Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Courage


She's sitting on the floor in front of the TV. Wrapping paper, ribbons, bows, and tape are spread all about as she prepares Christmas presents. She's an excellent wrapper, by the way; everyone always remarks on the artistic merit of the package they receive from her. Corners are always perfect, seams are seamless, fancy pleats draw gasps of admiration if she deigned to create them.



She looks back at me to share a laugh from the antics on TV. I summon a wide smile, quite convincing I think. Her act is far better, although she is in all likelihood totally involved in her task. 

Her biopsy was on December 5th, the 3rd anniversary of her mother's death at the hands of cancer. Today, December 12th, we went to the family doctor to hear the verdict officially, even though we already knew. She cried softly; I kept a frozen, foolish expression, trying to encourage the doctor who was also having a rough time of it. He's been our doctor for a long time; believe it or not, he does house calls, sees patients on Saturdays, even gives out his home phone number in instances like this one. 




It's fairly easy to bluster, rant and rail at this relentless disease, but initially, inside, when you realize with cold certainty that it has a beach head, that although you will almost certainly obliterate its first tentative foray into your body, your wife's body, you also realize that it isn't going to be over, not really. Something is going to take you someday, and now you can put a name to it.



So we deal with it the same way we dealt with it before the mammogram. We enjoy what we do, we make plans and tell jokes. We go out for dinner, chat with friends and family, follow what our kids do. We do the same things because it could all end an hour from now for all we know.



It's going to defeat us all someday, death is, but that day isn't today. Today we laugh in its face, spit in its eye, and prepare to strike out at it with everything we've got whenever it draws near.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Stress

Work on speed. Know that every day might not be your fastest. But every day will bring unexpected surprises that will leave you awe-stricken. When you're halfway through an hour run and you feel like lengthening your stride, giving it just a bit too much effort, do it. Feel the slight twinge of doubt in your ability to make it at that pace. You can always slow down; this is just a training run. But you don't. You persist, you focus, you feel the doubt fade away.



Be tough with yourself. Don't let yourself slacken pace. Fight into the wind and rain. Lift your head and approach sprint level when the bemused commuter glances at you. Wink. Feel the blood pumping through your veins, feel the tension and fatigue in your muscles, enjoy every bit of it.



Because it won't last forever. Channel the stress into physical exertion. Work it to the limit. There is no tomorrow, there was no yesterday. Until the end of the run, when you can forget the whole thing. There is no stress.

Carpe Diem.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Post Des Moines Marathon Post

Iowa isn't flat. You really need to know that for a whole lot of reasons.

For example, if you're driving to Iowa and you imagine that you're going to level out onto a flat drab pancake of an unending cornfield when you cross the state line from Illinois, you're in for a shock. What you're actually going to see is some of the most picture-perfect rolling hills patchworked with fields that are interspersed with trees and rivers and tidy farms. It can be very startling.

Startling because I (back to first person...) really didn't pay a lot of attention to the elevation chart on the Des Moines Marathon website. I DID go back after the race to see if it was misleading in any way, and to my expletive-spouting dismay, it wasn't. Dismay is such a strong word, so I'll retract that. Dismay at a lack of proper focus, but not dismay at the hills. Because the hills, which just kept on coming without any reprieve until the last few miles, made this marathon a challenge of Himalayan proportions for the unprepared. I like challenges. I like interesting marathon courses. So I loved Des Moines.

Make no mistake, I trained hard and well for this. Maybe not quite enough hills in the prep work, but lots of long runs and short runs, gym work and dietary care.


But I'm getting ahead of myself. The Expo came first, of course. This expo was very well done, like all of the other details of the race. Excellent prices on Gu, and a nice representation of other marathons, cool clothes and such. And Bart Yasso. Bart's little chat was, as always, fun, intense, and irreverent by turns. He sums things up well, as in his answer to a Gel-during-the-race question: 'It's a race, not a picnic.' And his description of the Comrades Race in South Africa was intense.



Fast forward to the actual race. Psychedelic national anthem at the start a la Jimi Hendrix. The bands that were liberally scattered throughout the course were excellent, by the way; one or two were rockin' a little slow, but they were talented and they were into it. I started out fast, strong, confident. As the hills refused to flatten through the first few miles, I found myself keeping pace with a dude from South Dakota named Troy, and we decided to pace each other for as long as it took. Troy was a trooper, confident and strong, and we alternately encouraged each other when things got tough.




My first suspicion that my under-4-hour pace would face a serious challenge was when I saw the beer at Mile 14. Ok, Iowa wrestlers and farmboys, we know you're full of piss and vinegar, but we mollycoddled Easterners need our beer closer to Mile 23. This clearly threw me off.

One unique aspect of the race was circling the track at Drake University around the halfway mark of the race. That was a very cool twist, a change of pace without having to change pace.


I faithfully gagged on my Gu at appropriate intervals, and that was probably what drove me over the finish line eventually. Because by Mile 22 I was tagging along behind Troy on legs that were cramped and collapsing, staggering in the most video-unfriendly manner. But by god I made it in 4:23. And new buddy Troy, god love him, refused to abandon me in the final couple of miles despite my repeated urging. His PR was 4:22, and if he waited on my sorry ass he wasn't going to beat it. He waited on my sorry ass and missed it by a minute. I owe ya one, buddy.



The fine folks who spectated along the route were animated and informed. "Look up! The ground is not your friend!" one guy repeated to all passing runners around Mile 20. "Run Like Diarrhia!" one sign urged. The water stations were manned by alert, energetic folks who really helped to make the miles melt away.

And the route was drop dead gorgeous. One of the city parks we passed through is considered one of the top six city parks in America, for obvious reasons if you see it. The city is uncluttered, small-town unhurried and friendly, and perfect for a marathon. A bit of out-and-back, but nothing too crazy.




The medal was extremely cool. The food at the end was ridiculously plentiful and varied: pulled pork sandwiches, pizza, bananas, etc., etc. I was a staggering mess and managed merely some chocolate ice cream and an apple. (That's Troy in the picture above, by the way.)


So later we went to the Machine Shed Restaurant and ate way too much. That restaurant is so authentic you expect to be called out to raise a barn or something while they prepare your order. Great food, though. Then we went to the Amana Colonies (yes, home of the ranges) which was pretty interesting and strange. 


So yes, clearly I am suggesting that you ought to include the Des Moines Marathon on your list of must-run races. It's a flawlessly executed event in a beautiful city. Do it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Pre Des Moines Marathon Post

Six days until the Des Moines Marathon. This one will be unique, as they have all been. I've gone through phases in the half decade that I've devoted my vacation time and weekends to running. I started by paying almost no attention to time, pace, and all that stuff. Then I got a half-ass tracking watch, the Nike thing that has a pod in your shoe and is totally inaccurate. Now I have my Garmin satellite toaster oven armband, which I enjoy immensely.



I like to run faster, really I do. But I care about my time from the perspective that a bad time may mean I'm tired, injured, dehydrated, etc. It's the "why" that matters; the time is merely an indicator of strength and health to me at this point.

It's like I'm really feeling synchronized with the whole World of Running thing, the whole club or extended family that evolves out of this activity. Giving support to others who are going through phases I've gone through; getting support from others who have something to contribute to my growth as a runner (because I don't know everything... sshh). You just have to relax, exercise your sense of humour, roll with the incessant punches that are injury, weather, distractions...



So I hope to run a decent race in Des Moines, obviously. I'll enjoy the scenery if there is any (I've been assured that Iowa is much more than cornfields and panhandling politicians), I'll take the time to meet and greet along the route if the opportunity arises. I'll prioritize the family aspect of the trip because if I lose an hour's sleep and a couple of minutes on my results, for example... I don't mind in the least.




And I'll let you know how it went.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Running Charities

Non-runners usually assume you are running races in order to raise money for some cause. In many cases they are right, of course. After all, runners raise enormous amounts of cash for endless numbers of causes. It's a fantastic relationship, total synchronicity. There are no imaginative boundaries to the creative approaches that runners employ to help charities; many of the success stories I see are the result of both luck and planning, and this aspect of running is endlessly fascinating.



I have determined that I will commit to Terry Fox Run every year, for one thing. I have also started getting involved with Run for Life as a member of the board, and that has been a real fun ride so far with endless potential. I see all sorts of opportunities to turn my running habit into a means to contribute to charitable ventures, and I am cautiously venturing into that realm.



Why cautiously, you ask? First of all, I don't want to scare people away when they see me coming, and I don't want to create any kind of negative attitude about charities as a result of my approach. Secondly, I don't have time to really get into it more than I already have at this point. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly for me, is the fact that I simply 'give at the office' and expect that most other people do as well. Running is a health/fun thing for me first and foremost. I hope, and believe, that I make an impact by my example for many people.



Like a lot of things in life, charitable organizations and functions have rules and structures for what should be obvious reasons. There needs to be 100% clarity and transparency about what the money goes for, what the charity's goals and objectives are, and that all regulatory rules are being obeyed.



So by all means, go and speak to your kid's class. Get a little informal group going. Advise a friend, 'coach' him or her along. Give advice online or in person. Make a difference. But always be clear when you're asking people for money: tell them whether they're going to get a tax receipt or not. It's that simple.

That's what I have to say about that.



Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Running Jam



Running with other people is neither as complicated nor as simple as you might think. It's like absolutely anything else you do with other people. I wouldn't play chess with Bobby Fischer, for example, even if he were still alive, because it would be an utter waste of time for both of us. Nor would there be a whole lot of Kenyans out there who would run with me for obvious reasons if you've seen my Dailymile log.

Finding someone whose pace, endurance, current health, etc. matches yours is no mean feat. Consider the distance between two runners of similar (but not identical) pace times; a couple of minutes over 30 kilometres translates into hundreds of metres. Therefore running with someone who is roughly the same speed and endurance level as yourself will always involve some give-and-take. It's almost as much about personality as it is about skill level. Both parties have to be quite willing to take it as it comes or change things up along the way. Doing training runs with other people is like jazz.



Which is why I've been really lucky to have had such great running partners in the past couple of months. The Run For Life gang are faster and younger than I am. However, we have had some great long runs, great conversation, great exchanges of advice and motivation. The great thing is that, when there are three of us running together, we have become totally cool with each other's specific styles after only a handful of runs. And it's great to have the company to make the miles melt away behind us.

I ran 32 kilometres with Runnrgrl last Saturday, and that was incredible because neither of us had done a training run of that length with another person before. That's 3 plus hours, quite a long time to pass in a trying physical endeavour with someone whom you really barely knew previously. It went amazingly well; conversation never flagged, and we made it in a quite commendable time. The real test came near the end when I started to seriously fall apart from the heat and from what I think can be attributed to aging shoes. Runnrgrl was incredibly patient, allowing me to walk for a couple of minutes while masterfully dragging me along. In fact, I would go so far as to say that she demonstrated coaching skills that I have never encountered personally before. Her diplomatic manner was truly impeccable, because I know I was starting to get a bit whiny. At least I felt whiny; really I was dizzy and staggering, but I know that I had something left in the tank and she refused to let me finish on a less than heroic note. On top of that, it was actually her who had had physical challenges recently so we fully expected that she would be the one limping to the finish. Her pace actually increased as we went, and she seemed to get stronger. Always surprises when you run with other people.



I still like running alone since that's what I'm most accustomed to doing. And it's highly unlikely that I'll find anyone to run with me at 4 am in the near future. But running with other people unquestionably adds a dimension to the exercise that is crucial, because in the end life is infinitely more interesting when you do things with other people, and running is no different.


Friday, August 5, 2011

New York: Runs Like a Charm

It's been a week since I returned from my first visit to New York in almost 30 years. I've started this blog entry many times and deleted it almost immediately each time. I guess my problem is in trying to articulate how much my perception of the city has changed since I looked over it from atop the World Trade Centre in 1982.



I say 'my perception' because the city is still the densely populated, muscular centre of action that it was then. It's just that it makes infinitely more sense now to me than it ever did. The embodiment of what America projects to the world through the city of New York is extremely contemporary, extremely sensible, and extremely positive.



Some of us get stressed about overpopulation, myself included. But the way that this thickly populated metropolis actually functions in what seems to be an extremely efficient and creative manner is awe inspiring. The runners in Central Park are totally synchronized almost by magic; the Park itself is perfectly manicured Nature adorned by historic landmarks and statues, a buffer against the claustrophobia of the concrete jungle surrounding it. Importantly, there is no feeling of intimidation or force in this synchronization; old, young, fat, thin, fast slow... the running groups embody more of a celebration than a competition.



The taxis are plentiful and affordable. The subway is clean and reliable. Space is at a premium, but it doesn't feel tight. This is how space should be designed; none of the sprawl that generates territorial disputes on  tracts of suburban land nearly the size of this city. You want open space? Go to one of the many parks. You want to meet up with friends without the angst of figuring out who has to be the Designated Driver? No problem. New Yorkers are free to concentrate on what matters in this ultimate urban world.



Thanks to the generosity and skill of a good friend and resident New Yorker, I came to New York already armed with perfectly drawn running routes. Following these routes allowed me to see and experience the city as only runners can. For such a densely populated city, New York has some incredible running routes within very close proximity to the core of the city. In fact, the broad swath of bike path right down Broadway was beyond impressive for someone more acclimatized to the bike- and runner-hostile civic administration of Toronto... (if you're reading this, Rob Ford, I am indeed talking to you).



We encountered many other amazing people besides my friend. There was the couple we met on the subway who showed us a better route and engaged us in great conversation on the way. The hotel staff were edgy, hilarious, and capable. No wonder Letterman set up in this town; the town feels like his show.



New York has moved beyond 9/11. This city has triumphed over countless challenges many times in the past couple of centuries with a toughness and intelligence that deserves more than simple accolades. Tour Ellis Island and you'll begin to understand how the character of New York evolved. Go visit New York yourself. It really doesn't matter what you're interested in seeing or experiencing, because New York really and truly has it all. I guarantee you will be impressed.




Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Running Hot and Cold

When I open the door at 4 am in February to go out for my ten kilometre run, I have only the mildest feeling of reluctance. When I open the door in July at 4 am to a blast of heat and humidity, I have the same absence of reluctance. No, I'm not making that up. Would I rather be curled up under warm blankets? No; that's where I was for over six hours, and that time has passed. I'm dressed properly, loosened up, and I know that I'll get through it, and I know that I'll feel pumped and ready for breakfast before facing the rest of the day.




I don't prevaricate endlessly about the little aches and pains that inevitably arise and are often used as excuses for not running. (I'm not talking about ignoring significant injuries here, just to clarify). I just do it because I can and because there are both immediate and long term rewards for doing it. Rewards such as heightened energy, better health, the experience of the run itself (which is never to be underestimated), etc.



A lot of people give up too easily. They don't see the rewards that come from persistently engaging in those activities. That approach carries through to everything; their work life becomes a stressful slugfest of whining and balking; their approach to everything from housework to pretty much anything that isn't spectacularly exciting in their view is weak. Their lives become a waste of time.



I'm not suggesting hyperactivity; I'm suggesting that quality of effort is required to reap the rewards. You don't need lotteries if you get up off your ass and do something that actually challenges you once in a while.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Predawn Ramblings

It's difficult to discern the line between dream sleep and stream of consciousness while running when I have stumbled out of bed mere minutes before hitting the street. Very little visual input distracts those rambling streams of words and images.



I totally reject the idea of running with ear buds and music, and I absolutely reserve the right to change my mind some day. Real life sounds in the dark have the added dimension of space, originating miles or metres away, volumes that change. Staccatos and shrill chirps, dull traffic noise, coffee shop drive thru voices garbled and monotonous. Shuffling animal feet sounds that register on the subconscious and make me react before I process or identify the sound. Clashing steel in the factories, idling trucks.



Review of dreams partially remembered, often doubtful memories at best. Anticipation of breakfast. Double check of to-do list pre-workday - garbage? feed the dog?

Random thoughts, sometimes about how many coats of paint I'll still have to put on the deck, sometimes rough assessments of long term and short term budgetary goals, thoughts directly related to speed and pace and the workings of the parts of my body involved in this run.



I think about the absolute and utter exasperation that many people cause me. I try to unlock the puzzle they present and get to the core of how they tick. Or I ponder the absolute competence of other people - worse, sometimes both in the same people - and again try to figure it out, find the trigger to their motivation or the image that projects their brilliance.


What I always do is feel as though I am a part of this morning world, a world without the distractions and tidiness of the clockwork world that I inevitably return to after ten kilometres.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Stop Being Such a Wuss

I think the biggest challenge, apart from recovering from serious injuries, is powering through more vaguely defined but occasionally nagging issues that hold me back. So here are some of those issues and how I try to deal with them.



Sleep: We all get that insomniac monkey on our backs at times. It can become exponential; the more we stress and try to sleep, the less able we are to do so. Often, as in the night before I had my appendix out, we can't sleep due to physical discomfort or pain, so I guess the trick is to weed out those potential causes first. Once I have it down to nothing obvious, or peripheral stress (which can be the worst), I try to blank out my mind entirely. No thoughts, no images, no counted sheep... and that works better than anything else I've devised to this point.

General Fatigue: Tied to (lack of) sleep in many instances, this one simply needs to be ignored first; if it persists, I take a breather. I make fatigue my friend (boy, that sounds odd) in the sense that my body is sending me a message that I have to interpret. Is it sleep, or nutrition, or overwork? All of the above or something else entirely? There's an answer out there somewhere.



Fatigued or hurting Muscles: A lot more detailed analysis needs to go into these issues to ensure that injuries don't become aggravated, obviously. However, I believe very strongly from personal experience and from watching and listening to others that people can mollycoddle their aches and pains entirely unnecessarily. People need to fight through these pains with a lot more fortitude than they often do. Just look at the ordeals that ultra distance runners go through to appreciate what can be endured. I think that once a person internalizes this approach to pain and hurt, they are well on their way to successfully completing long distances and other endurance activities. Sounds pretty self-evident, but we've all seen and heard the whiny little excuses and we've all been sorely tempted to succumb to them ourselves. Toughen up, and as you know the reward is that little bit of a swagger that you can allow yourself for having done so...



So that's your diatribe for the day.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Victoria Day Weekend

A very satisfactory weekend. The garden is planted; everything is cut, trimmed, washed, weeded... and a summer of yard work stretches out ahead. I enjoy this stuff: power-washing, staining, painting. A cup of peppermint tea straight from the garden. The promise of rhubarb next spring; the hope of squash, beans, peas, strawberries, all fresh from the back yard.





This is what we bust our asses for all week. This is why we get intensely involved in the commercial world and build up our store of ducats. Yes, we have long and short term plans beyond the mundane routines, but we want the mundane routines to be enhanced. We want to have room on the grocery budget, we want to know that the planned long trips won't take a lifetime of saving to realize.



We also know that it could all disappear in the blink of an eye. Natural disasters, medical events... so we have to always balance appreciation of the present with plans for the future. And that balance is absolutely not contradictory, as we discover over time. Good things happen with preparedness; the medal comes after a long, arduous, glorious run to the finish.