I’ve raced five times since arriving home from Kenya. The first was the Times Colonist 10km here in Victoria, which I wasn’t sure I would do except the start is a five minute jog from my place. I’ve been anywhere from 30:04 to 32:47 in this race, spanning 17 years, and this year lining up I figured I’d be at the slower end of the range, possibly establishing a new bookend. My body feels fantastic on my easy runs. I’m running them slower than ever, some mornings starting by just moving my legs and then transitioning almost imperceptibly from a walk to a run, with my body on Canadian soil and my mind on the red dirt Kenyan roads. Enjoying the process the way we’re always told to appreciate it, not caring about the outcome, using it as meditation first and training as an afterthought. Leaving my place in the mornings, and sometimes again in the evenings, and committing only to the very first step out the door, and if something good comes from it, something beyond the felicity born from every cell in my body being held tight against the moment, something that might actually be useful on race day, then I’m a fortunate one. Running that’s so incredibly enjoyable I’ll often arrive home wondering how it’s possible to love it this much after 30 years of hard training.
But my intensity days have been awful. I’ve lost 5 seconds from my top end 200m time, and my threshold work is about 20 seconds slower per mile. At 42 years old I expect to be slower, but what’s frustrating is I’ve felt terrible during the sessions, muscles shutting down as the workout progresses. Muscles getting heavy, then stopping firing. Not completely stopping. It’s the feeling of the belt being ratcheted too tightly on an exercise bike. It takes a lot of work to keep moving; something’s absorbing my energy. I push but don’t create any momentum. Contrast this with the best days when it’s easier to run than not, and very hard to stop.
Then on the morning of the TC I woke feeling good, and surprised myself by running a negative split over a windy second half, finishing in 31:37.
Which, then I thought I was cured and could break 1h08’ for my half marathon a week later on a stormy morning in Vancouver. I woke three hours before the race for my early morning shake out, jogging with an umbrella the wind would catch and invert, tugging me along like a leash. I passed silhouettes of couples huddled together, faces angled in with just their backs exposed. Claude Théberge subjects of mystery and seduction. After my jog, a shower so hot it stung my weather-bitten skin.
A trolley was scheduled to pick up the elites at 5:30 a.m. on a corner of E. Hastings, taking us to the start in Queen Elizabeth park. We arrived a minute late, in time to see it disappearing around a corner two blocks away. Lynn, elite athlete coordinator, stared after it until it was completely gone from view except for a final puff of exhaust, and continued staring for another half a minute with the rest of us now huddled under an awning against the rain, cagey with race tension and now a bit uncertain how we would get to the start. Lynn flipped open her phone to call the driver but the battery was dead. She turned to us and we could see she didn’t really know what to say, her mouth open in the way mouths sometimes find themselves when you can’t quite believe what’s happening, aren’t even sure what is happening, the reality at such discord with the intent. Backlit by the halogen street lamps, rain starting to drip from her hair. One of the ladies offered her phone to Lynn, who finally got in touch with the driver. He’d be back in twenty minutes, he said.
We pressed in closer together against the cold. Hastings isn’t the most glamorous of streets in that dark early hour. The rain was steady against the awnings, collecting and spilling off, splashing onto the cement and then our feet. This lonely time of morning with no headlights on the roads, and only the most intrepid or desperate labourers about. Twenty-five minutes passed before we saw our trolley returning down the street.
But half a block away the lights on the trolley went out. It had enough momentum to decelerate right to our corner before coming to a complete stop. The driver stood up and pushed at the door, but it wouldn’t budge. He fiddled with something at the top of the door frame and pushed again, and still it wouldn’t move. We’d formed a polite line outside hoping to get on quickly and warm up, and we could only watch him until he shrugged his shoulders and gesticulated he couldn’t get the trolley started. It had broken down. A few of us laughed with the sort of comedy-of-errors laughter you never want to discover you possess. One of the Moroccans quickly hailed a cab passing and hopped in with one of the Kenyans. The rest of us were still hoping our trolley would kick back into life. Race start was an hour away.
A second trolley arrived not long after. It dropped us a few blocks away from Queen Elizabeth park 35 minutes before race start. A hurried warm up in the pissing rain and then we were off, splashing through puddles on the course. I want to blame my 1h11’ (new personal worst by over a minute) on the weather and the comedic morning, but really I think I just didn’t have the gusto. Two weeks later I lined up for a second half marathon, this time here in Victoria, with better weather and a normal pre-race morning, and I ran 30 seconds slower. Two 1h11’ races in May, after having never been slower than 1h09’ in my life.
I wasn’t sure which Me would show up at my next race, my only track 10 000m this year. What I wanted was the BC master’s record, 31:11, set nearly 30 years ago, and Geoff Martinson agreed to help me out with pacing. I would just hang on for as long as I could.
We hit halfway in 15:35, right on pace, but I’d already been working too hard for the past kilometer. There was no way I could keep this going. I’d just try to hold on to the pace for one more lap, and then see. Not even a lap. I wanted 200m. Half a track. I committed to just under 40 seconds of running at a time, because sometimes it turns around and I didn’t want to let the mark slip away. Give me 200m and then I’ll look at the next 200m. Sometimes we can find comfort in the uncomfortable, and if this is a statement about life more generally I think I’ve been pretty good at this, or pretty guilty of it. If we embrace the worst of it. Lungs that seem to hurt at the edges, like inhaling a rosebush. If we know it’s going to be awful for a while but there’s an end, we put our efforts into holding on. Not in a foolishly blind way, but in a tenacious I-know-there’s-a-kernel way. Still, Geoff and I slowed down. Some 3:08 kilometers, and 25:00 for 8km leaving me with hard running to do. Then a 3:04. I needed a 3:07 to finish but things were getting gritty. I had no idea how close I was. Missing the split with two laps to go, and again with 400m remaining. Knowing my only option was to hold together arms and legs that suddenly felt too long and heavy for my frame, a bouncer’s limbs attached to an addict's torso. Throwing myself across the finish line still unsure of my time, which, when the results came in, was 31:03, breaking the 27-year old record.
Two weeks later, a 1:08:21 for a half marathon in Vancouver, and my trajectory is good heading into the fall.