Swept under the rug

Last week I linked to Samantha Beattie’s article in the Huffington Post from my Facebook page, which detailed her experience training with and competing for the University of Guelph cross country and track and field teams. Beattie’s story is significant and needs to be highlighted again so that it is not lost in the events of the past week, which I will get into later.

In recounting her time at Guelph, Beattie describes a toxic team culture in which women were pressured to train and race while injured, encouraged to lose weight, and then neglected when they inevitably broke down physically or mentally. In Samantha’s own words: “My experience was one of microaggressions and indifference that cut me down over and over again until I believed I was so fundamentally flawed that I shouldn’t be on the team.” While reading the article I was struck by the similarities between Samantha’s and Mary Cain’s experiences within toxic and abusive running programs. In both the Guelph/Speed River and NOP programs, races and titles were won at the expense of the physical and mental health of female athletes. The collateral damage was athletes who suffered from eating disorders, injuries, and mental illness. These athletes were then gaslighted into believing it was their fault for not being good enough.

Samantha was not alone in her experience at Guelph. Her article, as well as Michael Doyle’s expose that broke the story of Scott-Thomas’ sexual abuse of Megan Brown paint a greater picture of irresponsible and unethical coaching practices as well as psycological abuse of student-athletes. Many of us who were outside observers saw patterns of distance runners, particularly women, in that program losing weight and/or racing injured. Some of them became too broken to continue in the sport. As stated in Doyle’s article, “one former student described the women’s team as ‘one big eating disorder’ that Guelph and Mr. Scott-Thomas struggled to manage.” It is clear that there was abuse, toxicity, and unethical behaviour within the University of Guelph/Speed River program that has not yet come to light. It is also clear that people in leadership positions other than Dave Scott-Thomas helped perpetuate and enable this toxic culture.

It is important that we speak publicly about the abuse and toxicity that happened in Guelph, even if it is difficult, painful, and uncomfortable to do so. We need to hold individuals and institutions responsible for their complicity. We need open discussion about why this was allowed to happen and what can be done to prevent it in the future. Based on the lack of response by the University of Guelph and Athletics Canada in 2006 and the refusal of both to take responsibility when Megan Brown’s story broke earlier this year, one could assume that institutions and organizations are more interested in protecting their public image than they are in having this important conversation.

This brings us to Queen’s University and the firing of cross country head coach Steve Boyd. I will not list the medals and titles that the Queen’s Cross Country team won under Steve Boyd’s leadership. In this context, it does not matter whether Boyd coached a winning team or not. What does matter is that Boyd built a distance running program at Queen’s that succeeded because it was the opposite of Guelph’s ‘win at all costs’ culture. Boyd consistently prioritizes athlete physical and mental health over results and encourages a culture of open and honest communication rather than silence and neglect. This positive team culture that he has built over the past ten years at Queen’s fosters healthy long term athlete development and empowers athletes to continue to enjoy the sport long after their collegiate years.

In his strong advocacy for safety and fairness in sport, Boyd does not hesitate to condemn abuses of power in any form. He and other Canadian coaches repeatedly and over the span of several years called out Guelph and Speed River leadership for unethical actions and abuses of power. Doing so subjected Boyd to (mostly anonymous) attacks on his credibility, yet he persisted because it was the right thing to do. Staying silent, while easier, was incompatible with his drive to protect the integrity of our sport and the athletes involved in it.

Earlier this month, the most egregious example of abuse in Guelph was brought to the attention of the public when Megan Brown spoke on record to the Globe & Mail. While Queen’s University administrators and others in the media have attempted to present Megan Brown’s story and Steve Boyd’s firing as completely separate and unrelated, this way of thinking is at best misguided and at worst disingenuous. Less than a week before Boyd was fired, he was given a verbal warning by the Queen’s Athletics Director Leslie Dal Cin. In Boyd’s words, “she said I couldn’t talk about Dave Scott-Thomas or the University of Guelph in any matter – I could think about it, and that’s about it.”

Indeed, Athletics Ontario issued a policy reminder yesterday* in light of the events of the past month: “On top of these unfortunate events there has been a trend to engage in expressing opposing opinions on various social media platforms, in a negative manner.” Athletics Ontario warned its members to “refrain from public criticism of other members of the athletics community.” Timing and context is important here; Athletics Ontario issuing this statement in the wake of Megan Brown and Samantha Beattie detailing the abuse (sexual and psychological in Megan’s case, psychological in Samantha’s) they suffered while at Guelph could be interpreted as an attempt to muzzle attempts by athletes and coaches to call out abusers publicly. Throughout the #MeToo movement, abusers have been outed largely through news media and social media. Survivors used these channels as a means of speaking out and naming their abusers precisely because the existing system of reporting had failed them.

Megan Brown’s story shook the Canadian running community and led to public outcry not only over the abuse she suffered, but also how the University of Guelph and Athletics Canada saw it fit to protect her abuser, to the detriment of her running career and mental health. In making our sport a safe place for all athletes we can require coaches to be educated, certified, and screened, but we also need to get these transgressions out in the open and vocally condemn all those responsible, perpetrators and enablers alike. Yet the response by multiple institutions and organizations suggests a desire (to paraphrase Megan Brown’s coach Hugh Cameron) “to sweep it under the rug.” They couch it in language of policies and codes of conduct but the intent is clear.

Stifling discussion in order to protect the reputations of institutions and people in power will only make it more difficult for victims to speak out and come forward. The inaction of the University of Guelph and Athletics Canada over Dave Scott-Thomas’ abuse and the attempts by Queen’s University and Athletics Ontario to stifle an honest dialogue on the subject cannot be understood as separate; they are two sides of the same coin. Their actions all reflect a propensity to avoid negative publicity, even when doing so causes harm to athletes.

 

*Note that the original post on athleticsontario.ca was removed, then replaced with a different statement on February 26th, presumably after criticism from AO members. I felt it was important to save and post the original wording of the policy reminder.

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Getting it right.

Well folks, I ran another marathon so it’s time for a rare blog update! Whether you missed it, or you’ve heard about my race and wanted to know all of the glorious details, here it is…

Running the Toronto Waterfront Marathon was always in the plan for this fall, and after running a not-awful 2:39 in Virginia Beach last March, I was ready to take another step forward in this tough event. Over the spring and summer I had planned to run a few more track races, but after some health issues due to an infected blister on my foot in May, I ended up shutting things down early. (Pro-tip, people: don’t drain your own blisters. I did and mine got infected, developed into cellulitis, and wrecked me pretty badly. You don’t want your foot to look like this. Also you probably shouldn’t click on the link, it’s disgusting. I linked it instead of embedding it in the post for that reason. You’re welcome.) I took most of June to build up easy mileage, and added workouts and long runs in July. At the end of the month I went out to Quebec City to race the Quebec 10,000m Championships, hosted by Laval. I felt great during the race and ran 33:24, my second-fastest 10k ever. It was a nice confidence boost to run so close to my 10k personal best at the start of a marathon build.

Steve and I decided not to deviate too much from the marathon training plan I followed leading up to Virginia Beach earlier in the year. The idea was that I could run a similar program, but be more consistent thanks to more favourable running weather (since winter training plans often go off the rails when the footing gets bad). I increased my volume slightly, hitting over 200k on all of my high weeks, but the basics were the same: lots of work at marathon pace, long runs at marathon pace plus 20-30 seconds per kilometer, and the odd tempo here and there. Throughout the build I was encouraged by the fact that I was nailing my workouts despite the increase in mileage. This has sometimes been a problem for me, but I felt great this time around. OK, my Springbank Half Marathon (it was supposed to be a marathon pace workout) was a bit of a mess, but that was my own fault for moving my long run too close to it to avoid a really hot few days during the previous week. And it was right after the Dragon Age Trespasser DLC came out, so I was stressed as all hell! Yes, a video game caused me serious emotional turmoil and ruined my workout, you read that right. Goddammit, Bioware.

After Springbank, things really clicked. I rolled some solid workouts and long runs and was starting to feel pretty confident about my upcoming race. The rough goal I had in mind was a sub-2:35. In every marathon buildup my last big workout has been 26k at marathon pace, borrowed from the Brooks-Hansons group in the US. On October 1st I ran the workout averaging 3:40/km, right under 2:35 pace, and felt great. I was ready. One taper later it was race weekend.

Once I was in Toronto, my main pre-race mission was finding some company for the first half of the race. The slowest women’s pacer would be aiming for (Athletics Canada’s A+) Olympic standard pace of 2:29:50, which was too hot for me. I was thinking a 1:17:00 first half would be ideal, but I was willing to expand that to a range of 1:16:30 to 1:17:30 if it meant running with a pack. Surely, I thought, I could go to the technical meeting and find a few women who wanted to run somewhere in that range…right? Nope, I tried talking to people at the meeting and they weren’t giving me anything. I couldn’t tell if they were nervous, unsure, or just playing it close to the chest, but no one wanted to tell me what they had planned. Come on people, I know it’s a race and we are competitors, but it’s a freaking marathon! Let’s help each other out here, at least for the first half! After no success whatsoever, Strava came to my rescue. I remembered seeing that my Strava buddy Rob Brouillette was running Toronto and aiming for around 2:34, so I messaged him and asked if he wanted to work together and hit halfway in 1:17. He agreed, so I told a few women what I planned to do and that they were welcome to join me if they were inclined (once again, getting nothing but blank stares and non-committal answers in response). I went to bed that night a little more confident, since I would have at least one person to run with.

Race day arrived with near-perfect weather. It was cold, and I could barely feel any wind. We lined up, the gun went off, and I was able to find Rob within the first few hundred meters. We got on pace immediately and the legs felt great. Dan Way ran with us for a bit and I gave him a hard time for being far too chatty for a dude racing a half marathon. Sometime after 5k our group spread out a little and for a long time after that it was just Rob and I running side by side, passing or getting passed by folks running the half. On the west stretch of the Lakeshore I saw my dad with my sister, Alison and her partner, Will out cheering me on, so I gave them a big grin on the way out and a wave on the way back. Other than that, the first half was mostly uneventful. Off the start I had seen Lanni take off and Natasha Lebeaud and Tarah Korir running with Terrence Attema (who was pacing for Olympic standard). I figured I could run down Natasha and Tarah if they fell off pace, but it was far too early to worry about that. Rob and I focused in on hitting our splits, still running side by side and exchanging a few words every once in a while.

Rob and I running together, close to the halfway mark.

Rob and I running together, close to the halfway mark.

We hit the halfway mark in 1:16:34. I had a brief moment of panic as this was at the fast end of what I had wanted, but it was still within the range and my body felt great so I told my brain to shut up and gave Steve the thumbs up as I ran past. As we ran towards the turnaround on the north-south stretch along the Don River, I could see that I had closed the gap on Tarah and Natasha. By the 25k mark I had them in my sights and it took all of the self-restraint I had not to surge immediately to catch them. I still dropped my fastest 5k split of the race (18:02 by my watch) and passed both women by 30k to move up to second Canadian.

Through 30k I knew I was having a great day, but it was still new territory for me. In my previous marathons I’d had something go wrong well before this point, so I didn’t know what it was like to get to 20 miles on pace and I had no clue what would happen after that. There was still the fear of that infamous last 10k…I could hit the wall, cramp up, or just slow down. Fortunately there were tons of spectators out watching the race in The Beaches, so I relied on the energy of the crowd to get me through that stretch. As I approached the final turnaround I started counting the women ahead of me. I was in ninth and I thought the woman in eighth looked rough, so I made it my mission to catch her. Around 32k Rob started to fall back, so we wished each other well and I got myself mentally ready for the solo grind to the finish. My legs were feeling tight and I was tired, but my splits were still right on and I took some confidence from that. I thought of the long runs I had done with marathon pace work at the end and told myself it was just like doing another run in Springbank Park. At 37k I moved up into 8th place and I finally let myself think: “yes, this is happening, you’ve got this.” I knew it was a great race and I could keep it going through to the finish. Then there was a stupid little hill at 39k and it nearly killed me. That was definitely the most painful part of the race. I slowed slightly over the last 2.2k and wow, the homestretch on Bay St. seemed to last an eternity, but I was excited as I crossed the line and gave a fist pump in celebration. My official time was 2:33:23, a personal best by over six minutes.

Canadian Marathon Championship awards ceremony

Canadian Marathon Championship awards ceremony

OK readers, things are about to get real in here. This race was a huge personal triumph for me. As you may already know, the marathon has been a huge struggle. I thought it could be my best event because of how I’ve handled the training, but it took me a long time to put it together. I trained for my first marathon back in 2012 but got sick during my taper and dropped out of the race. In my second attempt, I got injured and didn’t even make it to the start line. Last year in Columbus I managed to finish the damn race, but it was a complete disaster and I finished in over 2:50. Virginia Beach served its purpose in bridging the gap between my blowup of a debut and what I wanted to run in Toronto this fall. And yet prior to this fall, I was 28 years old, I had trained for four marathons, and I only had a 2:39 to my name. I had wanted to better 2:39 in my debut in Toronto three years ago. I was frustrated. I was questioning whether or not I was cut out for the marathon and wondering if I was wasting my time with this event. Last weekend, I finally got it right. My marathon buildup couldn’t have gone much better, and then perfect weather and a well-executed race let me run a time that reflected my fitness. I’m not sure if success makes previous failures any easier to swallow or if experiencing setbacks makes it even better when you finally achieve your goal. All I know is that I’m pretty damn happy now.

It’s about time to wrap this thing up, so let’s get to the thank yous. A huge thanks to Rob Brouillette for the company on the course for 32k. It was great to have someone to run with and I’m happy we got to push each other out there. Let’s keep logging the miles on Strava and chasing fast times! To my coach and partner Steve Weiler: thank you for your guidance, your patience, and your support. It has been a team effort over the past five years and this fall we absolutely nailed it.

To my sponsors, Runners’ Choice and New Balance, thank you for your support. I have learned some tough lessons this year and one of them is that you can measure loyalty by how someone treats you when things aren’t going well. Brian Hagemeier of Runners’ Choice and Dave Korell of New Balance have been incredibly supportive through the good and the bad. Thanks to both of you for your continued support.

Finally, thanks to all of my family and friends who wished me well before the race, cheered me on or followed my splits and progress during the race, and congratulated me afterwards. I was definitely feeling the love on race day! Dad, Alison, and Will: it was awesome to see you out on the course, thanks for spending a cold Sunday morning outside on my behalf!

Alison and I, post-race.

Alison (my awesome sister) and I, post-race.

Strava activity: things got weird downtown but the manual 5k splits I took should be right!

In case you missed it: Canadian Running Interview

Onward to cross country!

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They don’t know nothing about redemption, they don’t know nothing about recovery

My blog is a little bit like my running, isn’t it? It goes through some rough patches but it just keeps stubbornly hanging on. I haven’t given up on you, little blog!

I ran a marathon last month, so I guess I should talk about that in glorious detail. I had a nice little solo “away mission” to Virginia Beach. Surely, the question on everyone’s mind is “why another marathon? Why keep attempting a distance that has pummeled you relentlessly and left you injured or frustrated and sad?” Fair question, dear reader, fair question. It was a question I had to spend a lot of time thinking about at the end of last year. Back in December, I used those long, lonely miles I was running to think about what came next. The more thought I put into it, the clearer the answer became: I needed to run another marathon. It wasn’t about redemption or closure; it was about what I want to get out of this sport in the long term. My goal is to compete for Canada at a major championship, and my most realistic shot at doing this is in the marathon. I could spend the next five years working at the 10,000m, banging my head against the wall, and still not break 32 minutes. A sub-2:35 marathon (Canada’s standard for the 2013 and 2015 IAAF World Championships), I believe, is within my reach in the next few years. And to run fast times in fall 2015 and in 2016, I needed to get another marathon under my belt for the experience and to bridge the gap between my first-marathon-blowup and a time that could qualify me to a major championship.

I decided on the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach because of its flat course, generally favourable weather, and early spring date. The early date was important, as a later marathon would interfere with a summer track season. But it also meant I doing my training during the worst months of another tough Ontario winter. It was far from a perfect build, but overall my workouts were more consistent than last winter. The only major snag was an inflamed peroneal tendon that forced me to take a few days off in late February. I managed this setback fairly well and I was able to hit some good workouts and long runs in the final weeks of my build.

And so I set off for Virginia Beach, cautiously optimistic about my second go at the marathon. Since I was travelling alone, I made sure I had a lot of distractions on hand. Reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows may have been a mistake, as being on a taper tends to make me a little more emotional than usual, and that book is a damn tearjerker. Curse you, JK Rowling and your murder-happy book, for playing with my emotions! No, I take it back, you’re amazing. So I switched to watching Marvel’s Agent Carter and playing Dragon Age: Inquisition on my laptop, which are both awesome.

Race morning arrived with decent weather; there was some wind, but the temperature was around seven or eight degrees at the start. I felt pretty comfortable as I settled into my pace hit my first few miles splits right on. Another woman was right with me, but it was far too early to worry about anything other than hitting my splits. After five miles we made the turnaround and started heading north into the wind. I was doing most of the leading and slowed a bit, but I was happier leading and running the pace I wanted instead of tucking in and risking slowing down.

Around mile eight I started to notice I was having some GI distress (to put it politely), which I tried to ignore. After a slow mile split and a lot of mounting discomfort, I made the decision to, ummm…make a pit stop. Now, I’ve made trailside stops or ducked inside a washroom plenty of times on runs, but I’ve never had to do this during a race. Let me tell you: it’s stressful! The on-course porta-potties were who knows how far away, and I couldn’t find an even somewhat sheltered spot on course, so I had to just pull off to the side of the road and go for it. I’m not as skilled as Paula Radcliffe, but I got it done. I felt a little better after, but my stomach was still pretty unsettled. Thus commenced a long “rough patch” where my pace slipped to over 6-minute miles. On the plus side, it took me less than two miles to work my way back up to the lead woman. She must have really shut it down when I pulled to the side of the road for a pit stop, so nice of her to let me catch up! I took the lead again and came though the half in 1:18:46, feeling pretty rough to be honest.

Around 15 miles I finally dropped the woman tailing me for good. More accurately, I more or less maintained pace while she slowed down. It was nice to have a comfortable gap on second place, but damn was it ever lonely out there. Eventually I hit the scenic stretch of the north end of the course, trying my best to keep rolling and ignore the mounting fatigue and soreness in my legs. The cyclist for the lead woman was particularly helpful here, as he shouted a bunch of encouraging things at me. I don’t remember most of them due to marathon-delirium, but it was probably something like this. He was dressed as a leprechaun, so it is entirely possible that the whole thing was a hallucination.

I hit mile 19 and bloody hell, things got bad. Just fatigue everywhere and a strong desire to take a nap at the side of the road. It sucked. I had stopped taking in gels after my pit stop for fear of upsetting my gut any further, so I thought to myself, “well, shit. I guess this is how it feels to hit the wall.” This turned out to be just a bad patch and my brain jumping to conclusions. Miles 19 and 20 were slow; I won’t tell you the splits out of embarrassment, but things got a little better once I hit mile 21. I’m sure it was mostly mental; six or seven miles left to the finish seems so far, but somehow five didn’t seem that bad. I was still hurting, but another 30-some-odd minutes of suffering suddenly seemed manageable to my foggy brain. I pushed hard and managed to get my splits back down to around six-minute miles. Those last five miles were tough, but I was willing to suffer to get my sorry ass under 2:40. My official time was 2:39:33.6, and I felt like I fought hard for each and every one of those 24.6 seconds I was under 2:40 by. After crossing the line I knew I was the first female finisher, but I was surprised to learn that I had been 3rd overall across the line. I guess some men who were ahead of me must have dropped out.

So, the post-mortem: I was moderately satisfied with my run. My A-goal heading into this race was a sub-2:36, while my B-goal was sub-2:40. I was satisfied to have hit my B-goal despite some difficulties during the race. It sucks to have to deal with GI issues, but I think I managed to salvage a decent day out of it. Breaking 2:40 is a good step forward for me and helps close the gap between my previous personal best (2:50:54, which I considered to be a very poor race) and the times I need to hit over the next few years to achieve my goals. The marathon is a really, really ridiculously hard event and I still have a lot of work to do. I am excited to have another go at it next fall, and now I will be able to head into that training block with a bit more experience and confidence.

Pictures!

Oceanfront view from my hotel room balcony.

Oceanfront view from my hotel room balcony.

Obligatory pre-race gear shot. I was rocking lucky number 7 and the New Balance 1400, the best marathon flat I've ever run in!

Obligatory pre-race gear shot. I was rocking lucky number 7 and the New Balance 1400, the best marathon flat I’ve ever worn!

Mid-race

The finish. This was the best of my finish photos. In the rest of them, my facial expressions are even worse.

 

BTW, here’s my Strava activity (you know, because if it’s not on Strava, it didn’t happen.)

Onward to track season! Happy miles, friends!

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The going get tough, the tough get debt

It’s the long-awaited (not really) update! Sorry everyone, I was too busy sucking at running and I didn’t want to talk about it. This sport can be pretty cruel sometimes. I had a rough 2014 and it somehow turned out that my redemption, the moment when I pulled myself together and turned things around, was during cross country season. Cross country! As a staunch roadie who claims to hate cross country, I was just as puzzled as you are now. Maybe I’ll have to admit that I actually like cross country. Just don’t tell anyone; I’ve got a reputation to uphold here.

So, back to the sucking. Right, May, track season, running fast. Then June hit and like the last 15 minutes of the Mass Effect 3 or The Offspring after Smash, I just started sucking. It was subtle at first, waking up tired after what should have been sufficient sleep, a rough workout here and there. It’s easy to write off a some sluggish easy runs or a workout where you have a work harder than usual to hit your splits as fatigue and not read too much into it. But then when you fly to Portland on your own dime to run a fast 5,000m and end up running slower than your 10k pace because you feel like crap, it can get a little frustrating. That’s a pretty specific scenario. It was exactly what happened to me in June. This continued with a terrible 10,000m at the Canadian Track & Field Championships, and spilled on into the fall with some bad blowups in road races. By September I thought I had turned a corner and my training and workouts were going well, but I still couldn’t put it together in races. The disappointments culminated with a very rough marathon performance in Columbus in October.

The marathon was a terrible experience, but two good things came out of it. First, I finally finished a marathon! Over the past two years I’ve trained for three marathons and this is the first time I made it to the start line healthy. It is incredibly disheartening that struggling to a 2:50:54 finish is somehow a step forward for me, but it’s something. Alright, this is more like ‘one kind of ok thing and one good thing.’ Second, running the marathon forced me to take a rest and a gentle build up back into training. I don’t like taking breaks, so I tend to cheat a bit on my downtime and build up aggressively immediately afterward. I suspect that this practice is a big part of what hurt my fall season. After the marathon, I didn’t have a choice. Even though I didn’t run very fast, the distance still beat me up. I took a nice recovery week and then eased into running more gently than I ever have in the past few years. It was exactly what I needed.

This brings us to my short cross country season. Running cross required changes in my training and in my attitude. I dropped my mileage a bit and focused on running some good workouts. The attitude I brought to every workout and race was the same: low pressure, smart racing, negative splits. I knew that the fitness was there, so I gave myself simple instructions: race like I did last year at Canadian XC, running the first lap controlled and moving through the field in the second half of the race. The field in Vancouver seemed stronger this year than it was last year, so I figured a top-15 finish would be a good goal. Before the race, Steve told me that it was about “race execution and mental toughness.” I was in a great place mentally; less focused on the outcome but ready to execute my race plan, run hard, and see where it got me.

Even though I followed the same plan last year, it still surprises me how well I can place by running an even race. It can take a long time to shake the “get into the lead pack and hang on” mentality, so the doubts can still creep in when you let the lead pack go and focus on your own effort. On the first lap I tried to hammer out a good pace while still feeling comfortable and it looked like there were tons of girls in front of me. I thought: “oh crap, I’m not going fast enough. Have I made a huge mistake? Or maybe I’m just running slow today because I’m sitting in about 40th and this pace still feels pretty damn hard!” But my game plan was vindicated after less than a lap. Steve told me I was around 20th, and I was already starting to move up. On the second lap I started to feel better. After months of marathon training, 8k cross country race pace felt hard and a little outside my comfort zone in the early stages of the race, but it was a pace I could sustain if I kept grinding along. And grind along I did, moving up to around 16th by the end of the second lap. I pulled off my toque, tossed it to Steve, and the real race began. (It was probably warm enough to start the race without the toque, but I wore it so I could make the symbolic gesture of throwing down my hat to let people know it was on.)

I passed some more women on the third lap and as I got close to the 6k mark, I was sitting in 12th and closing in on 10th and 11th place. Steve, who is normally pretty calm and reserved during races, was as close to losing his shit as I’ve ever seen him. He updated me on my place and yelled “those girls are hurting up there!” Sasha Gollish and Andrea Seccafien were just ahead of me and I could see the next group of Benson, Carson, and Bernard. The last lap was tough. The course was a mess and my legs were tired and wobbly from slogging through the mud for the last 6k. Yet as I entered the final lap, I knew I was going to pass Sasha and Andrea and move into the top ten. I put in a little surge on the uphill before heading into the woods and, to my surprise, ended up dropping them and working my way up to Maria Bernard. I was just trying to stay on my feet at that point. Navigating the muddy course in the last 500m was rough, but I managed to outkick Bernard for 9th. I was pretty fired up after the race; I had bettered my finish from last year in a stronger field and had my best finish at Canadian XC. Steve Boyd told me I was “like a freight train coming through” on the last lap, which I thought was pretty awesome.

Photo by Sean Peicheff.

Photo by Sean Peicheff.

So our tale of a rocky and inconsistent year comes to an end on a high note. I’ve journeyed to the Emerald City of Vancouver to have a fake wizard tell me that I had the power to not suck all along. Metaphorically, of course. Lessons learned and happy ending earned. Which is ok, I guess, even though I don’t mind downer endings. But seriously, owing my redemption to cross country? Yeah, I didn’t see that one coming.

Stay tuned for my next update where I write about the Boxing Day 10-Miler and ummmm…some other things! Probably!

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The PB Leslie deserves, but not the one she needs

Well, what can I say? Sometimes you feel great and execute a race perfectly, and sometimes you don’t. In this case, it was completely my own fault. As I went through 3k, finally getting dropped from the lead pack for good, “riding the stugglebus” or whatever it is the kids say these days, I thought to myself, “hey Leslie, there is probably a good reason why you’re in fifth place and feeling like crap right now, don’t you feel like an idiot?”

This seemed appropriate.

The race in question was the Speed River Inferno on May 31st. I had run a good race there last year, putting in a big move and breaking the race open with 1400m to go. I got caught on the last lap, but it felt great to go for the win like that, controlling the race and making moves as opposed to simply responding to others. (If you want the full recap, I wrote about it somewhere in here.) In any case, this year’s 5000m was shaping up to be even more competitive than last year’s race. I was excited to compete against a strong field and have a go at breaking sixteen minutes, a goal I have been chasing for the past few years.

Last year’s race. This was before two people passed me.

I had recovered pretty well from the 10,000m two weeks earlier and training had been going fairly well. Allergy season usually hits me pretty hard every year during May and June, but for the most part I was able to keep my allergies under control and run some decent workouts. So, what went wrong? I became obsessed with numbers, once again. For most of my running career, it has been a struggle for me to back off, especially when it comes to mileage. I hate tapering and when I have to back off for a race, I do it begrudgingly. Thankfully, I wasn’t backing off completely for this race. I was assigned a medium week of 150k, but I always get a range of +/- 10k on my weekly mileage. So of course I had to run 160k, because more is always better, right? To make things worse, I front-loaded the week so that I could take Friday easy before the Saturday race, which probably made me even more tired. Add in a few hours spent out in the sun coaching on the morning of my race and I was feeling a little rough on race day. Nevertheless, I warmed up and gave it a go. My legs felt decent on the warm up, so put my fatigue out of my mind.

The gun went off and I followed the plan, settling into the middle of the pack so that I didn’t blast the first lap. Our rabbit was supposed to hit 4:45 at 1500m, but I figured I would hang back in case the first few laps were uneven in pacing. I rolled through in 75 and did my best to move around other runners and stay with the leaders in the first kilometer. The paced slowed a bit over the next two laps and the rabbit pulled off at 1200m. Rachel Hannah took over the lead and surged a little to get back on 3:10/km pace. The lead women gapped me slightly, and for the first of several times I ignored the fatigue in my legs and fought my up there. Over the next few laps it was the same – I let myself get gapped, or I was a little slow to move around someone, but I knew I had to stay with the leaders, so I tried to cling to that lead pack as if my life depended on it. But by the 3k mark they had opened up some space on me again and I was starting to feel pretty rough. The negative jerkface part of my brain started telling me what an idiot I was for not resting enough for this race, but I still had five laps to run and splitting 9:33 meant I still had a shot at breaking sixteen, so I told it to shut up.

The last few laps got rough. I was rigging pretty badly, Heather Petrick passed me…oh, and I lost about ten seconds in the span of two kilometers. No sub-sixteen for me this time! Nevertheless, it was still a decent little five-plus second personal best of 16:05.84. Sure, I didn’t break sixteen and it sucks to lose to five other women. But I don’t like to complain about a PB. It wasn’t the PB I wanted, but it was probably the PB I deserved. I got a good reminder about the importance of rest and how, once again, I should be listening to my body instead of obsessing over numbers. It is a tough lesson to learn, but I am used to learning some things the hard way.

Oh Leslie, when will you ever learn?

I will have another go at the 5000m this Sunday at the Portland Track Festival. I am very excited to race at a high caliber meet like this. And in case you were wondering: yes, I have rested up for this race.

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And just when you think you are done paying dues

I suppose it’s well past time for an update! And brace yourselves, because this update isn’t all sunshine and rainbows and personal bests. Nope, it’s Westeros-style winters, injuries, and ok, there was a personal best in there. Things aren’t always completely horrible.

As 2013 drew to a close, I felt great. I’d had a great year, setting personal bests at nearly every distance I had raced. I thought I had this running thing figured out and I couldn’t wait to start the next training block. The plan was to race the Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach in March. And then winter hit me pretty damn hard. My training block quickly turned into a series of adjustments and improvisations as bad weather did its best to thwart our plans. At just about every other Sunday workout we faced snow-covered roads or temperatures in the -30s. We postponed long runs and shifted some workouts onto the indoor track or the treadmill. Nevertheless, there were some short windows of decent weather and with my flexible schedule, I managed to squeeze in some good workouts and long runs. My stubbornness was an asset here; no matter how awful the weather was and how much I complained, I didn’t miss any mileage. And when the weather cooperated and I was actually able to do a workout or long run, everything went very well. Though my marathon build was far from ideal, I was confident that if I kept my goal time in the conservative range, I could still have a good race in Virginia Beach.

About ten days out from the marathon, I woke up in the morning and noticed that my left foot was a bit sore. I wasn’t worried; my feet get sore during heavy training and this wasn’t any worse. It felt fine on my morning run, so I carried on with my day. That afternoon it started bothering me again and got worse until it seized up completely. It felt like a really painful foot cramp that I couldn’t walk on, much less run. I wore an aircast, rested up, and waited a few days. While my foot did calm down, there was no way I was going to run 42k on it. It was a very easy decision to pull out of the race. In the meantime, however, my physio was concerned that I had a stress fracture or stress reaction, so I stayed in the aircast and faced several weeks off of running. It was the longest break I had taken from running since university. It sucked. I spent a lot of time on the bike trainer but I was still pretty miserable. Eventually I learned some perspective when I heard about and talked to some runners who were in the midst of much longer breaks from running due to injury. Four to six weeks was nothing. I was lucky.

Four weeks and one day after my foot started hurting, I received the results of my bone scan. No stress fracture. I went for a short run the next day. My legs felt awful and my gait was awkward, but there was no pain in my foot. I spent the next week feeling horribly sore, since my legs weren’t used to running at all. On the bright side, I was building up mileage quickly without any other adverse effects. At the beginning of week two I tried my first workout and it was rough: less than 6k of intervals at slower than half-marathon pace. At that point I was prepared to have a track season in which I didn’t set any personal bests. I was disappointed, but nevertheless ready to put in the work despite the prospect of not seeing the times I wanted this season.

There were a lot of frustrating moments during my little comeback. When I was upset, I often thought back to a workout I did in February. It was a 32k run with the last 5k hard. It was cold, I was tired, my legs felt trashed with all of the mileage I was doing, and the course was hilly and unforgiving. After 15k, I felt awful and I started feeling sorry for myself. The negative thoughts started and I started thinking that all of the above circumstances were great reasons to bail on this workout. At some point I had an epiphany and realized that running hard on tired legs is what marathon training is all about. I told myself that yes, I was tired, but that didn’t matter, because I was still going to hammer like hell once I hit the 27k mark. It wouldn’t be pretty but I had no good reason why I couldn’t do it. A few kilometers later, Steve handed me a bottle and asked me how I was doing. I shouted back, “I was feeling sorry for myself, so I gave myself a stern talking-to. I’m good now.” He loved it. I finished the workout, and it wasn’t pretty, but I got the work done and achieved the desired result. There are always reasons to feel sorry for yourself, but it’s more productive to stop doing that and focus on what you can do with what you have. As I started running and doing workouts again, I simply focused on being the best I could on the day. I was sore and running slow times, so I tried to focus on working hard and letting the fitness come on its own.

To my surprise, this didn’t take as long as I feared it would. My first workout wasn’t very encouraging, but I told myself that workout would be the worst I felt and the slowest I would run. A few days later I paced some teammates at a 5k road race, running 17:40 and feeling a bit better. My next workout was an improvement; I managed 6k of intervals again, but this time it was at my 10k PB pace. After that workout, progress came quickly. I was very surprised at how rapidly my fitness came back. After a few rough workouts, I was doing full sessions on the track around PB pace. My training has been very consistent since joining London Runner four years ago, so I had a great base. The fitness was already there, I just needed to get my legs used to running again.

By the time the first meet of the Runners’ Choice London Distance Series rolled around on May 4th, I was ready to do a rust-buster race. My teammate Matt Suda paced the front of the women’s field at 3:15 per kilometer, which I thought I could handle. To be honest, I was just guessing and I didn’t really know what to expect. The pace felt a little harder than I would normally like it to feel in the first half of a 5000m race and I let the pack gap me a bit before the 3k mark. I managed to rally in the last 2k, holding my pace pretty well and moving up in the field to finish in 16:17.36. It was week four of my comeback, so running within six seconds of my personal best was very encouraging.

With my first track race out of the way, it was time to focus on the real goal: the Ontario 10,000m Championships two weeks later. Workouts went well and I felt confident that I could run a personal best in the 10,000m on May 18th. Once again, Matt would be the hired pacer for my section. He was perfect, knocking off 80-second laps like it was his job. Which it was. Matt is awesome, thanks Matt! I stuck with Matt until he pulled off at the 8k mark, running 3:20 kilometers like clockwork. In the last five laps I managed to squeeze the pace down a bit to negative split and finish in 33:14.91. It felt awesome to run a 26-second personal best after everything that had happened in the past few months.

Matt Suda, awesome rabbit.

Isn’t running fun?

After that race, I think I can safely declare that my comeback is over and I can carry on with business as usual. I’ve had some rough patches this year, but I think the lesson in this is to stay positive and simply do the best you can given the circumstances.

Well, I suppose I’ve rambled enough for today. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for updates as I do some “speed work” in the 5000m.

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Boxing Day 10-Miler: The successful third attempt

It’s been a while, mostly because I haven’t had much worth writing about. Well, that’s not true. I like complaining about the weather all winter, but that strikes me as something people might not want to read about. In any case, I raced the Boxing Day 10-Miler last week and there’s nothing like the demand for a race report to force a blog update.

My December, as usual, was rough. I took some time off after Canadian XC. Four days off during an eight day stretch of downtime, not too shabby! I hate taking time off of running. I am used to being exhausted from training hard, so when I take time off, I have trouble sleeping. And by that I mean it takes me more than two minutes to be sound asleep after turning off the light. It was terrible. Seriously, do non-runners actually live like this? After just over a week of this hell it was time to run again, and who else is there to greet me but tons of snow and cold winter weather? There was a while where I was pretty sore from running on the snow. I had to make an effort to seek out good footing, whether this was doing loops of Springbank Park, running on the road along bus routes, or occasionally hitting the treadmill. By the weekend before the race I was starting to feel better, and a good progression run that Sunday gave me a bit of confidence.

The Boxing Day Run hasn’t been kind to me in the past. Two years ago, we had great weather, but I underestimated the difficulty of the course, went out way too hard, and positive split by over three minutes, finishing second to Lucy Njeri. Last year I was a bit smarter and managed to run faster in worse weather (cold and very windy). Unfortunately Lucy and Kate Harrison both brought their A-game and completely destroyed me. This year, the weather was a bit milder (around -2 and lighter wind) and I was feeling decent, so I was more optimistic than usual. Best of all, the course had changed and the monster hill at around 7 miles was taken out! Steve and I figured that 59-low would be a good time goal considering the course and my current fitness. The plan was to run the first five miles in the 5:50s and keep it comfortable early on.

It is all well and good to make a plan like that, but sometimes competitive-Leslie takes over and ignores the plan. This usually results in pain in the second half of the race. I lined up beside Lisa Avery on the start line and competitive-Leslie took over and started making terrible decisions, like going out in 5:40 for the first mile. That did not feel comfortable at all, and Lisa was still right beside me. We settled down on the second mile as we hit the wind on the waterfront, but after seeing the split, competitive-Leslie went into idiot mode and thought “I’m gonna break her right here!” Idiot. So I pressed the pace and ran a 5:45. Let me reiterate that this did not feel good at all. I suppose that is the difference between being sharp and race ready versus only doing one workout in the last month. Having realized all of this in the first three miles, the only logical thing to do was to hammer a 5:42 fourth mile in an attempt to drop Lisa. Obviously when I’m running, my body diverts blood flow from non-essential things like my brain to essential things like my legs. Honestly, I was getting pretty worried that I was going to blow up at this pace and suffer a painful defeat since Lisa was still right beside me. That woman is tough.

Fortunately I was able to open up a gap on Lisa in the fifth mile and put some distance on her in the hilly turnaround loop area. I slowed down a bit, but I could see that the gap between Lisa and I was growing, so I figured she’d cracked. Through six miles I was starting to realize that I was on pace for a decent time, so I tried to maintain as best as possible on the way back. I managed to pick off a few guys ahead of me and run some decent splits. Those last two miles weren’t fun, though. It isn’t a true Boxing Day race experience if you don’t spend the second half of the race questioning the life choices you have made over the holidays that have led you to this point. Such as: Why did I smother my entire dinner in gravy last night? Why did I follow that up with cookies and chocolate? Or better yet, why didn’t I do all of those things and simply sleep in and skip the race instead of forcing my body through ten miles of pain today? Well, not much I could do about that, so I had to get through a rather uncomfortable last mile during which I probably ran over six minutes. I made a good charge for the finish line in an effort to break 58 minutes and thought I had it, but the official time came up 58:00. Oh well, it was still a personal best.

It was great to take the win at the Boxing Day race; that event has a very long and rich history and it’s great to have my name up there on the list of race winners among some legends and studs. After three tries, I finally got the gold belt buckle! Lisa Avery put up a tough fight out there (obviously, she’s tough as nails from raising three kids while training like a badass in snow-covered Orillia!) I think we both pushed each other to run quick times on the day. A big thanks to the race crew in Hamilton, it was a fun race and I will definitely be back next year!

Well, that about wraps up my races for 2013. I’ll have to run some more in 2014 so I have something to write about on here. Happy New Year and happy running, everyone!

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Mission accomplished: didn’t run like a useless piece of garbage.

As many of you know, running cross country is a struggle for me. Don’t get me wrong, cross country is great. I love the idea of cross country, it’s the purest form of our sport and requires guts and toughness. But my love affair with cross country is, well, complicated. When it comes to me running cross country, it doesn’t always work out. And yet I just can’t quit you, cross country. Every year I come back for more. This year’s Canadian Cross Country Championships epitomized our tumultuous relationship. I wasn’t going to race, then I did. My goals and race plan changed about four times over the course of one weekend. It was awful out there and yet, it wasn’t so bad. Confused yet? Let me explain.

After a truly awful experience at nationals in Vancouver last year, I was ready to be done with cross country for good. I was absolutely sick of slogging through the mud when there were perfectly good roads to run on. The roads are nice and friendly. You run hard and you are rewarded with sexy personal bests. Cross country is mean and unforgiving; I try to run hard and I end up slipping and falling on my face or rolling an ankle. So in that vein, I vowed that I would not run cross country in 2013. Then September rolls around and someone throws out the idea that we should have a London Runner senior women’s team run Canadian XC. Against my better judgment, I said, “yeah sure, if we have three other women who want to go, I’ll do it.” Then I watched in horror as a week later, three women handed in cheques for our group flight to Vancouver. I guess that meant I would be running. Steve and I decided that since I tend to struggle in the mud (and it’s always muddy in Vancouver) and it wasn’t my focus for the fall, I would be running nationals with the team in mind. I was to work with a teammate, probably Lauren, during the race. This made me feel a bit better about what I had signed up for.

Let’s fast forward again. It’s late November and I’m in Vancouver. I’ve won the Ontario Cross Country Championships with a decent race. I check out the course at Jericho Beach and it’s pretty dry. I start to think that things are starting to go Leslie’s way, and I let my competitiveness get the better of me. So I pitch the idea of taking a run at a top-10 placing to Steve and after some discussion, he agrees. I jog the course again on the day before the race. It’s in great shape. The forecast calls for rain on Saturday, but I think the course can take a bit of rain before it gets sloppy. I’m good to go, let’s do this!

If you’ve seen any pictures or video from Canadian XC, you know that my optimism was merely a bunch of delusional wishful thinking. It rained all day and the course was a swamp. I sighed and put my 12mm pins in my spikes. As I warmed up, it rained harder and my enthusiasm was dampened (sorry, I couldn’t resist). I was feeling anxious about the race to the point where I felt sick to my stomach and I really didn’t want to be there. 2012 Leslie would have let that anxiety get the better of her and would have had a terrible race. But the superior 2013 Leslie looked for a more productive solution. I found Steve and told him that it was getting worse out there by the minute, so it was time for a change of plans. Evidently he was thinking the same thing and we agreed to go back to the original plan of running with Lauren, at least early on. I was to relax and feel things out in the first 3k and pick it up in the last two laps of the race if I was doing alright with the footing. This talk was exactly what I needed; I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off of my chest. I headed off to the start line feeling good for the first time all day.

The gun went off, everyone sprinted across the field, and I stuck to the plan. I let the main pack go and chilled out on the initial 1k loop. It looked like a ton of people were ahead of me, but I didn’t panic. I couldn’t see Lauren near me, so I did my own thing and focused on running at a relaxed effort. I focused on moving as smoothly and efficiently as possible in the mud and finding the best footing. Though I wasn’t expecting this, I started to pass girls on the first loop as runners slowed down in front of me after sprinting the first straightaway off of the line. As we moved into the first of three 2k loops, I continued to get a feel for the course and managed to pass more girls along the way. At the time, I thought I was way back from the lead pack. As it turned out, I was probably already in the top twenty. But the most important thing was that I wasn’t moving horribly in the mud and I still felt comfortable.

On the second 2k loop I didn’t make as much progress moving up in the field. I could see Amanda Truelove and another girl ahead of me, but I couldn’t seem to close the gap. I was starting to hurt and I didn’t want to be redlining just yet, so I tried to keep the effort even and hold my position as best as I could. Heading into the final loop I was feeling tired but ready to go to the well over that last 2k. I made a bit of a push and rolled by Amanda and the other girl. As I ran towards a switchback before we got into the wooded area, I was able to see the lead pack, and I realized that there weren’t that many people in front of me anymore. I passed two more women in the woods and then worked my way up to two more. After coming out of the woods, I heard Steve yell at me that if I passed the two in front of me, I would be in the top ten. If I hadn’t been running hard and gasping for breath, I would have told him to shut up and quit messing with me because I didn’t believe I could be that far up considering how easy I had gone out. I passed the next two girls and tried to put as much of a gap on them as I could. I saw two more women ahead of me and I was able to close the gap a bit over the final 500m, but they were just too far away. I crossed the line in 10th, my best placing ever at a Canadian Cross Country Championship.

See how muddy it was?

See how muddy it was?

Of course, the never-satisfied competitor part of me questions whether I could have placed higher if I had gone out faster. Nevertheless, I am happy with my effort. After two blow ups and disastrous races in the last two years at Canadian XC, it wasn’t worth the risk to go out aggressively on a sloppy day. Besides, it felt great passing six girls in the final 2k of the race. Most importantly, I didn’t run like a useless piece of garbage. A top-10 placing was just icing on the cake.

After this race I have concluded that cross country isn’t all that bad. I had a decent run and wasn’t hampered too much by the mud. Running this race and turning in a decent performance has gotten me past this mental block I seem to have with cross country and muddy courses in particular. Another big part of this was fielding a senior women’s team for the first time in London Runner history. It was great to travel and run cross country as part of a team again. Lauren, Karen, and Courtney, thanks for coming out to Vancouver to run in the rain for London Runner. I wouldn’t have made the trip if it wasn’t for these three, and I ended up having a lot of fun. We placed 4th as a team by an agonizing two points, but it gives us something to build on for next year. Even though cross country is far from my favourite discipline, I will keep running Canadian XC as long as we have a team.

Now I’m on a bit of a break, but I am excited to get back on the roads, after apologizing for cheating on them with cross country, of course. Let’s keep it on the ‘crete for another eleven months!

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I don’t hate cross country!

I figured I would do a quick update. Training has gone well since the half marathon. I took a very easy week, then ramped up the training again, and threw in a few races for fun and profit. In late October, Steve got a call from Dave Scott-Thomas saying that Sheila Reid was injured and that he was looking to fill her spot on the team going to Chiba Ekiden, which I was quick to accept.

I’m really excited about this trip. First, because Japan is awesome. And I’m not just saying that because I’ve been playing King of Tokyo with my housemates. Sidebar: King of Tokyo is an awesome game, because you get to play a monster and punch other monsters by rolling dice.

My personal favourite, Gigazaur.

My personal favourite, Gigazaur!

It helps to get into character by talking in a monster voice. Where was I? Oh, right, Japan. If I don’t see at least three monsters attacking Tokyo while I’m there, I will be pretty upset. Seriously though, Japan has awesome depth in road racing. Eighteen guys just went under 63 minutes at the Ageo Half Marathon. Crazy stuff. Secondly, going on the trip and doing this race will be a great experience. I will be travelling with a bunch of fast runners, so I plan on learning a lot from my teammates about travelling, competing, and becoming a better runner. I’m there to race first and foremost, but I also want to get the experience and knowledge that comes from racing on the big stage.

I will be doing some blogging on trackie.ca during my trip, so head on over there, maybe check out the forum while you’re at it and make a few posts, as long as you’re not a troll.

On Sunday I raced the Athletics Ontario Cross Country Championships, which were held just outside of London. Despite my claims that I was done with cross country after last year, I somehow got sucked into racing not only the Ontario championships, but also the Canadian championships in Vancouver. Why? Because three crazy women from my club got together and decided to race, and with me we would make a team or four, so really I didn’t have much choice in the matter.

But I jest. Sunday’s race was actually a lot of fun. When I heard that the race was going to be held at Belvoir Farms, I expected a boring cross country course around a bunch of corn fields. It was still a course around a bunch of corn fields, but they added some logs to jump over and a fun ditch thing that really kills your momentum. I wanted to win this race. It certainly helped that the Athletics Toronto ladies weren’t running, but I still had to deal with Rachel Hannah. Rachel is pretty badass at cross country; she’s just a grinder that tends to beat people who are faster on the roads or the track. I hung with Rachel for about 2k. Of course she put a gap on my on the muddy section, but I reeled her back in when the footing got better. We ran the ditch (it was a quick, steep downhill followed by a quick, steep uphill) and I seemed to get back on pace faster after climbing the hill, so I stepped on the gas and opened up a gap on Rachel. From there I tried to grind out my way to a good lead, as I didn’t want Rachel anywhere near me on that muddy section on the second loop, or anywhere near the finish, for that matter. My hurdle technique was a little rough, but I managed to jump over all of the logs without falling and or looking too ridiculous.

I held my lead through to the finish, coming through in under 24 minutes. Yeah, I think the course was a bit long. I wasn’t wearing a watch while I raced, so I had no concept of how long I was out there anyway. I didn’t mind, though. Logs to jump over and dubious course measurements, that’s old school cross country, I love it!

The best part about Sunday’s race was getting to run on a team again. Last year, London Runner scraped together a senior women’s team by moving a junior up and age group and convincing a master to run as a senior. This year we had four women, all around the same age, who were excited to toe the line of a cross country race as a team. And we won the team title, which was awesome.

3/4 of team London Runner. We couldn’t find Lauren after the race.

The full squad, plus Lauren’s dog. And Steve.

Watching the senior men’s race was great, as we had 11 guys from the club running. In a bold move, Steve split the men into two evenly matched teams. London Runner ‘A’ and ‘B’ ended up taking the top two team spots.

After this race I am happy to say that I don’t hate cross country, pretty much because I didn’t race like a useless piece of crap (which I tend to do when I race cross). Hopefully my opinion doesn’t change after Canadian XC. I will be heading to Vancouver after racing Chiba. This will give me a chance to chill out for a few days and do a workout on the race course before meeting up with the team. Maybe I’ll be less useless this time around. Onward to Chiba and Vancouver!

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Throwing the game plan out the window

Shortly after I finished the Columbus Half Marathon last Sunday, the following conversation occurred between my housemates back in London.

Ben: (Steve coming up the stairs) “Did you see the result yet?”
Steve: “Not yet.”
Ben: “You need to see.”
Steve: “I was a little worried when I saw the halfway split.”
Ben: “You don’t need to be worried about it, but you need to see it.”
Steve: “1:14? Holy shit!”
Ben: “No, look again.”
Steve: “Oh, that’s Matt maybe. 1:13?! HOLY SHIT. HOLY SHIT.”

That was pretty much my reaction, too. Going into the race, I had reasonable expectations (ie. I didn’t expect to run a personal best by over two minutes). My training over the summer and fall had gone well. I had to compromise my half marathon build a bit by racing a 10,000m in August as I needed another time to apply for Quest for Gold funding, but overall I was happy with my training block. I had my best quarter (as they say in the business world) in terms of average mileage per week leading into Columbus and I was pretty consistent in hitting my workouts. Therefore, I expected to run faster than my personal best of 1:15:28. I figured sub-1:14:30 would be a good goal, and if the weather cooperated and I had a great day, 1:14-low or just under was possible. The plan was to run around 3:32 per km (or 5:41 per mile, since that’s where the markers are in an American race) and then try to pick it up in the last four or five miles of the race.

Well, sometime you follow the plan, and other times you throw the plan out the window. This race was an example of the latter. The pre-race atmosphere was partly to blame for a fast first mile. We lined up and a guy sang the US anthem, complete with pyrotechnics when he got to the “bombs bursting in air” part. Oh man, it brought a tear to this Canadian’s eye. Then they start blasting AC/DC over the loudspeakers, which now sounds a bit cliche, but when you’re there, wow it’s easy to get caught up in the moment. I ran the first mile in 5:25. Suda pulled up beside me and we joked that we could both picture Steve telling us to settle down. So we settled down and ran a 5:45 for the next mile. By then I had pulled up beside the lead woman in the half and she settled in with our pack of Matt and I plus some other marathon guys. I kept the effort steady, so I expected to see splits around 5:40. Instead, I saw splits in the mid-5:30s. I knew that I was going out fast, but the effort felt right, so I told myself not to freak out and just hung out with the pack.

Complicating matters was a Kenyan woman who insisted on running about half a foot beside me and constantly bumping elbows with me even though we had an entire road to ourselves. She was really up in my grill, running super-close to me and then listing to one side or another in what felt like an attempt to run me off the road. At one point Matt moved to the front of our pack and she almost ran him into a parked car. It was ridiculous, just totally violating my personal space. Now, before you think I’m some pampered road racer complaining about a bit of harmless contact, let me tell you, I’ve run my share of mid-distance track races. I’ve been boxed in, bumped elbows, I know what’s what. This lady’s actions fell somewhere in that gray area between “not really against the rules” and “hey, that’s not cool,” or in the generic category known as “being a dick.” I tried various strategies like dropping behind her and moving to the other side of the road, but within about five seconds of me doing that she would be beside me, bumping elbows again. I even tried moving to the other side of another guy in our pack to use him as a buffer between me and her but nope, she just moved around him and latched on to my hip again. So I thought, “well, if she’s going to pull this crap I’m gonna run behind her and draft off of her,” which seemed to work.

In the last four miles I was getting pretty pissed off at this chick, so I wanted to beat her pretty badly. I kept trying to crank the pace up, but she wouldn’t let me go by. The result was a few pathetic surges on my part, followed by her surging back and forcing me to the side of the road again. My tangent running was probably terrible. Matt put a gap on our pack at 10 miles or so and crazy lady wouldn’t let me by to chase him. At around 11.5 miles I saw there was an uphill stretch and realized I had to go there and make it a decisive move if I wanted to win. I put in a hard surge on the hill and managed to get clear. Checking over my shoulder about ten seconds later, I saw that I had a five-meter gap and I knew I had the thing won (barring any Galebach-like collapses).

The last mile was awesome. It actually was my fastest mile of the race, a 5:23. My legs hurt and I was tired, but I somehow felt like I could have kept running forever. I now understand how elite runners have the energy to do a victory lap, a smile on their face, seemingly in no distress despite having finished a hard race a minute earlier. I felt like I could have done anything in that last mile; it was just about the greatest feeling I could get from running. I ran through the finish with a big grin on my face.

I felt great until about five minutes after I stopped. Then my legs got sore and tight, even my arms hurt. I went to the elite room to grab my gear, where a volunteer handed me the banner in the picture above, telling me “this is yours to keep.” Cool. The race director came up to me shortly after and informed me that I had broken the half marathon course record. I stared at him in disbelief. “You didn’t know?” I explained that I knew what the course record was (1:13:20-something), but that I never thought I would be able to run that fast, so the thought of breaking the course record had never crossed my mind.

There was still the matter of run-you-off-the-road crazy lady. I decided to take the high road and kill her with kindness (after having put 20 seconds on her in the last mile). I walked up to her, shook her hand, and said, “great race, thanks for pushing me out there. I just ran a 2-minute PR and I couldn’t have done it if I had been out there on my own.” In retrospect, this was probably a mistake, since she then started following me around and wanted to be my best friend. I managed to get away when the race director presented me with a plaque, a big-ass glass trophy, and had be pose for a photo with a big novelty cheque for my race winnings. Wow, they do things right down in Columbus.

After a long cool down (I ran the long way out to the 24-mile marker to see Matt, yelled at him a bit, then realized I had to run 2 miles back to the finish…I was running pretty slowly by the end). Then I gathered my gear and made the long trek back to the hotel. Talk about a good problem to have, I had to lug my trophy and the rest of my crap back to the hotel. It took me forever. Matt made it back shortly after I did. He had an awesome first marathon, clocking a 2:27:43. Not bad for a guy who’s never broken 15:30 in the 5k! We both got to the computer in time to watch the Canadians finish the Toronto Waterfront Marathon on the live stream. What an awesome day!

It’s days like Sunday that make me realize how much I love this sport. Breakthroughs happen when you put in a ton of work grinding out mileage and workouts and everything comes together on race day. Redemption is possible if you are patient. Matt and I both dropped out of Toronto a year ago, but we both made some changes, came back stronger, and ran great races this year in Columbus. There were great examples of this north of the border too, with Lanni and Krista coming back from disappointing races in Moscow to run under the Canadian marathon record in Toronto. And all of the sacrifices we make as runners are definitely worth it.

I can’t end this blog without saying thanks to everyone for the kind words after the race. On a day when I thought my race would be overshadowed by performances at the Toronto Waterfront Marathon (and rightly so, two women ran under the Canadian marathon record!) I still got lots of congratulations over email, facebook, and twitter. My sister posted a picture that got over 100 likes. Do I even know that many people? Thanks to Matt, who did all of the driving last weekend and was a great running buddy out on the course. Thanks to all of my teammates in London for being great training partners and friends. Thanks to my family; mom, dad, Alison and everyone else, who maybe don’t fully understand what I do or why I do it, but support me just the same. Thanks to Runners’ Choice and New Balance for their tremendous support for London Runner. And finally, a huge thanks to Steve Weiler who has been and will continue to be exactly the coach I need, capable of encouraging me or giving me a kick in the ass if that’s what I need on the day. There is no way I could have run that well without everything he has done for me for the past three years. Steve, I realize that I’m probably not the easiest person to work with, but your patience, support, and hard work over the past three years has meant the world to me.

Sorry folks, I got a little sappy at the end there, but I’ve had a lot of emotions to process over the past week. Naturally, the best solution is to announce them to the entire internet. Thanks for reading and until next time, run more miles!

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