Alexi Pappas’s “Bravey”: The Long Slow Book Club

From fierce competitors to narrow-minded coaches to (in all likelihood) you, Alexi Pappas can outrun just about anything.

In her new memoir “Bravey: Chasing Dreams, Befriending Pain, and Other Big Ideas”, the Olympian-turned-actress-turned-writer shines a spotlight on the things she can’t outrun — namely, the loss of her mother, Roberta North, who died by suicide when Pappas was five years old. Her mother’s absence — and the particular pain inherent in the way she died — casts a long shadow over Pappas’s life, colouring not only her sense of self, but her sense of what’s possible in a chaotic and often deeply unfair world.

Structured as a series of personal essays, “Bravey” is a lovingly rendered portrait of a family healing from irreconcilable loss, and of the myriad ways that trauma can inform the lives left behind in its wake. For Pappas, the understandable impulse to distance herself from her mother’s fate manifests as a sort of furious, desperate forward momentum that fuels her training, writing, and artistic pursuits. This seemingly bottomless well of energy ultimately carries Pappas to an Olympic berth, where she shatters her own PB and sets a new Greek national record in the process. But the bottom drops out in the aftermath of the 2016 Rio Games, when an exhausted and depleted Pappas sinks into injury and depression that eventually metastasizes into suicidal ideation. It’s here that a desperate Pappas is forced to reckon with what she has tried so long to ignore: that she is, in the end, still her mother’s daughter.

“I’ve always been afraid there is an invisible timer in my head that will one day run out and I will become like my mom,” Pappas writes. “I was terrified that I was now on a collision course with a destiny that I was desperate to avoid.”

Recovery, for Pappas, becomes an exercise in compassion — for herself, and for the mother she lost, whose talents, accomplishments, and humanity gradually come into sharper focus throughout the book. Lingering in that always-complicated space between mother and daughter, Pappas grows to appreciate the part of her mother that lives on in her; to recognize the gifts the two women share, and to appreciate the ways those gifts can be both a blessing in one life and curse in another.

Heavy subject matter notwithstanding, “Bravey” is a remarkably buoyant piece of writing. Pappas’ authorial voice leans toward the whimsical and un-self-serious. Each essay/chapter opens with one of her poems, whose straightforward diction and raggedy metre gives them the unstudied air of a diary entry. Her figurative language revolves almost entirely around food — Pappas describes toeing the start line at her debut marathon “feeling like good pasta: just slightly undercooked”. It’s a writing style that could easily veer toward trite, even facile, but Pappas manages to make it charming.

For all the radical honesty Pappas brings to her story, one thing the California native kind of diplomatically writes around is her decision to represent Greece, rather than the United States, at the 2016 Rio Games. Pappas, entitled to Greek citizenship by way of her grandmother, became a citizen in the year leading up to the Games — a presumably calculated decision that would allow the runner to take advantage of the comparatively relaxed Greek qualification standards (emphasis comparatively). Her final result in Rio had her well in the mix with the American women (Pappas beat third-ranked American Marielle Hall), rendering moot any questions of whether she could match the calibre of Team USA. Even so, there are many in the athletics community who bristle at the practice of dual-citizen athletes switching their competitive allegiance to compete under another flag, which makes Pappas’ reticence on the subject deeply understandable, if a little unsatisfying.

This, ultimately, is less about the limitations of Pappas as a writer and more about the tidy, antiseptic framework in which most narratives about athletic excellence are allowed to live. We like stories that exhort us to “be relentlessly positive” and “chase our dreams”, as if elite athletes were the walking, talking embodiment of a Lululemon shopping bag, and not a human being with a vast inner life and raw, bleeding, off-brand edges. So when Pappas describes feeling simply “proud” to represent Greece — while sidestepping any exploration of the emotional complexity inherent in competing against her home country, or the cultural disconnect one imagines must have been present between Pappas and her teammates — she isn’t obfuscating so much as following the singular narrative path available to her.

The same can be said for her heavy employment of mantra-like affirmations throughout the book — later labelled “personal laws” by her therapist, who encourages her to critically examine their efficacy in the shifting emotional landscape of her life. It turns out to be a worthwhile exercise, not only as part of Pappas’s personal recovery, but as a way of looking at the world more broadly. If you really believe that world-class athletic achievement is the result of sheer will and work ethic, how does that colour the way you think about people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or less socially acceptable bodies? What unintended consequences could these beliefs have for us in moments of struggle or personal crisis?

“I don’t know if being a good athlete comes down to being born gifted or working hard,” Pappas writes. “We can’t know; it is always some combination of the two. I would also contend that a third factor, health, is an equally important ingredient for athletic success.”

It’s this willingness to interrogate the limits of self-determination and personal responsibility that elevates “Bravey” above the tired conventions of the inspirational athlete memoir. Her message is refreshing, urgent, and timely: you are not your accomplishments, your mistakes, your dreams. You simply are, and that’s enough.

Peripheral Vision

As I write this, March 2021 is twelve days out. Our collective month of panic-bought toilet paper and the jerry-rigged home office returns to us in time’s flat circle. We’ve stopped calling it “the new normal” — after a year, nothing about this is novel anymore.

When the pandemic hit, I decamped from my cramped downtown Toronto apartment to my partner’s place uptown. I was training for the Chicago Marathon, a regimen I reluctantly abandoned after reading the words “droplet dispersal” and “slipstream” one too many times on Alex Hutchinson’s Twitter feed. The sidewalks, now all but deserted, nonetheless felt dangerously crowded. We set up a stationary bike in the basement; I stopped going out.

All around us, the city grew quiet. But online, the running community was loud. The familiar annual rhythms of road-racing season had been disrupted, and athletes processed feelings of helplessness in shades of indignation, even anger. Yes, frontline health care workers were critically low on PPE, but you must understand, the Ottawa Marathon failed to refund entry fees! Hospitals braced for a ventilator shortage, but surely the government couldn’t expect elite marathoners to temporarily forgo physio?

Running is a discipline of narrow hyperfocus, and the discourse around it has manifested accordingly. This hyperfocus isn’t without function — to do any one thing really well, you necessarily need to let everything else fall by the wayside. But a good way to nail a season-best marathon performance turns out to be a very bad way to narrativize a diverse global community.

Elitism reproduces the social iniquities around it, protecting predatory actors, entrenching racialized power structures, and giving a pass to top-tier athletes with problematic attitudes. (Anybody else remember Rob Watson publicly slagging off the run-it-just-to-finish-it marathon set?) Elite voices and perspectives have long shaped the kind of conversations we’re used to having about our sport, leaving Runner Twitter, somewhat understandably, ill-equipped to meet a moment of global, collective crisis with anything resembling grace, or even proportionality.

There were sobering, community-minded voices in those early days, yes, but they were the minority — the world only has so many Dorothy Beals.

For years, we’ve worshipped at the altar of PBs, BQs, and prestige races, where bragging rights are everything and toiling in obscurity is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. The rare meditation on running for running’s sake has generally been regarded as filler, an anomalous bit of fluff shoehorned in between athlete profiles and race reports. The truly bad takes we saw online in the early days of the pandemic are the logical extension of the values that underscore this — athletes who have only ever been rewarded for framing their running in terms of credential and rank.

There’s no objectively right or wrong way to appreciate a sport. If you’re the type of runner who fetishizes your Garmin data and Strava segments, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with finding motivation and enjoyment in rankings and PBs. But it’s worth asking now, a year into this pandemic, why we’re actually doing this, and what kind of sport we want to be on the other side of this thing.

Because there is no “going back to normal” anymore. Not after a year, or probably more.

Running has reached an inflection point. As we stare down the barrel of a seemingly interminable lockdown — gyms shuttered, fitness classes cancelled, and freezing winter temperatures precluding all but the most vigorous outdoor activity — more non-runners are being drawn into our sport than ever before; out of necessity, out of boredom, out of a lack of viable alternatives. How many of them will feel welcome? How many of them will stay?

Cancel the Olympics — permanently.

The Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees will not be sending athletes to the Olympic Games, scheduled to begin on July 24th in Tokyo. Instead, they have called upon the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to postpone the Summer Games for one year, citing concerns for both athlete safety and the safety of the general public amid the coronavirus pandemic. Their calls for postponement have been echoed by Australia’s chef de mission, Ian Chesterman, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as countless athletes and fans around the globe.

Yesterday, IOC President Thomas Bach released a public statement affirming the IOC’s intention for the Games to go ahead as scheduled.

“Cancellation (of the Olympic Games) would not solve any problem and would help nobody,” it reads in part. “Therefore it is not on our agenda.”

On the one hand, what the actual fuck?

On the other, why am I not surprised?

I don’t need to impress upon you the gravity of the current global health crisis, the reality of which hit home for Canadians weeks ago, when COVID-19 reached beyond the headlines and into our lives with a ubiquity that is difficult to understate.

But it’s possible, if you’re not an elite athlete, a news junkie, or a diehard fan of the sport, that the enduring, next-level shittiness of the IOC may actually come as a surprise to you. Rest assured, in the world of athletics, a tonedeaf, profit-driven, careless statement like the one Bach made on Sunday is in no way out of the ordinary.

The Olympic Games are terrible. From the needless, wasteful infrastructure projects prerequisite for hosting the games, to the draconian restrictions on sponsorships placed upon athletes during the most profitable windows in their otherwise financially thankless careers, to the IOC’s nauseating coziness with authoritarian regimes and ongoing willingness to turn a blind eye to systemic doping practices, the modern Olympic Games have proven time and again that they value their brand and bottom line far above the environment, athletes, workers and communities that brand is built upon.

None of this is news. For decades, the shamelessness of the IOC has existed in plain sight, its coverage a familiar contrarian drumbeat alongside the breathless inspiration porn churned out by broadcast media in the run up to the Games. And yet somehow, inexplicably, the prestige of the Olympic brand has held. Athletes decry unfair treatment at the hands of the IOC while simultaneously branding their bodies with images of the five rings.

At a certain point, this all has to stop; I would argue that point is now. Our fetishization of the Olympic Games as the “ultimate athletic competition” isn’t just arbitrary, it’s unethical. It’s bad. It’s throwing your lot in with an organization that has, time and again, knowingly placed their own bottom line above the health and well-being of the public.

Athletics offers innumerable alternatives to the Olympic Games in terms of international championship competition: the World Championships, the World Marathon Majors, the Diamond League. Hell, the Olympic marathon is consistently one of the dullest, least exciting championship races there is.

In the same way that we don’t have to indulge a predatory and abusive coach in order to produce great athletes, we don’t have to indulge a predatory and abusive organization in order to celebrate athletic achievement at the highest level.

In refusing to send athletes to the Tokyo Games, the COC and CPC made a good call. A better call would be to turn away from the Olympic Games altogether, and for good this time. Our world, and our athletes, deserve better.

The complicated ethics of rec runners, PEDs and public shaming

It likely isn’t news to many (or any) of you at this point that Newfoundland’s Dave Freake is presently serving a four-year ban for doping violations.

The violation was not, as Freake previously claimed to the CBC, the result of unintended exposure to a prohibited substance by way of an over-the-counter nasal decongestant. Rather, according to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, Freake’s May 26, 2019 in-competition urine sample revealed the presence of ephedrine, recombinant EPO, 2-4-dinitrophenol (DNP) and GW501516, better known as Cardarine. He will be ineligible to compete until October 10, 2023.

I know Dave Freake. I raced alongside him frequently throughout the 2016 year (though to use the word “alongside” is, perhaps, to massively overstate my own athletic ability), and got to know him as a fixture at post-race celebrations, from Ottawa Race Weekend to the St. John’s Tely 10.

Freake is a personality in Canadian running: a stalwart of the online running scene who, until recently, chronicled his training and racing on his blog, as well as through multiple social media channels. In person, he has the open, lighthearted affect typical of an East Coaster, though his effusive familiarity is quickly eclipsed by a barely concealed fabulism. In a charitable light, you could call him a fantasist. 

Which makes this news, while surprising, not entirely jarring.

In distance running, the use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) at the international level is endemic. Aided by crooked coaches, unscrupulous medical professionals and inept, underfunded or corrupt doping control regimes (CCES not among them), elite athletes who use banned substances are able to compete for years without detection. It’s an unfortunate situation which has given rise to widespread cynicism among athletes and fans alike.

So when an athlete’s use of PEDs is exposed, the temptation to join in a public-shaming pile-on is both visceral and deeply understandable. (I know — I’ve done it.) In a sport dogged by invisible, pervasive corruption, here, finally, is a target for our miasmic anger and frustration.

In this case, I’m going to ask you to take a beat and reconsider that very understandable reaction. Stay with me here.

I’m not suggesting that no level of social sanction in the face of deliberate and likely prolonged cheating is appropriate. I would, however, suggest that perhaps what has been uncovered by Freake’s failed urine test is not so much sinister as it is sad.

In addition to testing positive for EPO, a cancer drug commonly used by endurance athletes looking to cheat, Freake’s sample tested positive for DNP, a metabolic rate-boosting compound once used in diet pills. Clinical use of DNP was discontinued in 1938 because of dangerous, often lethal side effects, including cataracts, skin lesions, nausea, vomiting, seizures and fatal hyperthermia. Despite this, DNP’s continued use as a black market weight loss drug has lead to numerous overdose deaths in recent years, including five deaths in the United Kingdom just last year. Health Canada has not approved any drugs or health products containing DNP and does not consider it safe for human consumption at any dose.

Freake also tested positive for Cardarine (sometimes called Endurobol), a pharmaceutical compound first developed in the 1990s, which was abandoned in 2007 after clinical trials showed that the drug lead to rapidly developing cancers in mice and rats. For obvious ethical reasons, there have been no clinical studies on the long-term use and effects of Cardarine in humans.

In other words, Freake — an ostensibly healthy athlete in the prime of his life — was effectively playing Russian roulette, taking dangerous banned substances of dubious benefit to an endurance athlete in pursuit of a handful of minor podium finishes and some free Brooks running gear. The level of disordered reasoning that goes into taking such an extraordinary risk for such a low-stakes return is, above anything else, tragic, and warrants our concern far more than it warrants our scorn.

There are cases that provide us a glimpse into systemic doping practices or pervasive cultures of unethical behaviour within a sports community; I don’t believe this is one of them. Catching a runner at Freake’s level — in the liminal space between an elite international athlete and dedicated rec runner — was an unusual event, but it wasn’t random. Paul Melia, CEO of CCES, told the CBC as much earlier this week, saying that the decision to test Freake was “not completely random, but we don’t get into publicly discussing the different variables that we use to decide the testing.”

To read between the lines: it was a tip-off that lead the CCES to collect an in-competition sample from Freake following the 2019 Ottawa Marathon (a race he notably did not finish). His ban serves as evidence not of a culture of dishonestly in Canadian amateur sport, but of the community’s unwillingness to tolerate such behaviour, even in an athlete of little consequence on the national racing scene.

I write this not as a defence of Freake — he knowingly broke the rules and deserves the ban — but rather, as a defence of the soul of this community. In a sport rife with corruption and cheating, the public pile-on has its place, but this isn’t it. We can have a conversation about doping — even doping at the amateur level — that retains some semblance of caution, reflection, and a sense that perhaps the offending party in some cases might not have the wherewithal to withstand the full brunt of the running community’s online ire. 

Doubtless, Freake’s performances while doping have robbed clean athletes of wins and podium finishes that might have otherwise been the high-points of their amateur careers; for how long this has been the case, we don’t know. Weighing the question of what is a fitting punishment for this transgression, I’ve asked myself what these moments in my own running career are worth to me. How much do I value that first-place finish in my hometown half? What would it mean to have that moment stolen? Is it worth the health, well-being and sanity of a human being in crisis?

Against the Distance: Why Boston 2018 was captivating (and “Breaking 2” wasn’t)


When you run the marathon, you run against the distance — not against the other runners, and not against the time.

Haile Gebrselassie

In my lifetime, there has never been a marathon to equal what was witnessed yesterday on the streets of Boston.

By this, I do not mean that Boston 2018 was the fastest, or the flashiest, or the most competitively stacked. This isn’t about some record-shattering time, some nail-biter duel between lifelong rivals. By any standard, yesterday was a slow day — a brutal day that saw runners contend with freezing rain and a merciless 40km/hour headwind in one of the coldest Boston Marathons on record. It was the kind of weather most marathoners pray they’ll never have to face come race day.

The punishing conditions wiped out more than half of the elite field, including Olympic bronze medallist Deena Kastor, two-time Boston Marathon champion Lelisa Desisa, and American supervillain favourite Galen Rupp. In a race so often and so thoroughly dominated by East African distance runners, only Geoffrey Kiriu and Edna Kiplagat survived to crack the top ten.

Mile by mile, step by step, the elite field dropped like flies.

Into that wet and windy vacuum ran the unlikeliest of athletes: an unsponsored Japanese marathoner with a cult following and a government day-job, and a Michigan-based perennial runner-up who describes herself (that is, until yesterday) as “still searching for that big W”. If a Desiree Linden/Yuki Kawauchi championship wasn’t unlikely enough, consider the relative unknowns who rounded out the women’s podium: American Sarah Sellers, an unsponsored 26-year-old nurse anesthetist from Arizona who, unlike the invited elite field, qualified and paid entry fees in order to run, and Canada’s own Krista DuChene.

The 41-year-old DuChene — a registered dietitian, mother of three, and certified badass — overcame a broken femur (as well as Athletics Canada’s controversially exacting standards) to represent Canada in the 2016 Rio Olympics. But while DuChene has become a household name within the Canadian running community, on the world stage, she’s just another face in the crowd — and the longest of long-shots for a Boston Marathon podium finish.

(A post-race interview with, in which DuChene describes her utter disbelief upon learning she’d finished third, adorably begins with the question “Can you pronounce your last name for me, please?”)

It’s nearly impossible to overstate just how far from ideal Monday’s conditions were. It was a hellish, brutal, messy, and unpredictable race — it was, in the words of Reid Coolsaet, “absolute carnage.”

And it was captivating.

In the age of professionalization, the captivating marathon is an endangered species. As governing bodies and sponsors look with increasingly singular focus to the cold, quantifiable business of records and results, the narrative aspect of the marathon has taken a back seat. The saddest and most singular embodiment of this trend has to be Nike’s “Breaking 2” project — a clinical, controlled 42.2K time trial aimed at breaking the two-hour barrier under the most ridiculous of controlled conditions.

Like most marathoners, I have on occasion found myself defending my sport against the charge that distance running is “boring”. Having followed the sport closely for years, I confidently assert that running is not boring — it’s subtle.

Except time trials. Those are boring.

By now, my whole thing with Nike’s “Breaking 2” stunt is pretty much a matter of public record. The time trial was promoted as a must-watch event, complete with the sort of media hoopla befitting a World Marathon Major. While the project ultimately came up short of breaking the two-hour barrier, it was successful in demonstrating the vulnerability of Dennis Kimetto’s world record under painstakingly engineered (and in no way race-legal) conditions.

It was also overwhelmingly, aggressively boring, in the way that only something so artificial and sanitized can be.

Professionalization has benefited the sport in myriad and significant ways — from improved apparel, gear, and fuelling options to impressive national and world record progressions. But it’s worth remembering that the core of the marathon has nothing much at all to do with world records, or big-name sponsorships, or ugly shoes that give a 77% energy return on the forefoot.

Of this, yesterday’s race was a powerful reminder.

There’s a reason Jon Dunham’s 2007 documentary “Spirit of the Marathon” is so perennially moving and fascinating, 11 years and multiple viewings later; at all levels of competition, the marathon is a dramatic, unpredictable, heart-rending experience. It’s also deeply personal. The stories that make a marathon captivating aren’t told by splits or rankings — they must be seen, be experienced, to be understood.

In my lifetime, there has never been a marathon to equal what was witnessed yesterday on the streets of Boston. The time trial hype men would do well to take notice.

Chase big dreams.


To you (and your dream deferred) 

IMG_19282017 broke my heart twice. First, amid the raucous din of Boylston Street, in the finisher’s chute of the Boston Marathon, a malfunctioning Garmin beeping manically on my wrist. And again, not long after that, on the corner of a quiet residential street in Toronto, orange streetlamps illuminating the last page in a bittersweet love story.

Athletes are supposed to be good at heartbreak, and marathoners especially so. Ours is a sport that demands months upon months of gruelling, thankless preparation. Even then, there’s no guarantee that the gods of illness, injury or fair weather will be on your side come race day.

That’s why resilience, for a distance runner, is utterly essential; in the marathon, as in love, you can do everything right and still get burned. But in 2017, in the wake of an epic heartbreak double-feature, I felt my characteristic marathoner resilience start to falter.

Redemption stories have always captivated me. When you look below the surface, it’s incredible how many dazzling accomplishments owe themselves to a doggedness born out of heartbreak and failure. Perhaps nothing in recent memory comes close to Shalane Flanagan’s historic New York City Marathon win this past November, less than a year after a stress fracture forced her to withdraw from Boston — an epic, untouchable moment of redemption, bought with the pain of an unfortunate setback.

When we talk about heartbreak, this is often how we frame it. We’re a culture that’s comfortable with failure in the narrowest possible sense of the word. Failure is a trope, an origin story. It’s the thing that happens during the opening credits of the movie, the inciting incident setting our hero up for a greater triumph yet to come. There’s precious little room in that narrative for the reality of what heartbreak so often brings — for the paralysis that grows out of self-doubt, for sadness or anger, frustration or fear.

Embrace your setbacks, people tell us; use them as fuel and come back stronger. But what happens when what doesn’t kill you doesn’t really make you stronger?

What happens when failure is just failure?

It’s a question I’ve wrestled with a lot in recent months, a question that’s dogged my road-weary steps through innumerable false starts — through Netflix binges and missed workouts and halfhearted pledges to “get back at it”. What does it mean when you can’t find the silver lining?

For the better part of this year, my running devolved from competitive training into what can only described (shudderingly so, I might add) as “jogging”. Out of shape and out of excuses, I eschewed racing in favour of easy, contemplative runs through the city at night. I fixated endlessly on the contours of my own disappointment, struggling to shape them into something redemptive, something that might pass for inspiration.

Struggling, but not succeeding.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of the unflappable optimist. But there’s a danger in looking at failure exclusively through the prism of redemption.

If we fixate on the silver lining — if we take the unyielding position that every stumbling block has been placed in our path solely to test us, to push us, to make us stronger — we run the risk of devaluing ourselves in the present. Our worth becomes tethered to the moment-to-moment likelihood that we will, in fact, turn things around and come back stronger. But what if we don’t? What if we continue to struggle, stumble and fail?

In the world of distance running, it’s easy to revel in stories of the big, epic comeback: Lanni Marchant’s record-breaking marathon in 2013, shortly after being left off the 2012 Olympic team; Kate Van Buskirk’s banner year on the track, after a devastating spondylarothropathy diagnosis in 2015.

All too often, though, we forget about the stories where crushing defeat goes unavenged. Think Kara Goucher’s heartbreaking fourth-place finish at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, or Rob Watson’s emotional post-race debrief at last year’s London Marathon, after missing the Canadian Olympic standard by more than five minutes. Think of Paula Radcliffe, arguably the greatest marathon runner of all time, whose record-shattering career nevertheless saw her shut out of an Olympic medal of any colour.

We can’t fit these stories into the tidy narrative of failure as an origin story for later success; Radcliffe’s competitive days have ended, and the prospect of a future Olympic berth for either Goucher or Watson looks increasingly unlikely. There will be no big, epic comebacks here — at least, not in the traditional sense.

But there’s a grandeur, an undeniable glory to these endings that goes beyond the prospect of what might lie ahead. There’s greatness in the act of striving for something, a greatness that is not diminished by the dream left unreached, by the barrier left unbroken.

Sometimes there are no silver linings. Sometimes that’s okay.

Resisting the urge to rationalize this year’s disappointments as part of some bigger plan, I have forced myself to look at them, instead, for what they really were: the end result of a series of random, mostly arbitrary events outside of my control. Boston wasn’t great, but it wasn’t for lack of training. My relationship ended, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Give me clear sinuses and cooler weather (and, maybe, better taste in men) and both outcomes might have been entirely different.

The tipping point between success and failure often has nothing to do with us. In a way, that’s a profoundly scary thought, because if our failures ultimately hinge on chance and luck, that means our accomplishments might, too. So we plumb our heartbreaks for lessons that aren’t there, instead of celebrating the nobility of the attempt. But in the end, we’re all at the mercy of the whims of fate.

And so, if you’re like me, and you’ve had a profoundly unlucky year, I’d like to take this moment to celebrate that: to every dream job you didn’t get, every PB you didn’t set, every meet-cute you missed, every spark that failed to fly.

Here’s to quitting (at least you started). Here’s to heartbreak (at least you cared). Here’s to failure (at least you tried). Here’s to you — not your potential, not your goals, not your still-pending comeback.

Here’s to you, right now, just as you are. Silver linings or not.

Chase big dreams.

The Paper Chase: An incomplete history of Olympic cross-country

Ind_cross_country_1924_Summer_OlympicsSomewhere in the past week, you may have noticed a subtle shift: the days are getting shorter, the air is getting cooler, and the leaves, in a few scattered pockets, have begun to turn. And even though the imminent pumpkin-spice-and-blanket-scarf invasion is just about upon us, I can’t help but feel — and I’m sure I’m not alone in this — that it isn’t quite fall until cross-country season begins.

Cross-country was, in many ways, my first love. While track can be characterized by precision — by perfectly-level surfaces and precisely-measured distances — cross-country has always had a certain romantic haphazardness about it. Something about running over raw, unmanicured terrain speaks to a more natural, primal, childlike desire to run. Cross-country, to me, has always felt like the essential iteration of distance running. And perhaps as a result of this, the way in which administrative bodies think about cross-country has long puzzled me.

I was about twelve years old when I developed what has proved to be a particularly enduring indignation about cross-country’s exclusion from the Olympic program. Here was a classic contest of distance running in its purest, most exciting, most unpredictable form, and for some baffling reason it was absent from the most prestigious international athletics competition in the world. How on earth could this be?

As it happens, it hasn’t always been this way.

Cross-country did, in fact, enjoy inclusion on the Olympic program for three consecutive Summer Games, in 1912, 1920, and 1924 (the 1916 Games, originally planned for Berlin, were ultimately cancelled after the outbreak of the First World War). During its brief Olympic tenure, the sport was dominated by Swedish and Finnish athletes; the 1924 Paris Games saw Paavo “the Flying Finn” Nurmi capture gold in a now-infamous race that would ultimately prove to be the death knell for Olympic cross-country.

That ill-fated contest — a 10.6K course run along the ragged banks of the Seine, adjacent to the smokestacks of a nearby chemical plant and in temperatures exceeding 40 degrees celsius — ultimately wiped out more than half of its field of 38 elite distance runners. Of the mere 15 finishers, eight had to be carried away on stretchers. News reports abounded of delirious athletes, stricken with sunstroke, vomiting or falling unconscious; Edvin Wide, a Swedish Olympic medallist and fan favourite, was briefly reported to have died (he didn’t).

Officials beheld the carnage they had wrought and, so the legend goes, immediately struck the discipline from the program of future Games; Olympic cross-country was dead.

With nearly a century’s hindsight, the decision to exclude cross-country from the Olympics feels, at the very least, contestable. Parallels are often drawn between the 1924 men’s cross-country race and the famed 1928 women’s 800m, which was similarly reduced to a spectacle of exhaustion and medical distress. Yet the movement for women’s inclusion in the modern Olympic Games pressed on relatively undaunted. Conversely, whether viewed in terms of distance parity or Olympic inclusion, cross-country remains a discipline comparatively mired in the irrationality of eras long past.

If there is one compelling argument to be made for the exclusion of cross-country from the Summer Olympic program, it is this: cross-country, quite simply, is not a summer sport.

The genesis myth of cross-country’s expulsion from the Olympics leans heavily on tales from the 1924 Paris Games; it was in this dramatic yarn of athletes laid waste that my twelve-year-old self once so confidently formed her indignation at my favoured discipline’s exclusion from the Games. But the essential character of cross-country running is inextricably tied to the season in which it is contested. Cross-country is a fall sport; it is as defined by the unpredictability of autumnal weather — the mud, the rain, the sleet and snow — as it is by rolling hills or inexact distances or spikes caked in leaves and earth.

Recent years have seen a renewed push for adding the discipline to the Winter Olympic Games, with influential voices like Haile Gebrselassie, Kenenisa Bekele, Paul Tergat, and Sebastian Coe leading the charge.

It’s an idea that’s easy to like. Winter Olympic cross-country has the potential to extend interest in the Winter Games to East African nations who might previously have had little-to-no stake in them, while simultaneously expanding the opportunity for Olympic competition for distance runners worldwide; instead of competing in the prestigious championships every four years, distance runners would now have the opportunity for Olympic competition every two.

And yet even this inclusion remains problematic, requiring that the IOC rather liberally massage their existing definition of a Winter Olympic sport — that is, one requiring snow or ice — to accommodate a discipline in which such conditions, while common, are essentially incidental.

And therein lies what has (for me, at least) become the most persuasive argument both for the greatness of cross-country, and for its Olympic exclusion. Cross-country is a maverick discipline — it doesn’t lend itself with ease to categorization, to standardization, or even, it seems, to modernization. It sets itself apart from the modern athletic movement in the myriad ways by which it resists being logically ordered.

It’s a problematic anachronism of athletic endeavour. And in spite of the deeply-felt convictions of twelve-year-old me, I think I might just like it better that way.

Chase big dreams.

For God’s Sake, Stop Burning Your Sneakers

img_0260Yesterday morning, buried in my news feed among alarmist and often distressing Trump-related tweets, I came across a headline that immediately grabbed my attention: “New Balance is the first major sportswear company to publicly back president-elect Donald Trump”.

The article in question was published by Sole Collector, a magazine devoted to all things sneaker. It cited comments from the company’s VP of public affairs, suggesting that the Obama administration had “turned a deaf ear” to the Boston-based brand through its support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and expressing hope that under the new administration “things are going to move in the right direction.”

Lets pause for a moment here.

I will be the first to tell you that this is not a political blog. What I love more than anything else about running is the tremendous capacity it has to unite people who might ostensibly have little in common. By extension of this, my writing has always attempted to eschew the divisive and the political; what interests me are the things that bring us together, not the things that tear us apart.

The recent election has been the most contentious, most divisive political contest I have had the displeasure to witness in my lifetime. By any metric, America appears to be a deeply fractured nation. I am shocked and saddened that a person with so little regard for the values of freedom, democracy, rule of law, and the inherent dignity of all human beings, could be elected to the highest office in the most powerful nation (yes, still) in the world.

This election went beyond the usual business of partisan politics; opposing Mr. Trump’s platform of bigotry, hatred, sexism, racism, and xenophobia has become a moral imperative. But opposing his views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not.

I watched this morning as my social media feed exploded with righteous condemnation of New Balance. Horrified customers declared that they would boycott the brand. Some posted photos of their sneakers, tossed into the trash; others went a step further, and set the shoes on fire.

While I sympathize with the feelings of anger and disgust that underly these actions, I cannot help but feel that they are ultimately misguided, and a waste of valuable energy and resources. A cursory reading of the article itself made it clear that the brand anticipated positive changes with the coming administration with respect to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But for the reactionaries on Twitter, the content was irrelevant; the click-bait headline was enough.

New Balance, with its New England-based factories, has significant interest in protecting the viability of American manufacturing. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-national agreement to reduce trade restrictions, arguably puts that in jeopardy. Though championed by the Obama administration, the TPP has been met with significant bi-partisan opposition. One of its most vocal critics is president-elect Donald Trump; another is Hillary Clinton.

Look, multi-national trade agreements are complicated. The world we live in is complicated. It’s also deeply flawed, and desperately in need of the kind of impassioned moral outrage that sneakerheads and road race junkies showed toward their New Balance kicks yesterday.

But that moral outrage only gets us somewhere if we direct it at the right targets.

You can’t take down a demagogue, or save the world from the spectre of proto-facsism, if you can’t manage to get past an incendiary headline. Politicians have long relied on superficial diversions like these to provide a focal point for public outrage. They’ve relied upon them because, properly mobilized, there is nothing so dangerous to a corrupt regime than an angry and organized populace.

There are so, so many things you can do to fight back against injustice in this world. But setting fire to your shoes isn’t one of them.

Chase big dreams.

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.