It is a dreary, wet, and cold October morning, and there is paint dripping down my face. The helmet atop my head is two sizes too small, and has my skull locked in a vice grip. The small camcorder haphazardly taped to the top of that large child’s helmet is now getting wet, and so I’m not even sure that this little experiment of mine will work. Oh, and we can’t find the starting line. Well, we can see it, but getting there is another matter.
Confused yet? Fair. If your first thought upon reading the above was not “the start of Tyler’s short lived and disappointing running career” I could probably forgive your error. But that’s just what it is. Every word of it, the truth.
It was a Sunday and it was early. The helmet was on my head because I needed a way to mount the camera, and the camera was atop the helmet because I had the bright idea to film my 5k race, in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Both of those things were the case because I was, at the time, interning at EWB, and because interns are keeners, I was filming my race to make a video for EWB’s Run to End Poverty. Oh, and the paint…orange was EWB’s colour. So, naturally, I painted the helmet orange. Apparently, however, when you glob on large amounts of paint the night before, it takes a somewhat long amount of time to dry. This hadn’t happened, and now the rain.
But back to the race. After stumbling around confused, we found the start, and the race began. I had always been generally athletic, but this was my first official race. I hadn’t really trained, hadn’t really slept the night before, and I really had to pee. Did I mention the rain?
All this aside, I loved it. The race was a blast. I never really had opportunity to realize it before, but in those short 5K I saw just how into the competition I could get. The thrill of passing people drew me on, faster and faster, and in just under 24 minutes, it was over.
For a while after the race, that was that. It was fun, my video turned out surprisingly well, my shrunken head returned to normal size, I hung my race bib on the wall, and went back to everyday life.
But as the New Year rolled around I found myself thinking about running more and more, and began to play with the idea of training for the full marathon in next October’s STWM.
Now, on a few occasions during my young adult life, there were times when I ran consistently for general health and wellbeing. But I never considered myself “a runner” – I never formed part of my identity around the activity. That changed in March of 2013, when – with the help of my Uncle Bryan and Elevation Personal Coaching – I officially began to train for the elusive 42k.
It didn’t take long before I was hooked. The thrill of pushing your body beyond what you thought previously possible, and the ability to actually see your progress kept me coming back for more. Over time, running became a bigger and bigger part of my life.
I was building my schedule around fitting in runs, I was eating better, and more, to match my level of exercise. Hell, I had even bought protein powder.
Pretty soon, I started to eagerly anticipate Sunday mornings, when my world became one of a still rising sun, a cool crispness in the breeze, carbohydrate gels and logged kms, in my weekly long distance runs.
I will never forget my first attempt at 15k – the first time I experienced “the runners high”. As I rounded the last corner in my route, coming into a 3 block straightaway to my apartment, I was on top of the world. I didn’t feel tired, or sore, or worn out. On the contrary, it felt like I could’ve kept going for another 15K.
Part of my enjoyment from running came from – and excuse me while I ditch humility for a second – I was fucking good at it. I was managing the upper distances without too much trouble, and more importantly, to me, I was fast. My uncle and coach had dubbed me “Flash” and I became obsessed with the idea of speed.
It eluded me at the time, but looking back now I can’t help but think that running became a proxy for other things in my life. After some rough personal-life times and the stress of work-life times, as well as a general late winter/early spring malaise, it felt good to be doing something I enjoyed, and doing it well. In part, I think, because it was real and tangible. Unlike my work, which was ambiguous, short term and at times, hazy – where success was unclear and in an environment of brilliant people, often overshadowed – running was real. My times were definite and quantifiable; in the immortal words of Shakira: “Ooh, my Garmin don’t lie.”
I had something I was succeeding at, and was proud of it.
But my uncle’s nickname of “Flash” was not – I think – just a reflection of my finish times. It hinted at my tendency to be young and dumb and overzealous. Things were going great, I was feeling good, and so when Bryan would say things like “Keep the pace above 4:45” or, “Take it easy on this one,” my brash brain would, at times, respond, “but whyyyy?!” I could do it so much quicker. And I sometimes did. But with a body as complex and susceptible to injury as the one we’ve got, speed isn’t everything. And pride will be your downfall.
It was a gorgeous Sunday morning. I was in cottage country with colleagues. I’d avoided drinking the day before, in preparation for what was to come: an empty country road, a backpack full of water, and 21K. Now, I had done this distance before – this was a revisiting. A step back. A refresh. My instructions were to do it at a reasonable rate; just take it easy and enjoy it. But my pride had other ideas.
I wanted to crush it. I wanted to push myself and see just what was possible, and what I could do if I went all out. And so I did. I pushed and I pulled from deep within and in less than an hour and a half later, I was done. I didn’t tell Bryan. I think I knew that he would be less than pleased. But I did it. It was possible. And what’s a little extra effort now and again, anyway? Well…
I was sore. Not unreasonably sore, I convinced myself. Just sore. Looking back now, this was likely the beginning of the end. For it was a week or two later, 23K-ish out on the Toronto Waterfront that my right knee gave out. I’m not even really sure what happened, it just kind of…hurt. A lot. And I stumbled. And then running was impossible. And then walking was hard. But there I was, 20K from home, without money or a way back. So I walked. Slowly, and gingerly; in pain, both body and pride.
It was awful, long and slow, but I made it home and reported the news to my uncle. A few weeks off was the prescribed solution, along with a lot of ice and elevation. Despite my best attempts, however, a few more ups and downs made it clear that I wouldn’t be ready to run in October.
It was now my turn to be crushed. To have trained so hard and for so long, and now…this. Watching from the sidelines on race day pained me in a deeply physical and emotional way. All the success, excitement and hope for what was possible was gone. In its place, a feeling of stupidity and hopelessness about running.
It took a while, but I eventually got over myself, and life moved on. I resolved to come back better and, more importantly, smarter, next year. But when next year rolled around the universe had other plans. Despite months of rest, my knees just never felt the same, and life events threw curveballs in many attempts to get training back on track. After a number of these false starts and several long winded Facebook explanations to my uncle, I went silent. I stopped running and stopped communicating.
I had given up, and I retreated.
I was scared about the state of my knees and their ability to carry me on the wind again. Was embarrassed to have done this to myself. And, I felt like I was letting Bryan down. It was hard enough to admit all of this to myself, and so I never tried to convey it to my uncle. For a long time, I beat myself up about it, until eventually I pushed it out of mind and tried to focus on other things – work, writing, photography.
Recently, however, I went for a run. Not a timed, training run. Just a run. It wasn’t very far and it wasn’t very fast and I didn’t have carbohydrate gels and I didn’t post the results to my online training diary. And it was…nice. I was relaxed and without pressure. There was no expectation, no target to hit and no fear of what was next or whether I’d be able to run again in the future. Just me and the trail. For so long, running had been a means to an end – I was training for a marathon. There was an end goal in mind and running was (quite literally) the vehicle that would get me there, across the finish line at the 42K mark. Now, for the first time in a long time, running was an end in itself. It was a nice change, and one that sparked a realization about my relationship to a lot of what I do in life. It was in this moment that I was reminded, in particular, about this crazy hectic panic filled transition between “now” and “adult life.”
Because I have very much been treating that transition as a means to an end. Work has been the thing, the experience, and the connections that will lead me into whatever my “place” is. I’ve seen work as the path leading me to my real purpose – the big shiny pot of gold at the end of the terrifying rainbow of young adulthood. In approaching it this way, it has been needlessly stressful. Every slight hiccup, diversion or stumble along the path has been so much more than that, because of how it was detracting from my pursuit of “the end.” I have consistently failed to see these things for what they are: a challenge, a learning opportunity, a potential for skill development. That’s not to say that these moments wouldn’t still be stressful through this different mindset, but I’d be able to take them as they were, instead of as what they could be.
So maybe, if I can get over myself for long enough, work too can become an end in itself. I can take pride in the everyday small projects and wins. And maybe, I can start to find enjoyment in it again.
For now I’ll keep running. Not far, or fast. And without my Garmin. I’ve accepted that there probably isn’t a marathon in my near future. But someday. And when that time does come, I’ll be smarter. And I’ll listen to my coach.
(ps sorry Bryan)
Until next time.