Monday, October 2, 2017

About Time

In you, my mind, do I measure time.
St. Augustine

Four laps of 12.5 kilometres each make up the Run for the Toad 50K race course. In the three years I have run this event, each lap has looked somehow different to me each time around, so beautiful is the setting.

Like many forest-based trail races, there is a sense of being removed from time and space. Despite the colourful signs marking each kilometre and the thoughtfully placed aid stations, this course has a labyrinthine layout that seems designed to turn you around and around so that you are never really sure where you are. But if you are running trails, knowing where you are is secondary to the experience of moving yourself along the quiet paths. Of listening to the whispering of trees. Of asking your body to carry you, and to feel it respond.

Runners doing the 50K are allowed to leave gear bags at the start/finish so you can drop or add clothes each time around – perfect for a chilly start or a rainy day – and you do not have to carry all your nutrition with you.

This year I turned 65, and maybe because of this milestone I have been aware of time passing more than before. Sometimes I have even felt my age, a new experience for me. Partly because of my injuries last spring, the Toad was my chance to get at least one long race done in 2017.

And so I presented myself at the starting line on a bright cool fall morning, ready to run.

The paths in the Pinehurst Lake Conservation Area are unfailingly lovely. There are the expected tree roots – not too many – and lots of rolling terrain, but no long killer hills. There is one short steep climb near the end of each lap; by the last time around it is an old friend.

I was quite enjoying my day when at the end of the second lap I overheard two runners talking about a cut-off time. This was news to me; I had no idea there was a time limit in this race. I had never seen anything on the website; maybe it had been announced at the start. (Note to race organizers: no one ever listens to what the announcer is saying at the starting line).

I asked a volunteer about it and she seemed to think that, yes, there was a seven-hour cut-off. Last year I had finished under that time anyway, so if there was a limit it hadn’t affected me.

At that point I became a bit concerned. I had been ambling along quite happily with no thought of a particular finishing time. Seven hours should be enough time for most people to run 50 kilometres. But I am a slow runner to start with, and this year I had intended to do four nice leisurely laps of the course, playing the senior citizen card and finishing when I felt like it.  

All of a sudden, my plans acquired a new dimension: time. Could I make the cut-off?

Love them or hate them. 
Cut-off times are a feature of many races, for different reasons, mostly valid. After all, the event has to end sometime (and the volunteers have to go home). The most draconian cut-off I know of is at the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, where an official will physically bar a runner from crossing the finish immediately after the final gun has sounded, even if that runner is two feet from the line.

Whether there was a valid time limit in place at Run for the Toad or not, I decided I had better get moving. This turned out to be a great exercise in pacing and pure willpower. I didn’t exactly set fire to the pine needles on the path, but I worked a bit harder and managed to keep such a steady pace that, remarkably, my fourth lap was an even split with my third. On a normal day I would have slowed toward the end as I stiffened up and began to feel lazy.

Whether you are an elite runner or a slowpoke like me, going for a personal best or just trying to get yourself to the finish, there are going to be some physical consequences involved in running 50 kilometres, probably some discomfort. You will get worn out and your muscles will protest the effort. I felt all those things, but the time limit – real or imagined – motivated me to put them aside and push myself just a little harder. 

I never did find out if any time restriction was in effect or if it was all in my head. As it was, I managed to knock a few minutes off last year’s time, so it was a non-issue. The timing system seemed to keep registering runners up to the eight-hour mark.

In the end, as I ran through the woods on my final lap, the ticking clock ceased to matter; only the extra effort did. My negotiation was no longer with time; it was between my mind and my body.

Time as an abstract does not exist; its only significance lies in what we do with it. After all, isn’t being a runner simply the chance to ask something more of ourselves today than we did yesterday? And isn’t that what makes it timeless?

Monday, August 7, 2017

Taking the Long Way Around

Laugavegur Ultramarathon, July 15, 2017

In a way, you could say I made it to the finish line of the 55k Laugavegur Ultramarathon in Iceland last month, although it wasn’t in the way the race organizers intended.

Officially I was a DNF, having missed the 6-hour cut-off at 38k. But if they gave an award for persistence and arriving at the finish by the most circuitous route, I, along with a fellow runner I will call Lisa (because that is her name) would get all the medals. Here is the story:

I knew going in that I would have to have an unusually great day to finish this very challenging race. My torn hamstring in May had eliminated the most critical 6 weeks from my training, and I simply did not have the miles or the hills in my legs. But since we were coming to Iceland on vacation anyway, it seemed a shame not to try.

However, at Laugavegur as with The Force, there is no try; there is only do.

The first 10k of the race went straight up a mountain; a good part of this was in heavy, wet, shin-deep snow. Sleet was blowing down the slope into my face, driven by a merciless wind. I didn’t see much of the advertised spectacular scenery on this stretch. Just sleet. And my feet. As we came over the top of the mountain, the weather cleared and runners were presented with the breathtaking sight of Alftavatn, a glacial lake way below and far away.

The run was now steeply downhill, and the footing was tricky.  Alftavatn is at 22k, where the first cut-off checkpoint is, and I made this without too much difficulty. But the elements and topography had taken a big toll on my undertrained body. I found it hard to get moving again with any decent speed.

By the time I waded across the icy waist-high river at the race’s halfway point, my hopes of making it to the second cut-off in time were pretty dim. I would have to run a pretty brisk 10k or so to make it, and I was feeling anything but brisk (hypothermic, more like, at least from the waist down). But I gamely trotted off, having taken time to change my socks.

The frustrating thing is that the terrain is mostly flat through this section, so if you’re in a hurry you can make pretty good time here. But all my high-distance training had been preempted by my injury layoff. I could jog slowly, but this would not get me to the cut-off point in time.

(I don’t mean to lean too much on my injury here; this race would have tested my limits even if I were in optimal shape. Those who finished have my unending admiration.)

The course took its final swipe at me when I tripped on a rock and face-planted into the trail at about 30k. OK, I said to the gravel against my cheek, you got me.

Eventually I came across a van that was looking for stragglers, of which I was now one. The official confirmed that my race was over and offered to drive me to the bus. My race was indeed over, but my journey was just beginning.

Let’s take a moment here to review the options for runners who drop out mid-race. There aren't many, and none are good (to their credit, the race organizers tell you this repeatedly in the advance information). This event takes place over mountainous terrain that is inaccessible for forty-eight weeks of the year and barely accessible for the other four. There are no real roads, just rocky tracks. So if you leave the race before you get to the end, the organizers will transport you to the nearest town of Hvolsvöllur, and from there you can get another bus back to Reykjavík.

But I didn’t want to go to Reykjavík; I wanted to go to Thorsmörk, where the finish line was and my wife was waiting.

As I was wondering what I would have to do to get to Thorsmörk, another runner came along, and she also had to get to the finish. It seemed that we two were the only ones who had spouses waiting there. There wasn’t a lot we could do. The sag bus would deposit us at Hvolsvöllur, and then we were basically on our own.

After a couple of hours bouncing over the rocks, we arrived in Hvolsvöllur at about 6:00 pm, where the other non-finishers got on their bus for the city. Lisa and I deciphered the schedule as best we could and figured that the last and only bus to Thorsmörk would come along in about 3 hours.

You can bet that there were not 3 hours’ worth of fun activities to do in Hvolsvöllur that evening (of course we were dressed only in our damp running gear, and it was not warm outside). But we made the best of it, eventually ending up in a German-Icelandic restaurant, where we dawdled over dinner as long as we could. I have to say that the day would have been very bleak without my fellow traveller, and I was grateful for the company.

The bus showed up at 9:00 pm and we climbed aboard, spending several more hours bouncing back over the rocks till we arrived at Thorsmörk at about 11:30, to be greeted by our patient reception committee of two. Doing the math, one can see that we spent far more time getting to the finish by bus than the actual finishers took getting there on foot. I also estimate that we could have casually strolled the remaining distance along the race course to the finish and still beaten the bus, but the race rules do not allow this. Once you’re out, you have to leave the trail. The bottom line is that you do not want to drop from this race.

It was an extraordinary experience. I wish I could have lived up to the physical and mental demands of the event. But of the handful of DNFs I have had in the past 32 years, this one was the easiest to take, although definitely the most challenging to accomplish.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The River I Stand In

Eeyore shook himself, and asked somebody to explain to Piglet what happened when you had been inside a river for quite a long time. 
A.A. Milne

It’s been an extraordinary spring. I use the word to mean neither wonderful nor ghastly, but simply beyond ordinary.

At the beginning of the year I had two simple personal goals: to see my first book published in May and to run an ultramarathon in Iceland in July. My book was published, and people seem to be enjoying it, which was my primary hope.

Then we bought a new house, unexpectedly. Doing such a thing had been part of a multi-year plan, which suddenly telescoped into immediacy. This necessitated quickly selling the place we already had, with all the attendant fuss and stress.

Finally, although it seemed the day would never arrive, last week we left the home we had lived in for 21 years and moved to a large, tree-covered property a couple of hours from Toronto, on the banks of a river. Watching the water flow past our back door is energizing, mesmerizing, and restful at the same time. The local running and cycling will be terrific and in the back of my mind I am wondering if I can use the river as a sort of Endless Pool to get my swimming back into shape.

In early May I was well into training for the trail race in Iceland – a spectacular event that I had chosen to celebrate turning 65, which would test me as much as any Ironman ever did – when I slipped and fell, badly damaging my right hamstring. The rug was pulled out from under my meticulously constructed Iceland training plan.

For two weeks I could barely walk. I didn’t run for another four. The Vikings would probably just have gone out and run anyway, chopping the bad leg off to reduce drag. My Gaelic ancestors would have holed up somewhere with a supply of Scotch.

The other day I went out and ran for twenty minutes, some of them uncomfortable; I took each step as if I were being chased by a Zamboni, frightened of slipping and reinjuring myself. Yesterday I ran a bit farther, with a bit less discomfort and a bit more joy, and today I made it even farther. If I can keep moving forward like this, I hope to get myself to a place where I feel like a runner again.

You see, this is what it means to ask so much of my body: it doesn’t always do what I want it to, but if I’m lucky, it doesn’t completely quit on me, but revives. Stirring dull roots with the spring rain.

At the beginning of the year, I had no immediate plans to buy a house and move away, and no plans to suffer one of my most debilitating injuries ever. Extraordinary changes have flowed over my world like a river in spring flood. If my athletic life has taught me nothing else, it is that plans change without notice, and that I must be prepared for quick course changes or simply give up.

The river I step in is not the river I stand in. Dreams flow past and are lost. New ones are made and new plans are drawn up to achieve them. As John Lennon sang, there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. I am here and nowhere else, and happy to be so. We’ll see what happens around the next turning.