In the dead of winter, in the dead of night, I made up my mind. I would do it. Now, choices made at 4 a.m. are seldom good ones, I admit. But I had decided. The jury is still out on whether it was good or bad. Of course, 4 a.m. decisions have to survive till breakfast at least. This one did. And it hung on through the day and into the next one. And to make it stick, I had to tell someone – someone who wouldn’t automatically roll their eyes and say “sure.” So I did that too, and the decision began to stick.
I was going to run a 5K race on March 30th – about 14 weeks out. Which doesn’t sound like much, save for the fact that I haven’t run anything harder than a gas barbeque since high school. And, to be frank, I was in no condition to run even 1K. To look at me you would be right to wonder if I would even survive a K or two, never mind finish any.
Ironically, it was a heart attack which made me think of this. Not mine, thankfully, but someone else’s. Up reading that dead of winter dead of night, I saw the name of the boyhood mayor of my hometown. Vic Copps used to run Hamilton’s famous 30K “Around the Bay Race” in the 1970s. Mayor Copps was a good guy and a good sport, I guess – how many mayors do you know who were running 30ks back then? Or today, come to think of it? But his heart couldn’t take it. He survived, but his days as Mayor were done.
Yes, that is an odd inspiration to run. The true inspiration was the wish not to have a heart attack, or die the thousand cuts of advancing age. There is a moment when you figure out that you are not 18 anymore. My old man never had that moment, to his cost; this, I guess, was that moment for me.
Getting ready for this meant changing what I ate and what I did with my time. I enrolled in a running class, with a younger member of the family as mascot and pace bunny. We lurched out onto the frozen, black iced streets of Ottawa in the bitter cold of a harsh winter, with a hearty group of new runners. We were not fair weather novices: conditions were terrible, dangerous really (three people fell on the ice during our first outing. I was not one of them, but my pace bunny was). “The ones who start in January are the ones who keep at it” said the guy from the Running Room. We shall see. I spent money on real shoes – refusing to buy the bright green ones of course – a wise investment, as it turned out.
I cannot say that I enjoyed the class (no fault of the Running Room – I do not like to be a failure, and in particular do not like to be the worst at something). It embarrasses me grievously even to be seen plodding along and I was grateful for the early dark of January and February. Yet my classmates and coaches were incredibly positive and supportive, endlessly forgiving of my inadequacy. It was coach Cathy who actually taught me the thing that allowed me to keep going: “If you can’t talk while you’re running, you’re going too fast.”
With this lesson in mind I learned to pace myself – very, very slowly – and build up some marginal stamina. Sadly, my pace bunny fell by the wayside with a knee injury and I was soon the only family member out there on the ice. The weather was so terrible that I took up using a treadmill at a local rec centre – a much softer way to run. My endurance improved but pounding real pavement seemed to suck the steam out of me. The end of March came far too quickly.
It is hard to describe the sensation of dread filling me that morning, as I laced up my shoes and pinned on my bib. A song on the car radio burned itself, note for note, into my brain during the long hour before I went to the starting line. Had I been tethering myself to a bungee cord or leaping out of an airplane, I could hardly have felt more at risk. Having spent an entire lifetime not running (and on occasions when I did, always alone, preferably in the dark) my guts churned at the prospect of trudging down the streets of my old hometown. Even the anonymity of a huge crowd offered little solace. Neurosis, I confess, is a harsh mistress. But as a friend has repeatedly told me, “run toward your fear.” Not what one’s instincts say, of course, but good advice if you’re not being chased by a tiger. I ran toward my fear.
I wasn’t ready for the 5K – indeed, although I ultimately crossed the finish line, it was only through a supreme act of will and after more than a few stops along the way. My cold weather training taught me to wear layers – layers that just about killed me on a bright and lovely Spring morning. At the starting line, penned up like Temple Grandin’s steers, we kibbitzed and joshed. A rather ancient guy told me this was also his first time running the 5K – he had done the 30K for decades but this year, thought he should take it easy. I blanched. Young women bounced on their toes, their flourescent pink and green shoes dancing like Christmas tree lights. Suddenly we began to shuffle forward towards York Street, people cheering us on. What an odd sensation it all was; I felt entirely an impostor.
We took a hard left and headed west towards Dundurn Castle. The summer I was 8 years old I became a Castle rat – climbing the bluffs behind it, taking the 25 cent tour over and over again, until I could recite every fact about the place (“this is the sick room, this is the butter churn…”) Now, in what I hope is the middle of my life, the castle seemed far away indeed. Amazingly, someone on the run was carrying some kind of ghetto blaster – I heard the familiar beat and horns of a record and, when it began sang out with it “It’s not unusual, to be loved by anyone!” People laughed and I kept trotting. I lurched along, following certain participants in an effort to keep going.
Eventually, I stopped to breathe, staggered forward, resumed my slow jog, and so on. It was a long, slow slog. Just before the 3K mark, I met a guy dressed as the Grim Reaper (true!) to whom I muttered “I thought I’d be meeting you here.” The fellow, unsmiling and grim, said to me “You won’t make it to the end.” Infuriated, I kept going.
As much as I yearned for the end, I dreaded it too: we went down a ramp into an arena (named for Vic Copps, as it happens) in front of several thousand spectators. My large, over-dressed bulk and purple face would be splashed across a jumbotron for all to see. I put up a last minute burst of…well, speed isn’t quite the word, and pushed to the end. So desperate was I to remain anonymous in this setting that I found a cluster of slow-moving but attractive women and made sure to stay right behind them at the finish line. There is little doubt in my mind who the audience was looking at when we came into the arena.
I wasn’t ready for the aftermath of the 5K either. My first thoughts were of the guy dressed as death, 2K back. “Fuck you Grim Reaper” I snarled. I hope no-one at the finish line thought I was speaking to them.
Then came a strange wave of grief, a sense of loss. This was unexpected. Yet the sadness was tangible and intense: the image of a long absent friend formed in my mind, so vivid as to almost seem a phantom, before dissipating. I blinked. Then I thought of pace bunny, wished she had not hurt her knee, wished she could have hobbled along beside me. But she was there in spirit.
Next was relief that the damned thing was done. Friendly strangers began to hand me granola bars and water; a young lady slung an ersatz medal around my neck, and I wandered through the bowels of the arena, up to the stands. I slumped into a seat, stripped off a top layer of clothing and watched the even-slower-than-I-was crowd lurch across the line. There weren’t many. It wasn’t too long after that the 30K people came flying in. My heart swelled with admiration at these human greyhounds, bony and worn out, at the end of their travail.
It was a long drive – five or six hours – back home that night. The time and tunes in the car lifted my gloom and I was left with a curious sense of joy. I had done it – not well, not prettily – but I had done it. And I believed suddenly, that I would do it again. Weirdest of all, I wanted to do it again. And soon. I wanted to do it today – May 25th- race weekend in my new hometown of Ottawa.
But I didn’t. Three weeks after the Hamilton race, after not warming up properly and heading out on the uneven ground of a wooded park, I was 10 minutes into my jog when I felt a piercing tear at my right hip. It was as if the hip joint had pushed out through the flesh. It hadn’t (clearly I have a low pain threshold) but when it happened, I put my hand there to see if I was bleeding. That’s how much it hurt. I kept up the run, albeit fitfully, but that was it. A few days later my doctor said I had strained the transverse muscle at the point where it attaches to the hip. You will want to avoid doing that, friend.
So I’m not running. Recovery is inconsistent- it can hurt like a bastard at times, sometimes even when just climbing some steps. This morning, instead of standing in the corral with thousands of other slow-moving (and some fast-moving) participants, I was at home, later hiking downtown in time to see the race barricades dismantled. I will have walked about 8K today by the time the day is done, but it doesn’t feel the same. I could walk to Jerusalem and somehow, it would never be the same as gasping my way down York Street. But I am injured.
It seems to me, this is what happens to you when you start something new, after a long hiatus. So it began last winter, and so it goes. And in truth, with each new set of muscles I have put to work, I have been hurt. People tell me I will heal, but on this sunny Sunday, it still stings.