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…

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.