Thursday, December 29, 2016

How Far We Have Come

waywiser, n.
 An instrument for measuring and indicating distance travelled, especially by foot. Now historical.

One of my private goals for 2016 was to run a race longer than a marathon. I succeeded when I made it across the line at the Run for the Toad 50k in October. Because most ultramarathons take place on trails, I ended up doing most of my training in wilder settings than I’m used to. In this way, longer distances became my regular runs, and I became a trail runner. Except for the Around the Bay 30k race last March, all my events in 2016 were trail races.
Nothing quite like it for cooling the blood.
I got to run for hours and hours through mud, Turkish bath heat, pouring rain, and misty forests. I got to wade through streams created by just-melted snow and pick my way across makeshift bridges made of mossy logs. I slipped and tripped and bounced my way over rocks and roots and hundreds of kilometres of quiet forest pathways. This time last year I felt like a novice trail runner. Now I feel as if I have acquired something from every step I took. (On some of the muddier outings, I did.)
As I live in a very large city, simply planning a two- to three-hour training run without sidewalks and stoplights adds a challenge to the process. I am lucky to live right at the entrance to a vast system of ravines, which weave their way through the city providing biking paths and trails that go on for hours.
One of my best training runs took place a few weeks before the Run for the Toad in October. I ran about 39k on paths beside Lake Ontario and through the Don River Valley. The last two hours were in rain so steady it seemed the air was liquid. When you are tired and sore and it is pouring rain, the only thing to do is to keep calm and carry on toward your goal. So I did. It was a soggy, joyful day.
I am also fortunate to be part of a family summer cottage several hours north of the city. My favourite training route up there takes me 13km along winding, hilly, tree-shaded roads into the local town, finishing with a climb to the top of a large hill. There is a scenic lookout tower at the top of the hill and a spring water source that is almost indecently sensual on a hot summer day.
A few weeks ago this was solid ice.
In past years I would usually wait until someone was driving into town anyway and ask them meet me there and ferry me home. This year I decided to simply turn around and run back, doubling the distance and exponentially improving my workout. Oddly, no one ever expressed regret over the absence of my salt-covered body and sodden clothes in their car. A win/win.
I did that Tower Hill run several times last summer; hour after hour of “the green dark forest … too silent to be real” save for the sound of my feet hitting the ground. Now that I am city-bound by winter, the peaceful solitude of that 26k route has become a refuge for my mind.
My goals for next year – the year in which I will turn 65 – are varied and exciting. And like most private dreams, they are fanciful and farfetched and therefore completely malleable. But wherever I end up, I do plan to run farther and climb higher than I have any right to be able to. I will slip and trip and fall (my plan does include getting up again). I will be hot and cold and wet and learn how to deal with being these. As I move forward, I will become stronger and yes, maybe wiser. 

To the bewilderment of those who think I should suffer somehow for the audacity of wanting to transport my body over long distances under my own power, I intend to love every step.