Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Does the Length of the Run Matter?

Runners who try different distance races quickly discover that every distance has its own unique challenges. My proudest Personal Record is my 10 km at the September 2010 Terry Fox Run, not just because I take that specific race very personally, but also because cutting three minutes off that distance was incredibly hard. My previous best of 52 minutes involved running fast but with a bit of reserve. I held nothing back this time. And I was lighter and fitter than I've been in a very long time. One of my running heroes, local superstar George Aiken, was at the finish line and congratulated me, which made it even sweeter. George is a 5 km and 10 km specialist, and when I told him it was a PR for me he said most people don't appreciate how tough it is to shave seconds off a distance that you've given your all to previously. (George does trails now in his "old age". I don't know what his 5 km time was on Terry Fox day, but he's fast as hell still, and only in his early 50s).

You aren't merely covering a specific distance fast; you're training to a specific pace, trying to achieve consistent speed that will get you over the finish line without collapsing. Well, at least without collapsing every time. Seems obvious, but until you train to a distance you can't fully appreciate the difference. However, looking at the body types of the elites at different distances gives you a strong hint as to what you're working toward.

I have immense respect for marathoners and ultra runners, 100 metre types, etc. Committing to focused training at whatever your distance is takes a lot of effort. And you start to slowly master your distance. For example, after five years I'm finding that I have better control of a marathon than I ever did.

I still have a helluva long way to go to truly master the 42.2 distance but I'm constantly learning and getting better. I have a much better understanding of what it would take to make significant progress in speed. Life, however, requires balance such that I can't commit what it would take to do that quickly. And if I were looking to master the 10 km distance, to truly master it to the best of my ability, the amount and intensity of training would require a huge effort as well.

So I run for fun and I try to go faster.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Losing the Passion

I ran the Goodlife Toronto Marathon yesterday, and it was very good. The crowds were enthusiastic. The weather was made to order. The route was pleasant, diverse, scenic, flat in lots of places, downhill for a long while, with a steep half-kilometre climb uphill that made it interesting. The medal was huge, the participants were a nice mix of familiar faces and freshly-minted athletes, the dramas were recognizable and new. The water station people were having fun, and their faces lit up when we thanked them for their efforts.

My feet hurt like hell. One guy spit into the wind and I felt the spray while I was double-fisting gatorade at mile 20. Cars, buses, and streetcars were crossing in front of me and drivers were venting their anger and frustration in any number of ways. There was a pretty strong breeze in my face a lot of the way.

I loved every minute of it; I was as happy thanking the woman who yelled 'nice hair' (might not have been addressed to me, not sure... (!)) as I was cursing blue murder at the streetcar driver crossing in front of me in the final metres of the race. It was an adventure all the way, chock full of little stories and events and emotions and lessons... and that's not the only reason I run marathons.

For me, the marathon experience is about checking out new places to go for marathons, reading reviews, talking to people, studying maps. It's about the history and geography of cities and towns, the shopping strategies, the entertainment possibilities, the local beers, the hotel pools and the museums and art galleries. It's about the spontaneous conversations that break out with other enthusiasts on the course, in the food line at the end, on the street outside the hotel.

I know a couple of people who have lost the desire to run marathons. That's not a bad thing since I know they have other passions that are all-consuming. It's heartbreaking when people don't have something that they are passionate about, when they've lost interest in everything. That's hard to imagine.

Recently two of the most popular Canadian motorcycle magazines featured editorials that talked about losing the passion for riding, and they were written in the first person by the editors of the magazines. And there was no sense of redemption, no "eureka" moment. It was sad beyond measure; what the hell were readers to think?

My dad was a truck driver all his life, and he truly loved trucks. He talked about trucks and driving all the time. About traffic and routes and stores he went to and what bad truckers did and what good truckers did. That was passion.

So don't run marathons if you've lost interest in it. Dive into something else. Like rock climbing (which is incredibly interesting and complex, and endlessly challenging). But find whatever it is really fast, because life is way too short and you have to be a total glutton about it.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Anti Runner

I have a profound respect for the distance of 26.2 miles in the time leading up to running it. I'm not nervous in the least. I'm extremely meticulous in my preparatory rituals.

I eat very sparingly the day before and the morning of the marathon, always the same things. This is what I eat: an outlaw omelette the morning before, a whole wheat turkey sandwich for lunch, a couple weird gel things at the expo (hey, it's free, mustn't be rude), a small plate of pasta for supper, and a packet of instant oatmeal for breakfast the morning of the marathon.

I spend lots of time ensuring that I won't give the portapotties a second look through the race unless I've hydrated slightly beyond retaining capacity. My greatest fear is, as you can see, becoming a crapping spectacle that goes viral on Youtube or something. Be honest: wouldn't you absolutely die of shame if that happened to you? I would have to leave the course, mop up at the closest Burger King that didn't have locked washrooms, and catch the next flight to somewhere I wouldn't be recognized ever, somewhere like Botswana or Latvia.

Once the race starts, I'm totally fine. I concentrate on pacing myself, enjoy the scenery, chat if anyone around me is so inclined, and enjoy the fresh air as the day progresses. I go with instinct as well; if I feel like I can give it a bit extra, I do.

After the first hour (it usually takes me between four and four and a half hours to run a marathon) I start to discipline my mind. The conversation with my mind usually goes something like the following, but not out loud. That would be crazy.

Ok, mind, it's time to focus and realize who's boss here because things are soon going to get a bit tougher. You are the AntiRunner and you will step aside. Stay right there where I can see you. None of your tricks will work. I've prepared for this, so I know when I'm truly in trouble. All systems are being objectively monitored; your machinations that are designed to make me walk or lie down will be observed and discarded. Near the end of a particularly tough race, I may get a bit angry at your tricks, but I'll still recognize and reject them. Because the pain that you keep trying to make dominant in my thoughts is purely ephemeral; it will end instantly when I cross that finish line. And I'll just be sore at that point. Sore and ecstatic. And you will crawl back into the background where you belong, only to slink back the next time I tempt you.

Funny thing is, this struggle with nameless, excuse-making, timid elements happens in all sorts of other endeavours as well. If I prepare painstakingly and have a plan for executing my intentions, no matter what I'm planning and executing, I simply need to carry it out with reasonable caution and attention. But I must never give over to the niggling unfounded fear of going through with something that I know is right and reasonable and in my best interests. I find that the exercise of fighting the urge to quit, the urge to whine and make excuses during a marathon, is useful, and carries over into everything else in life.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

When I ran Chicago

Even a lot of non runners will recall that the Chicago Marathon made headlines in 2007 when water stations started to run out of drinks. The heat soared while the sun blazed pitilessly on the huge assembly of runners. Every non runner I knew was wagging his/her finger at me after that, thinking that all of their misgivings about long distance running had come to pass. This was the Armageddon of running: I think they half expected to see media reports of Jesus and Ryan Hall taking all the runners to their eternal reward. They just didn't get it; it was simply the huge scale of the thing that magnified an otherwise simple problem.

Wanting to run Chicago at some point, I figured 2008 would be perfect because organizers would overcompensate in order to avoid the bad publicity a second year in a row. So we drove the ten hours to Chicago on the Friday in October 2008 and settled in to a bit of sightseeing and Expo browsing on the Saturday. Never having been to Chicago before, I was absolutely loving it. What a great city, so much to see and do.

I've seen countries that are smaller in acreage than the Chicago Marathon Expo. Everyone who was anyone in running was there, signing stuff and making speeches. I got a poster signed by Deena Kastor (I framed that baby), met Bart Yasso and Ryan Hall, watched the Kenyans smile and tolerate silly questions, and just generally spent my childrens' inheritance on stuff.

A whole other Armageddon waa unfolding on the hotel room TV during that time as George Bush appeared every day to confirm that the world had not ended and that he was going to rescue some of the largest corporations in the world. Heady stuff when you're trying to concentrate on running a marathon.

Our hotel was a twenty minute drive from downtown, so Sunday morning we arrived a bit early and drove straight into the cavernous parking area under Millenium Park. It was already 20 degrees Celsius a couple of hours before the start, so I knew we were in for another warm one.

I think most runners will agree that the biggest concern you have after you've run a few long races is that the organizers won't get so overly liability conscious that they shut the race down just because it's a bit warm. I'm not trying to show a disregard for the wellbeing of people who get dehydrated, etc., during a race, but for me it's really quite simple; if I'm starting to feel a bit lightheaded or if I'm clearly overheating, I walk. If, after training for a marathon, you can't handle a bit of walking, or you are so hell bent for leather that you push yourself to the hospital, so be it. Again, it's not quite that simple in every case, but in a whole lot of cases it is.

Anyway, the Chicago Marathon started at 8:30 am, which is ridiculously late in the day for a marathon to start. However, I had no problem with that because obviously the late start helps to ensure larger, more awake crowds, and that's a big part of the appeal of Chicago. So that heat kept building. And there was not a cloud in the sky. By the time I crossed the finish line 4 hours and 38 minutes after the start, the temperature was over 30 degrees Celsius.

So what was the run like. Well, it took me seven minutes to get across the starting line. And the crowds of spectators from then on were unremittingly thick and loud. The crowd of runners never once thinned to the point that I could run without zigging and zagging to avoid other people's feet or the sudden braking of run-walk groups. That sounds like I'm complaining, but I most certainly am not. It was exactly what I expected.

The water stations were well stocked, in fact better than many at the smallest of marathons that I've run. Medics were everywhere apparent. The course itself was endlessly fascinating, although the endless bridges were a bit disconcerting (for me). Yes, I walked a bit near mile 20, just because it was getting really hot and I was getting a bit lightheaded. I still think, by the way, that a few little hills would actually help my legs to stretch out a bit; an utterly flat course tends to destroy my leg strength earlier than a course with the odd hill.

So when I crossed the finish line I continued chatting with a guy I'd met a couple kilometres back (I met and chatted to quite a few people, probably the most fun part of this or any race for me) and we continued to the meet-up area where my wife came along to the beer tent. Excellent FREE beer. On a sunny hot day, in Chicago. We then continued on the the 96th floor bar of the John Hancock building which was packed with runners having a great celebration. The view of Chicago from there was absolutely breathtaking.

So good luck to all runners doing Chicago on 10/10/10. Remember, unless it's of paramount importance to you to qualify to run in Beantown or something, listen to your body and push it only as far as you can without ruining your fun by ending up in an ambulance. There's no free beer in the ambulances I'm told, and that would really suck.