The euphoria of evening races: from fleet to faltering

The euphoria of evening races: from the fleet to the faltering

Pacific Distance Carnival: June 13, 2019

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The drummers (led by Nori Akagi) at the Pacific Distance Carnival added drama and energy to the races. Their drumming was a feat of endurance too! Photo by Keith Dunn.

Last Thursday I celebrated my birthday by going to watch some of the races held at the newly-minted Pacific Distance Carnival at Swanguard Stadium.

Keith and I didn’t want to rush our indulgent dinner, so we missed the first races on the program, the 1500s. We arrived while the second of four heats of the 5,000m race was in progress.

The feature event of this inaugural meet was the Canadian Championship 10,000m races for men and women, and we knew that stellar fields were in the lineup. However, the “Chase the Pace” 5,000m races were a tremendous idea! (Shout-out to sponsors Saucony, Mile2Marathon Vancouver, and BC Athletics.) These races allowed everyone from casual to sub-elite runners to compete against other athletes of any age and either gender. Anyone hoping to run between 15 minutes and 26 minutes for 5K could enter, and were grouped in heats based on their predicted times.

I was amazed by how smoothly this idea worked, considering there were about 30 runners on the track in each heat. Everyone seemed to find fellow competitors to work with.

I was especially impressed by many of the runners in the third and fourth (fastest) heats. Both of these heats were rabbited by top Canadian distance runner Rob Watson to suit the pace requirements of the best runners in these fields. Some of the notable finishers were Craig McMillan (15:14.91), Briana Hungerford (17:02.52), and Olympian Carey Nelson, now 56 (17:42.74). There were many good female athletes in these races and I marvelled at their smooth, economical running styles, remembering when I too could run like that.

I’m sure many PBs (personal bests) were set in these races. The conditions for distance running were perfect. It was a golden evening that became increasingly cool as the sun got closer to the horizon. Swanguard Stadium is a magical setting within Central Park in Burnaby, with high evergreens and mountains in the background to the north.

It was about 9:15 when the men’s championship 10,000m got underway. The sun had set and I was too cold to stay at the rail any longer. I huddled in a blanket up in the stands, watching the spectacle of the 10,000m race unfold.

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The pack is still together near the start of the men’s Canadian Championship 10,000m. Photo by Keith Dunn.

It is a long journey, those 25 laps, and I remembered it well. To an uneducated spectator, It is a long journey, those 25 laps, and I remembered it well. To an uneducated spectator, it might look boring as the pack circles the track one time after another, gradually spreading out and then breaking into separate packs and lonely individuals. But the initiated know that this event is gruelling, both physically and psychologically. The competitors must be ready for the increasing punishment the deceptively easy-looking pace puts on them, and they must be ready for the tactics taken by any competitor who decides to break the steady tempo.

Four competitors separated themselves from the rest fairly early in this race. But the decisive move came from Ben Flanagan with five and a half laps still remaining in the race. Flanagan, who had been running relaxed behind the leaders up to that point, moved into the lead and increased the pace so dramatically that his four-man pack instantly broke up. Only Lucas Bruchet remained close—but there was a significant gap between him and Flanagan. As the laps wound down towards the finish, Bruchet kept trying to maintain contact, but Flanagan didn’t flag—he only seemed to be increasing his pace lap by lap, reaching victory in 28:37.49 to Bruchet’s 28:49.29. Rory Linkletter was third in 28:55.38.

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Ben Flanagan’s move to the front was decisive and confident. Photo by Keith Dunn.

Keith and I didn’t stay for the women’s 10,000m championship, much as I would have like to have seen it. * It was too late and I had a race of my own the following day: the Longest Day 5K race put on by the Vancouver Thunderbirds club at UBC.

* Full results of the Pacific Distance Carnival are here.

Longest Day 5K

Last year’s (2018) Longest Day 5K was deeply disappointing for me. Despite my knee’s limiting my running to twice a week, I had trained as hard as I could for weeks before the race, doing challenging speedwork with faster runners than myself. I was secretly hoping to break 20 minutes; I was confident that I would at least be under 20:30.

During the race I ran my guts out from start to finish—yet I ran 21:01. I had no excuses or explanations for running so slowly. Only three years before, at age 56, my time in the same race had been 19:19. Last year, I noticed my legs were very weak on the short steeper uphill sections in the second and third kilometres. My body had betrayed me! After that, I felt no desire to race again; it was too demoralizing to achieve such a slow time after giving it all I had in both training and the race itself.

This year I was only running because the race was a day after my 60th birthday. I wanted to mark this milestone, because I am still a runner! But I was influenced by my result from last year, and my expectations were different. This year, for the first time ever, I entered a race but gave myself permission not to run all-out. I was running because I could; I was running to express my gratitude; I wanted to enjoy this now-rare experience of participating in a race.

Running your best 5K requires a hard effort right from the start. A fast 5K is a highly anaerobic and painful event. You need to pace it carefully to avoid slowing down dramatically in the last kilometre, but there is little time for relaxation. Lactic acid eventually poisons your leg muscles and spreads throughout your entire body; the trick is to find the pace that allows this to happen gradually, so that you can make it to the finish. If you’ve got a fantastic kick left at the end of a 5K, you probably haven’t run a fast enough overall pace to achieve your best possible time.

In this year’s edition of the race, I ran at a cautious, relatively enjoyable pace for the first 3K. I did what I had given myself permission to do. For the first time ever, I saw a kid who looked about five years old in front of me! I lost a lot of time on the long downhill in the first kilometre.

By 3K I started using the runners around me (including several women, young girls, and an older man coaching his younger protégé) to help myself run faster. The old competitive spirit kicked in and I ended up running the final kilometre as fast as I could to finish in 21:48. Even though this was much slower than last year, because of my expectations I was happy with it. I had told everyone I was aiming for 22:00. It had been my easiest 5K ever. And now I would reap the benefits; my slower pace (especially on that first downhill) meant I didn’t experience any of the muscle pain I usually felt after a race on pavement. Even my knee felt OK—I was sure I wouldn’t need to take a week or two off running as I normally do after racing.

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Finishing the 2019 Longest Day 5K. Photo by Keith Dunn.

After chatting briefly with some other competitors near the finish line I proceeded to the food tent. No lineup! Another benefit of running slowly was the absence of post-race nausea.

With my heaping plate of food I headed to the stands of Thunderbird Stadium, where I had agreed to meet Keith after he was done taking photos near the finish.

The stadium was completely empty except for one other competitor, who had also chosen to sit here with his food. This is always my favourite place and moment of the Longest Day 5K: this time in the quiet stadium, away from the crowds and the blaring loudspeakers and upbeat music. Yes, maybe I am unsociable, but I love this peaceful time of being on my own, reflecting on the race and savouring my post-race euphoria.

I was warm enough, sitting in the sunlit stands, but I could feel the air cooling against my still-sweat-drenched clothing. The empty artificial turf field at the bottom of the stands beckoned me. It would be better to do my warmdown jog before eating. I put my plate in a shady, out-of-the-way place in the stands and ran down to the field.

Bare feet

What a joy it is to run slowly after a race! I remember other years when I was either too nauseated or too sore to even complete a lap or two of the field after racing. One year the race caused a hip injury so severe I had to miss an entire summer of running! So for me, these warmdown laps were a prayer, every footfall another word in the mantra of gratefulness.

As I jogged I saw a fellow competitor running easily towards me in bare feet. We smiled at each other. When I got to the start of my lap, I took my shoes and socks off and started jogging again. What bliss! Foot bliss! The turf was cool and gently prickly. My feet were engulfed in sensation. I noticed how perfectly they worked as I ran. I noticed all their little springs and muscles.

This was another cause for gratefulness and wonder! For about ten of my best running years, my feet almost always gave me pain. I had terrible bursitis in both heels; one eventually required surgery. I couldn’t run without using prescription anti-inflammatories to keep the pain under control. I also suffered from repeated bouts of Achilles tendonitis. Sometimes it was so bad that I couldn’t wear spike shoes at even the most important track races.

And now here I was, my tiny feet pain-free at age 60! And running barefoot made me feel like a kid again, though I knew it was but a brief illusion.


With Keith and my Phoenix teammates after the race.





Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Racing, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Losing it


Photo of a coyote in Point Reyes National Seashore Park (near San Francisco) by James Dennis. Used by permission.

Last week was one of those weeks when all of my technology seemed to be letting me down.

  • My computer.
  • My Garmin watch.
  • My camera.
  • My vacuum cleaner.
  • My mind? . . .

I didn’t actually lose these things. All of us were just suffering from various degrees of breakdown.

It was a sunny afternoon when I left my computer with the Best Buy Geek Squad. As I walked back to my car with my empty computer briefcase I felt a sense of doom. Would I ever see my computer again?

For a freelance writer and editor, a personal computer is an essential appendage. It’s painful when it’s amputated. Now I was struggling with a borrowed computer, a Mac. We were trying to get acquainted with each other, with the help of my passwords file, but there were multiple complications.

Our already rocky relationship declined precipitously when Mac’s mouse batteries failed. At least they were rechargeable batteries. Yet after several hours of recharging, the batteries still didn’t work.

Oh well, I thought. No work today. At least I had an editors’ meeting downtown in the evening.


The Skytrain wasn’t crowded and I became engrossed in an old-fashioned print book on the first stage of my journey. I only realized the train had stopped at the Broadway/Commercial transfer station in the nick of time, and rushed off to transfer to the other line.

I had just nabbed a seat on the next train when I realized another vital appendage had gone missing—my phone! I was instantly horror-stricken. My phone was supposed to be in my right-hand coat pocket—where I “always” put it. I searched my bag and my purse but knew it was futile—for now I remembered putting my phone on the empty seat beside me on the first train. Even worse, my phone was unlocked!

Flooded with adrenaline, I got off the train at the next stop and immediately went to a Skytrain security guy. I blurted out my story, knowing he must have heard it many times before. He said he hadn’t received any calls about a phone being found. He told me about the Skytrain Lost and Found at Stadium Station, where my phone “might” turn up in a day or two if someone was kind enough to turn it in.

However, he would now send out a call.

[Drumroll] At that very moment, a Skytrain guy at Brentwood Station had just been handed a phone! It might be mine! . . . or not.


When I got off the train at Brentwood, I immediately saw two security guys staring at me in a meaningful way. I walked quickly towards them, and told them I had lost my phone. “Tell me about your phone,” said one of them, a huge, burly guy. I blurted out the brand, and my favourite contacts. In a matter of seconds I was reunited with my phone! Impulsively (and uncharacteristically), I hugged this bear-like security guy, my instant saviour.

It was too late for me to make my meeting downtown so I headed back home. Since my computer mouse still wasn’t working, I went to the library with a flashdrive and worked until closing time.

It was dark as I walked home the back way by the railway tracks, the nearby streetlights casting the faintest light amongst the spooky shadows. Suddenly, I saw a big coyote on the tracks, very close to me. We both froze and stared at each other. Assessing. No threat. The coyote gracefully resumed its easy lope along the tracks.


Another coyote photo by James Dennis. Taken in Point Reyes National Seashore Park.

A wave of emotion welled up in me. I felt a quiet and perfect satisfaction with that moment.


So much hinges on a tiny act, done or not done. Leaving my phone on the train could have ended badly. Instead, I got some good work done and saw a coyote.

In the parallel universe that I had planned, I would have been at an editors’ meeting learning about editing speculative fiction. Undoubtedly I missed some fascinating information and conversation—but that universe is forever gone for me.

How do we end up at a particular place out of all possible Universes? Is it luck? Is it Grace? All I knew was that after a day of breakdown and frustration, I felt a vast sense of peace.






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Riding, writing, and the ‘rithmetic of making big bucks: why I’ll never get rich




I’ve been thinking about financial matters more than usual in the past few months, ever since my landlords boosted my rent exorbitantly. I love my Port Moody apartment—both the view and the lifestyle it gives me—and I made the choice to stay here.

This choice, as well as some other influences, has made me question my values. Two major influences in my life recently have been reading Stephen Covey’s classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People (in January) and joining my local Toastmasters club (in February).

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

After reading 7 Habits, I was on fire! I analyzed my core values. I understood the importance of creating a personal mission statement that would express my purpose in life. I faced up to the necessity of being proactive; of taking the steps required to achieve goals in line with my mission statement. I fully agreed with the idea that time must be managed carefully, with planning and discipline, in order to make “first things come first.”

I adhered to my goals and schedule for about two weeks, and then it all fell apart.


Like most people, I could give all kinds of reasons. One is that the most crucial steps of achieving goals are usually the hardest: we procrastinate because of fear, uncertainty, or even other worthy goals that make demands on our time.

Then there is simply the lack of discipline. The pleasure principle. Wanting to have fun.

I haven’t given up on Covey’s ideas, though. His book has permanently changed my awareness of my core values and my understanding of what it takes to be successful and happy—however I define those words for myself. I will not lie to myself about why I haven’t achieved my goals yet.


A friend invited me to attend a Toastmasters meeting in February. I was quite nervous, but it wasn’t too bad—I was immediately struck by how welcoming this group was. Someone asked me if I wanted to take part in the “Table Topics” section of the meeting. During Table Topics, a  few people are called up to the front (one at a time) by the Table Topics Master. Each person must respond to a surprise question with a short impromptu speech.

I agreed to take part, and in my wildly disorganized speech I succeeded in going over the time limit of two minutes. Once I was 15 seconds over, I was “clapped off.” Apparently this was the first time a guest had ever been clapped off—a more common problem for guests is a complete freeze-up as they face the audience.

I did receive several positive comments about my speech, though, and I was hooked on Toastmasters! I soon joined the club.

Public speaking is not critical in my professional life as an editor, but I joined Toastmasters because I was impressed by the amazing talents and generosity of this club. The group includes many seasoned speakers who have competed in Toastmasters speech contests at a high level. Also, there are several people who are great at humorous talks.

I have much to learn from this group. I will not only become better at public speaking, but also better at communication in general. It’s a real privilege to get to know everyone in this group. They are already high achievers, but they are all striving to improve, and to help others improve. As a freelancer who spends much of my time working alone at home, I have come to look forward to Monday night meetings as times of entertainment, inspiration, and support.

Selling Speeches

Great speakers can inspire, educate, and entertain, but I was reminded last week that they can also use their persuasive powers for commercial purposes. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, but I listened to a webinar last week that disturbed me. It was a free webinar directed at small business owners by a woman named Karen McGregor. She tells a typical rags-to-riches story about how speaking engagements are the best way to sell a product or service. The service she is selling is her “method” for this, her training programs.

I listened to the whole 75-minute webinar even though it rang alarm bells in my head from the start. Karen did share many tips and tricks for constructing a speech that would encourage listeners to buy something. However, I wasn’t at all impressed with her as a speaker or as a person. Maybe it was because the only passion she was sharing was her desire to get rich. She made frequent casual, smug references to how well she had succeeded in this.

Sure enough, the final 15 minutes of the webinar consisted of Karen’s attempt to get me to register for a $1,997 live training program; there were numerous “freebies” added for webinar participants, and even more bonuses if we registered and paid within the next 30 minutes!

Karen’s webinar left me troubled for a while. Should I be trying to build more financial stability for myself? Am I too lazy or too cowardly to follow her method? For sure, I can’t be easily parted from $1,997!

There are principles involved here. The way a person chooses to “commercialize” their talents and experience is not simply a practical financial decision; it also must be in line with one’s ethics and personal goals.

For example, I’ve been writing in this blog for over seven years, but I never intended to make money from it. In fact, my blog breaks all the rules about how to have a successful, money-generating blog. I don’t care, because my reasons for writing here aren’t compatible with the kind of writing I would do if my primary goal was to make money.

Why do I write?

There are clues in my blog’s tagline: Reading, Running, and Relationships.

That tagline captures some of the topics that most stimulate me, and I want to write about them in a deep, exploratory way, not in short, quickly-scanned articles that can be easily digested by a mass audience. Why do I write?

  • to express and share my love of running and working out.
  • to explore the psychology of running.
  • to explain what I find wonderful in books or in Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers & Company program on CBC Radio.
  • to analyze relationships with people who are or have been close to me.

My writing often serves a therapeutic purpose. It helps me clarify my thoughts and understand myself. Some of my articles (for example, the ones about my mother and about George, my coach) are written out of love, gratitude, and the recognition of how strongly one person can influence another’s life. Of course, I am selective in what I write—I need to protect my own and others’ privacy.

Sometimes the comments I get in response to a blog article make all the work seem worthwhile. People compliment me on my writing, or show me that they’ve been able to connect with my words.

In any case, writers are compelled to write, and knowing that I have a small (but faithful) audience motivates me to write better. With my blog, I’ve created a permanent record (at least as permanent as computer files and The Cloud can be) of things I consider worth writing about: people, runs, books, or simply the musings of a moment.



A small boy and dog at peaceful Belcarra.

The morning after listening to that disturbing webinar, I rode to Belcarra. It’s only about 11K from my apartment, but it’s a ride I hadn’t tackled for a while because it includes several giant hills. However, the scenery is nice and much of the ride is on nearly-deserted roads.

This time I took a small detour so I could reach a good viewpoint. I left my bike at the base of a hill where there was a clearing for hydro lines, and climbed to the top. Wow, I was high!


Near the Burrard Thermal Plant.

My burning quads got a break, and after that I had a few kilometres of descent. As I flew along that quiet road cutting through the forest, I knew that this lifestyle I have, the places I love and move through every day, are more valuable to me than being rich.

I arrived at Belcarra just as the sun broke and banished the clouds of the morning.


Spring at Belcarra!



Posted in Commentary, Cycling, Personal stories, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How Big is Big?


Expanding my world in 1966 and 2019

One thing I’ve realized as I’ve grown older is that I have yet to grow up. When I was a kid, 20 years old was a huge, far-off age. Twenty meant being grown up. Of course, I was completely wrong.

Another thing I didn’t understand when I was a kid is that Learning ≠ School. Learning means different things at different periods of our lives.

Grade One was the most exciting time of my intellectual life because it was then that I learned to read. I quickly became a voracious reader, and that has never changed.

I was in Grade One from 1965–1966, so it was probably in 1966 that I read a book called How Big is Big? This book was my introduction to the concept of infinity. How big is big? Big could expand from my house, to my city, to my country, to the whole Earth. Then I learned that our Earth is revolving around our Sun, and our Sun is but one star in a Milky Way galaxy made up of an unimaginable number of stars. In turn, the Milky Way is just one galaxy amongst a huge number of galaxies in something called the Universe. All of this stretched my mind and it’s still no more comprehensible now that I have some mathematical understanding of numbers like these:

  • There are 1024 stars in the universe.
  • There are two trillion galaxies in the universe.

But How Big is Big also taught me that infinity goes in another direction. If I started with my own body, I could go inwards and see that my body was made up of organs, tissues, cells, molecules, and ultimately atoms, which in turn could be taken apart even further so that an atom’s nucleus could be compared to a tiny sun with planet-like things called electrons and protons revolving around it!

Now, in 2019, I can learn from Googling that even tiny entities can be expressed with some very large numbers, like these:

  • There are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body.
  • The human genome (our genetic material, DNA [deoxyribonucleic acid], composed of chemicals called nucleotides strung together in a unique order for each one of us) contains 3 billion pairs of these nucleotides.
  • There are 100 billion nerve cells in the human brain.

In the early 1980s, as a university student at the peak of my physical and intellectual powers, I was discovering all the details about DNA and the new field of recombinant DNA technology—a kind of technology that is now changing our lives in myriad ways and leading people to question the morality of the God-like power this technology can give humans to modify foods, animals, and even create “designer babies.” Now, I’ve forgotten 99% of what I learned in university.

It was only when I was in my fifties that I started understanding just how much I hadn’t learned in school.

No amount of “book learning” can tell a person the answer to the most important question we must all answer. That question is related to what I think about when I ask, “How big is big?” and “How small is small?” What I am really thinking about when I ask these questions is, “How do I fit in as part of this incomprehensibly vast universe?” Or, in other words, “What is my life’s meaning?”


One of the supremely gifted people to grapple with this question was Viktor Frankl, a survivor of the Nazi death camps. Frankl was able to endure one of the worst hells ever created on Earth by realizing that the one thing his captors could not take away from him was his human ability to choose how he responded to his circumstances. He chose to keep his dignity and his will to live. Frankl is famous for his book Man’s Search for Meaning (which I read decades ago).

I was reminded of Frankl when I recently read Stephen Covey’s classic book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey quotes Frankl’s conviction: “Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life. . . . Therein he cannot be replaced.”1

7 Habits of Highly Effective People has generated a new burst of learning for me. It’s jump-started a new way for me to think about my life’s path. It’s given me a powerful resolve to make my life even better than it already is—and guidance about how to translate that resolve into action, because reading is only the beginning of learning. I will write more about 7 Habits in my next blog post.

To answer the question “What is my life’s meaning?” involves a third kind of infinity, I could say. In addition to the infinitely large and the infinitely small, there is the infinitely inward—that universe contained within each human being’s brain-consciousness-spirit.

What do I want to hold on to from 1966? I never want to lose my child’s sense of discovery, of awe, of the incomprehensible.


1. Covey, Stephen R. The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, 25th Anniversary Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989, 2004, 2013.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, Personal stories, Psychology | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding my way out of writer’s block with photography: a photo journal




Lost Lake at Mundy Park. January 15, 2019.

I’ve been trying to puzzle out why I haven’t been able to write much in the past year or two.

What is the cause of my writer’s block?

There are all kinds of uncertainty involved. I have nothing new or worthy to say. My writing isn’t good enough. I don’t want to reveal things that are personal. My ideas are so conflicted and confused that I won’t be able to write clearly.

Too many of my ideas are about the physical, mental, and social aspects of getting older—old? People won’t want to read about that!

Lately I have found myself more compelled than ever to take photos. Photos are a way of capturing the moment. It’s easier and quicker to take a photo than to write a story or a description.


Ice shards at Lost Lake, Mundy Park. January 15, 2019.

Maybe my compulsion to take photos comes from an older person’s realization that time is slipping by too fast. I might do a certain run or bike ride that is hard and think, “This might be the last time I can ever ride up this hill,” or “I never want to run the Buntzen Lake Loop again—it’s so hard on my knee, I suck at running on this rough stuff, I don’t enjoy it!” (Then I was shocked to read a Canadian Running magazine article that rated the Buntzen Lake Loop as an “easy” trail run.)

Photos are my way of capturing a moment that is significant to me. And often, the significance of the moment is simply that it’s beautiful. I’m often pierced by the beauty of a scene. I use the word “pierced” because the sensation can be so intense—it hurts—it’s bittersweet because I know time can’t be stopped. My “click!” with my camera is my futile attempt to capture what I see and feel.


Sasamat Lake on New Year’s Day, 2019.


My partner Keith, who is a professional photographer, says I have a “good eye.” As a photographer, that is all I have. I have little interest in becoming a better photographer. I don’t have an expensive camera; I have no technical expertise, either in taking photos or editing them. Keith could teach me these things, but writing and editing are the crafts I strive to perfect, not photography.


Early Sunday morning at Ioco townsite. January 6, 2019.

Yesterday I read a blog post that reassured me somewhat about my writing. This blog, Hoarded Ordinaries, is one I discovered by accident. I read it often because its author, Lorianne, is a “kindred spirit.” In an entry entitled “Shelved,” she writes that it’s time for her to put the ten journal notebooks piled up in her closet into their correct chronological place on her shelves. Like me, she is driven to write in her journals every day. She says that she teaches (she’s an English professor) because she can’t imagine doing another profession. She also writes in her journals and blogs every day, and has come to realize that getting satisfaction from her writing is sufficient justification for doing it.

Like Lorianne, I don’t tire of doing the same activities or taking almost endless photos of the same places. I love my environment—the mountain/Inlet view from my apartment, all the natural places where I run and cycle regularly, and Vancouver’s seasonal changes. Sure, I would love the adventure of travelling and the chance to take photos of new places. Like any Vancouverite, I could appreciate a hot sunny holiday about now. But since I can’t afford to travel much, it’s good that I am truly content where I am.


Burrard Inlet. January 11, 2019.


Walking, cycling, running—moments of clarity

I love all three of these activities because they are rhythmical, they immerse me in the natural world, and I feel a sense of adventure and freedom whenever I’m doing them.

Yet I often feel torn between my desire to be completely engaged in the action and my paradoxical compulsion to stop and capture the moment. Part of my conflict results from decades of pushing myself all-out in my running workouts. Focus on running fast was always paramount. Stopping for photos was unthinkable. The only permissible stops were those built into the workout, like rest periods during a track workout. And because I was a distance runner, those rest periods were most often short, usually between thirty seconds and two minutes.

Even now, when enjoying my workouts is more important to me than performance (which is laughable anyway), I like to make a good effort when I’m running or cycling. I still refuse to carry anything more than a car key when I’m running. Cycling is where I feel the conflict between pushing hard and stopping for photos the most, especially if I have a limited amount of time for my ride. Stopping for photos means sacrificing the intensity of my workout. And I still consider stopping on a long uphill wimpy—even if I’m using granny gears and barely going faster than walking speed.


Old Orchard Beach. January 13, 2019.

Increasingly, though, I am making the choice to stop. On a recent ride, when time was short, I stopped to take the photo above. And sure, it’s a pretty photo, but I wasn’t satisfied. The elusive perfect photo, where the early sunlight was especially striking and could not be captured later, would have been taken from a different place where habit had refused to let me stop. I think it was that ride that made me decide:

Yes, I will stop more often. I will at least try to capture what I see. I’m blocked in my writing: maybe I can have a photo journal for now instead, and try to publish at least one photo a day.

Walking is different—then I give myself permission to look at things closely. Even so, I love the rhythmic nature of walking, which can lead to a wonderful, relaxing meditative state that is broken if I stop frequently to take photos.

That meditative state is not only comforting and relaxing, but also leads to clear thinking, where my priorities become obvious. This happened to me yesterday.


Mundy Park, east parking lot. January 14, 2019, 4:35 p.m.

I was walking in Mundy Park in the hour just before sunset. There were only a few people (and even fewer dogs) in the park. It was so peaceful, and so easy to stride along those beautiful trails.


Mundy Park, Interlaken Trail. January 14, 2019.

The thought suddenly came to me, decisively, that I don’t want to run in Mundy Park on Saturday mornings anymore. This is not a new thought. For almost twenty years now, Mundy Park has had off-leash hours from dawn until 10:00 a.m. Every year, the number of dogs on the trails has been increasing, but my fellow runners in the Phoenix Running Club have insisted on meeting at 8:30 a.m. as we have for almost thirty years.

Now the situation is so bad that Mundy Park has become a dangerous, conflict-laden obstacle course on weekend mornings. In June I was tripped by a dog and felt flat on my face. I almost lost my front teeth and considered myself lucky to escape with multiple cuts on my mouth, swollen lips, gravel embedded in my gums, and minor scrapes.

So far I have been unable to persuade our group to start training after 10:00 a.m. But now I have reached a decision that makes sense for my own safety, peace, and enjoyment of running. Maybe some of the club members will follow my example; maybe new people will be encouraged to join me. My walk in the park yesterday made it clear that sometimes old routines have to change.


Walking east out of Mundy Park. January 14, 2019.





Posted in Personal stories, Vignettes, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Eleanor Wachtel in conversation with ex-Marine Elliot Ackerman about modern warfare and grief


Elliot Ackerman is a novelist and an ex-Marine who was an active duty officer for eight years, including five tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He also spent three years as a journalist in Syria, covering that country’s civil war.

Recently I listened to his interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC’s Writers & Company, where he talked about his latest novel, Waiting for Eden. Novelists can reach people like me who aren’t always well-informed about current political events, because they present these events at a personal level; that is, they appeal to readers’ desire for characters and their stories. In this way a huge, often faraway event can be made real.

Wachtel’s entire interview with Ackerman was hugely moving, but the part that got me hooked—because it was heartbreaking—was the five-minute reading Ackerman gave from Waiting for Eden.

The passage he read is written from the point of view of a young, inexperienced nurse who is working at a veterans’ hospital. It is Christmas Day, and she is alone on duty on the floor where an injured soldier, sent back from Afghanistan three years earlier, is being tended. This man, Eden—reduced from a 220-pound soldier to a 70-pound multiple amputee—also has terrible burns and can’t speak or hear. None of the doctors expect him to survive.

The nurse is at her desk monitoring Eden’s vital signs. It seems awful to her that he’s lying there, not being allowed to die. She doesn’t plan to go to his room. She doesn’t want to see that being in the bed that she can’t think of as either living or dead.

However, at some point, “knowing she was spending her Christmas with him, and his with her, and that this might be his last Christmas,” she is compelled to go to him. She unplugs the small Christmas tree from her desk (it’s a tree with lights, like the ones Snoopy put on his doghouse) and takes it with her to Eden’s room.

When she first goes in, she looks around him, not at him. But when she opens the blinds, she can see him in a way she hadn’t before. She can see “. . . the white of his linens, the little pink stains where pieces of him had stuck against them . . . the great hollows of his wounds . . . ” The intricate, awful details continue, and Elliot closes the description with this: “His eyes blinked at her, unprotected by lashes, and she could see where they were rheumy without rest and soapy with pain, and how they teared against his pillow, always.”

I felt as though I could scarcely bear what I heard in this five-minute reading, yet Ackerman’s writing was so exquisite I knew I had to read the book.

As a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ackerman had much to say about the reasons why these wars go on and on. He spoke about what he sees as the role of the American military in international wars. Also, he spoke frankly about his personal motivation to participate in a war—and what he’s come to learn about the nature of grief.

Commenting on the seventeen years of  war in Afghanistan, and the even longer Vietnam War, Ackerman said that wars are “shape-shifting entities”—they don’t usually continue for the same reasons they were begun. According to Ackerman, American leaders as far back as Kennedy knew the Vietnam War couldn’t be won, yet they kept it going for both domestic and international political reasons.

Then there is the role of grief in maintaining wars. As a journalist, Ackerman understood the Syrians’ desire for democratic reforms. They believed their cause was undeniably a good one, so their protests had to have a positive outcome. Instead, their country was destroyed. Elliot says, “You have people who have lost so much—they can just never be made whole. And that will keep a war going for a long, long time.”

Return to Eden is largely an examination of the nature of grief. Ackerman talked about the “narrative arc of grief”—that it’s a process we move through, and we eventually get over things. He said it’s just not true. Sometimes we just keep enduring the loss. Waiting. Waiting as Eden does in the hospital, as his wife Mary does in “holding faith” with Eden.

Part of the interview was about Ackerman’s background—he lived with his family in London between the ages of nine and fifteen, and he believes this gave him a “slant” view of what being an American means. Wachtel was subtly questioning whether it is possible to be proud of being an American in today’s political climate. But Ackerman’s response was firmly idealistic.

He still believes there is a “responsibility that comes with being an American. He said, “We’re a nation that all aspires to a collective ideal. We’re all immigrants. We all come here because we opt into this ideal of what it means to be an American.” According to Ackerman, the American ideal is to strive for perfection, to strive for a “more perfect union,” even though the ideal is never realized. He said that when people ask what it’s like to be an American, what they’re really asking is what it’s like to live in a society that’s idea-based as opposed to race-based or ethnically-based.

What kept him motivated when he was still on active duty? Ackerman said that when it comes to specific wars, people like himself are motivated to fight for personal reasons, not ideological ones. “I’m a Marine, it’s my job. I’m taking care of my buddies.”

Yet he has never stopped thinking about the reasons for wars, and the morality of them. He spoke passionately about what he sees as the moral hazard in modern wars. Why are wars so difficult to end? As mentioned above, it’s partly because of the grief and losses that the populations involved have endured. But it’s also because of the “outsiders” who are trying to intervene—including the US. The American military is fighting, but the American people as a whole are not engaged with the wars the US is fighting. These wars are fought solely by volunteers and funded by deficit spending. There is no incentive for the country as a whole to discuss the morality and financial aspects of war.

Ackerman mentioned “a modest proposal” he’s written about: he would like to see an American military where ten percent of the combat units would be draftees. Critically, these draftees would come solely from families in the US who file in the top income tax bracket. Ackerman knows this would never happen; yet his point is that if the wealthy elite segment of the American population had a personal interest in the overseas wars their military fights, politicians would have incentives for ending them.

War has influenced Ackerman’s views of both luck and grief. He commented that many people see their luck as something that is preordained. He sees luck as a totally random thing whose role is underrated. He described being shot at—and missed—and said that made the nature of luck very clear to him.

As for grief, he said it was the birth of his daughter that made him understand the enormity of personal loss. When Wachtel questioned him about why he left the military, he said a major reason was to be with his daughter. But also, he felt it was time to have a new purpose in life, and for him that meant writing novels.

Was it difficult for Ackerman to leave the military? He said, “You have to find another purpose. In life, we all derive our happiness from a sense of purpose.” He went on to say, “In the military there is a very clear and intense sense of purpose. . .  you see this with a lot of athletes, artists who’ve achieved early success—anyone who’s been up to the summit—you have to then reckon with the descent.”

To me, these words were inspiring. They reminded me that we can all be multi-faceted. We can embrace change, find a new purpose, and have the courage to believe we can reinvent ourselves.


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What is an “ideal” professional runner?

What is the role of a professional runner?

Becoming a professional runner requires talent, hard training, and good coaching. Running is a simple and democratic sport compared to other sports; you need no special equipment and you can run almost anywhere. Most children are “born to run” and there aren’t a lot of complicated movements and skills to learn.

All this means that only a tiny percentage of all runners make money. A few track stars and great marathoners are wealthy. A second tier of athletes, still only a small percentage of dedicated runners, make a living out of their running for a few years or possibly a decade or more.

I was one of those second-tier runners for the few years in the 1980s when I wasn’t nursing some injury or the other. Although I loved the team aspect of cross-country running (and the camaraderie and success of my high school team is what got me hooked on running in the first place), it was from road racing that I made my money.


Winning the Cascade Run-Off 15K in 1987, my best year of road racing. Portland, Oregon. 49:05.

I was good at running on the roads. My legs were not strong so I wasn’t at my best on muddy or rough cross-country courses. As for the track—track stadiums create an electric excitement and intimacy between athletes and spectators, but I didn’t like racing the 10,000m event, the one my body was best suited for. Running 25 laps on the track was psychologically gruelling, whereas the kilometres ticked by relatively easily when I ran the same distance on the road.

I raced mainly in the biggest American road races, but only at distances shorter than the half marathon. These races had excellent sponsorship and organization. They usually paid travel expenses for ten or twenty male and female elite athletes, and offered prize money to the top ten finishers. I was lucky—in the 1980s, there were few African women competing. I could almost always finish in the top three at these big races. I was beaten by many of the great runners of that period: Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Lynn Jennings, Liz McColgan, Wendy Sly, Anne Audain, and others—but they were never all at the same race.


This was the 1983 IAAF 10K Road Championship for Women held in San Diego, CA. In the front you can see (l. to r.) Midde Hamrin (?) of Sweden, me, Wendy Sly and two other British women I don’t recognize, and American Betty Springs, who finished second in the race. I placed 4th. This photo in my scrapbook came from a 1984 Ontario Athletics magazine. Photo: Diane Johnson.

My racing history has given me gratitude and appreciation not only for the financial rewards I got from running, but for the other ways running enriched my life. It’s also made me think about the responsibilities of professional runners.

What are they giving in return for their prize money, their appearance money, and their sponsors’ support?

Why are sponsors willing to support huge road races, glamorous track meets, and individual elite athletes?

Why are people willing to pay to attend European track meets or Olympic Games?

Elite sports (including running) provide people with two things they value highly: entertainment and inspiration.

Sport is entertainment

People pay for a spectacle. Athletic bodies, to many people, are the most aesthetically pleasing. and often the most sexy. The best runners, moving with speed, power, and gracefulness, exemplify the human animal at its physical peak.

Competitive clothing is usually minimal and form-fitting. Such clothing shows off perfect bodies but it is also functional for speed and heat dissipation. Some athletes enjoy enhancing their appearance for competitions. They often give special attention to makeup and jewellery, unusual fingernails, or elaborate hairstyles.

A big part of entertainment in running comes from suspense. There is the thrill of watching an unpredictable competition. It’s not always the best- or fastest-looking runner who wins. Mental toughness plays a large role, and sometimes tactics do too.

Sport provides inspiration

Runners explore the physiological limits of the human body plus the role that the mind plays in extending performance beyond what should be physically possible. The greatest runners evoke amazement, awe, and excitement.

The responsibilities of the professional runner

A professional runner, just like a professional in any field, should earn what they are paid. How does an elite runner do this? Is running fast their only responsibility? No. Fulfilling the role of an entertainer, and, more importantly, being an inspirational role model, entails more than running fast.

My “ideal” professional runner would meet all of the criteria I’ve described below. And such athletes do exist in real life!

This is my “ideal” professional runner:

  1. They give their best effort every time they race.
  2. They show good sportsmanship at all times—winning or losing or somewhere in-between—in their interactions with other athletes, with the media, and with fans.
  3. They follow the rules of their sport (including bans against the use of performance-enhancing drugs).
  4. They are gracious, modest, and helpful in conversations with their fans, who are often other runners.
  5. They show their appreciation for event organizers, volunteers, and sponsors. They make themselves available for all requested media and social events connected with the competition. They try to be as outgoing and friendly as they can at these events (even though runners are often introverts!).
  6. They share their passion for running, the reasons they love their sport, and personal stories. Others will want to know about how they got started in their sport, about coaches and other people who helped them, and about obstacles and injuries they overcame.
  7. They think about how they can give back to their sport, both currently and in the future. The vast network of the sport of athletics, from its grassroots training up to elite level competition, would not exist without volunteers. Coaches, meet directors, marshals, and track officials are usually volunteers. (And what about the parents and spouses who encourage us, cook for us, drive us places, cheer for us at races, comfort us when we have a bad race or are sick, injured, or exhausted? The people who love us for more than our running speed?)

There is one other essential quality that my ideal elite athlete possesses, and that is the ability to put their running in perspective. Sport is just a game, a preparation for the larger game of Life. Being a great runner is not equivalent to being a great person. To become a great runner, it’s necessary to focus with dedication, courage, and hard work on your training, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of neglecting your closest relationships.

Questions elite athletes might ask themselves are:

Who am I outside of running?

Have I kept my sense of humour despite my serious focus on running?

What will I be when I’m no longer a professional runner? Have I acquired a good education that will help me prepare for my next career?

My personal experiences as a professional runner

Role models

As I became a more experienced competitor, I had the privilege of meeting great athletes whom I considered to be fantastic role models. Ingrid Kristiansen was the female runner of my generation that I admired the most. In the 1980s she set multiple world records. In most races she simply ran from the front and pushed herself relentlessly, because no one else was close. She displayed ferocious focus and toughness when racing.

Yet when she wasn’t racing, she was relaxed and friendly. I had the privilege of speaking with Kristiansen a few times before and after races. A couple of times I sat near her on buses going to race sites. I could always see her sense of humour and mischief bubbling up. She seemed supremely confident, yet modest at the same time. I felt that she respected me as a competitor though she was far superior to me.

I had my role models, but I also came to realize that part of my responsibility as an elite athlete was to be a role model for others. I made an impact on people because I didn’t look like someone who could be a good athlete. I was tiny, with skinny, fragile-looking legs. I’m sure many women and girls thought, “If she can do it, maybe I can too!”

I think a big part of a professional runner’s responsibility is to encourage others to run, to have a healthy lifestyle, and to believe that improvement is possible, step by step.

Racing is tough and you must be tough

Part of the responsibility of being a professional is giving your best effort no matter what the circumstances (see point #1 above). When a race director has paid for your flight and hotel room, or you’ve been selected to a national team, you feel the obligation to do well even under the most trying conditions.

Putting it simply, racing is not fun or easy if you’re sick, injured, or sleep-deprived. I’m not saying elite athletes have to race no matter how sick or badly injured they are. Sometimes it is a tough call, whether to race or not. But once committed, you have to give your best even when it’s painful or difficult to focus.

My personal demon was chronic insomnia. High pressure competitive situations and unfamiliar locations exacerbated my insomnia. I’ve raced many times after a night of little or no sleep. I’ve learned that it’s possible to perform well even when I’m sleep-deprived. It takes mental toughness and confidence that the physical training will make a good performance possible.

One of my worst experiences of pre-race insomnia happened in 1983 when I went to Knarvik, Norway, to compete in a special international 10,000m track race. This race was being held because the women’s 10,000m was not yet part of the Athletics World Championships program. (The World Championships were held in Helsinki, Finland in 1983.)

I was in Knarvik for about four days before the race, and slept only a couple of hours each night. By race day, I felt completely exhausted, both mentally and physically. I was frustrated with the insomnia and extremely nervous. Yet I managed to finish fourth in the race, in a time of 32:23 (at the time a Canadian record). It was only my second 10,000m track race ever. I was able to pull this off because of my excellent preparation (including lots of speedwork on the track) and my road-racing experience at that distance.

There were several times when positive thinking and almost miraculous recoveries allowed me to race well when it seemed it would be impossible. In 1987 I sprained an ankle only eight days before I was due to race in the Bolder Boulder 10K in Colorado. My physiotherapist told me it would take the ankle weeks to heal. I phoned the meet director, Benji Durden, and told him I wouldn’t be able to race. He encouraged me to come anyway, since I already had my plane ticket—he said I could help with announcing from the press truck.

I didn’t run at all that week, and when I arrived in Boulder two days before the race I bought a simple ankle brace at a drugstore. On race day, I found that I could jog with minimal pain, so I completed my warmup at an easy pace. Once the race began, adrenaline took over and I was able to run at race pace in spite of my injured ankle. I ended up winning that race! It was an unexpected victory, because Rosa Mota, whose PBs were much faster than mine, suffered from stomach cramps and I passed her about halfway through the race.

Nowadays, with the dominance of online communication and social media, athletes’ obligations to their sponsors have changed somewhat. The controversy about cheating with performance-enhancing drugs is probably even greater than it was in the 1980s. Yet I believe the professional athlete’s basic responsibilities—to give their best, to show good sportsmanship, and to express appreciation for all those who support them—have remained the same.


Posted in Commentary, Personal stories, Racing, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

WordNerds: Making a big foofaraw about Lionel Shriver’s Property

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas


A few days ago my better half, Keith, sent me a text containing the word “foofaraw.” Now Keith is not a professional wordsmith, but he’s got a good vocabulary and he’s always eager to learn new words or find out interesting tidbits about words. So I wasn’t overly surprised to see him use a word in a text that even I, an editor, had never seen written down before (although I knew what it meant). Nor was I surprised that Keith had spelled the word in such a funny way. Keith isn’t a good speller, and his phone doesn’t help. It either autocorrects with something absurd, or offers Keith no suggestions that “look right” whatsoever.

Not wanting to make a big foofaraw about the spelling of this rarely-used (I thought) word, I didn’t send a mocking reply to Keith’s text. I was too lazy to look it up in a dictionary and forgot all about it.

So imagine my surprise when yesterday, while avidly reading a story in my new favourite author Lionel Shriver’s latest collection, I see the word “foofaraw”! Spelled just like that! And I had had this vague notion that it was a French-derived word that doubtless started with the letters F-O-U, like coup de foudre (bolt from the blue, fall in love) or rendre fou (drive crazy).

Belatedly, I looked up “foofaraw” in my trusty Canadian Oxford Dictionary, and sure enough, there it was, spelled Keith’s way, with a brief definition (fuss, commotion, disturbance) and, unusually for the COD, the words “origin unknown”!

To me it seemed a bit of a coup de foudre that I would encounter this word twice within a few days after being ignorant of its appearance my whole life. Not for the first time, I pondered the curious nature of coincidences. In part I think they happen because of what both our conscious and unconscious minds are being attentive to.

After all this, I have to say that my main reason for writing this post is to rave about the book I’m reading. Its full title is Property: Stories Between Two Novellas, and it is assembled exactly as it says. This book was my introduction to American journalist Lionel Shriver. She is best known for her international bestseller We Need to Talk About Kevin, but I was pleased to see that she has written several other novels that I can look forward to reading.

The stories in Property are clever, funny, and at times shocking or uncomfortably creepy. They are connected thematically by their investigations into what “property” means and how it can define and affect us. Property can refer to real estate, and it can also refer to anything that we own. Many of the stories here suggest that our property can own us. A couple of the stories veer into the supernatural as buildings seem to become capable of expressing malevolent human emotions in physical ways.

Several stories extend the meaning of possessiveness beyond attachment to houses or other property to people’s attachment to their own ideas about righteousness and fairness. Many of Shriver’s characters have to give up not just property or possessions, but some of their most-clung-to ideals or resentments. Part of the fun of reading this collection, though, is that amongst the dark or shocking endings there are surprise happy endings, too.

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Burnaby Lake 10K: connecting with the runner I used to be

Labour Day run at Burnaby Lake

Summer is the season I love the most, the time I thrive like the roses that are my favourite flowers.

In Vancouver the season has changed, and our summer of unprecedented heat and smoke is over. I welcome the change, yet I’m compelled to try and capture the quintessential moments of my summer of 2018.

Fittingly, one of those quintessential experiences happened on Labour Day, which is surely, psychologically, the final day of summer. I woke up early that day, savouring the special quietness that only comes on a Sunday or a holiday. I’m quite spontaneous about my training now and I hadn’t made any plans.

Cycling early on holidays is ideal, because there are hardly any cars on the roads. But though I enjoy cycling, I will always love running more.

I don’t know how the idea popped into my head, but I suddenly thought of going to Burnaby Lake and running the loop around the lake. The furthest I allow myself to run now, with my arthritic knee, is 8K. The Burnaby Lake loop is 10K —in other words, forbidden territory. That was why I hadn’t run that loop since I tore my ACL in 2009. Well, maybe I could go there and do a shorter out-and-back. It would be fun to run somewhere other than Mundy Park for a change. Or—I could ride my bike there instead, and set myself the challenge of climbing up the mountain to my old neighbourhood near Mundy Park, down to the Burnaby Lake rowing pavilion, and back up the mountain again on the way home.

It was no big surprise that I couldn’t resist going to Burnaby Lake to run. I got there about 7:30. It was a perfect day, sunny but still quite cool. I parked at the place Paul and I always went when we did our Sunday runs there—by the Nature House and Piper Spit.


Burnaby Lake Nature House

My goal was to run cautiously and complete the whole loop. I started very easy and never felt like I was pushing hard. In fact, I was surprised that I felt good and relaxed throughout, only tiring a little in the last 2K. My knee gave me some strange little jabs of pain a couple of times on bridge stairs, but other than that it was fine.

Paul and I often used to do Sunday runs at Burnaby Lake; we usually ran two loops at close to an all-out pace; sometimes if Paul was training for a marathon he ran three or four loops. I enjoyed seeing all the familiar spots on the route that I hadn’t seen for so long. As I ran past the soccer fields I remembered that for many years there was a masters team race that started and finished there. We always had good Phoenix teams.

I could remember the splits I had been striving for when Paul and I tried to break 40:00 on each loop, and how exhausted I usually was on the second loop! Now I was slower—but enjoying my one loop so much!—it was a cakewalk.

I remembered what a relief it was to finish the second loop—to be able to stop, relax, and walk down to the end of the spit, looking at the ducks and the marshy lake. Now merely finishing one loop was a special event for me, but it ended the same way as my old runs—with a walk down to the end of the spit.


Piper Spit

My Labour Day run at Burnaby Lake did more than make me feel good physically. It connected me to my former running self, bringing back many memories of running with Paul and my Phoenix comrades. Although I run more slowly now, I was deeply satisfied with a sense of being unchanged: my Runner Being is an essential part of my spirit.

Swimming at Sasamat Lake

Two days after my Burnaby Lake run I did what was probably my last swim of the year at Sasamat Lake.

I’m not a good swimmer, but it doesn’t matter. Swimming in “my” lake is one of my most cherished summer rituals. This summer, during those weeks of unremitting heat and smoky skies, I swam at the lake almost every day, usually in the late afternoon or evening, when the heat in my apartment became unbearable.

This year the water was so warm that there was no suffering, no shock entering the water—only relief. I had the freedom to stay in as long as I wanted instead of getting chilled after a few minutes. Most days I chose a shady spot on the beach because the sun’s heat, even at 7 p.m., was unwelcome.


South Beach at Sasamat Lake

In the water, in the absence of gravity, I escape fully from my damaged knee. In swimming, unlike running, I can still achieve perfect gracefulness, maybe not to observers, but to my own awareness of my body. Swimming at the lake, for me, is not a workout but is purely for enjoyment—an escape from the dullness and sleepiness of hot summer afternoons.

I alternate between quick bursts of front crawl and easy breaststroke when I can look around at the perfect bowl of the lake with its surrounding trees, mountains, and lovely sky above. At twilight I swim along the golden-orange path the setting sun makes on the water. I lie on my back and kick quickly, a massage of water on tired leg muscles. I take a deep breath and hang in the water, relaxing my body entirely except for the tension of holding my breath.

When I’ve decided I’ve had enough, I do a quick sprint back to the beach, relishing the power in my shoulders, exuberant!

Balcony sunsets


At the end of those hot days, after sunset, I sat out on my balcony, writing and reflecting.

Summer days . . . those extremes of heat, lust, the fantastic relief and beauty of the cool lake, the gorgeous sunset—all too much, all makes me happy and sad at the same time because I can hardly bear it and also I can’t hold onto it. . . . Everything is amplified, everything is romantic, everything seems filled with nostalgia.



Eternal summer

Summer is all those moments of sensory abundance; the running, the swimming, the sweat, the sun’s heat and dazzle, the caressing coolness of the nights. Summer is timeless because my memories of summer take me back to childhood, to adolescence, to all the decades that have piled up somehow. All the memories and the moments are linked.

My Burnaby Lake run and my summer swims are an affirmation of my essential, unchanging self. A self that continues to feel joy in movement. At the same time, I must recognize that age brings differences, especially physical ones. But age also brings the ability to accept. As far as running goes, I see that as I get older, I am content with less—in the sense of performance, as well as amount. There is a kind of quality that isn’t diminished, but rather enhanced by the rarity of these experiences.

When I first tore my ACL, and subsequently had two knee surgeries, my very identity was damaged. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to run. Even when I discovered I could still run a little, by paying attention to my body and using great self-discipline, I still felt damaged. My knee was an “Alien,” (see my blog post here) and I couldn’t feel the perfect integrity of my physical self any longer.

But over the past few years acceptance has gradually come and I feel whole again. I have fully incorporated my arthritic knee into my physical and psychological being.

Somehow I will retain my essential self even when I can no longer run, or swim, or ride a bike. Maybe I can believe in an eternity where expressing my body in movement always exists, maybe I can believe those moments will always be a part of me.

Luckily change usually happens gradually. It’s painful to imagine the distant future. But if I dare—if I want to have a distant future—this is what I see . . . An old lady with a walker, going outside every day and walking as far as she can. She feels the sun on her back, a fresh breeze on her face. She is still happy to be alive and she doesn’t care that she now covers a mile in thirty minutes instead of five.


Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running, Seasons | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sasamat Lake mini-triathlon 2018

In 2013 I wrote here about my plan to do my own personal mini-triathlon, with a bike  start/finish near my apartment building in downtown Port Moody and the run/swim sections at Sasamat Lake.

Since then, I’ve completed this mini-triathlon at least once every summer, except in 2016, when I had a bad hip injury that made running impossible.

I do this little triathlon mostly for fun, but also as a way of pushing myself and testing myself because the old competitive drive has never completely left me. You might ask why I don’t compete in one of the many sprint- or Olympic-distance triathlons in Vancouver or places nearby. There are several reasons, but the main one, ironically, (since I’m a runner) is that the running part would hurt me too much. Even 5K or 10K on pavement is painful and damaging for my arthritic right knee.

By designing my own triathlon (a laughably short one), I can create a course that suits my limitations, costs nothing, and doesn’t require me to “get serious” about my secondary sports of cycling and swimming. I don’t have to buy the road bike I would need to be competitive in triathlons—my mountain bike works for me wherever I go, and I’m usually on a lot of trails. I don’t need to bother with getting coached in swimming—after countless “stroke improvement” classes in high school PE, I’m convinced that swim coaches would never run out of suggestions on how my front crawl could be improved.

I can do my triathlon whenever I feel good, when the weather cooperates, and when the road up to the lake is relatively safe for cycling (i. e. weekday mornings).

So far I’ve never done my full triathlon with anyone else, though last year my friend Doug Alward pushed me on the bike and run sections. Keith acted as a rabbit for me on the bike leg a couple of times, but he really prefers to chase me in a car and be my official photographer—lucky me! Thanks for the photos, Keith!

My mini-triathlon has four parts, as follows:

  1. Start on the bike path in Klahanie. Ride 8K up to the north beach at Sasamat Lake, following the bike path until Alderside Rd.
  2. Run around the lake counter-clockwise. 3K.
  3. Swim a roughly triangular 500m with a stump and the big Rock as turnaround points.
  4. Ride 8K back to the start.

I figure it makes a lot of sense to swim after running. Running is the best way to warm up for cold lake water, and there’s no way I’m going to bother with a wetsuit!

2018 edition, August 1, 2018

Conditions: This was the first cool day after ten days or so of intense heat. It remained cloudy throughout the triathlon. These turned out to be perfect conditions: cool for cycling and running, but comfortable for swimming because the lake was exceptionally warm.

The start: 7:48 a.m.




I’m off! My rule: I have to carry everything I need.


Checking the traffic as I cross Ioco Road at the top of Alderside.


Starting the big climb: the hardest part of my mini-triathlon


Whew! Hardest section completed! Time is respectable, though slightly slower than my 2017 PB.

The run


Heading into the trail for the 3K tour around the lake.

The ride up to the lake is all-out for me, unlike the run, because I don’t want to push my knee too hard. The first kilometre is difficult for me because there are lots of stairs and steep undulations. I run downhills very cautiously and put most of my weight on my “good” leg. Lately I’ve noticed that steep uphills are awkward and sometimes painful for my knee too. So my first kilometre here was very slow; after that I was able to run faster and enjoy myself, especially at the end when I was running on the beach and the pavement to the finish.


Flying to the finish!



I was pleased with my run. I set my course PB back in 2014, with another good run last year. This year I was 15 seconds slower than last year—age-grading tables do not lie!


I allow myself an easy cooldown on the grass.

The swim


Got to get in the water while I’m still hot!


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Incredibly warm water meant this was my most enjoyable triathlon swim ever!


My audience



Happy to be finished swimming


No Photoshop on the ab wrinkles–happy with what my body can DO

Ride back to start/finish


Actually, my quads are burning . . . that is a grimace, not a smile


Almost done. Breaking the speed limit. Smiling now.

What’s the big deal?

For me, it’s a big deal simply to be able to run—after all, my surgeon told me seven years ago, after my second knee surgery, that I was completely finished. And I wouldn’t continue to run if it was painful. I’ve figured out my limits.

I miss competing somewhat—the recognition, the sense of accomplishment, and especially the social part. I’ve met so many wonderful people through running, and there’s nothing quite like exchanging stories after a race.

Doing my mini-triathlon at least once every summer is both a celebration and a challenge. I don’t get the camaradarie and real competition of a race, true. But I sure push myself hard on my bike. Once in a while, I like to test the limits of my aerobic machine. I invariably ride faster on mini-triathlon day than on any of my other frequent rides to Sasamat Lake throughout the year.

I’m careful on the run, but it’s a good test of my agility compared to my usual runs in the easy trails of Mundy Park.

During the swim, too, I push myself harder than usual. My summer swims are usually meant for cooling off, enjoying the beauty of the lake, and soothing sore muscles. This year, however, I’ve been doing short swims almost every day because of the heat. Last summer I was still recovering from a shoulder injury. This year I noticed I’ve got my full shoulder strength back, and even the unusually choppy water didn’t faze me.

Riding up from the beach for the last segment of my mini-triathlon, I was humbled by the pain in my quads—a reminder that I’m not used to cycling after adding a run to the mix! But once I got out of the park, it was all downhill, and boy! was that fun. I could even ride fast on the bike path for the last 2K of the trip, because there weren’t many pedestrians—the cool gray day had discouraged them from coming out.

Yes, I was very pleased that everything went so well. I didn’t set any PBs—but I didn’t have a weak segment, either. Moreover, I didn’t feel unduly fatigued after what, for me, is an endurance workout.

I didn’t have any fellow competitors, but once again I had Keith’s enthusiastic support—it means a lot to me! And he gives me all of these great photos to share and to help me remember another wonderful summer day.

Life is not simple: going deeper

I often recognize that one thing I love about working out is the simplicity of it. Workouts are something over which I have control and choice. They give the undisciplined life of a freelancer some structure. If I want to create athletic goals—my time for a 5K run, or my triathlon, or how many chinups or benchpresses I can do—it’s easy to measure my progress and my “race day” result.

The other parts of my life, by contrast, present me with too many choices. I’m often bewildered and overwhelmed. How do I choose my priorities? How much time do I spend on work, learning, writing, reading, enjoying my closest relationships, and developing new friendships? How do I hang on to the inner strength and peace I feel during my best times—more of the time?

Although I’m healthy (and thankful for it!) I have my physical and emotional demons like everyone else. This blog doesn’t record what my mind says to me during sleepless nights or lethargic afternoons when fears and doubts sometimes drag me down to what seems a hopeless place.

It’s seldom despair, but more often uncertainty I grapple with. One of my current editing projects is leading me to read books about near-death experiences and spiritual dimensions. As someone trained in biology, I am conflicted in my evaluation of these books, but I’m reassured by some words from Albert Einstein. Within his many essays about religion and mystical experiences, one can find snippets like the following: “the problem of God . . . is too vast for our limited minds,” and “Science without religion is lame, and religion with science is blind.”

So even the greatest scientists have recognized the immensity of what cannot be known, though they are driven to explore and create theoretical/mathematical frameworks for a universe that extends beyond our comprehension.

Scientists also delve in the opposite direction: the equally infinite smallness of the microscopic and subatomic worlds. Huge strides are being made in unlocking the codes of all life. Every organism, from a one-celled bacteria to each human being, has its unique DNA code (and several companies exist now that will sequence your DNA and analyze what it means in terms of your health, longevity, and biological relatives). We can build DNA ourselves; Dolly the sheep made cloning famous in 1996; and much has been much written about the ethics of “designer babies.”

Maybe we can play God but it seems the more we know, the more we realize how much is unknowable. Some people say there is no God; others say we can “play God”; some people say we are all God, and enlightenment is understanding this Oneness in all.

My restless brain feels ready to burst, sometimes, knowing there is no end to learning, no end to exploring outwards and inwards. That’s why I seek the simplicity of my simple workouts and my straightforward blog posts about them.




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