The Good Fight: Why the world needs Canadian athletes

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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

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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:

NELSON DEFEATED

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:

NELSON DEFEATED NAPOLEON

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

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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

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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.

Make It Memorable: The marathon wisdom of Wesley Korir

38d2198032d970ec36d5af1f16a91d40The week before I ran the Toronto Marathon last fall, I was terrified.

I get nervous before every race, even the ones I might not feel terribly invested in. But this one was different. Six months of gruelling, time-consuming, toenail-destroying training was about to be called into question, and the task in front of me suddenly seemed impossible.

And so, with less than 24 hours to race day, I did something a little crazy: I changed my race goal.

I had been gunning for a 3:20 marathon, a time that was both comfortably within the Boston-qualifying window, and also close enough to put me within shouting distance of my much-faster older sister. But the night before the marathon, I tossed this goal aside. I no longer wanted to run a 3:20. Instead, I wanted to run like Wesley Korir.

Let me explain:

Wesley ran his debut marathon at Chicago in 2008. A former collegiate track runner with no previous experience in the marathon distance, he was deemed ineligible for inclusion in the elite field that year. So Wesley paid his own entry fee and started his debut marathon with the masses, a full five minutes behind the rest of the elites.

image2I had the pleasure of meeting Wesley last summer, at a fundraiser to benefit the Kenyan Kids Foundation, a charity he co-founded with his wife Tarah McKay (an accomplished Canadian distance runner in her own right). He spoke about his experience running his debut marathon in Chicago. Though he had hoped to earn a place on the elite start line, Wesley was unfazed by this setback. He knew that the marathon was going to be difficult under even the best conditions. So his aim was not to run for a goal time or place. His primary goal, he explained, was to make a good memory.

What happened next was truly remarkable. Wesley got clear of the mass start and quickly found himself running alone, taking in the Chicago sights and high-fiving spectators along the course. Feeling no pressure to perform at an elite level, his pace was controlled, even, and relaxed.

So relaxed, in fact, that he almost didn’t notice as he began to overtake the elite field. He ended up posting the fourth-fastest time on the course that day.

Going into my marathon last fall, I resolved to run like Wesley Korir. That is to say, I resolved to make a memory with the marathon. No matter what happened out on the course that day, I wanted to focus on enjoying the experience.

I like to see results when I train; I’d hazard a guess that most of us do. PBs, podium finishes, and Boston-qualifiers are all supremely satisfying, and can motivate us to push on, and to train harder than we otherwise might. Having goals is a good thing.

But sometimes it’s important to remind yourself that, as great as all those things can be, they are not the reason you run.

This past week of training was particularly hard on me, culminating in an interval workout that I walked away from uncompleted. I’ve never done that before; even in the face of some major personal crises, I’ve never failed to complete a workout once I started. But this week, it all just fell apart.

So on Saturday morning, I got out of bed, shook off my self-doubt, and resolved to run like Wesley Korir.

I laced up my New Balance 1500s and set out for some long, slow distance – far and away, my favourite type of run. I placed no expectations on myself, my time, or the distance I would cover. I was running for one reason alone: to remind myself what it felt like to run happy.

Wesley Korir’s emphasis on running for intrinsic value helped me to overcome my paralyzing self-doubt on the eve of the Toronto Marathon. And this week, it helped me once again – this time, to reevaluate my circumstances outside of racing.

As a runner, I have the right to work my ass of in pursuit of my goals. But I don’t necessarily have the right to the fruits of that work. In the marathon, and in distance running in general, a lot gets left up to the gods, to chance, to the whims of fate.

I came here to chase big dreams. But there’s no guarantee that I’ll ever catch them. So I’m doing my best to enjoy the journey, and to make it memorable.

One bad week at a time.

Chase big dreams.

The Case for Selflessness: How empathy and compassion make you a better runner

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Photo credit: Inge Johnson | Canada Running Series

This weekend, 366 of America’s toughest, gutsiest, most formidable distance runners hit the streets of LA for the US Olympic Trials marathon. And while the men’s race was dominated by 29-year-old Galen Rupp, who cruised to a 2:11:12 victory in his marathon debut without appearing to so much as break a sweat, the real standout performance of the day came from women’s champ Amy Cragg.

Cragg, who scrapped her way to a heartbreaking fourth-place finish in the 2012 Olympic Trials for London, ran the race of her life on Saturday, clocking a solid 2:28:20 in the punishing heat to carry the day. She ran the bulk of Saturday’s race alongside training partner Shalane Flanagan, a three-time Olympian who was favoured for the win. But with about 5K to go, Flanagan began to struggle, and soon after, to falter.

Rather than seizing this late-in-the-race opportunity to open up her lead and drop Flanagan along with the rest of the field, Cragg hung back, coaxing Flanagan to keep going, assisting her through the last aid station, until a surging Desi Linden forced her to finally take off.

“I don’t think I can do this,” the distressed Flanagan cried out.

But she did – collapsing across the finish line into Amy Cragg’s arms, having clung desperately to her third-place position to secure a spot on the 2016 Olympic Team.

Amy Cragg pulled off a redemption marathon of epic proportions on Saturday. And though her time ultimately carried the day, she doubtless could have run an even stronger race had she not clung with such stubborn, unwavering loyalty to a struggling Shalane Flanagan over the final miles.

And Cragg is hardly the first elite marathoner to display this extraordinary level of concern for a competitor. In the 2009 New York City Marathon, Ethiopian Derartu Tulu stunned onlookers by slowing her pace to encourage her longtime rival Paula Radcliffe, who had fallen off the back of the elite pack.

“Come on,” Tulu called out as the pair traversed the Queensboro Bridge. “We can do this.”

Tulu, too, was all but dropped by the surging elites while she repeatedly attempted to coax a flagging Radcliffe back to life. She ultimately caught up to the leaders, overtaking her competition to win the day in 2:28:52. When Radcliffe, injured and in tears, struggled to a fourth-place finish minutes later, Tulu simply embraced her.

Both Derartu Tulu and Amy Cragg demonstrated uncommon compassion for their competitors, ostensibly risking their own races in the process. And these remarkable episodes don’t represent a one-off, for either runner. When asked about Tulu’s behaviour following the race, Radcliffe remarked, “That’s just Derartu. She’s always lovely like that.”

It is tempting to write off an overgenerous disposition like that of Cragg or Tulu as a liability in an elite athlete. But in reality, runners who invest in the well-being and performance of their fellow competitors often outperform those with more individualistic values over the long term.

Which might explain the dominance of athletes like Rachel Hannah, who took home the Canadian title in the 2014 Half-Marathon Championships after defending champ Krista Duchene fractured her femur in the finishing stretch of the race. But Hannah, at the time still a relative up-and-comer on the national scene, declined bask in her post-win glory. Instead, she rushed to the side of the injured Duchene, ignoring requests for post-race pictures and interviews until she could be sure her fiercest competitor got the care she needed.

And the athletic predisposition to an altruistic mindset isn’t limited to elites, either. Both seasoned recreational runners and newcomers to the sport alike can attest to the tremendous benefits of running with a club, team, or crew. Running might be an individual sport, but there’s an undeniable energy and momentum that can be drawn from a collective mindset.

So why do compassionate, team-oriented runners tend to perform so well? The benefits are twofold:

First, running is tough. And marathon running, even tougher. A common (and particularly effective) strategy for pushing through the gruelling miles is to mentally “switch off” – to turn your attention away from your own discomfort and onto literally anything else. So when an athlete’s mind is preoccupied with concern for the well-being of a competitor, it becomes much easier to ignore their own discomfort and push on.

The fact that Amy Cragg or Derartu Tulu were able to win their races, while also mustering the necessary energy to encourage and cajole their struggling competition, is undeniably remarkable. But the strength these women drew upon to pull off such victories existed, at least in part, because of their concern for the well-being of others. Altruistic acts have the effect of drawing us out of ourselves – whether we’re volunteering for a cause, donating to charity, or encouraging a competitor – in turn making us more resilient in the face of pain, hardship, and personal distress.

Second, no matter how hard you train, you are bound to have a bad race here or there. Setbacks and failures are an inevitable part of competition – the devastating lows that make the experience of victory that much sweeter. So when you spend your time encouraging the efforts of others, your own internal monologue – what psychologists call your “self-talk” – becomes correspondingly more positive and encouraging.

Long-term success in distance running depends, more than anything else, on consistency and dedication. Which makes your framework for handling failures and setbacks of critical importance. When we offer encouragement or consolation to a struggling fellow runner, we are also sharpening our own internal coping skills. We teach ourselves resilience by nurturing it in others.

Altruism, as it turns out, has a very practical silver lining.

Like Derartu Tulu or Rachel Hannah, Amy Cragg’s tremendous display of empathy, camaraderie, and sportsmanship in Saturday’s race demonstrates once again the wisdom of that hard-worn proverb: shared joy is twice joy, but shared sorrow is half sorrow.

Chase big dreams.