A Glimmer of Hope: Robert MacDonald and Team I Will

Robert MacDonald knows how bright a glimmer of hope can be.

Four years ago, the Toronto-area native lay broken in a hospital bed, unable to move (or even to feel) anything from the waist down.

While vacationing with friends in Cabo, Mexico, MacDonald fell thirty feet from a hotel balcony, dislocating his spine in two places, fracturing nine vertebrae, breaking eleven ribs and his scapula, and puncturing a lung. The fractured vertebrae pinched his spinal cord, obstructing vital blood flow; the longer the obstruction went on, the more extensive the damage.

In need of immediate surgery, MacDonald was taken via air ambulance to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, where a team of surgeons straightened and secured his spine using a computer-guided 3D intra-operative scanner. In terms of spinal cord injury, it was the gold standard in care: the fastest, most precise, and least invasive intervention possible. Even still, his diagnosis — asia B paraplegia — did not paint a promising picture.

For seven agonizing days, the twenty-six-year-old MacDonald struggled to come to terms with a future he could never have imagined. The lifelong athlete and former hockey and squash player now had a one-in-twenty shot of ever walking again.

“For those first seven days, nothing in my lower body moved,” MacDonald recalls. “I was in the ICU and I was pretty banged-up, and I thought, you know, I’m not gonna walk again. I know I’m not gonna walk again. I can’t feel anything in my lower body, I can’t move it. This is it.”

And then something happened — something terribly ordinary, yet quietly significant:  the big toe on his left foot began, ever so slightly, to twitch.

It wasn’t much. But for MacDonald, that small twitch was enough.

Read the full story on the Canada Running Series blog.

Ten Mile Island: A love letter to racing in St. John’s

13775933_825174908620_8488907590925073164_nTen years ago, I fell in love with St. John’s.

On the eastern shores of Newfoundland, in the frozen North Atlantic Ocean, St. John’s lies nestled in a narrow harbour, sheltered on all sides by a wall of great hills. It’s a city defined by paradox: shrouded in cloak of grey fog, broken only by the vibrant hues of brightly-painted clapboard houses; a relatively tiny town that still boasts better nightlife than the best of Montreal or Toronto (yes, really); a rugged coast perpetually battered by brutal winds and inhospitable weather, and yet somehow still famous for its hospitality.

Isolated from the mainland (and in outport communities, from each other), in the face of a volatile climate and an unstable fishery, the distinctive Newfoundland character has emerged. Theirs is a culture defined by a curious blend of long-suffering pride and irreverent humour. Newfoundlanders understand mainland English, but answer back in their own strange language – something akin to an Irish brogue, a dialect born of generations of islander isolation. They’re a universally bilingual people; music is their second language.

Raised partway in Dublin, Ireland as the child of Canadian expats, Newfoundland had long intrigued me for the way it seemed to blend my dual, conflicting identities. So at eighteen-years-old, in the spirit of fearlessness that defines so much of early adulthood, I decided to move there.

13776019_825369628400_6247510789619107240_nWhen you’re a mainlander living in Newfoundland, you can’t help but feel like you’ve stumbled upon one of the world’s last unspoiled treasures; the island’s inimitable charm is oddly unknown away from her own shores. And the islanders are quick to embrace the “Come-From-Aways” like myself who choose to settle there. The result is that St. John’s, and the extraordinary people who make their lives there, never really lets you go. You leave this town with a perpetual sense of unfinished business. Newfoundland, even if you’re not a native Newfoundlander, will always call you home.

This past weekend, I came home to St. John’s for what I thought would be a destination race. But really, it was a pilgrimage.

Newfoundland boasts one of the oldest road races in North America, a ten-mile course that runs a straight shot from the town of Paradise into the heart of old St. John’s. Second only to Boston and Around The Bay, the Tely 10 (diminutively named, in true Newfoundland style, for title sponsor the Telegram newspaper) is the island’s marquee athletic event.

It’s a mid-sized road race by most standards: this year saw just shy of 5,000 participants. But like so much else in Newfoundland, its modest size belies its mammoth significance in the insular island community. The local paper runs a detailed predictions page in the days leading up to race weekend. Every bit of the 16 kilometre course is lined with cheering spectators. The finish line crowds are packed five-deep, and the winners’ smiling faces are all but guaranteed to run on the cover of the paper the following morning.

In a sport so often relegated to the periphery, the Tely 10 offers a brief, shining moment in which distance runners can feel like kings.

It might look to mainlander eyes like a smaller race, but a victory in the Tely 10 is no small feat. The competitive field runs remarkably deep, and despite not having an elite program, the race consistently attracts world-class athletes from across the country.

(An unofficial elite program operates primarily in the form of local distance runner David Freake’s Twitter feed. Freake’s method is a targeted, earnest, and unrelenting year-long promotion of the event, complete with proffers of free accommodation and rides to the airport – a truly St. John’s approach if ever there was one.)

Like the island it calls home, the Tely 10 is unselfconsciously eccentric. A midsummer road race of non-standard distance with the gravitas of a championship event, it heralds the peak of racing season for Newfoundlanders. Forget the usual spring/fall training schedule; like the island’s peculiar half-hour time zone, the Tely 10 refuses to be bound by a mainland timetable. Never mind the ordinary – this is Newfoundland, after all.

mile105Even the course markings are no exception to this. The Tely 10 mile markers aren’t your usual sandwich boards or flags, but actual road signs – permanent, integrated fixtures in the town’s infrastructure. There’s a sense of rigidity, a characteristically Newfoundland stubbornness, to be inferred from this; here is the course, as it is, as it always has been.

This isn’t an event; it’s an institution.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would have been hard-pressed to choose a better year for my first Tely 10 than this one. The 89th running of the race, 2016 is destined for infamy as the year Kate Bazeley shattered Nicola Will’s 30-year-old course record, in a finishing time of 55:34.

13620842_925056590953649_6918761983485022350_nBazeley, who ran to a ninth-place finish in last year’s race just weeks after giving birth to her second child, has been enjoying a banner year, with a strong performance in far-less-than-ideal conditions at the 10K road championships in Ottawa this spring. Her record-breaking run this Sunday, while not entirely unexpected, was one of those rare, dizzying moments of athletic transcendence. Make no mistake: the unofficial ambassador of Newfoundland athletics is a woman on the brink.

But though Bazeley’s competitive zeal and undeniable fitness are a force to be reckoned with on the roads, she cuts a surprisingly disarming figure in conversation at the Nautilus Running Club‘s post-race celebration later that evening.

There, in the quiet of Pippy Park, in that long, suspended summer moment between daylight and dark, is where the real weight of the Tely 10’s long history is unpacked. There are tales of high winds, and bad weather, of years that went favourably and those that didn’t, of the dominance of Paul McCloy, of the record that was broken today, and of ones that might never fall. It’s an unwritten saga, a living, oral history unwound over music and laughter, and just a bit too much of that unforgettable Quidi Vidi Beer.

“There’s a saying ’round here,” one member tells me, as a friend laments his running prowess hasn’t translated to success in today’s race. “If it’s not done at the Tely, yer not worth a damn.”

…he may not have said damn.

Chase big dreams.

The Good Fight: Why the world needs Canadian athletes


The sport of athletics is in crisis.

You don’t need to look far to see the evidence; it’s everywhere. From a state-sponsored doping network that has seen Russian athletes banned from the upcoming Olympic Games, to a slew of positive retests suggesting the London 2012 Games may have been the dirtiest Olympics on record, the global athletics community has been rocked in recent years by a level of scandal not unlike the world of endurance cycling.

On the face of it, the recent doubt and controversy surrounding Canadian marathon record-holder Lanni Marchant’s place on the 2016 Olympic marathon team might not appear to be connected to the broader, seemingly intractable problem of doping in athletics. But in fact, the two are deeply and inextricably linked.

As Canadian Running editor Michael Doyle surmised in a recent editorial for the CBC, the peculiarities of a results-based funding system (through organizations such as Own the Podium) have created a bizarrely risk-averse culture in the sport’s national governing body.

One would think that, in the absence of athletes in serious contention for Olympic medals, Athletics Canada would be content to send the best possible athletes we have, in the hope that they would use the experience to develop in their discipline – if not to win, then to “fight well”.

The reality, sadly, is a far more results-focused funding model that penalizes inauspicious Olympic performances, without consideration for the variable depth of field across disciplines. It’s why Marchant, who had attained the rigorous Olympic standards in both the 10,000m and the marathon, was told early last month that she may be sent to Rio to run the 10,000m alone.

Marchant is arguably a far stronger marathoner than she is a 10,000m track runner. But the Olympic marathon field is notoriously deep and fiercely competitive. In the last Olympic Games in London 2012, 118 world-class athletes took on the marathon, compared to just 22 in the 10,000m. Faced with a mandate to produce top-12 performances, it’s easy to see why Athletics Canada might feel compelled to steer a star like Marchant away from the roads, towards the comparative easy pickings of the track, where she would likely prove a boon to their bottom line.

Today, Athletics Canada officially announced that Marchant would be included on the Olympic marathon team – a widely popular and warmly-recieved decision, albeit not an entirely practical one for the governing body itself.

And while it’s tempting to write this announcement off as mere common sense, and more tempting still to characterize it as kowtowing to public pressure – a would-be PR blunder that the organization has now narrowly averted – the fact is, it’s much more than that.

The decision to field Marchant in the marathon is a rare and desperately-needed moment of idealism.

For all of the hand-wringing about doping in athletics, one of the most overlooked contributing factors to the doping crisis is the toxic, win-at-all-costs culture that has begun to permeate this sport at every level. We blame and disparage athletes who dope as cheats and frauds. We lament their lack of honesty and ethical conviction – and rightly so. But we fail to acknowledge the uncomfortable, underlying truth of the doping problem: that in many cases, our governing bodies are tacitly endorsing this widespread fraud by prizing results as the highest, or only, goal.

Drug cheats don’t exist in a vacuum; they are the monster that we have created.

What gets lost in the often-defeatist discourse on doping control is any sense of how one might fight back. In their decision to field Marchant in the marathon, Athletics Canada is doing just that – quietly, subtly, the way that Canadian athletes themselves have been doing for years.

If we truly wish to see clean competition at the highest levels in athletics, then the world needs Canadian athletes more than ever.

Canadian athletes are, and should be, fighters; they fight long and hard through the tedium of preparation, through the agony of competition, and against very concept of human limitation. They struggle and succeed against impossible odds, on scant funding, in complete obscurity. If you’re looking for a model of the self-made Olympian, you won’t find much better than the Canadian distance runner. And under the regulation of the much-lauded and well-funded Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, Canadian athletes are some of the cleanest and most rigorously-tested in the world.

“Some races I would feel there is someone that I’m competing against that is probably cheating,” says Olympic marathoner Reid Coolsaet. “Most races in Canada, especially national championships, it doesn’t even cross my mind. I think it’s clean.”

The Olympic Dream is about a process – it’s not about a moment. And the greatness of our athletes should not be measured by one race, one record, one medal, or one performance. The very purpose of funding and supporting the top-level athletes in our country is an investment in their emotional currency.

By naming Marchant – by every account a clean, hardworking, self-made marathoner – to the Olympic team, Athletics Canada has refused to hollow-out this currency with an algorithmic, results-oriented paradigm, and taken a stand against the win-at-all costs culture that has allowed the doping crisis to continue.

Athletics Canada has set a precedent for what history will come to see as the legacy of Canadian distance runners through one of the greatest ethical crises our sport has known: that in the face of championship fields stacked with drug cheats, our athletes did not lose the courage of their convictions, nor our governing bodies abandon those athletes in a preoccupation with podium finishes. That we did not become a monster in order to defeat one.

That we stood fast. That we fought well.

Chase big dreams.

Wreck Runner: Notes from a race run way off pace


When I started running three years ago, all I wanted was to kick a few bad habits and get myself off the couch. I didn’t think I’d ever run a race, much less a marathon. I wasn’t competitive; I was what you’d call a rec runner. And I think I still am.

The running community is an overwhelmingly positive crowd. But among a small subset of competitive distance runners, rec runner can be an almost pejorative term. It’s the sort of elitist attitude that you can find in anything, really – a small but vocal minority who seem to think that mass participation, or the non-competitive pursuit of a personal benchmark, somehow lowers the overall standard for athletic achievement.

You know the type: they’re the ones who complain about charity runners in the Boston Marathon, or the ones (ahem, Steve Jones) who hand-wring about how a four- or five-hour marathon doesn’t really make you a marathoner. This crowd despises people like John “The Penguin” Bingham, the champion of ordinary, non-competitive marathoners the world over.

I abhor this type of narrow thinking.

For one thing, I think that this burning need to draw a line in the sand between competitive elites and the “ordinary” runner is bad for the sport.

It’s true, only a fraction of athletic greats come up through the ranks of the rec runner set. But those that do have more than proven their mettle. Krista DuChene, who will represent Canada later this year as part of our first Olympic women’s marathon team in two decades, debuted in the marathon at an inauspicious 3:28. Pan Am marathoner Catherine Watkins ran her first road race for fun while in her mid-thirties. And Newfoundland’s David Freake, who in 2015 ran to an impressive fourth-place finish at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half-Marathon, regularly competes at an elite level which belies his humble rec runner origins.

To write off the tens of thousands of ordinary marathoners in a race as “not really athletes” is to risk losing out on the development of powerhouse athletes like Watkins, Freake, and DuChene. But there’s more to it than just the untapped potential of the rec runner rank-and-file.

Running is hard. But rec runners know how to make it fun. They don’t always run after PBs – sometimes, they’ll run entire races side-by-side with a pal, focused on completion over competition. They dress up in costumes, and high-five spectators. They coordinate their shoes with their shorts, and take “runfies” (that’s running selfies, for the uninitiated). They organize beer runs, and make funny signs, and come out to man the cheer stations for races they’re not running. And while it’s easy to cast aspersions at those who run solely for completion, theres something to be said for the fact that rec runners almost never DNF; good race or bad, they always make it to that finish line.

Rec runners are the beating heart of a sport that can easily turn from a beloved pastime into a lonely, thankless grind. They’re what got me into this sport in the first place.

This year, my training has become far more rigorous than it used to be. My 2016 is a long, tough prelude to what I hope will yield a sub-3:00 marathon finish in 2017. It’s a tall order – and by no means a foregone conclusion. And though I’m enjoying the process, I have to admit that it’s changed the way I experience races.

I’m constantly gunning for times that are just outside the margins of my capability (and for the most part, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results). But the trade-off is that I don’t get to quite savour the race the same way that I once did.

So this weekend, when my 10K race fell spectacularly to pieces over the space of less than two minutes, I had an opportunity to fall back into the old rec runner race experience. And it was incredible.

Heading into Ottawa race weekend, my initial goal was to recreate my recent sub-40 10K time on a more challenging course. But with temperatures in the mid-30s, my time goal (along with pretty much everybody else’s) went out the window. Cold, wind, and rain don’t much bother me in a race, but heat will get me every time. And get me it did.

I held onto my adjusted goal pace for the first 3.5K, but shortly after the 4K mark, the wheels came off. I staggered to the side of the course, and threw up. By the time I had dragged myself back onto the road (about 90 seconds later), I knew that even my adjusted time goal was out the window. I felt like hell, and badly wanted to step off the course and call it a day.

The thing is, I’ve never dropped out of a race. It’s a weird point of pride with me. I know there are plenty of very good reasons for throwing in the towel; I expect that one day, one of those very good reasons will compel me to do just that. But it’s never happened yet – and when it does, it’s gonna take a lot more than just the heat.

So there I was, not quite halfway through my shambles of a 10K, stuck between no prospect of a respectable time, and a stubborn unwillingness to DNF. And with nothing else to gun at in my sights, I decided to just run the damn race, and relish it – rec runner style.

I high-fived spectators, and laughed at their funny signs. I ate a freezie that a kid handed me from the side of the road. I cheered on my fellow runners who were labouring through the race. I actually slowed down, kept my eyes open, and took in the experience. I did all the things that running after rigorous marks leaves you too busy to do – all the things that made me fall in love with running to begin with.

My time in the Ottawa 10K wasn’t anything I’m proud of, but my experience on that course was incredible. And though I’m still determined to push myself to exceed my own expectations, I’m grateful that I was given a moment this weekend to remember what it is that I love about this sport.

You’re gonna get knocked off pace once in a while. You might as well enjoy it when you do.

Chase big dreams.

Fog on the English Channel: Victory, defeat, and the limits of vantage point

1455848_723840074440_3398969491830786328_nI’m going to tell you a story that’s almost certainly untrue.

I like to joke that I read history in university because I was trying to make sure I’d grow up to be fully unemployable. But in reality, I believe that history matters. I believe that serious, methodological research into our collective past serves a crucial function in the shaping of our future.

As a consequence, I have a deep, abiding distaste for pseudo-history, for those widely-circulated pop-cultural myths that endure absent of evidence or legitimate scholarship. But right now, in the service of inspiration (and frankly, because I doubt that the readership of a running blog is especially concerned with the particulars of the Battle of Trafalgar) I am going to tell you a story that’s almost certainly untrue.

Let’s rewind about two hundred years, to the height of the Napoleonic Wars: Britain and France are at war. The spectre of a French invasion onto English soil, and a subsequent conquest of Britain, looms with a foreboding urgency.

The Battle of Trafalgar was the decisive exchange of this conflict – the fate of England hung precariously on the success of British Admiral Nelson’s fleet as they faced down Napoleon’s naval forces in the waters of the Atlantic, just off the coast of south-western Spain. And at home, a tense and fearful England waited to for the news, which came across the foggy English Channel one morning, spelled out by naval signal flags:


Across the island, panic and despair spread like a menacing wave. The French invasion was imminent. The star of the British Empire was all but poised to fall.

But then something happened – something at once very ordinary, and yet on this particular day, completely extraordinary: the fog on the English Channel lifted. The simple, two-word message that had appeared to spell England’s doom revealed itself in full:


This story was told to me a long time ago, by someone far more concerned with the romance and inspiration it held than with the factual accuracy of the tale itself. It’s a tidy metaphor, isn’t it? Altogether too tidy for the often ragged edges of history.

The truth is, there’s likely very little truth to this story. But just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable. There’s a reason the story stuck with me all these years, and a reason I’m called back to it now.

I’ve written a lot on the theme of resilience – on how setbacks and difficulty can help to shape us into the people we need to become. I’ve explored this theme over and over because being an athlete, ultimately, isn’t about being able to work – it’s about being able to fail.

Failure is valuable tool, calling attention to the myriad weak points or blind spots we all carry. But there’s another side to failure that I haven’t explored quite so thoroughly; that is, sometimes what looks like failure simply isn’t.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can attest to the truth in this. The greatest race of my life was the direct result of one of my most devastating personal failures. That’s a very different thing than simply finding motivation or inspiration in the experience of failure. It isn’t that I “made the best of it” – the failure itself was the mechanism.

This spring, my training has been fraught with tiny disappointments – the kind of small struggles that, one by one, don’t feel like very much. But taken all together, the discouragement is palpable.

But before I abandon myself to despair or self-pity, I consider for a moment the limits of vantage point. If I can’t find the lesson in my failures, perhaps I’m reading them wrong. I’m reading them through the fog. I might have the message right, sure. Then again, I might have it wrong.

So I wait, head up, for a change in the winds, for the fog on the English Channel to clear.

Chase big dreams.

The Long Road to Boston

Photo credit: Canada Running Series

Today, more than 30,000 runners are poised to make a long and storied 26-mile journey from the narrow country roads of Hopkinton, to the din of a spectator-lined Boylston Street. It will mark the 120th running of the Boston Marathon, a race known the world over for its notoriously challenging course and rigorous qualification standards.

Boston has evolved over the decades to become more than just another big-city marathon; for the ordinary marathoner, the race holds a prestige and significance not unlike the Olympic Games. Never mind the actual running of the race – for many, simply achieving the qualification standard (the ever-elusive “BQ”) represents a lofty goal in and of itself.

Every runner who makes it to the start line in Hopkinton carries with them their own testament to the distance – a testament to countless hours on country roads or city streets, to early mornings chasing splits on a track, and late nights logging those extra miles. It’s a testament to blisters and blown knees, to sunburns and windburns, to worn-out shoes, and too-warm gels, and endless piles of dirty laundry. Perhaps most of all, those runners in Hopkinton each carry with them the memory of a moment – incredible, transcendent, and hard-won – when those laborious hours of preparation carried them to a qualifying marathon finish.

It’s little wonder the Boston Marathon has come to represent so much more than just a foot race. The Boston Marathon, you see, is a pilgrimage…

Read the full story on the Canada Running Series blog.

Hill Seeker: How struggle makes you strong


Conventional wisdom holds that favourable circumstances foster favourable outcomes. As a runner, I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself praying to the racing gods for flat courses, low winds, or mild weather. And while it’s true that circumstance plays a pivotal role in determining performance – whether we’re talking about athletics, academics, or professional success – it’s also worth noting that, counter intuitive though it might seem, there is also tremendous value to be found in the experience of struggle.

This week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Josh Bolton and Lauren Simmons, two inspiring Canadian distance runners, about the struggles and setbacks that have made them strong.

You can read the full story here, on the Canada Running Series blog – and join me for Race Roster Spring Run-Off this April!

Chase big dreams.