How Big is Big?

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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?”

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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.

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

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

 

 

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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.

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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.

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Sasamat Lake on New Year’s Day, 2019.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

 

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

The run

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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.

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Flying to the finish!

 

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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!

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I allow myself an easy cooldown on the grass.

The swim

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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!

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My audience

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Happy to be finished swimming

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

Ride back to start/finish

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

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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.

 

 

 

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

Joy of summer workouts #1: a perfect run

Yesterday I started my run in Mundy Park at 6:45. It was still fresh and cool. I was running in the shade, and the early rays of sunlight filtering through the leaves were still benign. Nonetheless, after ten minutes of easy running I was already beginning to sweat heavily, and I started pushing myself.

How I love the good sweat of a summer run!

***

I wrote most of this post over a month ago, after a very similar run. Both runs were between 7K and 8K and covered many of Mundy Park’s trails. The routes were completely different, though. I know lots of people who always do the perimeter trail (~4.5K) or multiples of it. Some people have other favourite loops. But I thrive on variety and spontaneity. After 28 years of running in Mundy Park, I’ve made up around 40 different workouts and, taking warmups and cooldowns into account, I’ve seldom repeated exactly the same run or workout.

***

July 4, 2018

This morning when I first rose to consciousness and opened my eyes, I could glimpse sunshine reflecting from somewhere through a gap in my blinds. It sent a jolt of gladness through me, but still I felt as though I could let myself sink back into sleep. Lights-out had been after midnight.

Through half-open eyes I glanced at my watch on the bedside table. 5:29. Yeah, I could probably sleep some more.

But then I remembered it was a running day! Knowing it was a perfect sunny day made me even more eager than usual to do my Mundy Park run, and the earlier I started, the fewer dogs there would be in the park.

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The Austin Trail

Just after 7:00, I was in the trails. I started my run by going down and up the Austin Trail, just for novelty since I hadn’t run that trail in a while. As usual, I felt intensely happy as soon as I got into the dappled shade of the park, always familiar-yet-mysterious, with its fresh smells and birdsong, the busy morning traffic reduced to a dim background sound.

I start like a jogger now, like the older person I am. I have to ease my knee into running. Today I was also aware of muscle soreness in my inner thighs from doing a few intense sets of kettlebell swings yesterday.

But I quickly got into the rhythm of running, and after one or two kilometres I was moving at a decent pace, pushing because I enjoy the exertion of running, yet still relaxed. I like it when it’s a warm day and I reach the stage when I’ve broken into a sweat and I’m breathing quite hard but all of my body feels like it’s working perfectly. I am a machine designed to do this.

(But how could a machine enjoy this so much? And not only with its physical components but its spirit? And don’t tell me I simply have neurons rather than another kind of wiring—spirit is more!)

I never run more than about 8K now so after 5K of running I was reaching a certain level of fatigue where I had to concentrate to maintain my pace. I usually want to push closer to all-out near the end. It sure feels good to be able challenge myself! It brings back memories of the time when “endurance” didn’t mean a 40-minute run as it does today, but rather a 90-minute run or two loops around Burnaby Lake in 80 minutes.

But I finished my run and my knee didn’t hurt. I was utterly content, and I knew I would feel good for hours. The morning was still fresh and seemed more beautiful than ever now that I was a fully alive part of it.

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Chilco parking lot: mixture of man and nature: flowers, Port Mann Bridge, hydro wires

 

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Still friends, but not neighbours: saying goodbye to Doug Alward

I recently had to say goodbye to one of my close friends. Doug has been a challenging training partner and a loyal friend to me for over 20 years. He has moved to Penticton where his father and many other family members live, leaving the Port Coquitlam area that was home for most of his 60 years.

Doug Alward and I met as members of the Phoenix Running Club sometime in the late 1990s. At that time we were both “young” masters runners. Doug has been a serious competitive runner since his high school days. He never quite broke through to become an elite athlete but he has always followed the exploits of the best runners, both local and international, with great interest.

The Marathon of Hope

Those of my readers who recognize Doug’s name know that his life has been shaped by a singular accomplishment that was related to running. Though he didn’t break any Canadian or world records, Doug’s accomplishment required character traits and a level of sacrifice that few of us could muster. Doug accompanied Terry Fox, his best friend, on Terry’s Marathon of Hope in 1980. Terry’s dream was to run all the way across Canada to raise money for cancer research. He ran almost a marathon a day, for 143 days—with a prosthetic leg replacing the one he had lost to cancer as a teenager. Doug was Terry’s constant companion and the driver of their van (the two were joined later in the Marathon of Hope by Terry’s brother Darrell).

Their journey began on April 12, 1980, at the harbour in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The early stages of the trip were lonely, the early spring weather in Newfoundland raw and inhospitable. But by the time they reached Ontario, support for Terry’s mission was snowballing (an inappropriate word choice considering he was now running through sweltering summer heat in southern Ontario!).

Canada mourned when Terry was forced to end his run near Thunder Bay, Ontario on September 1, 1980. The cancer had recurred in his lungs.

Terry died at age 22 on June 28, 1981, but his feat of courage and endurance has made him one of Canada’s best-known heroes. To date, the Terry Fox Foundation has raised over $360 million dollars for cancer research. Terry Fox runs are held every September in over 4,000 communities across Canada, and in almost 25 countries all over the world. Terry’s initial goal was to raise funds for cancer research to the tune of $1 for every Canadian. He could never have dreamed how huge his legacy would become. Not only that, Terry forever changed people’s attitudes towards the disabled. He proved that a disabled athlete could be a great athlete—by anyone’s definition—and he exemplified the power of  following one’s convictions with unrelenting mental toughness.

***

Doug has always been modest about his own contribution to the Marathon of Hope. The full story is his to tell, not mine. But over the years Doug has told me enough understated and funny anecdotes about the trip to make me realize that the Marathon of Hope succeeded not only because of Terry’s drive and courage, but because of Doug’s (and later Darrell’s) patience and endurance as they coped with Terry’s moods, physical needs, and the sheer boredom and discomfort of endless weeks in the van.

Doug put his own life (including his running) on hold to make the realization of his friend’s dream possible.

Doug spent all his working years as a psychiatric orderly at Riverview Hospital. He once told me he regretted not getting a nursing degree. He seldom mentioned his job. During workouts we talked almost exclusively about our training and racing. Doug also had a keen interest in up-and-coming runners, and went to watch local promising athletes race whenever he could.

Doug trained liked a maniac. Although he had great respect and affection for our coach, George Gluppe, Doug was basically uncoachable because he insisted on doing his own thing and trained harder than anyone else in our club. He came to our workouts once or twice a week but also ran many extra workouts and miles on his own.

My clearest memories of training with Doug are from the winter of 2004–2005. At that time I was 45 and he had just turned 47. We were both very fit and pretty well matched in training. I was trying to set new road race records in the women’s 45–49 category. Doug, at that time, was more competitive in his age group than he had ever been. We decided that we would get together at least once a week outside of the club’s Saturday morning workouts.

That was the most brutal winter of training I can remember! Doug had no fear of pain. We pushed each other relentlessly in our Mundy Park workouts. We mostly ran long repeats, anywhere from 1,200m to 3K. Doug was a heavy breather. We’d be one or two minutes into a 3K repeat and he would sound like he was about to die. In contrast, my breathing was relaxed, but as the anaerobic effort mounted and my legs started weakening, I just couldn’t shake him. Each repeat felt like a race. We were never more than a few seconds apart.

I have to admit that I started dreading running with Doug. But our hard work paid off. In February I ran 1:18:59 in the First Half (on three running workouts a week). At the end of April, we were both in Victoria for the Times-Colonist 10K. I was second to Leah Pells (who ran a great 33:30 or so in one of her few masters races, at age 40), finishing in 35:08 for a Canadian masters 10K road best in the 45–49 age category. Doug was pleased to run about 34:30.

Fame, fundraising, and being an introvert

Doug’s  life since the Marathon of Hope has had to be balanced on his continued role in supporting Terry’s legacy, and his natural tendency to be a private (and in some ways an eccentric) individual. He is still friends with Darrell Fox. Over the years Doug has often been forced out of his comfort zone to attend public events honouring Terry. He has given talks to children at many schools and he participates in Terry Fox runs every year.

He has also been a valuable resource for people creating movies and books relating Terry’s story (such as the television biopic Terry [2005], and the young adult book Run, by Eric Walters [2003]). Doug also wrote a chapter for the book Running in the Zone: A Handbook for Seasoned Athletes (2006), co-edited by world-famous running/triathlon announcer Steve King and “seasoned” runner and coach Dan Cumming.

As Doug’s friend, I’ve been able to see and chuckle about sides of his personality that the public wouldn’t know about. For years he carried an umbrella with him during all our Mundy Park workouts: he was ready to defend himself against unruly or dangerous off-leash dogs. I’ve listened to his earnest concern about being “fat” during times when he was forced to cut back his training due to injury. I’ve seen him follow a Spartan diet most of the time only to despair after some mild binge-eating incident.

Doug is a devout Christian but he never preaches to anyone. He confided in me about his beliefs a few times when he sensed I was receptive. I remember an extraordinary race he had when we went to Vancouver Island to race the Pioneer 8K in 2009. Doug and I had been right together in workouts that winter, but on that day he beat me with a 28:02 (an all-time PB for him, at age 51!) while I ran 29:11. He told me afterwards that he attributed his astonishing performance to the spirit of our running friend Dave Reed, who had been with him, Doug said, in that race. Dave had passed away only a couple of months before that, a too-young 54 years of age, after contracting a serious infection that was diagnosed too late to be treated effectively.

Gearing down

After I tore my ACL in 2009, I could never run at the same level again so Doug and I rarely trained together. He suffered from serious injuries at times, too, which I considered inevitable given the fanaticism of his training. When he managed to string a few months of consistent training together, he achieved some impressive age-group performances, including a 2:45 marathon at age 50. Many were the times when, injured or exhausted, he assured me that he was “retiring” from running forever. But then he always found a new goal to strive for.

When retirement from his “real” job came, he bought a house high on a mountain above Chilliwack and lived there for a couple of years. He had wicked rolling hills to train on and often rode his bike several kilometres down the mountain into Chilliwack for groceries, doing the arduous climb back up with his bike heavily loaded.

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Doug fuelling up for a track workout in Chilliwack, 2015.

In the summer of 2016 I visited Doug in Chilliwack for a couple of days. We spent those days doing brutal bike rides and hikes followed by hours of watching the Olympics. I barely survived his Spartan diet of beans, oatmeal, eggs, vegetables, and fruit, all unadorned except for spices. The almonds saved me. (I wrote about my Chilliwack visit in my post “Cycling on Doug’s Mountain“.)

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Doug and I at the summit of Mt. Thom above Chilliwack in 2016.

Doug always helped and encouraged others with their training, especially young runners. He was unfailingly modest about his own achievements. I remember him for small acts of kindness, like the way he used to give our coach George small bags of homemade baked goodies every year at Christmas.

Doug visited his parents, siblings, and other members of his extended family in Penticton regularly. He seemed uninterested in having a family of his own. Doug’s club teammates were quite intrigued when he got a girlfriend. He seemed happy in that relationship for several years. However, after it ended he confided to me that he and his girlfriend had both been too old and “set in their ways” to be able to stay together as a couple and make the necessary compromises.

Never the last comeback

Doug’s latest running comeback started in the summer of 2017 after he had been sidelined for over a year by a serious foot injury. For a couple of months, before he was very fit, I could do the occasional workout with him in Mundy Park. But he was soon eclipsing me by far. In February he was pleased to run 1:28:16  in the First Half Half Marathon, a good start to his racing in the 60–64 age group. We got together soon after that for a short Mundy Park workout. We did a couple of 2K loops but Doug had to give me a big lead on each of them. Chasing me gained him fast times, at least!

But his heavy training caught up with him yet again, just as he was poised to run a fast Sun Run. His foot started hurting in the way he knew well from his previous injury (though this time it was the other foot). He figured he had a stress fracture and didn’t even bother getting confirmation. He raced the Sun Run a couple of weeks later, despite being in terrible pain, and ran 38:51. After that he knew he would have to stop running again, probably for months.

Finally . . . an easy workout

Doug and I got together about four days before he was planning to leave for Penticton. His foot was still too sore to run, so we just did a bike ride on the PoCo Trail. It was an unusually cold day for June, and rain was threatening. We were both wearing several layers of clothing, and Doug even had long track pants on.

After countless workouts together, this last one was unlike any other workout we had ever done. It was an easy ride. We rode side by side whenever we could, so we could carry on a conversation. After an hour or so of riding we reached the playground at one of the trail exits, where I would leave Doug to ride the few kilometres back to my apartment. We sat down on a bench and Doug entertained me with stories about his insider’s knowledge of the local real estate market and some of his wily negotiations.

I finally had to say goodbye because I was too chilled to remain inactive any longer. I hate long goodbyes, anyway. They are too painful.

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Doug and I after an easy ride on a cold June day.

I will miss Doug’s presence in my neighbourhood, even though we have trained together only occasionally for many years. It’s significant to me that we have been together on a journey of becoming older, and gradually accepting what we must accept, however grudgingly.

In Doug I recognized a kindred spirit who insisted on giving 100% when he showed himself in the public arena of racing. I recognized someone who demanded excellence of himself and trained beyond common sense in trying to achieve it.

We both rebelled against the limitations of age, but ultimately we submitted by adjusting our goals and finding comfort in age-group placings and the percentages of the age-graded tables.

I know Doug and I share each other’s sadness sometimes. I felt terribly disappointed for him when he got his foot stress fracture after training so hard during all the hostile winter months, the dark mornings at the track, the cold and rainy days. In turn, he must find me pitiful to watch as a runner now—he can remember when I didn’t run with a limp or have to stutter-step downhill because of my knee.

Doug would have understood why I was bitterly disappointed to run 21:01 in the Longest Day 5K when my “A” goal was sub-20:00 and my “B” goal was sub-20:30. I even missed my “sure-thing C goal” of sub-21:00. Doug would have known that these are not small differences. Only a kindred running spirit like him could see my disappointment, perplexity, and frustration as “normal.”

Terry and Doug at the Scarborough Town Centre

Almost thirty-eight years ago, I read in the newspaper, or maybe even heard on the radio, that “that amputee guy running all the way across Canada” would be at the Scarborough Town Centre, a few kilometres from my parents’ house. It was the summer of 1980. I was already a serious competitive runner and had been on a couple of Canadian teams in cross country and track, but this summer I had a knee injury and couldn’t compete.

I could so easily have jumped on my bike or taken a bus and been at the Scarborough Town Centre in about fifteen minutes. It baffles me now that I had so little interest in Terry’s amazing achievement.

It gives me a strange feeling to think that I could have seen or met Doug Alward as a 22-year-old: a young man who was unaware that he was creating his own destiny, that his best friend Terry Fox was making history.

 

 

Posted in Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Relationships, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Imagining the future: growing into old age

 

I hesitated and actually cringed before typing the words “old age.”

There is a big part of me that rebels against even thinking about “the dying of the light.” (This is from Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” see the bottom of this post.)

Yet recently I have been thinking about what my future will hold. Talking to a friend made me realize that one of my flaws is a tendency to be too passive about taking control of my life. Perhaps too often, at times when I should have made big changes in my life, I avoided making decisions and let fate or others’ actions determine what happened to me.

It is in looking back that we can recognize the overall patterns in our lives and see the stages—usually predictable—that emerge. We like to tell stories about our lives, to create a narrative that makes sense of everything.

My mid-life crisis

I see now that it was almost inevitable that my life would change dramatically when I was in my late forties. There were deep, long-standing flaws in my marriage. I had been burying my unhappiness (mostly), and concentrating on running, tutoring, and all the daily chores and routines that distract us from reflecting about the overall picture.

I knew I felt a choking sense of stagnation. Looking back, I can see that my unhappiness and my subconscious awareness of things being deeply wrong was manifested in my severe insomnia and occasional heavy use of sleeping pills. Now I understand that in times of resignation and stagnation, the pressure to change will build up, revealing itself in conscious and subconscious unhappiness and anxiety.

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Buntzen Lake 2009. A last happy excursion with Paul.

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The same day: at the top of Eagle Ridge.

I couldn’t have predicted some of the individual events that happened, like tearing my ACL, but it was inevitable that my life would undergo a major eruption, forcing change. My mid-life crisis happened when I was between 48 and 50, probably a typical age, though I don’t think many people experience as many changes as I did all at once. In a period of about eighteen months, this is what happened:

  • I realized that my marriage was over.
  • I experimented with online dating.
  • I discovered I could still feel intense attraction to men, and intense emotions; incredibly, I felt in some ways like my fifteen-year-old self.
  • I began a new serious relationship.
  • I stopped my part-time tutoring job and went to college for two years to get a diploma in professional writing.
  • I tore my ACL and had two knee surgeries in the following two years. This effectively ended a professional running career of almost thirty years. It caused turmoil and depression. A good part of my identity was bound up with running. Not being able to run affected me socially since so many of my friendships were based on running.
  • My son left home to go to university in Japan.

And, within the next two or three years after that, big changes continued to come:

  • I did a summer internship at The Vancouver Board of Trade, briefly trying an “adult job” for the first time in my life. I made some terrible interpersonal gaffes!
  • I started my freelance writing and editing business.
  • I started my blog about “Running, Reading, and Relationships.”
  • I moved out of my home of almost twenty-two years, and into an apartment with a scenic view of Burrard Inlet. For the first time in my life, I was living on my own.
  • I lost my greatest lifetime friend and coach, George Gluppe.

These years were a difficult and overwhelming time for me, especially having to witness George’s increasing disability and pain. I was George’s closest friend, and I struggled with guilt and heartbreak about not being able to help him more. I don’t know how I could have got through those years without Keith’s unwavering support.

Yet many exciting and positive experiences came out of these changes, too. Not being able to run was a huge loss for me, but it allowed me to focus on long-buried talents, like my writing ability. At Douglas College, I experienced a different kind of camaraderie outside of the running community, and I interacted with classmates of all ages between 18 and 60-something who shared my love of writing.

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Starting a new career: Portfolio Show at Douglas College, 2011

I learned that no part of life need be over when you are 49. No, it was not too late to feel intense emotions, start a new relationship, learn new technical and social skills, and take on new professional challenges.

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With Keith in 2015. I finally met a man who could cook–and he taught me how to appreciate wine!

The next stage: another crisis?

The concept of a mid-life crisis is well known. Now, as I’m getting closer to age sixty, and Keith has recently turned sixty-five, I’m suspecting that many people might experience another crisis as they contemplate moving into old age.

Why might we have to/want to change as we enter old age?

  • Chances increase that we will experience a health crisis or the health crisis of a loved one.
  • Other unpredictable events can occur: the end of a long-term relationship, losing one’s job, having to move, accidents.
  • If we continue to learn, start new hobbies, and meet new people, we can’t know where this will lead!
  • Many of us will choose to reflect about the sum of our lives up until now, realizing that remaining years are limited. We might ask ourselves: What is my life’s purpose? Have I achieved everything I want to? Have I made a good contribution to my family, my community, the world? Some people might evaluate a long-term relationship and ask, “Is there something I want to change about this relationship?” or “Should I leave this relationship?” Others might be questioning what they will do when they retire.
  • Some will feel a vague sense of stagnation, restlessness, or resignation, similar to the feelings that lead to a mid-life crisis. Now the choice is whether or not to make changes now—because there may be no “later.”

My friend Steve encouraged me to make a plan about what I want my future to look like—in, say, five or ten years. I found this very difficult to do! Then I remembered that I had recently listened to a TED talk by Dan Gilbert called “The Psychology of Our Future Selves.” The gist of this talk is that we always underestimate how much we will change in the future. I figured that listening to this talk might inspire me to take my future more seriously. You can listen to the talk here and I have summarized some of Gilbert’s main points below.

Dan Gilbert’s TED talk: “The Psychology of Our Future Selves”

We all know that change occurs faster when we are young, and slows down as we age, but what Gilbert’s team found is that we underestimate how much we will continue to change, even in our older years. We have a misconception that the age we are now—whatever age that is—is the age when change goes from a gallop to a crawl, because now is the time we have become our final self, the essentially unchanging person. This is called the “end-of-history illusion.”

Here is an example of the kind of experiment Gilbert’s group did: They asked one group of subjects to estimate how their values would change in the next ten years. They also asked another group of subjects (who were ten years older than the first group) to report how much their values had changed over the past ten years. What they consistently found was that the actual amount of change reported (by the group looking back) was much greater than the amount of change predicted by the group looking forward. This misconception about the amount of change to come in the future applied not only to values but to personality changes and preferences about music, hobbies, and friends.

How does Gilbert explain this discrepancy between how much we change at all stages of our lives, and how much we expect to change?

It’s because of the ease of remembering vs. the difficulty of imagining.

I found this conclusion reassuring. It means it’s normal for me to find it hard to imagine what my life will be like in five or ten years.

I also think it’s natural for people in their fifties, sixties, and beyond to feel reluctant about imagining the future. Physically, we know we are facing a downhill slope, a relentless decline in our physical powers. Mirrors are not our friends. Can we look forward to the future in spite of these limitations? Yes!

Putting a positive spin on getting older

When I think about the challenges I faced during my intense mid-life years, I realize how much I gained and how much I grew. This can happen to anyone who grapples with big changes during mid-life and old age.

Many of us become less afraid to be honest. We don’t hide being unconventional or expressing unconventional opinions. We have more self-confidence. For me, a key benefit of my writing program and some work situations afterwards was that I became more empathetic, more interested in others, and more socially at ease. Although I’ve always considered myself an introvert, I discovered that I liked people and could find common ground with almost anyone.

My recipe for aging gracefully

Here are some of the “action ingredients” that work for me:

  • Continue learning
  • Embrace technology, but for specific purposes. What technology do I need to use for profit, for efficiency, to connect with people I care about, for fun, to be creative?
  • Understand myself. What are my needs? What makes me happy? When am I productive and mentally alert? How do I balance my need for solitude with my needs for intimacy and sociability?
  • Be grateful: for health, for close relationships, for all the little things that make me happy.
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2017, with Phoenix teammates. Running still makes me happy, despite my surgeon’s warning in 2011 that I was finished.

The hardest ingredient: making decisions

My life has rolled on quite smoothly for the past six years or so, since I moved into my apartment. But once again, I have a sense of stagnating more than is good for me. I suspect that another wave of change is coming. In fact, in the past six months I’ve made some small but significant decisions. Greater change may still be yet to come.

I need to become a more active decision-maker, rather than leaving things to chance or waiting until life “forces” decisions upon me. This statement is somewhat at odds with one of my fundamental beliefs about the role that chance events play in our lives. Despite the most careful planning in the world, life will shoot unexpected arrows at us from all directions and we can only try to make the best of every situation. I acknowledge life’s chaos, and I embrace it. Somehow, there has to be a balance between taking initiative, “seizing the moment,” and being flexible about things we can’t predict or control.

Some people have very few choices. With greater freedom comes greater responsibility for one’s choices.

All I know is that I want to be learning, growing, and moving until the day I die.

***

This poem by Dylan Thomas has long been one of my favourites because it expresses an intense love for life and rebellion against death, that existential reality that we all must face.

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night (1952)

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way.
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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