Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Baby Steps

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up.”
Dean Karnazes

The first piece of good news about the Waterfront Marathon was that the weather, predicted all week to be rainy and cold, decided to be sunny and bright. The other good thing was that thirteen of my family and extended family were running either the Half or the Full (one niece calculated that collectively we would travel 358.7 kilometres).
Duncan setting the pace - one of 13
in our family who ran Sunday 
All told, about 14,000 runners lined up for the start (there had been another 6,500 in a 5K earlier in the morning; this is a huge event). I knew I was going to have a very slow day because of my pulled hamstring muscle, and I felt serenely fatalistic about the outcome. I seeded myself well toward the back of the large crowd of runners—as it happened, right beside the stage door of the opera house where I used to sing.

Once we finally got underway, the first fifteen minutes of running felt reasonably normal. It’s a great course, flat and open, with some typically rough urban pavement along the way to keep you alert. I basked in the collective energy of the thousands like me who were setting off on their adventure.
Then I took a large sidestep to hop over one of the zillions of streetcar tracks along the route, and felt my hamstring protest; painfully. OK, I thought, just baby steps today. And so the next 40 kilometres were run with a sort of half stride on one side. I couldn’t extend my left leg much more than 15 degrees forward from vertical, so I adapted.

My shortened gait certainly slowed me down. The good thing was that I wasn’t in a hurry, which was just as well, since I couldn’t have been even if I had wanted to be. If I had tried to move at any kind of decent speed I would have looked like someone running in one of those Keystone Kops movies, shot at 14 frames per second and projected at 24.
Hurts so good!

At about 7K I came up on my brother Gord who was doing the Half. He too had been suffering from injuries but had decided at the last minute to give it a go. So we travelled together for an hour or so, which helped pass the time, and the distance. At 20K most of the runners left the course and headed to their Half-Marathon finish, and the marathoners diverged to begin their lonely journey eastward. It was a distinct moment: we had taken the less travelled path that ends at the finish line of a marathon. We were defined.

I have run marathons that seemed effortless, or at least, that have gone by with relative smoothness. Every athlete knows the feeling of clicking on all cylinders, when your body seems totally onside with your heart and mind. This was not one of those days for me.
At about 27K, with my left hamstring hobbling my stride, my right foot decided to make it a duet by reminding me of my old pinched nerve, the one that had brought my 2009 Comrades Marathon to a crashing halt. I had to stop at every aid station to take off my shoe and rub some life into my poor metatarsals.

No feeling like that finish feeling
At least now I was balanced, with discomfort on both sides. It was annoying that I had plenty of life in my legs and could have quite enjoyed the run if not for the mechanical problems. But unlike other sports equipment, our bodies are given to us for free—and sometimes they do what they will in spite of our best laid plans.
“I am alive, and I’m moving forward”, is my running mantra. It began to feel as if I was barely correct on both counts. I basically shuffled through the closing 10K of the course, moving forward, albeit at a glacial pace. I entered the moments of transcendental solitude I have written about.

As I ran up Bay Street into the chutes to finish my slowest marathon ever, I was giving an audible thank you to my body for carrying me the distance in spite of the problems. I had been to the well many times that day, but was somehow filled just as much as needed. Marathon number 22 was in the books.
Basking in the sun at the finish line
It’s been an up and down season, with three good finishes at the Ironman 70.3 events, and a crushing DNF at Tremblant.  A long rest from running is in order. But there is no doubt that I will be back. There are still many finish lines waiting in the distance.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Footfalls - October 2013

He saw the shadow of an Average Man
Attempting the exceptional, and ran.
W.H. Auden

I have a vision of a visitor arriving in Toronto this weekend from a distant war-torn country. As his host drives him into town, their trip is temporarily interrupted by a marathon race and they must stop to let the runners pass. The perplexed visitor turns to his host and asks, “What are they running away from?”
I am one of those marathon runners and I have been asked similar questions. Why do I do it? What am I fleeing? The curiosity and cynicism is logical; we runners have been described as compulsive personality types, weight-obsessed and prone to alcoholism.  The average marathon field might be thought to contain a fair number of unbalanced, anorexic drunks trying to outdistance their own neuroses.
I am not an elite athlete; I neither win nor lose the race. I run near the back of the pack, with aging executives and heavy-hipped women in long white T-shirts. The folks running near me are there to go the distance certainly, but they are challenging themselves only; the winners have long since finished.
A marathon is 42.2 kilometres long. Some of these kilometres can be uncomfortable. To actually want to run such a distance can be puzzling to those whose hobbies are less exacting. There is no immediate gratification in pounding each one of your feet into the street pavement 21,000 times over a period of four hours or so.
Some of my friends wonder why I spend so much time and energy on a pursuit that  causes such apparent anguish among its practitioners - more so than, say, shopping for antiques on a sunny Sunday afternoon.  Why do I run so far?
Is it because I want to feel superior to my sedentary friends in the same way that the aviator feels superior to earthbound mortals? Maybe I achieve a certain private smugness in listening patiently to someone tell me about the new vibrating Barca Lounger they’ve just had delivered while I am cooling down my tingling quadriceps muscles after a 20K training run. Is it self-satisfaction I crave?
Am I fleeing our pervasive modern technology by attempting to rediscover something primal, more basic? Running is after all something that people have been doing naturally since our species first walked upright. Am I paying homage to my hunter-gather ancestors as I run through my own urban jungle? There could be something in this, although the theory is discredited somewhat by the presence of a computerized timing chip laced to my shoe, beaming my progress to my wife’s I-Phone as she waits at the finish line.
Am I looking for the kind of challenge that is disappearing from my everyday existence?  Not many of us in the cities go off into the grasslands to hunt down our dinners these days. We do not have to cope with Bubonic Plague, sabre-tooth tigers or marauding bands of Vikings. We are part of a society that is transfixed by televised reality stories of dysfunctional losers all trying to claw and backstab their way to fifteen minutes of fame and a cash prize. Are some of us looking to endurance sports as a way to become real survivors in our own lives?
Several years ago a running shoe company ran an ad that suggested we runners were actually fleeing old age itself - as if that were possible - and that we would succeed if we bought their product and Just Did It. Did this sell any shoes? I hope not.
Popular lore holds that we run for cardiac fitness, weight control, or to find inner peace in an age of anxiety. In my mind, all of these things are a by-product of running, not a goal. No weight loss agenda will carry you through a three-hour run in the blistering heat. People speak of a “runner’s high”. These people are mostly non-runners. I have seldom been high in the final miles of a marathon; sore yes, high no.
But if you were a runner you would know this:
At one point in a long distance race, you will come to a place where all conversation ceases, and there is only the sound of rubber soles hitting the pavement and of runners evenly breathing. The people around you are deep in their own thoughts, alone with their discomfort or determination, with their dreams or despair. This is a time of transcendental solitude, when no external source - no self-help book, no friendly volunteers, no supportive coaching – can get you to the finish line. You are locked away in negotiation with your abilities and your limitations. It is an elemental moment that is redefined each time your protesting feet hit the ground.
About three-quarters of the way through a marathon, the fuel in your muscles is nearly depleted and you are literally running on empty. No one is quite sure what powers you through the last 10K, but this much I believe: you have had the courage to attempt just a little bit more than you thought you were capable of. You challenged yourself – mind and body - to try to do more today than you did yesterday. And by accepting this challenge, you have become extraordinary.
In answer to our foreign visitor’s question: we marathoners are running away, but not from old age or chubby thighs or the stresses of the world. We are running from the shadow of the average man, from the blandness of spiritual indifference, and ultimately we are running out of mere being and into betterness. We run in order to demand something supernal of our bodies and our souls, and to rejoice when we feel them respond.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

End of Season Blues

“What a drag it is getting old.”
Rolling Stones

I went for a long run last Sunday and it hurt all the way. From the very first stride, the hamstring muscles in my left leg protested. I thought to myself that if it got any worse I would turn around. But it never got any worse; it just stayed annoying for the whole three hours. It was one of those nagging injuries that are not serious enough to sideline you but just uncomfortable enough to slow you down and spoil your enjoyment of the run.
Not a flattering way
to view myself
I would normally call such a thing an overuse injury, except that I haven’t been overusing anything. I finished the Muskoka 70.3 a few weeks ago feeling terrific; not even a stiff quadriceps muscle the next day. Then just in the last week, everything seems to have fallen into disrepair, like a used car just past the far side of its warranty.

I am not ready for that just yet. I don’t want to be one of those people you see at races all wrapped up like The Mummy Returns in tensor bandages. I want to keep building up my body, not breaking it down; strengthening it with each workout, not clobbering it. When did all this change direction?
I wanted to get in another couple of long runs because I have gone and entered the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon which happens two weeks from now. I signed up because a large contingent of my family is also running and I wanted to be part of the crowd (even though we will all be running at different paces and in different spots in the field of thousands and thousands). Also, like the proposed Scarborough Subway line, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

The problem with being an athlete over 60 is that every time an ache or pain crops up you wonder if This Is It: the one you won’t recover from. The one that will sideline you forever. The canary in the mine of your senescence.
There are still things I haven’t done, races I haven’t run, rides I haven’t cycled. I still have epic cardio-vascular capacity and my desire for adventure is greater now than it was when I was in my thirties. I am not ready for the muscles and tendons and joints in my body to start falling apart.

I am not ready to have already climbed the highest mountain I will ever climb.
There’s no question of being able to finish the marathon; I have done so many of them that I know how each kilometre feels in almost any circumstance. I would prefer though to know that my body is onside for the effort, rather than feeling that I have to coax it along like a recalcitrant child at the orthodontist. After the race, I will take a big break and see how much healing I can do.

I have spent most of the week cross-training on my bike, just to keep my heart beating. Tomorrow I’ll head out for a medium-sized run, maybe 16K. On an ordinary day I should be able to do that without even trying hard. After I run I will spend some quality time with my foam roller to see if I can steamroller out the soreness. Then we’ll see how it goes.