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.