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


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.

The astronaut’s guide to a tough race on earth


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That didn’t last long.

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

The thing is, I wasn’t.

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

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

The thing is, the universe is fair.

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

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

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

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

Chase big dreams.

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


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

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

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

“Can you teach me how to run?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you have a body, you are an athlete.

Chase big dreams.

War, peace, and the four-minute mile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, they are what gives value to survival.

Chase big dreams.

Running Uphill: The unexpected perks of being an underdog

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

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

The thing is, it’s been a while.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chief among them, the concept of desirable difficulty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chase big dreams.

Running into NTRC

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

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

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

Tonight, I got that feeling back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chase big dreams.

Anatomy of a Training Journal

12106153_420127394860165_1258527820_n(1)This lovely, lazy Sunday marks one week post-marathon. The leaves are dropping, the days are getting shorter, and I’m getting my legs back under me. And even though I still have a few just-for-fun fall races on the horizon, I am starting to settle into the groove of easy running that marks the off-season.

With my big race effort in the rear view, now is the perfect time to set goals and plan for the year ahead. The marathon gave me a good sense not only of where I am, fitness-wise, but also where I’m headed.

I’ve always been a big believer in writing things down. Any goal, no matter how big or small, somehow becomes a little more attainable once I put pen to paper. I’ve kept some form of a journal since I was thirteen years old, and over the years I’ve found that most of my bigger questions are usually answered somewhere between the lines of all those mundane, day-to-day details.

Writing down goals helps to point me in the right direction; journaling helps me stay on course. So I figure now is as good a time as any to start a proper training journal.

unnamedThere are a lot of great options out there if you’re in the market for a training journal. My roommate Ashley Comstock has had some pretty spectacular breakthroughs in her running this year. She loves the Believe training journal, created by two world-class runners (Lauren Fleshman and Roisin McGettigan-Dumas) to help other women chase after their athletic dreams.

Me, I took a slightly less structured approach, and went the DIY-route with my training journal. A spiral-bound notebook, some colourful pens, a few choice doodles and I’m ready to go! The appeal of a blank notebook for me is that I can chronicle my training in a more free-form fashion – with the added bonus that the whole setup only cost me three bucks!

But whether you’re following a structured journal or just jotting down workouts on bits of scrap paper, there are a few key elements you should be sure to touch on.

1. Your long-term, ultimate goal.

Use the SMART goal-setting method; your goal should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound. In my case, my ultimate goal is a strong performance at Boston in 2017. Based on my race last weekend, I selected a goal finishing time that I believe is attainable for me as a runner by that time. Once I’ve established my ultimate goal, I work backwards to determine…

2. Short-term, achievable goals.

I broke my 2016 training into two phases, with several smaller racing goals within each phase. Some of the races I selected as serious challenges, while others were picked purely because they’re fun, or because I have friends who will be running them with me. In each phase, I tried to balance the serious with the fun, to avoid feeling too run-down.

3. A racing schedule.

Plot all your races out on a calendar so that you can visualize the coming season. I would also add in any major events that might get in the way of training – things like holidays, weddings, moving, or anything else that might disrupt you usual routine.

4. A detailed weekly log.

Yes, you want to record your workouts and mileage, but it’s also important to take stock of things like the weather, any injuries you’ve been dealing with, your mental state, the time of day or route that you ran, and whether you ran alone or with company. One of the things I learned from my previous training log is that I don’t do well on long runs with other people, but I seem to thrive when doing them solo. Journaling can help you to know yourself, and set you up for success when planning your weekly training.

5. Inspiration.

Let’s face it – running can be a grind sometimes. So I like to add in little bits of motivation to help me on the tougher days. Your training journal, like your training itself, should be personal and unique to you. Fill the pages with things that give you hope and help you to believe in yourself.

And don’t be afraid to record your doubts and fears, too; when we put our anxieties into words, when we give our fears a name, we rob them of their power over us. Remember, running isn’t about being superhuman, but about how we persevere in the face of our own human frailty. So go ahead and put the whole story down on paper. I promise you, you’ll be glad you did.

Chase big dreams.

The War of Attrition: One marathon of a race recap

slides15_congratsrunnersSix months ago, partly by fluke and partly due to my ever-growing social media addiction, I had the good fortune of being selected for the Digital Champions team for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I had been on the fence about running another marathon; my debut marathon (at Scotia, the year before) could more accurately be referred to as a death march. I didn’t run my first marathon in 2014; I survived it.

I love long runs. I can lace up my shoes and get lost out there for hours. In training, the miles never wear me down – they just melt away. As a result, I had always thought the marathon was going to be my distance. But at Scotia 2014, it gutted me, and the idea of lining up for a redemption marathon became terrifying.

When I applied to be a Digital Champion for Canada Running Series, I thought I was letting fate decide. I reasoned that if they picked me, it was a sign. If they pick me, I’ll run.

They did.

11324212_914700058592827_335736508_nTerrified, but feeling I was in no position to argue with the whims of fate, I enlisted the coaching of the best runner I know: my dad. Vince Friel has been a dedicated distance runner for the better part of my life. He’s represented Canada in the World Masters Track and Field Championships, clocked a 4:02 1500m, and run under three hours in the marathon.

But more importantly, he raised me, and is intimately acquainted with the fact that I am (to put it bluntly) a massive wuss. I have a fragile little ego that doesn’t respond well to “tough love” coaching. I can’t be pushed to face a challenge; I need coaxing, encouragement, and positive vibes. And my dad is one of the most ridiculously positive people I know.

Armed with the Coach Vince training plan, I’ve spent the last six months preparing for October 18th. My easy runs became easier, my long runs longer, and my speed work… existent. Apparently if you want to run fast, you have to practice running fast. Who knew?

With Coach Vince adding structure and accountability to my training, the workouts began to feel increasingly comfortable. In the final few weeks leading up to the race, he had me running tempo runs at marathon pace, and to my surprise, they rolled right off my back.

1743748_377331395768072_6768686855622296579_nBut I hadn’t survived the marathon death march of 2014 without learning a thing or two. It wasn’t enough to be well-trained: I knew I would need a racing plan. For that, Vince reached out to one of Canada’s best marathon coaches, Timo Uuksulainen. Timo is one of the founding members of the Longboat Roadrunners, and used to run with my Grandpa Jack Friel back in Jack’s marathon glory days.

“The marathon is a race about attrition,” says Uuksulainen. “It’s not about who speeds up the most, but who slows down the least. So I would try and run the first 10-15 km with the least amount of effort, while remaining close to the time you want. You can work your way to that pace. You want to be on pace no later than 15 km, and then lock in and just try and stay relaxed and focused while knocking off those splits. As the race progresses, the effort to hold that pace will start to increase incrementally over the final 45 minutes, so be prepared to dig in and work.”

My strategy was simple: I was going out there to run three consecutive 10K tempo runs. I was going to stay on pace until 30K, after which point I had permission to race as I pleased.

I will tell you this much: staying locked into my planned 4:42/km pace from the gun was not easy. In the first two kilometers, it felt as though the entire red corral passed me. I felt like I was going way too slow – until I ran through the 1K marker and caught my first split: 4:21. Way too fast. I resolved to tuck in and run easy, clearing the next few K-markers right on pace.

When I hit the 10K mark, I stopped my watch, re-set it, and started again from zero. This idea came from an interview I had read with Canadian record holder Lanni Marchant, when she talked about taking the marathon 10K at a time. After the pain of last year, I couldn’t face up to running the full 42.2K distance, and in my mind, I wasn’t; this was just another 10K tempo run. Just like in training.

The first 20K breezed by; between the neighborhood cheering squads out there on the course and the excitement of watching the elites blow by at the turn-around points, I was able to stay on pace and keep my mind off of the miles to go. When we reached the bottom of Bay Street, and the half-marathoners split off to run for their finish line, something incredible was waiting for us: the Parkdale Roadrunners cheer squad.

12120268_125027967854344_949006577_n(1)There’s a special place in my heart for the people who come out to watch marathons. It’s a thankless spectator sport, and yet there they are, lining the streets in the freezing cold, shouting encouragement at a stranger. The cheering stations on the Toronto course are always amazing, but let me tell you, that Parkdale Roadrunners cheer squad was something to behold. Running through a vortex of screaming, cheering, cow-bell-ringing crazies, holding hilarious signs and throwing confetti, I felt like I was an elite running in a World Marathon Major. It was some serious, next-level awesomeness.

I had expected to come through the halfway mark just north of 1:39; a small PB for me, but not entirely unexpected, given how infrequent and under-prepared my half-marathon attempts have been this year. I ended up clearing it in 1:37:53. I was excited (especially since, thanks to the Real Time Run Tracker, I knew my family at home would catch my split), but also vaguely worried.

In the marathon, you can bank effort, but you can’t bank time; running faster than your goal pace early in the game is only going to cost you twofold on the back end. I learned this the hard way last year, and was not about to make the same mistake again. So I tucked in and resolved to run easy up and down the “pretzel” section of the course on Bayview Drive.

When I hit the 30K marker, I once again re-set my watch. The tempo runs were over! This was the point in the race that I had been pacing myself for – after 30K, I had given myself permission to start racing. Only now, I didn’t want to.

Timo was right: the 4:42/K pace, which had felt easy, almost pedestrian in the early kilometers, was beginning to take some effort. My body was holding up, but mentally I felt fatigued. I was no longer in the frame of mind to race. So I did the only thing I could think to do: I started my watch again and zero, and tucked in for another 10K tempo. Just like in training.

2015-05-24 | 2015 Toronto Women's Half Marathon/5kMy left foot was the first to go. My right quad started to ache; the left one quickly followed. At 34K, my core was shot. At 36, my neck sort of rolled back on my shoulders, and my head started bobbing with every step. I must have looked ridiculous. Actually, I’ve seen my race photos, so I know I looked ridiculous. With every kilometer, the effort needed to sustain my pace seemed to double.

But something incredible was happening: I was holding the pace.

I was hurting. I was fighting. I was running like some kind of demented marathon zombie, and I think at some point I might have peed a little. But I was holding on. Somewhere in all those months of training, something deep within my physiology had shifted, and I realized that this course, which had gutted me the year before, just couldn’t break me anymore.

By the time I hit 40K, I couldn’t make sense of my splits anymore. My body had given out, bit by bit, and now my mind was starting to go. I vaguely registered the 3:08-something on the clock, and knew I was within the Boston Qualifier window, but I didn’t trust my body to hold out over the next 2K. Nothing was certain until I crossed that finish line.

At the flatiron building, my sister Alex and roommate Ashley, both amazing runners in their own right, cheered me past. Ashley screamed something at me about 3:19, and I was elated. If I was at 3:19 right now, that means I’d bring it home somewhere in the low-3:20s.

The run up Bay Street in that final stretch to the finish was a vortex of screaming, cheering, electrifying loveliness. One of the coolest features of the Toronto Marathon is the slight bend in the road about fifteen feet from the finish line, which obscures the finish clock from view until right before you cross. As I rounded the bend, I realized that Ashley hadn’t been shouting my time at me – she was shouting my projected time.

12144025_983537711718495_885969964_nI crossed the line in 3:18:33 – a PB of more than 20 minutes, a Boston Qualifier, but most importantly, a race effort I could be proud of. I started to cry in the finishing chute, which seriously creeped out a lot of the race volunteers. I couldn’t help it – like I said, I’m a giant wuss.

It’s not often you get the opportunity to go back and rewrite your past mistakes, but it feels like that’s exactly what I did on Sunday. The 2014 marathon defeated me in every way possible – mentally, physically, and emotionally. In 2014, I ran out of my depth, without a plan, without proper training, and I ended up broken. In 2014, I gave up.

This year, I came prepared. I trained hard, ran a controlled race with a clear strategy, and didn’t let my ego get in the way. And more than that, I had fun. Even when I was hurting over those last few miles, I really was having the time of my life.

boston-marathon-finish-lineIt’s going to be a while before I return to the marathon. Boston 2017 is on my horizon, and until then, I’ve resolved to focus on the short stuff. But I’m happy knowing I was able to make such a positive memory with the marathon distance. I’ve always known that I was born to run the marathon. Last year made me doubt all that, but after Sunday, I feel like I’ve finally managed a passing grade in Marathon Theory 1000.

Second time lucky, I guess.

Chase big dreams.

Running down Rio: Why Lanni Marchant’s Olympic qualifier matters

ath-marathon18sp1If you were lucky enough to be in Toronto yesterday morning, then you cannot have missed the electrifying excitement that is the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. The flagship event of the Canada Running Series, the marathon has distinguished itself as Canada’s biggest and most prestigious race weekend. And while the home-grown competition at Scotiabank Toronto is always of a high caliber, this year saw Canadians Eric Gillis and Lanni Marchant running for the 2016 Olympic standards on the notoriously flat and fast course.

Two-time Olympian Eric Gillis famously ran his 2012 London Olympic qualifier at Scotiabank four years earlier, squeaking under the 2:11:29 standard by a margin of just one second. He finished yesterday’s marathon in a less nail-biting fashion, with a time that was more than a minute under the more relaxed 2:12:50 standard, qualifying for his third Olympic games in Rio 2016.

Gillis now joins Speed River training partner Reid Coolsaet on the list of Canadian men with a Rio-qualifying time on the books. But while Rio represents yet another Olympic games for both Coolsaet and Gillis, the real story in yesterday’s marathon was a Rio-qualifier for Lanni Marchant.

Marchant, who shattered Sylvia Ruegger’s 28-year-old Canadian marathon record on the Scotiabank course two years earlier, ran a 2:28:09, just a few seconds shy of her own Canadian record, but comfortably under the 2:29:50 qualifying standard for the 2016 Games.

That Marchant was able to bring home a 2:28:09 marathon yesterday morning isn’t especially jaw-dropping, given her past strong performances. What is noteworthy is that both Marchant and fellow Canadian marathoner Krista Duchene are now set to become the first women to represent Canada in an Olympic marathon in two decades.

Both women had achieved the IAAF qualifying standard for the 2012 London Olympic Games, but fell short of the more rigorous “A” standard required by Athletics Canada. Marchant and Duchene petitioned to be named to the Olympic team under the Athletics Canada  “rising star” provision, but both their petition and subsequent appeal were denied.

As a result, Canada went unrepresented in the 2012 women’s Olympic Marathon; just over a year later, Marchant shattered the long-standing Canadian record with a blistering 2:28:00 finish at Scotiabank Toronto, with Duchene hot on her heels in 2:28:32.

That Marchant and Duchene are now poised to represent Canada at the Olympic level is no small thing. Though the Canadian men’s marathon elite have enjoyed representation on the world stage in decades past, the women’s marathon has been consistently brushed aside. But in the three-plus years since she was left off the London 2012 team, Marchant has proven time and again that she is a world-class athlete who belongs on the world stage. After running to a strong 4th-place finish in the 2014 Commonwealth Games marathon, the Canadian went on to win bronze on home soil in the Pan Am Games 10,000m.

Fielding a strong pair of female marathoners in the first Olympic Games since Atlanta 1996 marks a turning point for women’s distance running in this country. And with even more rising stars, including Natasha Wodak, Rachel Hannah, and Natasha LaBeaud clocking world-class marathon times, it’s beginning to look as though Marchant and Duchene have lead the charge in the resurgence of the Canadian women’s marathon.

“It was disappointing not being selected to the (London 2012) team, but it helped motivate us,” Marchant says. “Hopefully this lays the groundwork for girls who come after us, so things might be different.”

If yesterday’s result is any indication, the revolution has only just begun.

Chase big dreams.

The Ten Commandments of Race Week

It’s that time of year again, folks. The days are getting shorter, leaves are changing colour, and there’s an undeniable nip in the air, which can mean only one thing: Toronto Marathon week is here!

For the running community in this city, the week leading up to the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon feels a lot like Christmas. All around us, the city is charged with an excitement and energy no other race can match.

And while it’s easy to get swept up in the buzz of race week, it’s important to keep your excitement in check. So with that in mind, I give you my personal Ten Commandments of Race Week:

I. Thou shall not over-train.

68e86f947811fd3e4ff31066b9e543cbYou’ve been logging miles and pounding the roads for months; now it’s time to relax! There’s nothing you can do at this stage of the game to add to your fitness, but there’s a lot you can do to take away from it by working too hard. Race week means rest week. Remember, the hay’s in the barn – any big effort you put in now is just taking away from what you can do on race day.

II. Thou shall not neglect fueling.

10beeec2419db488be3a09d412f4d84dWhile it’s important to back off on hard training and let the taper do it’s magic, one thing you should not be neglecting this week is your diet.

You’re about to ask your body to do something incredible and superhuman – don’t risk pushing yourself without adequate fuel.

III. Thou shall visualize and commit to the race strategy.

8380c7970334d4c6dacc30f698a74da9The marathon is a different kind of beast than any other race, and you have to plan accordingly. This means going out at a conservative pace and holding steady through to the 30K mark before you let that racing instinct take over. And believe me, it will take over. If you’re anything like me, the only way you’ll be able to resist the urge to push your pace early is to visualize and really commit to your strategy. Know your splits. Watch your pace. And remember, in the marathon there is no such thing as “time in the bank” – going out hard in order to buy yourself wiggle room will only cost you later in the race.

IV. Thou shall not doubt thy training.

Believe Training Journal by Lauren Fleshman and Roisin McGettigan-DumasThis isn’t the time to start second-guessing or wondering whether you’ve trained enough. You’re done! The best thing you can do at this stage is to lie back and trust the taper.

Rest up, and don’t let yourself feel guilty about the time off. Trust that you’ve done the work, and don’t let that voice of self-doubt creep in.

V. Thou shall go to bed early.

bb9b40b7d832687a3de6a7e7dd4a2992If you’re a night owl like me, this can be especially tough. But it’s necessary. Falling behind on your sleep can impact everything from your mood to your immune system, and this week, you can’t afford to be at anything but your best. So set a strict bedtime, and stick to it.

Limit “screen time” for one half-hour before turning in – laptops, smartphones, and television should all be switched off to give your brain time to properly shut down before your head hits the pillow. Remember, you’ve worked hard for your fitness – you don’t need to compromise it by staying up watching one too many episodes of New Girl.

VI. Thou shall not give in to the Taper Crazies

7263db9fd8b54b4031bc262649062b09Here’s the thing about marathon training that nobody really believes is true until they experience it for themselves: the taper is hard. Really hard. Worse than Peak Week hard. When you’ve spent the better part of six months mapping routes, checking splits, foam rolling your legs, obsessing over long-run playlists, gorging on carbs, stretching, and spending an exorbitant amount of money on shoes, it can be really hard to just back off and rest. But it’s also really, really important.

Remember, you are not losing fitness during the taper. You are not becoming a giant, carb-filled balloon. What you are doing is allowing your body to rest, and a million tiny little injuries to heal, while the miles you have put in these past six months sink into your legs. So lie back, put your feet up, and trust the taper. On race day, you’ll know you made the right call.

VII. Thou shall plan ahead.

b8670e6291c1a619549c847a68b5a42bWhat are you going to wear on race day? How many gels will you carry? What will your splits look like? How will you get to the start line the morning of?

If you haven’t answered these questions yet, do it now. The rigors of running 26.2 miles is tough enough on your mind – you don’t want to needlessly tax yourself worrying about a million little details, too. So get out a pen and a pad of paper and write it all down. Figure out what you’ll be wearing in the race, and lay it all out – right down to your socks. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, and keep a contingency plan for heat, cold, or rain. There’s so much in a marathon that you cannot control, so plan for what you can.

VIII. Thou shall keep a tidy home.

28fdda610d77ba3877331af4c9f43b9cRight now, your environment matters. Just like your diet, your surroundings have a huge impact on whether or not you’re functioning at 100%. So if you’re not in the habit of it normally, make sure you take the time to take care of your home. It sounds trivial, but little things like making sure the dishes are done right away, or making your bed every morning, can really help to boost your overall sense of well-being. If you’re staying in a hotel for race weekend, make sure to keep your suitcase as neat and orderly as possible. The last thing you need is to be frantically rummaging for your watch on your way out the door on race morning.

IX. Thou shall watch “Spirit of the Marathon” at least once (and thou shall probably cry while watching it).

e823a891b0737be3b217d0121c0eefacIf you’re training for a marathon, chances are you’ve watched this award-winning documentary at least once. And if you haven’t, what the hell are you doing reading my blog?! You’ve got watching to do!

What I love about this film is how it explores the many meanings that the marathon has to the many different people who run it. From elites like Deena Kastor and Daniel Njenga, to seasoned recreational marathoners, to first-timers, there’s a story in here that will resonate with just about every runner. So grab some snacks, curl up under a blanket, and settle down for some serious inspiration.

X. Thou shall remember to enjoy the process.

cf263a0558e6969181810ab9cb49a429I went into my first marathon thinking that it was going to be the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. And yet somehow, it was still harder than I expected it to be. But it was also incredibly rewarding. For the rest of my life, I will always be more than just a runner; I have earned the right to call myself a marathoner.

Marathons are tough – they can grind you down, injure you, and drive you to the point that you want to quit. But they’re also pretty amazing. They’re an incredible, fearless celebration of tenacity and the human spirit. When you run a marathon, no matter how fast or slow you are, you share a kinship with those who run before and after you. The marathon is a special club, a select group of the ultra-crazy and ultra-brave. And the strength that having finished a marathon fosters within you is an incredible and powerful thing.

So however your race goes on Sunday, whatever time you run, don’t forget to enjoy the process. Remember that with every step, you are building up a deep reservoir of strength in your heart, forged in the crucible of pain and self-doubt, that you will carry with you forever; you’re a marathoner.

Good luck out there, everyone!

Chase big dreams.