Sunday, January 11, 2015

Revisiting the long view

The knee told me to give up long before the lungs said I wasn't ready. As it turns out, I wasn't ready that run, that season, that year. Or for the next two years.

It was the winter of 2010, and I had just finished a three-year push that left me exhilarated but exhausted. I had run thousands of kilometres, embraced harder workouts and after six marathons run in 2008 and 2009, I had put together a Boston qualifying race. I had achieved a huge goal. I was going to run my first Boston in 2010. When I put down a fast marathon in 2009, I even wrote a post about musing about getting faster.

Here's what I wrote:

BQ was that goal that was on top of my running life, but not the point of it. It wasn't the definition, but it also was a tough goal that made me work harder. Getting to this point made me a better runner. 
I told Lee that somehow I feel like I'm entering a new chapter in my running life. He admitted that when he qualified for Boston years ago, he became a more serious runner. I don't think i'm going to get any more serious, but I'll look at it differently. I want a victory lap of a year in 2010. I want to chase faster times. I want to be a pace bunny one day. And I want to turn my BQ into a confirmed registration so I can finish booking a hotel and flight for a trip to Beantown next April

"Chase faster times." I read that now and would love to tell 2009 Kenny that he had something else in store, but on what winter 2010 day a few months later, when I pulled the plug after 2K into a 6.4K tempo run. I started to think of running differently. In the coming three years, I would run for running's sake. Sure, I ran long, and I ran races, but everything was different. If I were to describe my approach to training, I call it my jazz years. All improvisation. Plenty of long winded sections but always ending with a flourish of a race.

Working on a post on running for as long as you possibly can, because it is who you are, and you really can't remember life before it arrived. Now that I'm a decade into distance running, I am only now forming thoughts about what it's like to be a lifelong runner. I've been tracking mileage since 2005, when I started really racing and running. Numbers mean a lot to runners - we track kilometres, times, pbs. When I look back at the last 10 years I see ambition, dedication and years when running became just running, and I was fine with it. The last two years have sparked a reemergence of performance running. I'm now running the best I have from a speed and efficiency perspective, but I'm also way more spiritually and emotionally grounded. It's an amazing feeling. Hope everyone gets to experience the long road ahead. #runto #running
A photo posted by Kenny (@yumkerun) on

In the 10 years I've been running distance, I've covered 30,000 kilometres, run 105 races, participated in 29 marathons. When you look closely at the numbers in the picture above, you see a rampup of mileage and races and PBs, but also look at  2010 to 2012.

What was I doing those three years? Was I taking a sabbatical, a break from running? The answer to that helps me think about what it means to be a long term runner.

WHEN I DEFINE MYSELF -- in a social media posting or any other site where I'd put my bio -- a runner is inevitably part of my identity. Most people start with their jobs, then go from there.

I once had a conversation with one of my coaches, a gifted athlete and a fast runner. What I told her helps me realize how I continue to reconcile what running is to me. "I'm an exceptional journalist," I told her, with no hint of self deprecation, "and I consider myself to be a good runner." Running, I explained to her, was something I could excel at -- I would never be the best, but it was one sport that if I pushed hard enough, trained smart enough, that I was blessed with the body and the stride and the fitness that helps me succeed -- if getting a Boston qualifier or a sub 20 minute 5K is a measure of success, I have already hit my bucket lists.

Ten years in, I have learned that, to me, I....

Run just to run

Run to get away

Run to find answers

Run for fitness

Run because I can

Run because it is great to feel fast.

Run because you get to run with your favourite people who are runners

Run to see how fast you can go

Run for the challenge of distance, or take a distance and run it faster than you've ever run it

Run so you can suck in the air, feel your heart beat rise

Run to breathe. Run to see. Run to feel. Run to put away the dress shoes and strap on a light pair of soles that will take you so far to places you've never seen.

I decided in early 2013 to run away all of my feelings and the terrible personal 2012. The bombs in Boston reverberated with me, shaking up a runner who was already going through a personal shock. In the training and the speed and the seeking for quality and improvement, I found that all of the things I leaned on running for could shape me into the runner I wanted to become. I wanted to improve my lot, my life, and making running one way to measure that made sense. In a lot of ways, I leaned on running. What I describe as my comeback was both as a runner and as a person.

Now when I look at performance, some six years after I first sought to qualify for Boston, I am much more grounded as I seek new paths. I'm thinking about all of the lessons I've learned from racing so many years. I'm smarter about how I train. I think about the other work I need to do that makes me better -- eating well, being stronger, running recovery. I always stop to admire the scenery.

And the 10-year on runner in me is so much in love with the motion. If I ever have to recall what it feels like to be a kid, I only have to step out my front door and start striding out my courtyard, or skip a curb while on a 25K run, or just take a look at breath taking views I see every day. If I want to feel alive, I look to my daily runs as motivation.

Nothing, in this runner, is taken for granted. It can be taken away at any time, and I'm going to savour every moment.

Maybe you have seen the Catching Kayla video, about a young competitive runner with MS, one of the most inspiring running videos I've ever seen. What resonated with me at the end was what she says about how she views running, knowing she could lose the ability to run sometime in her adult life.

"I just hope to run as long as I can and to make the most out of it as long as I can," she says. "When or if I'm not able to run at some point down the road, at least I can look back that when I could I gave it my all."

Well said, Kayla.

As for me, 10 years in, I've realized that speed and PBs and time is really never a bar I want to measure my running life when I look back at all of the distance and experiences. There is no good or bad version of myself as a runner. Running, like the left foot following the right, is a constant. I'm always in motion. I'm always running. And I always want to run long -- and for a long time.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Looking back, looking ahead

Last night, the band that has been around my left wrist, serving as motivation through 17 months, snapped. 

Figures, I thought, surprisingly not upset.

I wondered what to lean on as a reminder -- the replacement I have, another band, or nothing at all. The Boston wristband carried me through hundreds of runs, more than 6,000 kms, accompanied me on a year-long (and counting) run streak. I even stopped in the middle of a marathon to pick it up.

I had thought to wear it until this year's Boston Marathon, maybe dropping it in Hopkinton or, more symbolically, after I passed the finish line on Boylston on April 20.

But it was fitting of all days that on Dec. 31 that it had to come off. I didn't need it as a talisman in what has been an emotional and fulfilling running year.

My running:
I set nine personal bests. It's kind of incredible, but I took down records from 2008 in the 5K, 8K, 10 miles, half, 30K (twice), marathon (three times).

I ran the most I've ever run in a year -- 4,400 kilometres, which would take me from Toronto to Vancouver. Last year, a huge running year for me, I put in 3600. Out of the 12 months, in 11 I've surpassed 200 miles. A lot of running

I'm running the strongest. I'm learning to run. I'm loving it even more.

I ran every day this year. Nuff said.

My writing:

This is the ninth year I've had this blog and although I haven't written as much, I think some of my best writing is coming. I think a lot about what I want to write and think about telling stories. My one-year run streak story is one of my most favourite pieces of writing, because I think it resonates with me so well.

Some of my other favourites

My love of running:
I can say at the end of 2014 compared with the beginning that I am even more passionate about running -- the sport, the act, the community it supports.

I've learned to embrace and love team running. It has invigorated the runner in me and I've been so lucky to train with such talented and amazing coaches. In a mere two seasons this year, I got to know Rejean Chiasson and Nicole Stevenson -- learned so much and built friendships with these mentors. Not a bad thing when you get to run with some of the fastest runners this country has produced.

One of the biggest accomplishment for this year is how I met so many new friends through running -- through social media and, more importantly, on the roads every Sunday and on the speed circuits. I must have met more than 50 people, many of whom I would now call close friends. I've worked with so many talented coaches and runners and I feel like it's a family reunion every time I hit the roads.

So where am I going?

I have no intention, for now, of stopping the run streak. I'm on day 400 and I will continue to listen to the body and the body says it is good.

I will aim to "race" my 30th marathon in Boston. It will be emotional. It will be a run to remember. I will attack that course with the respect it deserves.

I will make time goals, run far, but will be smart about how I train -- I'm training with Pace and Mind this year and I'm comfortable with the battle plan. Go get Boston, get faster doing it, then aim at shorter distances for the fall, from the half marathon distance down to the 5K.

I will get stronger -- spin classes, yoga and strength exercises are all on my to-do list for 2015. I've already hit spin and strength with fervour and I'm already a stronger runner for it. I'll also continue to learn how to run.

I will continue to be part of this community -- build friendships, be a positive ambassador for running in my daily life and always drag my running buddies out for runs.

I will continue to turn to this blog, which is now in its TENTH YEAR, for what I used it in 2014 -- a repository for race reports, strategy guides but mostly, as a place where I can write about running for the love of both the sport and of narrative. I've loved crafting stories and I intend to tell more -- there are many more stories to tell.

By the way, I have wristband from Brooks. It says "Run Happy." Haven't put it on yet, though.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Race report: Boxing Day 10 Miler 2014

So, yes, another race. Impromptu at that. A final one for a crazy running year.

My recovery since the California International Marathon less than three weeks ago has been solid -- I took it easy for a week but still logged 44km, then 80km last week. I've been easing back on any hard interval work with the team, perferring to do closer to around marathon pace than 5K or one-hour race pace. A week ago, I did a 8km workout session and after 6K at 4:25 to 4:20 pace, I did a few faster splits (4:06, 3:30) that meant my recovery was going well. The past week, I've taken spin classes (more on that in a another post) that kept my V02 and intensity level high. I hit a rare year-end where I'm at a good fitness level as another training season begins.

A few friends were doing the Boxing Day 10 Miler in Hamilton -- I haven't done it before and though I had raced six 10 milers over the years, the last quality one I'd done was way back in 2008, a 1:09:29 effort or a 4:19 km average. Since I had just raced a marathon at around 4:20km pace, I knew the PB was soft, so today was a day to take down that soft PB.

The team! Photo by Wing

Coach's race plan was a more moderate one, calling for 4:15s for 3K, then 4:10s for the next 9K, then close as fast as I could. If I could do that, I could probably close with a 1:07 or 1:06.

Weather, well, it was perfect -- sunny, light to moderate winds and around 6C at the noon start. It really did feel a little warmer. I wore a T-shirt, singlet, arm warmers and tights.

I raced with teammate Andrew -- we agreed to stick to coach's plan.


Okay, maybe not a slow start but we were feeling good and there were a lot of downhill stretches. I was reminding Andrew that we were aiming for a controlled start, something like marathon pace. Still you can see a bunch of 4:04s to 4:12s so I guess we weren't that consistent. Nevertheless, we were running strong and after the 2K mark, we started to make our way up the field.

1 4:06.3
2 4:04.4
3 4:10.4
4 4:04.3
5 4:12.2

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Race Report: California International Marathon 2014

The footing was precarious as I gave pursuit around that second lap of our interval workout. It was four days before I was to tackle the rolling hills in Folsom, two days till I boarded a plane for Sacramento, California. But tonight, as the asphalt that was 10 minutes ago wet was now frozen, I gave chase as we curved the down and ups of High Park. I was nursing a sore hamstring but found an extra half gear to power down and up the hill. Chasing a teammate, eventually coming alongside stride for stride, even as we were nearly slipping with every stride. Chasing so we would reach the finish faster.

"Sorry about the weather," the hotel employee said as I checked into the hotel on Friday, my leather jacket draped over my backpack. I was your typical happy Canadian who was escaping the beginnings of winter, where 16C with cloud cover might as well be a heat wave.

The California International Marathon has been on my radar for years and about 12 weeks ago, it became a backup marathon when I pulled my calf and started to look for a later marathon. It features rolling hills, a net downhill course and likens itself as the fastest course in the West. Not that I'd know, as I've never raced any marathons in the west or in December.

My teammate and training partner Julia had pegged the race as her goal marathon - I remember her telling me during a winter training run 11 months ago about this race in Sacramento. One of her friends, and fellow teammate, Naomi was also running it as her first marathon. So when I pulled the calf and started to look at options, CIM became the best choice. Running vacation with friends and enough time to ramp back up if I raced Scotiabank. So on Oct 1, I signed up under their guaranteed entry program.

I ended up racing Scotia in late October, my calf healing enough for me, and I decided to say, screw it, lets go for it. The race was a PB, 3:07:20. Looking back at the summer and year of training, I always felt that I had 3:05 fitness in me. Seven weeks ago as I started to ramp back up to CIM, I had no clue how I would treat that race. I was able to get my mileage back right up to peak form after a recovery week. Julia and I nailed our long runs, doing a 38k and about 35k four weeks out. My calf was getting better and about three weeks ago, I was finally able to pull off faster than 5k pace for the first time since late September. I was, crazy enough, still fit, aside from an upper left hamstring and groin soreness. More important, I was still training to run fast.

On Wednesday I did a quality workout where I was testing 4:05 and 3:55 pace. Some of the runners I was running with were gearing up for a 10k. I worried slightly that I was pushing it right before the final taper but I wanted to see what it felt to run fast. I concluded that I could push, but the next day I felt the pull of my hamstring, the soreness associated with running hard. I took it slow the last three days but still, it felt good to chase.

Waiting for the bus in Sacramento race morning.

Twenty minutes before meeting my coach a few days before the race, an email landed in my inbox from her with my prescribed pace. It called for a faster than Scotia, or a 4:25k for a 3:06:30 finish. We spoke over coffee and after assessing my fitness and condition, she threw in the first of many mild suggestions. "This is a good course to go for a fast time," she said. I told her I was so proud of the work i'd done this year but her point was well taken even if this was a no-pressure race.  Later, a friend at BlackToe who had run CIM before also said the same thing - that CIM was a fast, but beware too fast a start and trust the pacers. I left convinced that I had three choices. Run a controlled marathon at 3:10 to 3:15. Think about running with Julia who in the end needed to run her own race. Or chase a personal best on that course. Chasing was, by Friday morning, a small and gentle voice.

On race morning, the three of us stood in line for the bus that would take us out to the start line in Folsom, as CIM is a point to point course. We sat in the back of the bus and chatted up a Calgarian, and the Canadian contingent was talking about the weather (perfect, 8C climbing to 12C, no wind), the course (downhill but rolling, emphasis on rolling,with a flat final 5 miles), the occasion (it was Jules's birthday) and the portapotties (there were many). Later, someone asked us to push up the window as it was chilly, but for us, it was near perfect for racing.

Exiting the buses we only had around 40 minutes to do a washroom break, a group selfie and then we dropped off Naomi with her pace sign while Jules and I headed to the 3:10 sign. We stood there, hugged, pumped up for a morning of racing. I knew she was situating herself behind the 3:10. I looked at the 3:05 bunny, wondered what if.

Me, Julia and Naomi. 

The sun was rising and I could feel the perfect chill against my shoulder. I was wearing my favourite singlet, tattered and worn in by age and races. I clapped my gloved hands more to pump myself up than warmth. Then it was time to race.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Where belief can take you. And how far and fast it can get you there.

I can't explain yesterday's race other than I believed I could. 

I'm still trying to process what happened yesterday on the course of the California International Marathon. All I know is that I do have a race report to write that will come with time and reflection. 

So first, about barriers. How we put them up. How we stare at them with fear. How we think they'll always be unbreakable. And how we take the steps to reconcile what barriers are -- by tactically scaling them, avoiding them altogether, by taking them with a head and heart full of steam. 

When I relate barriers to my running life, I think about how far I can run, how fast I can run far and whatever limitations I have, whether it's an imperfect stride or a straying diet, gets in the way of the barrier, let alone any goals. I've written of the notion of fear, and how it can motivate you to greatness. 

Belief is a strong thing. Yesterday, I could feel it envelope me. By the time I had made it to the start line, I had heard from my coach who said she believed, from friends who thought I had it in me. Even as I was at the start, blissfully unaware of the three plus hours ahead of me, I was happy, confident, purposeful. I believed. 

On the course, I would draw upon it step after step. I asked myself so many questions. Can I run this fast this late? Can my hamstring hold? Can I catch up to that pace bunny that I could only see with my minds eye and a glance at my watch. Can I break that barrier?

Boston's ultimate qualifier is a 3:05. When the bar was moved higher and higher, years back, I got so intimidated that I would only wait for myself to age, which would move that bar just a little lower. My comeback this year, I thought about how I want to take that down that I would look past 3:15. I removed the barrier. I just wanted to go as fast as I could aspire to. I wanted to train up to my potential, not to a barrier one race put in front of me. 

So yesterday, when I passed the 3:05 bunny with 5k to go, I thought nothing of how comfortable it would be to settle in for the ride. The barrier was no longer a number, but a measure of effort, a test of will and a expression of fitness and of belief. 

Belief is a tricky thing. Some blindly believe, just trusting that great things will happen. My version of belief is spiritual yet grounded in reality. Yesterday I thought of the miles I put in, the run streak, the fast times I've closed in workouts and races. 

Belief was manifested yesterday in the reflection of the work put in, in mantras I uttered on the course and of the experience I bought to my 29th marathon. Belief was spurred on by the emotional and logical sides of my makeup, expended with each stride that at one point was happy go lucky and on the next step purposeful.  At the end of it all I couldn't believe I had crossed the finish in 3:02:55 but I had been present in every second that preceded the finish and it was belief that fueled the run. Only this morning I have come to that conclusion and it's the most happy-amazing-gratifying-emotional feeling you can think of. I ran my fastest yesterday simply because I believed I could.