Saturday, June 23, 2018

Two Solitudes

 "I couldn't see anybody, and I knew what the loneliness of the long-distance runner running across country felt like, realising that as far as I was concerned this feeling was the only honesty and realness there was in the world … no matter what anybody else tried to tell me."
Alan Sillitoe, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

As the day warms, I am lacing up my shoes for a two-hour run.

In an alternate universe, a parallel me is starting to write a novel that has a theme of belonging. In both realities, I am aware that I am the only resident.

A writer is often an outlier, socially speaking; an observer and documenter rather than a participant. Even authors who excel at the social aspect of their job (and there is one) will admit that when they are sitting in front of a half-finished subplot wondering how they are ever going to get untangled from it, there isn’t much advantage to being a pleasant dinner companion or a social media maven.

I am a long distance runner who has never experienced loneliness. Last summer when I was slogging up a mountain in Iceland, up to my shins in slush with sleet whipping into my face, I didn’t look around for someone to share the experience with. It was mine – for better or worse – and I wanted it all to myself.

My memoir, Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella, was aimed at a particular target audience and within the parameters I had set for myself it was more successful than I had ever dreamed it would be. These were the parameters: I wanted whoever read it to enjoy it. Word got back to me that many did.

But that is not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I loved the simple individuality of the process.

To me, the purest joy and greatest challenge was the writing itself: to write clearly but lyrically; to find new ways of saying things that have been said a million million times; to put thoughts in order logically but fantastically; to communicate symbolically and be believed viscerally.

To do this, I had to choose critically which advice I would accept from teachers, editors, and peers, because every word in my book is in held in place by my imagination and craft, not theirs. My Acknowledgements section is as a full and as heartfelt as any author’s, but ultimately I was the one who sat alone at my keyboard for years, conceiving, writing, revising. I do not write by committee.

(I have yet to experience the traditional author’s nightmare of having absolutely no one show up to one of my readings. This must be the literary manifestation of loneliness.)

Nor do I run as part of a team. Unless I decide to join the local Wednesday Afternoon Walking and Conversation Group – which I am not currently contemplating – a major characteristic of running for me is that it is a solitary, non-social activity.

So, if I cherish my solitude so much, why go into an organized running event at all? That’s a question I’ve asked myself increasingly in past years. For one thing, I like the challenge of an unfamiliar course planned and laid out by someone else; these always seem to be a bit less forgiving than the paths I choose for myself. But lately I’ve left behind races like Ironman and big-city marathons in favour of low-profile trail races – same great distances and support with much less noise.

For me, a running event is still an individual process that takes place in the company of several hundred others who are also locked in private negotiation with their own limitations and dreams. I am in company, but every step I take is mine alone.

I have always found purity – a “realness” as Sillitoe writes – in the fulfillment of a personal goal: in working to prepare for it; in stretching to achieve it; in doing what I told myself I was going to do. Pushing myself to go farther today than I did yesterday reminds me of the struggle to align words and thoughts. When I edit my writing I want the revision to be an improvement on what was on the page before; occasionally it is. Crossing a finish line is akin to the feeling of polishing a sentence that finally says exactly what you want it to – the certitude that there is no more work to be done.

Running and writing: two things that bring me joy.
Two things I do alone.

PS: This will be my penultimate post in Lyricycle. After ten years, I find that my focus and direction have moved beyond the scope of this blog. After all, there are only so many ways I can describe moving myself across the planet under my own power (a phrase I imagine I’ve used about a dozen times in the last decade). I am developing a new website, and I’ll leave a link to it on this page when it is operational.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Running in Stages

It’s been a long time since I used to leap out of bed at the sound of an alarm and head flying out the door, like Dagwood Bumstead, to my job in an office.

Nowadays I only use the alarm on my phone to wake me up for athletic events. The little tune it plays is an annoying way to start a day – even a race day – but it gets me up and moving. I even have a little verse that runs through my head to go with the music:

Time to rise and shine,
Get out of bed you lazy elf;
Time to toe the line,
That race won’t run itself.

On race morning I go through a predictable but real cycle of emotions that remind me somewhat of the K├╝bler Ross stages of grief:

4:30 a.m. – Denial. WTF? It can’t possibly be time to get up. I just closed my eyes.

5:30 a.m. – Anger. Why did I pay money to sign up for this stupid race that I’m not even properly trained for? I’m gonna have to drive for hours to get there. Line up to park. Line up to get my number. Line up to pee. Why couldn’t I just have gone for a nice run through the countryside on my own time at a decent hour? I’m 66 years old for cry-yi. I can’t fake it like I used to. Let the millennials do this.

6:30 a.m. – Bargaining. OK. If I just get through this one I will never rashly enter another race again. I will be properly trained and I will practise on the actual race course six times before the event. I will not show up in old running shoes with half a sole flapping under my left foot. I will dress properly for the weather and be neither chilled to the brisket nor baked like a potato.

7:30 a.m. – Depression. As Eeyore said: All right. We’re going. Only Don’t Blame Me if it Rains.

8:00 a.m. – Acceptance. Here I am running under the starting banner. Hundreds of feet shuffling around me. For every two feet there is one mind looking to the task ahead. Everything I have felt this morning falls away, leaving nothing but my heart, my body, and my goal. For the past three and a half hours I have been asking myself why I do this. As my legs begin to warm up and carry me across the earth, I modify Yoda’s saying: there is no why – there is only do.

Once again, for the hundredth or thousandth time since I began all this over three decades ago, I am running to surprise myself. Whether I have three, four, or eight hours of effort ahead, I’m content to let happen whatever is going to happen.

All of these emotions were in play a few weeks ago as I ran an out-and-back 26k trail event through a conservation area east of Toronto. There were last minute changes to the course as a result of construction (the distance was supposed to be 25k) and fallen trees due to extreme winds. The number of river crossings was doubled from one to two.

Despite all this, it turned out to be a great day, with good running weather and paths that were not as muddy as in some previous years. The extra water crossing proved so popular that the organizers are considering making it a permanent part of the race.

I am still running, and this always seems like a small miracle to me. What began as a dare with my sedentary, chain-smoking self to see if I could finish a 10k charity event back in 1985 has kept me challenged and fulfilled in a way that I could never have expected. In a way that, if I’m being honest, nothing else ever has.

Trotting along the forest floor about midway through the race I decided I had to add one more stage to the list of emotions:

10:00 a.m. – Gratitude.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Country Roads, Take Me Home

My annual practice of choosing a keyword to shine a light on the year ahead was delayed this time and I think I know why. It could be that 2017 – when the word was "climbing" – was the most remarkable and surprising year in recent memory.

If everything last year had gone as planned it would have been an eventful but typical year, with a major birthday, a book publication, an epic trail race in Iceland, and a hiking trip through Northern Scotland. It was the unplanned that gave the year its tang and reminded me that we are never in control of the future – at least not as much as we think we are. I sustained an injury that affected my Iceland race and nearly ended my running season. And we suddenly bought a house in the country and moved away from Toronto, a place I had called home for over 60 years.

So the idea of choosing a single word to represent what I hope my year will hold seemed a bit trite.

My life on an island in the Trent River is more different than I could ever have imagined it would be. Lifelong paradigms and templates are no longer valid. We get our water from a well. We swim in the river. My front yard is twice as wide and ten times longer than the one I left back in the city. Internet download speed is not always reliable and Netflix reception can be infuriating. There are stars in the sky. I often wonder why it took me so long to get here.

And I can run for hours on back country roads and see a maximum of half a dozen people the whole time. Although I had a decent path near my Toronto home, I now enjoy the freedom from having to dodge bicycles, off-leash dogs, and belligerently trespassing e-bikes. This itself is a reason to get out my door each morning. The routes are many and varied; it is flat on the island but hilly just across the bridge. There are trails, including the Trans-Canada Trail, which runs through our town. And when I get home, I jump in the river to cool off. (I’m talking summer here of course. At the moment the spring runoff owns the river.)

So I will run a lot this year and hopefully be more sure-footed than I was last year. My first event will be Around the Bay, in Hamilton Ontario. This year however I am not doing the full 30k, but rather the two-person relay with my son. I’m doing the first leg and I have been working on increasing my speed so that he is not the last one waiting for his partner to appear. So far I have improved my pace to somewhere near where it was ten years ago.

Following the release of my book last year, I find myself at a bit of a crossroads where my writing is concerned. There are many things I would like to try, and I need to remind myself that no one is telling me I can’t. (I figure I can get get some good work done on my novel while I'm waiting for Grace and Frankie to load on Netflix.) The signs at my crossroads point to many paths, and I am not going to limit myself to just one.

I spend a lot of time on the highway because I still travel back to what my friends call “civilization” once a week. When I do, I drive to the outskirts and take the train and then the subway. This takes longer but saves me the stress of trying to drive in gridlocked traffic – one of the reasons I left the city. Multiple routes also add to the adventure of travelling.

Because of all the above, the word I have alighted on for 2018 is “pathways.” Whatever happens in the coming year, I have a feeling it will involve being on the way to somewhere: a town, a lake, or a finish line. There will be paths I plan to take and paths that appear out of the forest, beckoning me or challenging me.