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.

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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.