Thursday, August 21, 2014

The sound of quiet

I was on the road between Eugene and Portland. The phone was flashing an E, seeking data, those bits and bytes that connect us. Content to save the battery, I put the phone on airplane mode. I did the same again a day later as I entered a trail in Portland, emerging from the forest more than five hours later. Just me, my thoughts and my legs. 

The past few days I've been surrounded by quiet. From the moment I landed in Eugene, I barely had a conversation with anyone, save two waitresses, a hotel concierge and a taxi driver. The driver relayed to me how laid back it was there. Is it quiet on a Sunday, I asked. Yes. Good. 

I flew across the country to find the quiet. True, I came for the trails, the coffee and food, to see yet another city on my list of cities to see, but I got on two planes so I could find that thing we all seek, in bits here, a bite of it when we can chew out for ourselves, some time.   

Setting foot on Pre's Trail

Don't worry, I told my coworker when she heard I was going to Portland the other day, I'm not doing the Into The Wild, where I would grow out my hair, seek north with no destination in mind other than self discovery. She laughed, but now, three days later, I was sitting on an Amtrak bus, writing while peering ahead at the young man in the seat in front of me. He had three studded earrings on his left ear, one bearing a white and black peace sign, the ear he pressed against the window after trying for 30 minutes to make it through the introduction of Short Stories By Leo Tolstoy. I watched him underline sentences with a borrowed pen and felt sympathy. Outside, far more interesting, I watched the mountain ranges go by, a hitchhiker waving his arms as if he's flagging down a cab instead of asking for a free ride. And I was on a bus, not having checked work email in two days, social media for more than a few hours, feeling the urge to write as I watched the dust bowl of a farmfield, stirred up by a tractor in this unseasonably dry and warm summer. In my 2.5 hour ride up to Portland, I suppressed the urge to turn on the phone. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Race report: A Midsummers Night 30k

A few seconds before the start of my 30K race, the rain fell, and the runners behind me sort of groaned. Minutes earlier, after greeting some of my running friends, I peered up at the clouds that were carrying a light spritzer, and watched as the puffs glided east, fast. Good news: there would be a tailwind. Bad news: a headwind too. 

Last week, coach sent us our Wednesday workout, saying it'd be a lighter one since so many of us were racing the 30k A Midsummers Run. Wednesday, I ran a marathon, instead of long slow miles, I ran at a non-threatening but taxing 4:49k pace. It was the equivalent of a 3:23 effort but with stops built in, but still, a 4:49. 

Texting with my training partner Mike earlier Saturday, we discussed possibilities. Would I use it as a marathon pace run, maybe start slightly slower then ramp up to my marathon pace of 4:26s (for a 3:07ish marathon), then hold and attack the last 5k. Then Mike told me his instructions: start at 4:20s then go faster. 

What?!

Then it made perfect sense. I thought about all of the paces we having been nailing in the last two training seasons. We started in January with intervals at 4:20, quickly lowering them to 4:10s then 4:05s. By the last few months, we've been doing 1-3k intervals at 3:45s to 3:50s. Our tempos were being done at 4:15 and faster. My half in early March was run in 4:14s and I ran the 30k Around the Bay later that month in 4:25s. So according to coach, it was go time. 

A year ago, I would have run this at marathon pace, even slower. A year ago, I would be scared to test my limits. This year, I've been learning that to test your limits, you have to push them. 

4:20?  It took me a split second to tell Mike "lets do it!" 

1-5k
We lined up near the front and started with no fanfare, perfect. The field quickly spread and we were just ahead of a loud talking pacer, the 2:15. Mike and I regulated the pace but for some reason, he was on our tails, telling his runners he would be doing even splits. We hit the first kilometer in 4:21. Perfect. He hit it in 4:23 and I put up my hand, with three fingers closed, and shouted "seven seconds!"  It was the last time I would hear the pace group as we kept our gears going and he peeled back. 


I'm well known to be a metronome during races, but hitting dead on pace right away was a special feeling. We had a mini out and back as we headed to Cherry street, where we got to feel the tailwind (it was strong) and headwind (also). I love the route for this Midsummers, as it's run on routes I normally tackle on solo long runs. I know the route well and that's always an advantage when racing. Our next few kilometers were a little varying, slowing to 4:26, then as a result speeding up to 4:15s. The cadence felt okay. My breathing was good, telling me I had some cardio room, and it felt on the easy edge of  comfortably hard, that special feeling when you're long distance pace running 

Splits: 4:21, 4:21, 4:26, 4:16, 4:15

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Birthday Marathon

Last night, I ran my 28th marathon. Yesterday morning, I didn't know I was going to run a marathon.

It was one of those quick decisions, made while I was walking to work this morning. It's my birthday. A big one. So during my break, I mapped a route. I wanted to run past all the places I've lived, all the places I've worked and my old university, high school, ending at my elementary school track.

I took two gels. I used my new trail running backpack. I ran a downtown loop, met up with the team for a picture, then hugged the water on my way back to the family home. I ran, trying to contain the pace. But I was going faster than planned. When I hit the half in 1:42, I knew I would probably go sub 3:30.

It was a stop and start run -- at red lights, to take some water, to get my bearings. Running a marathon after a work day is a little odd, especially when you're trying to get as much out of the fading sun.

The run was special. I loved running by my old haunts -- smiled, reflected and zeroed into myself.


The run was finished with a loop where I did my first cross country training runs, and the final 200 metres around the track at old St. Ursula elementary school, where I needed the iPhone flashlight to avoid tripping, like I did when I broke my ankle in Grade 5.

Amazing run. A landmark one. One to remember. It was the perfect birthday present to myself.

Marathon done in 3:23, average pace of 4:49Ks.

1 5:09.8
2 5:12.7
3 5:05.5
4 4:54.6
5 5:07.1
6 5:08.2
7 4:41.4
8 4:37.3
9 4:51.5
10 4:41.8
11 4:29.6
12 4:29.3
13 4:41.7
14 4:32.4
15 5:11.0
16 5:16.9
17 4:50.1
18 4:38.6
19 4:44.4
20 4:24.4
21 4:49.3
22 4:41.6
23 4:37.3
24 4:46.3
25 4:54.3
26 4:42.6
27 4:39.6
28 4:46.7
29 5:06.9
30 5:04.0
31 4:52.8
32 4:41.0
33 5:03.5
34 4:36.9
35 4:34.6
36 5:05.6
37 4:31.8
38 4:33.1
39 4:53.2
40 4:14.8
41 4:49.8
42 5:21.7
43 :59.4


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Rounding up

There was a time when every run started and ended with a zero. If my 12K run was in progress, I would not be content with a 11.95K, so for the last few minutes, I'd pay less attention to the road, waiting for my wrist to signal when I should stop. If I had to shuffle back and forth, or take a turn around the corner to make up the extra few hundred metres, I'd do it. I didn't want to round up.

This post is about getting older and how you tackle that, take stock of it. It's about peering back and facing forward. It's about evolving your view of all that and, surprise, it has something to do about running. What sparks it is that I'm turning 40 this week. It's not easy to make the public declaration from someone who hides his birthday on Facebook, who would rather spend a birthday not at work and alone with my thoughts, who cringes at attention. But everyone knows. They're expecting me to make a big deal so I am -- here.

Milestones can be weights -- weights we pile on ourselves, of things we want to achieve, things left undone or things you regret. They are, in the end, just things. 

I've been never one for birthdays. As an August kid, birthdays melded into that final summer month just as pre-school anxiety starts to spike. I remember August more for working at the burger stand that my family operated at the CNE for 15 years, where as a child I stood by the monster toaster, shifting from foot to foot on a grease-smeared floor tile for hours, mastering the few deft moves it took to open a bag, dumping the bread into a pile, splitting a bun open and watching them get charred. I was nicknamed "bun boy," only realizing now how silly that sounds. In subsequent Augusts, when I moved into more 'acceptable' working age, I graduated to grill master or fry cook, then manned the till while building my customer service skills at age 11, entrusted with the family's daily earnings. I was rewarded with rolls of quarters I'd empty into the midway's video game booths. I swear I spent many a birthday working 12-hour shifts in my orange and brown Chef Burger T-shirt.

Birthdays in my household were treated much like Christmas -- my immigrant parents tried to interpret these Hallmark holidays or 'Canadian traditions' and went through the motions without really grasping why these milestones were meaningful as if they were learning about assembling food and decorations from an Ikea instruction manual -- they got the gist but never built it right, and there were always leftover parts: A plastic tree with ornaments, sure, lets try this; wrapping birthday gifts, they do that? What does a kid want for a birthday? I usually ended up with a few "new" pair of socks every year, one at Christmas, the other at my birthday, tossed in my general direction as if to say, "congrats, another year since you've been alive. Happy Birthday." In later teen years, I started to buy myself a gift, but by then I had already realized that it really didn't matter much.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Learning to run

Running those loops were endless, it seemed, back in the Grade-school days before I knew what running gear was or even that running was a thing to do outside of school-time Participaction. Our gym/Grade 5 teacher sent us off on that 2.2K loop around my school and I now wonder what kind of running shoes my parents bought me, more likely acquired when my mom visited the local Bi-Way -- she was, after all, famous for scourging sales, the dregs from the the discount bin where she could mysteriously find matching outfits for my brother and I just in time for school pictures.

The loops that we ran on random mornings was part of "training" for our meagre cross-country team. I was third and also the slowest of my group of boys. The loops didn't prepare me for race day that saw me try to crest a stupid hill -- there are hills and grass in cross country?  I had advanced through the first set of local races and found myself toeing the line of a city-wide cross-country race where for all but me it was really a run until my fitness was compromised. To this day, I remember distinctly the hill, trying to run to the top it and realizing the best thing next to starting a run at a full sprint was taking a walk break.

How did I come to run? Who made me do this? How do I do this running thing anyways?

***


They say that running is what we are meant to do. They also say that running with shoes is against nature, just ask anyone seeking a refund from Vibram what natural running really is. In truth, we like to say that if you want to see someone run without abandon, watch a kid run, and while that is good enough to see what type of joy you can have on a grassy field, do we really know how to run?

I've been asking myself that more recently as I pound out year after year on asphalt, trails and concrete. I've been wondering why -- talent and effort aside -- are others more efficient, why do elite runners look so perfect when we do not.