth. Through initial public indifference, bone jarring exhausting miles, and near defeat, he persisted. Would he have given up if a large corporate donation hadn't arrived? Maybe. But that didn't happen. What did happen was that Terry Fox's dream began to take shape. The public caught on; they were fascinated by this guy who didn't bother to cover his prosthetic leg, who was ruggedly handsome and unerringly intense in his focussed message. The war took shape and continues to be raged today, seemingly unstoppable.

Terry Fox only got about halfway across Canada before the cancer spread to his lungs and stopped him for good. He didn't finish his race. What he did do was set in motion a campaign that has, to date, raised more than half a billion dollars. The Terry Fox Foundation has contributed to some incredible advances in the fight against cancer; untold thousands of people are alive today as a direct result of the dollars raised by Terry Fox's legions of runners.

On Sunday, September 19, 2010 I went to the local Cambridge Terry Fox Run. I put a couple of "In Memory of" stickers on my new commemorative tshirt, one for my father and one for my mother-in-law, both of whom died of cancer. I was one of 210 runners of all ages, shapes and sizes, 60 more than showed up last year. The man ahead of me at registration proudly took his sticker to add to his Terry Fox certificate; he had run every Terry Fox run since they started. I overheard another man telling his little daughter that this was how she would change the world, that she was changing the world that day.

This little band of 210 warriors did something important on Sunday, 30 years after Terry Fox began his campaign. For many of us it was a very personal vendetta. It was a very satisfactory battle in a war that is gradually being won, one runner at a time.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Running Community

Runners, despite being an incredibly diverse group of people from all backgrounds and professions, are often true to the stereotype of gravitating immediately to the topics of running and food when they converse. Which is not at all weird. Food rocks, and after all, why wouldn't we talk about running?

Overwhelmingly, runners also praise each other's efforts with enthusiasm, with frequency, and very seldom with criticism. Praise is the runner's currency. Everyone on knows that. The more you give, the more you get.

Runners also give advice with willingness and patience. It's really quite incredible just how much sharing and communal help is involved in the running community. In races, it is very common for struggling runners to get tons of encouragement, and even for runners to psce themselves with a struggling runner and team up to get them through.

So if you're a new runner, be prepared to be amazed at how the running community will totally embrace you and bring you along. There might be communities of common interest out there that are as inclusive as the running community, but you'd be hard pressed to find them.

So join us on and see what I'm talking about.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Running Time

I always loved reading John "The Penguin" Bingham's articles when I first started running over five years ago. Part of it was that he actually convinced me that I was slow because I chose to be, and that it wasn't a bad thing to come up closer to the bottom than the top on the final race results sheets. Not only that, but he made me think that I was there because I wanted to be there, that I wasn't up pacing the Kenyans because I didn't want to, not because there would never be a hope in hell that I would be anywhere near them.

That self-deception wasn't such a bad thing because it kept me merrily racing away, enjoying the scenery, chatting with the other tortoises, signing on and travelling to farflung destinations in order to collect the bling.

So you assume from my tone that something has changed. Yes, it has; I've become more competitive. Faster? No, not much. A little; you know how hard it is to make up extra minutes. No, it's the Nike + and the that have made a difference. Every day that I run I want to shave a couple of points off the pace. Sometimes I do, often I don't. But I'm becoming more consistent, and more consistently faster. My pace is building slowly over time. I'm watching my weight and paying close attention to how I feel, how well workouts go. And friends on dailymile cheer on every little triumph.

No, I won't win any races any time soon. But I feel like I'm pushing my personal limits a bit more, getting closer to my true potential. And, as you know, that mindset translates into the rest of life; I find it harder to settle for anything second rate, I try to find a way to make it just that much better. That mindset is a wonderful thing, and that's where you want to go.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Quebec City Marathon

We arrived in Quebec City on Friday afternoon, and I walked or stood almost nonstop for the rest of the day as well as all day Saturday. Yes, I knew I would pay for this once the marathon got underway, but we only had the weekend to explore and I wasn't out to PR or anything anyway. Keep in mind that all of this walking was in a city built on a cliff, with unremitting stairs and hills and cobblestones, and endless streets of visual delights around every corner (don't get me started on the culinary delights...). So this was workout-level walking, and I was almost limping each night. Added to this was a forecast of temperatures over 30 C with high humidity for marathon Sunday. This wasn't the first hot marathon for me, but I had never been this active right before a 26.2, so it was going to be a new experience.

The 8:30 am start time was the latest I ever started a marathon as well. We stayed at a hotel quite close to the finish area, as did many runners since the start areas for the full and the half were across the (very wide) St Lawrence river. Buses were lined up outside the hotel in the morning and took us to the ferry. When we disembarked from the ferry there were more buses to take us to the start areas. Organization throughout was flawless, and I just have to say that the organizers did an outstanding job. I always like to hear John Stanton over the PA system at the start of many Canadian races; his smooth, authoritative advice settles nerves and lets you concentrate on the job at hand. He's truly the godfather of Canadian running!!

The half started at the halfway point of the full, so we only saw the slowest of the half runners during the run, kind of nice in that it meant a less crowded field. The full had just shy of 1000 runners, which is the size of race that I absolutely prefer.

And they're off! These Quebecois folks sure hoot and holler up a storm, huge enthusiasm. The first few hundred metres of the race were uphill, and it was already hot, and I was more than a little worried. However, once it started going downhill it continued to do so for more than the first half of the race. Which put myself and other 4 and a half hour types at a sub-4 hour pace, which, as all marathoners know, means payback in the last half.

But I didn't care about the impending payback. How could you, when every turn in the road opened another breathtaking vista of the old city on the hill across the vast St Lawrence river? I cursed myself for not bringing my camera on the run. Oh well. There was a nice breeze in our faces for a lot of the time, and the spectators, while few and far between, were crazy enthusiastic, even attempting English shouts of encouragement at times. Have to say, the crowds were magnificent.

So after crossing the bridge (another in an endless day of spectacular sights) the course flattened and the sporadic walking began. Lots of walking. Lots of spectators hauling out garden hoses to keep us sprayed down and going. Lots of wet sponges at water stations. And despite the almost dangerous heat, my enthusiasm never flagged; there was very real enthusiasm in the runners and in the crowd.

So I finished in 4:33, and I was gobsmacked that it was less than 5 hours after all the walking I did. But I'll take it. This is a must-run marathon for anyone who is looking for a great destination and a memorable adventure.