fitness · motivation · race report · racing · running

Have you amazed yourself lately? Try consistent effort and see where it takes you [aka Tracy’s epic 10K]

Image description: Ellen and Tracy selfie after MEC 10K. Ellen on left, blond hair with straight bangs, smiling, white tank; Tracy on right, smiling, short blond hair, sunglasses atop head, smiling, pink and purple tank, white earbuds cord hanging around her neck; trees and parked cars in background.
Image description: Ellen and Tracy selfie after MEC 10K. Ellen on left, blond hair with straight bangs, smiling, white tank; Tracy on right, smiling, short blond hair, sunglasses atop head, smiling, pink and purple tank, white earbuds cord hanging around her neck; trees and parked cars in background.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

competition · fitness · Guest Post · racing · running

Compare and Despair: Help, I’m so cliché, why do I keep doing it? (Guest Post)

Training run on Castle Peak in the Sierras

Do you have a particular someone in your life with whom you compete or whom you envy? For me, it’s my partner. Not surprising. We are most likely to compare ourselves to those closest to us. Love and envy are flip sides of the same coin. In my case, the bar is high. My partner is super smart, engaging and well-liked, successful in his work and (this is the part I’m going to get into in a moment) he’s physically gifted. That’s why I love him. That’s why he is a source of more frustration than I ought to admit.

I train harder and faster than he does and when we get to the starting line of an event, some inner switch flips and he often performs better than me. I should also add, he’s eleven years older than I am. WTF? Well That’s Fantastic, as a 9-year old friend of mine says.

Back in May it was the North Face Endurance trail half-marathon event near Bear Mountain in New York. At mile 8, he breezed past me. My mind switched to Radio Self-Laceration; the volume at level 11. Life is too unfair. Why do men have it so much easier in the world? Why do I try at all? What’s the point of even training? I’ll never be good enough. And so on. I pulled myself together enough by the finish line, so that I didn’t melt down (as I’m embarrassed to say I have done in the past, and, okay, in the past month on a run with several much younger mountain goats, who had the same starting line motivational effect on my partner).

My partner has pointed out that my competitive streak means I’m rooting against him. I want him to be slower than me, so that I can feel good. True. I’ve tried nuancing. I want us both to do the best we can, but my best be better. This line of logical reasoning is not a credit to me. Being competitive is not a bad thing, as Sam and Tracy point out in their book. But it’s not so healthy, when I can’t respond with the same aplomb whether I win or lose, following tennis great Chris Evert’s counsel.

This past weekend, we did another long running event. The Sierra Crest 30k –technical mountain trails; at altitude; and lots of climbing. For the week before the run, I was in mental prep mode. Counseling myself to just let it go. Let go of my competitive desire to do better. Let go of my idea of fairness. Let go of my tendency toward self-sabotage.

Easier said than done.

Race day. The smoke from California forest fires is the worst it’s ever been (some volunteers at aid stations are wearing face masks). My partner gives me a hug and kiss before we start. I press play and start listening to Krista Tippett podcasts, something I’ve never done before during an event. Off I go, ahead. After a few miles, David passes me. Off he goes, leaving me in the dust. I will not fall apart. I will not fall apart. I’m listening to a podcast about love in politics. I see my partner far ahead of me up a hill. I am overwhelmed by the small heartedness of my competitive streak. How can I not just be proud of his strength? I want to catch up to him, so I can say, “Have a great race. You’re amazing!” But he’s too far away. I feel lighter. Like maybe I’ve let go.

At the first aid station, I see that he’s refilling his camelback. I was never planning to refill, so I keep going. Besides, I always worry that if I stop, I won’t be able to start again. A couple of miles later, on the steepest downhill switchbacks, he waves to me from one switchback above me. He’s so cheerful. I’m already pretty spent. I use his imminence as incentive to keep going. Not because I want to beat him anymore. I’ve accepted that’s not possible and it’s fine. I just want to do my own best time.

Two more grueling hours pass on the trails. Mostly I’m alone. Three men pass me. None of them are my partner. I pass two of the men back. I catch a woman. We chat about the smoke. She unearths some new zest and takes off with one of the men who passed me. I never see either of them again until post finish line. I listen to interviews with Cory Booker, a US Senator I’ve long admired; with Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist whose specialty is moss; with Luis Alberto Urrea, a writer and poet; and with the great cellist, Yo-Yo Ma.

I finish in 3:53. I’m second in my age group (same as at the North Face run) and 10th among women. My partner finishes 8 minutes later.

How do I feel? Relieved. Surprised. Pleased. Competitive. Displeased with my competitiveness. Uncertain about whether I actually let go.

When it comes to my partner, finding the balance between my competitive spirit and the ability to let go of an outcome is as challenging as the rockiest, tree-rooted trails.

Please tell me I’m not alone in this. How do others solve for this balance?

Summit of Castle Peak on a training run

Mina Samuels is a writer, performer, fableog-ist, citizen, traveler, enthusiast and author of Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives and other books.

competition · cycling · fitness · Guest Post · race report · racing

Race Report: Cyclocross (Guest Post)

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.

A white and turquoise mountain bike leaning against a tree. A turquoise helmet hangs on the handlebars.
My mountain bike and partner in crime. Image description: A white and turquoise mountain bike leaning against a tree. A turquoise helmet hangs on the handlebars.

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-crossCXcyclo-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.

Wikipedia, “Cyclo-cross”

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!

A 27-year-old woman wearing a grey shirt and pink shorts, sitting on her bike on a dirt track, smiling at the camera.
Ready to go, just before the start of the race! Image description: A 27-year-old woman wearing a grey shirt and pink shorts, sitting on her bike on a dirt track, smiling at the camera.

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!

A 27-year-old woman wearing a grey shirt and pink shorts riding a bike on pavement.
Me completing a lap during the race. Image description: A 27-year-old woman wearing a grey shirt and pink shorts riding a bike on pavement.
fitness · race report · racing · running · training · traveling

A beautiful day for the Guelph Lake 10K (group report)

Image description: Left to right Violetta (black cap, red t-shirt, fine chain with pendant), Ellen (blond hair tied back, bangs, white tank), and Tracy (blue cap and sunglasses, purple and pink tank), all smiling.
Image description: Left to right Violetta (black cap, red t-shirt, fine chain with pendant), Ellen (blond hair tied back, bangs, white tank), and Tracy (blue cap and sunglasses, purple and pink tank), all smiling.

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.

Ellen

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.

Violetta

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.

Tracy

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.

Image description: Tracy and Violetta running side by side, smiling, trees in the background.
Image description: Tracy and Violetta running side by side, smiling, trees in the background.

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:

Image description: Full body shot of Tracy (tank top, shorts, cap and sunglasses, bib 219), Violetta (t-shirt, capris, cap, bib 216), and Ellen (tank and shorts, bib 189), standing on grass, trees and people in background.
Image description: Full body shot of Tracy (tank top, shorts, cap and sunglasses, bib 219), Violetta (t-shirt, capris, cap, bib 216), and Ellen (tank and shorts, bib 189), standing on grass, trees and people in background.
athletes · competition · fitness · Guest Post · race report · racing · running

Grapes of Wrath – What did I do?!? (Guest Post)

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.

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?

fitness · Guest Post · race report · racing · running

So how’d it go? Putting a race into perspective (Guest post)

Image description: Head shot of Jennifer smiling, wearing a visor, pre-race, trees, people, building, flag and white sky in background.
Image description: Head shot of Jennifer smiling, wearing a visor, pre-race, trees, people, building, flag and white sky in background.

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.

Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, post-race, smiling, sunglasses on head, trees and park benches in background.
Image description: Headshot of Jennifer, post-race, smiling, sunglasses on head, trees and park benches in background.

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.

boats · competition · racing · sailing

Sam tries something new: Snipe Racing

Today was a day for something new. Sarah, Jeff, and I raced in the Palm D’or Snipe Regatta. It’s a local event hosted by the Guelph Community Boating Club. It was Jeff’s first time in a Snipe. He usually races Lasers.

Sarah hadn’t sailed a dinghy since high school. Most of my sailing experience has been on big boats. So this was definitely in the “something new” category.

What’s a Snipe? Wikipedia says it’s a 15.5 foot two person dinghy. The class has been around since 1931. There are fleets around the world.

The community club in Guelph is super beginner friendly and very welcoming. There are club boats you can race so you don’t even have to have your own Snipe to start. Also, there are lots of women around. The boats are pretty stable and beginner friendly. A wide range of ages race Snipes. But they are also fast, tactical, and while not the most performance oriented boat, they’re fun to race.

Here’s some footage from the women’s world championships a few years ago. They’re young women. Luckily there’s also a master class.

More Snipe fun:

If they’re two person boats, how’d the three of us race? The original plan had been for Jeff to skipper all the races and Sarah and I would take turns crewing. We’d swap crew at lunch. You can’t really do that but since it was unlikely we’d place in the regatta (newbies plus club boat) no one was going to object. Instead though Sarah got to crew on one of the go fast boats when someone didn’t show. I crewed for Jeff which felt a bit like old times.

What’s the fitness angle? There’s a lot of physical work in the boat. The most obvious is hiking. To keep the boat from heeling over too much when it’s windy you put your ankles in hiking straps and try to get a lot of your body weight out over the water off the high side of the boat. My abs are sore after three races.

More importantly, I suppose, my knees aren’t sore! Victory

More later, but here’s some photos from our day.