Friday, October 24, 2014

My Un-Tights

“I get older. They stay the same age.”
Wooderson, Dazed and Confused

Beautiful autumn run through the valley yesterday.
I took the car to the dealership and ran home—not far, just about seven kilometres, but enough to get my legs warmed up.

Not that they needed it, as I was wearing my favourite pair of tights, an old pair that I have had for many years. In fact, when I got home, I walked past a photo of me in the Vulture Bait 25K trail race back in 2007, and noticed I was wearing the same tights (and the same blue running jacket, as it happens).
I remember when I bought them. It was just after the Rideau Lakes Cycling Tour in 1999. The Rideau Lakes is an enjoyable 360K round trip pedal between Ottawa and Kingston. You bike down on Saturday, stay the night at Queen’s University, and head back to Ottawa on Sunday. The first year I did the event, we had beautiful weather on the Saturday; but overnight, wind, rain, and cold moved in. Some people (including me) were taken by surprise by the sudden weather change. I had only a little jacket and some tissue-paper thin nylon warmup pants with me. Many people abandoned that day; oddly, I didn’t, but I was wet and freezing for every minute of the ride back. At one point I recall standing in the public park washroom in Perth, about 40K from the end, trying to thaw my hands out under a weak stream of hot water from the tap so I could hold onto my handlebars. The finish line seemed a long way off that day.

I don’t mind running or biking in the cold and wet. But I hate being cold and wet, and I was annoyed at myself for not having had the foresight to have brought the proper cycling kit for bad weather. Tim Noakes, in The Lore of Running, agrees with me. “Almost without exception,” he writes, “Fatal cases of hypothermia occur in people who underestimate the cooling capacity of the environment.” Yikes. That is exactly what I had done.
Right after that first Rideau Lakes, I decided that as God was my witness, I would never be cold again. I went to Mountain Equipment and bought a carload of weather-resistant clothing. The next year at the event, I was outfitted with enough gear for an open boat journey through the Drake Passage in the gales of winter. Of course, that year the weather was warm and sunny all weekend.

All these years later, my tights are anything but tight; they have all the elasticity of a pair of Pa Kettle’s long johns. After I’ve been running for a while they tend to bag around my ankles like a pair of 1980s aerobic leg warmers. Somewhere along the line they acquired a rip in the thigh from an unfriendly bicycle component. It’s a cinch that they slow me down considerably by wind drag alone.
New paths; familiar clothing
I have lots of other tights, warmer, stretchier, more waterproof, and one X-rated pair of compression ones that cling to me like shrink wrap. But I seem to keep coming back to the familiar old floppy pair. I probably will, until I need to wear suspenders with them to keep them from falling down.

Maybe it’s because they link me to all the races we have done and all the places we have been together: countless early morning training rides in Algonquin; the Waterfront Marathon in Toronto; the Blue Mountain Century in Collingwood; winters of biking to work downtown. On my desk, as I write, is a photo of my wife and me on a chilly morning ride to Zabriskie Point in Death Valley. I’m wearing the tights. There is a timelessness, an agelessness about these almost indestructible tights that I am loath to let go of.
Next weekend, failing an unprecedented increase in global warming, I’ll pull the tights on one more time for the Angus Glen Half Marathon. I’m really looking forward to this run, a small, friendly race just north of Toronto, which I’m doing for the first time. Except it won’t feel like the first time. As I flop down the road in my baggy old tights, each step will feel like every one I’ve ever taken.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Runner Runner

"When I first started running, I was so embarrassed I'd walk when cars passed me. I'd pretend I was looking at the flowers!"
Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic marathoner

We are all in the same race, we who call ourselves runners claim, but the race that women had to run to get onto the track was longer and more arduous than mine ever was. That my own daughter has been able to enter and finish several Ironman triathlons, and that her childhood friend, Kate, is currently a world-class professional 1500-metre runner are direct results of the vision and fortitude of the early twentieth century female athletes, who ran toward a finish line that was so much farther away than it is today that it must have been almost out of sight.
Carrie Snyder’s fine book, Girl Runner (Anansi), tells the story of Aganetha Smart, a fictitious but very believable middle distance runner who competed in the 1928 Olympics. Aganetha’s career as an elite athlete (which is inspired by the real-life Canadian women--the Matchless Six-- who went to the Olympics that year) is described alongside her life as a farm girl, and both stories are bound together by that of the present-day 104-year-old Aganetha, who is spirited away from her nursing home by a mysterious young couple. Gradually we become aware that the young lady in the couple is also a runner, and the plot begins to turn, like a running trail leading into a new part of the forest.

Women were not always encouraged, or even allowed to run. The sport was considered unladylike,
An official tries to pull Kathrine Switzer off
the marathon course.
and women themselves were thought too frail to survive the physical travails of a running race. (This assessment would come as a surprise to any woman who has gone through childbirth.) Young female runners (who make up the majority of most half-marathon fields today) might not know that in 1967 an official tried to throw athlete Kathrine Switzer bodily off a marathon course, which at the time was open only to men. “Get the hell out of my race,” the official is supposed to have snarled at her. Five years later, women were officially “allowed” to run this race, which was, and is, the Boston Marathon.
And yet, through everything, women ran. They ran because something inside them demanded that they do; because they were good at it; because running was part of their shape and definition, even if it defied reason or custom.

When 104-year-old Aggie asks the young woman who has inexplicably taken her away from her home why she runs, the woman responds: “I don’t know….I think I would run even if I knew I would never win another race again. It’s weird. I can’t explain it. It’s like something I can’t turn off.”
The prosaic and earthy aspects of running always intermingle with the metaphysical. There is sweat, and mud, and having to pee behind a tree (if you can find one). Our bodies are constantly reminding us that they are there, working for us, no matter what lofty visions we may have started out with. There are few runners who can’t relate to the unattractive physical realities of the sport. Ms. Snyder (a distance runner herself) hardly makes the life of the elite athlete seem glamorous with descriptions such as:

“I am hiding in the change room…staring at my bared feet, blistered and red… Directly across from me is a toilet perched oddly on a high concrete pedestal…and beside that a cold-water shower spout over a drain in the floor…It is a dismal space and I’m a dismal mess of dismal emotions: I thought I was fast?
Ms. Snyder mixes details of the lives of her rural Ontario women with the ineffable need to run that has always driven athletes of both genders. She also describes, in a near-breathless cadence, the cathartic cleansing of running that many runners know. “I run strong. I run fine. I can feel my sadness running out behind me, like it’s being spilled on the ground…”

We run with our girl runner, our legs barely touching the ground, but we also muck out the stables and feed the chickens and bake Crumb Cakes with her. It is in running, though, that Aggie tries proactively to assemble the person she wants to be. Does she succeed? Looking back at her life, she seems to summarize everything with a Fitzgerald-like observation: “We are old. But we go on.” This phrase reminds me of the mantra I sometimes use in the closing miles of Ironman: “I’m alive. And I’m moving forward.” Sometimes, this is all we have.
The original "Matchless Six" Canadian Olympians in 1928
I quibble slightly with the story's depiction of my own gender. As with so many novels about women, the men are often drawn as simple backdrops or springboards to advance plot: the father, possibly heartbroken but stolid,  with his perpetual home improvement projects; the thoughtless boyfriend; the faceless corporate benefactor; the clumsy cinematographer. But Girl Runner is not a book about men, and who knows, maybe this is really how men seemed to women in the twentieth century, before the women were allowed inside them.

You do not have to be a girl or a runner to love this book. As a male runner, I was able to marvel at the path that Aganetha Smart followed, even while acknowledging my own distance from it. The story itself is compelling and timeless and the female characters are as sharply drawn as if they had been carved from the unyielding earth of the Ontario farmland. Carrie Snyder’s precise images and clear sentences carry the action forward, and her expert handling of the changes in setting make the shifts almost seamless. Like a racer in perfect form rounding the final curve and sprinting towards the tape, there is not a wasted action, an unfocussed thought, or a shallow breath in Girl Runner.