In 2017, I started dabbling in running one or the other race, and discovered a wonderful one: the Bilbao – Rekalde San Silvestre 8k, which takes place on New Year’s Eve. My husband is from the Basque Country, so we spend New Year’s there every year. I had so much fun in 2017 that I decided to run it again on the last day of 2018. This time, I roped in two friends to run it with me. Overall, just under 2,500 other runners had the same idea. And it was even better than the year before!
I’ll get into this in a moment, but first, there are a couple of other things I’d like to talk about. The first is the reason I love this race: while there are of course some people who are there for the competition, the vast majority are there for the fun. People run alone, in groups, with their families, or dressed up in all kinds of costumes. My favourite this year were the two guys who came dressed as a trainera(a Basque type of rowing boat). In the head picture of this official blog post you can see them! There’s also a summary video of the race that gives you a good idea of the vibe (you really only need to watch the first half, the second half is more boring, unless you want to see how the winners did):
The second thing I wanted to talk about is slightly less fun: it’s the gender split of the race. There are only two categories, male and female, which is a problem unto itself, but the race this year was no less than three-quarters male. That doesn’t seem like a particularly healthy split to me. In fact, even in comparison to marathons in the US (a statistic I could find quite quickly), it’s quite poor. I’m not totally sure what is going on here. It’s a fairly short race (below 10k), not a very serious one, and cheap (10 euros) so it sends all the right accessibility signals, or so one would think… and yet. I was intrigued, so I looked into the data for Spain (from a few years ago) a bit. Generally, women are quite a bit more sedentary than men. For example, in the 25-44 age bracket, 55% of women never (!) exercise, compared to 41% of men. On the European scale*, Spain sits in a middling position overall regarding physical activity, but the difference by sex (again, the data is binary) is comparatively large. Possible explanations would be entirely speculative at this point – but our work, fit feminist friends, is not done.
For now, let’s focus on why I loved the San Silvestre even more this time than the year before. In 2017, it poured with rain throughout the entire race. This time around, we got spectacular blue skies (see picture below) and a perfect running temperature of just over 10°C. It felt amazing!
Also in 2017, I was still getting into running and quite slow, and I suffered due to the hills along the route. But over the past year, I’ve been working on my hills quite a lot, and my overall running speed has increased. We’d decided to run the race in our pack of three, so the (supposedly) slowest in the group was our pacer – and he wasn’t slow at all! We ran pretty much at the speed I currently train at, so we did very well. It gets even better: the reason we did the time we did was that our first kilometre was really slow due to the masses of people at the start. Meaning that overall, I was actually faster than ever, aside from that first bit! And the really amazing thing is that I could have run even faster – but the way we did it was perfect because we stuck together as a team and had a fabulous time. Mission accomplished!
*There is so much interesting data in that Eurostat graph, I’m going to make it its own separate post, promise!
The road is never neutral. You are always moving towards something or away from something, bearing dread, hope, anticipation, longing, as you go. No one is the same at the beginning of the road as at the end.
Roads are also risky. “Highwayman” was once a synonym for the worst sort of thieves, a “roadhouse” is a place where bad things can happen, and when someone titles a novel “The Road”, you know it’s not going to end well. By now, there may be nothing new that can be said about a road – the metaphor itself as exhausted as the travellers.
Speaking of exhausted –
In mid-September, I was running on a road near Banff, Alberta, and I was exhausted. It was my first official road race – Melissa’s Race, 10KM – and along with several thousand other people, I was pushing through rain, snow, sleet, freezing mud, and cold water in all its forms. The weather was not just bad, it was apocalyptic. At the end of the race I ran into a friend who regularly runs Death Marathons and the like, and he used words like “gruelling” and “excruciating”. So now you know I did make it to the end of the road. But I am getting ahead of myself.
By the second kilometre I wanted to give up. My knees hurt, my chest hurt, I could not run uphill in slush and breathe at the same time. I wondered desperately if somewhat dramatically whether it was possible that I would actually die, just fall over and die, in mid-race, and whether that would be better or worse than giving up and revealing myself as a quitter who couldn’t handle the road. This run is supposed to be visually spectacular, circling upward through mountains, but all I could see was the metre right in front of my wet shoes, and the peripheral view of other runners moving steadily past me. My MP3 player with its curated inspirational running music had given up on me a few hundred meters in, so I jammed the cord into my phone and listened to the same six Fleetwood Mac songs over and over. I had to stop. But I had to continue.
After a while I became aware of my feet. At first I noticed my feet because they were not cold, unlike most of the rest of me. Then I became aware of my feet running, side to side, right and left and right, like a pendulum swinging fast while moving forward. The oscillation started to weave into my monotonous survival-focused thoughts. I’m overwhelmed, I can’t keep going. I can do another hundred steps. I can’t do another hundred steps, I’m going to die. I can do another fifty steps. I can’t breathe any more. But I AM still breathing because I’m having this thought which I couldn’t have without oxygen in my brain. I have to stop before we get to the hill. I can keep going up the hill.
Eventually the thoughts narrowed down to I can’t run/I can run. I have to stop/I won’t stop. Left, right, left-and-right. Breathe in, breathe out. I can’t/I can. I have to/I won’t.
Many things invaded my mind, my imagination skittering around a wealth of images because linear thought was not really happening. I was bouncing amongst all the times when we say yes and no, real and unreal, what is and what isn’t, known and unknown. I was Vladimir and Estragon, who can’t go on/ will go on. I was a fresh Marine recruit at boot camp (when I first typed that, I wrote “boot can’t”) marching in cadence: I don’t know/But I’ve been told. I was a hundred therapists and yogis and spiritual teachers breathing: in with the good air, out with the bad.
Am I the only runner in the history of Melissa’s Race to fantasize that I was a yoga teacher? Left, right, left-and-right.
Every step was a question and a choice. Can I? I can. Left side, right side. I did not have the clean precision of a metronome. I was irreducibly organic and visceral, not mechanical. I tripped over roots, skidded on a Dixie cup discarded at one of the water stations and doubled-over a couple of times when I truly couldn’t breathe any more. I kept falling out of rhythm and then falling back into it. Left, right, sideways, then left-and-right again.
I have read that neurologists use diverse forms of bilateral stimulation, alternating sounds or pulses or light on the left side and right side of the body in order to calm erratic nerves and to help people integrate traumatic or awful memories into their present selves. I met no trauma ghosts as I was running, and even now as I write this, the awfulness of the cold and wet has moved away from me, become something I describe rather than something that I feel. But I can easily believe that the left-and-right, one-side-the-other-side, movement helped to draw me through a physically pretty intense experience.
I also believe that this back-and-forth of running opens into a bigger experience of ambivalence and contradiction. I’m in danger/I’m okay. I can/I can’t. I am/I am not. And all the while I am moving forward while I’m tiring out. I am not enjoying this road, but I’m not getting off it either.
You never know how far you can go until you stop, and at last I did stop, with ten kilometres behind me. In the final kilometre, my glasses fogged up so I was running through a fuzzy translucence in which I had to trust that there was an actual road in front of me, which is probably a metaphor for something. At the end of the road, I was indeed not the same person who began it. When I started, I didn’t know if I was the person who could run ten kilometres in terrible weather. I thought I was the person who would give in to the road, who might be humiliated by weakness and failure.
But I did get to the end of the road. I did it one step at a time, but more vividly, I did it step by step by step by step. I have to stop/I can keep going. I can’t breathe/I’m still breathing. I can’t/I did.
One thing that I’ve loved about the past six years since Sam and I started our Fittest by 50 Challenge and created this blog to document it is the way I’ve actually amazed myself. When I was 48 and we were just embarking on challenge, I didn’t think of myself as an athlete at all. And definitely not as a runner.
Well, fast forward six years, well after the end of our challenge (Sam and I hit 50 in August and September 2014, respectively), and just two weeks shy of my 54th birthday. On Saturday morning at the MEC 10K race at Fanshawe Conservation Area I put my summer of 10K training to the test. My last race was in early June when I did the Guelph 10K with Ellen and Violetta. There, I ran with Violetta and had the goal of running a continuous 10K, no walk breaks. My time: 1:10:01.
This time I wanted to break 1:05. That’s a lot to shave off a race time, just so you know. Indeed, I confess to feeling as if it wasn’t going to happen. I trained consistently through the summer, following weekly training plans developed for me by my running coach, Linda from Master the Moments. They were tough some days, with long interval repeats of 800m to 1K at uncomfortable paces. But I did them.
That’s when I started to amaze myself, actually. I would set out to do one of these interval workouts and think to myself, “Linda has got to be kidding if she thinks I can hit those paces for that length of an interval!” And by the time I had about 6-8 weeks of training under my belt, I was routinely hitting the prescribed paces, often even going faster than she asked me to go for all or almost all of the intervals. And that was despite a hot, muggy, uncomfortable summer.
Linda said to me a few weeks ago that she really thought I hadn’t yet reached my athletic potential. My first thought, “Coaches are supposed to say those sorts of things.” But she actually meant it. She doesn’t like to get too hung up on race time goals, but she believes that consistent effort in training can pay dividends on race day.
So I went into the Saturday race with the hope of breaking 1:05 but lacking the confidence that I would. Ellen came in from Guelph the night before to do the event with me.
Saturday morning was the first day in months that presented perfect running weather. Perfect! Cool but not cold. Light breeze. Zero humidity. When we got to Fanshawe Lake Conservation Area and parked the car we were cutting it close to the start time. We asked someone in the parking lot which was to the start line and she pointed in the right direction and then said, “Are you Tracy from Fit Is a Feminist Issue?” And then she talked about how she’s been following the blog and she likes it and she’s planning on power walking the trail race. I always get a kick out of meeting people who love the blog! So that sort of charged me up and we wished each other well in our respective races.
I am the kind of person who has to pee before movies, classes, runs, and yes, races. So as we walked past the bathrooms I told Ellen I needed to go in and she could go ahead. She said she’d wait but when I got out I couldn’t find her. Now we were really close to the start I thought, so I wandered over the to start area and saw a bunch of people with red race bibs like mine milling about. I milled about with them and Ellen was nowhere to be seen. After a couple of minutes, I asked some one if this was the 10K road race. Guess what they said? “They left a few minutes ago!”
Bam, I was outta there. Looking back, I wonder if that late start without a cohort to run with lit a fire under me that made me not just break 1:05, but come in at 1:04:25, a personal best for me!
I ran strong and continuous for the entire 10K. I eventually did see Ellen on her way back (it was 2x out and back for 5K each time, so we passed each other three times in all). I went in with a few strategies that served me well:
I left my Garmin on my belt and vowed not to look at it after the race started. I wanted to check my stats later but I wanted to run by feel not the external cues of the Garmin, which can mess with my head.
A friend of mine who has done a couple of iron distance triathlons said he gets through them by smiling (I’m sure it takes a little more than that, but whatever). I remembered that and decided smiling would be a good strategy. It wasn’t hard to do because I really did feel amazing on Saturday.
This might sound strange and obvious, but I committed to pushing myself just enough to be able to sustain what felt like a strong pace but not so much that I would lose steam before 10K was over. I figured I could turn on the extra power near the end when I knew I didn’t need to have anything left in the tank.
I absolutely didn’t want to walk at any point, and I made that decision ahead of time so there would be no question if my mind started to play tricks on me.
So, without the Garmin, smiling, pushing my pace, and committing to a continuous run, I ran the fast flat course in perfect weather. I could feel that I was running strong and steady. Instead of thinking I needed to walk, I actually felt pretty jazzed by the building momentum. I hit my rhythm and stayed there pretty consistently after 3K.
My younger faster colleague, Miranda, turned out also to be doing the 10K, and it was great to see her a few times and also at the end with her partner (also a colleague) and one of their kids. I got cheered on by a few other runners who know me through the blog and the book but whom I don’t know in person. At about 7K, one woman running towards me said she read and loved the book and that I was her hero! That almost made me cry but then I knew crying would slow me down so instead I let her beautiful comment motivate me (“you’re someone’s hero! Act like it! Go faster!”). Thank you to the lovely soul who said that to me.
When I hit the final turnaround and realized I only had 2.5K to go, which, come on, is hardly anything, I felt so good. I made a final decision that when I got to about 1K to go I would turn off the music and give it my absolute all. And I did just that.
When I crossed the finish line I hit “stop” on the Garmin. True to my word, I hadn’t looked at it since the race started. It read 1:04:31, not far off my chip time of 1:04:25. I was amazed. Seriously.
Now it’s true that had the conditions been different — a more humid day, a hillier course, less support from others, maybe even an on-time start — it wouldn’t have been the same. But whatever. I did it. I broke 1:05 and shaved almost 1:30 off of my previous personal record, set way back in 2014 at the Halloween Haunting when I was in top condition after my fittest by 50 triathlon season.
Between breaking my 10K record and consistently doing 3 sets of 12 pull-ups at the weight training studio, I’m feeling pretty amazed at the evolution of my athleticism. Confident and strong. Yes, I realize that 1:04:25 is not an epic time for some people. Lots of folks come in under 60 minutes for their 10K, some even under 45 minutes, closer to 30. Wow! I am truly in awe of those sorts of times. But I am also in awe of progress and personal milestones, and I think it’s okay to be impressed with ourselves sometimes!
That feeling will carry me to my next goal, which is to take the continuous running to a new distance–the half marathon. That will be a new challenge, but I think I can do it if I run smart at the Scotiabank Waterfront Half Marathon in October. I have the time goal of 2:25 in the back of my head. I will follow that pace bunny. But my main objective is to run continuous. Again with no Garmin. Between now and then I will stay consistent with the training that Linda has laid out for me.
Sam and I sometimes laugh about how boring our message is. No dramatic magical transformation that happens overnight. Just a moderate, easy going approach. Start small, put in consistent effort, challenge ourselves a bit, and see what happens. It really does yield amazing results, even if they kind of creep up on us.
Have you amazed yourself lately? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
This past weekend, I did my first ever bike race. This was sort of a big deal for me for a couple of reasons: the first one was that I was trying cyclocross, which was a totally unfamiliar race type for me. The second reason was that I was hit by a car while cycling to work a few months ago, and although the crash was nowhere near as bad as it could have been, it was still significant enough to have me out of commission for a few months. In addition to disrupting my PhD work and a lot of other parts of my life, the crash left me unable to cycle for a while, and unwilling to cycle for a while longer. It’s only been in the last couple of weeks that I’ve gotten back to commuting by bike.
Wikipedia gives a better description of what a cyclocross race is than I can, so I’m going to steal it here.
Cyclocross (sometimes cyclo-cross, CX, cyclo-X or ‘cross) is a form of bicycle racing. Races typically take place in the autumn and winter (the international or “World Cup” season is October–February), and consist of many laps of a short (2.5–3.5 km or 1.5–2 mile) course featuring pavement, wooded trails, grass, steep hills and obstacles requiring the rider to quickly dismount, carry the bike while navigating the obstruction and remount.
At the end of last season (I’m in Aotearoa New Zealand, so it’s winter for us right now and therefore cyclocross season), I promised a friend that I’d try a cyclocross race next season. This race was the second last of the season, so I decided to do it because I was running out of chances to keep my promise! To be honest, I didn’t really want to try it, but I do take my promises quite seriously, even when they’re about pretty low-stakes things. And the weather was perfect, to boot. So I loaded up my bike, grabbed my jersey and snazzy pink mountain biking shorts, and off I went!
In cyclocross races, you have a set time to complete as many laps as possible. For this race, we had fifty minutes. I don’t know exactly how long the course was, but there were several different kinds of terrain: packed dirt, mud, sand, grass, trail, pavement, and gravel. I completed five laps of the course, which I’m pretty happy with. The leaders completed ten! I came in basically dead last. I’m confident, although not certain, that the only riders behind me on the results list were people who dropped out due to mechanical failures.
I’m of two minds with the results. On the one hand, the main reason I went was because I wanted to fulfil my promise to my friend. I also wanted to go try something new, have a laugh, get a bit muddy, and burn up some energy. I’m proud of myself for not quitting, even though I had the opportunity to do so with every completed lap, and I’m proud that I actually got faster with each lap. That showed that I was getting a better handle on the course, I think, and getting into the groove for how it was supposed to work. So, I feel like I accomplished what I set out to do.
On the other hand, I felt a bit confused for a lot of it – I wasn’t always sure how to deal with faster people passing me, in that I didn’t know the etiquette, and I basically just tried to stay to the side as much as possible. But there were several bottlenecks in the course and inevitably, people who were significantly faster than me would get stuck behind me, unable to pass until the course opened up again. I felt bad about that, and worried that I was ruining someone else’s race, even though I was trying to do whatever I could to mitigate the problem. A friend, who is an experienced cyclocross racer, reassured me that the fastest people on the course are used to having to pass slower people, and that dealing with those bottlenecks is part of how cyclocross works. That made me feel a bit better, but I still worry that I got in front of the wrong person at a crucial moment in their race!
I wish I could sit here and say, “Yeah, that was super fun!” I can’t. It wasn’t that fun. I don’t really want to do it again. I probably will, because there’s one more race this season, and a friend who does these races will be in town for the next one. So, we’ll probably do it together, but I think that will be it for me. And yet, a friend who came to spectate told me that she and the spectators around her kept commenting on the fact that I had a huge smile the whole time! It’s odd – it didn’t feel fun. But I guess some part of me liked it nonetheless!
As I reported last week, I’ve been prepping for the Guelph Lake 10K and I recruited Violetta and Ellen to do it with me. It was a gorgeous day for a Sunday run, not too hot, sunny with a bit of cloud cover, a light breeze that felt just right at least some of the time.
As I like to do when there’s a group of us doing an event, I asked Ellen and Violetta to write a bit about their experience. We were all in different places with the 10K. I had been prepping. Just a few weeks before, Ellen had never run that distance before. And Violetta has been sporadic in her training and didn’t feel she had time to prep as she would have liked.
So today I did my first 10 k in my life! At 54! Actually, it was my first running race of any sort! No 3Ks, or 5Ks to start out with ….But then again, I have always been the kind of person to “go big or go home” in all areas of life. This has got me into some troubles in the past, such as excessive smoking and imbibing for many years, but I digress. For the past 6 and a half years or so, I have tried to confine this mentality to more healthy pursuits ☺.
I really didn’t know if I could do it. I have been running for a little while and not tracking any distances, but then one day about a month ago, I actually tracked myself doing 8.5K, and my friend Tracy, said no problem, you can do it!
My high school memories are filled with shame of being the last pick for teams, and being next to the end when it came to any sort of running. But, I am a grown up now, and I have met many other personal challenges, so I summed up my courage and tried it out today.
What a feeling of accomplishment! And what fun to share the love of this sport with other like-minded folks! I am grateful to Tracy for encouraging me to overcome the fear and just go out and do my best.
Who knows… maybe a half marathon is now in sight. I never thought I would say that! So, to all the readers out there, I am at my fittest ever at 54…And sky is the limit! I challenge you all to go after your fitness dreams and be your best ever, at any age.
I’ve really let my running slide over the cold, cold winter. So when Tracy let me know about the Guelph Lake 10k, I thought it would be the perfect thing to get me back into running regularly. It didn’t quite work out that way because I wasn’t feeling very well the last couple of weeks. Since I couldn’t prepare physically, I spent a lot of time trying to work on the psychological aspect, telling myself that I can do this and re-reading Tracy’s blog posts about running without prep and quickly regaining confidence.
I’m not going to lie. I was certainly questioning myself. Could I do this? Was I risking injury given my lack of training? Well, I did it! I now know, for myself, that it is possible to complete a 10k without much prep, not much at all. I haven’t run more than 5k in many, many months. I’m not saying it’s advisable or even preferable. And it certainly wasn’t easy. But I was very lucky—the weather was perfect, the atmosphere was casual and laid back and I was running with a friend I don’t get a chance to spend much time with.
I will say I didn’t love the repeated rolling hills (well, I didn’t mind going down them) or the repeated loop. In the end, the race served the function I needed it to, to get back into running, to remind me how much I love it. It’s too easy to lose your rhythm and get out of good habits. This was my first step back.
Thanks Tracy for inviting me to come along and for encouraging me when things got difficult. And what a treat it was to have Sam cheering us on! I’ve taken my first step and now I’m planning my next ones. Maybe another 10k … maybe another half? I’ll let you know.
The race has that local event feel that you get in the smaller cities and towns. I enjoy traveling for events because you get a change of scenery and a slightly different vibe wherever you go. This one was at Guelph Lake Conservation Area, with the course taking us along the lake for awhile, then through the camp ground, and park. It’s not a bad course but any race that involves two loops is always a bit psychologically tough (in my view). There could also have been more water.
I ran with Violetta, and we had committed to keep each other moving forward. She was worried she wouldn’t make it the full distance (I knew she could) and I was worried I wouldn’t be able to make it without a walk break (I wasn’t so sure). Ellen didn’t want to run with us because, according to her, she’s really slow. She of course came in 26 seconds earlier than we did.
My main goal for this one was to do a continuous 10K, no walk breaks. I did it! Other than a very brief walk through an aid station where I was so thirsty I had to drink a cup of water properly, not letting it fly out of the cup while running, I kept a steady pace throughout the race, averaging 7:00/K for a 1:10:01 finish. That’s slower than my 10K without prep! But I think part of the reason for that is that Violetta and I spent quite a bit of the first 8K chatting, and I can’t push quite as hard when I’m chatting. (not that it wasn’t nice to catch up!)
I would have liked to come in under 1:10. But one second over is alright with me. Linda told me recently that I am not aware of my athletic potential. This may be true — I still feel a rush of skepticism when I think about getting measurably faster. Like I’ll always hover around the same speed no matter what I do. But that is a topic for another post. I mention it now because the doubt sets in most acutely on race days.
But the day had many bonuses: Besides getting to do something with Violetta and Ellen, Sarah and Sam rode their bikes to the park to cheer us on and take great action shots! And then, when all was said and done, we went out for a fancy brunch at a lovely shaded patio in Guelph.
It was a great time with friends and it’s got me now thinking of my next goal — 10K continuous AND shave some minutes off of my time. I’m working with Linda again and I’m feeling revved up and ready to go.
Here are the three of us at the finish line, after re-hydrating:
Sunday was the Grapes of Wrath Niagara 2018 5K mud and obstacle run raising funds for the Canadian Cancer Society’s Wheels of Hope. I have posted before on my participation in the Merchant Ale House run club (here and here). We go out every Sunday morning and have been signing up for cool races. One Sunday the group talked about it as I was busy with someone and then when I came back they said: “Christine, we are doing this!” “Ok,” I said, “I will sign up!” And so I did, without realizing what I was getting into.
This may have been the toughest thing I ever did. We were a team of 8, 3 men and 5 women, of various ages and abilities. The point of the event is not to win but to “finish together.” Honestly, I do not know how I could have finished by myself. The first serious obstacle required hanging from a rope, quite a few feet up in the air, and crossing a certain distance (don’t ask, I don’t know, all I know is it was long) pulling yourself with your arms and legs to cross. I think I may have gone halfway only before I fell in the hay below. But I gave it my all to get as far as I could.
Giving it your all: that is what this run required and I tried my best to give it. Some obstacles were just plain fun (water slide landing in a pool of mud) and climbing over wood structures. Others, were unpleasant: crawling through mud under a tarp or crossing a pool of icy water with blocks of ice floating in it! The toughest one by far was the last: climb and cross a wall helping yourself with a rope, cross a massive puddle of mud and jump over 3 logs while holding for dear life on a rope (it felt like sinking in quick sand) and then climb the last mud hill. You can see us in the background climbing the mud hill in the picture below. The other two pictures are in the “before and after” spirit.
conquering the mud hill
a clean team!
the team at finish
I barely made it up that mud hill. I slid two thirds of the way and held on to the rope and was trying to pry myself up under the cheers of my team and thought “this is it, can’t do it. I can’t!” But then I did. I managed to crawl with friends cheering and then grabbing me and pulling me up. I cried from exhaustion.
I was pulled, pushed, lifted, both physically and mentally through this run with friends. What an adventure. To say we were dirty is an understatement, as you can tell from the pictures. After two showers and a bath I still felt like I smelled of manure. We were all exhausted but proud and happy we did it and finished together!
Now I am told we are doing this again! I will have to work on my upper body strength for next year to help myself and others. I read about Tracy’s chin-ups and pull-ups the other day. Guess what I will be starting to do this week?
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.