My 29th birthday was looming in the fall of 2006 and I was feeling disheartened. Another botched relationship, my Master’s degree wasn’t pulling in the job offers, and I needed some direction. As an avid skateboarder I had moved to Vancouver ten years earlier from Ontario because it was considered to be the Canadian mecca for skaters. I also decided to attend Simon Fraser University, initially because of its financial support for athletes because I had been a competitive long-distance runner in highschool.
At the age of eleven I had joined the Saugeen Track and Field Club to train with a coach. I loved running as a kid. Apparently, when I was five my family was at a “Family Beach Day” at Red Bay, and I begged my Mom to let me enter the road race, among other games and contests. The race officials agreed, as long as my Mom ran and walked beside me. She always laughs at this memory because I stubbornly ran the whole race and intuitively knew to sprint to the finish line. All I can remember from that day was making sand castles, and capturing frogs for the frog race. I left my frogs in a bucket in the car, they escaped, and then we discovered their dead bodies weeks later under the seat.
I do remember being in Grade One when I organized a girl’s team to enter the local cross-country race because my tiny school had no sports program. Leading up to the race my Mom would take me to Harrison Park to check out the course and sprint through the forest. She had a stop watch and I would run the trail repeatedly to improve my time. On the day of the race I came third and my team was first overall. I quickly got the taste of winning competitions. The only problem was that in high school the competition got more and more intense, so much that I ended up stressed out with insomnia at age 14. I had issues with a coach, and then issues with my own identity and wanting to be “cool,” rather than a weird jock.
I eventually became consumed with my love for snowboarding and skateboarding, and chose to abandon running. And yet, whenever I found myself upset or lonely I would return to running as an outlet, and this was the case that autumn in 2006. I had been biking everyday during the summer and played pick-up soccer with a rowdy mob of inebriated skaters each Sunday, so I was in reasonable shape when I hit the pavement once again.
Actually, I was surprised that my brief romp around the neighborhood did not induce more aches and pains, like I expected. Instead, I experienced a feeling of mental clarity and relief that was refreshing. I wasn’t thrilled to be single again, but at least I was doing something productive with my extra time and trying not to mope! I decided to keep running throughout the week, which turned into a month. I then figured that I might as well buy a sports watch and decent pair of shoes, and start keeping track of my progress. On my birthday the thought occurred to me that maybe I should consider training for a marathon and do something epic before I hit the big 3-0! It had always been a dream to run a marathon, ever since my parents rented a television for the 1984 Olympics and I watched Joan Benoit win the women’s first Olympic marathon. It still gives me shivers recalling that ground-breaking race.
I went online and came across Marathontraining.com, which provided several running schedules, to build-up mileage and then prepare for the race. I then investigated the annual marathon here in Vancouver, and was thrilled to discover that if I began my training that very week, following the two programs, it would lead up exactly to the May 2007 race date in eight months. It appeared that this race was destined to be and I made a commitment to follow it through. At first I was hesitant to announce to my tattooed, motorcycle-riding skater friends this decision to go jock. But as the word got out and I became more and more obsessed with the idea I discovered that many of my peers were really excited about my plan. It was even revealed that some of their parents were marathoners and Iron Man participants, putting their beer-guzzling children to shame! The idea of returning to a more active lifestyle secretly appealed to them, and I found myself a few occasional running partners from my motley crew.
The first few months were not easy, and I often dreaded going for a run. At these times I would call my parents, and since my Dad had just gone through hip surgery and was immobilized, he would jokingly guilt me to go running for “dear old Dad.” Once I had my gear on and I was out the door, I always felt relieved that I had made the move. Eventually it became easier and a natural part of my routine, and when I paid my race registration fee on New Years, there was no turning back. I still had so much to learn!
My first run over 20km was a near disaster since I did not bring any water and wasn’t aware of the benefits of sports drinks, let alone gels. I got a stern lecture from a more knowledgeable friend, and was sent straight to my local Running Room store. I realized that I would have to get over my distaste for “Fanny Packs” and wear a water belt, which was one of the best purchases I made. The staff also hooked me up with a variety of gels to test and the sports drink that would be offered during the marathon, and an on-line map with training loops. Besides learning good hydration habits, my only other set-back was being diagnosed with exercise induced asthma two months in advance of the race. I was unaware that someone in decent shape could have asthma and for several months ignored some strange breathing problems, until it climaxed with an attack during what should have been an easy jog. This time I went directly to a walk-in clinic and was given appropriate medication. It was actually a relief to have this clarified, so I could get on with the training!
As the weeks flew by I acquired a real appreciation for my adopted west coast city. I highly doubt that I could have managed those grueling long runs in the winter wonderland of my hometown in Ontario. It still blows my mind the work-outs we would accomplish in mid-February bundled up in multiple layers, running in the dark, trying to avoid patches of ice on the roads back in my high school days. Vancouver is blessed with milder weather and a pleasant Sea Wall path all along the water, particularly around Stanley Park. Unfortunately, a brutal wind storm in December ripped along the shore and across the city, devastating thousands of trees, many of them old growth. As a result, the Stanley Park route was rendered off-limits for months, and environmentalists have been raising funds to restore the park and remove debris. This dramatic disaster really opened the eyes of many residents to this exceptional natural space, so close to the downtown core, that might otherwise be taken for granted.
Springtime finally arrived, the cherry blossoms bloomed in all their pink fluffy glory, and I was ready to burn. I completed long runs of 30k, 32k and 34k with success, but was disappointed when I became sick over Easter Weekend and was bed-ridden for my last long run. Instead of dwelling on this missed training opportunity, I tried to regard it as a bonus rest week.
The following weekend I competed in a 10k run to get the feel of being in a race environment after ten years, running in a crowd surrounded by spectators cheering. I entered the local Sun Run, which is a festive race downtown that over 50,000 locals participate in each year to raise funds for charitable organizations. My only other 10km race was when I was 15 years-old at a small event along Sauble Beach, Ontario, which I won with a time of 40:30. This was during the peak of my teen running career, and if I could come close to this time I knew I would be okay and get a real confidence boost. I had not been incorporating any speed or hill work-outs into my training, but was simply focused on finishing the distance. Perhaps that wasn’t the most well-rounded plan, but I managed to pull-off a time of 41:16, which felt like a sprint compared to my training routine.
Now all I had to do was taper off before the main event! My parents flew in to Vancouver to watch me run and be part of my support team, and when the day arrived I felt calm and upbeat despite the rain. I found myself a position in the mob and took note of where my pace bunny was, and with the sound of the gun, we were off. The best part was seeing my parents, and I suspect that in their attempts to catch a glimpse of me racing they completed a half-marathon, because they kept popping up at random places throughout the course! Mom would gleefully announce that, “That’s my daughter!” and insist that people around her chant my name, while my Dad would attempt to document my progress with his digital camera. I tried not to go out with too much enthusiasm, but still wanted to feel competitive.
The biggest challenge was staying positive. At one point I felt this explosion of pain in my foot, and I realized that the rain had seeped into my shoes creating the ideal breeding zone for blisters. The explosion was my blisters popping, and there was nothing to do but continue. I learned later that the entire bottom surface of my foot was one huge, raw blister. Then, as I was nearing the 30km mark another runner started chatting me up… in a race! He asked if this was my “first time”? I replied that it was, and he commenced to warn me that I should prepare for the worst, anticipating that we would soon hit the dreaded wall. I choose to ignore him because if you anticipate hitting a wall, of course you are going to hit it, and this seemed like stupid logic. Instead, I felt a surge of energy after 35km, blasted past the guy, and focused on the home stretch. I found myself sprinting off of Burrard St. bridge, with some 2km to go, and then poured it on at the last stretch towards the stadium. My time was a very respectable 3:13:01, which placed me 6th out of some 1300 women, and 3rd in my age category for my first marathon! I was delighted to have finished in fine form, although in some discomfort, and felt a surge of emotion knowing that it had all been worth it.
What impacted me most during those solitary hours of training was an idea that if I really wanted to love again I would have to let go of this concept of “identity.” In high school I was sick of being labeled “the Runner” and turned to a completely different lifestyle, only to be pegged “the Skater Girl.” I realized that regardless of what I pursued, it had the potential of evolving into another façade, and what really should be focused upon is the state of one’s heart, as the true representation of one’s character. I plan to continue to run, skate, bike and enjoy life to its fullest, but my goal is now to connect with people in a genuine, heart-felt fashion. We live in a society that is intent on individualism, and often selfishness, and this no longer resonates with me. I want to actively be part of a community that celebrates human accomplishments no matter how great or small, cares for those less fortunate, and cherishes its natural environment. It took me over a decade to come to this conclusion, but I feel that I am on the right path and maybe I will even find enlightenment on the way. (Originally written in 2009).