Sunday, August 28, 2011

Born to Run?

You know you are in small town Ontario when the most popular radio station is called “The Moose.” You know you are really in small town Ontario when the only radio station is called “The Moose”.

Welcome to Bancroft, population 3,500 and the nearest town to my parents’ cottage and incidentally where my family and myself…and the two dogs…and the cat are headed for a one week reprieve from probably the most stressful 4 months of my life. Professionally speaking there were deadlines and targets that make the words ‘do or die’ less of a metaphor and more of a literal bricks and mortar type of reality. In an eat-what-you-kill world, self-employment can have some serious drawbacks.

But alas, it all worked out in the end and now it was time for vacation. Normally I leave Echo, the less-than-friendly, they have to put me in a bag to vaccinate me, somewhat temperamental feline at home and have someone look in on her in our absence. But, usually our absences don’t span a week.

“She’ll be lonely,” I pleaded. So in the cat carrier she went.

We set out, dog one sitting up in the back seat, watching the world fly by, dog  two hugging the floor in between the front and back seat, hanging on for dear life and Echo, meowing with gusto once per second with the uncanny precision of a Swiss watch.  This is tolerable for a ten minute, possibly even a ten minute and 32 second journey, but two and a half hours seemed longer than Pierre Trudeau’s primeministerial run.

Then, came the waft of a very unusual and gravely unpleasant smell.

“What is that?” I queried. My family, with the olfactory acuity of a baseball bat concluded it was lingering dog flatulence. And, lingering it was. “Are you sure? I can still smell it.” They sniffed around again, including the cat crate and came to the same diagnosis.

I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but somewhere between hour one and hour two Echo stopped meowing. No sooner had we noticed and said, “Phew, she’s finally shut up,” when the most guttural, non-descript, non-cat like sound came plaintively from her crate. If I didn’t know better, I would have put money on the fact that an alien was ripping itself from her stomach. And then the poor, car-sickened creature threw up. Upon cleaning out her crate I realized the lingering dog flatulence was actually cat do-do.

Now, one could naturally get upset about this but I felt an uncanny affinity and appreciation of how poor Echo felt.  The weekend prior Karen, Lyndsay and myself ran a 30 km race in Toronto called “A Mid Summer’s Night Race” with proceeds to benefit the Toronto Sick Kids Hospital. In theory, it sounded like a great idea and there were some high points in this evening race—most of them (actually all of them) before we started running. The port a potties were plentiful and clean, well, as clean as port a potties can be. They had running water to wash your hands, the race kit pick up was well organized, the people were polite and friendly, and the shirts were really cool.

However, it was humid and hot. And, if you ever need to dump a body in the east end of Toronto along the shores of Lake Ontario, I now know a hundred places to do it and we ran by each and every one of them…when we weren’t running by a sewage treatment plant.  One park is called “Tom Thompson”. I think that alone should be an omen. After all, poor Tommy-boy drown and they are still not sure if it was murder or an accident; quite fitting for the terrain and spookiness of the locale!

On reflection of the run, Karen put it the most politely when she said it was ‘less than inspiring’. Lyndsay was a little more graphic when she said, “I was scared to go off the trail to use the washroom in case I found a body.” And then punctuated her feelings toward the race by adding, “And then I thought I was going to be raped and murdered going through the second park.” Maybe having a 20 something North Bay native run through isolated parts of Toronto’s ‘parks’ (and I use the word ‘parks’ loosely) after dark in a sketchily marked course might not be a wise idea…

We took our time stretching and recovering and Karen, the machine that she is, was driving us home. On the way back, I didn’t feel like Echo the cat, I was Echo the cat, trying desperately not to moan and meow the whole way home.

“Are you okay?”

“Not really…”

My very kind friends pulled off on Burnamthorpe Road and I want to publicly apologize to the owners of the Zehrs and to Karen who happened to still be in the washroom when I arrived. I won’t bore you with the details that prevailed but let’s just say it wasn’t my finest hour. Right after that race, I felt deflated, even though time-wise it was a personal best, shaving almost 11 minutes off my 30 km time. At that brief moment in time I didn’t like running. Running until you puke is not fun. I had lost site of the joy.

Meanwhile, back at the cottage, we are relaxing in picture perfect weather, enjoying the sun, water and oodles of free time. I am eating all things made from refined sugar and drinking caffeinated tea like there is no tomorrow. This is heaven!

If you are ever in Bancroft, I strongly recommend a visit to Ashlie’s Bookstore. You can’t miss it. It’s on the main road. And, since there is only one main road in Bancroft you will find this great treasure!

I need something to read. As tempting as that copy of Dr. Zhivago sitting on the shelf in the cottage is, I have a taste for something else. “Do you have ‘Born to Run’?” I ask someone who I assume to be Ashie. He’s probably a Bill or  Orville or something but he looks like the owner.

Within seconds it is in my hand. And, it changed my life. If you are a runner, know a runner, have seen someone run or know how to spell the word ‘run’, read this book. It's just a really good story...even if you hate running. I can’t pinpoint why, but this story is absolutely amazing. There are no tips on how to run but I feel like running differently, there are no lists of foods to eat but I want to watch what I eat, there are no recommendations for shoes to wear but I have a renewed interest in exploring options and there is no testimonial section with flowering messages on why someone should run, but I feel the joy in a stride, in the floating, in the absolute high that comes when you run for no other reason than you love it.

I can’t wait the entire week to run again. I have to run now. My family won't let me run in the woods by myself. Some crazy nonsense about elk, bears and other wild animals so they take me into town.  Some go to the local real estate office to check out what’s going on in the area and meets Joe, Fred or Bill who is on duty at the office in his most professional real estate agent garb of his cleanest baseball cap, t-shirt with the words “I Live to Hunt” across the front of it and jeans that are only 12 years old.

Meanwhile, I am to run circles around the town. The town is on a hill so getting a good cardio workout won’t be a problem. However, getting any distance will be. I think the total circumference of the town is a whole 1.5 km.

I start running and an unusual thing happens, I get lots of stares. I realize that in all the visits to the cottage through the years I’ve never once seen a single person running. I have trouble dodging people holding their DQ soft cones as they stare at my fluorescent nike orange shirt bop by. The more I run, the more of a spectacle I feel,  I am almost turned into road kill by a large truck turning into the hardware store, a little kid almost trips me. People stare out the windows of their cars. It’s official, in this town, I am a freak.

Now, if I was a hunter, fisher, lazing cottager, swimmer, hockey player, snow mobiler, or boater I would be more acceptable. But it was obvious running wasn’t part of this town’s plan. In fact, I was told later that when Joe, Fred or Bill real estate agent found out I was going for a run he said, “Really? She runs?” Silence. Another pregnant pause, “She better be careful. She might get run over. No one really runs here.”

I survive the ordeal and stretch out, relax and find a lovely park bench in front of the town’s post office. I am just started to soak up the sun and feel good again when a two people approach me. Judging by their demeanor I surmise that they are mentally challenged. They are a bit podgy and both are now right in front of me staring me down. I figure that if we got into a fight they could take me, hands down. I am starting to feel just a wee bit uncomfortable and decide to break the ice.

“Do you want to sit here?”

“Yes,” was the emphatic response and they both sat down almost pushing me off the end of the bench. I am now seat-less and weary, ousted by a couple of regulars.

But, I feel good. I enjoyed my run and despite the near misses, it was fun. That is what running is supposed to be about—having fun.

After reading Born to Run I have a new hero to add to my ever-growing list of people to admire. His name is Scott Jurek, an ultra runner originally from Minnesota. Ultra runners are not like normal runners, they will run 100 miles, through trail, because they like it.

Here’s the thing with Scott, he’s--vegan. The perfect granola poster boy ever has won the Western States 100 miles race 7 times in a row…on grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables. He eats only homemade bread and doesn’t eat anything processed. And,  rumour has it he’s a nice guy, environmentally conscious and not really much of a publicity magnet. He runs, get this--because he loves it.

Maybe that’s the trick to not running until you puke.  Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Eat well, care about others and your environment and be respectful about what you put in your body. Balance.  Born to love, born to care and now, born to run.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What Happens on a Run Stays on a Run

Shania Twain is my best friend. She just doesn’t know it yet. For some reason, I’m not sure completely why, I feel an affinity towards her. After all, we have so much in common. She’s only a year only than I, we both have been divorced, we’re both born in the same country, I’ve been to Timmins, she’s lived in Timmins, we share the practice of vegetarianism, she sings like a bird, I sound like a cow…dying…slowly and painfully. Okay, the similarities quickly break down, but you get the picture.
Friends are an interesting concept. Some people still hang out with their kindergarten BFF and others, like myself, float through life, settling where ever I happen to be planted at the time and draw from those immediately around me.  In high school, I never really aligned myself with any particular ‘group’ or clique. I simply floated around with various and strangely diverse people. Maybe I had a serious fear of commitment and couldn’t make it work with just one group of friends.
Like most, I have a collection of different groups of friends, all categorized and filed according to role and proximity. There are acquaintances, the neighbour friends, former school friends, purely social friends, work related friends, and now, added to the list are my running friends.
Currently my running friends consist of a very diverse group of 3 very intelligent, professional women. I am the oldest, but probably not wisest and Lindsay is the youngest, being the same age as my children. There are two in between, one dealing with an established career and the other raising two children before going back to the work world. But for some reason, despite all the differences, it works.
Our runs are like Vegas, what happens on a run, stays on the run. We have a lot of funny mishaps that would make great fodder for a blog (mostly about bodily functions and girly stuff), however, I take the high road and only make fun of people I don’t know.
This Vegas rule intrigues my family, and they have been known to ask about this great mystery, “What do you guys talk about for 2 hours?”
And, for the first time, I am going to break the code. If I never mention these ladies again, you will know that I’ve been kicked out of the group due to high treason. This is the conversation we had last week:
Lyndsay (who works for some type of government environmental department) says, “Have you ever heard of the bird, the killdeer?”
I have and say, “Yes.”
“It’s so cool. They have their nests on the ground and when predators come around, the mother pretends to have a broken wing to distract them from her eggs. Isn’t nature awesome?”
I respond (self-employed entrepreneur). “Yes. That’s pretty cool how the killdeer knows what to do in order to survive. Very creative.”
Then, Karen, (the people manager who works for a software company who shall not be named but whose antonym is “Macro Hard”)  comments, ”I really think that bird should take a lesson from other birds and build it’s nest in a tree. It would solve a lot of problems. It would be more efficient and the mother wouldn’t have to go through that procedure all the time.”
I wonder if she’s in the middle of performance reviews at work?
I imagine if Denise (mother of two smaller children) were with us on this particular run would say, “See what babies make their mothers go through.”
We’re all so different—different ages, different backgrounds, different perspectives, different places in our lives and yet we have no problem filling up 2 hours with conversation and laughter. We’re also just as comfortable tuning out and running in silence. In fact, our shared experience of running has even produced our own subculture vernacular.
For example, if I drop my water bottle I am ‘pulling a Karen’. If digestive issues occur, we’re all careful to avoid an ‘Around the Bay’ incident. If someone over-dresses for the heat, she’s ‘being a Lyndsay’ and I have inspired the phrase ‘wardrobe malfunction’  meaning  undergarments were not properly secured. Running is hard, but running lopsided is impossible.
We also meet interesting people on our runs. For example, last week on one particularly rainy run we were looking for a bathroom in a downtown Tim Horton’s.  We were really disappointed that there wasn’t one available for patrons. A gentleman sporting more unkempt facial hair than found on the body of a 20 lb cat and most likely of no-fixed abode told us we really didn’t need a bathroom as it was raining. If we wet our pants, no one would notice because we were already wet from the rain.
Then there was the birthday boy who ran every year. That isn’t the unique part, though. He ran the same number of kilometres as his age. That’s okay when you’re turning six, but I think he had just hit 54. Needless to say, it was an all day affair. I hate to imagine how long it will take him when he turns 90!
This world is made up of so many wildly different people, yet there seems to be a common thread on all of humanity. Some inert molecule I breathed out 2 weeks ago might be the one you are breathing in this second!  I’ve been listening to an audio book The Secret by Robin Byrne which is basically organized on the biblical principal of Ask, Believe and Claim what you want. So, Shania, if you are out there, I am asking to be your friend and I believe it can be so. I’m afraid you have to be involved in the claiming part. Fire me an email if the Universe sends you this message.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Shoe's on the Other Foot

Today is the day we leave for Ottawa and I am more frazzled than a bad perm. I can’t find my shoe. Not just any shoe, but THE shoe. Picking the right shoe for a marathon is as worrisome as picking a life partner or a fulfilling career. There is quite a bit of pressure to get it right. And, if you don’t, there can be dire consequences. I have courted three different pairs of shoes, putting each through the paces during long runs and hill training and finally decided on this pair. But, we’re leaving in about 20 minutes and I have the right one in my right hand but have no clue where its mate is hiding. I had them both about 15 minutes ago but I have been flying through the house like a bee without a queen trying to pack, and in my travels have managed to lose the left shoe.
Okay, people do weird things when they are nervous so I methodically check all three levels of the house—thoroughly search the bedroom, the kitchen, and my studio in the basement. No shoe. I do, however, find my long lost scarf, the old ipod I’ve been looking for and a blouse I had no idea I had lost--but no shoe. I get creative…only 10 minutes to departure…I check the fridge and the freezer. I have heard of people putting weird things in the fridge when they are distracted. Still no shoe. 5 minutes left on the clock and I’m thinking I’ll have to bring along the ‘runner’ up from the farm team when I remember I got some water bottles out of the garage.  With a whole 2 minutes to spare I find THE shoe. This is the first victory long before the marathon even begins!
The journey to Ottawa begins the way all journeys should – with a stop at Starbucks. I get my usual soy green tea unsweetened latte and my neighbour, Heather, and her chiropractor boss, Andrea, order their 100 pump, no water, no foam something-or-other, strong enough to put hair on even my chest.
Back in the car, Andrea’s husband, Tom, the American, is the driver. He is driving to Ottawa because he will likely not be able to drive back as he’s running the marathon with me on Sunday. Well, I use the word ‘with’ loosely. A more accurate statement would be he will be running the marathon in front of me. We’re travelling what is often referred to as ‘the back way’ to Ottawa, through Bancroft and Renfrew. About 20 minutes into the scenic route, the American asks, “How much farther?”
It is at this moment I realize he should probably not be permitted to have unstructured time on his hands to think or muse as it soon becomes apparent that unusual observations and very unique statements seem to surface. About half way there, we stop at a little town to use the pubic restrooms in the post office/library.
“Isn’t it funny how all post offices in Canada smell exactly the same?” the American announces loudly as we walk into the lobby. The postal worker at the desk pastes on her small town friendly smile. I can’t tell if she is agreeing with or offended by this statement but she appears to take it all in stride. I inhale deeply and secretly I realize he’s right.
We make it to our downtown hotel on Rideau Street safely. As Heather and I settle into our room, I can’t believe that this weekend has finally arrived. The next day we pick up our race kits at the expo and run into Heather’s co-worker, Aracely, who is here with her family to run the half marathon. She is completely stoked. This will be her first half marathon! How amazing. I empathize with her excitement and apprehension.
When we get to our hotel, I realize that it pays to run fast, literally. It will cost an extra $50 for every hour after 12 o’clock we require the room. The race starts at 7:00 a.m. I do the math and think there is no way I can finish the marathon, get back to the hotel, shower and get out of there by noon. This will be an added incentive to run faster.
Our hotel is great—5 minute walk to the race, close to the Byward Market and no bridges to cross, however, the neighbourhood could use a wee bit of sprucing up, like extreme makeover or maybe something more subtle, like a bulldozer. In fact, so much so, that for the entire weekend I will not walk anywhere by myself. As we walk back from the Byward Market, a random gentleman asks me if I can sell him some drugs, maybe some crack or weed. Now, I’ve given this some thought and I think I was a victim of unjust, criminal ‘profiling’. I mean, doesn’t every clean cut, forty something grandmother, ex-school teacher dressed in running gear sell illicit street drugs?
The next day Heather and Andrea run their 10 km race. Tom and I set up camp about 750 meters from the finish line. It is so much fun to watch and cheer on the runners. As the elite Kenyans run by first, I am in complete awe and wonder. They are truly poetry in motion. I am struck with the energy.
“I’m addicted.” I blurt out without explanation.
“To what?” Tom casually asks.
Now, what I am thinking is, “One day, I would like to volunteer to be a pace rabbit.” (See It Happens Around the Bay for complete explanation), but what I actually say…loudly…is “I aspire to one day be a bunny.”
Tom seems to be a bit more interested in this statement than the first.
“I wouldn’t say that so loudly,” he comments.
I agree and shut up for a while.
Somehow, the day ends and I am left to worry about the morning. I want to leave the hotel at 6:15 a.m. but Tom wants to leave at 6:30 a.m. He doesn’t want to have to use the ‘little blue boxes’ or porta potties as the general public calls them. He figures if he leaves late enough from the hotel, he will be able to make his final bathroom stop in his clean, flush-toilet hotel accomodations. We compromise and agree on 6:22:30.
I don’t sleep much at all.  I can’t. I’m nervous, but more excited. I’m here. I’ve trained. I’m ready. I want to do this. Tom wants to complete this run in under 4 hours, I just want to complete it, although secretly, I’d like to do it in under 5 hours.
The race begins. It is raining lightly but warm. I enjoy the run, listening to my ipod, running with this mass of strangers.  We head into Little Italy, then to China town and across the bridge into Quebec. I’m feeling a little lonely. I miss my running buddies, Karen, Lyndsay and Denise and then about 5 kilometers into the run, they appear. Not literally. I am not hallucinating, just in my imagination. Karen first shows up on my left and Lyndsay on my right. I replay the conversations and words of encouragement shared on our long runs and I feel their spirit and good wishes travelling with me. I find out later, that as I imagined them with me they were following the stats and progress of my race on the internet!
I pass a man running the race in his wheel chair, pushing the chair up a crazy Gatineau hill. Runners are telling him to keep going and that he is doing a great job. We head over another bridge back into Ottawa. I look over the River and the beauty strikes me so hard, it almost knocks me over with tears. We travel down Sussex, passing number 24. I look for Stephen, but he’s not there. Maybe I’m just not seeing him. I look closer. I see the guards, the gates but can’t find Mr. Harper anywhere. I’m getting a little anxious. After all, I travelled all the way from Barrie to do this race, you think he would have the decency to at least wave at me, especially since I went right by his front door. The nerve!
I see a man in obvious distress near kilometre 32. Two other runners stop to help him and a third hands him some of her electrolyte tablets. “You sure you don’t need them?” the other runners who are helping ask.
“No, I’ve got more. He needs them more than I do.”
I am suddenly struck what a race truly is for a recreation road runner. It isn’t necessarily a race against the clock or a race against other people. It is a race with other people; other people who have a similar passion, other people who want each and everyone to succeed, reach their goals and cross the finish line. We race together. It is a collective goal and truly a team effort. It is so heartening to see the runners encourage, help, and praise each other.
The home made cardboard signs onlookers hold up make for great encouragement and entertainment. I laugh and smile as I see them “Toenails are for wimps” “Why 26.2? Because 26.3 is just crazy” “Believe” and the best advice is “Don’t Poo”  at kilometre 37.
Now, I do have a complaint I would like to lodge with the ING Ottawa Marathon organizers. The half marathon runners merge for a short period of time with the marathon runners at approximately kilometre 35, except for the half marathon runners it is probably kilometre 19. As my now tired, unrelenting body stumbles into the merge, the fresh, perky, I’m almost at the finish line half marathon runners are making me angry. I don’t like their snub, energetic gusto at all and am sorely tempted to trip one of them. I resist the urge and soldier on.
My plan for this whole race is to run 10 minutes and walk 1 minute for a recovery period for its entirety. This serves me well for 32 kilometers but now it doesn’t seem like such a good idea. I modify to 9 and 1s, then 7 and 1’s, soon to be 5 and 1s. I am now doing an even split of 1 minute running with 1 minute walking. I am in the last leg of the race and on my last legs along the canal and if you know the area, you will remember the beautiful lamp posts that decorate the sides of the bike trail. I stop and stretch my calves at every single one of them. My calves have contracted one too many times and refuse to release.
Somehow I keep moving forward and I see the 40 kilometer marker. I rejoice and my ipod starts belting out 1986’s song The Final Count Down by the Swedish group Europe. It is corny and full of fake synth sounds but it makes me run faster, and run I do, past Heather waiting in the wings, past the cheering crowds, past other runners, and finally, past the finish line! I even complete it in a qualifying time for Boston (for a 79 year old man).
Now it is time to rush back to the hotel. I remember the $50 charge. However, rushing of any type is easier said than done. I find Heather and we head back at my full speed which is barely moving. I think I say ouch with every step. Sadly, Tom did not complete in the race in under 4 hours but came very close. Stricken with a bad case of shin splints, he said he cried when he watched the 4 hour bunny bop by as he was on the ground holding his shins. There’s always next year, Tom!
In the hotel, pack, shower, rush out…just after the noon cut off! I held us up, but the American is able to talk us out of the charge and back home we head. Things are going well at first until I am overcome with motion sickness mixed in with over exertion.
“Mind if I lower the window a bit? I’m feeling a little sick.” I am lying, of course, because I am feeling violently ill.
Heather spent most of her life working with developmentally delayed people and is not easily fazed by overt bodily functions, however, I can tell by the look on Andrea and Tom’s faces that if my stomach goes, I might start a chain reaction that might no easily be stopped.
Thank goodness for Tim Hortons. I jump out of the car and run--who am I kidding? I fall out of the car and start hobbling painfully towards the bathroom. I am behind a relaxed, slow moving family who obviously don’t feel my sense of urgency. I think, “Let’s get a move on people.” It isn’t until they step to the side that I realize that I didn’t think it, I actually said it out loud! I am a little embarrassed I am so rude, but even more embarrassed I can’t speed up enough to pass them after they make an effort to move to the side.
I’m in the bathroom. Three stalls, two occupied. I take the centre one. What happened next is not pleasant or pleasant sounding for me or the other occupants of the bathroom. I am sure they are in shock because I complete the process, wash my hands and leave and no one dares to emerge from their respective stalls while I’m still there. I must have frightened them.
I feel good now. Heather has gravol and the rest of the trip is a blur until the American pipes up, “I wrote my mother’s eulogy in my head while I was running today.”
I am in shock. His mother had passed away? The poor man. What he doing running a marathon?
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know your mother had passed.”
“She hasn’t.”
Okay. I cannot think of any positive outcome, no matter what I ask next. I really don’t know what to do with this information. I mean, does he like his mother or is he just a long term planner? I hope he doesn’t tell his mother about this little incident.
“Four hours is a long time to run. You have a lot of time on your hands and you need to do something with your mind. I wrote the whole thing—planned it all,” the American explains.
I decide to go back to sleep.

I get home and read my first blog about this journey and don’t recognize the person who wrote it.  I read with horror my initial motivation for running a marathon:
I just want to say "I did it". Just once in my life.
Will it make me fitter? Will it make me a better person? Will it teach me something about goal setting? Will anyone else care whether I completed the course?  Will it improve my self-esteem? Make me better at finishing other tasks in life?
Emphatically, no, no, no!
But, I can say “I completed a marathon.”
The words floor me. I have reached my goal and these were my initial motivating factors, however the by-products of this process are the exact opposite of what I thought they would be. I have no desire to tell strangers at the grocery store that I ran a marathon or do I feel any sense of pride about the events of that one day. In fact, I knew that I would cross the finish line the second I started the race. It was not a surprise and certainly not a big accomplishment that particular date. What I thought would be a great marker, ended up to be only a very small punctuation in this journey.
The true blessings of this experience are the people I’ve met, the habits I’ve developed and unrelenting commitment I’ve nurtured. I have discovered that working towards a goal (whether achieved or not) does make one a better person, does teach you about goal setting, will improve confidence and does translate to other tasks in life. I hate to admit it, but when I started this, I couldn’t be more wrong. I guess you could say I reached my goal. True, I finished, standing, breathing, even--but the real accomplishment occurred every day I turned up for training.
I thought I would end this blog after Ottawa but what began as a novel has turned into a mere chapter and I pray for the strength and health to look forward to many more races. I want to continue running and blogging. After all, I’m still a nutter with an internet connection and a credit card. Next stop, the International Marathon in Niaraga Falls! Please come and join me on this next journey.

The compassion, nurturing,and support shown to me have been truly humbling.
 I thank everyone who walked into my life through this experience: Sandra L. and Terry, my clinic leaders are so helpful, encouraging and have a great sense of humour. Betty Ann, you are so positive and full of life—I love you. Sherry, you inspire just by being. Heather, thanks for accidentally getting me hooked into this. Tom and Andrea for being part of this yearly trip. Aracely, for persevering and completing your race with gusto, Lyndsay for your purity of spirit and kindest heart ever, and Denise, you make superwoman look like a lazy slacker. Karen, you keep me on track and are so generous with your organizational skills, conversation and offers of transportation. Saz, Mike and Melissa, thanks for putting me back together and keeping me strong-at my age, it obviously takes a team effort! Thanks to my friends and extended family who have taken such an interest in this project.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Jack and Jill

My running friend, Karen, her husband Jan and myself decide to give trail running a try. I had read how wonderful it is—the beauty of nature, the commune with the divine on earth and the smell of flowers and buds; a near spiritual experience, or so I am told.
The weather is awful the weeks leading up to the race so none of us is able to practice on an actual trail, well if you discount sidewalks and old railway lines. They are sort of trails, right? I mean, with a race name like Pick Your Poison how bad can it possibly be?
We arrive. I immediately feel out of place. I look around at the others participants and don’t notice many GPS watches, cell phones, fuel belts, ipods or high tech running gear that we’re wearing. Instead, I see bandanas and crazy, flower-power, mismatched running clothes and earth-toned shoes. No one speaks to us except the woman in the next car who is extracting what looks to be ski poles from her trunk. Apparently she uses these devices to walk up hills. I am beginning to question my judgement. However, I think “How bad can it possibly be?”
There are gondolas on the property. This can’t be good. Where there are gondolas, there are usually big hills. Upon registering to receive our race kits, we are given jet black shirts with a blood red skull and crossbones on it. I get a slight inkling the universe is trying to tell me something now.
“Where will I ever wear this?” Jan asks as the clean-cut, thirty-something professional holds the offending piece of clothing up at arm’s length.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Karen answers, “I could always wear it to bed.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” he mutters with sarcasm, obviously unimpressed. I figure I can always wear the shirt when I paint the basement…
And, the race kit includes a jar of free, locally gown honey. How very bijou I think.
No one has spoken to us yet and we cluster together like a small pack of penguins sheltering ourselves from the impending wind, hoping to start running soon to save us from our conspicuous discomfort. Karen and I are excited to see a happy, friendly face. It is Sandra, our former runner clinic leader.
“Hi,” we burst, so pleased to see a recognizable face.
“Hi,” she seems genuinely happy to see us.
“Are you racing?” Karen asks.
“No. I have another commitment today. I thought I’d take pictures at the start and then I have to go. Are you racing?”
“Yes,” Karen says. She adds, “It’s our first time on a trail.”
We expect a response but not the one we get.
“Oh,” pause and forced smile, “It’s hilly.”
“We know,” Karen responds cheerfully.
“It’s really hilly,” Sandra reiterates.
“We know,” Karen shoots back with a smile.
“Have fun. It’s hilly,” Sandra reminds us.
“We know,” Karen giggles.
This verbal game of ping pong is beginning to concern me. There is something in Sandra’s tone that makes me think that maybe there is more to this than we know. Apparently Karen is getting the same vibe.
We walk away. “I’m not sure I like the way Sandra said ‘oh’. We only signed up for the 12.5 km and not the 25 or 50 km. We should be okay, right?”
I do what any upstanding citizen would do in this situation. I blatantly lie, “We’ll be fine. I’m sure Sandra was just trying to let us know there are a few hills in the course. This will be a piece of cake.”
We make our way to the start line and with relief, the race starts. We turn on our ipods and set our GPS watches in isolation.  My relief is short lived, though, as we make our way up a never-ending hill. We fly by people as they start walking and think this isn’t so bad.
We enter a narrow path in the woods and it twist and turns as it continues to go up and then up some more. Then it happens. My heart stops dead and I gasp for breath. I think I am going to die or at very least have a heart attack.  No, it isn’t the never ending hills, although they don’t help. I see brambles and burrs attack Karen’s new $80 Lululemon capris (this year’s model, by the way) and can’t help myself as I scream out, “Oh no!” Karen seems less concerned as she is focussing on her footing.
We continue over fallen logs, mud patches and branches through a single lane path. All of a sudden I am startled by a woman in a wrist-to-ankle black unitard who is emerging from the depths of the woods. She looks to be about 110 years old. At first I think we are being attacked by the people of the trees and then realize she was just taking a bathroom break. I don’t like peeing in the woods and can’t imagine why she didn’t go 15 minutes ago when we were in the lodge where there were flushable toilets. Oh, well. Each to their own.
Unitard woman has obviously done this sort of race before, because she is now passing me up the hill, putting me to shame. She gives me some kindly advice. “Swing your arms,” it will help you get up the hill. On the inside I smile and politely say “Thank you for the wonderful advice.” My outside voice barely manages a grunt, “Thanks.” I wonder if I have a heart attack if my body will be eaten by bears or wolves?
I feel like I can’t get enough air. “Are you sure we aren’t in the Himalayas?” I ask Karen.
Oh finally, an open space and a downhill run. Karen and I run side by side, feeling a bit better after the steep Everest type climb we just completed. My elation, however quickly dissipates as I watch Karen’s shiny white Ascics Nimbus running shoes sink into the bog we are now running through. I feel my running shoes soak up the water like a sponge. “Ewww”, I say as I swing my hands up like a frightened little girl. There is no way around the water except through the swamp. I look around, half expecting Shreck and Fiona to appear and invite us over for supper.
We soldier on and come to a fork in the road, pardon me, trail, (there are definitely no roads here) and a gentleman who appears to have taken part in Woodstock in 1969 hasn’t changed his hairstyle (or clothes for that matter) since directs us back, around down a familiar path.
I think I’m losing my mind, delirious with this strenuous running. The hazardous roots, felled trees and brambles are starting to look the same, exactly the same as what we just came through. I talk myself out of my psychosis by telling myself I am imagining it until….we see the swamp, the precise swamp we just came through a few kilometres earlier and Mr. Woodstock is at the top of the hill.
“Is this your first time around?”
“No.” A group is now forming.
“You’ve done this part twice. You didn’t need to. I’m sorry,” he said way too matter-of-factly for my liking.
This man is responsible for my wet feet and my angry disposition has misdirected me and the best he can come up with is “sorry”. This costly mistake will add another 3 km to our run. I don’t think so. I’m not doing it.
“Where’s the car?” I ask Karen.
“Let’s go back and find the car.” I continue. I decide I’m not doing this torture twice.
But Karen has more resolve than I and says, “Let’s finish. We’ll go this way and see how it goes.”
Begrudgingly I follow.
The trail narrows and follows a ridge. One wrong step and you are stumbling down the side of a very steep hill, some (being Karen and I) would even call it a cliff.
“I don’t like this. I’m afraid of heights.” Karen confesses as she trudges forward.
I’m sure the area must have been pretty, but I can’t tell you. I was spending all my time watching my footing to make sure I didn’t break something important like a limb or appendage.  So much for enjoying nature.
“I signed Jan up for this race. I might be divorced when we get back to the finish line.”
I didn’t doubt it. If I could divorce myself for signing up for this experience, I would.
“Maybe he’s enjoying it.” I say, inwardly knowing it wasn't even a remote possibility.
Finally the trail widens and I see a golf course through the trees to the right of us—civilization…and golf carts.
“Want to hijack that golf cart?” I ask, hoping she’ll finally buy into one of my plans. But alas, Karen is the strong one and we keep going. Then I see people running the other way, just a few meters from us. Obviously this must be a loop and we will be going that way eventually.
“Want to cut across through the trees?” I figure we already added extra kilometres, this might be a way to reduce the distance a little. But then I think better of it. There are 25 and 50 km races also going on. What if that is a 50 km route and we accidently get on it? Then, my life would be over. So, I get proactive. I yell through the trees, “Are you running the 12.5 km race?”
I am met with a very emphatic, somewhat insulted, “No. We are the doing the 50.” My first impulse is to yell out "freaks" but I restrain myself. I don't know how long it would take them to find my body in these woods if this breed of super athletes decided to turn on me. Darn, I guess we better stick to the plan.
“Oh. Better stay on the trail, then,” I say.
We are being passed, “You’re a road runner, aren’t you?” a random trail blazer asks. “Yes,” we hang our heads in shame.
We’re nearing the end and trail is getting yet even more narrow and the ascent is so steep, I think I need a climbing harness and a belay partner. My calves have given up and are in a permanent contraction. I turn my body sideways in hopes of using a different set of muscles, “I have to go up the hill sideways,” I announce to Karen who is mountain climbing in front of me.
She can’t stop laughing now, “I have to go up on all fours.”
Now I’m hysterical. We are laughing hard enough to cry if we had the energy. There is a line up of people behind us now and a gentleman asks what was so funny. “Were you laughing at us ‘old’ folks?”
“No, no, no,” I assure him, recounting the tale. I am laughing because we are so out of our depth and so humbled by these extreme athletes who call themselves Trail Runners. We might as well be characters out of the TV show Sex and the City, two New York City-esque women parachuted into the Canadian wilds, wearing Prada gowns, Jimmy Choo shoes and holding a Cosmo in either hand...
I hate going up hill until I realize that I hate going downhill more. We descend a ski hill in the last leg of race. I fear losing my footing and going head over heels only to land in a heap at the bottom and we would be the inspiration for a new nursery rhyme. It is called Karen and Heather:
Karen and Heather went up the hill
To fetch a skull and cross bones t-shirt
Karen fell down and broke her crown
And Heather came tumbling after
Luckily, we both survive.
I see Jan at the finish line. “Did you enjoy that?” I ask.
I refuse to write what he said but it was as colourful as the rocks, trees, roots, and swamps we just traversed. Since I like both Karen and Jan, I will not recommend a good lawyer to either of them.
Karen and I decide to go for a run on the city roads the next week.
“Oh, the sweet smell of exhaust,” I say as I hungrily suck in the fumes.
A car honks at us and another almost hits us.
“Now, this is nice,” Karen remarks with sincerity and conviction.
We get lost because a couple of road signs are missing and it doesn’t ever both us. A driver gives us the finger and we wave and smile in glee.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I yell out to the disgruntled and now confused motorist.
Yes, this is the life. Nature, trees and fresh air are over rated. Give me the fume-infested, angry motorist plagued roads any day. By the way, I have a medium sized skull and cross bones black t-shirt for sale if anyone is interested…

Monday, May 9, 2011

He's the Bee's Knees

It’s less than three weeks until the Ottawa Marathon and I am low on both time and confidence; a potentially toxic mix of ingredients. An unexpected combination of illness, family emergencies and work commitments have put me behind in my scheduled training regiment and the ugly monster of self-doubt is raising its ugly head. I am currently in pursuit of a healthy dose of confidence. Let the search begin.
I can’t help but remember when my daughter, Charity, was little, she was approached by a vendor at a fair, “Want to race a frog, young lady?”
She couldn’t stop laughing. She thought he was nuts. She didn’t answer him but turned to me and said, “He’s crazy, I could easily beat a frog in a race.”
Confident, true. Misinformed, absolutely. Not the kind of confidence I am seeking.
Then there was the night I had to go to the banking machine and my family drove me into town. After making my deposit, I walked out to the parking lot and tugged on the car door. It was locked. How dare thye! I shot an evil glance toward the driver’s seat at my family. Only, it wasn’t my family. A stranger had hijacked our car. How dare he! He, he…he was giving me the dirtiest look ever. What nerve! I turned in anger and outrage, facing the parking lot… and saw my family in another car laughing hysterically at me. I turned back to the car I was trying to break into, “I’m soooo sorry…” I waved apologetically at the man in the driver’s seat as I ran to our car, hopefully before he had finished dialling 911 on his cell phone.
Embarrassingly confident, not the type that will serve me well. Then there is the kind of fair-weather confidence my neighbour, Heather, told me about.

When Heather plans her running route, she makes sure that near the end, she runs uphill past Fire Station #4. This is done by design, because, she told me, that no matter how tired, achy or miserable she might feel, she perks up. Fire Station #4 is exactly what she needs to temporarily boost her confidence. Her posture is perfect, her stide is strong and her lips are always smiling for those 200 meters. She imagines all the fit and feisty fireman inside staring out the windows commenting, "Wow, look at that runner. See how strong and fit she is." Although a great temporary motivator, I don't think even the thought of Station #4 could carry me 42.2 kilometers.
No, what I need is good old fashioned, humble, I know my limitations and I know my aspirations, true-to-reality, hard-work incudced, self confidence. The type I always saw in Walter Low.
Walter Low was a Chinese man who was born in Guiana. Eventually, he and his wife, Stella, ended up living in Canada for a time and became very good friends with my parents. As long as I can remember, there was always a Mr. & Mrs. Low.
They were incongruous, like reading the map in a candy box, biting into what you think is caramel candy and getting cherry. On the outside they looked Asian, but when they spoke, it was with an almost west Indian lilt, unexpected but endearing.
I have a theory. I believe that interested people are the most interesting and Mr. Low was both. Growing up and even into my adulthood, he would always ask about my newest adventures, whether it was writing, teaching, business or even this blog. My dad told me a couple of months ago that Walter had called him from California where he now lived to tell my father he was reading The Moose Pyjama Chronicles and interested in my running. This was a perfect example of how he was always keenly interested…and interesting.
As a young adult, I remember mentioning that my favourite author was Chiam Potock, someone most adults in my circle had never heard of. Not only did he hear of him, he owned and read all his books too. Mr. Low had so many interests. I knew that he went camping, read, kayaked, canoed, hiked and cycled just to name a few. Then, while in his 60s he began to jog and discovered his deep passion for running.  
Now if people came with ingredient labels, warnings and statements like grocery store items, Walter Low would read “Low Fat” (no pun intended) on his forehead. In fact, he could make Olive Oil look like a Jenny Craig poster child. The most striking feature of his slender build was his legs. The straight and clean lines of his skinny architecture only emphasized the protruding orbs of his knees.  I’m sure his knees were not any larger than normal, just the skinny legs seemed to emphasize the point. And those twiggy legs took him running, confidently, at the age of 60 and beyond.
Not only did he run. He ran races in lots of places – Toronto, Buffalo and California. When his daughter Mary ran her first marathon, he joined his at mile 12 and ran with her for a while for moral support. He loved races that had categories over the 60 year group. He loved it so much, he kept racing into his 70s and even 80s. In fact, he won his age group in a couple of races. (Rumour has it he might have been the only one over 80 years old to complete the races, but that doesn’t diminish the honour any less in my opinion.)
Now that’s true confidence. The kind I aspire to. The kind that will carry me over the finish line in Ottawa, the kind of positive energy to dig deep and move forward, knobby knees or not. In his amazing example, how could anyone not regain their confidence and joie de vive?
Last month, Mr. Low passed away in his home in California at the age of 93. If he could start running at 60, run races at 70 and win his category at 80, I have no excuses. I will be thinking of Walter when I humbly but confidently attempt my first marathon at the end of this month.  His example showed others that the best training for any type of race or challenge isn’t the regiment, but in how you live your life. And, he lived it well.
In memorandum
Walter James Low
18 August 1917 - 14 April 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Real Cost of Running

There are those who say that you can’t put a price on running. All you need is the open road and a pair of shoes. Those people obviously didn’t get my last VISA bill.
A few weeks ago I ran my second half marathon and I decided to foolishly calculate the expense of the excursion. After all, the entry fee was only $85.
Let’s start at the beginning. You can’t run naked. Or, at least you shouldn’t. Well, at least I shouldn’t, so let’s look at the basics.
Do not underestimate the value of a good undergarment. Being of the female persuasion, I require a sports bra. And, only Lulemon’s TaTa Tamer will do. Because, unfortunately my TaTa’s require a fair amount of taming. Actually, most days they require a crane or an antigravity chamber (what can I say, I’m 44) but in a pinch the Lululemon bra works for me. A cool $50. Luckily, my basic underwear seem to be working out so no added expense there.
Moving on to the socks. Apparently, when you run you require special socks. I’m not completely sure why that is but I’ve been made to believe it is a universal truth like gravity or inertia. Since most of my training was done in the winter I required socks made out of ‘Smart Wool’.  As opposed to what, I ask you? I’ve never seen Dumb Wool for sale and at $20/pair I want to see a copy of the IQ test they administered in order to choose only the intellectually superior sheep to make my socks.
Shoes. Most of us use them unless you are a barefoot runner in which case you will probably pay more for your runners that are made to look and feel like you are still in your bare feet. How’s that for great marketing? And, I’ve read that you should have 2 pairs of runners, because, like human beings they require recovery time. Seriously? They are a piece of clothing people, not a pet. Nevertheless, I have 2 (or more but who’s counting?) pairs at approximately $150/pair.
In the winter, layering is the key. You require a base layer, an insulating layer and an outer layer on the top half, each about $50 a pop. And, being in Canada it truly is necessary. The base layer needs to be something called moisture wicking which, in layman terms means it is made from some chemically altered petroleum based material that holds the smell of human sweat FOREVER. You can wash it, wash it again, hand wash it, soak it in baking soda for a week, then hang it out to dry for a month and it will still smell like a dirty gym bag. Or, you can buy special engineered detergent to do the job for $15. I have a conspiracy theory that both products are produced by the same corporate company, kind of like hackers and anti-virus software; one can't exist without the other.
Body Glide is required because chafing happens in the most inopportune places. I don’t know what’s in it, or how it works, but I love it. You just rub it on the places in danger and it prevents ugly, nasty, oozing chafing. It is the best $10 you’ll ever spend.
Okay, apparently staying hydrated is important in long distance running so you need a fuel belt. No, this has nothing to do with the price of crude oil, although runners often produce a lot of gas. It is a belt you wear that can hold your water bottle(s). Unless you are a camel, you will cave and pay the $50 for a decent one.
Gu, glorious Gu is a substance made of glucose polymers unfit for human consumption that, if eaten when not running could put even the heartiest of athletes into a diabetic coma for life. Runners eat these gels during long runs to keep their blood sugar up in hopes they don’t completely deplete the glycogen stores in their muscles. And, wait for it, some flavours have caffeine! Awesome, toxic and addictive.  My favourite flavour was chocolate outrage (rocket fuel) until I discovered that the caffeine sped up my digestive system (see previous post The Real Victory). Now, I stick to the mint chocolate because it doesn’t have caffeine and I am less likely to visit every porta potty en route. These little packets will run you about $2.00/pop and you’ll need about 2 or 3 on every long run.
If you run at night you should wear an outer layer with reflective materials and lights. That way, cars can see you right before they hit you. For lights, it’s red on the back and white on the front. A nice magnetic flasher can run you about $20.
I live in Canada. There is the moment when you realize you’ve got to stop whining and put on a toque and get on with it. A good hat, balaclava (see previous post Interlude), and gloves are all required and they run between $20 - $50. And, if you don’t want to fall on your butt on snowy days a pair of YakTrax will run you about $40.
If you run, you will want to use a GPS watch. It tells you how slow you are really going. A very depressing device, really, but a necessary evil if you want to keep track of your mileage.
Research shows that music can help an athlete run 20% faster. Ipod required at $150.
Now, I had to buy 2 stainless steel cooking pots @ $40/piece because of my training. During the week I went to a running clinic ($69.95 incidentally) and my family was left to their own devices to make supper. I’ve been working on encouraging them to use less water while cooking. Unfortunately, this water conservation backfired for boiling potatoes. I could smell the burn the second I entered the house after run club. Needless to say I was not pleased when I also saw the burn mark on the old laminate counter. I was just getting over the incident when I came home the next week and was met with the same odour.
Then I saw it. I look at the counter where the burn mark was last week and see a huge hole right through the entire laminate the size of quarter. Maybe I should also include the price of the new granite counter I’d like to get to replace the old counter in the running cost.
Like an old car, I require maintenance after so many miles. Ten visits to the chiropractor @ $35/shot and 4 visits to the RMT @ $60 (I get a deal).
I took a bus to the race. It was a great price, only $25. I needed a bag to carry all my stuff in and splurged on one for $50.
Let’s break it down
Sports Bra  $50
Socks  $20
Leggings:  $75
Outer leggings   $70
Moisture wick shirt  $50
Insulation layer:  $50
Outer layer  $80
Shoes (2 pair)  $300
Fuel Belt: $50
Lights (2)  $40
Hat  $30
Mitts  $40
Balaclava  $40
Body Glide  $10
Clinic  $70
Race Fee  $85
Gu  $20
Athletic Bag: $50
Bus Fee: $25
Yaktraks: $40
Stainless Steel Pots (2) $80
Chirpractic and RMT visits: $540
GPS Watch $200
IPod  $150
Total:   $2,165 and that doesn’t even include my granite countertop!
I have to say all this equipment really did help my running.  I never ran faster than after I opened my VISA bill!