Thursday, January 12, 2017


Above the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Each January I like to find a word or phrase that will help frame my plans for the coming year. Last year I chose GETTING THERE. My hope was to learn to enjoy the process of moving myself forward and not spend so much time thinking about the endgame. I think I was moderately successful, no more so than in my last race of the year, the Run for the Toad 50k, in which I focused on the experience and let the goal come to me.

I figured out that in an ultra-distance race, you'd better not waste time and energy fussing about some distant finish line or it is going to be a very long day.

This year’s word, CLIMBING, sends me in a different direction. It's a multi-purpose word. You can climb up something, towards something, or out of something. In our rich, beautiful English language, you can also climb down something. You can climb a corporate ladder or a mountain. People even climb into bed.

From where you are in a climb, you can look upward to where you’re headed and downward to where you’ve been. Janus, this month’s eponym, would approve.

The months ahead could be exciting for me. My book, Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella and Other Tales from my Surprising Operatic Life, a memoir of my years as a singer, will be published this spring. I am going to start a new website. I will reach an age milestone.

And I am going to Iceland for an ultramarathon.

The event takes place on a hiking trail in the southern highlands of Iceland. Hikers normally take several days to cover the distance. Runners in this race are expected to do it in under 9 hours, and I will get to spend some quality time pondering my word of the year.

One look at a photo of the race I have just entered tells me that we will not be in Kansas, Toto. There are mountain trails to go up and then get down somehow. The weather varies from year to year and can range from sleet and freezing rain to short-sleeve warmth. The terrain will feature sand, gravel, grass, snow, slush, ice, glacier-fed rivers and streams, and at least one climb down a hill requiring a rope.

It sounds irresistible. No?

Onward and upward. Mostly upward
Just to keep everyone moving along, there are time cutoffs. On paper they seem generous, but apparently a fair number of people do not make them. The prospect of sitting in the cold rain waiting for the sag wagon, stiff and sore and disqualified, will help keep me from dawdling I hope. But there’s only so fast you can climb – up or down.

I have planned and dreamed enough about the scores of events I’ve entered over the years to know that reality often quickly diverges from vision once the gun goes off. Mike Tyson said (somewhat ungrammatically) that everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face. The success of a lot of endurance pursuits hinges on how you recover after getting punched in the face. I expect this will be part of my training regimen over the next six months.

Monday: OFF. Tuesday: 6 km easy. Wednesday: Face Punch.

To date there are only a handful of people over 60 registered for the race. I should take this as a sign that this is no run for old men. Naturally, I will ignore that particular sign. 

Once again my reach is exceeding my grasp. As it was with my first 10k, my first marathon, and my first Ironman, I couldn’t do this race tomorrow – or even next month. Nor do I expect to. For me training for an event has always been equal or greater in value to the event itself. I am trusting myself when I pledge that I can raise my body and mind to a place where doing it is at least possible.

After all, as a runner in the Badwater Ultramarathon once said, “We are all here to see what is possible." I have often thought she could have been referring to the race, or to something larger.

And I do reserve the right to climb into bed at the end of it all.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

How Far We Have Come

waywiser, n.
 An instrument for measuring and indicating distance travelled, especially by foot. Now historical.

One of my private goals for 2016 was to run a race longer than a marathon. I succeeded when I made it across the line at the Run for the Toad 50k in October. Because most ultramarathons take place on trails, I ended up doing most of my training in wilder settings than I’m used to. In this way, longer distances became my regular runs, and I became a trail runner. Except for the Around the Bay 30k race last March, all my events in 2016 were trail races.
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.
I got to run for hours and hours through mud, Turkish bath heat, pouring rain, and misty forests. I got to wade through streams created by just-melted snow and pick my way across makeshift bridges made of mossy logs. I slipped and tripped and bounced my way over rocks and roots and hundreds of kilometres of quiet forest pathways. This time last year I felt like a novice trail runner. Now I feel as if I have acquired something from every step I took. (On some of the muddier outings, I did.)
As I live in a very large city, simply planning a two- to three-hour training run without sidewalks and stoplights adds a challenge to the process. I am lucky to live right at the entrance to a vast system of ravines, which weave their way through the city providing biking paths and trails that go on for hours.
One of my best training runs took place a few weeks before the Run for the Toad in October. I ran about 39k on paths beside Lake Ontario and through the Don River Valley. The last two hours were in rain so steady it seemed the air was liquid. When you are tired and sore and it is pouring rain, the only thing to do is to keep calm and carry on toward your goal. So I did. It was a soggy, joyful day.
I am also fortunate to be part of a family summer cottage several hours north of the city. My favourite training route up there takes me 13km along winding, hilly, tree-shaded roads into the local town, finishing with a climb to the top of a large hill. There is a scenic lookout tower at the top of the hill and a spring water source that is almost indecently sensual on a hot summer day.
A few weeks ago this was solid ice.
In past years I would usually wait until someone was driving into town anyway and ask them meet me there and ferry me home. This year I decided to simply turn around and run back, doubling the distance and exponentially improving my workout. Oddly, no one ever expressed regret over the absence of my salt-covered body and sodden clothes in their car. A win/win.
I did that Tower Hill run several times last summer; hour after hour of “the green dark forest … too silent to be real” save for the sound of my feet hitting the ground. Now that I am city-bound by winter, the peaceful solitude of that 26k route has become a refuge for my mind.
My goals for next year – the year in which I will turn 65 – are varied and exciting. And like most private dreams, they are fanciful and farfetched and therefore completely malleable. But wherever I end up, I do plan to run farther and climb higher than I have any right to be able to. I will slip and trip and fall (my plan does include getting up again). I will be hot and cold and wet and learn how to deal with being these. As I move forward, I will become stronger and yes, maybe wiser. 

To the bewilderment of those who think I should suffer somehow for the audacity of wanting to transport my body over long distances under my own power, I intend to love every step.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Forest Ultra

Run for the Toad 50k – October 1, 2016

The voice in my head began speaking to me as I was about 20k into my run. “Sure,” the voice said. “You’ve gone almost a half-marathon – a decent morning’s run for anyone. But you still have 30k to go. You’re not even halfway there.”

And I had “the feeling.” I have experienced it before: once long ago at 10k of a marathon I had entered at the last minute. A sinking, missing-the-last-bus, alone, hopeless feeling in the centre of my being. A feeling that I have no business being out here, that I will never finish and may in fact be forgotten out on the course as the sun sets and everybody goes home. Luckily I ignored the feeling that day and went on to run a personal best for the marathon.

So as I passed through 20k of the Run for the Toad 50k – my first try at the distance – I was expecting that feeling, as I was waiting for the voice, and this day too I was able to disconnect both and keep running. In a few minutes I felt fine again.

Note to self: remember how you did that.

A year ago I did the 25k version of this event and loved it. A helpful and optimistic volunteer suggested I might want to try the 50k this year. With no good reason other than her casual encouragement, I set this as my goal event for the season.

The race takes place in the Pinehurst Lake Conservation Area, about an hour west of Toronto,  over a very user-friendly course comprising well-groomed trails through pine forests and grassy paths across open fields. Each lap is 12.5k, so, 4 of them for the whole 50. 

It was a cool overcast day with rain threatening but never really materializing. I ran cautiously but steadily. I encountered my friend the volunteer from last year in her usual traffic-directing spot and let her know that it would be all her fault if I crashed and burned, ending up as a helpless pile of mushed muscle and snapped sinews. This is the kind of lame humour I typically offer the volunteers as I run past.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I detest it when someone labels what I do as “crazy.” I have no time for these people. With all the truly insane things going on in the world, I ask, how is it crazy to have a dream, set a goal, make plans, and then take steps to achieve your goal? Why can I not be labelled brave, or determined – or at least congenial?

As my voice had reminded me, two laps, or 25k, would have been a good morning’s workout, an honourable end to the season. But I wanted more. I have run lots of marathons – more than I can remember in fact – but this time, like Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier, I wanted to see what would happen if I turned it up to eleven.

Did I have the strides to carry me into ultramarathon territory?

As I ran I couldn’t resist looking at the time, something I rarely do in a trail run. Because all trails are different, there is no point in comparing today’s race with the one you did somewhere else a month ago. But since even finishing the distance was going to be a total learning experience for me, I glanced at my watch as I made my way around each of the first three laps. I didn’t care how long I took, but I wanted the finish line not to have been dismantled before I got across it.

Got 'er done.
My body knew what it had to do; I had been training for this race since last winter and I had put in the requisite work.  When I got to the last lap – the last 12.5k – I knew I had it and I enjoyed every step. The field of runners had thinned out (as it does when you are at the back of it) and I frequently had the dark green, misty trail all to myself. As I passed the 5k marker for the fourth time (telling me I had run a total distance of 42.5 kilometres), I stopped in the middle of the path in the silent forest, raised my arms heavenward, and let the voice in my head tell me, “You’re an ultramarathoner.”

Amazingly, I managed not to trip or stumble; this is probably due more to luck than skill – not to mention my Hoka One One Speedgoat shoes – but staying upright is always a great morale booster. As usual, I felt stronger as I approached the finish line than I had all day. When I finished, I had been running for just under seven hours. 

This was the finale of my season, which began with Around the Bay back in April. I have grandiose plans to build on what I've learned this year. The next task is to teach myself to pace better, to become more confident running up and down hills, and to remind the voice in my head that each step is one more closer to my goal, and that I am indeed getting there.