Friday, June 16, 2017

The River I Stand In

Eeyore shook himself, and asked somebody to explain to Piglet what happened when you had been inside a river for quite a long time. 
A.A. Milne

It’s been an extraordinary spring. I use the word to mean neither wonderful nor ghastly, but simply beyond ordinary.

At the beginning of the year I had two simple personal goals: to see my first book published in May and to run an ultramarathon in Iceland in July. My book was published, and people seem to be enjoying it, which was my primary hope.

Then we bought a new house, unexpectedly. Doing such a thing had been part of a multi-year plan, which suddenly telescoped into immediacy. This necessitated quickly selling the place we already had, with all the attendant fuss and stress.

Finally, although it seemed the day would never arrive, last week we left the home we had lived in for 21 years and moved to a large, tree-covered property a couple of hours from Toronto, on the banks of a river. Watching the water flow past our back door is energizing, mesmerizing, and restful at the same time. The local running and cycling will be terrific and in the back of my mind I am wondering if I can use the river as a sort of Endless Pool to get my swimming back into shape.

In early May I was well into training for the trail race in Iceland – a spectacular event that I had chosen to celebrate turning 65, which would test me as much as any Ironman ever did – when I slipped and fell, badly damaging my right hamstring. The rug was pulled out from under my meticulously constructed Iceland training plan.

For two weeks I could barely walk. I didn’t run for another four. The Vikings would probably just have gone out and run anyway, chopping the bad leg off to reduce drag. My Gaelic ancestors would have holed up somewhere with a supply of Scotch.

The other day I went out and ran for twenty minutes, some of them uncomfortable; I took each step as if I were being chased by a Zamboni, frightened of slipping and reinjuring myself. Yesterday I ran a bit farther, with a bit less discomfort and a bit more joy, and today I made it even farther. If I can keep moving forward like this, I hope to get myself to a place where I feel like a runner again.

You see, this is what it means to ask so much of my body: it doesn’t always do what I want it to, but if I’m lucky, it doesn’t completely quit on me, but revives. Stirring dull roots with the spring rain.

At the beginning of the year, I had no immediate plans to buy a house and move away, and no plans to suffer one of my most debilitating injuries ever. Extraordinary changes have flowed over my world like a river in spring flood. If my athletic life has taught me nothing else, it is that plans change without notice, and that I must be prepared for quick course changes or simply give up.


The river I step in is not the river I stand in. Dreams flow past and are lost. New ones are made and new plans are drawn up to achieve them. As John Lennon sang, there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. I am here and nowhere else, and happy to be so. We’ll see what happens around the next turning.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Different Value

I’m reviewing the situation … I think I’d better think it out again!
Fagin, in Lionel Bart’s “Oliver”


I had a great running season last year: I was 100% injury free; I set some PBs for certain distances; and I ran my first ultra. I established some lofty goals for this year and was out of the gate on January 1.

The best laid schemes…

A week ago I was running on a nearby trail when I slipped in some mud. My right leg went violently out in front of me and in a split-second I knew I had pulled a hamstring. I nursed it over the next 24 hours and it was starting to feel better. I was walking a little awkwardly, as you do, but there was reason to hope.

Two days later I was heading down some stairs into the subway during a rainstorm and the same leg slipped out from under me on the slick floor as commuters streamed by on all sides. The pain was transcendental, and a voice in my head said, “Your season is over.”

I may have been a little dramatic with the prognosis but there was no doubt that I was seriously hobbled and that the healing is going to be very slow. The trail event I had signed up for this Saturday will go on without me, and I’m doubtful I will make it to my target race in July.

I have to be philosophical. I’ve had my share of injuries over the years, but not as many as some people I know, and they have always healed completely. I’ve also raced while in sub-optimal shape: once a marathon when I had a bruised rib; once an Ironman after a bike crash that left me unable to swim for several weeks before the event; once, a century in Death Valley, shortly after tearing my acromio-clavicular ligament. In all these cases I went on to have an enjoyable day.

My book. Written by me.
At the moment it is physically impossible for me to run. When I get back into training, it will be on the bike or in the pool.

We had a manic winter, buying a new house and listing and selling our old one. We are moving at the end of this month. May also signals the publication of my first book, Dr.Bartolo’s Umbrella and Other Tales from my Surprising Operatic Life, a memoir of my years as a singer. I have been to one launch event and there is another two weeks from now. Because my publisher is a small one with few contacts in the music business, I have been doing a lot of the marketing and door-knocking myself. I am loving it all, but it wears a bit.

Adding into this my work with my editing clients and my attempts to write some new material, an outside observer might say that I am as hyperextended as the leg that slipped out from under me. I am not big on kismet or messages from the ether, but I can’t help thinking that something cosmic is trying to say, “Slow down.” Not to mention, "Watch where you're going."

A hot day at IMC
It is in my nature to want to set goals and work towards them. When I have to drop or re-evaluate one I feel lost and bereft. When my head is not full of plans, it feels empty. But surely I am more than my goals. An enforced idleness such as the one I’ve just slid into might be an invitation to look differently at those goals.

When they ran out of water on the bike course at Ironman Canada several years ago, I became badly dehydrated in the last half of the marathon. Every time I tried to run, I felt like throwing up or passing out. So I walked. As I moved slowly back towards town, I felt the warm breeze blow over my skin and watched the twinkling lights across the water grow closer. It was no longer a race I was in, but a journey through the pitch-dark stillness of the night. I let go of the frustration of not being able to move quicker and simply embraced the pace. And eventually I made it to the finish line.

My plans had not worked out that evening in Penticton, but I believe there was value – a different value – in what I did achieve. I think to be an endurance athlete is to be prepared for any change in course, even one that requires a redefinition of the objective.

New destinations
With my current injury, I am at that Ironman again, out at mile 20. I will have to see my objectives differently. And slowly, eventually, I’ll get there.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Staying Home

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,
Know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away,
Know when to run.

The good news was that the freezing rain might stop by morning.
The other good news was that my right hamstring seemed to be on the mend and was not bothering me as much as it had been.

On the other hand, the remnants of a cold had settled uncomfortably in my chest, making breathing an irritating chore.

So much seemed to be conspiring to keep me from running my planned race, the Around the Bay 30k in Hamilton.

And there was the fact that I was vastly undertrained.

Training has not been a focus in the past two months. Our quick, unexpected decision to buy a house in the country and sell the one we’ve lived in for 21 years meant that much of the winter was taken up packing boxes and shifting furniture.

Once we had decided to list the house, we were in the hands of The Stagers. The mandate of The Stagers is to make your home look as if no one has ever lived there, the better to sell it, apparently. To us sellers, their word was law, and the word we got was that none of our furniture, art, or carpeting was worthy to be viewed by the buying public. It all had to go. So began a frantic period of moving everything we owned into the garage so that it could be replaced by one glass-topped coffee table and a throw pillow. Even my beloved treadmill, a wintertime refuge for me, was rolled into a corner while the house was being shown.

All of which goes to say that I didn’t do a lot of running in January and February.

The bottom line: Even If I did show up at the starting line, it would be to shuffle along like an old man in the final miles of Ironman, doing a run-walk, hacking and coughing, finishing on the last page of the results.

Actually I do that anyway, but this time it might not have been worth it.

A few people I know refer to my athletic habits as “crazy,” a term that drives me … well ... crazy. To me there is nothing crazy about setting a goal and taking steps to achieve it. These things mean being organized and focused, not nuts. I get defensive when someone points to everything I go through to do what I do and dismisses it as simply a mental aberration. No, my hobby is not shopping for antiques, having people over to dinner, or eating exotic cheeses. Yes, I sometimes get uncomfortable.

But occasionally an obsession to carry through with something despite a net negative outcome, or at least a lack of a measurable positive one, could be an indication of an approach that is a tad off balance.

No Country for Old Legs
The challenge for me here was to see the bigger picture. I have a long-term training plan to take me to my A race in Iceland this summer. From where I am currently sitting, finishing that race seems nearly impossible. Challenging terrain and weather are made even more daunting by what look like Draconian time cut-offs. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like any country for old men; there are all of 5 people 65+ entered in a field of over 500. Even the four-hour bus ride to the start is off-putting.

Nevertheless I am looking forward to it as much as I did my first Ironman back in 2002. It will test me and my training, resolve, and focus as much as anything ever has.

But training will require running, and I have to be in shape for that. Starting off with a painful whimper is not how I wanted to do it.

Call me crazy, but in the end I decided to skip Around the Bay and live to run another day. I have run the race many times and I will run it many more, but this was not going to be my year.

And things are looking up. My sore muscles are feeling better, my chest cold is retreating, and I feel like running again. Now if I can just remember where I packed my trail shoes…