by Ted Swain
Running became my choice for cardiovascular fitness and weight loss for purely practical reasons, certainly not from any memories of a love affair with running. While I had been active in sports in my youth, I was also profoundly unsuccessful in any of them, always vying with the totally inactive nerd for the honor of being picked last for any pickup teams going. My biggest running accomplishment as a kid was to win a third place ribbon in the 100 yard dash at a school track meet. Of course, there were only three runners in the event. Yes, I’m old enough to remember races run in yards and I was never fit enough to tackle any longer distances.
Finally, the Internet came to my rescue. Having bought some running shoes from The Running Room at one stage, I learned about the store’s website. Visiting the site during one of my non-running phases, I impulsively signed up for a Learn to Run clinic at the Kenaston store. Of course, I spent most of my waking hours between then and the start of the clinic flagellating myself for being so reckless in committing myself to run with a group of finely toned elite athletes. Memories of childhood revisited kept me awake nights as I saw myself lagging far behind the group as they disappeared, laughing at me, over the horizon. I cursed myself for the impulse purchase, one that would only bring ridicule and further confirmation of my status as a good spectator and no more. I cringed at the idea of running outside, possibly even during precipitation, and wondered if classes were cancelled if rain or snow threatened. I dwelt on visions of the “well oiled machines” at the Sargent Park subterranean track who kept passing me over and over and over and. . . , well, you get the idea. Of course, one of the downsides of track running is that the better runners do, in fact, pass you over and over and over and. . . . really motivating.
The Learn to Run clinic started in March and we were led by Roxie and Darolyn Trembath, both elite runners. Of course, I was late for the first class and arrived as people were separating themselves into couch potatoes vs. the elite runners, those who could run for 5 minutes at a time. Naturally, I gravitated to the couch potato group and, before I could catch my breath, we were out the door. The prospect of running in slush and snow and puddles of water threw me, the indoor track runner, and I worried about my shoes getting dirty and my toes freezing off.
Our first class, we had to run for one minute, then walk for two minutes, for seven times. Well, the seventh time felt like the end of a marathon and I was eternally grateful for that second minute to catch my breath. I patted myself on the back for not joining the elite group, probably the first correct sporting decision I had ever made. Best of all, I was amazed to be surrounded by a crowd of people, most of whom were younger and fitter in appearance than I was, at 51 years and 240 lbs., but who, just like me, were puffing, gasping and wheezing at our efforts. Misery really does love company and I was positively elated not to be left behind for once in my athletic life.
Next week came the one-and-one and I really missed that extra walk minute. The hardest weeks were spent going from two-and-one to five-and-one. Each run was a run from hell and I gasped my way through each walk break in dread of the next period of running. Two things kept me going, the shared agony of the other clinic members and Roxie’s unfailingly upbeat banter, encouragement and high fives at the end of each run. She was unlike any athletic person I had ever met, treating everyone with respect and encouraging comments, no matter what our performance levels or levels of training agony. I truly would not have continued to the end of the clinic without her.
When we learned that our goal race was the CPAWS 5k in June, a run open to all, I was more than mildly intimidated. The prospect of running that far, outside, regardless of weather, in a group that included strangers, most of whom would likely sneer at my performance, was hard to accept. Fortunately, we were encouraged repeatedly by Roxie and Darolyn to continue, that doing the training runs and the race were the only things that mattered, not the time and not the placings. I decided right then that I would take this attitude to heart. When race day came, I had several positive treats. First, my younger daughter, Kristina, then 16 and athletic like her mother, ran the race with me and I could actually keep up with her. Of course, I had to do the run as a ten-and-one in order to do it. It was also the first time I had worn a racing bib in my life, the first time where everyone cheered everyone else, regardless of performance, and the first run I had ever had where I felt that I had accomplished something significant for myself in sport. I could never have imagined participating in a sporting event of any kind at my age, let alone with the feeling of accomplishment I experienced that day.
During my next clinic, the 10k, I developed Achilles tendonitis. Of course, I tried to come back too quickly, as runners often do, because we’d rather be running than not, and I reaggravated the injury and needed further treatment. Fortunately, the 10k goal race, the CN Tracks of Glory, wasn’t until late September, a month after the end of the 10k clinic itself. This extra time allowed me to get my mileage up to the point where I was able to complete the race. As with the 5k race in June, I had only two goals, to do the distance, and not to finish last, for vanity’s sake. Again, I did the race as a ten-and-one effort and again I finished the distance near the end of the pack, but not last. Here I was elated, since my long-term objective when I began the Learn to Run clinic had been to run a 10k race to completion and I had met my goal.
Everyone who has done a Running Room clinic knows that it’s the personal relationships, the camaraderie, that make these clinics what they are and make us become so successful as runners. I was the same and when Gord and Julie, who had agonized with me through the Learn to Run growing pains, and worried about me through my injury in the 10k, suggested signing up for the Half Marathon clinic, I nervously agreed to give it a try.
My injury had prevented me from getting all I could have from the 10k clinic’s leader, Shawn Gregoire, but I was present when he introduced us to the world of therapeutic massage. His guest speaker, Suzanne Ngui, from the Reh-Fit Centre, became my massage therapist and I credit my monthly sessions with her for keeping me injury free throughout the Half Marathon clinic.
Our clinic leaders were Tricia Chestnut and Shannon Martin, both experienced marathoners. Our first task was to decide on goal times for the Hypothermic Half, run at the end of February. Good name! Since I had finished the 10k in 1:06, I joined the 2:15 group, since the other choice was a 2:00 or better group. Here we learned about the world of distance running and all that it involved, the long runs, Gatorade, gel packs, hills (although winter conditions prevented us from running any), and dressing for winter conditions. I found Tricia and Shannon to be, like Roxie and Darolyn before them, very knowledgeable and very supportive of all runners. I was amazed to be running outside throughout the winter. Every Sunday run seemed to be on the coldest day of the week and we ran many of them at –40oC. or colder with the wind chill. I learned that the only significant issue for winter running is traction since, after 10 minutes of running, if you’re dressed properly, you become toasty warm. Of course, as always, I had to learn the hard way. On our 14k Sunday run in January, one of our –40 days, my metal rimmed glasses froze to my face, giving me frostbite where it had been in contact with my skin. For the next two months I ran with a balaclava, acquired after this run, and without glasses on all runs.
This clinic felt like my most successful as I was able to run with the group on all of the training runs and didn’t feel intimidated by the faster group. On race day, however, I became dehydrated during the race and fell behind the group, finishing in 2:19. I learned later that it was actually a reasonable time for the half but all I was thinking was that I had fallen behind the group. Ironically, it was my best race of all, as I finished 165th out of 200 entrants. Just my luck to get dehydrated during a snowstorm in the middle of winter! I had, however, been suffering from the flu for two days prior to the race and been working extra long hours for the previous week marking provincial English exams, so the fatigue and illness must have crept up on me. All I know is that after running with the group up to 17k, suddenly it was as if someone had just drained all of my energy in the blink of an eye and I had gone from running with confidence to a mess of breathlessness, nausea, irritability, and totally drained of energy. The last 4k were an agony to complete.
Again, Julie and Gord urged me on to join the Full Marathon clinic, beginning days later. Again, I thought they were crazy and my discouragement at the way in which I had finished the Hypothermic Half left me less than eager. I was bolstered, though, by Julie’s maxim of taking it one week and one run at a time and just to see what happened. Here, we saw a whole different breed of runner, people who were running marathons in 3:30, who ran them monthly, and who moaned about weighing 203 lbs. when they had started running. This was the weight I had finally reached after all these months of running!
The learning curve was tremendous as we first-timers tried to prepare ourselves for what lay ahead. Tricia had moved up, as well, to lead the 4:45 pace group, the slowest of the groups at the Kenaston store. So had Julie and other runners I had met at the Half Marathon clinic, so there was an instant comfort level in the group. Henry Friesen, the clinic leader, instantly reminded us that we were now in the big league, so to speak, when he said that regardless of pace, the last few miles of the marathon were difficult to run on race day. Hill training was real this time and I found that I loved it, though like track training, the “well oiled machines” keep passing me and passing me. The long runs were amazing, measured in miles, and unlike anything experienced in other clinics. From the 14.5 mile run on, we felt in agony by the end of the run and learned to spend lots of time doing proper stretching before heading home. As well, it was fun to learn that a litre of chocolate milk was an economical and beneficial way of bouncing back from these runs.
As I approached the starting line of the marathon, I knew for a variety of reasons beyond my control that I would be lucky to finish at all. As it turned out, I was right and I knew by mile 7 that it was going to be a long and difficult run. If it had been any day but race day I would have stopped early on. However, I thought back to the Learn to Run clinic and my goals there, namely to do the distance and, for vanity’s sake, not to finish last. That resolve, and doing the last half with Colleen, another clinic member who was running with difficulty, kept me going. A finish time of 5:49 didn’t matter to me. In fact, Colleen and I laughed about it days later and resolved to another marathon, since our finish time couldn’t possibly be slower. What mattered was how far I had come in just over a year, from huffing and puffing at a one-minute run to being able, however slowly, to complete a marathon.
It has really surprised me in a positive way how many people I know have been inspired by my example. Teachers at my school have taken up and completed the half marathon for the first time, with others vowing to do the full with me next year. Teachers I work with to mark provincial English exams have taken up Learn to Run and asked for copies of my training schedule. American markers at the Advanced Placement marking were blown away that I was running a first full marathon, and at 52 years, with one resolving to go from a routine run to training for a marathon himself. This is all mind blowing, especially for someone who has never been an athletic example in his life. Regardless of time, it’s just getting out there and doing it that matters.