I am a runner.

Give credit where credit is due is an important lesson that was drilled into my head by my elementary school science teacher. I took it so seriously that I remember printing out an extra little square for my 8th grade science fair project and titling it “Thank You’s”, listing the names of all those who had helped me, meticulously framing it in bright coloured construction paper and sticking it on my three-fold poster board. My science teacher noticed and it felt good to be recognized for my kindness, almost as great as receiving a good grade.  It is important to enjoy our moments of glory and relish those feelings when we have worked hard to achieve something. Yet perhaps, I think we often forget to thank those who helped us achieve something big. Maybe it’s a weird subconscious Freudian thing or maybe it is just my science teachers voice drilled in my head, but I think I sometimes over emphasis this whole giving credit thing. Maybe it’s due to a few lingering teenage “I’m not good enough” inferiority feelings, but whatever it is, in certain situations I am not good at giving myself any credit and often project all the credit on to others. This is especially true in an area where I don’t feel like I deserve any credit for what I’ve done – athletic pursuits (see previous entry on athletic inferiority).

After running the Sporting Life 10k in May, I decided to conquer something bigger – a half marathon. Over the summer months and into October I trained for the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront (half) Marathon, an amazing, massive road race known for being “flat, festive and fast”. For someone who could barely run a single kilometre without stopping back in January, this seemed like a daunting task. I sucked up my pride, thinking of myself as somewhat of an intruder and signed up for a half marathon clinic. The majority of us had never run beyond 10k, some had never even gone beyond 5, and some were seasoned half-ers. I surprised myself on our first run out, falling somewhere in the middle of the pack. I have always told myself (and others) I am not a runner, just an average person trying to run. “I’m not fast” I would say or “I only started a few months ago”.  I would scoff when others referred to me as a runner. To me, a runner was always someone who trained for marathons, and did well, someone who actually ran at a competitive pace, i.e., people who actually had a shot at qualifying for Boston. My definition of a runner was completely shattered when said runners welcomed me into their little exclusive club. Although, I quickly realized, it wasn’t an exclusive club after all. Runners are not just elite athletes, runners are moms, dads, grandparents, plus-size people, slim people, short people, tall people, sub-3 hour marathon people, never run anything beyond a 5k people, 5 hour marathon people. Heck, if you have legs that run (at any pace) and you put on running shoes, and go for any type of regular run, you are a runner. So why did I have so much trouble calling myself a runner?

I  started running with the club 3-5 days a week and learned about steady runs, tempo runs, speed work, hill repeats and long slow distances. Each time I ran a new distance I thought “okay I just made it  to 12km but how will I ever make it to 21?” or “Okay I just made it 14 but I don’t think I can go any further”. But then the next week rolled around, and I did.

My body started to crave movement, I felt antsy to get out there with my group and pound pavement. I gave up leisurely nights at home to run 10km of hill repeats, for fun. I missed outings because I had to train. I went to bed early on Saturdays to get up to run Sunday mornings. I started to feel unstoppable, my pace quickened and my total kms/week skyrocketed. And then at the beginning of September, it started hurting. All of the slower people in our group stopped showing up and suddenly, I was the slower people. I hurt, I hurt a lot. I suffered from blisters, muscle spasms, shin splits, you name it, all to the unbearable degree. I remember sitting on the subway one night after a short 5k run choking back tears because my calves felt like they were going to pop out of my legs, and even worse, we had only run 5k and I was at the very back of the group. This was a rough period. Not only was I in physical pain but mentally by brain was telling me I couldn’t do it. I had to take a break, I was pushing too hard. I didn’t run for 10 days and I felt like I was going crazy. I finally laced up my sneakers again, and miraculously, I felt no pain, yet my head was not yet back in the game. I didn’t think I could do it. My legs were saying “yes yes” with every step I took but my brain was saying “no, no, take a break, you’re tired”

When I got back on track and started to feel good I thanked my run coaches for pushing me, I thanked my partner for running slowly beside me, I thanked the weather for cooperating, but I never thanked myself for getting over this rough patch.

Then, one Sunday, I ran 21.1km. I just did it, and it felt amazing. Let me say that again, I RAN 21.1km. This, was the biggest hurtle yet. I had kms where I just wanted to stop, and I didn’t. Some were worse than others, some felt amazing, but somehow I ran the distance. I couldn’t believe how far I had come and that it was already time to taper!

Race day arrived before I knew it, on the coldest day of the season yet. I donned my throw away old sweats and headed to the commuter train at 7:00am with my amazing partner and run buddy. Everyone on the train was headed to Scotia and I could feel it in the air…this was going to be a very special day. I nervously waited in my start corral, the minutes ticking by like hours, freezing in my sweats. I saw many familiar faces from the two different clubs I trained with, which eased the anxiety a little. The gun went and the first wave was off. My stomach literally felt like it was doing summersaults as we moved forward to the start, stripping off my sweats and inching closer and closer to the 2:15 pace bunny. And then, like that, we were off!

The first stretch of the race was a comfortable slight incline up University Avenue, a route I had become familiar with as I had run it many times with my run club over the summer. I passed the 2:15 pacer as we turned on to Bloor, and kept going. My pace felt slow but when I looked down at my time I realized I was flying and I had to try really really hard to back off and keep it steady. We hit the 3km water station in what felt like minutes, and before I knew it we reached 5k, and broke my PB for that distance!

The race continued down Bathurst, a nice steady decline, along Fort York to Lakeshore, and just as I felt warm, we reached the 10k mark, posting a new PB for that distance as well. This was one of the best moments of the race for me. Up until this point, I had been a devote run 10 minutes and walk 1 minute kinda girl (and I know, that is really not the best race strategy, but for someone just wanting to finish it’s great!) yet I had only taken about two 25 second walk breaks. I was on track to finish in just over 2 hours. The 2:15 pacer was far behind me and as I ran west along Lakeshore, the elite’s were coming back East, impressing me with their sheer athleticism and mind blowing paces. A few kms later I even saw a guy at the head of the pack JUGGLING. My mind was blown! Down the road, one of my close friends passed me coming back, on track for her 1:35 half (she’s a rockstar and running Boston this year!) and we shared an absolutely joyous and perfect mid-race high five! A few minutes later I saw one of my run coaches. I think at this point, I felt absolute bliss. I was running well, and absolutely loved the environment and atmosphere of it all. I felt like a runner.

We reached the turn around point just west of high park and things started to go downhill. Actually, the course started to go uphill, but my stamina was dwindling and it was dwindling fast. My friend from run club caught up to me, chatted for a short while and then blew past me. This was a bit of blow to my ego as we had run together the entire summer, a perfect pace match. I calmly reminded myself that I was running my own race and it was not a competition against my run club peers. Despite my months of hill training, something on this slight uphill did me in. I started cramping in my calves and each step was getting more and more painful. Then I got a stitch. It was a stitch so bad every single step felt like a thousand needles digging into my side. I wanted to cry but I also didn’t want to give up. I saw two runners down on the side (with some amazing passer-bys helping them) and immediately felt grateful I wasn’t in a similar position.

At about 16k I continued on in agonizing pain, but knew the end was coming soon. Only it wasn’t. My pace had slowed and the 2:15 pacer caught up, and then passed me. Time was going by so slowly and I truthfully almost willed myself to just walk the rest and be proud to have even finished. The road turned into a never-ending tunnel in front of me and my mind started telling me to stop, my heart arguing back, “NO!” And yet I kept going. We hit the dreaded on-ramp incline and I had to take a break. I embarrassingly just could not do it. But then I saw a man running ahead of me with one leg, and directly in front of him, the 2:15 pacer. By some miracle, I had caught up and that was all the motivation I needed. At about 18.5k I spotted my mom and sister. They had made a sign that read “Just keep swimming” which they knew was my personal mantra all throughout University, stealing the line from “Finding Nemo”. I think I even smiled as I ran by, and I thew in some swimming motions for fun.

I checked my pace and was back to the pace I had started at, I was finally getting out of my head and geting back on track. We turned up Bay and I spotted my dad and my stepmom, again with an encouraging sign. I could feel it building inside of me, I’m not sure if “it” was vomit or adrenaline but everything was starting to tingle. I saw the 500m sign, the 400m sign behind it seeming so far away. Zach reached for my hand, saying “you’re so close! you’re so close!” but the only thought in my head was “don’t puke, don’t puke, don’t fall, don’t fall” and I swatted him away, mustering a very un-kind “shut up!” I really don’t think I could feel my legs. We reached 400m, then 300m and all of the sudden there was a huge crowd around and it felt as if everyone was cheering for me. I don’t remember what happened next, but I took off in an absolute sprint to the finish, Zach grabbed my hand as we crossed, triumphantly (on his part, he was basically holding me up) pumping the air. I literally was speechless. I don’t know if it was emotion or cardiovascular failure or some combination of both, but it took me a good 30 seconds to say anything, at which point we high-fived and shared a celebratory hug. All the sudden, it hit me, I just ran a half marathon, A HALF MARATHON. I wasn’t even a runner for crying out loud. Yet, I looked around me, and everyone I saw was a runner. I was a runner! I finally acknowledged that I could call myself a runner!

I don’t know why it took completing the race to fully recognize myself as a runner. I think just needed proof that I could actually do it. But goddamnit, it felt good to finally allow myself to take some of the credit for what I had accomplished. I finished the race in just over 2:15, which was pretty much my pipe-dream when I started training. And yet, I did it. I became a runner this summer. Every time I laced up my shoes, I was a runner. Every time I pushed beyond my limits, I was a runner. Every time I woke up early on the weekend, I was a runner. When I finished that race, I was a runner. Before I even started the race, I was a runner.

The funny thing about running is that it really is not as competitive as you think. It is such a deeply personal sport even when you are competing with others. Running pushes you to places you didn’t think were possible. Running helps you find strength and resilience you didn’t know you had. It forces you to look deep into your being and learn to tell those inner voices telling you to stop to just shut up already. it’s a sport of dedication, discomfort and mental strength. It’s a sport of deep meditation. Often in life we feel inclined to run from challenges – figuratively speaking. However, running teaches us how to persist and just go on. Let me say this, it isn’t fun. It hurts, and it’s still a struggle for me and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s a struggle for some of the best athletes out there to just keep going when you want to give up. Running forces you to deal with something head on. The truth is, you could give up, just like with many things in life. When you are running, especially if you are an average runner not competing for top placement, you could give up. No one is forcing you to run and you’re not being graded on it and it doesn’t affect your career or your relationships, so the consequences of stopping in the midst of a race probably won’t be very big. But it’s a personal challenge. There is a good possibility that no one is there counting on you to finish. The running is challenging, but the persistence you have to find within yourself and for yourself is the real struggle. It takes your mind and your body to a place where you have to deal with the pain and the here and now, just because you chose to. The personal satisfaction from intensely just being present with your emotions, your physical being and the surroundings around you and pushing on despite every voice telling you to stop is something that we can all benefit from experiencing.

There is a certain song that I listened to a lot when I was training this summer. While the song is kind of cheesy, the beat is uplifting, playful, and kept me moving. While the song is about fighting through life, I played it as I crossed the finish line, and one line in particular sums up what I learned about life and running from training for this race:

Never dwell in the dark cause the sun always rises
But gotta make it to the next day
It’s a feeling that you get in your lungs when you run
Like you’re runnin’ outta air and your breath won’t come
And you (uh) wheezin’, gotta keep it movin’
Find that extra (uhn) and push your way through it
I didn’t think I was a runner, but I am. And if you have a pair of shoes, a determined mindset and get out there and move, you too, are a runner. And for that, you deserve all the credit in the world.
18.5k in and trying to smile!

18.5k in and trying to smile!

We did it!

We did it!

P.S. I think I am going to sign up for the Around the Bay Road Race in March…am I crazy!?

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  • Ali

    Woooot! I got a shout out. Also that was a perfect high five.

    • Ali

      It was the best!