Hill Seeker: How struggle makes you strong

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Conventional wisdom holds that favourable circumstances foster favourable outcomes. As a runner, I can’t count the number of times I’ve found myself praying to the racing gods for flat courses, low winds, or mild weather. And while it’s true that circumstance plays a pivotal role in determining performance – whether we’re talking about athletics, academics, or professional success – it’s also worth noting that, counter intuitive though it might seem, there is also tremendous value to be found in the experience of struggle.

This week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Josh Bolton and Lauren Simmons, two inspiring Canadian distance runners, about the struggles and setbacks that have made them strong.

You can read the full story here, on the Canada Running Series blog – and join me for Race Roster Spring Run-Off this April!

Chase big dreams.

Make It Memorable: The marathon wisdom of Wesley Korir

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

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

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

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

Let me explain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One bad week at a time.

Chase big dreams.

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

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Photo credit: Inge Johnson | Canada Running Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chase big dreams.

Hired Guns: A brief history of the pacer

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Any discussion about pacing in distance running is bound to ruffle a few feathers, so let’s start this off with a statement on which we can all agree: Steve Prefontaine was a goddamn legend.

There are few, if any, runners that have attainted status in the sport’s collective psyche quite like Pre. But whether we attribute this universal renown to his undeniable dominance in American collegiate running, or to the ways in which his life so closely interwove itself with the the early lore of Nike, the core of his legend doubtless lies in the way that Pre ran.

Pre was a front-runner, and a relentless one at that. His racing style eschewed tactical running, opting instead to go out aggressively, from the gun, stubbornly refusing to relinquish the lead. “No one will ever win a 5,000 metre by running an easy two miles,” he was quoted as saying. “Not against me.”

What makes Pre remarkable isn’t the fact of his front-running – front-runners are a dime a dozen in this sport – but the fact that he was a front-runner who was actually good. More than good, really. He could talk a big game, run a balls-out race ostensibly devoid of strategy, and still manage to win by a wide margin. There was a romance, and a purity, to his approach to distance running.

It’s easy to love Prefontaine.

But the fact is, most runners are not Prefontaine. Most runners, regardless of talent, grit, and preparation, run better when they run tactical races. They hang in the pack. They respond to the movements of their fellow runners. They draft off of each other, expending a carefully calculated level of effort, and wait patiently for the ideal moment to throw in a surge and drop the competition.

In short, most runners run best with the aid of pacers.

Pacing is a controversial practice in distance running. Heavy-hitters in the sport, individuals and institutions alike, have by turns encouraged and denounced the employment of elite pacers in road racing. This debate has grown increasingly heated in recent years, and reached a boiling point in 2011 with the IAAF’s controversial ruling that it would no longer recognize women’s marathon world records that were set in mixed-gender events.

The decision effectively nullified Paula Radcliffe’s blistering 2:15:25 world record (London Marathon, 2003) in favour of her third-fastest performance of 2:17:42 (again in London, though this run in a female elite field that started 45 minutes ahead of their male counterparts). But while the London Marathon’s separation of the male and female elite fields attempted to generate more compelling coverage of both races, the IAAF contended that their own controversial ruling was designed to address concerns that male pacesetting of female elites conferred upon the women an “unfair advantage”.

And it’s true, the benefits of pacing in distance running are substantial. Over the marathon distance, women run an average of two minutes faster when paced by men – a statistic that IAAF supporters and distance running purists made much of in the heated debate that followed.

Physiologically, it is far easier to run within or just-behind a pack of runners than it is to lead one. And though the advantages of drafting in distance running aren’t quite as pronounced as they might be in a higher-speed sport like cycling, they certainly play a role, especially at the elite level. There’s also a psychological edge to be had in running from behind; most runners would sooner chase their target than be someone else’s.

All of this adds up to a significant advantage in running with a rabbit – though just how significant varies, depending on who you ask. Distance running pop culture has been known to play fast-and-loose with the figures. In the Prefontaine biopic Without Limits, Bill Bowerman memorably explains that “it takes eight percent more energy to lead than to follow” while imploring his prodigy front-runner to modify his signature racing style. Former U.S. and world champion David Krummenacker put the figure even higher, at fifteen percent.

But in any debate over the advantages of pacing (unfair or otherwise) these figures become of critical importance – particularly when the result of said debate has the effect of writing an incontrovertibly dominant record like Paula Radcliffe’s out of the history books.

So just how much of a benefit does drafting confer on a runner? Sweat Science’s Alex Hutchison explored this question, breaking down a 1971 study by physiologist Griffith Pugh (full text can be found here) in which he examined the oxygen consumption of a solo runner in controlled conditions, versus that same runner in the same conditions, this time running one metre behind another runner.

Unsurprisingly, Pugh’s calculations suggest a measurable energy saving from drafting, one which grows progressively more substantial at the higher speeds typical of short- or middle-distance racing. In the marathon, though less palpable, the benefit is certainly still there. Hutchison puts the ballpark figure as running about one second faster per 400m at 2:48/kilometre pace with the same oxygen consumption. “It’s pretty clear that there’s a big energy saving from drafting,” Hutchison concludes.

Haile_Gebrselassie_beim_Berlin-Marathon_2008Numbers aside, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to persuade a distance runner to tuck in behind a rabbit for the early miles of the marathon. When Haile Gebrselassie shattered his own world record at the Berlin Marathon in 2008, he did so with the help of no fewer than four pacers, running behind a veritable wall of marathon talent to bring home a blistering 2:03:59. (Since Geb was over 35 at the time, his now-bested mark still stands as the masters marathon world record.)

But it was Mary Keitany’s 2011 half-marathon performance at the Ras Al Khaimah half-marathon in United Arab Emirates that is rumoured to have raised eyebrows at the IAAF, eventually leading to their controversial women-only ruling. Keitany became the first woman to clock a time under 66 minutes in the half, and set a new world record of 1:05:50, running from gun-to-tape behind a male pacemaker.

The crucial distinction between the use of pacers by Keitany and Gebrselassie, according to the IAAF, is that any of Gebrselassie’s four pacemakers could have decided at any point to stop pacing, and start racing. By virtue of the fact that they are all male, and therefore all in contention for the same placing or records, they are by definition competitors.

The notion of an assigned pacer blazing ahead to victory is unusual, yes, but not entirely unheard of. Paul Pilkington entered the 1994 LA Marathon as a rabbit, only to find the elite field incapable holding his blistering pace. “I did my job by getting out fast, nobody came after me,” Pilkington said in a post-race interview with the LA Times. “I figured as long as I was out there and feeling good, why stop?”

Rather than dropping out at the 25K-mark as planned, Pilkington decided to go for the win, forfeiting his $3,000 payout as a pacer-for-hire, but ultimately pocketing a winner’s purse of more than $15,000. His decision was not well-received by his fellow competitors, but Pilkington insisted that the move was legal. “In every race, the rabbit always has the option of staying in the race,” he explained. Race officials agreed with him.

Mary Keitany’s pacemaker, on the other hand, had no such option. Men and women, though they may compete alongside one another, are not actually racing each other. Keitany’s pacer need not drop out at any point to insure she crosses the finish line first, because he is in contention for neither her placing nor her record. Therefore, Keitany – or any woman running the entirety of a race tucked comfortably behind a male pacer – is given an unfair advantage.

Under the IAAF’s new regulation, women’s times would no longer be eligible for world record consideration if they were run in mixed-gender events. While this precludes the use of assigned male pacemakers, it also removes from consideration any event in which the men’s and women’s elite fields start together, even in cases when female elites only use assigned female pacesetters.

While the ruling places the IAAF squarely in the camp of the distance running purists, who regard elite pacemaking as fundamentally unsportsmanlike, other major institutions have stood in staunch opposition. The ruling was contested by both the World Marathon Majors, as well as the Association of International Marathons. Together they issued a joint statement calling the IAAF regulations confusing, unfair, and not representative of the history of the sport.

paula-radcliffe-london-skyline-history-stands-t-shirt_3397933The ensuing controversy extended far beyond the ire of the World Marathon Majors, igniting a social media firestorm, and garnering public criticism from marathon heavy-hitters like Deena Kastor and Kara Goucher. Radcliffe, for her part, appealed to the IAAF to revisit their decision, while her sponsor Nike mounted an advertising campaign imploring the federation to “let history stand”.

Following a council meeting in November of 2011, it appeared that the IAAF was prepared to kowtow, at least in part, to mounting external pressure. It issued a clarification stating that the new regulation would not be applied retroactively, but only to those records set going forward. Radcliffe’s 2:15 mark would be allowed to stand.

Although the World Marathon Majors disputed the ruling as it relates to world record consideration, race organizers for the Majors remain divided on the use of pacers in their own races. Both the Boston and New York City marathons do not allow elites to run with assigned pacers, a rule that the Chicago Marathon also adopted this past year. The Berlin Marathon, on the other hand, is famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) for using teams of pacesetters to pull the elite field along to breakneck finish times. And not without reason; out of the last ten marathon world records, seven have been set at the Berlin Marathon.

For all its attendant controversy, elite pacemaking is hardly anything new. The annals of athletic history are littered with stories of these mercenaries of distance running. In fact, pacemaking played a pivotal role in what is arguably the most mythologized moment in distance running history – Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile.

Sir Christopher Chataway dies aged 82When Bannister clocked the first sub-four-minute mile at Iffley Road Stadium in 1954, he did so with the help of not one but two pacemakers, Chris Chataway and Chris Brasher. Bannister’s use of pacers to break the elusive four-minute barrier reportedly miffed his long-time rival, Australian John Landy, who regarded the use of pacers as contrary to the spirit of competition. But Bannister’s world record ultimately failed to ruffle feathers in the athletics community the way that Mary Keitany’s half-marathon record did some 57 years later, in part due to the fact that Landy managed to better Bannister’s mark less than two months later.

The problem with pacing is that, at it’s very core, the practice is impossible to fully regulate. One might object to the employment of formal, assigned pacemakers, but in their absence, the line between tactical racing and informal pacemaking – one teammate pacing another to within striking distance of a goal time, the sacrificial lamb on the altar of calculated splits – begins to blur.

Athletic performance will always depend, at least in part on the performance of one’s competitors – on the pace of the pack, and the variable willingness of one runner or another to take the lead. And yes, there will always be the staunch purists who, like Prefontaine, regard tactical drafting as something akin to a less-than-honest race effort.

But like it or not, pacing – both the physiological advantage of drafting and the psychological relief of mentally “checking out” for a few miles – is a part of distance running. The question that the IAAF, and the athletics community more broadly, is trying to answer with attempts to regulate pacesetting is – how much should it be?

Interestingly, there is an argument to be made that mixed-gender pacing actually confers a slight disadvantage on female elites, compared to their male counterparts. Male rabbits pacing male elites typically run directly ahead of their charges – see Gebrselassie’s 2008 performance in Berlin – cutting the headwinds and allowing the athletes to mentally “check out” for large parts of the race.

But pacesetter contracts for female elites often prohibit male rabbits from running out in front, to avoid their appearing in televised coverage of the women’s race – effectively negating any of the benefits of cutting the wind. Which throws into question the notion, so central to the IAAF’s regulations on pacing, of whether female elites paced by men really do have an unfair advantage at all. Does the benefit of side-by-side accompaniment over 25 miles really outweigh that of ducking behind a wind barrier for 20?

This off-to-the-side pacer stipulation may not be characteristic of all pacing contracts, but it has certainly been a salient factor where the women’s world record is concerned. It was certainly the case for pacer Weldon Johnson, who escorted Paula Radcliffe through 25 miles of the Chicago Marathon in 2002, where Radcliffe set her first world record. Rather than leading Radcliffe, Johnson ran alongside her, following her lead as she knocked off splits far quicker than the pre-race agreed-upon pace. “I very consciously ran alongside (him) rather than ever behind,” Radcliffe later recalled.

With Radcliffe fighting wind resistance and hitting her splits relatively unaided, one is tempted to ask what, exactly, was the benefit of running with a pacer at all? Johnson puts it down to camaraderie. “Twenty-six miles by yourself can be very hard,” he says.

And therein lies the critical challenge posed by the IAAF mixed-gender pacing rule; women in the marathon – and especially at the elite level – are relatively thin on the ground. The depth of field for women’s marathon running pales in comparison to the men’s, and the resulting dearth of both female pacers and competitors means that any woman wishing to chase after Radcliffe’s mark must either run with the boys, or go it alone.

The arrangement, disadvantageous though it might be, is not entirely unwelcome among leaders in the women’s running community. Kathrine Switzer, who famously outran the ire of race director Jock Semple in 1967 as the first woman to officially compete in the Boston Marathon, likens the situation to the subsequent struggle to establish a women’s Olympic marathon. Throughout the late 1970s and early 80s, Switzer helped to organize women’s-only marathons in response to the IOC’s refusal to recognize performances by women in mixed-gender competition.

“I felt very strongly, and I still do, that women need the challenge and the forum to accept the responsibility to run a race on their own,” she explained.

Just how swiftly the reigning women’s marathon elite will rise to this new challenge remains to be seen.

Chase big dreams.

I Can’t Feel My Face When I’m With You: A love song for winter running


It’s minus nine degrees today; it feels like minus seventeen with the wind chill. It’s bitter cold, and everywhere you look, people are bundled up in layers, faces shielded against the chill, warm breath visible in little white clouds against the frigid January air. The city streets seem empty this time of year, even at rush hour. The waterfront especially, so often choked with crowds in the languid summer heat, is a veritable ghost town.

Winter in Toronto is all about taking shelter – in the Subway, in the Path, in coffee shops and cozy pubs and movie theatres. We rush through our sunless morning commutes, then rush home again in the twilight of late afternoon. But while the rest of the city shuns the icy outdoors in patient anticipation of spring, there remain a mad few who can be seen braving the bitter chill day-in and day-out.

I’m talking, of course, about the winter runner.

There’s a certain pride that runners seem to take in being called crazy. As in, “You ran twenty-three kilometers? For fun?! You’re crazy!” The incredulity of non-runners is, it seems, the sincerest form of flattery. And when it comes to crazy, there’s none crazier than the die-hard winter runner.

It’s not hard to understand why so many people view winter running as a chore, as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. When I get home at the end of the day, the five-minute walk from the Subway to my apartment is more than enough to convince me that fleece pyjama pants and Netflix, not mileage, should be the order of the evening.

But the truth is, I love winter running.

If you’re staring skeptically at that last statement, I should tell you that I’m not what you might call an “outdoorsy” person. I’m not some prim, nature-fearing city girl, but I’m definitely emotionally dependent on access to a shower and a decent mattress. Camping is my idea of hell.

And winter running? It’s heaven.

At face value, running in the summer seems like the better choice. But in the city, that’s not always (or even often) the case. Summer in the city means throngs of people, sidewalk congestion, crowds to dodge. It means breathing unpleasant gulps of smog, cigarette smoke, and exhaust fumes from passing busses. It means running in oppressively high temperatures, when even after sunset, the concrete below seems to hold in the heat like a thermos.

And yes, there are bad days in the winter, too. There are blizzards and ice storms and polar vortexes that tempt me to stay indoors and hibernate until April. But on balance, I have far more good days in the winter than I do in summer.

In winter, the city belongs to me. The deserted streets and empty trails lend themselves easily to the quiet solace of a long run. I have my favourite routes all to myself. Under a blanket of fresh snow, the constant din of Toronto traffic is muffled, calmed even. In a city of two-and-a-half million people, it’s the closest thing you can get to time on your own.

I love winter running in the city. But I still struggle to get out the door most days. On an especially cold day, the first five minutes of any run can be awful. The best trick I’ve found for getting out the door is to give myself permission to run less than I need to. If my planned route should be fifteen kilometres, I tell myself I’ll only run five. It’s a lot easier to get out there knowing it might only be for twenty minutes. Invariably, after the first few kilometers, I’m warmed up and comfortable enough to go the actual distance.

On stormy winter evenings, I strongly recommend running with music. Listening to a Justin Bieber album in its entirety might make you feel a bit weird about yourself as an adult human being, but it beats the hell out of listening to the wind howl.

Dress for the weather. By which I mean, dress one layer warmer than what you think you need. Remember, you can always shed your layers en route, but there’s nothing quite like the unpleasantness of an otherwise great run spoiled by the sensation that your legs are slowly succumbing to frostbite. One of the most underrated perks of the deserted streets of winter is that you can stash a headband, jacket, or pair of gloves somewhere along your route and be reasonably confident that it will still be there for you to pick up on the way back.

On the best days, a winter run can make you feel invincible. There you are, all alone, out in the dark, impervious to the bitter cold and icy roads, doing something other people simply will not or cannot do. It goes right to the core of our sport, to the essential spirit of distance running – that desire to conquer a seemingly impossible task for no other reason than to prove that we can.

On a bad day, the sub-zero temperatures can be an unexpected motivator. In summer, the temptation to cut a bad run short and walk the last few kilometers home can be strong, especially when your route traces some of the city’s more picturesque parks and trails. In winter, there’s no such option. Once you’re out there, miles from home in the freezing cold, the only way back is to do what you set out to do, and run.

If you want to forge that special brand of mental toughness needed to do something crazy, like run a marathon, you need to get comfortable doing something equally crazy, like running twenty kilometers in sub-twenty-degree temperatures.

I’ve thrown this adage around before, but in a discussion of winter running, it bears repeating; if you’re going through hell, keep going.

Chase big dreams.

This Time Last Year

I’m gonna start this one off with a great big, extremely uncool admission: I make New Year’s resolutions. And I don’t mean the sort of ironic, detached resolutions like “floss more” or “remember to fill up the Brita before a night of drinking” – I mean the borderline-embarrassing, overly-earnest kind of resolutions. The stuff that self-help books are made of.

I’ve always found other people’s New Year’s resolutions particularly cringe-worthy, which might sound a little strange, coming from a habitual resolution-maker. But I’m not alone in my casual disdain for public commitments to self-improvement. The “new year, new me” proclamations we’re treated to over social media every January feel infinitely mockable, in part because the brutal self-assessment that underscores any really worthwhile resolution tends to betray our most deeply held status anxieties.

Truly earnest resolutions – goals like “lose weight” or “earn a promotion” or “get better at managing money” – strip us down to the shortcomings we feel most devalue us as human beings. New Year’s resolutions are confessional statements; they expose your internalized sense of self, along with your often-absurd ideas about how if you could just be thinner, or richer, or more outgoing, or successful, you would be happy.

Which brings me to this time last year, and my own resolutions for 2015.

Looking backwards through space and time, at the me of one year ago, the word unhappy doesn’t really fit. Lost might be a fairer assessment. Because in my day-to-day, I was happy, surrounded by wonderful people and free of any immediate stress or burden. But there was a larger spectre quietly dogging my steps, something akin to existential dread. Let me explain:

My early twenties were over. The carefree college years, when it felt like I had all the time in the world to figure out my future, had quietly slipped by. Suddenly I was surrounded by friends with careers, families, marriages, mortgages – all the trappings of a grown-up existence that I wanted, sure, in an abstract sort of way, but that I’d never really properly gone after.

My own life looked and felt as though it had fallen together by accident. I hated my job. What had started as a stop-gap solution, a means to pay the bills, had become increasingly difficult to walk away from. I felt stuck in the relative comfort that comes with seniority, raises, promotions, benefits – so what if I didn’t like the work? I’d be stupid to walk away, right?

My marathon debut the year before had been a demoralizing experience. As it turned out, I wasn’t the great marathoner I’d thought I could be. And the progress I’d been making to complete my Bachelor’s degree had stalled. I struggled with school, and my experiences in post-secondary didn’t exactly foster academic self-confidence.

All of these things, on their own, were just fine, but in combination, made me feel increasingly inadequate. So that by late December of 2014, a sort of paralyzing fear had crept in: maybe this is it for me.

Maybe I’m not going to reach my potential, or realize my dreams.

Maybe this is all there is.

And so my New Year’s resolutions for 2015 were big ones; so big, in fact, that they almost frightened me to say out loud. I was going to quit my job. I was going to redeem myself in the marathon. And I was going to go back to school.

2015 was a breakthrough year for me, but it didn’t happen all at once. I didn’t wake up on January 1st, ready to take on every challenge that scared me. I struggled, and worried, and stressed, and cried. I went back to school, and came up against the same challenges and limitations as before. But I kept going, in part because I was surrounded by people who supported me, who made room for me to fail, and then to try again. Never underestimate the value of these kinds of people.

It was nearly halfway through the year, in the high heat of summer, when my frustration with my job finally reached a breaking point. I made a rash decision; I quit without a plan. For three years, this job had been my safety net, and I’d clung to it reluctantly because I lacked both the confidence and the clarity necessary to go after what I really wanted. When I gave in my notice, I was terrified. I felt as though I was free-falling without a parachute. But I kept telling myself over and over again: it’s going to be fine. When has it ever not been fine?

It actually got a little worse before it got better. But it did get better.

I found a new job, a wonderful new job as it turns out. After a great deal of stressed-out studying and hand-wringing, I managed to pass my courses. And through all of this, marathon training went from feeling like a chore to feeling like therapy. Running was my rock. My coach became like a spiritual guide.

I’ve always thought of epiphanies as a kind of hackneyed Hollywood cliché. Real moments of clarity aren’t made in a split-second – they come from the sort of slow-simmering introspection that gradually resolves itself into a clear direction. And I guess, when you think about it, my 2015 started off with a good six months of the slow-simmering stuff, even if I didn’t realise it at the time. But when the long-overdue clarity came, it came in an instant. Right in the middle of all the pain, all the worry, all the stress, all the work, suddenly everything was clear.

C.S. Lewis talks about pain and hardship as “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Whether or not you identify with the religious element of that statement (and this is something I go back-and-forth on quite a bit), I think that’s true. This year was not easy on me; at times, it was downright painful. But what emerged from the pain was that sense of purpose and direction that had been so sorely lacking in my life.

We aren’t born with purpose. We grow it, and the growing takes time. This time last year, I didn’t know what I wanted in life; all I knew was that I didn’t want to be where I was. That vague sense of unease was the first in a series of growing pains this past year, calling attention to a state of affairs in my life that I knew was not quite right.

So yeah, New Year’s resolutions are embarrassing confessional statements, sure. They’re statements about our shortcomings, and our unrealised potential. But they matter. It’s hard to take a good, honest look inside your life and face-up to what you could do better. It’s harder still to act on what you find when you look there. But it beats the hell out of looking back on another year gone by, and feeling like your life has stalled.

I’m happy I made those great big, embarrassing resolutions last year. Because 2015 was the year everything changed…

Chase big dreams.

The Lost Miles: Distance running, flow states, and the key to happiness

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This week, I laced up and hit the roads again after a few solid weeks off from running (and, as you may have noticed, from writing). In years past, I’ve always adhered to a strict regimen of complete rest at the end of my season, but this year I toyed with the idea of running continuously post-marathon.

If my cross-country season is any indication, the idea turned out to be a bit of a flop. But it wasn’t a crazy thing to try: lots of great runners, my coach included, eschew complete rest in favour of a lighter day-to-day training period to recover after goal races. It’s one of those funny things in distance running that works for some athletes, and against others.

My own need for a period of complete rest wasn’t so much underscored in my cross-country race performances as it was in my easy training runs. I love running. But in the weeks that followed my fall marathon, I kind of hated it.

Running is much more than a workout for me; it’s an exercise in the maintenance of my mental well-being. A few short minutes into my run, the world around me starts to melt away. The frenetic mental processes that run at full-volume in the front of my mind for the better part of any day start to slide, very slowly, to the back of my brain. I begin thinking in a quieter, almost dreamlike state. I can lose minutes to this sort of solitary focus; on a good run, I can lose miles.

It’s an experience not unlike meditation, or even prayer.

I’m far from the first distance runner to make this observation. Boston Marathon champ Wesley Korir has spoken at length about the connection between his spirituality and his running. And this quiet, meditative state has as much to do with mental well-being as it does with performance. Just ask Canadian elite marathoner Krista Duchene, who’s advice about learning to “switch off” while racing the marathon was the difference between success and failure in my own October race.

In the day-to-day, getting “in the zone” on a mileage run can be extraordinarily useful. In psychology, this is called a flow state. Flow is a completely focused, single-minded immersion in an intrinsically rewarding task. Our emotions and impulses become channeled and contained. While the experience of flow is overwhelmingly satisfying and positive, it involves the sort of deep focus on nothing but the task at hand, wherein our emotions and even ourselves slip quietly away.

Positive psychology has recently begun to take a more in-depth look at flow states and the impact of their experience. Positive psychology is the branch of psychology concerned with the achievement of happiness and satisfaction in life, rather than on the treatment of mental illness. To put it in short, extraordinarily reductive terms, positive psychology is far more concerned with what makes people happy, rather than what makes them unhappy.

People who experience flow on a regular basis tend to report a higher overall level of happiness and satisfaction in their lives. They also appear to be more resilient in the face of difficulty or adversity. Which might explain why you so often hear runners say things like “my workout is the most relaxing part of my day” or “running is my therapy.”

Running has carried me through some tough times. It’s a comfort to know that, no matter what’s going on around me, I can always bet that 7K into a mileage run, everything will look brighter. Which is precisely why I was so resistant to taking time off this year.

In my post-marathon mileage, my body had technically “recovered” – I wasn’t dogged by any major injury or ongoing issue. But I felt run-down and worn out. I couldn’t get lost in my running and let my mind go blank, because I was too preoccupied by everything that didn’t feel quite right. Normally when I run, it feels like my mind is floating somewhere outside myself, hovering nearby in a sort of half-realized transcendence. In those weeks after the race, though, my mind was in my feet. Ask any marathoner: that’s not a place you want to be.

A few days ago, I laced up my shoes and hit the roads after just over two weeks of rest. It was evening: the sun had gone down, and though it was raining, the unseasonably warm December air was still and pleasant. I felt my mind go blank as my body slipped into that old, familiar rhythm. I ran past cars, past houses, past parks obscured in darkness, past the twinkling skyline of a city that’s never quiet, not even at night. I lost seconds, then minutes, then whole blocks. The miles slipped away.

Crossing the bridge that leads from Rosedale into St. James Town, it felt like I was flying – a feeling of total freedom and ability, and one I haven’t felt since the marathon.

There is nothing quite like two weeks off to make you appreciate what a gift it is to be able to run. So here’s to the holidays, to the year ahead, and to the lucky ones who’ll spend it chasing down those transcendental moments, and making something truly beautiful when they run.

Chase big dreams.