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.