Monday, September 08, 2014

The beauty of training

"I have to practice running more," a co-worker said to me the other day as I came back from a noon speedwork session.

"Training," I answered her. "You don't practice running, you train."

That word training, it's meaningful to me, even more so than "racing." With "training," I can somehow make a daily excuse to run. Training is how I can feasibly explain to a non-runner why I run 100 kilometres a week. Training is how I've managed to make a run streak that's now almost at 300 days feel almost normal. It's necessary, I say about my running without saying why it's necessary. I'm training.

Races are the shiny, glittery objects of our sport -- we all from time to time, with good reason, succumb to it. We fawn over them, covet them, collect their swag and obsess over them.  Over my bed hangs a few select medals I've collected over the years. The other medals -- taken after I've toed the line at marathons, countless 30Ks, halfs and 10Ks, are still stuffed haphazardly in a cardboard box with the Sharpie-scrawled "medals" that the movers hauled into my spare bedroom. It hasn't moved since I placed it on a shelf a year ago. While I keep my medals, I'm not a fan of the bling. I've never quite understood why these massive medals need to be created. I see people asking about medals before they will commit to running a race and I really don't get it, as if it's the swag that's the make-or-break reason why you haul ass for 26.2 miles. Truth is, the more medals I'll earn, the bigger a cardboard box I'll need.

Training though, I can't get enough of it. I love to train. Above all, training, and the process that it forces me into, turns running from chore to routine to just a thing that I do -- no need.

Jeff Adams is a Canadian Paralympian who gave a corporate motivational speech to my company offsite this past summer. Through his speech, he talked about "searching for excellence" in sports and how that relates to the business world. What I connected with the most was when he talked about goal races -- performing on the world's stage, when all cameras and eyes were on him -- he also related to us that he enjoyed the most about the process was the training.

Everyday I train, he told us, six years after he retired from a 20-year career. When you train, you're alone, nothing to drive you but yourself. When you train, you focus on all the parts that need to improve so you can perform at the top of your abilities. But however that goal day unfolds -- race day, Olympics medal day, your first marathon -- it's every day before and every day after that defines you.

While the often-euphoric feeling associated with race day magic is hard to be beat, it's the every other day that nurtures the runner in me. I thought it was a rare thought at first, but the more runners I'm meeting, I'm hearing similar themes.

Training gets me up at 5:30 a.m. to fit in a run before work. Training gets me to put on my running gear right after the work day is complete. It gets me to flush out the schedule, urges me out the door on an early Sunday morning, and training makes -20C runs seem not only doable, but logical. Running offseason is wonderful, but it lacks the structure that the type-A self needs. I liken it to doing a strength workout without a good idea of what your sets or routine look like.

Committing to training is even more important than following a schedule. Training I associate with the words "commitment," "dedication" and "passion" even as I think of the words "escape," "pain," "hard work" and "disconnecting." Training pushes me beyond my comfort level. It has made me a better runner but at the same time turned me into a runner who loves running as much for the hard work as it is to simply run. In training partners, I'm finding people who feel the same. I no longer feel like the lone guy who just loves to run -- there are many more of us.

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.