Ice. Icy. Icier. And as autumn draws to a close, I’m awake well past my bedtime and getting ready to run a midnight winter solstice run in the river valley with a bunch of other crazy people, and probably lots of ice.
It’s been a month, almost to the hour, that I stood in the corral of the NYC marathon staring down the forty-two klicks of inevitability that lay out before me.
Two months ago I was in panic mode.
Today I am feeling the weight of the race fading into the rear view, the recovery from the effort simultaneously not nearly as bad as I’d imagined, at least physically, but at the same time like climbing over a mountain of post-marathon motivation drain.
You put your heart into something like a marathon whether you intend to or not. It takes a conscious effort to reach into the future and plan every step, every force of will, every calorie consumed, every invisible wall. And then in a moment, after the most grueling morning of your life, you step across a line painted on asphalt and … it’s done.
You shuffle from the finishing corral, and just as abruptly the thing you have been building towards, yearning to accomplish, aching (literally and spiritually) to complete is just over.
So, your body recovers. Your muscles resume their average workload. Your time is no longer packed with carefully measured distances to accomplish. And rest no longer seems like a dirty word.
But your head is still out there, swirling, fighting to find a sense of that grand importance of accomplishment that you left back there, spread thin across the pavement. That takes, maybe, a bit more than a month.
Alright, so this post is about two weeks late… but I have a million excuses for that, not the least of which is that (even though it was only two weeks ago) the New York City Marathon is not even the most recent race I’ve run.
But I ran it.
I finished it.
I experienced every single mile in foot killing, calf cramping, brain crushing, soul breaking joy-filled-agony, plodding through the streets of five NYC boroughs.
It was a long day. From hotel door back to hotel door, I was gone and on my feet for the better part of thirteen hours.
I met lots of people. A few I shared conversation with. A few hundred thousand I passed in blur of running, a day filled with the endless noise of a quarter million spectators mashing against the quiet effort of fifty thousand participants.
If you haven’t seen the video yet, it’s mindfully over-the-top, but I think it captures the frantic build-up and epic mood of the race:
There were more hills than I had expected, both up and down, the elevation never seeming to stop changing whether it was a massive climb over a huge bridge or just a slight incline up or down a city street.
My leg cramped up pretty bad at 28k. That was a worst-case scenario that I was ready for… but hopeful to avoid. My muscle didn’t comply with my advance planning and careful prep, however. I hobbled a good five klicks before I found a BIOFREEZE station and slathered a handful of that goop on my calf.
Momentum was tough to find, too. There were people. So. Many. People.
Having trained in the remote and quiet asphalt trails of Edmonton I knew there would be people, but it was in such contrast that it really became a performance factor. Even just stopping to stretch out my cramping calf muscle, I was inches away from cheering crowds trying to (unsuccessfully) motivate me through my pains. And then to find a reliable pace and path to the finish in the bustle of people was a little bit like trying to get to the airport in rush hour: Possible, but more frustrating than one might hope.
It was an amazing experience, of course. Would I do it again? If I didn’t have to run the race, sure.
After three marathons I’m pretty solidly convinced that the marathon isn’t my bag… or at least I’d need to do a helluva lot more training next time, and that’s simply not compatible with my life right now.
In the end I rolled across the finish in less than five hours: not amazing, but factoring in the fact that this will go down as one of the most difficult races I’ve ever run, I’m happy that I finished standing up to be honest.
Over the few days I was in New York and doing race-type things, I took a lot of video and a handful of photos. Here are some of those photos:
This is about where it gets real.
As I write this it is October 6. Exactly one month from this morning I’ll be standing, or waiting –or maybe actually running– somewhere near, over, under, across the bridge pictured above starting into what will be the first few steps of a 42.2 klick adventure through the streets of New York City.
The NYC Marathon.
The bucket list race.
The thing I’ve been training for over the last ten years, most of the time not even realizing this is why I’ve logged nearly ten thousand klicks since I started this running-thing, this time-consuming, life-changing, body-breaking, soul-mashing hobby.
It’s getting quite real. Did I mention that already? Sorry. It’s hanging right out there, constantly reminding me with every waking moment, every moment that I’m not running, not training, not pushing my fitness to a level of absolute confidence where I feel with absolute certainty that I’m absolutely not going to collapse on a foot-pounded asphalt road somewhere in the bowels of Manhattan.
As much as I know –feel it in my gut with more certainty than most things I know– that I shouldn’t put all my hopes and fears into one single event, on one single day, in one awesome but just-a-place place… as much as I know that: I am.
It’s real. It’s this thing I gotta do. These miles I gotta run. Somehow. Anyhow. There. Then. Because.
Do you ever feel like you’re in over your head a little bit? I feel like I’m in over my head right now: not a lot over my head, and not a lot of the time. Not on good days. Not after a successful training run, or an unexpected tempo, or a purposeful moment of self-reflection and meditative introspection. But sometimes. Sometimes I look at the scope of this thing, the work involved leading up, the tens of thousands of other people who are probably monumentally more ready than I am and think…
This thing is getting very real.
Ok, so I’ve been really bad at tracking my runs this summer.
Work, stress, marathon training, life, and a big whippet-shaped hole in my heart. What do you want from a poor guy?
But run club started this week. No, not my run club. That started ages ago and (thankfully, and despite random setbacks and the occasional broken spirits) is a timeless rock in my flailing life. The run club that started this week was the elementary school club where Miss C has entered her second year of competition in the track-and-field division of the running-through-the-hallways-counts-as-training class of fourth grade extra curricular.
Wednesday was their first meet: a thousand kids, give or take, descending on Laurier Park for one-ish klick sprint races.
Last year, Miss C hobbled in near the back of the pack, more interested in the pre-race snacks than actually making a showing for herself.
But it was almost exactly a month ago when she bombed her first triathlon. Finished. Barely. Indifference followed by sullen disappointment.
I didn’t have much chance for a pre-race pep talk on this the first of the mass-start kid runs, but afterwards, after a finish so strong I almost missed the photo op because I didn’t expect her to come pounding around that corner at a full-on sprint towards the finish, she told me that she had actually, factually, indeed… ily set herself a goal. She pumped it up inside her head. She didn’t really even tell anyone, but then primed her little heart towards the effort, and… sub-100th… or a damn-spot better than she ever showed in her short life previously. She was proud. Dad was proud. Everyone was proud.
I let that pride bubble over and dragged my reluctant butt out for a late-evening run, pushed my own speed a bit faster than I felt like so near to bedtime, and figured I may as well start blogging these runs again.
A little kid-spiration for a chilly September night.
I stood at a traffic intersection blocking angry drivers at last week’s marathon for seven and a half hours.
Yesterday was the Edmonton Marathon. A beautiful, sun-filled day on the streets of our city populated with 4500 runners and over 500 volunteers, all of them striving to ensure the thousands of klicks and millions of footsteps were fun, safe, and rewarding efforts of athletic achievement.
I didn’t run.
I stood on the side of the road for over seven hours. I wore my Tilley hat and sandels. I nursed a couple bottles of water and tracked over ten thousand steps in an area the size of a traffic intersection. Literally: it was a intersection. I was a human traffic cone.
I’ve been asked a hundred times why I didn’t run. Not that I need an excuse to avoid any race. There are hundreds, thousands of races that I don’t run. But the signature event in our city? So, here’s the best explanation that I can give you cobbled together from a dozen less coherent excuses that I’ve told people over the last few months:
Training is a qualitative thing. But races are quantitative acts. They are measured, pressured, unpredictable events that are meant to guage performance and lift energy through group participation. No, they are not incompatible with a training program, but they do introduce a measure of uncertainty that can either be net-positive or net-negative in the calculation one makes when striving for a training goal that is different than the actual race itself. You just don’t know what will happen between a start line and finish line. I’ve had awesome races and terrible ones. But you recall, guess, strategize, plan, focus, then run… or not. I’m currently training for what could be the most amazing race of my life: a full marathon through the streets of New York a few days before my fortieth birthday. I decided, simply, that I was not screwing that up by adding unnecessary uncertainty if I could have avoided it. Which I could. So I didn’t run.
Instead I decided to marshal.
I stood on the side of the road in a reflective safety vest and guarded a section of very busy course from the onslaught of some of the worst people in the world: impatient and entitled drivers who forgot a major race was running in-between them and their destination.
Delay is temporary. The insults and verbal abuse you slung at me and my fellow volunteers yesterday is now immortalized on this blog. Runners are generally awesome. Some of the people I met through a rolled down car window yesterday are the opposite of that. You know who you are. Or not. Part of me thinks you’re not that clever, aware or empathetic to the universe as a whole to understand that you suck so bad.
I’ve run a lot of races, but marshaling was a different beast. Despite the previous couple paragraphs I am very glad I played that small but important role.
We runners fly past the hundreds of people on the curbs, cheering or whatever, acting like traffic cones or whatever, handing out water or whatever, and we thank them or wave to them… or whatever. I didn’t expect much. I was there to be a cog in the big race machine, and at the end of the day it was a good thing for the thousands of racers.
But it was also important for some personal perspective. Forty-two klicks of guarded roadway, a safe space for thousands of varied athletes to play for a few hours, to race. I’ve now been that human traffic cone, holding back the reality of stupid and angry non-runners. But I’ve also been that athlete. I will be that athlete again, soon. And next time I’ll be a little more vigilant about throwing a much-needed smile of appreciation in their direction as I pass to those folks who stand there no less part of the race, even if they never run a single step.
June 10 – Something You Have Felt
aka. Post 10 of Those 30 Posts in June Blog-Every-Day Posts
I’ll admit, I didn’t do my hill training as well as I should have.
I’ve not written much about the experience, the gush of it, the flood of it, the thrill, the pain, the ache, the fun, the awe and awesomeness, all of it washed over me in a fabulous weekend in the mountains… and then reality struck back hard on Monday morning and, well geeze, I haven’t even put on my shoes this week.
Last Saturday sixteen of us joined another nine hundred runners out in the sprawling landscapes of the Rocky Mountains and ran the two-hundred and some klicks up the highway leading between Banff and Jasper. It’s the annual Banff-Jasper Relay, a test of high(ish) altitude road running in unpredictable weather and random wildlife encounters. For some it is truly a race. For our team it is an annual party along the highway with some running on the side.
I was team captain, a job often compared to herding cats, but largely tasked with registration and organization of the team, ensuring everyone is where they need to be for precisely times starts along a long stretch of highway where one of the biggest obstacles to organization is the complete lack of cell phone signal.
Because of all this pre-planning I’ll admit, I hadn’t really paid very close attention to the details of my leg. I’d signed up for Leg S4 (South 4) which I knew was a tougher leg, sixteen klicks with an incline and some gain, but other than that… my focus was now where it should have been.
We had gone to the bar for dinner after all the registration duties were done, the south team gathered in a quaint little hole-in-the-wall mountain pub that wasn’t expecting a crowd, and I was leafing through the printed version of the captain’s manual I’d recently acquired at check in… and that’s when it sunk in. I was looking at the elevation chart more closely. There was a climb. A big climb. In fact my leg ended on the summit of the race. The highest point. Not the biggest climb, not the steepest hill, but the top of the mountain. The math was rolling through my brain. I was calculating over a plate of fish-and-chips and the realization of the run I’d be doing in about fifteen hours hit me pretty hard. Appetite lost. Head spinning. I went out for some fresh air, played it cool, but I think I was in a bit of a panic to be honest.
I barely slept that night. The hills were getting steeper and steeper in my sleep-deprived, dream-fueled imagination. I was ready for sixteen klicks. No problem. I was not, or so I kept telling myself, ready for sixteen klicks of a hill, at elevation, in the heat of the day…
I’ll admit, the imagined extremes of elevation gain were out of whack with reality. It was a climb. It was a giant mountain hill, and probably the most hilly race I’ve yet completed, but it was not as bad as my brain had tried to convince my feet that it might have been.
I felt those hills. And a week later I still feel those hills. Hills upon hills.
As many of my readers are local I don’t really need to elaborate, but for those reading from far away geographically or far away temporally, here’s the deal: it’s been a helluva week in our little province.
About a week ago, amidst a very early spring and unseasonably warm temperatures, forest fire season began in earnest. Fires are actually pretty normal. We live and play among the boreal forest, sweeping vistas of beautiful conifers. And occasionally those forests NEED to burn. It’s part of their natural cycle, though we humans do what we can to minimize the damage and reduce the intersection of our civilization with the flames.
But a week ago a very large fire swept upon the northeastern region of the province: it is a place relatively few travel for anything but work and most around the world might only know by the controversy it generates as one of the economic blast furnaces of our nation. And at the centre is a small city known by most everyone as Fort Mac with a population of a meager but mighty 90,000 of the types of independent folks who build a community, for better or worse, at the fringes of the hustle-and-bustle of our otherwise urban civilization, perhaps seeking their fortunes in a frustratingly unstable resource economy, or maybe just a quieter life in a northern town with just that single highway in and out. The same types of people who through history have shed a bit of their own comfort to push the boundaries, who settled the places we now call home & built the first bits of these cities we now take for granted.
A week ago the media lit up with the images of Fort Mac in flames. The entire city was evacuated. Tens of thousands of people fleeing with a handful of possessions down that same highway as they left behind only an inferno and uncertainty. Our city, the nearest major centre, opened its arms and though individually we can’t claim it was much, collectively we did what we could to cushion their landing.
Now, you may be wondering what a five klick fun run has to do with a forest fire & the city it evacuated.
Admittedly, standing in a grassy field in the sun surrounded by hundreds of sneaker-footed runners, it doesn’t seem like much at all. But then there are stories that bubble out: like that the Northern Lights Triathlon Club (based out of Fort Mac) has made a showing, or that a bunch of running gear was donated by a local athletic store (because who grabs their training shoes when they are fleeing their home?) or that five hundred people raised over eight thousand bucks for the Red Cross.
And then too it’s just that sense of solidarity: we’re all here beating down some asphalt and getting on with the run. Sharing the trails. Sharing the moment. Restoring a bit of normal, if only just a bit.
With just over two hundred days until the race, you’d think I wouldn’t be too worried. But apart from the fact that we’ve officially booked flights (last week) the secondary option selection opened this morning. I logged in quickly to confirm my first choices. I’ve booked a seat on the mid-town bus on race morning, and I waived my bag check options in lieu of one of those funky post-race ponchos. I don’t ever take much to the start line anyhow, and I’ll hopefully have success in meeting up Karin shortly after stumbling across the finish line, and I’m sure she can bring me whatever I need — although that probably mostly be a shoulder to lean on.
Leading into the Hypo Half I’d argue that fate was conspiring against me.
Not only is the run traditionally the coldest race of the year, frequently tanking temperatures measuring in the low sub-zero teens, or colder, but the conditions are iffy at best. A cold winter run, a river-valley-view neighbourhood street with a base of snow and ice, a cold wind blowing off the frozen river valley, and nothing driving you forward save for the thought of a buffet brunch at the finish line.
Top that off with the consideration that my training hadn’t gone exactly as planned. I spent most of January sick and still I have this lingering cough that I can’t seem to shake. I’d run about half as much as I would have liked, completed but a single long training run, and didn’t do any of the other supplementary building such as hills, speed training, or whatever.
Oh, and then we were out of town for the day yesterday, at a birthday party for my dad eating pizza and straining my calves crouch-walking around the shallow swimming pool, and then eating some cake and ice cream before driving home in the pitch of night to get a restless night of sleep.
Fate was prodding me.
But I got up at six, ate, caffeinated, dressed, drove (stopping half way to pick up Lynda) and we skittered our way across the ice towards the start line.
And then the temperature wasn’t too bad.
And the wind gusted a few times, but it wasn’t worth complaining about.
And the company was great.
And the sun came out.
And we ran.
Our first half marathon of the year (and Cody’s first half race ever) and our times were so-so but we had modest expectations, and cute finisher medals, and then we ate brunch, took lots of silly photos and dranks lots of coffee before we called it a success and went home to rest.