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.

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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.