Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Badwater Mini-Marathon

Bucket-list item #2 in the hottest, driest place on the continent.

Like the scenery, the heat in Death Valley is breathtaking.

The mountains on either side of the valley trap the hot air and help the sun to act like the lightbulb in an Easy Bake oven. Someone once said that the feeling of heat resembled holding a hair dryer in front of your face and turning it on HIGH. The dry air invades your respiratory system like something tangible.

October is normally a bit cooler in Death Valley National Park. But the week we were here, temperatures were at near-summertime levels, with afternoon highs of 40C (104F).

So naturally I decided that I should go for a run.

For years I have been in awe of a footrace called the Badwater Ultramarathon, which has been held in Death Valley every July. Even before I ever set foot in the valley, I knew about the race from a terrific 1999 memoir called To the Edge, by Kirk Johnson. It was his book that first inspired me to visit the valley – for a cycling event in 2008.

I long ago gave up the idea of ever running the 135 miles of the Badwater Ultra, as my tank is usually empty after 26. But I thought it might be fun to pay tribute to the amazing people who do run the distance by tracing a little part of the route myself.

Originally I had thought I would try to run the first 18 miles (29k), from Badwater, where the event starts, to the Furnace Creek Ranch, where we were staying. The distance itself isn’t daunting, but as the thermometer in Furnace Creek showed higher temperatures daily (and after wearing out my legs climbing Telescope Peak a day earlier)  I decided I would be content just to run as much of it as I could without ending up at the side of the road like one of those bleached cattle skulls you see in old westerns.

My qualifications for my superheated undertaking included two recent trail races in autumnal conditions in Ontario. OK. I had no qualifications. Maybe I shouldn’t have said “undertaking.”

I started running from Badwater at dawn as the rising sun was touching distant Telescope Peak. The road was in the shadow of the mountains to the east, and I wanted to get as many miles behind me as possible before I was fried like an egg on the pebbly pavement.

The sky was clear, as it usually is in Death Valley. Almost clear. There was one little, thin, high cloud right over me, and it stayed over me for quite a while, diffusing the sun a little. My guardian cloud. Otherwise, there was not a sliver of shade on the road; not a second’s relief from the sun.

In contrast to the indescribable scenery, the road itself is somewhat boring, with long gentle hills and straight stretches that disappear into the distance like an exercise in perspective. I felt dwarfed by the mountains, and took a moment to look respectfully up 11,000 feet to the summit of Telescope Peak, where we had been standing just two days earlier.

I was very lucky to have Karen to sag me all the way. For those unfamiliar with this term, it means that she met me every few miles in the car with water and ice (and presumably would prop me up if I started to sag).
Dwarfed by the scenery, I run the Badwater Road.

The run was a pure joy from beginning to end, of the kind that comes along very seldom in a lifetime. I kept to a very sedate pace and to my surprise felt no stiffness or soreness at all. As the morning wore on, the sun grew more present. My friendly cirrus cloud had burned away, and I was exposed to everything the sun could beam down at me. I added some white sunsleeves to my wardrobe, which kept my arms cool and protected, but by now there was no true escape from the pervasive and relentless desert heat.

With about 8 miles to go, I passed the entrance to Artist Drive, a scenic but hilly loop off the main road, and I remembered the many times we had cursed it on our bicycles, grinding up its smug, nearly vertical topography and holding on for dear life down its white-knuckle hairpin descents. This week it was buried under mud after the recent flash flooding, unable to vex anyone. Now it was my turn to feel smug.

For this run, I was wearing my Nathan hydration vest, which helped keep a steady supply of water going into me (exiting only via perspiration and respiration). I had clipped one of my flashing bike lights to the vest so that I would be more visible to anyone driving down the road. At one point I looked down to see that the light was gone; it had fallen off, like Dorothy’s slippers, somewhere along the way.

There was very little traffic on the road and most times I was utterly alone; the only interruption to the silence of the desert morning was the padding of my shoes on the pavement. At times I sang to myself just to hear some sound.
The last mile.

The last mile down to Furnace Creek is all downhill. As I have done on many previous cycling outings here, I finished on the grassy patch in front of the resort, took my shoes off and lay down in my first shade in hours, under the palm trees. The Furnace Creek thermometer read 100 degrees Fahrenheit. How cool is that?

I felt bad about the bicycle light that I had lost. Written and unwritten laws dictate that you should leave nothing in the pristine environment of the desert. Later that day we drove back down the Badwater Road to look for it. And just next to the entrance to Artist Drive, there it was, lying on the ground, still flashing away in the sunlight. So Artist Drive had the last word after all. 

Death Valley always does.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Death Valley Peaks

Bucket-list item #1 in the hottest, driest place on the continent

I have always come to Death Valley National Park to ride my bike, either in one of the Adventure Corps century rides, or for one of their cycling camps. I had always hoped that one day I could come here and try a couple of different fun activities. This is the story of the first one.

Telescope Peak is known for having one of the most dramatic vertical contrasts anywhere. The view from the summit at around 11,049 feet (3,368 metres) looks down on Badwater, the lowest point in the Western hemisphere, 282 feet (86 metres) below sea level. I wanted to hike to the top.

The road that approaches the trailhead at 8,130 feet (2478 metres) is described as rough, and it is. It is recommended only for vehicles with four-wheel drive and high clearance. Our vehicle has both those features and it was still an ordeal to get to the parking lot where we began the ascent. Part of this might have been due to washouts from a recent episode of flash floods in the valley. (The appalling road conditions didn’t seem to deter the three young ladies who arrived in their Toyota Prius and scampered cheerfully up the mountain, so maybe it depends on how precious you are about your car.)

Rocky paths. Not for the
flat-footed  or faint-hearted.  
This is not a climb for people who don’t like hiking uphill a lot or who are nervous about heights. A lot of the path is narrow, with hardscrabble rock along the sides of bottomless slopes. A decent and fulfilling workout for experienced hikers; doable, but not a day at the beach for novices. 

The fourteen-mile round trip could take between seven and nine hours. Karen had brought a walking stick; I wouldn’t rule out two as optimum. One serious consideration is that you have to carry your own water, as there is none on the trail. I left some of ours cached behind a tree about halfway up and retrieved it on the way down. A bonus is that although the trail features Death Valley’s well-known dryness, the air is beautifully cool and clear.

A view of the snow-covered north face. 

The memorable (in one way or the other) finale is a series of steep, tough, scrabbly switchbacks (around 12 or 13 of them ... no one seems to be able to count them and get the same result twice). At the end of many of them there are flat stones to sit and rest on if by this time you are feeling a bit peaked (sorry).

We got to summit by walking along a short ridge followed by a little push to the top. The vista is spectacular, although the vistas all the way up are just as spectacular, so the summit views down to Badwater and all the way to Mount Whitney were just the cherry on top (as it were). There is a metal ammo box (how very American I thought) containing a logbook to write your name. There is no signpost for a summit photo, so posing with the ammo box is your photographic proof that you were there. We were lucky that another couple had arrived just before us so we were able to take turns snapping photos for each other.

Karen and I stand on the summit with the coveted ammo box. 

This was an outing I’ve been thinking about for years, and it fulfilled my hopes beautifully. If they would grade the ruts and furrows in the ghastly road to the trailhead, it would be a perfect activity for a day in (or above) Death Valley.

Next: The Badwater Mini-Marathon

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Going the Extra Mile

Run for the Toad
Paris, Ontario, October 3 2015

Every trail has its secrets, its challenges, and its attractions. This, I am learning, is a major feature of trail running: pounding the pavement can’t match it for piquing and holding your interest. The two races I entered this fall were both challenging and rewarding – and as different as could be.

If the Haliburton Forest is Joaquin Phoenix – wild, unpredictable, and exciting – then the Run for the Toad, which I ran on October 3, is George Clooney – refined, poised, and easy on the eyes. The Run for the Toad is a race you'd like to sit down and have a beer with. 

Due to the purgatorial experience of trying to drive a car anywhere near Toronto (even at 6:30 am on a Saturday morning the traffic was stopped dead on the 401), the large time buffer I had left myself to get to the race site had evaporated by the time I arrived. I had to park about a kilometre from the start and was in a vile temper.

“Do you need a lift?” asked a lady in a car who pulled up beside me while I was walking back to my car after picking up my race kit. “You’re parked in the far lot, aren’t you?”

It turned out that she was a volunteer who was driving to the spot where she was going to marshal the runners in the race. Somehow she had divined that she was heading to the same place I was.  A small gesture like this went a long way toward making me glad I had come.

The race course follows a circuitous route through the Pinehurst Lake Conservation Area near Paris, Ontario. There are two well-balanced laps of 12.5k for the 25k racers, and four for the 50k racers. Most of the run takes place under cover of forest, but there are a few outings into open fields. On race day this meant emerging from the trees into a ferocious wind; one aid station had their Smarties and cookies blown right off the food table to someplace probably not in Kansas anymore.

The paths are usually wide enough to allow two people to run abreast with room for a third to pass. This came in handy as I began to be lapped by the fast runners, whose feet seemed to barely touch the pine-needled ground as they flew through the forest with a speed and agility I could only admire. “On your left!” became a familiar cry from racers zooming past me like cars in the fast lane of the Parkway on a Friday night, and I almost always got out the way in time.

I took some advice from my own experience at the Haliburton Forest and worried about pace and time not at all. I was 6 kilometres into my second lap before I even thought to look at my watch. It was a cool, grey day and I stayed comfortable at the back of the pack in my torn tights and worn blue running jacket, both relics of the last century.
Old wardrobe  older runner.

The finale of each lap features a run up a sharp, grassy hill, which the regulars have named Horror Hill. It isn’t really a horror, just a chance to get rid of any excess energy you might have been saving up over the previous 11k.

I liked everything about the Run for the Toad. From check-in to aid stations to finish line, it’s an event that is focused on the runners. I finished the 25k feeling refreshed, not trashed, and definitely more cheerful than I had when I arrived. On my way back to my car, I came across my helpful volunteer again. She spent some time trying to sell me on the idea of trying the whole 50k next year. Who knows? Maybe she succeeded. 

I am writing this from Death Valley National Park in California, where the temperature today is 40C and the cool boreal forest trails of a week ago seem ages away. I am here for a cycling, running, and hiking vacation, and I hope to write more about that in the days to come.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Into the Woods

“… to get the thing that makes it worth the journeying!”

Somewhere ahead of us were the people who were running the longer distances: 50K, 50 miles, 100 miles. They had started in the pre-dawn chill of a fall morning. The hundred milers would be out there all night and into the next day.
Lining up with a hundred others at the 22nd annual Haliburton Forest Trail Run, I was happy just to be attempting the 26K distance; as a novice in the field, I thought that would about be my limit. I was right.

The trails in the Haliburton Forest are not like the wood-chipped, groomed trails in a suburban conservation area. The larger of them are winter snowmobile tracks; lacking snow they are steep, rocky steeplechase courses. The hiking trails are more like suggestions of pathways through the trees. All around me was the quiet grandeur of nature: tall evergreens, steep rock cliffs, lakes and rivers.

I saw very little of it. I was too busy trying not to fall on my face or twist my ankle. To accomplish this, I had to look down at my feet almost every step of the way.
Look down.
My gait along these paths was a sort of combination of hopping, skipping, and salsa dancing. Every time my foot came down, it landed on a new geological potpourri of dirt, gravel, and rocks the size of my head. The concentration and coordination required simply not to fall was almost mesmerizing. I was in awe of the people who could negotiate this topography with any kind of speed or confidence.

Running over terrain like this is a total body workout. All my leg muscles were working to keep my ankles from buckling and my body moving more or less forward. My arms were continually flying out from my sides to help me keep balanced or to catch me when I stumbled. And stumble I did, many times, although I fell only once. No one was around to see me, so I assumed that I did not make a sound.
As a rookie trail runner, I managed a few rookie mistakes.

Rookie mistake #1: Too many clothes. The morning of the race was very cool. I bundled up as if I were in a February polar bear run. The forest however provided a good amount of shelter from the chill wind. Once I got warmed up, I was sweat-soaked and clammy all day.
Rookie mistake #2: Not enough sustenance. Almost everybody in the event set off with some hydration and nutrition. I didn’t. There were aid stations at 2 and 6K, and at the turnaround at 13 kilometres. I figured I would have no trouble running the 7K between the second and third stations. I run that far all the time without eating or drinking.

Yes … along the paved flat bike paths in the valley behind my house in the city. Clambering down slippery hills and up rocky fields not only took more out of me than I expected, it also took about twice as long. I was dehydrated and undernourished the whole way.
Rookie mistake #3: Worrying about time and space. There was only so fast I could go, even though I felt that I was going as fast as I could. I had enough energy and my legs were never tired or sore; I just couldn’t move any faster. Even as I tap-danced my way along the root-laced paths, I knew that I was making very slow progress. My pace was glacial and there was nothing I could do to speed up.

In a nice urban road race like the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon, there are little signs placed every kilometre along the way to show you how far you’ve come. In the Haliburton Forest there are almost no navigation aids, except the myriad little orange flags to show where the path is supposed to lead. I was disoriented the whole way because I never really knew where I was or how far I had left to go.
Eventually I realized that this is the point. “It’s all about enjoying the trail,” said a volunteer at an aid station. It took me the entire race to realize the wisdom of what she had said. A trail run is about discovery – of the terrain, the environment, and of your own limits. There is nothing to prove and everything to learn.

I learned enough to know that I want to come back to this place and run again. I crossed the finish line feeling somewhat battered, but also in a way, stronger than when I had started.
No two trail runs are the same, and this becomes part of the definition of the genre itself. Maybe running for me in the coming years won’t be about trying to be better at something I have already done; maybe it will be about doing something that I have never done, and figuring it all out as I go along.

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Discomfort Zone

"As we were filming it I thought, if we don’t pull this off it’s going to be really embarrassing. It scared me a little bit, which is a good place to be.”
Noah Baumbach, filmmaker

I haven’t been entirely honest in this blog. One of the comments I make about myself in the “About Me” section is that I am comfortable outside my comfort zone. This is not true.

Actually I have a rather narrow comfort zone and I’m rarely comfortable outside it. Especially as I grow older, I find that I prefer to reduce the chance of surprises in my life. I dress in layers. I signal all my turns and lane changes. When I go somewhere on the subway, I always take three tokens, in case I lose one. I panic if I have to deal with a bank teller.

It is for this reason, though, that I look for ways to push myself into places that will stretch me; that will throw me off balance; that will help me grow.

In terms of scope, my early life was a series of ellipses … thoughts and deeds begun but unfinished; plenty of dreams but few actualities. I was settled comfortably into a physical and mental trough, with no intention of climbing out.

Thirty years ago the notion dawned on me that to venture into the discomfort zones of my life might not be a bad thing. I got the idea from watching a videotape of Terry Fox hop-skipping down the highway on his Marathon of Hope. As every Canadian knows, despite having lost a leg to osteosarcoma, Terry was running across Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research. Running. With one useful leg. How comfortable must he have been?

So in 1985 I sketched out a new life design: to start something even if I had no idea of what lies ahead, and to commit to finishing it; to do this regardless of my reluctance to get uncomfortable. To steal a phrase from JFK, I chose to set goals of swimming and cycling and running long distances not because they are easy, but because they are hard … because I want those goals to measure the best of me.

Ouch, ouch, ouch,,,
I push myself physically not because I love pain and suffering but because I want to know that there is more to life beyond the discomfort; beyond my immediate scope. Unlike Dorothy, I do not believe that all my heart’s desire lies inside my own backyard. I want to look farther, even if the horizon is out of sight.

After having completed seven Ironmans and countless marathons (and bombed painfully out of others), I can say unequivocally that I am not made of iron; I am made of the same feeble stuff as everyone else on the planet. At the end of a marathon, my legs hurt, my feet hurt; everything hurts, in fact. 

I don’t love being exhausted, or sore, or hot or cold or wet. Yet I simply do not believe it is “crazy” (a term some of my friends can’t stop using) to want to find out what is possible if I reach out a little farther.

Of course, there is an athletic equivalent of carrying three subway tokens. I can reduce my exposure to discomfort by planning intelligently, training well, and paying attention to my hydration and nutrition during a race.

The forecast said sunny and mild.
But as much as we train, plan, and desire, chance will always occupy a large area of the discomfort zone. Just ask Simon Whitfield, who crashed and broke his collarbone at the start of the bike in the London Olympics. Ask Perdita Felicien, who tripped over the first hurdle and fell onto the track during the 100 metre final in Athens in 2004. Ask triathlon legend Lisa Bentley, who made it a good distance into the marathon at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii before being pulled out of the race. With a burst appendix. How comfortable must they have been?

We are capable of so much more than we do. It’s only necessary to venture a little farther beyond what is normal, predictable, comfortable.

Now if I could only find a way to face that bank teller.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Running with Real Bunnies

Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu.
Summer has arrived, loudly sing cuckoo.
English folksong ca. 1240

It’s the season of trail races, those oddball off-road events that are pleasantly devoid of the noisy hype that surrounds a major marathon. 

Instead of lining up out of sight of the start behind ten thousand nervous runners, the participants in a trail race might just follow the starter to some imaginary line in a field and start moving when he says Go. Instead of a hysterical run down a finishing chute accompanied by a shrieking announcer and thumping techno-music, in a trail race you quietly cross the line, grab a banana, and walk to your car. At an event I ran several years ago called Vulture Bait, the finish line was two guys at a card table checking off names. Two little girls held a piece of twine across the path for us to run through. I loved that race.

When I gratefully crossed the line after finishing the Seaton Soaker 25k the other weekend, the lone marshal there laconically asked me if I was going to go around for another lap or was I done. I was done.

Trail running is different. Of course, trail runners will tell you that this is a no-brainer. But I had forgotten just how many ways it is different, beyond the obvious ones.

To start with, trail runners look different. There are people wearing Rube Goldberg-like Camel-Bak hydration arrangements, held together with duct tape and string, sloshing up and down the hills. There are greying men with long, un-hipster-like beards, wearing bandanas. There are women of all shapes and ages who come not to show off their spandex outfits and laboriously wrought gym bodies, but to run. The love and respect of everyone there for the trail they are following is palpable.

A chance to get covered in mud.
I’ll tell you what I love most about running trails.

It’s not the sylvan peace, although the muffled sound of feet padding along a dirt path can be hypnotically soothing. There are times when you are so quietly alone that you wonder if you have gotten lost. There are no pace bunnies. There are real bunnies.

It’s not the relaxed pace, which can be Andy-of-Mayberry slow.  There is simply not much point in hurrying. Not only will the terrain slow you down anyway, but you will eventually find yourself climbing a hill on a single-lane path behind four people who want to walk up rather than run. So you walk too. This whole approach really suits me. I am naturally slow and lazy when I run, and I welcome any chance to be both. You do not have to go fast to get a good workout; the trail will give you a good workout.

It’s not the pretty rural scenery. Running off road actually doesn’t give you much chance to enjoy the scenery. You are too busy watching your feet—every footstep—to make sure you don’t trip over a tree root or twist your ankle in a rabbit hole.

And a chance to wash it off.
Photos :Dave Robinet
And this is what I love most about it: every step is different from the one before it. Every time you land, you land a different way and use a different configuration of muscles to control that landing. Great concentration is required or you will definitely take a tumble. Running 21 or 42 kilometres along a city street wears away at the quadriceps muscles and plantar fascia due to the repeated, monotonous pounding. On a trail, the varying terrain makes sure that every muscle in your body gets recruited. Even my neck got stiff from looking down at my feet so much.

Trail races are the Bits N Bites of running. Every step is whole new ball game.

 The weather for the Seaton Soaker Trail Race was warm and sunny, except for one ten minute period when a cloud came over and rained on us. This sudden shower happened to me as I was starting gingerly down a long, steep hill. Of course, I slipped right away and body-surfed the rest of the way to the bottom, covering myself in mud. I looked either tragic or hilarious; mostly the latter if the reaction of the people at the aid stations was any indication. Luckily there was a river crossing near the end of the race so I could wash the worst of the mud off before crossing the finish line. One runner told me that the race used to be called The Mud Puppies, so I guessed I was now initiated.

I finished near the back of the pack, stiff, tired and, sore, and covered in mud and creek water. I can hardly wait to do another one.

Monday, March 30, 2015

No Country for Old Runners

“I shouldn’t be in Canada at all. Winter is all wrong for me.”
 Leonard Cohen

I wonder why someone decided it would be a good idea to organize a road race that is held at the end of March, when our wintrified country is just starting to recover from a months-long deep freeze. This is what the founders of North America’s oldest race bequeathed to those of us who ran the 121st iteration of the Around the Bay 30K race in Hamilton on Sunday.
It might be to weed out the wimpy runners like me who have trained indoors all winter.

The starting line is the last time I saw Duncan.
He was through lunch by the time I  finished.
I have grown less tolerant of cold weather since I was in my thirties. In my first Around the Bay outing in 1991, I wore shorts and didn’t think much of it. Nowadays I wear as much outerwear as I can carry and still move.

My son Duncan was also entered in the race although you couldn’t say we ran the same one; he was finished, at home, and had finished lunch by the time I got myself across the line.

Apparently the registration numbers were down slightly this year, which the race management blames on our record-setting frigid February. I can see this. An ice-clad winter has a direct effect on outdoor training, which is dodgy at best in this part of the world.
I spend the dark months running on the nice bouncy treadmill in my warm, dry basement. There is a water cooler right behind me, the bathroom is ten feet away, and I can watch TV. This means that when the snow is gone and my shoe rubber finally hits the hard road, my body can’t figure out what happened to it. My quads won’t let me walk downstairs for days after my first outdoor long run.
Although the Around the Bay race route features a road optimistically called Beach Boulevard, I didn’t show up at the starting line hoping for a day at one. After a winter at the Club Med of my indoor gym, I wanted all the challenges that come with a start-of-season race.
Weather conditions were identical to the chilly November half marathon that was the other bookend of my winter (sunny, breezy, below freezing), so I dressed in the same outfit, including my torn baggy old tights; the only new addition was a pair of Hoka One One shoes. The Hokas are the opposite of racing flats or motion control shoes; they make me feel like I am running on a pile of marshmallows. For the first time in a long while, I was not constantly aware of my sometimes-dysfunctional feet the whole way, so I call this shoe choice a success.
The first 10K of the race follows gritty industrial streets from downtown to the lakeshore. Unscenic but flat except for the ups and downs of a few overpasses.
The second part of the route goes past sad looking waterfront properties and under the Burlington Bay Skyway. I believe the properties are sad because despite their spectacular beach location, they sit near a wastewater treatment plant, with all the obvious odiferous ambience. As you climb away from the lake, the streets are more residential and prosperous, and the terrain is more rolling. This section always seems to take the most out of me, for some reason.
The last 4K turns back into town, and back into the biting March wind. It was tough going. My quads were protesting with every step. Even though I was surrounded by lots of cheery runners and volunteers, I felt myself sinking into a primal sort of survival Scott-expedition-like mode: head down, jaw frozen in a rictus smile, eyes glassy. At about 28K there is a cemetery, where somebody had posted a bunch of witty signs (“The End is Near”). Yes…one way or the other, I thought gravely.
Old Man Winter finishes Around the Bay
The race finishes indoors, in a hockey arena. It’s nice that the spectators and supporters can stay warm, but for me, the change in ambience from bright sunny outdoors to gloomy indoors is confusing and off-putting. I got out of there as quickly as I could.
This was my third go at Around the Bay. The first time I ran it, I set the bar low. When I raced again in 2008, I was just as slow, but I was elated that I hadn’t deteriorated in the intervening 17 years. This year I thought I would likewise be happy if I didn’t sag too much from my benchmark time 24 years ago.
Despite my polar expedition wardrobe, I managed to get myself to the end - slower than ever, but about as expected for the amount of outdoor training I did. For me, any finish line I cross is a success, and I'm looking forward to a string of successes in the season ahead.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Proof of the Pudding

One of my favourite proverbs says that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. 

As an editor, I can’t help noticing how many people misquote this, twisting the words into "the proof is in the pudding,” which is basically meaningless (unless they’re thinking of how much rum is in there). The thought behind the saying is that the cook can tell us all he wants about what a terrific recipe he used and how carefully he made it, and we can admire how lovely it looks in the bowl, but it isn’t till we eat it that we can tell if he was successful.

I think of the finish line in a race as the proof of the pudding. Whether your goal is to set a record or simply to get there under your own power, crossing a finish line is a clean, pure measurement of your accomplishment. I’ve always loved the whole process of preparing for a race, from the first glint in my eye to the first step or pedal stroke or splash. But everything I have worked for up to the actual event is proven when I cross that line. For me, setting a personal best is satisfying, but it's the whipped cream on top:  a bonus, not a goal.

Finishing a race is not a matter of judgment, or opinion, or cash earnings, or popularity. Shouldn’t we consider a runner who finishes a race much more of a success than, say, a movie that has a great box office, or wins an Oscar, or scores high on the Tomatometer?
This is my Tomatometer

The tape you break at the finish can be an arbitrary distance from the start, but its existence is never arbitrary. The marathon standard length of 42.195 kilometres is based on the distance run at the 1908 Olympics in London. This odd figure was set because the organizers wanted the race to finish in front of the Royal Box at the stadium after having started from Windsor Castle. Nonetheless, this is the agreed-upon distance; every marathoner knows that this is how exactly far you have to travel in order to be successful. A hundred steps fewer and you have not run a marathon. It is an absolute.

Several years ago a group of people from Toronto entered a marathon in the U.S. When it became clear to them that they weren’t going to make a time cutoff, some of them took a shortcut and made it to the end. They were discovered and disqualified. There is no point in moralizing about what made them want to cross the finish line without travelling the full distance. There was even the view expressed that it was the effort, not the result, that was most important. But they didn’t run 42.195 kilometres. Even if they hadn’t been caught, I want to feel that their finish would never have been absolutely real to them. What was in their pudding?

I’ve had three devastating DNFs in my athletic career. Although just being part of those races— including the months of training and preparation—broadened and enriched my life, the fact is that I did not finish them. The distances I travelled on those days were measured against the finish line, which I never reached; I came up short. Of course, I can live with that. It would be the utmost arrogance to think that I can master every event I try. In fact, part of what attracts me to endurance events is the element of the unknown outcome. From the security and predictability of my first world existence, I find that straying outside my comfort zones can be liberating and affirming.

But a greater part of me is looking for that measurement, the absolute of the finish line, the confirmation that I did what I told myself I would do, that I finished what I started. The finish is not open to critique or judgment; it is not the result of a score; there are no extra marks for artistic merit; it is not a victory over another team. It is just a line you run towards. If you get there, you have done it. Nothing in sport is as unequivocally final.

The pudding is of little value sitting in the bowl; it must be eaten. Whipped cream optional.

Monday, February 16, 2015


“And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.”
Khalil Gibran

A good, strong 18K run this morning. No, not outside. Are you nuts? It’s minus 20 out there. I ran the whole thing on the treadmill, where I could pretend it was June. I managed to get through 3 or 4 television shows, starting with Jeopardy and finishing with Hawaii 50. When I do a long workout in front of the TV, I tend to watch the shows in decreasing order of brainpower required by the viewer.

The temperatures this winter seem as harsh as last winter’s, which was the hardest I can remember. Last year, through those long, dark, snowy, ice-clad months it seemed as if the warm weather would never come back. Somehow, almost to our surprise, spring eventually came, as it will this year. My athletic goals for 2014 were modest, and maybe because of that, I met them all.

My father, on top of the world.
My personal motto for 2015 is “higher.” It was inspired by the photo at the top of this blog, which is of me on top of Gros Morne in Newfoundland. That picture in turn was inspired by a photo of my father, aged 80, reaching his arms to the sky on the summit of a mountain in Scotland. I think I chose the word because of its open qualities as a comparative. Higher than what? It also goes with several verbs I was originally considering to go along with it: reach higher, aim higher, fly higher. Then I decided to leave the verb part blank and to fill in the blanks as I go.

This year I've definitely raised my expectations. I hope to do several long road races, a couple of major triathlons including an Ironman, and maybe a cycling event or two before the snow flies again next fall. Lofty goals, but as Browning almost said: A man’s reach must exceed his grasp, else what’s a metaphor?

Bundle up and get running
I’m starting soon. Rather than hibernate and wait for spring, I am going to mush my way through the Around the Bay 30K race at the end of March. This race has been in existence a long time; in fact it’s the oldest road race in North America. It’s a tough course, and I can’t imagine what possessed the founders to hold it at the end of March, when the weather can be anything. The first year I ran it, I was underdressed, in shorts and no hat. When we got to the shore of Lake Ontario, my legs turned purple as the icy wind whipped around my thighs. I had to run into a convenience store and buy some tissues to stuff in my ears, which were filling up with snow.

The second time I ran, 17 years later, I had forgotten about the uphill slog that makes up much of the second half of the course. By the time I reached the finish line, my quads were done. I had to dash from the race straight back to Toronto for a rehearsal that day, and I treated the cast of the show I was in to the sight of me, hair matted, caked in mud and road salt, staggering around the stage like a drunken sailor.

This year I hope I’ll be ready for anything. Hope, plus a little planning and work, might be enough get me to the next peak. It'll be a challenging climb, but as someone said, that guy on top of the mountain didn't fall there.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Two Shades of (Dorian) Gray

“When they entered, they found hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty.”
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I was looking at two photographs of myself today, taken about twenty-five years apart. They’re both of me running. The earlier one shows me coming down the finishing chute of my first marathon in October 1987. I was dressed for the event in a white cotton turtleneck with my number pinned to it and a pair of black Danskin tights that I had nicked from the opera company costume department. My hair is blowing out behind me like a sail.

The second photo is a shot of me heading out on the marathon section of Ironman Canada, about four years ago. I’m wearing colourful spandex with logos, a visor and a number belt, and my eyes are hidden behind my thermonuclear sunglasses. My top is unzipped to my sternum and I am radiating heat like a baked potato.

The pictures span two moments in time and freeze each one, but stories radiate out from them like spokes. Waiting at the finish line of that first marathon was my four-month-old daughter. When she was older she began running too, and in 2006 I watched her cross the finish line of her first Ironman in Lake Placid. We’ve done many races together, before and since. Two days after the 1987 race, I flew to Europe for an audition tour that marked what I think of as the beginning of the end of my professional singing career.

The second photo reminds me that this was the race in which I had two flat tires on my Cervelo P2—one halfway up Richter Pass—and the race where they ran out of water at the bike course aid stations. The effects of dehydration plus the heat of the afternoon made my marathon a survival run that day. The finish line seemed a long way off, but I knew it was out there in the dark somewhere and I got to it eventually.

As you do, I started thinking of the time that passed between when those two pictures were taken. Of all the years of running and other athletics that had happened. Of dreaming and planning; triumph and disaster; elation and heartbreak.

My two photos are mileposts along an amazing path that has stretched from the deserts of California to the hills of South Africa. Next month I’ll be running in a race called Around the Bay, which as the name implies, follows a 30k circle around Burlington Bay, about an hour from here. I’ll be running with my son, who wasn’t even born when the first marathon photo was taken. (Actually he is much faster than I am; but we’ll be in the same race, if several pages apart in the results.)

I have run the Around the Bay twice before: once in 1991 and once in 2008. My finishing time was just about the same for both outings; I wasn’t sure whether to be annoyed that I hadn’t improved in those intervening years or happy not to have deteriorated with age.
I decided on the second option. Running long distances will always be a bit of a time capsule for me. Thirty years after I first started running, I still pound the same feet down the road towards the finish line. I still don’t fret if I am passed by scores of people, or if I’m not headed for a PB. My goal has always been to travel the length of the race course under my own power, leaving everything I’ve got on the road. Nothing has changed, except maybe the wardrobe.

Cotton or spandex, I am still heading for the same place.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

All for a Cup of Water

“Je suis nerveuse.”
From my video interview

This summer Toronto will be hosting the 2015 Pan Am Games, which are held every four years. The games are a great chance for athletes from North, South and Central America to tone their skills and fitness before heading to the Olympics next year. I am not sure the important burghers of this important city—who fume at the inconvenience of a Sunday morning 10K race—know what they are in for.

Although I chose one of the words from the Olympic motto – Higher – as my goal word for 2015, I am really the opposite of an Olympic athlete. I am not competitive. If I were ever closing in on the finish line at the front of the pack (this takes pace in my fantasy world) I would probably step aside and let the person behind me go first, just to be polite. To me, the chance simply to participate in triathlon and endurance athletics on the scale that I have is nothing less than a gift. Every time I start a race, I marvel that I am there, and that such a structure of organizers and volunteers exists just so I can be part of the event.

Since my invitation to join the Canadian athletic cohort at this year’s Pan Am games was not forthcoming (my personal best time for the Olympic tri distance being about twice that of the pros), I decided to sign up to be a volunteer. It would be, I thought, a good way to get involved behind the scenes and see the events close up; also to give something back to the sporting world that has been so patient and welcoming to me over the years.

Laura handing out water/eau at Tremblant
I had in mind passing out cups of water in the marathon or pointing turns in the course, maybe while wearing a big foam finger. When I registered however, I found that the machinery in place to process the 20,000-plus volunteers is more complex than anything I could have imagined. The volunteer questionnaire made me feel as if I were applying to join the RCMP. They wanted to know basic ID-level things, like my driver’s license number and was I ever on anybody's no-fly list, but also what skills I had that would be of service to them. I’m not sure I have any. I like athletics and I want to help out; I can hand out water. That was about it. I love to write, I mentioned; maybe I can write something for your event.

I love to write.
Maybe I can write something for your event.
Today I passed another milestone in the process as I took the online video interview to tell them more about myself. This was turning into one complicated cup of water. After getting the spycam on my laptop all set up, I answered some questions before the actual interview started. One of the questions asked if I wanted to help welcome athletes in French. Yes (oui), I replied. I am fairly comfortable in basic French, and could certainly point out where the washrooms were and how to get to the CN Tower. At my last volunteer gig in Mont Tremblant Quebec, I spent several hours on the run course calling out “Eau!” to let the French athletes how I was holding water and not something else. They seemed to understand.
I started answering the video questions, pointing out that as well as being a writer, I was a very good editor and in fact had noticed a mistake in the copy on one of their previous web pages. Probably should have let that go, but sports people are notoriously nonchalant about grammar, and I wanted to let them know that some people notice these things.

I told the camera that I was at ease in front of large crowds, because of my background as a singer. Maybe I will get to sing O Canada at a lawn bowling session.
All of a sudden a lady came on the screen firing French questions at me. For all I understood of her she might as well have been speaking Inuktitut. I gleaned that she was asking me how I would welcome someone to Toronto and make them feel at home. When my turn came to talk, I mumbled in French that must have sounded something like:

“It is a long time that I have not speaken French, but if I had before me one athlete I would have spoke the French to that personage and have make them to feel in their home. However sitting before of my computer screen I am a nervous woman. Alive I am better.”
So I won’t hold my breath waiting to hear from the French volunteer organizers. But maybe there is still hope for me in a role in Canada’s other official language.

Really I would be happy to do anything, from Sponge Boy at the beach volleyball events to Sweat Mopper in the weightlifting room. I await their call.