Monday, May 30, 2011

The Naming of Goals

Ottawa Marathon – May 29, 2011

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.
The Naming of Cats
T. S. Eliot

Mr. Eliot tells us that every cat possesses three names: first, there is the name he answers to at home; the second is the unique name by which he is known to other cats; and lastly, there is the name he himself knows, the one he shares with no one else. I think that my athletic goals for the Ottawa Marathon were like this.

My public marathon goal could have been to finish the race in a certain time. The goal I shared with other runners would have had to do with treating injuries or maintaining a certain racing or nutrition strategy.

I had two private goals for the Ottawa Marathon on Sunday, and these were really the only ones that mattered. First, I wanted to run the race at a consistent pace, in control as much as possible, and finish, but without worrying about a finishing time. Second, I wanted to confirm that my body - from the feet upward - was still capable of a sustained running effort after the injuries that have hobbled me in past years. These two things – race consistently and keep it together - were my rhythm and my focus for the entire 42.2 kilometres of the race.

The Ottawa Race Weekend is a huge affair, featuring a marathon, a half marathon, a 10k run and several family fun runs. Altogether more than 15,000 people take part over two days. Many of my extended family members have run in these races over the past twenty years or so, and this year a dozen of us got together each to participate in at least one of the events (I say “at least one”, because one energetic young fellow ran the 10k on Saturday evening and then the half marathon the next morning). My son Duncan and my youngest brother Dave were running their first full marathon. My daughter Laura was running the half.

Race morning was mild and overcast with a prediction of light showers. As the starting horn sounded at 7:00am and 4,200 marathoners began moving forward, I had successfully managed to put aside personal speculation about how fast I was going to run, replaced by concern about whether the pinched nerve in my right foot would behave itself or take me out of the race as it had in South Africa two years ago.

After decades of being tweaked and redesigned the Ottawa marathon route is a brilliant one, flat and easy on the senses with lots of green space. The Ottawanian crowds were wonderful the whole way; they were so insistently cheerful that I couldn’t help feeling lifted and helped along by their noisy enthusiasm. It was difficult not to contrast this festive atmosphere with the sullen thrombosis of idling cars and seething motorists one sees at race events in Toronto, so many of whom seem to regard a marathon as nothing but an interruption in their busy important lives.

After running the first 10k in 57 minutes I decided that I was moving a bit too quickly so I slowed down just a fraction, passing the halfway mark at just over two hours. After that I stopped looking at my watch; it was all about moving forward at a steady pace. As we ran through the congenial and boisterous neighbourhood of New Edinburgh at 28k, a light rain began to fall; this provided some cooling relief from the pervasive humidity. Beyond that, I didn’t notice the rain at all.

I was tiring at 32k as we headed up the Rideau Canal, and my legs were starting to stiffen up. I knew there was going to be discomfort. No one who has participated in a serious athletic event - who has hiked all day in the rain, who has climbed a rock wall, who has finished an Ironman - no one is surprised at discomfort. It is part of the challenge, and we accept it. We are not masochists or freaks; we don’t like the pain, we just acknowledge it as part of what we have to pass through in order to reach our goal.

I was determined to stick to my plan of not walking except to take on fluids or gels at the aid stations. This is the first time in 20 marathons I have ever successfully done this; I have always talked myself into walking “just to the next lamppost” in the past. This time I didn’t; I remained in “profound meditation” of my ineffable private goals, and I ran.

In past marathons I have managed to stretch out my final two kilometres so that they have seemed to last for hours. This is easy to do if you are hurting and if you give into the temptation to walk. This year I actually felt like I was picking up speed as I got closer to the end. I felt as if I were being drawn to the finish line.

Running back down the canal toward the race’s ending, our stream of tired marathoners was joined by the (much perkier) half marathon people, who had started two hours after us, and the stream became a river. The noise from the crowds and the dense throng of athletes provided exactly the right mood of sound and colour. I flew under the finish line with hundreds of other runners and felt better post-race than I ever have.

Unknown to me, Duncan was just about two minutes ahead of me and Dave was just about two minutes behind me. And somewhere close by was Laura who was simultaneously finishing the half, as were most of my other relatives. Judging from our times, we must all have been within a few hundred metres of one another. There would have been no way to coordinate a chorus line finish, but it’s cool to think of us all so near. I congratulate them all and I am proud to be among their number.

My personal goals were met. It was not my fastest marathon nor was it my slowest, but it was my most consistent and ultimately the most fulfilling since my very first one in 1987. The best news of the day was that my body – right down to the feet – managed to respond happily (or at least uncomplainingly) to what my mind asked of it. For the first time in a long time I felt as if the two were one again. I have laid down a good foundation for my training this summer and I feel optimistic for the future. On to Ironman.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Then a Miracle Happens

“Today you are You, that is truer than true,
There is no one alive who is Youer than You”.
Dr Seuss

This month I ordered an item called a Road ID, which doesn’t ID roads, but rather me, if I am lying on one after possibly falling down and being unable to get up.

The Road ID website prompted me to include the following info on my bracelet: NKA NO MED HX. Which I gather stands for No Known Allergies, No Medical History.

I wonder if those abbreviations really mean that, or whether the EMTs will just look dumbly at them and think it is my Klingon name.

The bracelet will get its first real workout at the Ottawa Marathon on May 29, where presumably I will also be identified by other means – race number, timing chip, the finish line announcer. Not that I intend to fall down with no means of getting up next weekend but you never know. In the past twenty-four months I have pulled up lame in an ultra marathon in South Africa, collapsed in a helpless heap at the side of the highway in the Arizonan desert and launched myself over my handlebars in Muskoka. Worse could happen.

I have to run HOW FAR???
   I’m looking forward to the marathon, because I hope it will show me that I am not in nearly as bad shape as I currently imagine myself to be.

As an avowed goal-setter, I have conducted a symphony of marathon goals over the past six months. The original one was to carve a phantasmagorical 20 minutes off my best-ever time. Once I started training in earnest I began to see that the fast express train had left the station some time ago. No matter how limitless your dreams, you can’t build a house on a foundation of whipped cream.

(It’s possible I could set a personal best for the highest number of bad metaphors in one paragraph, however).

So, over the winter the progressive deterioration of my marathon goals has looked something like this:
1. Finish the marathon in under 3:45!!!
2. Finish the marathon in under 4:00.
3. Finish the marathon in a personal best time (under 4:04, run in 2001)…
4. Finish the marathon?

After a springtime of good, solid training, including intervals, tempos and my mandatory three 30+ km LSD (long, slow, distance) runs, I had decided that number one was out of the question; number two was probably a stretch; number three would be a gift.

All these years of experience might have made me a smarter runner, but not necessarily a faster one.

(Come to think of it, maybe I am putting too much pressure on myself with goal number four. Maybe it should read: Finish the marathon if you’re feeling good and your feet don’t hurt and the weather is nice and they have measured the course short by a few miles).

At the moment my race strategy reminds me of that old systems flowchart, where a number of boxes, lines and arrows all culminate in one final process, labeled “Then a Miracle Happens”.

Of course the prospect of the unknown outcome is part of what attracts me to this type of sport in the first place and I’m not complaining here. All variables aside, I have done the work, have trained myself well and this is not my first marathon but something like my 20th. Not counting Ironman, the last one I ran was in 2006. I did it with no preparation whatsoever, and it took me what seemed like all day; I must have stopped at a Starbuck’s along the way or something.

I guess what is nagging at me is this: what if after all my conscientious training this spring, I still do no better than I did five years ago? What will this say about my running?
1. I don’t know how to train;
2. I don’t know how to run;
3. My body is falling apart faster than I expected;
4. All of the above.

The answer to all this is that if I do no worse than I did the last time, I will be in no worse shape than I was last time, and this can only be a good thing. It will mean I still have my health and my motivation.

Running the same pace as last time will confirm that I have not turned into Paula Radcliffe in the past five years, but this is OK; my Road ID tells me I am still me, and I have come to terms with the fact that most of the world will always run faster than I will.

The true “miracle” in my racing flowchart is the one that happens every time I put on my running shoes or hop onto my bike and head out onto the road: it is the ability to perform the simple act of moving across the planet under my own power. There is a mantra in Ironman: “I am alive, and I am moving forward”. This mantra does not necessarily win races, but it helps me appreciate the journey to the finish line.

If I can’t see the miracle in this, then maybe I should have added “LOOZR” to my Road ID bracelet.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Vicious Cycle

Warning: rant alert.

Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.
John Forester, Effective Cycling

Be careful or be roadkill.
Calvin and Hobbes

Item: As I was going to work the other day I heard a prolonged angry blast on a car horn, and I could see that it was aimed at a sweet thing on her bicycle who had just serenely sailed through a 4-way stop sign, oblivious to the cars that were waiting. I watched as she rode past me and proceeded to breeze through the next two stop signs as well, infuriating all those in cars. And infuriating me that she should be so blithely unaware of her environment.

An article by Andrew Clark in the Globe and Mail last week asked the eternal question: who ARE these people? Who are they that they dream they can participate in vehicular traffic without any concomitant responsibility, let alone the risk of injury or death? Do they just not get it? Do they think that those motorists honking at them are nothing but bad tempered old fuddy-duddies who should just chill or whatever? Do they know that section 136 of the Highway Traffic Act provides for a $110 fine if they are convicted of disobeying a stop sign?

Do they actually think they are contributing positively to the health of our city?

As a veteran cyclist and bike commuter who tries hard to ride safely, I am frustrated that I get tarred with the same brush. Here’s one reason: Each morning on my way to work I have to pass through a 4-way stop sign. I stop. I wait my turn and then I go. Several times I have been nearly killed by drivers who don’t stop. I can hear the apologia now: “Well, he just came shooting right out into the intersection. What could I do? You know how bikes are; they never stop for anything”. Everyone sagely nods in agreement. They know how bikes are.
Item: Cars were lined up at the bottom of Pottery Road yesterday during afternoon rush hour. One car stopped to let a bicycle cross the road. The driver behind him gave a blast on the horn. A simple act of courtesy is met with a haemorrhage of road rage. This is not a sign of universal acceptance towards cyclists. It is a sign of intolerance.

The relationship between motorists and cyclists - rarely cordial - seems to have taken a nose dive since the election of our current mayor, who according to Mr Clark's article has publicly stated that a cyclist
who is killed by a car basically shouldn’t have been on the road in the first place. “Roads were built for buses, trucks and cars,” he proclaimed back in 2007. (He might as well have said that they were built for horses and wagons, as no doubt someone did back on the 1890s when bicycles first began taking over the streets of the city. Buses, trucks and cars came later, I believe).

I used to think that the most damage a sloppy, selfish cyclist could do was to be a nuisance to those around him. But it could be far more dire than that. Bad cycling habits produce rage towards cyclists. All cyclists, not just the bad ones. And in a physical conflict between a pickup truck and a bicycle, my money is on the truck

The spring appearance of thousands of bike commuters who either don’t know the laws or prefer to ignore them could aggravate an already-volatile traffic mood, the situation is literally an accident waiting to happen. Except it won't be an accident; it will be a preventable tragedy.

Those cyclists who treat their bikes as toys rather than as vehicles are pouring gasoline on a fire that is already smouldering. The result will be no good for anyone.