by Jennifer Quaid
I ran the Ottawa Race Weekend Scotiabank Half-Marathon last Sunday. And as happens to countless other athletes in the minutes, hours and days following a race, game or competition, I was asked: “How’d it go?”
“How’d it go?” such a simple little question on the surface and, assuming the question is well-intentioned (not always the case, but we’ll leave that for another blog), something asked out of genuine interest in the participant’s assessment of what happened during the event. The answer, however, is tricky because whether you like it or not, you have to reflect on what your performance means to you (in relation to one or more indicators, be it an objective metric like time, score or ranking or a subjective perception, like effort, satisfaction or fun) and then, you have to decide what you are going to say about it to others. Sometimes, these two steps flow smoothly from one to the other – usually when you meet or exceed whatever expectations you had. Other times there is no clear answer because it depends on how you want to characterize what happened. Glass half-empty or glass half-full? This latest half-marathon was just such a situation. Through the prism of three possible answers to the question, here is how I worked through what I thought of my race and what I would say about it.
Answer number 1: “I ran a 1:44.21.” Answering with a race time is a typical, quick response. I thought about just saying this multiple times. Before the race, I had indicated to some of my running friends that I hoped to run a sub-1:45. For anyone who does a sport that is measured against the clock, you know there are thresholds imbued with a certain aura. A sub-1:45 half-marathon is one of them, because it translates into a sub-5:00 min/km pace, a kind of badge of honour among older racers like me (I’m 48) who still remember when they could run really fast without nearly as much effort.
In the world of amateur running, competition is a relative concept. I do not try to compete with elite runners or even category winners. Even in my 45-49 category, the fastest women run times that are beyond my reach. My objectives are calibrated to what I think I can achieve – on a good day, when things go well, taking into account the reality that running is an activity I love but which can command only a limited amount of my time in comparison to that which is taken up by my family, my friends, my colleagues and students, my academic career, my community etc.
Against this backdrop, it would be tempting to say, just be happy you can run, just go out there and have fun, who cares about the time? Well, umm, I do. I have been racing in some form or another my entire life: cross-country, middle distance track, 5 & 10k road races, marathons, triathlons, Masters swim meets and open-water swims. As I have joked to many people over the years: you can take an athlete out of competition, but you cannot take competition out of an athlete. Age, injuries, family and work responsibilities, none of that can ever dim the desire to perform and to achieve goals. Of course, this applies to other areas of life too, but sport remains a particularly fertile ground for setting measurable targets. But a time never tells the whole story and this was especially true for my half-marathon this year.
Answer number 2: “It went really well until about 16k, when I got a massive calf cramp. I kept going but the cramp never went away completely. I finished ok, but not as well as I could have.”
The bane of the older athlete’s existence is the way the body can break down in ways it never has before. Sometimes, we see it coming, sometimes it hits without warning. Going into Sunday’s race, I was worried about lingering issues with my hamstrings, which have become quite vulnerable (running plus a desk job is terrible for hamstrings).
In 2015, my first half-marathon after more than 10 years (and 3 kids) away from road racing, I ran a personal best time of 1:39.53, but I paid for it dearly when in the weeks following the race I started to notice sharp pain in my left hamstring when I ran at faster tempos. I foolishly did not heed these early warning signs and ended up with a hamstring tear (there was never a precise cause identified and it took months to diagnose, but I knew something was not right by the fall of 2015). It took 18 months to recover, during which I could do little running and it nearly drove me crazy! I ran the 2017 half-marathon but I was much more careful and much slower (1:46.32).
In preparing for this year’s race, my left hamstring was fine, but my right hamstring had occasionally bothered me in training. When I woke up on race day, however, I felt great. It was a cool overcast morning and I could sense in my bones that the conditions for racing would be near perfect – the times were going to be fast this year. Nevertheless, I started the race cautiously, watching my pacing, making sure I was not going out too fast. At about 15k, I looked down at my watch: a 4:51 km/min, not lightning speed, but a good solid pace. I said to myself: “No need to push, your first half of the race was strong, all you need to do is stick on this pace and you’re golden.” Hubris, I suppose. 500 m later, my calf seized up in a cramp so intense I had to stop running. More than the pain, I felt the utter shock of surprise: how can this be? I have never had a calf cramp in my life! In an instant, I knew my fast time was history.
But the injury, though significant, was still only part of the story.
Answer number 3: “I had so much fun out there: the atmosphere was amazing. I just love being part of this race!”
If you have ever run in a mass race, you will know that while running in the crowd of runners, you are part of something larger than yourself. Even if people are actually running at variable speeds, you are part of a continuous flow that carries you along, if not physically, at least psychologically. Until you stop.
When I had my calf cramp, I was stopped for all of about 20-30 seconds as I tried to stretch it out. Nevertheless, I watched what seemed like thousands of runners whizz past me. I will admit it was dispiriting. Then I had another surprise. A runner stopped at my side for a few moments. He said: “You ok? Try rolling your foot more to take the pressure off the calf. And here, take this. Good luck!” He handed me a packaged electrolyte “gummy bar” and was gone. I did not have time to note his name or bib number. But I will forever be grateful to him for altering the course of the race for me. Not for the calf muscle – even the gummy bar could not eliminate the pain and awkward gait I would have to manage for the next 5 km – but for the change in attitude his gesture prompted in me.
Though I do a lot of sports, I will always be first and foremost a runner. Running is one of the few spaces in my busy life that remains completely mine and allows me to reconnect with that fleet-footed 10 year-old I once was, who ran out of pure joy without a care in the world. Now, she said to me : “Hey, this cramp may slow you down, but you don’t have to let it ruin your fun.” So I started up again, resolved to enjoy every single minute. I smiled at every funny sign I saw (my favourite: “Enjoy this quiet time away from the kids!”), I clapped in appreciation at the bands playing on the roadside, I high-fived every kid who held out his or her hand, and I blew kisses to the throngs of spectators who lined the final kilometres of the course. Most important, I did not once look at my watch. When I crossed the line at 1:44.50 (gun time, not chip time), I was pleasantly surprised.
Three answers, all factually accurate, all different perspectives on the same race. So what’s the takeaway? Each of them is an important part of why I continue to race.
First, performance metrics, like time, when kept in reasonable bounds, give me something to strive for and provide a focus for training. I may not have had my best time this year, but I was encouraged and pleased with the first 2/3 of the race. At the finish line, my first thought was : I am not done; there is room for improvement yet. I can run faster!
Second, injuries happen, especially as we age. The calf strain was a reminder not to take the body for granted, but I was also heartened by how well my hamstrings have held up. I realized that with proper care and training, it is possible to rebuild and recover.
Finally, attitude is everything. Clearly, finishing the half-marathon with a smile is small potatoes in comparison with other more important matters. But it was a reminder to me of the transformative power of choosing to be positive in the face of adversity.
So how’d it go? “It was fast, it was tough and it was fun! And I can’t wait till next year!”
Bio: An avid runner and swimmer who also enjoys cycling, cross-country skiing, and yoga, Jennifer is a married mother of three and a professor in the Civil Law Section of the Faculty of Law of the University of Ottawa.