A Different Kind of Marathon

I ran a marathon last week along an old railway track converted into a trail.  When I crossed the finish line I cried.  Which surprised me.  I’ve done a few marathons over the years.  After my fastest I vomited steps after stopping.  I barely remember any of the other finishes, other than being thankful that the pain was over.

Pain isn’t the right word for this marathon.  Thankfully.  There had been pain leading up to it.  A torn calf muscle which took weeks to rehab and put the race itself in doubt.  It got better and it held up to the rigors of the race.  As did the rest of my body.  No new injuries.  While the final ten miles of the marathon were uncomfortable, it was the expected discomfort of an endurance event.  It should hurt and it did. 

Maybe I cried because the hurt was over, and my body and mind could let go.  I’d run alone for the last few hours, mostly without music, mostly in the rain.  I saw a handful of other runners and hikers.  There were no spectators.  This was not a big city marathon. No funny signs.   No bands belting out music at the mile markers.  There were volunteers though.  Dozens of them at the aid stations.   Men, women and children who’d sacrificed their time to stand outside in the wind and the rain and hand out food and drink to lonely wet runners.  I should have cried at the aid stations, because that’s where I felt most thankful. 

Or maybe I should have cried in the first ten miles, much of which I ran with a new friend.  A talented runner who happens to have epilepsy.  A runner who could have a seizure at any time.  Who could be moving effortlessly along the trail one second, and crumpled beside it a moment later, head covered in blood from bashing it on a rock.  That could have happened.  But it didn’t.  She finished the race.  Courage and grit.

I got home a few hours after I finished, and it felt like a normal day.  Like I’d completed a long training running.  I ate a normal dinner, went to bed at a normal hour, woke up a little sore and a little tired and very ready to enjoy a week off work.

A couple days after the marathon I spent most of the day with my daughter Molly.  We skated and went to the park and played with her toys.  I battled a tantrum or two and spent about thirty minutes coaxing an exhausted and giddy child into her car seat.    We spent hours together that day.  I did exactly what my wife Sonja does every day I’m at work except I did less of it, because I didn’t have Molly for the entire day.  By dinnertime I was exhausted.  I ate early and crawled into bed.  Sonja told me I looked more tired than I did after running the marathon. 

She was right.  A marathon is a known entity.  26.2 miles.  A runner can train for it, set their own pace, and, especially with a little experience, know essentially what to expect.  Running a marathon, you can control your speed, and reign in your emotions.  You can evaluate your pain and respond accordingly.  That doesn’t make a marathon easy, but it makes it manageable and knowable, in a way that raising a child isn’t.

I have had moments of incredible frustration this week, emotionally and physically drained by a three-year old whose behaviour I can’t control.  Sonja and I search for ways to influence that behaviour.  When it works, like seeing Molly grow in confidence and independence, the feeling is better than any finish line I’ve ever crossed.  When it doesn’t, it feels like mile twenty of a marathon. Battered and bruised, you keep moving, knowing the finish line is still a long way away.

And I love every moment of it.  Both marathoning and parenting.  Maybe not in the moment.  It’s hard to be thankful for something that hurts when its hurting.  But pushing through the discomfort always pays off.

A week ago, I ran that marathon.  I’ve already forgotten the discomfort, and I can’t wait to do the next one. 

A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will not remember the specifics of any tantrum or angry word unleashed by my daughter who each day learns that this is a big world, and navigating it isn’t easy.  Imagine being three years old again and trying to find yourself as you’re bombarded by the cacophony of life.

A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will remember three things that happened this week. 

I skated with my daughter.  The first time I’ve been on skates in over thirty years.  I skated with my daughter.  A sentence I never thought I would write.

I watched my daughter dance.  In a class, at a studio with two other girls and two boys.  I watched my daughter dance.  For thirty minutes I stood with the other parents outside the window that separated us from our children, and I watched Molly dance.  She was graceful and confident and joyful.  She loved every second.  It was one of the best moments of my life.

A few days after the marathon Molly’s pre-school class went on a field trip.  I went with her.  The field trip was on an abandoned railway track.  A track that had been turned into a hiking trail.  The same trail I’d run the marathon on earlier in the week.  I watched my daughter and her friends sprint down the trail.  I saw the wonder in her eyes when she stood atop a refurbished wooden bridge and gazed at the river far below.  I sat beside her while she ate the teacher’s homemade zucchini loaf and asked me, over and over, why the railway had been “abandoned.”  She seized on that word, never tiring of hearing me tell her that the trains stopped running and the bridge fell apart, and then good people came together and worked hard and rebuilt it for all of us to use.  She asked about it dozens of times.  I never tired of answering.

A few days earlier I’d run a marathon along that trail.  Now I was with my daughter, running a different kind of marathon.  A marathon with an unknown finish line, a marathon that may be impossible to train for, a marathon that taxes the mind and body daily.  A marathon where crying is possible anytime along the trail, not just at the finish line.  A marathon where the joys and rewards of just participating are infinite.  A different kind of marathon.

Molly at the Trestle Rest Stop

 

 

 

 

Side by Side – Stride for Stride

Ambitious goals and a torn muscle make for maximum frustration.

Two weeks after ripping a muscle in my lower leg, I tested it on the trails.

The first couple minutes brought a gnawing sensation that something wasn’t quite right. By twenty minutes in, my calf felt like it was in a vice grip being squeezed slowly and gently. Every step brought more pain. So I stopped. Angrily and reluctantly.

That was five days ago. Five more days without running. Five days of being hyperconscious of that injury every minute of every day. Grimacing when it causes pain. Rejoicing when I realize an hour has passed and I haven’t felt anything at all.

Days pass quickly. Weeks disappear. Months accumulate. Injuries take time. Goals loom. Training falters.

In September, I’m supposed to run my first marathon in six years. A trail race in the Cowichan Valley. I’ve targeted it. I want it. Not for a time goal. Not to be competitive. Just to complete it. To prove that I can get through the training injury free. To show myself, and my family, and the world that as I near 50, my body can still do what it did at 40, and at 30. And then a muscle tears, and mileage stops and race day nears quickly as I heal slowly.

But the marathon doesn’t matter. Not really. It’s a nice to do, not a must do.

Two weeks later there’s a must do. The Peace Officers Memorial Run from Abbotsford to Victoria. A marathon a day for 3 days straight. I’ve never done that. And I’m honoured to be part of a team that’s trying. We’ll run to honour colleagues and friends who died on the job. Adrenaline and emotion will fuel us. The run will be bigger than any of us. This one matters.

And as I write this, slouched in a chair, leg stretched out before me, I feel that calf muscle. Tight and sore. Reminding me to not even think about running for another week or two. So I won’t. I’ll ride the bike, and stretch and hit the weight room. I’ll yoga myself upside down and punish my core with crunches and leg lifts. I’ll use a heating pad, and ice, and three times a day I’ll choke my coworkers when I sit at my desk, roll up my pant leg and massage A535 into my body, convinced that the more I use and the harder I push, the quicker it will heal.

Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. Time. Patience. Acceptance. I’ve had many running injuries. Sometimes they go away completely. Like they never happened at all. Others come and go, flaring up and subsiding with a will of their own. Some linger. Weave themselves into my body. Attain permanence. Forcing me to learn how to run around them or through them. To navigate the pain.

I walked this morning. With my daughter and our dog. While we played beside a stream my wife ran. Battling injuries of her own she relished a rare few minutes alone.

We hadn’t planned to meet up but we did, in the woods near our home. Our walk in the woods ended in tears for Molly when she banged her finger against a tree. There was no scratch. Not even a hint of blood. But she cried, desperate for a Band-Aid and for her dad to carry her home. Which I’d started doing, when Sonja turned the corner, mid-run. My daughter sprinted to Sonja and showed that uninjured thumb to her mother. And the tears subsided. And she didn’t need a Band-Aid anymore. And she asked to run with her mom.

So she did. In dancing shoes along a dirt path they ran away from me, side by side. Joyful strides both of them. And they were gone for a while. Because Molly kept running and running. Until they turned around and ran back to me. A happy dad taking picture after picture of his daughter and his wife trail running together.

Running. Family. Almost everything I write has those themes. I wish my range and imagination were broader. I wish my writing was funnier. I have taken to heart “write what you know” so I return again and again to those themes. I take inspiration from moments and from pictures. And most of those moments and pictures are running and family.

That’s how a post that started with a torn calf finished with a mom and daughter running together. My calf should heal with time. But it may hurt for a long time. Time will tell. And yet running brought me joy today. A mother and daughter, side by side, stride for stride.

… Although if you look closely at the picture, I’m pretty sure Molly won.

Sonja and Molly Running

 

The Still Centre

Most days work doesn’t bother me. I don’t bring it home. Literally or figuratively.  

This week was different. Darkness followed me home and burrowed inside me, its presence as real as my house and family.

I was sad but not grief stricken. Down, but not depressed. Angry, but not furious. A little bit of everything. Including sleep drunk. Long hours, short nights. Impaired by tiredness.

Toxic stew for the soul.

It can’t be a coincidence that I felt this way during a week in which I did not run. A few days before work exploded I tweaked my calf. Something less than a full rip, something more than a niggle. It was my own fault. I ignored the warning signs my leg sent to my brain. Tightness that I rationalized as dehydration. Soreness that I tried to run through. More than run through – sprint through. My muscle tore when I raced around a gravel track – interval training when I should have been resting.

I just finished Martin Dugard’s To Be A Runner. It is the best book about running I’ve ever read. Sometimes Dugard writes about “the still small voice” inside his head.

Before I got hurt, before work got busy, I went for a run from my office to the ocean. Along the way, I was thinking about Dugard’s book. And misremembering what he had written. Instead of “the still small voice” I started thinking about the still centre. I pictured the still centre as a ball of calm inside me. Relaxing me. Quieting me. Centring me through the little frustrations and aggravations that life throws at all of us daily. That morning I ran along the water at sunrise in Victoria. As beautiful and peaceful a setting as this world has to offer.

Dallas Road.jpeg

The still centre has quickly become a mantra for me. An ideal. An embodiment of what I want to be. Calm, relaxed, peaceful, content.

Exactly the opposite of how I felt this week. I lost the still centre. I didn’t run. Work was tough. I wasn’t my best self. I was not myself at all. Or at least the self I want to be.

It can’t be coincidental that a week in which I did not run was one of my toughest weeks in recent memory. Work would have been awful anyway. There was no getting around that. But movement and breathing, running fast and jogging slow would have taken the edge off. Cleaned out some of the thoughts that clogged my brain. Lightened some of the darkness that lived inside me.

Today was better. A lot better. No, I did not run. But the first run back is just days away. My calf feels good. Maybe even completely healed. I won’t know for sure until I try, but just knowing that a trial run is around the corner brings relief. As did a good sleep. And a day off. The first in a week and a half. It felt like a vacation. Dinner with my wife and her family and our daughter. Laughs, love and pizza on a warm night with a cool breeze and a blue sky.

And before that an afternoon with my daughter. Who I have barely seen lately – out the door before she is awake and home long after she has fallen asleep. More precious than any run could ever be.

Pure joy in her face, her eyes, and in her squeal of delight when I bought her bubble gum ice cream. Which, minutes later and melted, she painted on my nose to make us bubble gum twins. Then down to the ocean, where we saw a dozen seals sunning themselves on a pier. Even the babies barely moved. They just lay there, bellies exposed, at home and at peace. Being themselves. Relishing the scorching sun. Which we fled, finding shade under a magnificent tree. Alone, with an apple, a pillow and a blanket. I relished every millisecond.

Me and Molly under the tree

I need to run. It nurtures and heals. It breaks me down and builds me up. But, when I look back on a rough week that’s ended much better than it started, my abiding memory won’t be that I did not run. Instead I’ll remember today with my family. The people that I love, and that love me. The people that are there for me when my still centre is not.

 

 

 

 

 

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Sarah – A Run for Life.

A few years before she was killed on duty, Sarah Beckett worked in a homicide unit.

I worked with her on a couple of cases. I did not get to know her but I formed impressions. She was “very.” Very professional, respected, hard-working – and pretty. It was hard not to notice her.

Sarah returned to working on the road. That’s where she was killed.

The morning she died I was working in the same homicide unit Sarah had been in. Her death rocked our office. One of my colleagues – one of the strongest and toughest people I’ve ever met – both physically and mentally, wept in front of a desk. Mostly there was shock, and silence, and whispers. For a few minutes it looked like our unit would be investigating Sarah’s death. Fortunately that changed. It would have been too much for too many.

Yesterday, I ran in the inaugural Sarah Beckett Memorial Run.

There were many families there. A community rallied behind Sarah’s family, her friends, her co-workers.

I witnessed stirring moments. A West Shore cop sprinting to the finish line. Sprinting at ten in the morning after being up all night working a nightshift. Sprinting when he could be sleeping, with another nightshift looming just hours away.

Canine cops running in full uniform. Weighted down by boots and vests.

Families running together. Strollers and children. A pregnant mom, herself a cop, who did not have to run, but did because she could.

My most abiding memories of the run are mascots and Mounties.

Our three year old daughter Molly came to watch the race. What she saw were giant furry figures, like Marty the Marmot, towering over her. She was terrified. She cried and cried, tears running, snot flowing. Molly finally calmed down on the drive home. But she remained fascinated by the mascots. And by her fear. She kept asking me to tell her the story over and over, about how she was scared. So I did. And I told her that I was scared too. I said that she was scared because she was too young, and I was scared because I was too old.

Molly is too young. Too young to understand what Sarah’s 5k was all about.

I am old. Older than Sarah Beckett of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police ever got to be.

The Mounties get a lot of bad press, much of it undeserved. What rarely gets reported is how close knit they are. The RCMP is a national family. Tens of thousands of members and one large family. I’d experienced that first hand when I’d marched in Sarah’s funeral – me and dozens of my Victoria Police colleagues lost in a sea of Red Serge.

Yesterday that sea of red didn’t march. It ran. At a run for Sarah. A run for life. A run that everyone there felt privileged to be a part of. A run that everyone there wished never had to happen.

Beckett 5k

 

Needles and Blackberries

I like to run before work, especially in the summer when it’s light before 5:00 a.m., never too hot and rarely too cool.

Sometimes I start at the office, head east, battle a steep incline and reach Summit Park. There’s rarely anyone there. Most Victorians don’t even know it exists. Which is too bad, and great. Acres of meadows, beautiful views and guaranteed peace nestled in the midst of a picturesque old neighbourhood. A neighbourhood surrounded by busy arterial roads. Which is probably why Summit Park is little known and never busy.

There’s always something to see. Sometimes it’s a red sunrise, bright and iridescent. Occasionally I see deer, rabbits or other runners. Their presence adds to the magic of an early morning run.

Not everything adds to the magic. Like the junkie, sitting in a battered sedan. He slouched backwards in the driver’s seat, one foot out the door, slurping a Big Gulp while I sprinted past doing intervals. When he drove away – finally – I threw out the garbage he left strewn behind.

Lately I’ve ended my runs at Summit Park by foraging for food. Blackberries, ripened by searing heat and easily accessible despite the thorns that protect them. The first time I saw the blackberries I put a handful into the pocket of my shorts, and hoped they didn’t squish into jam on the way back. They didn’t, although the stains may never disappear. So now I bring a small container, fill it in minutes, and savour the berries, one by one, throughout the day. Something feels natural and right about that.

The run home is a breeze. Mostly downhill. Right past Topaz Park. A bigger park, closer to the office. Closer to downtown. The other day, two syringes, still packaged, lay in the street. Unused. Dropped by an addict. Waiting to be picked up by another addict.

When I moved to Victoria, I was shocked by the prevalence, and openness of hard-core drug use. Addicts clustered around the needle exchange on Cormorant Street. Dozens of them. Openly injecting all night long. Or waiting for their next fix. It was eerie. Like nothing I’d ever seen in suburban Ontario. Not even close. And it was sad too. Broken people, most of them beyond help.

That was ten years ago. Before the fentanyl crisis. I wonder how many of them are dead now.

Addicts are part of the landscape here. Acceptable. Expected. The ‘Sharps’ containers in public places tell the tale – at the airport, in coffee shops, in the vans staffed by medical professionals and volunteers who roam our streets. Helping the afflicted. But enabling them too.

Here are just some of the headlines when I Googled, “needle pricks Victoria”

Child Pricked by Discarded Needle at McDonald’s Restaurant

Dog Walker … Pricked by Discarded Needle Left in Paper Bag

Woman Pricked by Needle Placed in Downtown Victoria Planter

Google didn’t have to scour the archives for those results. All three are from 2018.

Several weeks ago, I spent time in a park in the downtown core. It’s actually a cemetery beside Christ Church Cathedral. The church is magnificent, both in size and beauty.

I found three needles amidst the gardens and shrubs that border the cemetery. Three more potential headlines, in one portion of one park, in a city full of them.

In his most recent ‘Reacher’ book, author Lee Child wrote that, “People are complicated.” The phrase has stuck with me for months, for its simplicity and accuracy.

Not just people. Life is complicated. Cities are complicated.

Morning runs are complicated. Morning runs which bring me so much pleasure and yet remind me that our world is full of pain.

Needles and Blackberries.

Needle

 

Blackberries 2