The astronaut’s guide to a tough race on earth

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Al Bean was history’s ultimate anti-climax. An Apollo astronaut, Bean became the fourth man to walk on the moon as the lunar module pilot of Apollo 12. If you’ve never heard of him before, count yourself in good company; his just-shy-of-the-podium moonwalk didn’t quite sear itself into the pop cultural psyche the way Neil Armstrong’s one small step did.

The 24 astronauts who flew to the moon as part of the Apollo program are truly fascinating people. They left this earth as adrenaline-junkie test pilots, and returned philosophers. Their experience, gazing back upon earth from the heavens, was transcendent, throwing into relief both the fragility of our world, and the trivial nature of our terrestrial struggles below. But while astronauts like Michael Collins or Buzz Aldrin waxed poetic about this epiphany, Al Bean tended to speak a little more plainly.

One particular observation of Bean’s has been rattling around in my mind in the wake of Saturday’s Canadian Cross-Country Championships:

“The great thing about the universe is that it’s fair.”

I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to remember these words when things get tough. Our lives, no matter how lucky we are, will be filled with setbacks. No matter how loved we are, we will inevitably experience loss. None of us is immune to pain and disappointment. And for me this Saturday, pain and disappointment was the order of the day.

The senior women’s field at the Athletics Canada Cross-Country Championships (ACXC) this year was a force to be reckoned with. Going in, I had no illusions about running some breakthrough race, or earning any noteworthy placing. The depth of talent was formidable, and I’d be lucky if I could hold my own in the field at all.

A considerably larger field than the Ontario Championships, ACXC gave me more girls my own pace to work with. I went out right in the heart of the pack, pushing myself, but feeling strong.

That didn’t last long.

About three kilometers into the race, the wheels came off. Not long after, on a muddy hairpin turn, one of my spikes did too. (I was cursing New Balance’s name, but as I learned from one of the girls afterwards, I hadn’t tied them properly – a rookie mistake.) I spent the latter half of the race just praying I didn’t get lapped. I didn’t feel like a fighter; I felt defeated.

The thing is, I wasn’t.

I looked at the results afterwards: I’d been running about the time I had expected. And the handful of girls I’d somehow managed to outrun were no slouches, either – Mary Unsworth, a former Harvard collegiate runner and all-around badass, caught me in an all-out sprint for the finish, and I’m pretty sure the 0.1 second difference in our official times was decided by a nose. Unsworth is a phenomenal runner and fierce competitor; it took everything I had to keep pace with her at all.

It’s not my result at ACXC that disappointed me – it’s the way I felt in the race. I couldn’t push my body the way I did in my fall road races. It felt like the engine just wasn’t running quite right – a nutritional issue that’s making itself increasingly clear. But more than that, I felt so discouraged, so spiritually depleted out there on that course.

The thing is, the universe is fair.

I ran with a lot of incredibly talented, hard-working athletes on Saturday. These girls take their running seriously. They trained hard. They fueled properly. They came prepared. And at ACXC, the ones who beat me did so because they deserved to beat me, because they were better athletes on the day. That’s fair.

I was lucky enough to run two incredible breakthroughs on the road this fall. That moment when I found my dad in my post-marathon delirium and got to tell him my finishing time was, far and away, the best moment of my life. Not every race can be like that.

It’s never easy to come up against your own limitations. But if you want to grow as an athlete, it’s part of the process. If the goal of my 2015 cross season was to gain experience, then I can safely say that the goal was accomplished. Sure, it’s left me with a bit of a bruised ego, but that was bound to happen. Some races galvanize you. Some races inspire you. Others just humble you.

And that’s okay. The great thing about the universe, is that it’s fair.

Chase big dreams.

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Off-Roading: Or, how I got comfortable outside of my comfort zone

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In 2009, Christopher McDougall introduced the running world at large to the anthropological endurance running hypothesis through his bestselling book, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. The endurance running hypothesis (and the better part of McDougall’s book, before it devolves into a dubious endorsement of barefoot running) suggests that the evolution of various human characteristics came about as adaptations to long-distance running.

The human proclivity for distance running is an adaptation that aids in scavenging and persistence hunting. Lacking the explosive speed, sharp teeth, or claws of other meat-eating predators, early humans adapted to literally run down our food in packs.

Human beings are pack animals by nature; we crave social connection and a sense of belonging. And, if McDougall’s hypothesis is to be believed, we’re also imbued with a deep-seated, evolutionary desire to run. Which if you think about it, neatly explains the underlying motivation behind the question every runner gets, now and again, from a non-running friend:

“Can you teach me how to run?”

On the face of it, this question has always confused me. Teach you how to run? There’s no secret to distance running. If you want to be a runner, you just go out there, and you run.

But the thing is, even for a sport as simple as distance running, starting from scratch can be daunting. Most beginners are dogged by a sense that they are somehow doing it wrong, and feel intimidated by community running groups or crews. What if I slow everyone down? What if I come dead last? Am I breathing the right way? Can everyone tell I’m a newbie? Can everyone tell I’m a fraud?

The thing I love most about road racing is the culture of inclusivity. Road races are designed to make newbies feel at home, to allow them to identify as runners, and to celebrate the modest but hard-won accomplishments of first-timers.

Over the last three years, I’ve fallen in love with the road racing scene in Toronto. And while I’ve gradually started feeling at home competing on the roads, thus far I’ve shunned the more competitive, less accessible forums of track and cross-country. So when my coach suggested I take a stab at a cross-country season after my fall marathon, I was nervous.

On the face of it, I had nothing to be all that anxious about. After all, with my 2015 race goals accomplished, there was no pressure, nor any expectation of a noteworthy performance.

But going into the Athletics Ontario Cross-Country Championships (AOs) this Sunday, it felt like my first road race all over again. In a small, talented field of dedicated athletes, all my old fears began to resurface. Suddenly, I was the intimidated, first-time rec runner all over again. I didn’t feel like a long-time distance runner. I felt like a newbie. I felt like an outsider. I felt like a fraud.

But here’s the thing about humans: we like running together. It’s hard-wired into our DNA. It doesn’t matter if you log your miles solo or chit-chat through training runs with a crew – somewhere deep inside all of us is the desire to find and run with our pack. Competitive and elite runners are no exception.

From the moment I stepped onto the course this Sunday, I felt embraced by the women running with me. Whether it was spotting the few familiar faces from track practice back in my high school days, or slogging through my last loop with the likes of Rachel Hannah and Sasha Gollish shouting encouraging words to the rest of us mere mortals, I felt that I belonged.

Running may be an individual sport, but us runners, we’re pack animals. At AOs, I went in feeling like an outsider, and left having proved to myself that I belonged in the race. Not by virtue of my place, or my time, or my fierceness (hah!) as a competitor, but because of the inclusive and encouraging spirit of my fellow athletes.

Ultimately, every runner is simply trying to be better than her own best self. The things that differentiate one runner from the next are far less important than the things we hold in common with each other. If you run with us, you’re one of us.

If you have a body, you are an athlete.

Chase big dreams.

War, peace, and the four-minute mile

BannisterAmong runners in particular, and in the athletics community more broadly, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone unfamiliar with the mythic story of Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile.

The legend, as we’ve grown accustomed to hearing it, is that in the months and weeks leading up to his breakthrough, sportscasters and scientists the world over decried Bannister’s goal as an impossible task. The four-minute mile, they told him, lay beyond the physical limits of human capability. But Bannister was not dissuaded.

On May 6th, 1954, at an Oxford University track meet, paced by his countrymen Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher, Bannister tore four rapid, relentless laps around Iffley Road Track to clock, by the skin of his teeth, the world’s first-ever sub-four-minute mile. The crowd waited with bated breath to hear confirmed the feat they had just witnessed.

“Ladies and gentlemen, here is the result of event nine,” the stadium announcer called out. “The one mile: first, number forty one, R. G. Bannister, Amateur Athletic Association and formerly of Exeter and Merton Colleges, Oxford, with a time which is a new meeting and track record, and which – subject to ratification – will be a new English Native, British National, All-Comers, European, British Empire and World Record. The time was three…”

The crowd erupted in cheers, drowning out the words that followed. Bannister had clocked a world record time of 3:59.4.

His new world record – that impossible task, the mythic four-minute mile – stood for only a fleeting 46 days.

The story of the four-minute mile is supposed to be a story of mind-over-matter, a story about how one man, undaunted by the challenge set before him, broke through an unbreakable barrier, and paved the way for generations who would run after him. It’s a story about self-belief, about the indomitability of the human spirit in the face of impossible odds.

Only that’s not really what it’s about at all.

That the four-minute mile was thought impossible by informed contemporaries of Bannister is, as it happens, a romantic myth. Bannister himself has touched upon this widely propagated historical error in his own memoir, penned just a year following his record-breaking race.

The previous world record at the time of Bannister’s run was a tantalizing 4:01.4. But while other world records in the mile typically stood for about a year at a time before falling, the 4:01.4 of Sweden’s Arne Andersson remained unbested for a whopping nine years.

So why did world record progression in the mile come to such a standstill for nearly a decade? The answer lies in the timeline.

In the chaos and upheaval of the Second World War, athletic progress in combatant countries came to a grinding halt. The war saw the suspension of international competition, as well as the cancellation of both the 1940 and 1944 summer Olympic Games in Tokyo and London, respectively. Faced with the spectre of fascism haunting Europe, the Greatest Generation set aside feats of athletic endeavor to fight a war that would come to define the century.

It was nearing the end of the decade before international athletic competition was able to resume in any meaningful way.

In this context, the human ability to clock a sub-four-minute mile appears, in a broad sense, to be an unremarkable feat. Bannister didn’t defy the physical limitations of the species with his world record performance; he merely continued the steady advancement of athletic endeavor which had been paused nine years earlier. If it hadn’t been him, it would have been someone else.

(What was and is remarkable about his time is the fact that Bannister, who at the time was training as a junior physician, managed to run it on what is widely considered to be an exceptionally light training regimen.)

Bannister broke down a barrier that was well within the reach of our human capacity. But like all great human endeavors, the four-minute mile lay within the grasp of a dedicated few only by virtue of the blood, sweat, and sacrifice of untold millions. Athletic endeavor, like literature, art, or any great and laudable human creation, is made possible only by a world that exists in  a state of relative freedom and peace.

It is easy, and often all too convenient, to relegate athletics to the realm of frivolity, to regard it as a luxury of peace and affluence. But it’s so much more than that. To borrow a phrase from C.S. Lewis, himself a contemporary of those turbulent, war-torn decades, great endeavors such as these may indeed be unnecessary – they have no survival value.

Instead, they are what gives value to survival.

Chase big dreams.

Running Uphill: The unexpected perks of being an underdog

running_trailThis fall marks the first time in more than a decade that I will run a cross-country season.

In running terms, cross-country was my first love. Cross is gritty and unpredictable in ways that track and road racing so seldom are, and in those rare moments when everything lines up just right, it’s pure magic. I’m sure I’m not the first runner to say this, but cross is what first made me fall in love with the sport.

The thing is, it’s been a while.

I started running in the sixth grade, for reasons I still can’t quite pin down. I come from a long line of distance runners, but at that particular time, nobody in my family was running – not my dad, not my sister, not even my badass marathon grandfather.

Distance running is in my blood; what drew me to it came not from the people around me, but from deep within. In general, I default to more of the non-competitive, un-athletic type. But something about foot-racing made sense to me. I loved running. That is, right up until I hated it.

I’ve only had one fight with my dad in my whole life, and it was the day I quit running. He didn’t understand why I was walking away from the sport, and looking back, I don’t understand it either. But right about the time I turned sixteen, I tossed my shoes into the back of my closet and gave the whole thing up.

My old teammates – the most enduring friendships I’ve forged in my life – kept on running through post secondary, whether in the CIS or the NCAA. Meanwhile, I just ran away.

I don’t see the five years that I spent on the east coast as a waste of time. The tenacity and mental toughness required of a distance runner is often forged not in racing, but in some other life experience. Newfoundland was that for me. And even though I still can’t make sense of it, I think I somehow had to quit running for a little while in order to understand how essential this sport is to the person I am. But that doesn’t mean that coming back to it was easy.

The first time I raced again was in 2012. I had just moved back to Toronto, and my friend Chris signed me up for the Zoo Run. It was a 10K, but it just as well could have been a marathon for the way it felt to me. I cramped, I walked, I almost cried, and in the end, I dragged my bruised ego across the finish line, and coughed up half a lung. It was beyond humbling. I had been a competitive runner once. I used to be an athlete. How had I fallen this far?

There’s a lot to be said for the advantage of experience, of coming from within the system rather than from without. For a while after I started training again, my own comparative inexperience in racing weighed on me with the sting of disadvantage. But lately, I’ve started looking at this particular disadvantage in a different light.

I recently stumbled upon a particularly encouraging perspective in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Gladwell, if you’re not already familiar with his writing, tends to take a broad-strokes approach to social science, looking for instances where compelling stories overlap with paradigm-shifting research. A 4:05 1500m runner back in his high school days, he’s particularly compelling on the topic of distance running. And while David and Goliath doesn’t address running in particular, it does contain some insights I’ve found especially helpful as a framing device in chasing my own big dreams.

Chief among them, the concept of desirable difficulty.

I’ve demonstrated some small degree of talent and dedication where running is concerned. But compared to the powerhouse runners who are currently shaping the sport, I’m still pretty green. I didn’t run CIS or NCAA. I’m making progress, but I haven’t clocked any breakthrough PBs or dazzling wins. I’m running solely on determination and dreams. I am, by definition, an underdog.

Socially, we’re accustomed to viewing underdog stories through a particular, somewhat narrow paradigm; that is, that underdogs succeed in spite of disadvantage because they are so capable and so talented that nothing – not injury, not inexperience, not outsider status – could stop them.

But there’s another, altogether different way of viewing these against-all-odds success stories. As Gladwell explains, “the second, more intriguing, possibility is that they succeeded, in part, because of their disadvantage – that they learned something in their struggle that proved to be of enormous advantage.”

My ultimate goal in distance running is pretty straightforward; I want to see just how fast I can get in the marathon. And for a marathoner, collegiate running experience can be extraordinarily helpful. But there’s also a silver lining to lacking this experience, especially where the marathon is concerned. It’s in the concept of training age.

Training age refers to the cumulative workload and skill level built over years of training. A higher training age implies greater experience and skill – to a point. But athletes in general, and marathoners in particular, are prone to burn-out and injury. Which is why, depending on the given athlete and circumstance, a lower experience and skill level can, at times, confer an advantage.

The concept of training age is especially useful in understanding the dominance of powerhouse masters athletes like Catherine Watkins. Watkins, who represented Canada with a gritty and unyielding marathon performance at this year’s Pan Am Games, only began running competitively at age 35.

“Obviously, she has an innate amount of talent and ability,” says Watkins’ coach, BC Endurance Project’s Richard Lee. “Her body hasn’t been beaten by 15 years of competitive running. It’s all fresh and new.”

Watkins’ success in the marathon, then, has not come in spite of her lateness to the game, but precisely because of it. Coming to distance running as an outsider conferred upon her myriad disadvantages, sure. But at least one of these disadvantages, counterintuitively, turned out to be desirable.

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off,” Gladwell explains. “We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.”

And Watkins isn’t alone in reaping the benefits of her underdog status. Canadian marathoner Leslie Sexton, who smashed her marathon PB to clock a 2:33:23 finish and 2nd place in the Canadian Marathon Championships a few weeks ago, entered the race as a comparative dark horse.

After a series of less-than-ideal marathon performances, it seemed that Sexton had effectively been counted out as a contender in the national running scene. In a post-race interview with The Terminal Mile last week, she was asked whether she considered her under-the-radar elite entry to be an advantage in the marathon.

“I think it was a bit, yeah,” Sexton says. “Not having to do the press conference and stuff like that, it gave me a little bit more spare time just to kind of relax and do my own thing. I spent a lot of time in the hotel room, just keeping my mind off the race.”

Viewed as a non-contender in the elite field, Sexton was free to approach the race on her own terms, without the external pressure felt by other, more established elites.

“I certainly don’t mind being an underdog,” Sexton says of the experience. “I kind of thought going in that maybe I had an outside shot, if things went well for me.”

There’s no disputing the advantages conferred from being the horse to bet on. But what we often miss in our assessment of these circumstances is the considerable benefit that comes from having the freedom to perform poorly.

When I studied politics in university, what fascinated me the most in every election were the fringe candidates. Often, the people who know they cannot win are the ones who are able to speak the most freely. In distance running, the pressure to perform pushes you to train and race conventionally; outsider status lets you break all the rules.

And there is no better venue for unconventional racing than the cross-country course.

I fully expect to finish dead last at AOs and Nationals – which is precisely why I am so excited to run them. I can’t run for time, and don’t have the experience necessary to have any realistic conception of what running for place might look like. Even if I did, cross races are unpredictable, chaotic, and volatile. Which is precisely why I fell in love with them in the first place.

The challenge of clawing my way back to fitness after a years-long lapse in training is, to me, a desirable difficulty. Like coming to the sport later in life, or running a series of disappointing races, it’s precisely the sort of underdog experience needed to forge that signature, distance runner-brand of tenacity and strength.

Running cross this year is more than just a few trail races to me. It’s a declaration to myself that no matter how much time has passed, no matter how far I think I’ve fallen, no matter how defeated I may feel, there is always, always, always a way back.

Chase big dreams.

Running into NTRC

The last two weeks have been a lot of short, easy runs for me, punctuated by days of no running at all. And while I can say with certainty that I am recovering significantly faster post-marathon this year compared to last, I haven’t exactly been feeling 100%.

My runs generally unfold like this: I start out running a nice, easy pace, moving almost gingerly and anticipating the post-race soreness. After about half a kilometer, feeling no discomfort, my stride opens up, and I begin to run at my normal, pre-marathon pace. And within a few minutes, like clockwork, my legs start shutting down.

The dead legs have been gradually improving, but nevertheless, it’s frustrating to be out there on the roads with such a keen awareness of my own limitations. I know that recovery takes patience. I know that I’m making progress. But I’ve been missing the feeling of going out there and pushing myself.

Tonight, I got that feeling back.

I’m a solo runner. I have a great group of running friends, and a big running family, but by and large I like to log my miles alone. Running offers a sort of escape, a sacred time set aside for solitude and introspection, and I don’t often like to share that time with other people. But because of this, I sometimes forget about all the benefits that come with running with a group. Chief among them: they can shake you out of  a rut.

Check these guys out on Instagram at @nightterrorsrun
Check these guys out on Instagram at @nightterrorsrun

Tonight was supposed to be a nice, easy, long-ish run. Anywhere from 8-10K was the goal. But even though dead-leg-syndrome didn’t really set in, the run was feeling a bit like a slog. Until, with about 2.5K to go, I ran right into the Night Terrors.

If you’ve never heard of them, the Night Terrors Run Crew is a crew (surprise!) of runners (didn’t see that coming!) who run at night (plot twist!) in Toronto’s west end (okay, that part isn’t exactly self-evident). Their group caters to all level of runner, from the seasoned and experienced to those just getting started. They also have a pretty killer Instagram.

Running into NTRC was a sweet stroke of luck tonight. In a moment, my run went from a slog to an adventure. With the help of a few familiar faces, a bunch of new ones, and a strong group to help push me along, I went from a dreary 8K to an energized 14. I felt like myself again, running tonight.

I may be a solo runner most days, but even I get a boost from running with a crew. And in a broader sense, I get a lot out of the running community in this city. I moved to Toronto three years ago, and for me, it’s only been in the past six months that the city has started to feel like home. I owe a great deal of that feeling to the amazing runner pals I’ve met through Canada Running Series and groups like NTRC.

So to all you Night Terrors: thanks for letting me tag along tonight. You helped me get some miles in the legs, shake off the last cobwebs of the post-marathon recovery, and chat with some pretty awesome runners along the way. Running into you guys by accident was pretty sweet. I can only imagine how much fun I’ll have when I run into you on purpose.

Chase big dreams.