cycling · dogs · fitness · racing

Sam’s biggest fans

Sam’s biggest fans

I’ve shared lots of Cheddar participating in yoga photos. But the thing is, he’s my constant companion, especially when I’m the only one home. All of my work colleagues now know him from videoconference meetings.

When I’m riding my bike on the trainer, he’s my number one fan. He sits on the sofa behind me watching the screen, only occasionally nodding off.

I’ve been riding indoors, in a heat wave, in a house with imperfectly operational air conditioning.

Enter the new fan, fan number two.

So last night I was doing the La Bicicletta Toronto Supper Time Trial, a very hard 17.6 km solo effort. Both fans accounted for and I got my second best time on the route. Thanks Cheddar and thanks Heavyweight Honeywell.

cycling · fitness · racing

Women’s Tour de France on Zwift

Wow.

The Tour de France is happening on Zwift.

“It has been rescheduled to run from August 29-September 20. For the virtual Tour de France, Zwift is set to build new race routes, including one in Nice for the opening stage and another in Paris to mimic the traditional finale of the Tour de France on the cobbled circuit of the Champs Elysées,” according to Cycling News. For more details see here.

And double wow, there’s also a women’s tour.

There are no details yet except that there will be both a men’s and a women’s race.

Regular blog readers know that the absence of a women’s tour has been bothering me for many years. In my optimistic moods I hope the Zwift race goes so well that we have an in real life version next year. In my grumpier moods I think that it’s only now that the Tour has been moved to the virtual world that there’s room for women. Like many of us, in these strange times, I’m moving pretty quickly between hope and optimism and grumpiness and despair for all things. I guess this is no different.

Here’s some of my past thoughts on the need for the Tour de France to include women riders:

From 2016: The Tour de France and “Where are the women?”

Also from 2016: The Tour de France or the Men’s Tour

The question is also frequently raised in the cycling press.

See Why Is There No Women’s Tour de France? and

Tour de France organisers ‘seriously working on’ women’s stage race

Here’s one campaign to get a women’s tour:

The Tour de France is one of the world’s biggest sporting events, alongside the football World Cup and Wimbledon. But so far, it’s only open to men. A group of female cyclists in France wants to change this.

Okay. Back to this year, to racing in the middle of a global pandemic. That’s only going to happen on Zwift.

What’s racing look like on Zwift? Here’s some footage from the Tour for All.

And the Zwift Classics:

Zwift Classics Innusbruck Women’s Race
competition · covid19 · Guest Post · race report · racing · triathalon

Mary’s non-race race report (Guest post)

by Mary Case

May 31st 2020.  It is race day. Perfect conditions in Middleton Connecticut where the 70.3 Half Iron Man is scheduled. The sky is a clear blue; the temperature is 16 degrees in the early morning with no call for rain.

This day has been years in the making with hard physical and mental preparation, not to mention the hill repeats. This was the race to celebrate retirement from thirty-five years of teaching.

However, this race is not happening.

Covid- 19 a closed border, and I’m recovering from a broken wrist. This day is turning in a different direction.

This is a non-race race day.

What does someone do with a non-race race day?

Option number one: stay in bed. Duly considered. It is an unseasonable 9 degrees in London, Ontario.

Option two: drink tea and eat pancakes loaded with fresh maple syrup, topped with coconut whipped cream and fresh fruit followed by a Netflix binge. (Now we are talking. But as it turns out, this comes later.)

Option three: race!

What! Race? Is that even possible?

How does one define a race anyway?

Who decided it has to look a certain way?

What would be fun?

What else is possible here that I have not considered?

What is it I really love about race day?

What part of that can be duplicated, and how?

And so, as I stare longingly at my triathlon gear, the non race, race day plan is created.

No alarm set, no travel required. Not so bad really.

Race day breakfast is prepared. Steel cut oats with fresh fruit, maple syrup, sunflower seeds, dried cherries and almond milk. Delicious.

Support crew John Case has absconded for the day. It begins with him walking the dog and preparing a few more nutrition pieces for my day. I am warming up with some running drills and a short walk.

And the non-race race begins. 

I chose to start with the bike. 

Mary’s living room bike trainer set up

Rule number one of the non-race race day: break the rules to create what works for you.

So, the order of events is changed.

I hop on my bike trainer. Still somewhat limited with gear changing due to the weakness in my wrist, it seems the next best option when not able to ride outside. I choose a 1:45 minute program found in Trainer Road, one I had completed already in early February. I set a challenging Functional Threshold number.

Knowing that this was a race and not “just” a training ride, there was no taking a break. No stopping on the last set when it got challenging. This was a race, and when the going got tough the mental game was ramped up. I found this ride a great challenge and pushed through the last ten minutes as if ascending one of the challenging hills of Connecticut in anticipation of the final downhill into the town. My heart rate was elevated, my legs were burning, and I felt great.

Phase two: run. Unfortunately, my wrist is not so happy with the jarring motion of running, and so we get a new phase two: walk.

Mary getting ready to walk

No problem, no rules here. I call my friend Chris for some social distance phase two support and we head out on a favourite University Hill route at a brisk pace. I am grateful for the company.

One hour and fifty minutes later, a 10k walk is complete. It was a gorgeous day. Perfect temperature. I notice things that perhaps would go unnoticed when wrapped up in the focused intensity of running. The flowers, the river flowing, the birds singing. This non-race race thing is not all that bad.

Now, home for phase three. I am delighted that I have an outdoor swimming pool as all public pools have been closed since Covid-19. I change into my Canadian Triathlon Suit for full effect and head to the water.

Mary in her pool

The non-swim swim in the non-race race consists of short lengths, some water running and drills for 30 minutes. Not quite the open water swim that I love so much, but I was grateful for this option.

In the end, the non-race race was half the time and distance of the Half Ironman. There were no cheering crowds, finish lines, expos and aid stations. I did not receive a medal or a fancy hat. I still do not have that 70.3 bumper sticker to display on my car and… I am so grateful for this non-race race day. 

Amidst these crazy times, this was a day just for me. It was simple, challenging and rewarding, and it reminded me, as cliché as it sounds, that sometimes it is not about the destination, but about the journey.  

It is about resiliency, about choice, about flexibility and adaptation in this game called life.

Mary is a recently retired Elementary School Music Teacher, an Energetic Body Worker and a professional violinist. When not involved in any of the capacities mentioned above, she can often be spotted in water, on a bike, or running to prepare for her next triathlon.

competition · cycling · fitness · racing

Ways of organizing amateur athletes for fair and fun competition

I’ve been racing lots on Zwift lately. See Six Things I Love about Racing in Zwift.

It’s fun. I like riding and racing with a team.

One of the things that’s interesting are the different ways races are organized to make racing fun and fair. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s no fun if you have zero chance of winning and not fair, maybe, if you’re competing against younger, fitter, more powerful riders. So bike races use categories to divide up riders to make the competition more even.

Think of it like one design sailboat racing where everyone races the same style of boat. Or car racing where there are rules about what the cars raced are like. There’s less determined by gear and skill is more of a factor. It’s like that bike racing only instead of boats, it’s bodies. Now it’s true that in both real life, and in Zwift, we’re also riding different bikes–Zwift has different classes of virtual bikes and some are more aero, lighter, faster. You acquire them by “buying” them with virtual coinage you acquire by riding lots. That’s an element of the “game” part of Zwift. But the big difference isn’t bikes, it’s rider power, measured in watts. Some cyclists are more powerful than others and Zwift divides riders in various ways.

Here’s three different ways of classifying riders in Zwift races that I’ve experienced. I’m sure there are others.

The most obvious one is by sex. Tonight I’m racing in the Monday Madness series. It’s a team based series across categories A-E. Cats A-D are open to all riders and the differences between them are based on your power output. I started out in D but as I got fitter and faster I got bumped to C. Roughly, C means that I race somewhere between 2.5-3.1 watts/kg.

Cyclists care about power, but what really matters, unless you’re riding on very flat terrain, is power to weight ratio, or watts per kg. Here is an explanation.

Here’s me in the yellow TFC jersey between two men racing in the D category.

An aside: Entering a race in a category below the one in which you should be racing for the purposes of an easy win is “sandbagging.” Zwift has introduced the green cone of shame which appears above your head while riding if you exceed the power limits for the category in which you’re racing. See Zwift takes steps to limit sandbagging. They also notify you in advance. In my case I got disqualified, DQ’ed, after my first race that I won while exceeding the power limits for D, and the next time I registered for C. All good–no cone of shame. Phew!

Image from Zwift Insider, https://zwiftinsider.com/anti-sandbagging-test/

But tonight I’m racing in E, which is the women’s category which is open to all women riders. That means that I’ll be racing against women in all categories. Ouch! I won’t win. I might come in somewhere in the middle. But that’s true for me in C too. I was winning D races but as I got faster it was no longer fair to have me in the D cat. Why race in the women’s cat? Well, it’s a team sport and our team gets points for having riders in each of the categories.

In an ideal world, I think that we won’t need special categories for women riders. Certainly lumping all the women together isn’t fair. But lots of women want to race against other women. In the real world, I can see that, especially in amateur racing.

I’ve also raced in Zwift in age groups. But again that was a little strange. There are some very fast 50-somethings out there! My theory is that lots of people ride and race in their 20s and 30s but by the time you get to 50 only the fast people are sticking with it.

Anyway, it’s complicated but I like that there are a variety of ways of dividing up riders to make racing more fun.


cycling · fitness · racing

Six Things I Love about Racing in Zwift

Mostly these days, for most of us, even those of us privileged to live in houses with decks and yards, with dogs, in cities and towns where there aren’t that many people getting sick and dying, there’s a sense of loss as we go about our lives. I know I’m pretty privileged in that I love my job even in this very strange working from home state. I’m still doing lots of meaningful work and I live with loved ones and we play word games and cook meals and bake desserts and watch movies. It’s not all bad.

But even for me, there is so much that I am missing. Mostly I miss my kids in a city a few hours away. I am not going to dwell on that. I am not going to talk about the list of cancelled events and trips and postponed plans.

Instead I am going to tell you about a new thing that I am doing that I am really enjoying, that might not have been possible in, as Cate calls them, the before times, and that I might keep doing after this is all over.

I’ve been riding my bike on a trainer in the virtual world of Zwift, casually, on and off, for a year or so. But mostly I’ve been riding with real world friends side by side, exploring Zwift’s virtual worlds.

When the pandemic became physically distancing and then that morphed into staying at home, I started riding in Zwift more seriously. I started riding in groups and even doing some races. Now I’ve even joined a team. And I love it.

What do I love?

  1. In the world of riding with friends we all have tendency to default to a comfortable speed. It’s easy to end up always riding in the same heart rate/exertion zone. It feels comfortable. Instead now that I am back doing time trials and crits, there is definitely a lot of time in that uncomfortable, very hard zone. When I do social rides where we’ve agreed to stay at the same pace, it’s easy. Going slow is important and it can be hard to do. On the social group rides I’m happily in the endurance zone. I do some training events that are in the middle. It’s deliberate and the variety in pacing is good for me.
Here’s me racing, solidly in zone 4 with bits of zone 5.
Here’s me cruising in a workout ride.
Crit racing where zone 5 is my friend.

2. Now everything I’ve said about different paces would be true in the real world. But there are also things that are fun about racing in Zwift. No crashes! You can accelerate downhill without fear of death. I hit some ridiculous max speeds that just aren’t on the table for me in real life. I like descending and I like descending fast but in Zwift there’s no fear which turns out to be a nice thing. There’s no worrying about cornering too aggressively on the crit courses or getting tangled up with other bikes. It’s true that some of the skills are missing too but it turns out, in my fifties, I really like the no crashing part. Who knew?

3. I’ve been enjoying some of the gamification of bike racing in Zwift. Again, that’s new to me. It starts with my avatar. I liked choosing her hair and her sunglasses and she wears different clothes for different events. Now I’ve been riding for awhile I have a choice about bikes and wheels. I also like the features in the game like the power-ups. These include feather that makes you lighter, a draft boost that increases the draft effect you are experiencing by 50% for 30 seconds, and my favourite a burrito makes you undraftable for 10 seconds.

PowerUps in Zwift: Advanced Usage Tips
Image from https://zwiftinsider.com/powerup-usage/

4. I like the community. There are cyclists from all over the world and while in real life I struggle to find people my age, my size, my speed etc riding and racing bikes, not so on Zwift. I like the chatty women’s group rides, especially The Swarm, but also the community rides, like the Herd with their goofy in ride games and quizzes.

5. Maybe it’s because we’re all avatars, maybe because the chat is heavily moderated (I don’t know about this) but I haven’t encountered any sexist, homophobic, racist banter. Again, I wonder about how much avatar limits affect this, but there aren’t even very many comments about size other then the self-deprecating sort.

6. The schedule of group rides and races is kind of awesome. There are events everyday, all day, for all different abilities, across all of the time zones. I’m writing this on Monday evening and I’ve just finished a Monday night race series and tonight’s event (3 of 6) was an 8 km time trial in Bologna. It ended with a solid 2 km of climbing with the tough bits at 14% grade. Ouch. But on the weekend I had a chatty social ride with the Swarm. Friday night is crit night. And I might do a midweek team trial. Don’t get wrong. I miss riding my bike with groups of real people in the real world. But racing? I think I really life Zwift and will stick with it.

competition · cycling · fitness · Guest Post · racing · running · swimming · triathalon

Is this what retirement is like? (Guest post)

by Mary Case

Day one of retirement was officially declared a “jammie” day. No alarm clock, a pot of tea, a good book, feet up, sitting in front of the fireplace. It was blissful and lasted almost ninety minutes.

Author in a comfortable arm chair, sitting in front of a fireplace with her feet up, reading a book with her dog at her side.

And then that was enough for the dog who, delighted that there was another human home, insisted on a walk.

Somewhat reluctantly I changed out of my jammies.

It is so quiet and peaceful on this crisp winter’s day.  No noise except the occasional passing car. Was this what it’s like, this retirement thing?

I returned home an hour later, fully intending to return to my perch. (My colorful, cozy jammies now replaced with walking gear, looking suspiciously like running gear), and then I had a vision: an empty pool, a lane to myself perhaps. Was that actually possible? 

Empty YMCA pool.  All lanes free.

It was too irresistible, and so the perch by the fireplace was abandoned again. And there it was: my empty lane. Two kilometres of blissful, uninterrupted swim strokes.

Was this what retirement is like?

The choice to retire from teaching elementary school music was a tough one. I loved my job and was not particularly desperate to get out. 

I had a fulfilling and vibrant career but, I was curious what life would be like on the other side. 

Last fall, in a moment of “but what will I do when I retire?” I wondered what it would be like to be a gym rat, and so I approached my computer in search of half ironman races. These are called 70.3’s in the triathlon world. It seemed a good idea at the time, and it was a distance that my years as a triathlete had prepared me for. 

I chose a date. May 31st, that worked for me. It would have been concert prep time, if I was not retired. 

I chose a location. Connecticut, I could drive there. 

Done! I signed up. 

Oops. I missed a little bit of homework here. I found out later that this half ironman is called the Beast of the East. 

As I write this blog, week one of retirement is almost over. It’s also my 59th birthday. I think about this “fitness” thing. For me, it’s always about the joy of seeing what my body is capable of. I do not have a point of view about speed, competition, losing weight, or much of anything else. 

I love a challenge; my body loves to move endlessly, and the amazing thing is that I am fitter, faster and stronger than I have ever been. 

I think I might  be able to get used to the quiet, the recovery time and being able to head to the gym, my trainer or the road, at hours that do not involve the numbers 4, 5, or 6 attached to “a.m.” 

I think I can get used to this thing called retirement. And who knows, hills may just become my new best friends. 

Author, School photo.  Looking very professional in a pink top and pearls.

Mary is a recently retired Elementary School Music Teacher, an Energetic Body Worker and a professional violinist. When not involved in any of the capacities mentioned above, she can often be spotted in water, on a bike, or running to prepare for her next triathlon.  

cycling · racing

Zwift victory and feeling like myself again

I’m finally feeling a bit better on my bike. I had a fun fast evening on Zwift recently after a run of nights of slower, sluggish riding. Yes, I was battling a cold. But still. I’m okay just riding slowly and not caring in the real world but in the virtual world it’s all numbers, ratings, and ranking all the time. I should just turn on an easy workout rather than group riding in the virtual world when I’m sick and struggling. Next time I think I’ll put on some music and spin without data.

Anyway, I’m back and I’m happy to feel more like myself again on the bike. I’ve survived November. Yay!

Sarah and I have joined the ZSUN team on Zwift. That’s the jersey I’m wearing on Zwift these days except in the brief moments of glory when I’m wearing the green sprint leader’s jersey above.

The first time I got the sprint Jersey I was actually 3rd but when #1 and #2 exited the virtual world, I got the sprinter’s jersey. But the second time through that sprint section victory was mine.

I know this is boasting but it’s November. It’s okay to boast. I was 1st of the 55 women on that sprint section, 14th out of 556 people, men and women. (That gives you a pretty good idea of gender ratios in Zwift.) I also like to see my improvement. My win was 18 seconds and a bit but you can see that some of my previous efforts were over 20 seconds. Yay! I’m back.

I haven’t done a full on Zwift road race yet but I hope to give it a try before the season is out.

competition · Guest Post · race report · racing

Moving around (Guest post)

By Şerife Tekin

    Exercise was not a regular part of my life until my early 20s. Not because I did not like being active, it was simply not an opportunity or privilege afforded to the kids of middle income families in the 1990s Turkey. I was able to swim, however, in the summers, and I felt so at HOME in the Aegean waters.  I discovered running as a young adult during my MA in a super cold city in Western Canada (Saskatoon!) thanks to my roommate K and continued to run on and off during my PhD in Toronto. Loved running around the Lake Ontario: was as close as I could get to the Aegean.

    I never considered myself an athlete though, because (i) I wasn’t particularly fast nor ambitious enough to get faster, (ii) I mostly ran solo, so was not part of a “team spirit”, and (iii) I ran so that I could write: I never ran for running’s sake. I grew the habit of drafting my papers, and then eventually my dissertation during these long runs. My love of running complemented my love of writing. It was during those years that I read Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I talk About Running” so many times. 

    I trained for and finished my first ever half marathon when I was 29 with a beloved Toronto friend a few months before I finished my PhD. I was 29. Fast forward 10 years: Moved 5 more times in 10 years (academic job market!!!), went through several episodes of back pain exacerbated by a combination of cold weather, job market stress, sitting long hours on horrible chairs to write. I continued to run on and off, even did half marathons with my students, but never dared to call myself a runner. I also started spinning at indoors with my friend A: Spinning kept us warm and cozy during the epic snowpocalypses of Buffalo. I always wanted to incorporate running and cycling into my daily routine and start swimming but the perpetually cold weather, pre-tenure grind, and the intermittent back and knee problems were not particularly helpful. 

    Things have finally changed for the better when I moved to San Antonio: Even before my fly out for my job interview I knew everything about the UTSA’s gorgeous heated outdoor pool and how warm the city stays in the winter! I got the job. Within first few months of moving down, I started biking in the gorgeous trails that lace around the city and took lessons to improve my swim. My swim coach introduced me to the UTSA triathlon club and Paragon Training and for the first time in my life I started regularly training with a super supportive team of athletes from different walks of life under the leadership of my inspiring coach Mark Saroni. It was January 2019. It was a humbling start, I felt like I was constantly trying to catch my breath during the swims, and just “wanted to die” during the 5k run time trials. To my surprise, however, I did start feeling like an athlete even though I was and still am constantly struggling. Overall, I had more energy. I was a lot happier. I made great friends which was SO welcome because moving – yet again— to a new city in mid-life is NOT easy even for social butterflies like me.

    I did my first Sprint Triathlon at the end of September in a cute Texas Hill Country town. Not only was I able to finish, I also got pretty good results. Most importantly I had so MUCH fun. I loved the high energy nature of the sprint triathlon; I loved how focused I was during the race: just one breath, one stroke, one pedal, one step at a time. After the race, I started training more. 

    Today I raced the running only component of Texas Tough Duathlon which is put on by the UTSA’s triathlon team (go Runners!!) and Paragon Training. Caveat: there were NOT that many runners, but the course was super hilly and I broke a PR – 8.43/mile – and won the first place among women. I am so happy and proud of how far I have come.  After having moved around all years, literally and figuratively, I am happy to have found a community that moves around with me to “suffer faster,” in our coach Mark’s words. What I learned from fellow athletes is that you start planning your next race the second you are done with one: For me, it is a Half Ironman, for which I shall start training once I get tenure.

Şerife Tekin is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Medical Humanities at UTSA. When she is not moving around she can be found petting her kitty cat Cortez. Her website is www.serifetekin.com.

body image · competition · fitness · Guest Post · health · injury · race report · racing · running

Couch to 21.1 km (Guest post)

by Jennifer Burns

Content warning: Body image 

Last Sunday, I ran my first race. I’ve been running for eleven years (and are my legs ever tired!) but I’ve never run any kind of a race before. Mainly because I’ve just never been much of a one for races. I even dropped out of the rat race a few years ago, because – as a funnier and wiser woman than I once pointed out –  even when you win, you’re still a rat. 

So naturally, for my very first race ever, I chose to run a half-marathon. Because why not? 

Actually, it was Andra’s idea. Andra is my physiotherapist, and a former competitive swimmer and volleyball player. She takes no shit from anybody, least of all me. 

I’ve been working with Andra for over three years now. For two of those years, I wasn’t running at all. She helped reconfigure my body after my last pregnancy downloaded and installed some updates that I don’t ever remember clicking “OK” on. 

The thing is that, apparently, for most of my adult life, I’ve been walking around with an undiagnosed case of scoliosis: a bent spine. Mine curves from side to side, creating a posture somewhat reminiscent of one of Tom Thomson’s windblown jack pines. I always knew I was a bit off-kilter, but I never knew until three years ago that I had A Condition. 

Apparently (don’t quote me on this) if you have scoliosis, one pregnancy is OK, but subsequent pregnancies can worsen the spinal curvature. Much hilarity ensues. Like, if you’ve ever wanted to recreate the Grand Canyon between your rectus abdominis muscles, scoliosis plus pregnancy can totally help you with that. 

Now, I did not want the Grand Canyon, but it ended up being part of the whole post-partum package-tour I embarked on back in 2016 (you really gotta read the fine print on these things). In addition to scheduled stops at Sleepless Gulch and Hormone Crash Hill, there was also plenty of commentary from the locals: “Already pregnant again!?” “Is this one of those weird twin pregnancies where they’re born weeks apart?” “Wow, I forgot how long it takes to look normal after giving birth!” etc etc. 

Worst trip ever. But at least, after the magical “six weeks pp” were up, I’d be “allowed” to run again. Right? Right?!

[Ron Howard’s voice: “She was wrong.”]

In September 2016, I found out that not only did I have scoliosis, but it had also probably worsened during the pregnancy, turning the area under my ribs into a veritable pressure-cooker and creating a gaping 12cm/6-finger separation between my abs. This separation, together with the scoliosis, was setting me up for even worse alignment problems that could result in spinal deformities, disc herniation, urinary incontinence and – everybody’s favourite – pelvic organ prolapse. 

And so, given this, I should give up running, forever, and take up race-walking. (If my life were an episode of Friends, this would be the one where Chandler Byng quips, “Because race-walking is such a ordinary, everyday activity that doesn’t make you look ridiculous or stand out AT ALL.”). 

Oh, and also? My abdomen would never be flat again without at least ten-thousand dollars’ worth of plastic surgery, followed by a two-month recovery and almost inevitable chronic and incurable pain from nerve damage. Pretty much the best thing I could do, in this strange, new, disloyal, and no longer conventionally-attractive body, was “be grateful” I was a “mama”, and “embrace” my “journey”, along with my “battle scars” and my “tiger stripes”. 

I am still mildy amazed that I didn’t “drop-kick” the “physiotherapist” right there and then, but forgive me, my reflexes were pretty shot from lack of sleep. 

That was Physio No. 1. Physio No. 2 was Andra. Who, in her no-nonsense, does-not-suffer-fools-gladly, clipped Romanian way agreed with Physio No. 1 that my situation was “not good” (“It feels like gummy bears in here, it feels like a trampoline” she said, prodding my abdomen). 

Then she uttered life-changing words: “We will fix this.”

If I’d known, sitting in a tiny office up the street from the Reference Library on a dreary winter afternoon, that the path to “fixing this” was going to involve a two-year slog through electro-accupuncture, progressive core-activation exercises, swimming endless laps, tedious floor work, before finally graduating to modified workouts with a trainer at the gym – I’d have crumpled to the floor. This piece, written then, knowing that, would have been entitled By the Toronto Reference Library I Sat Down And Wept, and I probably wouldn’t be running today. Actually, I’m not sure – I’m a stubborn old cuss when you get right down to it. But knowing that entire years lay between me and me getting back to my preferred – at the time, my only – sport, would have been devastating. Andra was smart. She didn’t say anything about how long it could take. She just said we would fix it, and I believed that we could so I was ready to show up and do the fricken work. 

And if you’d told me that in less than three years, I’d run a half-marathon – me, who had never run any race, ever, who had run a continuous 20K exactly one time, in three hours, four years ago – me, always picked last on teams in gym class – me, lugging this living cautionary-tale of a postpartum body around, a “Here Be Dragons” warning made flesh – me? Run in a marathon? I would have laughed so hard I’d probably have busted a gut. (Except it was already busted, so no worries there). 

But. Reader, I marathoned. OK, I half-marathoned. I ran the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Half on October 20, 2019. My goal was modest: sub 2:30. I crossed the finish line at 2:27. 

A year ago, almost exactly, I was running one minute and walking five. I was glad to be running again, even if only for a minute at a time, but I was finding it really, really hard. I had so little endurance, despite all the work I’d put in over the past two years. And when winter came, I quickly got bored of running on the indoor track at the gym. So I took up skating instead, because if you can’t beat Winter, you may as well throw your arms wholeheartedly around it while also leaping around frozen surfaces on sharp blades.

When the ice melted, I moved the skating indoors, but I also went back to running. With Andra’s endorsement, I registered to run the STWM half. I didn’t commit to seriously training for it until June, which is when I made the total rookie mistake of upping my daily mileage by 6K in one day and made the fascia around my right hip “angry”, in Andra’s words. My hip’s temper tantrum set me back weeks.

Nevertheless, I persisted. Andra’s advice plus a tennis ball and a foam roller got me back on track. By September, I was running 10K easily.  Then 12, then 14, then 16, and finally my last three long runs before the race were just over 18K.  

Seasoned runners joke that running a marathon is simply a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. So too was my recovery. Except, I stopped looking up while I was doing it, because every time I looked up, I scanned for a horizon I couldn’t even see, much less imagine, and this made me angry and scared and sad. So, I just kept my eyes on my feet and kept moving them forward. One foot, then the other. Physio, swimming. The gym, my bike. The stairs in High Park, and then the hiking trails. Run one, walk five. Skate a bit, run a bit more. One foot, then the other. I just kept showing up. I went to the gym and to the rink and to physiotherapy (thank you childcare, part-time job, supportive partner, and generous spousal health insurance coverage!) and somehow, somehow along the way on this metaphorical “journey” (*makes flourishing air quotes with hands*) I upgraded from the all-inclusive Occasional Runner package, to some kind of Choose Your Own Jock Adventure deal. And that’s an upgrade I’m more than OK with. 

Jennifer is a writer, mother, wife, runner, cyclist, skater (ice and inline), and non-profit administrator. She lives in Toronto. 

Fear · racing · running · training

Bettina doesn’t run a half marathon, part 1: imperfect training and disappointment

All of this summer, I’ve been so excited about my new bike and getting into cycling, I’ve only mentioned half marathon training in passing. I’ve done a bunch of shorter races by now, mostly 10k. After the last one, a 10k in the sweltering heat in July, I decided that maybe it was finally time to tackle the half. If I could run 10k in 30C and survive (though just barely), perhaps there was a chance I could run twice as far?

To be honest, I was super intimidated by the sheer distance. I could do 10k, but I’d end up exhausted, and at races that included a half marathon option, I always wondered how the hell it was possible to double my distance. But plenty of people were doing it, and some of my running mates were egging me on: “if you can run 10k, you can do a half marathon, no problem!” and “anyone who runs a bit regularly can do a half!”. They meant well, I know, but this sort of encouragement made my anxiety worse. What if I was the sort of person who could run 10k, but not 21? Or who could run more or less regularly, just not very far? I was really quite scared of the idea of trying to run 21k.

Photo of an unsurmountable-looking, ice-covered mountain face. This is how Bettina felt about the half-marathon distance when she first started training.
Photo by Stas Aki on Unsplash

I’ve always been one to avoid a challenge rather than risking failure, but it’s something I’m trying to work on: getting out of my comfort zone and push myself to take on things that are a bit of a stretch. Learning to maybe fail.

And so I scoured the web for an autumn half marathon with a flat course that was close enough so I could get myself there on the morning of the race. There was no way I was starting out with a hilly half. I settled on a small race around a former US Army base called the Franklin Mile Run. The US Army left a lot of its German bases in the 2000s and these areas are being redeveloped now, and the event website promised an entertaining and – I noted with relief – almost completely flat course. 29 September, I was on!

I started training “in earnest” following the aforementioned 10k race in early July, so I had ample time to prepare. I didn’t draw up a particularly sophisticated training plan: the idea was to run two to three times per week (ideally three), with one long run on the weekends, gradually increasing the distance up to 18k a few weeks before the race, repeat that a couple of times, and then taper the week before race day. I mapped out the long runs on the calendar, knowing I would hit my first 18k at the end of August. Then we’d go on holiday, during which I would do a couple of shorter runs and one more long run before tapering.

Initially, the long runs were tough. I had this mental block caused by my Fear Of The Distance (FOTD): I wasn’t going to be able to do it, it would be too hard – essentially all the negative self-talk that was trying to protect me from failure by sabotaging me, as Cate recently pointed out. It was also really, really hot. And so I would go out, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to complete my run, and any difficulty I’d run into – it still being too warm, being slightly uncomfortable in my gear, etc., would compound that feeling and leave me starting out jittery and nervous. There was one particular run, my second 14k, during which I hit a wall at 10k and spent the final 4k shuffling along in suffering, convinced I would never be able to run a half marathon. In hindsight, it was really just too warm that day. I should have taken something to drink and taken it easy. But at the time, it was quite discouraging.

And then one day, I ran 16k and was fine. I’d taken a water bottle and decided not to sweat it (haha!), and it really helped. A friend of mine, who has done several half marathons, had also given me an amazing pep talk the day before. Not the “anyone can do this” kind, but the “you, Bettina, can do this, I know how much you train, you’re clearly in great shape”, kind. After this successful run, I was much more confident. I even knocked my first 18k out of the park. By early September, I was ready. I was feeling strong, doing great for speed, the temperatures were finally coming down, and my FOTD had subsided. Then, we went on holiday, and I got sick. Not ideal, but at this point, two weeks out from the race, I still thought I’d be able to do it.

I got back, went to work almost recovered from my cold, and immediately picked up a stomach bug that was going around. A week and a half out from the race, it was getting seriously worrying. The week before – I hadn’t run in almost three weeks at this point – I was still not feeling 100%. The race was going to be on the Sunday. On the Tuesday, I had planned to do a trial 10k but didn’t manage to get out of work on time – it was also one of the busiest weeks of the year, of course. I finally got myself out for a run on Thursday. I did 10k, which went alright, but it was abundantly clear I wouldn’t be able to do the half marathon. I was gutted. I had been ready! And now, I clearly wasn’t.

It was especially disappointing because I knew I couldn’t just sign up for another half a few weeks later once I was fully recovered. Just two days after the race I was going to have a hyperactive parathyroid removed, which would keep me from exercising for several weeks. By this time, the season would be essentially over and I would likely have to wait until next spring for another go at the half-marathon distance. (There are of course winter races, but none of them meet my criteria of ‘no overnight stay required’ and ‘mostly flat course’.) But there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn’t done anything wrong, I had just been unlucky. I now know that I can do it, so training myself up for another go will be much easier. Still tough, ARGH. Double-, nay, triple-ARGH!!!

Luckily, the race had a shorter option and it was possible to downgrade on the day, so I decided that at least I was going to run something, even if it wasn’t a half marathon. Read on this upcoming Wednesday for the race report…

Have you ever had to bow out of a race (or another challenge you had worked hard for)? How did you deal with the disappointment? I’m curious to hear your experiences.