The Butterdome lesson.

It is amazing what our bodies can do.  In my work, I see injuries recover and people become healthier versions of themselves on the daily.  In my personal life, I am surrounded by runners and Crossfitters, and I see them push themselves to the limits.  And yet, after 12 years in practice and a few decades in sport, I still marvel at the anatomy, the physiology, and the ability of our bodies to adapt, to habituate, to endure.

Let me tell you a story:

This story is about a girl who loves to run.

It’s the early 90’s, in the small town of Sundre, Alberta, and this girl is running the finishing stretch of her County’s cross-country meet.  The meet is being held on her home course, on Sundre’s infamous Snake Hill, and the finishing stretch is along its most feared section, “The Scar.”  The Scar is a punishing portion of trail that traverses the entire side of the hill, complete with a gruelling incline and a bird’s eye view of the finish line.  This girl can hear the crowd below, this girl can feel the adrenaline surging, this girl’s happiness and fulfillment builds.  She can’t articulate it yet, but she can feel it, and she knows she’s found what she loves.

This girl is me.

You see, my high school English teacher was also the cross-country coach, and she took me under her wing.  I trained with a very small group of runners after school, usually just three or four of us running alongside Mrs. Leslie.  We’d head to Snake Hill and we’d run hill repeats, kilometre loops, strides along the trails.  We’d run in the cold Alberta snow and we’d run in the fading light of dusk.  She taught me the power of my legs and my lungs, the welcomed full-body fatigue of a workout, and the sense of accomplishment of a race well run.  It’s only now, as a teacher’s spouse, that I realize the commitment she had to us and the sacrifices she made to share her love of running.  If there’s one person to point to in my running career, it’s her.  She changed my world and burst open a decades-long love affair with a sport that has now become a part of my identity.

I went to the University of Calgary and became a member of the cross-country and track teams.  I was a red-shirt Dino, racing only occasionally, often choosing parties and late nights over the early-morning miles on my training schedule.  My lack of commitment was never more obvious than when I called my Dad in panicked tears, only minutes ahead of my 1000m heat at the University of Alberta’s iconic Butterdome.  “What if I’m last?” I cried, “I’ll be so humiliated.”  In fact, I was last.  But I learned a hard lesson that day: you can’t fake hard work.  There are no shortcuts in running, no cheats, no cutting corners, no easy results.

Then came marathons, and Boston, my coveted finisher’s gold medal at the Around the Bay 30K in 2004, and my third-place finish at the inaugural Mississauga half-marathon.  I was in my twenties, running 100km weeks and going to school, planning my life around my runs, instead of the opposite.  Real-life responsibilities hadn’t quite begun, and I was content to run unceremoniously in a pre-Garmin, pre-Strava, pre-Social Media world.

Running has shifted to more of a background role in my life over the last decade, as I’ve had my children and consistently chosen the convenience and efficiency of CrossFit workouts.  But over the past couple of years, as my kids have grown, so too have my freedom and flexibility, and my mileage has begun to increase once again.  I’ve joined a new running club, and for the past three months I’ve been training hard with them, aiming for some Spring races that I haven’t thought about in years.  I’ve been noticing big changes in my fitness lately and having some breakthrough workouts, and that’s what has prompted this post.  It’s the Butterdome lesson again: you can’t fake hard work.

The 5:30am hill repeats, that 4:45am wake-ups, the -20ºC long runs; it’s all coming together.  It is amazing what our bodies can do.

But you can’t fake hard work.

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The University of Alberta’s Butterdome track.


Goal Board

This is a New Year post of sorts.  One year ago, on January 1st, 2017, I wrote up a “Goal Board.”  Not a “vision board,” per se, as is the buzzword, but semantics do matter, and a “Goal Board” sits better with me.

Last year’s Goal Board was on a big piece of white bristol board, with lots of bullet points, arrows, and colours.  I wrote it at our dining room table, using fresh new markers that Santa brought my children, and it organized my ideas in a way that I was surprised I couldn’t experience through thought alone.  Then again, I’m a visual learner and I love to write, so getting ideas onto paper matches my personality.  This year, my kids wanted in on the action, so it was a family affair in the dining room, with fresh bristol board, new Santa markers (St. Nick is the practical sort around here), and lots of conversation.

My five year-old’s Goal Board looks like this:

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Not a traditional Goal Board perhaps, but she’s got a lot of what’s important to her on there, and she learned that 2081 is different than 2018.  She’s proudly hung her masterpiece on her bedroom wall.

My eight year-old, meanwhile, came up with this:

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He wants to save $25 (which he’s begun doing by shovelling driveways in our neighborhood), learn how to do a cartwheel and a trampoline front flip, get a shutout in hockey, and do a 360° roll with his drone.

Now, I’m not quite transparent enough to share my entire Goal Board with you here for all to see, but I will share with you this section, which focuses on an important part of my world: running.IMG_7902

These three goals all fly in the face of the fear that nitpicks at the back of my brain whenever I sign up for a race or set a lofty pace goal.  “You can’t run that fast,” it says, “what if you fail?”  In fact, let’s call a spade a spade, I had two big running “failures” in 2017:

But I also had some great successes, like running a several-minute Personal Best to win the Moon in June 10K, being awarded the Most Accomplished Runner award from the Burlington Runner’s Club, and watching 39-year-old Lyndsay Tessier come in second place at the Canadian Marathon Championships in Toronto.

Enough success to keep me determined and enough failure to keep me trying.  Enough limits being pushed and enough self-imposed barriers being broken. Enough early mornings and enough late nights, enough work put in, enough dreams being chased, enough shooting for the moon, and enough aiming higher and higher.

Be brave, my Goal Board screams to me.  Be brave.

And in case you didn’t notice, this post isn’t even about running after all.

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Be brave.

 


Predatory.

We had an intense Saturday and Sunday at the clinic this past weekend.  It was our second and final weekend of baseline concussion testing, and this meant two extra-long days at work.  My role as a clinician was to conduct station #1, medical history and memory testing; this meant I sat at a computer all day, asking question after question, a new athlete coming through every four to five minutes.

I asked those same questions 111 times over the two days, and to stay sharp and keep my restless legs at bay, I knew I needed to find time for fitness.  With early starts and late finishes, I got up early to put in some miles and bring some welcomed fatigue to my muscles.  I know myself, and I know that I function best if I’ve incorporated some sweat into my day, so out into the 6:00am pre-Autumn blackness I went on Saturday morning.

That’s where my story begins:

I was planning on a 10km run, 5km out-and-back, along my favourite North Shore stretch.  I figured I could catch the sunrise along the Lake Ontario shoreline on my way back home, throw some hills into the mix, and aim for a negative split to satisfy the competitor in me. The streets were quiet as I left my driveway, most of the city still asleep, just how I like it. Early morning is my favourite time of day, like a little portal into peacefulness that can only be accessed through the conviction of an alarm clock.  It’s my reward for getting up, my compensation for lost sleep, my high to start the day.  I ran down the middle of my road, reflective hat on, earbuds in, my only concern being neighbourhood skunks still foraging on sidewalk boulevards.

I ran along the lakefront promenade, the pitch black waters illuminated by the pier and the streetlights, one or two people out, getting an early start on their dog walks.  I felt safe.  In fact, I almost always feel safe running in Burlington; perhaps it’s naïveté, perhaps it’s luck, perhaps it’s because Halton consistently ranks as one of Canada’s safest municipalities.  But I’m not reckless or inattentive and I’m always aware of my surroundings.  I’m not naive enough to believe that dangers are not present for solo female runners, even nestled inside my little community cocoon.

So as I made the turn onto the deserted, shadowy North Shore Boulevard, my senses were heightened and I was aware of my vulnerability. I moved off the sidewalk and back into the middle of the road, away from the darkness and obscurity of front yard shrubbery and blackened driveways. I removed my earbuds so that my hearing wasn’t compromised, and I continued into the deserted dimness of my route. I saw a man ahead, probably 200m from me, staggering along the sidewalk on the South side of the road. He was a big guy, about as tall as my 6’2″ husband, and every few metres he’d jump into the air and swat at overhanging branches before stumbling onward. I pegged him as a University kid, wandering home in a drunken stupor, but my spidey senses tingled. I crossed the expanse of the road completely, running tucked along the wide curb on the North side of the street. He must’ve heard my footfalls, because he stopped, crouched, and pulled the hood of his black jacket tight over his face, tugging at the drawstrings so that only his eyes were visible. He watched intently as I ran by, from that crouched, hunter-like position, and I picked up my pace. I ran fast until I got several hundred metres down the road, frequently turning my head to check behind me, and as I wound along the familiar twists, turns, and hills, my heartrate settled and my pace began to slow.

At 5km I turned around, making my way back home along the road I’d just run, aware that this guy was likely still stumbling Westward. By now, the first taste of the sunrise was peaking through, and a few cars were beginning to pass by. I chose to head back the way I’d come, not feeling directly threatened, but slightly wary nonetheless.

This is the point of my story that many of you are probably wondering why I didn’t change my route and head home another way.  

Perhaps I should have. In fact, my husband later asked me that very question. But the truth is, I stayed my course, because I knew that this guy wasn’t actually harmful, at least not physically. He was trying to intimidate me, yes. He was being creepy and disturbing, trying to frighten me, trying to show his dominance in a tough-drunk-guy way. But I could see that he was wobbly and the road was wide, and I knew I’d win in a foot-race if it came to that. I also knew that this pathetic wannabe predator would be too scared to cause me any harm as daylight came upon us and people began to stir.

And yes, the same thing happened on my way back home. The same crouch, the same jacket hood pulled low, the same intense, fear-provoking stare. Predatory. That’s what my husband called it when I recounted the story to him at home, and he’s right. This jerk wasn’t trying to hurt me, but he was trying to scare me.  And if I’m being honest, he did.

The feminist in me is angry at the gender roles involved in this scenario- him, the larger, stronger male, and me, the smaller, weaker female.  Meanwhile, the runner in me is angry that he took my power, made me feel vulnerable, and made me question something that I love so much.  As a seventeen-year-old, I moved from a small town to a city to attend University, and I can remember my dad giving me a can of pepper spray.  It’s not until now, two decades later, that I wished I still had it….

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