On Track in 2018

Happy New Year everybody! It’s hard to believe another year has gone by and that we’re eeking ever closer to the turn of another decade. When it comes to running, a new year can definitely give us new spark and fresh resolve. When I look back at my own running over the last year, it certainly took many unforeseen twists and forks in the road, and I’m sure this year will be no different, but I do feel extremely greatful to have running as an outlet and a focus, a source of positivity, social connection, and something I love doing (most of the time that is).
Yesterday I joined up with the group which Josh coaches for my first indoor track workout, which Alex Berhe and I did together (Alex is going to be guiding me on some workouts this winter in addition to his own racing with the University of Ottawa team). It’s been a couple of years since I’d been on the indoor track but it sure brought the memories flooding back to be out there again – coupled with the fact that I ran into an old training partner from years ago, Berry de Bruijn was there with his ten-year-old son – time really flies!
The workout was nothing too complicated, 5 x a mile at tempo effort with 60 seconds rest between. The times we were aiming for were very conservative with just getting back into full training mode again and we were able to hit them fairly comfortably – in my best shape I would have been twenty seconds per mile faster, but the point yesterday was just to be back on the track and getting used to long intervals again.
It’s so normal to want to shoot for the stars at this time of year with setting ambitious training and racing goals, but in doing so we run the risk of painting ourselves into a corner. I met up for coffee this weekend with a friend who for years had put everything into running, only to fall short of the ambitious competitive objectives which he had set for himself and ultimately burning out. I’ve definitely had periods in running where nothing seemed to be working and where I felt discouraged – the year leading into Rio and following the Rio Games was like that. Last winter when I started back, I decided to run only as much as I could and to set very modest targets – if a workout was too hard, I’d stop, and I ran less mileage, and if I missed a day or two, I didn’t worry about it. Gradually, I started to feel my fitness coming back, but even more important, I started feeling great – I felt strong when I was running and positive and encouraged to just plug away at it.
It can be so difficult to give ourselves permission to trust how we feel – I think we want to be able to have control over our destiny through training hard to race well. Of course there is definitely a time for hard training but it has to make sense in the context of an overall competitive plan.
In running I’m coming to realize more and more that we can do better when we feel good doing it most of the time – it enables us to be more consistent, and healthier, and happier. I’m hoping my friend can maybe begin to think about it in this way and perhaps rediscover the joy of running for it’s own sake again. I’m hoping to be able to keep thinking about it in this way too. And for anybody who has set an ambitious running resolution in 2018, don’t be afraid to scale it back a notch and give yourself permission to fall in love with the process of consistent, moderate training, because doing so can help so much to carry you through the twists and turns and forks in the road.

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Marathon Madness and Great Memories: California International Marathon Race Report

I started this blog a couple of weeks ago but then very nearly lost my computer after inadvertently leaving my backpack on an OC Transpo bus – I don’t recommend this by the way – I was super fortunate to be able to get it back after several days of thinking that more than likely I was out of luck. Since then the holidays sort of took over, but I wanted to finally get back to writing about my first marathon.
CIM was an amazing experience on so many levels: the race itself on Sunday December 3, the wonderful support we had, and the chance to meet some really incredible people.
Ahead of the race I’d wanted to have a buffer of three nights of sleep in California to recover from the trip and be optimally ready, and so I flew from Ottawa to Sacramento on Thursday evening November 30, via Chicago. The flight out of Ottawa had been delayed for nearly an hour, which made for an extremely narrow window to try to make the connecting flight. I have to really thank the woman who met me off the plane and raced me through the vast O’Hare Airport with it’s multiple terminals and gates. We eventually made it to the gate for Sacramento only to learn that they had just closed boarding. It was looking like I might have to spend the night in Chicago, until somehow, one of the people working at the gate called somebody and miraculously, they were able to get me on the flight in the nick of time.
I sat beside a very friendly ex-US military guy who would end up helping me to pick up my bag in Sacramento. He also recommended a great local Sacramento coffee shop, Temple Coffee. I love coffee and trying to find local places anywhere I go, and this one certainly lived up to what the guy told me when I went there on Friday morning.
As I wrote previously, Richard Hunter, who coordinated the VI participation in CIM, did so much to help us in the lead-up and throughout the weekend. He had arranged for volunteers to pick up those of us travelling from out of town at the airport. A woman named Annie was there to meet me when I arrived, and she even brought me chocolate, thinking that I might be hungry after the long flight, which was so nice. We made it to the Holiday Inn, where most of the visually impaired runners and guides from out of town were going to be staying, at 11 pm California time, which in reality was 2 am for me. Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to fall asleep.
I spent a good part of Friday morning at Temple Coffee which was very close to where we were staying, sitting outside on the patio in the 15 degree celsius sunshine and just appreciating life. Then in the early afternoon I met up with Greg Bricca, a local marathoner who Richard had linked me with – Greg was going to guide me for the first half of the marathon. Together he and I walked over to the Expo and picked up our race numbers, and ran into Rich and a few other VI participants and guides, before heading back to the Holiday Inn to change and head out for our first run together. Not only was Greg guiding me on our walk back to the hotel but he was also looking out for two other totally blind runners who headed back with us, one of whom had a guide dog and another who didn’t, hence he definitely had his hands full but we all made it back safe and intact. Greg and I ran for 33 minutes on a trail right behind our hotel and included 2 miles at 6:10 to 6:15 pace, which we hit easily enough, although I didn’t feel especially great on it. I had not eaten a lot early in the day and on top of that, had just travelled the day before, but even so it was a little disconcerting as I’d hoped to feel a bit smoother although experience has taught me that you sometimes may not feel great in the days before a race and it doesn’t necesarily have much bearing on the final outcome.
That evening our entire group of 51 visually impaired runners, + guides and volunteers were shuttled over to the Sacramento Society for the Blind building for an informal dinner which they hosted for us. It was a nice event and a chance to get to know some of the other runners. I sat with another Canadian, Craig Spurrell who heads the Toronto Midtown Achilles group (Craig would run nearly an hour personal best in the marathon and qualify for Boston in the process), a Japanese woman who was coming to run CIM for her third time and who unfortunately was able to speak only a few words of English, a guy named Ben who works for Guiding Eyes for the Blind (the only school which trains seeing eye dogs to run with their owners as I found out), and a VI runner named Don Balcom who had run CIM a couple of times previously and who as he was telling me does 100 % of his training on a treadmill, mostly at 2 am before going to his day job. Don is an experienced marathoner who runs 80 to 90 miles a week regularly – I’ve touched that kind of volume only a couple of weeks in my life – and speaking with him reminded me of how new to this I am; it was great to be able to chat with him and pick his brain. The dinner didn’t go too late and by 8:30 we were back at the hotel and I headed back to my room, by way of the little convenience store in the hotel lobby to pick up Gatoraid and a few snacks.
Saturday morning started out with a group breakfast sponsored by Guiding Eyes where Pam McGonigle, a former US Paralympian and gold medalist from the 1992 Barcelona Games in the 3000 metres shared her story and her more recent experience running with her guide dog. After that, there were volunteers from the Delta Gamma surority, whose mission is to assist individuals who are blind or low vision, available to guide us to the race Expo, or simply to head into the city for anything we might need or want to do. As a blind person travelling on your own in a new city, it was incredibly nice to have people available and willing to simply help you to get around. I ended up walking around with two volunteers – we went into Old Sacramento, which is a really interesting part of the city where a lot of the old west feel has been maintained, with wooden sidewalks and cobblestone roads – they helped me to pick up a couple of Christmas ornaments and we had lunch at a Mexican place. We took pictures together by a huge Christmas tree and everybody was very much in the Christmas mood. It wasn’t especially warm that day but I remember thinking how strange, and great it would be to spend Christmas in a warmer place (we’re in the middle of a deep freeze with temperatures in the minus 20’s with wind chill as I write this a day after Christmas).
That afternoon I took a nap for an hour and then met up with my other guide, Jacob who would be guiding me for the second half of the race and we headed out for an easy 4-mile jog. Almost right away there was a sharp little rise in the terrain and I somehow managed to trip and landed hard on my left elbow and right knee. I was ok, a little shaken up but all in all I’ve fallen very few times in my years of running and it happens to everyone from time to time. Jacob felt bad but honestly it is an occupational hazard of running as a blind person, and running in general. We had a great rest of our run and once back, I was able to get cleaned up and ready for the banquet, where I sat with Jacob as well as Greg and his wife. Richard had arranged for Marla Runyan, a runner who had represented the United States at both the Paralympics and later at the Olympics in the early 2000’s, to come and share her inspiring story which really helped to set the tone ahead of Sunday’s race.
Sunday morning started early with my alarm going off at 3:30 am. I had gotten about 6 hours of sleep but they were good hours. I played around with the kuerig coffee machine in my room until it finally worked, as I’m useless without coffee first thing. Richard, who along with his organizing committee really thought of everything, had arranged an oatmeal breakfast so that people could have something in their stomach ahead of the 7 am start time. I ate a bowl of oatmeal with dried cranberries and a banana and washed it down with water and some more coffee, and then headed into the lobby to wait for one of the 5 am shuttles which would take us out to the race start as this was a point to point race – luckily the finish was only a few hundred metres from where we were staying.
Once on the road, I remember having the slightly unsettling thought as we drove the 40 minutes or so that this was far, and that we had a long way to run back. Greg, who would be guiding me to halfway, was going to meet me at the start as his house is near to the race start and it didn’t make sense for him to come all the way into Sacramento. I shared a seat with one of the guide runners who in each of the past seven years had flown out to be a guide in this race on his own dime. He was telling me about having been recently diagnosed with a serious health condition, but that his doctors were watching him closely, and that it wasn’t going to stop him from running and doing what he loved. That resonated with me a lot. Here was someone who was making it a priority to help another runner who needed his support, someone who wasn’t dwelling on what might happen but who was making the best of things, doing what he loved doing and offering what he had to offer in the service of another person. It made me realize that everybody bears a cross of some kind, whether blind or sighted, experienced or new at it, whether focussed on a specific goal or whether the goal was to finish. I met so many people during the CIM weekend who had overcome real adversity to be at this race, people for whom running had changed their lives in such profound ways, and it was incredibly humbling. It really spelled out for me the insight that at the base of whatever it is that motivates us to train and set our sights on completing anything as crazy as 26.2 miles on foot, it is the commitment to running for it’s own sake which truly helps to reshape us and open us up to ourselves.
When I started training for this race back in September I had this idea that I wanted to aim to run sub 2:40. I had no real rationale for this other than I thought it was possible, based on what I’d run on the track which of course doesn’t necesarily equate to the marathon. With training not going as well as we’d hoped in the fall, Josh thought it might make more sense to aim for 2:45. He had said mainly to have fun with it though and to not worry too much about the outcome. In the days right before the marathon, I’d started thinking that running 6 minute pace would definitely be too fast, but that perhaps 6:10 to 6:15 might be manageable – this would put me in 2:42 to 2:44 range. This was the plan which Greg and I had agreed on – to settle in at that pace and definitely no faster, and to just see how it went. The VI runners had a separate start 5 minutes ahead of the main field, which meant we wouldn’t be with the main pack and would have a clear road.
The temperature was around 7 degrees celsius at race time with hardly any wind – perfect. We set out and right away were on a slight downhill. I could hear Don and his guide behind us. I felt relaxed and easy, and Greg was feeling good too. Greg’s watch told us we had run our first mile in 6:25, a little slow. We were on our own. I don’t really think we consciously increased the pace that much – if anything we just started to warm up – because after that we were hitting right around 6 minutes, 5:57, and it felt easy. We kept telling each other that we needed to hold back, and we would slow down a little but inevitably we would still be running 6:05. After four miles or so the elites started to catch us – the eventual race winner would run 2:11. As they came passed us, a few of them said, keep it up you guys are looking great, which was amazing as they were racing hard – such is the generosity of spirit of so many in the running community.
I didn’t carry water with me but after 6 miles I began to take either water or electrolyte every 3 miles at the aid stations we passed. I had taken a jell just prior to the race, and took two more, at miles 8 and 16, and this strategy seemed to work well for me – I’d struggled in training with this but on the day I felt good. We got to 10 miles in 60:50, and reached half way in 1:20 exactly, and I felt great. At this point Jacob took over. Greg stayed in the race and would go onto run 2:54. With a set of fresh legs, we ran the risk of going too fast and I told Jacob I was really just aiming to hit 6:10 to 6:15 pace as much as we could. With this being my first marathon I just didn’t want to push too hard too early. I was still feeling good through 16 miles but starting to hurt a little. I remember thinking, just 10 more miles to go, just think of it like a tempo run. I knew as people said that in the marathon the race would really begin after 18 or even 20 miles, which we got to in 2 hours 2 minutes. I had done a 21 mile long run in training and beyond that I knew I’d be in new territory, and I just tried to stay as relaxed as I could and really let the race come. Just as Greg had, Jacob was telling me everything I needed to know, putting us in the right position with other runners around us, giving me just the right amount of encouragement, and not pushing too hard. We did lose ground for sure between 18 and 24 miles, with a 6:20 mile in there and another mile with an uphill where I think we ran a 6:35, but we also had a 6:14, a 6:12, so things could have definitely been worse. It wasn’t my breathing that was the problem, aerobically I felt comfortable, it was my legs which just got so much heavier and more difficult to lift as the miles past. Those last miles were interminable it seemed – it felt like it would take forever to reach another mile marker.
Finally, we were getting back into Sacramento and the roadside was lined with crowds of people. We hit the 25th mile and I think the adrenalaen from the people cheering, coupled with just wanting to finish and get it over with gave me a shot of energy because we were able to get back to a 6:05 mile for the next one. We were passing a few people and I tried to go by hard each time and to forget how much I was hurting because I knew they were hurting more. Jacob and I eventually turned into the final straightaway. I thought we had a few hundred metres still to go, but the finish came more quickly than I’d expected. I had a little bit left and if I’d known how close we were to the line, could have maybe eeked out a few more seconds. We finished in 2:42.09, which gave us second overall among VI runners, behind Chaz Davis who ran 2:38.24.
I was thrilled with how our race went and I really feel I couldn’t have asked for better on the day. There are rare moments in running when the stars align. I could not have done it without the amazing help of my two guides, Greg Bricca and Jake Huston, without the incredible support given to me by Rich Hunter and his team of volunteers before as well as during the weekend, without Josh’s coaching and guiding support, without the support of the other guides who played such a big part in helping me to prepare for CIM, and without the encouragement of other friends as well as my family – thank you so so much.
This marathon was supposed to be a one-off for me, but as Rich Hunter wrote to me in an email about a week after CIM, this is a beginning, and he could be right – it is true that one thing can so often lead to another. The CIM race has a connection with the Boston Marathon through the Massachusetts Association for the Blind, and they offer a spot as well as accommodation and some travel support to participate in Boston for the first VI finisher at CIM who has never raced in Boston before. I was fortunate to be the male recipient of this award. It’s an incredible opportunity. Boston will take place on Monday April 16 and barring the unforseen I’ll be there.
One of the many other poignant things that Richard said over the course of the CIM weekend was that each person has the capacity to positively impact a single person. He explained that this was the mindset which helped him to build the VI component of CIM from a much smaller event ten years ago to what it has become today. The numbers and the tangible impacts of the event on the scale of what he has put together are very evident, but it’s the intangible things – the conversations and stories and time spent together with people for whom running for its own sake, life for its own sake is a common denominator which will stay with me and which I think will ultimately flavour the impression and the experience which so many of us will take away. It was a privelege to get to share the road, and to share a little piece of life with some amazing people. I feel lucky to have been given the chance.

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The Long Run

Well it has been a few months since my last post, but I haven’t been sitting still. I faced a few existential questions over the summer and fall – I guess we all do sometimes. It’s been a weird, crazy year, with a breakup, and a move to a different part of Ottawa. I started the year as an athlete in retirement, and then found myself training again and eventually, putting on track spikes, and then competing with Jérémie at the World Para Athletics Championships in July in London, and coming away with second. I think the fall was a time for the dust to settle a bit.
Except I’m not good at sitting still, at least, not for very long. The marathon is something that I’ve had in the back of my mind for some time, although I always found a reason to put it off. Usually, this had to do with timing, or so I had convinced myself. I would take a break after running track in the summer and never get back into hard training in time to prepare for a fall marathon. To run a spring marathon felt like it would be compromising the summer track season given the time it would take to recover afterwards. Excuses, excuses. But I turned 40 this year. I wanted to run a marathon before I got too much older.
I have some friends who have competed at the California International Marathon in Sacramento. It is held in early December each year, and it draws a huge contingent of visually impaired runners. The course is relatively flat, and fast. My friends had nothing but good things to say about the race. Plus the notion of weather in the teens, well we die for that in Ottawa at a time when temperatures could be 25 degrees cooler. I knew an early December marathon would give me time to recover a bit after the track season and to do a good build-up (this was the theory at least). In late August I reached out to Richard Hunter who coordinates the VI runners at CIM, and he was happy to try to get me into the race. Little known to me, marathons often sell out months in advance (welcome to the world of marathons I suppose).
The support Richard gave me in the ensuing weeks has been second to none. He was able to secure me a free registration, link me with two guide runners who are going to each guide half of the race with me, and even provide me a bursory usually only available to runners who commit back in March – to say nothing of the volunteers he has lined up to pick up people at the airport, meals he has organized throughout the weekend … he has thought of everything, and I can’t say a big enough thank you to him for his amazing organization and support, really I feel like all I need to do is show up and run on December 3.
Josh has continued to coach me this fall and he and I have done a few runs together on Saturday mornings with his group. I’ve had some good weeks of training but in general would say it has not been smooth sailing. Of course training is never perfect, but my training for this marathon really hasn’t been ideal. At times it felt like I was running uphill in a metaphoric sense. I had some trouble earlier in the fall with finding guides. I’m living in a new part of town now, so that was an adjustment. Also, my treadmill has not been working properly and despite several attempts to have it fixed, the problem has persisted. I also just had a cold which hit hard for the better part of a week.
All this said, I’m healthy now and should make it to the starting line in Sacramento on Sunday healthy, barring the unforeseen. I feel fit, in as good a shape as I’ve ever been at this time of year. I’ve done a 34 km long run, which gave me confidence. The glass is still half full. Somebody I know was saying recently that if you can run 30 km at a good pace and are fit, the marathon is just about rolling the dice … so, I’m rolling the dice, hoping for good things, and ready to embrace something new. I know that it will be an incredible experience. It is going to be such an adventure. Running a marathon is something I’ve always wanted to do, and I feel really fortunate to have been given the support and to be in a position to run this one.

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To Yesterday, to Tomorrow

I’ve been thinking a lot in recent days about the past, and also, about what the future might hold. As the summer deepens, as its shadows lengthen, you become aware of time’s movement. You become attuned to your own changes. You realize that nothing is static. It’s the past which frames our context, the future which harbours hopes and unknown possibilities; but as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Art of Living, it’s the present moment which is truly the only thing we have.

 

Some of us are really fortunate to be given the rare opportunity of reliving amazing moments in our lives. After having competed alongside Josh in the 2012 Paralympics, I never again thought I’d have the chance to run in London’s iconic Olympic Stadium, as I did again three weeks ago at the World Para Athletics Championships, or to revisit the birthplace of a Paralympic movement which has helped to illuminate my journey in so many ways. To be able to once again wear the Canadian singlet and race in that stadium along with my new guide Jérémie Ven, a student-athlete who was born just two years before I first competed with the national team in 1998, was an incredible experience; it felt like a time warp in a way. For us to go on to race the best imaginable 1500 metre final I think we possibly could have, following just six weeks of specific training together, finishing second behind the Kenyan team who won last year in Rio and who are the world record holders, helped to turn back the clock for me, metaphorically speaking.

 

I look at it as an incredible bonus to have been able to compete in international competitions over a nineteen year athletic career; this year was among the sweetest of those years because of its spontaneity, given that I’d retired after the Rio Games, and because of the opportunity Jérémie and I were given to try to qualify for London at the last moment, and the vitality he brought to our running, and the layers of our rich experience there. As I said to somebody the other day though, competing internationally is not in and of itself the reason I do this. At the base of it, I love running for its own sake, for the challenge of training and trying to get better, for the community of team mates, training partners and coaches among which I feel a sense of belonging and with whom I’ve had the privilege to share the road, and for the way that running has helped me to remain connected with my own I am.

 

Perhaps, time does not always follow a straight line or linear direction. Although it’s forward momentum is inevitable, perhaps there are occasional bends or hairpin turns which we can use to double back. Although truly we can not reverse its hand, maybe by doing our best to remain engaged with the here and now, we can slow its trajectory. Maybe we can rediscover an opening to the very best of our life experiences in the spaces between its beats.

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Still Running in Circles

 

Life has taken some crazy twists and turns recently. Running has been one constant. I’ve been consistently running around 50 miles (80 km) per week and trying to do two workouts, mostly tempos, or kilometre repeats at 10k pace, things like that. A lot of it has been on the treadmill. Josh and I had done a couple of light track workouts. A friend who I work with, Shera and I, ran together in the Ottawa Race Weekend half marathon on May 29, which was so much fun despite the hot conditions; we adjusted our pacing and worked together and were able to finish strong. The night before, Josh and I ran together in the Ottawa Race Weekend 10k, more to participate because we really hadn’t trained for it. Several of our Achilles athletes ran also, and a good friend who I knew from university at Guelph completed her first ever 10k, having just taken up running a few months ago. She did an amazing job, far exceeding her goal time, supported by a small entourage, all of whom sported tutus … why not!!

A poignant memory from that race for me is from the last few hundred metres. Josh has been injured and was not feeling good at that point. The crowd support along the course was fantastic and as we approached the finish, we found ourselves with a little spring in our strides, but because of the noise I couldn’t hear a thing. As we approached the line though, I could feel Josh’s arm, right there beside me. I knew that if I had sprinted, or if I’d been hurting and had to slow down, he would have still been there, and even without being able to hear, I could have counted on it. We’ve run hundreds of miles together over the last six years, through ups and downs, ebbs and flows. It was an emotional moment, a beat in time echoed back across the years, the measure of someone you know to be dependable, who is there for you no matter what … the best kind of friend you could have.

Having retired last year from competitive international running as it were, I’ve been trying to figure out where running still fits in my life. I’ve kept running, simply because I enjoy training, although it really hasn’t been hard training, nothing like before, and it wasn’t fueled by any clear competitive aspirations.

Then, right out of the blue, last weekend, I received an email from Athletics Canada, our governing body for athletics, asking if I had any interest in being considered for selection to the IPC Athletics Worlds team this summer. Because the qualification window extends back to January 2016, they told us that Josh and I were technically eligible based on 1500m times we ran last year.

Josh has been dealing with injuries throughout the year and hasn’t been able to train a lot, but another former training partner, Jérémie is back here in Ottawa over the summer – he is on a track scholarship in Pennsylvania – and was super excited when I mentioned this to him as a possibility and asked him if he might be interested in pursuing it together. We asked Josh, who coaches a group of high school athletes with our Ottawa Lions club, if he might consider coaching us also. Josh agreed to work with us; I’m really happy that he’s involved in this way.

To make a long story short, I hadn’t competed in a 1500 metre race this year, not since Rio in fact. Bruce Deacon, the distance coach for the IPC Worlds team asked Jérémie and I to prove our fitness this past Wednesday in a 1500 metre race; we needed to run 4:18.5 to be considered for selection, or just under 69 second per lap pace.

On Monday evening, Josh had Jérémie and I run a short 1500 metre pace workout, just 4 x 400m at 68 second pace together, my first time running at that pace this year. Aerobically it felt great, but going into the race on Wednesday, I was still feeling it in my legs, which just aren’t used to that kind of running.

In the end though, I think that workout made a crucial difference just in terms of getting refamiliarized with the faster pace. Jérémie and I ended up coming fourth in the race, running 4:14.5. Even doing strides beforehand, we were both feeling good; you know intuitively when things are working well. We ran our first lap in about 66 seconds, feeling relaxed, and got to 800 in 2:14, and I knew then that we were going to be ok. I felt good and was able to attack the third lap. We were 3:05 or 3:06 with a lap to go. I knew I was in new territory but it felt familiar also; old memories from past races die hard I suppose. It really wasn’t until about 200 metres to go that I started to feel the lactic acid. I just told myself to stay relaxed. Jérémie did a great job of pushing me but not pushing too hard. He had been nervous during our warm-up, but in what was his first time guiding in a race, he did an amazing job. We kept it together and had a good finish.

We were really fortunate to have good weather, the right kind of race, to be feeling good, to have the stars align. Its interesting … almost exactly a year ago, at a time when Josh and I were training hard, we ran 4:13 in a 1500 metre race together, just a second faster than last night.

I had told myself that no matter what happened, I would be ok with the outcome. Having been so fortunate to have had the long athletic career I’ve had, running owes me nothing. But that said, when it came down to it, I was determined to try as hard as I could to make this team once the door was open. Those who know me well know that Rio wasn’t the race I wanted to end my track running on. Most of us don’t get to choose the perfect ending. To have this chance to be a part of one more Canadian team along with Jérémie, and with Joshès coaching support is an amazing opportunity, one I certainly didn’t count on. A week ago, I was running primarily for fitness, and mental sanity. I still am, but there is a little more purpose to it now to be sure.

The Games will be taking place in London in mid July, so we’ll have about six weeks to do specific 1500m preparation, and there’s so much room for us to improve and to build on the training we’ve been doing to this point. We’re super excited to embrace this adventure together, to make the very most of it, to work hard, have fun, and leave it all on the track.

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Running for its own Sake

I’m writing this on a train heading to Toronto, on my way down to visit my parents in Hamilton. It’s a beautiful sunny Friday morning, headed towards the low 20’s … the kind of morning which really lifts your spirits. At this time of year, everything feels new and fresh and vital and alive. The birds sound happier in the mornings. You become aware of the push-pull around you as the seasons collide. Many of the mornings begin close to zero but even when it is cold now, there’s a different feeling in the air.

This past Sunday morning, I met up for a long run with a runner named Gilles who often runs with my brother. It was about 2 degrees when we started running at 8 am but we both wore shorts and a long sleeve, and sure enough, things warmed up quickly so that by the time we finished, the sun was strong and even the wind had warmed. It felt great to be outside and to be moving. We saw so many people running, walking, cycling … taking advantage of the outdoors, just as we were doing.

Life inevitably brings with it inertia at times. The sky may not always be clear blue. Like the push-pull around us, we have our own contradictions to try to make sense of. Running is one of the ways I find myself being able to do that. It’s when I’m running that I feel a sense of greater clarity. This is what compels me to get up at 5 am to run on a day like today. It’s running which helps me to feel connected with what is important.

Around me, I see friends who are developing their own unique relationships with running. I see them taking steps forward, defying gravity, going beyond their comfort zone and discovering themselves in new ways. Its these intangible things which make being able to train from day to day such a privilege. In as much as running is measured by seconds and distance, I’m coming to realize more and more that it’s what running gives us in and of itself which brings energy and meaning to the experience. Last year when I was training to try to qualify for the Rio Paralympics, I lost sight of this crucial part.

Over the past week I’ve been on three separate runs with guides who were working very hard because they wanted me to get the most out of the workout. I want those guides to know how much it means when somebody is willing to go beyond their own comfort zone for another person. I want to say thank you to each of them; and I want them to know that truly, their support in enabling me to be out there, working hard and chasing clarity is such a special gift.

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Language, Limits and Loopholes

When people ask me if I’m still running, my answer has been that following the Rio Paralympics last September, I officially retired from international competition. While this is technically true, it implies that I’ve called it an athletic career. The disclaimer which I usually add is that I’m hoping to continue to compete in some local races and that I’m still doing a little running.

 

When people ask how much running is a little running, I answer five or six times a week; in truth, six days would be more accurate. I’ve even run twice a day here or there. The first few times, I was surprised when people would say, that’s a lot for somebody who’s supposedly retired. And, well, I guess it is.

 

When I was training in the lead-up to Rio for example, I typically ran 6 days a week, although I would run twice on two or three of the days and our training was more systematic and targeted. I ran more than I do now. But the basic weekly structure both then and now is pretty much the same.

 

Last week for example, I ran 50 miles for the first time since starting back into running again in late January. I did two workouts – a tempo run on one day and a series of 1000m intervals and hill repeats on another – with easy steady running on the other four days. Almost all of it was on our treadmill at home. I’m hoping to get outside for more guided runs as the conditions improve.

 

So why do I continue to say I’ve retired when people ask? I do need to come up with a better way of explaining it because … because retirement implies that you’re finished. I tried to adopt that way of thinking back in the fall and it just didn’t feel right. Sometimes, we become trapped by our own language. To say I’m finished would be disingenuous.

 

Inevitably there are lines which we must draw, or which are drawn for us in life. I’m no longer part of the national Para Athletics program, and so I’m not trying to make an international team, do not have to provide my daily whereabouts to the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport anti-doping program, and no longer receive funding to help with living and training costs through Sport Canada’s Athlete Assistance Program. I’m learning, little by little to deconstruct the sense of identity which you derive from pouring your heart and soul into being the best athlete you can. You realize that life has more than one dimension. I’m home on Saturday mornings now and on most nights before 6 pm, compared to many nights when I’d be lucky to get home from the track before 9.

 

Previously, I would put running first and look for jobs which could fit around it. Now I’m trying to fit running in where I can. But to the extent to which my relationship with running has changed, in as much as it has a different tone within the music of my life than it did before, it still resonates with me at a deep level.

 

I may have fewer miles in my legs than I did a year ago, but there’s a new spring in my step. I’m enjoying running more than I have in a long time. There isn’t the pressure of trying to make a team or performing on demand as a national team athlete – it was an incredible privilege to have the opportunity to do so however. I’m running now truly because I want to, because it helps me to feel better, because it grounds me, and because it sets me free.

 

Next time I’ll write about the three, maybe four main races which I’m hoping to compete in this spring and summer. In the meantime, wishing everybody healthy and happy training. I also wanted to congratulate the Canadian Para triathletes who just returned from their season-opening ITU (International Triathlon Union) race held in Sarasota, Florida this past weekend. Each of them made the podium … fantastic job!

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