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.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The River I Stand In

Eeyore shook himself, and asked somebody to explain to Piglet what happened when you had been inside a river for quite a long time. 
A.A. Milne

It’s been an extraordinary spring. I use the word to mean neither wonderful nor ghastly, but simply beyond ordinary.

At the beginning of the year I had two simple personal goals: to see my first book published in May and to run an ultramarathon in Iceland in July. My book was published, and people seem to be enjoying it, which was my primary hope.

Then we bought a new house, unexpectedly. Doing such a thing had been part of a multi-year plan, which suddenly telescoped into immediacy. This necessitated quickly selling the place we already had, with all the attendant fuss and stress.

Finally, although it seemed the day would never arrive, last week we left the home we had lived in for 21 years and moved to a large, tree-covered property a couple of hours from Toronto, on the banks of a river. Watching the water flow past our back door is energizing, mesmerizing, and restful at the same time. The local running and cycling will be terrific and in the back of my mind I am wondering if I can use the river as a sort of Endless Pool to get my swimming back into shape.

In early May I was well into training for the trail race in Iceland – a spectacular event that I had chosen to celebrate turning 65, which would test me as much as any Ironman ever did – when I slipped and fell, badly damaging my right hamstring. The rug was pulled out from under my meticulously constructed Iceland training plan.

For two weeks I could barely walk. I didn’t run for another four. The Vikings would probably just have gone out and run anyway, chopping the bad leg off to reduce drag. My Gaelic ancestors would have holed up somewhere with a supply of Scotch.

The other day I went out and ran for twenty minutes, some of them uncomfortable; I took each step as if I were being chased by a Zamboni, frightened of slipping and reinjuring myself. Yesterday I ran a bit farther, with a bit less discomfort and a bit more joy, and today I made it even farther. If I can keep moving forward like this, I hope to get myself to a place where I feel like a runner again.

You see, this is what it means to ask so much of my body: it doesn’t always do what I want it to, but if I’m lucky, it doesn’t completely quit on me, but revives. Stirring dull roots with the spring rain.

At the beginning of the year, I had no immediate plans to buy a house and move away, and no plans to suffer one of my most debilitating injuries ever. Extraordinary changes have flowed over my world like a river in spring flood. If my athletic life has taught me nothing else, it is that plans change without notice, and that I must be prepared for quick course changes or simply give up.

The river I step in is not the river I stand in. Dreams flow past and are lost. New ones are made and new plans are drawn up to achieve them. As John Lennon sang, there’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. I am here and nowhere else, and happy to be so. We’ll see what happens around the next turning.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

A Different Value

I’m reviewing the situation … I think I’d better think it out again!
Fagin, in Lionel Bart’s “Oliver”

I had a great running season last year: I was 100% injury free; I set some PBs for certain distances; and I ran my first ultra. I established some lofty goals for this year and was out of the gate on January 1.

The best laid schemes…

A week ago I was running on a nearby trail when I slipped in some mud. My right leg went violently out in front of me and in a split-second I knew I had pulled a hamstring. I nursed it over the next 24 hours and it was starting to feel better. I was walking a little awkwardly, as you do, but there was reason to hope.

Two days later I was heading down some stairs into the subway during a rainstorm and the same leg slipped out from under me on the slick floor as commuters streamed by on all sides. The pain was transcendental, and a voice in my head said, “Your season is over.”

I may have been a little dramatic with the prognosis but there was no doubt that I was seriously hobbled and that the healing is going to be very slow. The trail event I had signed up for this Saturday will go on without me, and I’m doubtful I will make it to my target race in July.

I have to be philosophical. I’ve had my share of injuries over the years, but not as many as some people I know, and they have always healed completely. I’ve also raced while in sub-optimal shape: once a marathon when I had a bruised rib; once an Ironman after a bike crash that left me unable to swim for several weeks before the event; once, a century in Death Valley, shortly after tearing my acromio-clavicular ligament. In all these cases I went on to have an enjoyable day.

My book. Written by me.
At the moment it is physically impossible for me to run. When I get back into training, it will be on the bike or in the pool.

We had a manic winter, buying a new house and listing and selling our old one. We are moving at the end of this month. May also signals the publication of my first book, Dr.Bartolo’s Umbrella and Other Tales from my Surprising Operatic Life, a memoir of my years as a singer. I have been to one launch event and there is another two weeks from now. Because my publisher is a small one with few contacts in the music business, I have been doing a lot of the marketing and door-knocking myself. I am loving it all, but it wears a bit.

Adding into this my work with my editing clients and my attempts to write some new material, an outside observer might say that I am as hyperextended as the leg that slipped out from under me. I am not big on kismet or messages from the ether, but I can’t help thinking that something cosmic is trying to say, “Slow down.” Not to mention, "Watch where you're going."

A hot day at IMC
It is in my nature to want to set goals and work towards them. When I have to drop or re-evaluate one I feel lost and bereft. When my head is not full of plans, it feels empty. But surely I am more than my goals. An enforced idleness such as the one I’ve just slid into might be an invitation to look differently at those goals.

When they ran out of water on the bike course at Ironman Canada several years ago, I became badly dehydrated in the last half of the marathon. Every time I tried to run, I felt like throwing up or passing out. So I walked. As I moved slowly back towards town, I felt the warm breeze blow over my skin and watched the twinkling lights across the water grow closer. It was no longer a race I was in, but a journey through the pitch-dark stillness of the night. I let go of the frustration of not being able to move quicker and simply embraced the pace. And eventually I made it to the finish line.

My plans had not worked out that evening in Penticton, but I believe there was value – a different value – in what I did achieve. I think to be an endurance athlete is to be prepared for any change in course, even one that requires a redefinition of the objective.

New destinations
With my current injury, I am at that Ironman again, out at mile 20. I will have to see my objectives differently. And slowly, eventually, I’ll get there.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Staying Home

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,
Know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away,
Know when to run.

The good news was that the freezing rain might stop by morning.
The other good news was that my right hamstring seemed to be on the mend and was not bothering me as much as it had been.

On the other hand, the remnants of a cold had settled uncomfortably in my chest, making breathing an irritating chore.

So much seemed to be conspiring to keep me from running my planned race, the Around the Bay 30k in Hamilton.

And there was the fact that I was vastly undertrained.

Training has not been a focus in the past two months. Our quick, unexpected decision to buy a house in the country and sell the one we’ve lived in for 21 years meant that much of the winter was taken up packing boxes and shifting furniture.

Once we had decided to list the house, we were in the hands of The Stagers. The mandate of The Stagers is to make your home look as if no one has ever lived there, the better to sell it, apparently. To us sellers, their word was law, and the word we got was that none of our furniture, art, or carpeting was worthy to be viewed by the buying public. It all had to go. So began a frantic period of moving everything we owned into the garage so that it could be replaced by one glass-topped coffee table and a throw pillow. Even my beloved treadmill, a wintertime refuge for me, was rolled into a corner while the house was being shown.

All of which goes to say that I didn’t do a lot of running in January and February.

The bottom line: Even If I did show up at the starting line, it would be to shuffle along like an old man in the final miles of Ironman, doing a run-walk, hacking and coughing, finishing on the last page of the results.

Actually I do that anyway, but this time it might not have been worth it.

A few people I know refer to my athletic habits as “crazy,” a term that drives me … well ... crazy. To me there is nothing crazy about setting a goal and taking steps to achieve it. These things mean being organized and focused, not nuts. I get defensive when someone points to everything I go through to do what I do and dismisses it as simply a mental aberration. No, my hobby is not shopping for antiques, having people over to dinner, or eating exotic cheeses. Yes, I sometimes get uncomfortable.

But occasionally an obsession to carry through with something despite a net negative outcome, or at least a lack of a measurable positive one, could be an indication of an approach that is a tad off balance.

No Country for Old Legs
The challenge for me here was to see the bigger picture. I have a long-term training plan to take me to my A race in Iceland this summer. From where I am currently sitting, finishing that race seems nearly impossible. Challenging terrain and weather are made even more daunting by what look like Draconian time cut-offs. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like any country for old men; there are all of 5 people 65+ entered in a field of over 500. Even the four-hour bus ride to the start is off-putting.

Nevertheless I am looking forward to it as much as I did my first Ironman back in 2002. It will test me and my training, resolve, and focus as much as anything ever has.

But training will require running, and I have to be in shape for that. Starting off with a painful whimper is not how I wanted to do it.

Call me crazy, but in the end I decided to skip Around the Bay and live to run another day. I have run the race many times and I will run it many more, but this was not going to be my year.

And things are looking up. My sore muscles are feeling better, my chest cold is retreating, and I feel like running again. Now if I can just remember where I packed my trail shoes…

Thursday, January 12, 2017


Above the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Each January I like to find a word or phrase that will help frame my plans for the coming year. Last year I chose GETTING THERE. My hope was to learn to enjoy the process of moving myself forward and not spend so much time thinking about the endgame. I think I was moderately successful, no more so than in my last race of the year, the Run for the Toad 50k, in which I focused on the experience and let the goal come to me.

I figured out that in an ultra-distance race, you'd better not waste time and energy fussing about some distant finish line or it is going to be a very long day.

This year’s word, CLIMBING, sends me in a different direction. It's a multi-purpose word. You can climb up something, towards something, or out of something. In our rich, beautiful English language, you can also climb down something. You can climb a corporate ladder or a mountain. People even climb into bed.

From where you are in a climb, you can look upward to where you’re headed and downward to where you’ve been. Janus, this month’s eponym, would approve.

The months ahead could be exciting for me. My book, Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella and Other Tales from my Surprising Operatic Life, a memoir of my years as a singer, will be published this spring. I am going to start a new website. I will reach an age milestone.

And I am going to Iceland for an ultramarathon.

The event takes place on a hiking trail in the southern highlands of Iceland. Hikers normally take several days to cover the distance. Runners in this race are expected to do it in under 9 hours, and I will get to spend some quality time pondering my word of the year.

One look at a photo of the race I have just entered tells me that we will not be in Kansas, Toto. There are mountain trails to go up and then get down somehow. The weather varies from year to year and can range from sleet and freezing rain to short-sleeve warmth. The terrain will feature sand, gravel, grass, snow, slush, ice, glacier-fed rivers and streams, and at least one climb down a hill requiring a rope.

It sounds irresistible. No?

Onward and upward. Mostly upward
Just to keep everyone moving along, there are time cutoffs. On paper they seem generous, but apparently a fair number of people do not make them. The prospect of sitting in the cold rain waiting for the sag wagon, stiff and sore and disqualified, will help keep me from dawdling I hope. But there’s only so fast you can climb – up or down.

I have planned and dreamed enough about the scores of events I’ve entered over the years to know that reality often quickly diverges from vision once the gun goes off. Mike Tyson said (somewhat ungrammatically) that everybody has a plan until you get punched in the face. The success of a lot of endurance pursuits hinges on how you recover after getting punched in the face. I expect this will be part of my training regimen over the next six months.

Monday: OFF. Tuesday: 6 km easy. Wednesday: Face Punch.

To date there are only a handful of people over 60 registered for the race. I should take this as a sign that this is no run for old men. Naturally, I will ignore that particular sign. 

Once again my reach is exceeding my grasp. As it was with my first 10k, my first marathon, and my first Ironman, I couldn’t do this race tomorrow – or even next month. Nor do I expect to. For me training for an event has always been equal or greater in value to the event itself. I am trusting myself when I pledge that I can raise my body and mind to a place where doing it is at least possible.

After all, as a runner in the Badwater Ultramarathon once said, “We are all here to see what is possible." I have often thought she could have been referring to the race, or to something larger.

And I do reserve the right to climb into bed at the end of it all.