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 Lifelong paradigms and templates are no longer valid.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.

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.