Sunday, September 15, 2013

Lessons from a Runner

“I am not a dreamer... but I believe in miracles. I have to.”
Terry Fox – letter to potential sponsors before starting the Marathon of Hope in 1980.

This morning when I went down to the valley to dash off a quick 10K--a recovery run from the 70.3 last weekend--I ran smack into a whole lot of people, all seemingly headed in the same direction.
Of course; I had forgotten. Today was the annual Terry Fox Run, which happens every September in cities, towns, and villages all across Canada, and which to date has raised more than $600 million in support of cancer research. The ten kilometres being covered by the participants I met this morning—runners, walkers and even people pushing strollers—took me back to my very first 10K event, nearly thirty years ago.

I was granted the gift of a healthy body at birth, but by the time I reached thirty I had allowed myself to become a physical train wreck. My lifestyle at the time lent itself to long bouts of self-indulgence; I was a heavy smoker, an epic drinker, and an avowed layabout. With the accumulated wisdom and certitude that only youth can claim, I had determined that after I turned thirty-five my body would begin a gradual but inexorable process of deterioration, which would end in utter decrepitude around the age of fifty. If such a slide was in fact beyond my control, I had decided I would settle back and enjoy the ride.
Of course I knew who Terry Fox was; every Canadian did. He had raised a ton of money for cancer research by attempting to run across Canada after losing his right leg to 
A Marathon a Day
osteosarcoma. During his Marathon of Hope in the summer of 1980 he ran 42 kilometres—the distance of a full marathon—every single day. As every Canadian also knows, he could not ultimately outrun his disease, which caught up with him near Thunder Bay in September 1980 and ended his quest, and his life.

Some years after he died, I happened to see a news clip of Terry running down the highway, with his recognizable hop-skip gait as he bounced back and forth from his artificial leg to his good one. What touched me as I watched him—this young man with so much stacked against him—was how completely calm and focussed he looked, despite the traffic rushing by him and the crowds pressing on all sides. However uncertain his future was, he had taken control of what he could by setting a seemingly impossible goal and then taking the steps—literally one at a time— to accomplish that goal. Looking back, I realize that this image formed the template for much of how I would try to live my own life over the next three decades.
If Terry Fox, by the singular strength of his spirit, could push his broken body to the ends of endurance daily, any healthy person, I decided, should be able to accomplish anything.

Although I had not run a step since childhood, I began to wonder if I might try to finish the 10 kilometre distance of the September 1985 Terry Fox Run. I started my training by running around the block, stopping every lap or so for a cigarette. Every part of my body violently protested against the intrusive new regimen. The first time I ran nonstop for fifteen minutes I coughed violently for hours afterward and my legs were so stiff I couldn’t walk down the stairs for two days.
I kept up the training and somehow completed the event.

That fall of 1985 I hacked and wheezed my way through two more 10K races. I found that I enjoyed the newfound sensation of pushing myself to test my limits. I had never had the slightest love or aptitude for team sports of any kind, so I embraced the solitude offered by long distance running. Equally important to me, my new fitness habit gave me the motivation I needed to quit my heavy smoking habit forever.
I became a setter of goals, some of them, like Terry’s, seemingly impossible. Right after my first Terry Fox Run I bought a book called “How to Run Your First Marathon.” Two years later, I had done what the book advised, and had, in fact, run my first marathon. In 1994, looking to broaden my scope, I tried a triathlon, adding swimming and biking to running. In 2002, the year I turned fifty (that prophesied age of decrepitude!), I completed my first Ironman. As of today, I have participated in more of these long-distance events than I can count. A few years ago my participation as a cyclist in the Race Across the West gave me the opportunity to raise money on behalf of Canadians fighting multiple myeloma, a rare form of cancer.

The legacy Terry Fox left behind is immeasurable and the lives that his life has touched are uncountable, even in ways he could never have imagined.

Terry’s motivation was different from mine; he wanted to raise money and awareness for cancer research, whereas I wanted to validate my stewardship of my own body. I’m not sure that he intended to reach people like me when he began his journey, but his example inspired me to start down a road of my own towards a lifelong passion for endurance athletics. He taught me not to accept limits, self-imposed or otherwise. For nearly thirty years his passion has been my companion, my slave driver, my sparring partner, my confessor and absolver, my judge, and my therapist. I continue to set near-impossible goals for the sheer joy of challenging myself.
I started running because of Terry, and like him I do not mean to give up until the last step is taken.

Terry Fox Memorial - Thunder Bay Ontario
Terrific photo by Matt Kawei

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fluctuat nec Mergitur

He is tossed on the waves but does not sink.

The usual pre-race thoughts went through my head as I treaded water waiting for the start of the Muskoka Ironman 70.3 on Sunday: How will my day go? Why is the water so cold? Why did I say I’d do this? Plus one not-so-usual thought: I hope I don’t throw up.
After my heartbreaking DNF last month at Ironman Mont Tremblant due to dizziness and nausea during the swim, I was a mixture of resolution, defiance, and trepidation when the horn went off to start my wave. I began swimming with my customary slow stroke, testing my balance every time I turned my head. I had been in the water for about 20 minutes when I realized that everything was going to be all right. Whatever mysterious sprite had bedevilled me in Lac Tremblant was absent; forever, I fervently hope.

The water got a little choppy out in the middle of the lake, which made me think of the comment Lisa Bentley had made during the athlete meeting on Saturday. I rarely go to athlete meetings, especially ones where I am very familiar with the course, but Lisa has always been a hero of mine, so I wouldn’t have missed this one. During the meeting Lisa made a joke about how the lake was probably the flattest part of the course—which produced a laugh from the audience. Anyway, as the
Grateful to have an uneventful swim
waves danced around me in mid-lake I recalled her remark; not that flat, Lisa. The only real effect that the choppy lake had was that it was harder to sight on the marker buoys; every time I lifted my head I got slapped in the face with some nice, fresh Muskoka lake water. I quite enjoyed the swim—all the more so because I didn’t feel like barfing the whole way—and exited the water in a time that is close to my fastest ever for the distance. My mood was so good that I didn’t even mind the thigh-burning 300-metre climb up the path to T1 (an event in itself).
Everyone has an opinion of the Muskoka bike course. Lisa B. says it is a “fair” course. One guy at my bike rack said in frustration that it was the most difficult thing he’d ever ridden on. For sure, there are hills, combining to make a total climb of over 1200 metres, with countless grades of over 6% along the way. If you are looking to set a PB on the bike this might not be your course. But I like the challenge of putting out a constant effort, and the strategy involved in saving enough energy for the final few hills. Even though I have been riding these roads for years, there always seems to be one more hill than I remember.

The weather on race morning was a tintype of last year’s: sunny but cool, about 14C. I opted for arm warmers and a vest, which turned out to be the perfect choice. As my legs pistoned under me and my wheels turned over the familiar cottage roads and highways, I took time to be grateful for being healthy and fit, and for having the chance to be in such a spectacular event.
There seemed to be even more gel wrappers and water bottles than normal strewn along the roadside; even though parts of the course are bumpy, all of this thrown garbage could not have been accidental. Officials tell us that littering produces an automatic disqualification. I think a good codicil to that rule would be that an athlete busted for littering could have the DQ lifted if they spent two hours post-race picking up garbage along the way.

By the end of the bike I was getting pretty tired of hill climbing. Others were too; quite a few folks were actually walking their bikes up the last hill. The bike course is 94 km, and is therefore longer than standard distance (maybe they should call this race the Muskoka 72.8). The general mood is to want to curse those additional four kilometres, and to thank the cycling gods when they are over.
As I sat on the ground in T2 putting on my running shoes, I noticed an Official looking at me, and I wondered what I was doing wrong; whether I had taken my helmet off before racking my bike or something. Then as I was about to trot out of transition she said quietly, “Don’t forget to take your number”. Aha! Thanks to a welcome new rule, you don’t have to wear your race number on the bike anymore, but not being used to digging around for it along with running shoes and hat, I was about to go charging out without it. Muscle memory. I bet she probably pointed the same thing out to hundreds of people that day.

The run course is a new one that goes along the lake and into downtown Huntsville, and includes a quad-taxing selection of really steep up-and-down hills. The roads go through some beautiful neighbourhoods, and the volunteers at the aid stations were stellar in their dedication and cheerful support; I don’t know how they keep it up hour after hour, but I am so glad they do. We also got to run down the somewhat rough gravel road that leads to the swim start of many other Huntsville triathlons past and present, including the Muskoka 5150; it had a familiar, friendly feel to it.
I began feeling tired and started to stiffen up at around the 10K marker, but I just kept running along till I got to the end, only walking at some aid stations. As I ran down the finish chute at Deerhurst I felt I had left it all out on the course, with just a little left over afterwards to pedal my bike the few kilometres back to the airstrip where my car was parked.

After my previous outing, it was a relief to finish what I had started this day. It has been a tumultuous summer, and nothing could have calmed it more effectively than a solid finish at this most beautiful and challenging of 70.3 races.