My Little Life

At Lost Lake, Mundy Park

You’re probably wondering why I chose the title of this post. No, it’s not a reference to my 88-pound frame, and it doesn’t mean my life is about to end.

These words have crept into my thoughts quite often recently, when I’m contemplating giving a speech at Toastmasters or writing a blog post here. What do I have to say? What do I have to contribute?

“My Little Life” is partly humble, partly self-deprecating, and partly the result of a changing perspective on my whole life as I get closer to being old.

Old keeps receding. It used to be age 50; then 60; now it’s perhaps—75?

Yet more and more, the realities of old are already here.

This year, 2021, has been hard for me to write about because it included heartache, sickness, serious injuries, and deaths. I can’t write about these experiences here—they are not my personal experiences (or not mine alone), and the privacy of others must be respected. But they made me realize that I’m at an age when my peers will increasingly have health challenges and even face death. I watch my physical decline accelerating, but I am grateful for my relative good health and all the activities I can still enjoy.

Two speaking challenges

My biggest challenge ever as a public speaker came when I was asked to give a speech (online) at my Toastmasters District Conference—an annual event, virtual in 2021 because of Covid-19. The conference organizers asked me to speak about my “heroic Olympic journey” in an 18-minute speech.

Condensing my thirteen years of running before the 1988 Olympics into a meaningful message (one that completely rejected the idea of my Olympic achievement being heroic) took extensive thought, organization, and practice. However, I was determined to conquer my nervousness. On April 30th, I received my first Covid-19 vaccine in the morning; and in the evening I got ready for the Zoom camera and delivered my speech to a big audience of Toastmasters. It went well!

My next speech challenge was much more casual, and I wasn’t nearly as nervous about that one. Kevin O’Connor and Ellen Clague, coach and president of the Vancouver Falcons Running Club (VFAC), asked me to give a one-hour presentation online as part of their regular speakers’ series. There weren’t a lot of people watching that one live, but I did have a chance to connect with some old running friends. I was surprised by all the emotion that talk stirred up. It made me realize how much I’ve lost and given up since 2010, when I had my first knee surgery. Arthritis forced me to cut back my running to two short runs a week, and competing on pavement was deadly for my knee, so I typically raced only two 5Ks a year—until Covid-19 shut all races down in March 2020. We had just closed down our 29-year-old Phoenix Running Club the month before that because of our dwindling and aging membership.

Speaking with the VFAC members warmed my heart as we recalled past Pinetree cross-country meets in Mundy Park, and other races.

The greater significance of these two speeches, though, was that my preparation for giving them involved looking back over a long period of my life, starting from the time I started running at age 16. More clearly than ever before, I saw the bigger patterns of my life and the way it could be divided into major chunks.

These chunks were defined not only by big life changes like graduating from university, getting married, having a child, going back to college to train for a new career, leaving my husband, and starting a new relationship. Parallel to these events were all the major achievements and changes of my running career: success on Canadian cross-country teams, running with the best at international road races, participating on Canadian Commonwealth, World Championships, and Olympic teams, going through two leg bypass surgeries that allowed me to be competitive again as a masters runner, and the devastating end of my competitive career after tearing my ACL in 2009.

Reviewing all these events in my mind was sobering. Suddenly, I was confronting how many years had passed. And how many things are irretrievably gone. Over. My Little Life.

A quiet depression

Covid-19 hasn’t affected me as much as it has most people. I haven’t been personally touched by tragedy. My editing work life hasn’t changed. Like most people, my circle of real human contacts was very small for a while, but I always had the essential closeness I needed. I never felt isolated or lonely.

Yet I’ve often struggled with negative thoughts, and also a sense of being repressed and having no outlet. As I wrote at the outset, many experiences must be kept private.

The words My Little Life come from a sense of how insignificant I am, even in the running world, where I used to be impressive. I’ve slowed down a lot in the past year, increasingly limited by my knee arthritis and a stubborn hamstring insertion injury. Now I’m not even one of the best “for my age.” I’ve lost the desire to compete. Partly this comes from pride—I don’t want people to see the crippled runner I’ve become. Partly it’s because trying to run fast doesn’t come naturally anymore. It hurts too much.

Going over decades of my life to prepare for my speeches made me acknowledge how unconventional my life has been in some ways. Paul and I never created a nuclear family. We always had friends sharing our home. We had many years of happiness together; yet our marriage had serious, worsening flaws. I did the right thing by not trying to have a “forever” marriage with Paul. Now, I must accept the fact that if I live to old age, I’ll probably be alone. My only child has been in Japan for twelve years; if I’m lucky enough to ever have grandchildren, will they be in Japan?

Like many people my age or older, I’m often overwhelmed by a world that seems qualitatively different, in ways that I can’t adapt to. There is so much new technology. I resist learning some things that are trivial to most people; for example, phone apps.

As an editor, I’m constantly exposed to new platforms and software that could help me be better at my work or at marketing myself. I feel overwhelmed; I question my value as an editor as I struggle to decide which software tools are essential for me to master. Sometimes I think I started my editing career too late.

Yet in more positive moments, I assess myself as an editor differently. For many clients and projects, I’m the perfect editor. Editing isn’t mostly about technology, even in 2021; life experience and a lifetime of reading count a lot. Also, being a good editor is about listening and reading carefully, and being able to communicate with flexibility and tact. My current editing job requires exceptional levels of patience, diplomacy, and organization. Not many editors could do what I’m doing in this project, technically limited though I am.

I also know what I get out of this project. Work energizes me. I love getting up early in the morning and knowing I have a book to work on.

And, as so often happens with me, it was a book that gave me a positive spin on this experience of getting older.

Successful Aging with Daniel Levitin

The book Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives (2020), by Daniel Levitin, is one that I can’t possibly recommend too highly. At age 63, Levitin is himself an inspiration; not only is he a neuroscientist, a cognitive psychologist, and a musician, but he has written four New York Times bestselling books.

Successful Aging gave me a huge lift because Levitin gives so many examples of what people in their eighties and nineties have accomplished. He gives simple, practical advice about nutrition and exercise to best promote physical health and mental acuity. In fact, his book set my mind at ease about the futility of trying to find a “magic bullet” or elixir to prevent aging or disease. Despite what advertisers, fanatics, and futurists would have us believe, the proven methods for staying healthy as long as possible are simple and inexpensive.

This is not to say that Levitin is in denial about the difficulties and heartbreak of aging. He includes chapters that acknowledge the huge, unsolved problems of pain and disease. He also gives good advice about preparing ahead of time so that one is prepared for difficult decisions about finances, living arrangements, and medical treatment.

Getting old with the rest of the Baby Boomers

One of the great things about being part of the Baby Boomer generation is that we’ve always drawn attention to ourselves and changed the world by virtue of our numbers. #trendingElectricBikes!

So at least we have lots of company and can seek support, advice, and commiseration from our friends.

On Thanksgiving Day Keith and I were part of a small dinner party where we met another couple (I’ll call them John and Lucia) for the first time. Chatting, we quickly made several “small world” discoveries. John and I had received major surgery (my knee, his shoulder) from the same surgeon. Lucia and I had friends in common from her teaching and my running club. Best of all was my conversation with John about Ontario cottage country.

Like me, John had grown up in Toronto. For all my childhood summers, my family rented a cottage on Lake Shebeshekong near Parry Sound, where for two weeks each summer my brothers and I had an idyllic time swimming and playing with the kids of our parents’ friends. John’s family had owned their own cottage on a similar lake. He told me that on the last day of school each June, he didn’t even go home—his mother picked the kids up from school and they drove straight up north to start their “second life” at the cottage, where they would remain all summer.

John and I shared deep-seated memories of what “cottage country” felt like. I remembered escaping from the stifling heat, humidity, pollution, and burnt grass of Toronto summers to a place where the air smelled sweet and the cool lake always beckoned. It was such a simple life there. Bare feet. Being in the lake as long as we were allowed. Canoe excursions. Badminton, ping-pong, games of tag in between swims. Card games, Scrabble, Yahtzee, and Monopoly on the rare rainy days. Going inside the small cottage as twilight deepened and the mosquitoes got serious; reading a book from the mountain of books I had brought from the library. Campfires on the beach a special treat. Falling asleep to the sounds of the adults’ raucous bridge games.

John said he wouldn’t have become the person he was if he hadn’t had those summers.

It was a wonderful nostalgia we shared: for those times without technology. At the cottage we had no TVs, no phones. Computers were not even invented in our world.

But John and I share more than nostalgia. We share the energy and optimism of the Baby Boomers, of whom Daniel Levitin is a stellar example. We’ve worked hard and played hard; we’ve had the surgeries and the physiotherapy that have allowed us to continue doing the sports we love. For our generation, becoming adults didn’t mean devoting oneself solely to one “job” or raising children. We hope there will be no traditional “retirement”—we don’t ever want to stop learning, creating, and being physically active.

Cherishing My Little Life

At the end of this long post, I have nothing original to offer.

Maybe I’ll always struggle with getting older and the losses that come with it. I’ll never fully conquer the times of “quiet depression.”

But far stronger than depression is my exultation about this one little life I have, and I’ll cherish every moment of intimacy, beauty, and high energy that each day brings.

With Keith at Kitsilano Beach on Thanksgiving Day

Posted in Commentary, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The unforgettable summer of 2021

It’s a cool day in Vancouver with clouds and periods of misty rain. The summer of 2021 is almost over. And what a summer it has been! Though its heat and the Olympics evoked powerful memories for me, this summer featured extremities never seen before. My personal, emotional ups and downs were intertwined with the extremes we all suffered/celebrated here in Vancouver (and to some extent provincially, nationally, and globally). There were the splendid sunny days (something like 50 days without rain in “Raincouver”!); the promise of liberation as summer began, with 70 or 80% of people in BC fully vaccinated; COVID-19 cases down, restrictions lifting. Then there was the heat dome, the forest fires attacking much of BC’s Interior, and the menacing, changing face of COVID-19’s fourth wave.

Summer begins

(Diary entries in italics.)

June 21 balcony sunset

The “official” first day of summer, June 20, was also the first beautiful day of what had been a cool and rainy June. On June 21st I was enjoying a perfect morning on the beach at Sasamat Lake when I got a phone call from a Phoenix Running Club friend telling me that Jim Thomson, a long-time member, had just passed away. It wasn’t a surprise—Jim had been ill with cancer for years—but it seemed especially sad on that perfect day. A couple of days later I learned that another friend, a beloved member of my Toastmasters club, had also passed away on June 21. This news reminded me how harsh death can be: my friend was almost ten years younger than me; brain cancer had taken her in a year and a half.

On June 24 I got my second vaccine. The following day, I felt a little sick on my morning bike ride, but went to Sasamat Lake anyway to swim after my ride. I got chilled after just a few minutes in the water and couldn’t get warm on the beach, even though it was hot. The heat dome was upon us! Yet I spent the rest of the day in bed with chills, feeling sick and lethargic.

The heat dome

The following day, June 26, was the first day of extreme heat. It was also the day of our Phoenix Running Club reunion in Mundy Park. Luckily, I had recovered from my vaccine reaction. We had closed down the 30-year-old Phoenix club in February 2020; for various reasons, our club had been struggling for a few years. I missed my long-time Phoenix friends and it was great to get together with about 20 of them again. A couple of our members shared their memories of Jim. Then we separated into small groups to walk or run in the park. Sadly, I was a walker, not a runner, that day. A hamstring insertion injury had nagged me since November and I avoided running in June to see if that would help it heal. (It didn’t.) After our walk/run, we enjoyed Cathy’s delicious homemade cakes, coffee, and lots of water!

Keith didn’t come to the Phoenix reunion, even though he’d been such a boost to our club with his help at races (finish line videos) and informal photography. By late June, Keith couldn’t even do a short walk. His left knee, always a problem, had become much worse in April. As of this writing, Keith’s incompetent GP has still not succeeded in getting him an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon; our health system has completely failed him, and he has, in a sense, “missed” this summer. His knee is too painful for him to walk on or even stand on for long, despite steady doses of extra-strength Tylenol, Aleve, and (in the evening) alcohol.

Later that day, after the Phoenix reunion, my cat Tux and I moved to Keith’s ground-floor apartment in a North Van home for a few days. I knew my apartment, with its northwest-facing windows, would be unbearable during the heat dome.

Even Keith’s apartment, which during a normal summer would stay at a comfortable 20 degrees or so, got up to a record 30 degrees during the heat dome! On June 28th, my Toastmasters group was supposed to meet in Rocky Point Park for our first in-person meeting since last summer. We had to switch the meeting to Zoom after several members emailed to say they couldn’t bear the heat outside. From Keith’s place, I took part in our Zoom meeting—and was somewhat comforted to see that everyone seemed to be suffering from the same heat-induced exhaustion.

Meanwhile, that day Lytton, BC, recorded the highest-ever temperature in Canada at 49.6 C. There were plans to evacuate the town because of fire nearby; then the fire advanced so rapidly that 90% of the town was destroyed.

On June 30 I returned to my apartment; the worst heat was over. Most of my balcony plants were badly burned.

June 30, 2021

It was a relentless, exhausting heat, yet there are some things I liked about it. I lived in my underwear except when I had to appear on Zoom. Even my lightest flimsy dress felt oppressive against my skin. I sat outside with Keith in the evening coolness after 9:00 p.m. Susan and Serio [Keith’s landlords] were always around, tending to their garden, but I couldn’t be embarrassed about my lack of clothing. It seemed like a survival tactic to wear as little as possible.

Summer paradise

The heat dome days were over, but the perfect sunny days continued. Wildfires continued to worsen in the Interior, but Vancouver escaped mostly unscathed. There was only a mini heat dome in August that brought a couple of days of bad smoke. I took full advantage of the hot weather. I probably swam at Sasamat Lake more days in July than ever before. Often, I went to the lake after dinner when the heat in my apartment became stifling. I even chose to sit on the shady side of the beach.

Sasamat Lake. north side of White Pine Beach in the evening

Despite my nagging hamstring injury, I completed my annual mini-triathlon on July 30—but I wrote about that in my previous post. Yeah, my run was slow but I did a PB for my little swim course!

August 2, 2021

The pink in the sky deepens. My swim was one of my best, maybe the best, of the summer. Swimming is becoming so easy and natural now. The water is so warm I can relax and enjoy the rhythms of swimming, my crawl either steady or sprint-powerful, or the complete relaxation of hanging in the water or floating on my back, or the gentle sculling on my back or breaststroke when I can look at the beauty all around me from my place far out in the lake, far away from all the boats and floaties and paddleboarders.

Hiking

My adventures weren’t all done solo. A novel activity this summer was hiking with my friend Laurie, who showed me many wonderful trails close to home, many of them in the hills (mountains) above Port Moody’s North Shore. There were afternoons when we’d be on trails for two hours and see only one or two other people. Some of our hikes were extremely challenging for my damaged knee, but it seemed to recover quickly, and there were always rewards for the climbs and the difficult footing. One day we hiked to a little-known lake in PoCo called Goose Lake. It’s so hard to get to that it will never become a popular destination! Having a pristine lake to ourselves for swimming was wonderful.

Goose Lake after swimming

Another day we went on the more familiar Jug Island hike from Belcarra. Again our reward was a refreshing swim, this time in the ocean, followed by relaxing for a while in the last patch of sunlight on the beach.

Indian Arm. Jug Island is on the left.

The hike to High Knoll at Minnekhada Park I had done before—but not for years—and it was harder than I remembered!

I made it to High Knoll!
View from High Knoll. The Pitt River is behind me.

There were shadows behind my exuberant workouts of summer, though. Sometimes I became depressed about my own deterioration as a runner, but this paled beside the heartache I felt about Keith’s situation.

June 21, 2021

I’m discouraged today. I jogged a little and felt so rickety. Running isn’t natural anymore. The line between being forced to give it up and wanting to give it up because it’s so difficult and so unnatural is getting blurred.

June 30, 2021

I feel a peculiar kind of loneliness. I am celebrating all I love about summer, but mostly on my own.

July 9, 2021

Both the recent Phoenix “reunion” and Jim’s memorial service stirred up so much sadness and so many memories. And there can’t be a new beginning for me, running with another club. My running is so pitiful and limited that it must be a solo activity.

August 15, 2021

The sadness isn’t about one week apart and then another week apart. It’s the realization that the whole summer has passed and Keith is still in terrible pain, and he doesn’t even have an appointment yet to see any kind of specialist. This is ridiculous. The summer has passed without our being able to do one bike ride or hike together. Instead, since April, Keith has become more and more disabled, so each low was succeeded by something worse.

Our fun hikes first turned into painful short walks to the Inlet; then even the Inlet was too far; and now he can’t even walk to Thrifty’s. I am angry with his GP, and I feel fear, too, about what this will do to his overall health.

The one bright note was that Keith was able to swim at Sasamat Lake with me a few times. However, even the short walk down from the parking lot to the beach was painful for him.

The 2020 [2021] Tokyo Olympics

I had a perfectly-timed break in my editing work which left me lots of free hours starting July 29, just as Athletics was getting underway at the Olympics. And did I ever get into watching those CBC livestream videos! I watched almost every heat, every race. I was more excited and inspired than I had expected. It seemed so indulgent to spend early mornings, my most productive work time, watching races, but so worth it!

I was stunned by the excellent performances of so many Canadian athletes. I don’t mean just the stars, sprinter Andre de Grasse (gold, silver, bronze medals) and decathlete Damian Warner (gold), who deservedly got tons of media attention. I was filled with admiration for the many Canadians who placed high in their finals, beating many runners ranked higher than them going into the Olympics.

There was Mo Ahmed, whose brave front-running in the final paid off with an amazing silver medal. Gabriela Debues-Stafford did more of her share of front-running in the first two rounds of the 1,500m to ensure her place in the final, where she finished 5th. Geneviève Lalonde set a Canadian record in the semi-final of the 3,000m steeplechase and then lowered her own time slightly when she finished 11th in the final. Aaron Brown, Justyn Knight, and Pierce LePage were overshadowed by the Canadian medallists in their events, but they achieved superb performances in the 200m final (6th), the 5,000m final (7th), and the decathlon (5th), respectively.

Finally, we saw incredible toughness and endurance from Evan Dunfee in the 50K racewalk and Malindi Elmore and Natasha Wodak in the marathon. Dunfee’s bronze medal was achieved by his all-out speed at the very end of his race. Elmore and Wodak ran perfectly paced races in extreme heat, showing great discipline and awareness of their bodies’ abilities. They finished 9th and 13th, respectively, in a field where many of the runners they beat had faster PBs than they did.

August 2, 2021

Yes, this is one of my best summers ever. The heat and the Olympics bring back so many memories of other hot summers. I remember running the 10,000m in Ottawa at Mooney’s Bay several times at the end of hot, humid days.

The Olympic Games are surreal. They are only Games—yet they bring so much emotion. The physical/emotional beauty and power of human beings. The range of performance and emotions. The spectacle that the Japanese organizers have given us. The success of these Games in the shadow of COVID, exceeding everyone’s expectations. This is a celebration of health and spirit, after so much sickness, death, and anxiety, our world’s being turned upside down. Surreal, yes, because COVID is not over, and Japan as a nation is suffering more than they are admitting to the rest of the world.

COVID-19: the fourth wave

July 21, 2021

I am truly appreciating summer this year. It’s still a strange year—with most countries and people going back to “normal” life while the pandemic is still raging out of control in many countries and the anti-vaxxers are sealing their own doom, but perhaps making control of the virus near-impossible for everyone.

Here in Canada we are lucky ones, for now.                                          

But now, a month after I wrote the above, the tide of COVID-19 is changing for the worse again in Canada, as it is in so many places. In BC, we’ve gone from 30–40 cases a day in early July to 600–700 cases a day currently. COVID-19 is terrible in many countries where they don’t yet have sufficient vaccine doses, places like Brazil, India, Mexico, Russia, and recently Indonesia and Malaysia. In addition, there is a frightening resurgence of COVID-19 because of the Delta variant in countries where full vaccination is easily available, like the UK and the US (where the situation is exacerbated by the astonishing percentage of the population refusing the vaccine).

My son Abebe lives in Japan, so I’m more aware of the shadow behind the Olympics than most people. According to Abebe, the numbers of people contracting COVID-19 or dying of it are far higher than what is reported. He told me a few days ago that 60% of people sick enough to require hospitalization can’t find a hospital that will let them in.

Goodbye, summer: your songs are forever

I’ll never forget you! Your heat, your ecstasies, your physical adventures and exhaustion, your tragedies and sadness.

Your music! I rediscovered The Guess Who. “These Eyes.” “No Time.” “American Woman.” Other favourite songs that brought back memories and will always be the essence of summer. “Summer Breeze” by Seals & Croft (1972). “Summertime Sadness” (2012) by Lana Del Rey. “Insensitive” (1994) by Jann Arden. “Bobcaygeon” (1998) by The Tragically Hip.

Sunset on a “smoke” day
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Mini-triathlon 2021 during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Mini-triathlon start on Murray St. *All photos in this post by Keith Dunn.

I haven’t run a real race since the Longest Day 5K of June 2019. Yet I still like to challenge myself, and every summer since 2013, I’ve insisted on completing my own mini-triathlon course, starting in downtown Port Moody. I ride up to Sasamat Lake (8K) and run the 3K trail around the lake, followed by a swim triangle of about 500m, finishing with the ride back to Port Moody.

My only competitor is myself—but I’m a tough cookie! As a senior athlete, part of this exercise is documenting the physical decline that inevitably occurs. But more importantly, I’m celebrating what I can still do! I recognize that my expectations of myself have changed. Also, I can recognize that my own drive to excel still exists: on the one day each summer I choose to do my triathlon, I will do this ride faster than the countless other times I’ve ridden to the lake this year. I’ll do my swim faster, and I’ll complete a run that I don’t do otherwise because its small hills and many steps are rough on my arthritic knee.

I’ll never forget this summer—the summer of the Heat Dome. In late June, we experienced record-breaking heat for several days, with highs of up to 41ᵒ C in the Vancouver area. Lytton got up to 47ᵒ C and then burned in a fire that took away 90% of the town. Hundreds of forest fires are raging in BC’s Interior, with states of emergency in many places. Smoke is heavy and air quality is terrible in many parts of the Interior.

But here in Vancouver, the whole month of July has been a summer paradise, with seemingly endless hot, golden days. I’ve been able to swim almost every day at Sasamat Lake. I don’t do workouts there, like the real triathletes do. I just want to cool off and enjoy myself. That means spending 10-15 minutes in the water, including some vigorous swimming, but also some easy breaststroke when I’m just taking in the beauty all around me, or lying on my back, kicking and knowing how good the cool lake water is for tired leg muscles.

My bike course to Sasamat Lake is kind of goofy because I refuse to ride the route that most cyclists take—busy, narrow Ioco Road. Too many cars. Plus, I don’t want any traffic lights interfering with my time! So I take the bike path and Alderside Road to Ioco. This means the cycling portions of my triathlon can be influenced by runners, walkers, dogs, and other cyclists on the bike path. The bike path is also degenerating year by year as tree roots assert their primacy over the asphalt, so it’s a super bumpy ride in places. That’s fine, my mountain bike has shock absorbers. It’s not built for speed.

Once on Alderside, I never know what construction projects might be underway on this ocean-facing street where most of the houses have their own private docks. So during my triathlon, I face the contradictory challenges of trying to ride fast without killing any pedestrians or being hit by a car or a giant construction vehicle. Oh, and a few days ago I was racing a train to the railway crossing at the end of Alderside!

My partner Keith is an essential part of my triathlon every year. He’s my photographer. He cheers for me and shares my excitement. This year, Keith wanted to support me again, although we knew it would be difficult for him. For about three months he’s had an extremely painful knee (diagnosis still unknown), and even walking is a struggle. We knew he wouldn’t be able to stop as many places on the route as usual, and his walk down from the parking lot to the beach at Sasamat Lake would be slow. But you’ll see he got awesome photos anyway!

My mini-triathlon

This year the Olympics made my triathlon especially memorable. Friday morning CBC was live with the second day of track coverage. I had just finished an editing job and now I had lots of free time to watch. I got psyched up for my triathlon by watching the men’s 10,000m final! I was pretty choked up seeing Canadian Moh Ahmed run so bravely (front-running with 700m to go) and finishing 6th in the world.

It was yet another perfect hot day and I was ready to ride at 8:00 a.m. I pushed hard; my legs felt weak on the big hill going up to the lake; I flew into my picnic table destination at North Beach and stopped one of my watches. My time was OK; best of the year, but how would it compare with previous years? Slow, I thought. I would see later.

Riding up from Alderside to Ioco Road.

I quickly took my cycling gear off and shed my singlet.

Off into the trail. I was hot but running mostly in the shade was fine. How would my knee and hamstring hold up? I expected my run to be very slow this year. I had barely run at all for two months because of my hamstring insertion injury. I felt a little cramping in my left leg while negotiating the steep little hill in the first kilometre, but it eased as I started getting some small downhills.

Other than being awkward on the many stairs on the route, which are hard on my knee, I felt good and was able to put on some speed near the end as I ran across the two beaches to the finish.

Finishing the run.

Now, time to cool off!

I was surprised how tired my arms felt on the swim. Then I remembered: Yeah, it’s always this way when I swim after cycling. And why did I do that tough upper body workout at the gym yesterday? Nevertheless, I was confident my tired arms could power through the swim without a break: I had a solid month of swims behind me. When I stopped my watch at the beach, I saw my time was good—but how good, compared to other years? I would know later.

Yes, gasping.

My swim-to-bike transition was not done like a pro’s. I was enjoying the feel of the sun on my slightly-chilled body as I chatted with some women at a nearby picnic table. Unhurriedly, I put on my gear for the ride back.

Once again I thought I “sucked on the uphills” as I slowly rode up from the beach and up out of the park. Then I had the joy of flying down the big hill. I was expecting another injection of speed as I made the turn from Ioco down to Alderside and then—damn! Instead of flying down that hill, I had to brake hard as two construction vehicles were blocking my way! I carefully rode by one truck, but then I was stuck behind a very slow dump truck and there was no room to pass on either side. I rode behind, hoping the truck would pull to one side enough to let me pass, but no. After a minute or so, I decided to go back to the start of Alderside and redo that portion at a faster speed. My Garmin could tell me later how much time that extra part had cost me.

True, the dump-truck incident gave me a bit of rest, and I gritted my teeth and powered as hard as I could for the remaining 3K of the ride. I could see Keith with his camera as I flew towards my finishing mark on the bike path!

The finish!

After the finish, even before I examined my times and compared them with my times from past years, I was filled with gratefulness simply for being able to complete my little athletic test once again. Neither my bad knee nor my hamstring were hurting! Now it was time to relax with an iced vanilla creme cold brew from Starbucks and watch the REAL athletes in action! What a high, indulgent day I had.

My results

I did look at my results unflichingly, though—and was pleasantly surprised by what Garmin told me.

Stage 1: Bike up. Only 2 seconds slower than last year, despite my thinking my time was slow! (Actually the big gap was between 2019 and 2020, when I did slow down significantly.) Best-ever time was in 2015.

Stage 2: Run. Almost a minute slower than last year—but this was still better than I expected. Best-ever time was in 2014.

Stage 3: Swim. My PB for the course—by 3 seconds!

Stage 4: Bike back. This time was a guesstimate because of my dump truck encounter, but it was ~ 20 seconds slower than last year. Best-ever time was in 2014.

The Covid-19 Olympics—emerging from the shadow

My mini-triathlon 2021 is part of one of my favourite summers of all time. The heat and the Olympics bring back so many memories of other hot summers. When I was at the Olympics in 1988, I remember thinking how surreal it was to be part of the athletes’ village and the competition stadium, self-contained worlds that were not part of “normal“ life, yet completely dominated those of us who were involved for those intense two or three weeks. During that time we narrowed our focus to that surreal experience: it would shape the rest of our lives.

I have the same sensation of surreality about these 2021 Olympic Games. There was so much controversy about whether they would or should happen at all. Yet they have been an astonishing success. The organization is superb; the theatricality impressive; the announcers are top-notch. They can hardly contain their enthusiasm for the performances they are witnessing. But it’s the athletes. These are only Games, after all—yet these supermen and superwomen are doing something important. This is a celebration of health and spirit after so much sickness, death, and anxiety, our world’s being turned upside down. Not only are we seeing human beings at the absolute pinnacle of physical performance and beauty, but they are sharing their emotions with us so freely! I think we had forgotten just how moving and entertaining the Olympics could be.

Maybe we had even forgotten that the physical, mental, and emotional strength of the world’s best athletes is a metaphor for the excellence that human beings can display in any arena. Covid-19 is not over. Climate change is here. Fires are raging. Let us take hope from these Covid-shadowed Olympics to believe that our species can solve our real-world challenges after these surreal Games are over.

Posted in Commentary, Cycling, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Running | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Silence, resilience, resurgence

This rose was a bud during the Heat Dome!

I haven’t written here for months.

Silence seemed the only answer when the things I wanted to write about were painful, sensitive, and a betrayal of others’ privacy.

I’ve been overwhelmed with the situations faced by people my age or older: crippling injuries, serious illnesses, and death. I can’t avoid thinking about the fact that people my own age, people I know, are suffering and dying from ALS. It’s a terrible way to go. Alzheimer’s disease, too, is affecting people close to me.

Keith’s serious knee injury, still undiagnosed, makes me feel sad and helpless. We haven’t been able to do our usual hikes and bike rides together. I hate to see him in pain, but can do little except share his twisted laughter about the need for self-medication with alcohol and heavy doses of extra-strength Tylenol. Our medical system is not helping him, and it seems all wrong.

My own physical problems are trivial in comparison to the ones above. I know I’m blessed with good health and I’m thankful for all the activities I can still enjoy. Yet it’s frustrating to have a hamstring injury that’s lasted for seven months already. Even taking multiple weeks off running doesn’t seem to help.

Even without that injury, though, I’ve realized in the past year or two that running at any pace has become increasingly difficult. There’s really no such thing as an easy run. I’m a parody of the runner I once was. I can accept slowing down, but when other injuries and aches are added to my arthritic knee, and I can’t even recapture a glimmer of the powerful, fast, natural runner I once was, then I know that the line between quitting running because I have to or because I no longer want to run is getting blurred.

My dilemma is: What do I write about/speak about when I can’t write about running? I always feel the pressure, whether as a running role model or as a Toastmasters speaker, to be positive and inspirational. People always want to hear my running stories. So my reaction, on this blog, has been—silence.

As for speaking, I’ve given people what they want. This spring I had some special opportunities to speak and didn’t want to turn them down. In April, I was asked to give a keynote speech about my “heroic Olympic journey” at the District 96 Toastmasters online conference. Although I instantly cringed at the use of the word “heroic,” I delivered the speech. My 13-year progression to the Olympics despite many obstacles was possible, I explained, not through any heroics of my own, but because of a combination of talent, luck (meeting a coach who recognized my talent in spite of scant evidence), hard work (yes, I can take some credit here), and all the support I received from my team (my husband, my coach, training partners, medical people, and countless volunteers and running aficionados).

I had another chance to speak when Kevin O’Connor and Ellen Clague from the Vancouver Falcons Running Club (VFAC) asked me if I could participate in their monthly “Coffee Coach’s Corner” (again online) as a guest speaker. This ended up being a 90-minute session where I spoke about my unlikely beginnings as a runner, my progression leading to the Olympics, my training philosophy, and my experiences on the US road race circuit as a professional runner, both when I was young and as a Masters runner in my forties. My talk evolved into a friendly discussion with multiple participants. I especially enjoyed reconnecting with some old running friends and reminiscing about the great Pinetree Classic cross-country races we took part in over multiple decades.

One unexpected side effect of preparing for this VFAC presentation was that it suddenly made all the stages of my life more visible to me than they had been before, more clearly delineated. It’s in retrospect that we can recognize these stages and patterns in our lives, and understand that although we’ve changed, and the building blocks of our daily lives (families, friends, homes, jobs) may have changed, we have core identities that never change completely.

Many people have said to me, “Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.” What I understand that to mean is that I can never lose all I learned, all I became, all the friendships I made and the places I travelled because of running. So many races and other running experiences are indelible.

***

I’m not old yet. I don’t live to rehash the past endlessly. That’s why I’ll refuse to write and speak about running exclusively. I’m excited about the editing project I’m involved in now. And I’ll never lose my drive to write. It’s been part of my nature since I was eight years old. But I’ve needed this period of silence to mull over what I want to write about.

***

This morning I woke up early.

It’s barely beginning to get light out so I guess it’s a little before 4:30. Tux cuddles with me and purrs. She climbs on top of me even though I have no coverings, and for once she’s careful with her claws.

I can hear, faintly, just a few birds. It’s not like springtime.

I know sleep will not come back. I feel the same sadness that has been my background emotion for a while now. I worry about Keith’s infirmity, the way he can’t seem to be aggressive enough to get the medical help he needs, my nagging sense that I could help him more.

I think about our recent Phoenix Running Club “reunion” in Mundy Park. It made me realize what a cornerstone of my social life our Saturday morning workouts had been for so many years. We closed down our club over a year ago because too many members couldn’t run anymore. Now we were saying goodbye to one of our most loyal and enthusiastic families before their permanent move to Winnipeg. And we were remembering one of our club’s long-term members, Jim Thomson, who had just passed away days earlier. Jim was a great contributor to our club; a Race Director for the Pinetree Classic and Mother’s Day races many times; and a fast runner into his 70s, often seen in the West Van Masters Mile. Plus he always called me “Young Lady.”

Once I get up and make coffee everything is better. How I love the peace and purity of early summer mornings!

I see that overnight, a small “incredibly fragrant” rose has opened. This bud survived the Heat Dome! So did the six sister buds on the plant that will soon be opening. Some of the leaves are scorched, but I consider it to be a small miracle that all these buds developed during our record-breaking Heat Dome days.

These lovely flowers remind me that it’s all right to be dormant for a while. This rosebush produced only one bud in May and then surprised me with all these later buds. I’ve regained my belief in my own resilience. I only need to be patient. There is so much energy, joy, writing—even running!—in me still.

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

A perfect Easter morning ride

Peace

Preamble (you should probably skip this)

Several times last weekend (Easter weekend) I found myself feeling quietly depressed and oddly unmotivated to work or write. Holidays can provoke the swirling up of suppressed emotions in many of us. I was missing going to Toronto to celebrate my dad’s 91st birthday—and last year’s milestone birthday trip was cancelled at the last minute because of you-know-what.

I haven’t been tragically touched by Covid-19 the way so many people have. Yet, like most of us, I am weary of this semi-siege that has gone on for so long. At New Year’s, we thought the liberation of vaccination was close. We expected that once the vaccine rollout was underway, we would see the number of infections gradually declining. Instead, the number of cases is climbing rapidly. This is happening in most places in the world. It can be blamed, at least in part, by the frightening new variants of the coronavirus that are more infectious, and often more damaging or deadly than “regular” Covid-19, even for young people.

I didn’t mean to write about Covid-19 in this post. (A separate article giving my own assessment of the Covid-19 situation will follow soon.) Yet I’m recognizing that part of the reason for my dysphoric mood last weekend was my unusual level of anxiety, even fear, about the virus.

I was also angry about this, viewed at Sasamat Lake on April 2, the first day it came into effect:

At a White Pine Beach (Sasamat Lake) parking lot.

In the summer I often drive up to the lake four or five times a week in the late afternoon or evening for a refreshing swim. When I saw those pay parking meters, I felt as though I had been robbed of a kind of freedom. Can I give up that escape from my stifling west-facing apartment, the wonderful invigoration that a brief swim gives me? But—ten dollars a week to go for some short dips in the lake?

The ride

On Sunday morning I did a 38-minute bike ride. It was my day’s tiny window of perfection.

It was Easter morning, yet I would be spending my Sunday selling shoes at Running Room as usual, and that’s why I started my ride at 7:06 and knew my time was limited.

Being an early bird is my natural state, and early Sunday morning has always been my favourite time. Most people are sleeping. On my bike I feel like I own the streets and bike paths. I can ride spontaneously because there are few cars to worry about and few pedestrians forcing me to ride considerately, carefully, and at a non-threatening speed.

After two gray days I was given this jewel of a frosty but lovely morning. There was nothing extraordinary about my route. It was just my neighbourhood: my apartment building to Rocky Point Park, a brief pause at Old Orchard Park, then Alderside Road and Ioco Road to the Ioco terminal.

I face a familiar conflict; it’s happened before on Sunday morning rides; should I try to ride as hard as I can, maximizing my athletic effort? Or should I stop for photos? Always, my obsessive desire to capture this beauty that never fails to astound me, even in the places I know so well.

Looking east from Rocky Point Park soon after sunrise.

This blog post illustrates my choice. That’s why what could have been a 50-minute ride turned into a 38-minute ride.

Rocky Point Pier
Trees looking reddish with their emerging leaf-buds.

There were a few other early birds out enjoying the perfection of the morning. I stopped on the bike path above Old Orchard Beach to warm my frozen fingertips inside my several layers of clothing. After they warmed up enough, I could take more photos.

These folks were keeping warm with a little campfire.

When I reached the end of Ioco Road, I had another choice. Usually, I would do a short but intense workout by completing several hill loops using the steep roads of the Ioco Townsite. But I was drawn, irresistibly, to take more photos as I saw how the sun lit up the trees and made the train tracks gleam a brilliant silver.

As I stood waiting for the elevator after leaving my bike in my basement locker, I whimpered with pain. My fingertips were thawing out! Yet, I reflected, it was worth it; maybe the contrasting pain even amplified the exultation I felt after that beautiful ride.

So, maybe, the suffering, deprivations, and monotony imposed upon us by Covid-19 can amplify our gratitude for all our joyful moments.

Posted in Personal stories, Vignettes | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

The “senior” athlete: finding a new equilibrium

In my last post, I wrote about my “accelerating physical decline,” and how difficult it is to come to terms with that.

Also, I raised the question of how my public identity has been tied for so long to my running achievements—so what is left when my physical prowess is gone?

In my more enlightened moments, I’ve realized two things: first, that relying on the approval of others for a validation of my worth is superficial and transient; second, that what running has given me is more than an identity as an elite runner. Running enabled me to see that I have inner strength, not just physical strength!

A person’s spirit need not diminish with their body’s weakening—it can become stronger. I think of incredible survival stories that have come from people who experienced the Holocaust, or recovery stories from people who were (supposedly) on the brink of death with terminal disease. Such people should have perished, but they lived because of their powerful desire to live and the courage they found within themselves.

It’s mysterious, this will to live, and the way it’s stronger in some people than in others. We could say it’s just the instinct put into every living thing. But clearly, it’s also a choice that some people make when they’re in difficult circumstances, or suffering, or—just getting older.

What does that cliché expression “aging gracefully” mean to me? I think people are happy when they have a sense of being whole and balanced in all three parts of themselves—the physical, the mental, and the spiritual. For athletes, especially, this sense of integrity can be hard to achieve when injuries interfere with running. I felt this acutely when I first tore my ACL, went through two knee surgeries, and had to accept that regular running and competition were over for me.

I think aging gracefully means the ability to seek and embrace a new equilibrium where one can still maintain the sense of integrity. Physically this can include finding new activities or a new level of activity that our bodies can handle.

I say to myself: I’m a new animal. Can I adapt to a changing body? A changing pace? Maybe even walking instead of running? Can I accept a new equilibrium, at the same time knowing this equilibrium will be frequently recalibrated? Can I still love my body and be thankful for it?

Saying “Yes” to all the questions above requires a positive attitude that includes gratitude and acceptance.

Gratitude

Practising gratitude, I become aware of how rich my life is. Physically, I’m thankful for my overall good health. But part of what I called “the will to live” is noticing how much I love to be alive. Even if I can no longer run, my senses are still fully alive. Every day I enjoy not just the beauty of my home environment, but the things all my senses bring to me—the smells of wet earth and decaying leaves, the calls of birds at Burrard Inlet, the welcome warmth of the winter sun in the afternoon. On rainy days I can go out in a waterproof coat or with an umbrella, and feel part of a wild, powerful Nature so much bigger than I am. I have my cozy apartment to return to, where I can cook delicious comfort food, read a never-ending supply of good books, or listen to whatever music suits my mood.

***

Many former elite runners show their gratitude by giving back to the sport that developed their characters and gave them so many opportunities. They are coaches, officials, running club leaders, or running shop owners. Running is not about themselves any longer—it is about contributing their knowledge and encouragement and passing the torch.

Acceptance

Finding a new equilibrium implies accepting our new age-related limitations, and also knowing we have to continuously adapt to change.

For me, acceptance also has a darker side that many people don’t want to talk about or think about. I mean acknowledging not only the negative aspects of aging, but the inevitable end of it, the brutal fact of our mortality. Albert Camus wrote: “There is no love of life without despair of life.” I also remember Dylan Thomas’s great poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” (1952), with its repeated line of rebellion: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Camus’ expression “the despair of life” makes me think of two comedic geniuses, actor Robin Williams and writer David Foster Wallace. Both had extraordinary insights about people and how they behave, and this was part of what made them outstandingly funny human beings. They both reached a pinnacle of success in their careers and were loved and admired by countless people. Also, both suffered from clinical depression. I’m not qualified to say how much that disease affected the decision each of them made to commit suicide.

David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece, Infinite Jest (1996)

I believe that it is natural to feel despair about our mortality, although I am not claiming to have any understanding of what a clinically depressed person goes through. I’m simply saying we need to be able to talk about these negative feelings honestly.

The Only Story

Recently I read a novel by British writer Julian Barnes entitled The Only Story (2018). Barnes, a brilliant, prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, is perhaps most famous for his book Flaubert’s Parrot. He doesn’t shy away from writing about dark subjects. The Only Story is a love story that begins with a rather aimless young man’s affair with a married woman thirty years his senior. She becomes an alcoholic, and the novel turns bleak in the extreme.

In the end, I found the desolate tone of the story too much, even though Barnes’s writing was masterful. However, what I loved about the book was a passage about panic—the existential panic that most of us feel at times. This passage is narrated by the young man of the story from his perspective many years later. (I had to condense this passage, to the detriment of its perfect rhythm.)

I didn’t realise that there was panic inside her. . . . I thought it was just inside me. Now, I realise, rather late in the day, that it is in everyone. It’s a condition of our mortality. We have codes of manners to . . . minimise it . . . and so many forms of diversion and distraction. But there is panic and pandemonium waiting to break out inside all of us . . .  The panic takes some to God, others to despair, some to charitable works, others to drink, some to emotional oblivion, others to a life where they hope that nothing serious will ever trouble them again. (p. 90)*

I could relate to this passage because chronic insomnia means I spend many wakeful middle-of-the-night hours, when it’s difficult for my mind not to sink into whirlpools of negative thought that sometimes escalate to panic. I recognized the truth in Barnes’s passage and found it comforting because it reminded me that my mental torment is part of the human condition.

Indeed, in those strange dead hours of the night I sometimes feel uncannily close to the great mass of humanity all over the Earth, both the ones living and people long gone that I’ve only read about. Sometimes during those nights I’m overwhelmed with troubling thoughts about how most human beings, in most times and places on Earth, have suffered so much more than I ever have. Recently I felt haunted by the characters in a book by Irish writer Nuala O’Faolin. Her novel My Dream of You is set in two time periods, one modern and the other just after the worst potato famine years of the 1840s. What happened to the Irish peasants during the potato famine is so horrible I can’t erase it from my mind.

Even now, in 2021, when I lie awake, exhausted but unable to slip into sleep because of my churning anxieties, I think about how comfortable and safe I am compared to some people in in my own city, Vancouver, who may be trying to sleep outside on a sidewalk or a park bench.

Covid-19 adding to depression

Recently I was talking to Keith about how Covid-19 has affected me emotionally. My life since the onset of Covid-19 hasn’t been changed as much as the lives of many others. I have my good health and no one close to me has died or dealt with serious illness. I’m not a front-line worker or caregiver facing trauma and long hours of work every day, nor am I a parent worried about my children’s social development and education. I’m not completely isolated as many older people are.

Even so, at times I feel depressed. I miss the live interactions with many friends and acquaintances. It’s easy to add guilt to my negative emotions, thinking I don’t have the right to complain. Yet as Keith wisely said, the suffering of others doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to have my own emotions. Lots of people are experiencing similar thoughts and emotions to mine.

For me, acceptance and finding my new equilibrium means acknowledging not only my physical limitations, but also my moments of emotional weakness. There is no point in adding self-chastisement and guilt to the burdens we carry. I strive to have a positive attitude most of the time, and to surround myself with people, books, and other media that nurture me. And I remember to be grateful, especially for the intimate relationships that allow me to be open about all my emotions.

* Barnes, Julian. The Only Story. © 2018. Penguin Random House Canada Ltd.

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

My worst Sasamat Lake bike ride ever

Early in the climb up from Ioco Road to Sasamat Lake, August 2018. Photo by Keith Dunn.

For a month or so I was hardly on my bike at all because almost every day was cold and rainy.

January has been better. A couple of weeks ago I finally got back to one of my most regular rides, the trip from my apartment building in downtown Port Moody up to Sasamat Lake. It’s only 8 or 9K, but there’s a lot of elevation gain.

That day, for the first time out of the hundreds of times doing this ride, I felt as though I could barely make it up the final hill before the entrance to the park. I knew I was using lower gears than usual at all stages of the climb. And I had no excuse. I hadn’t done a killer workout the day before or a run earlier in the morning.

No, I have to face it: despite my twice-weekly runs, despite going up the Coquitlam Crunch stairs (487 of them) as fast as I can a couple of times a week, despite my mountain bike jaunts—my legs are getting weaker.

This should not be a surprise. Time is marching on.

I’ve written several posts in this blog about being a middle-aged athlete and continuing to push myself. I remember how it was when I was in my early forties. Sure, I was significantly slower than I had been at my best, but only people at an elite level would see that small difference and understand that it was significant.

Now that I’m 61, anyone can see the difference. A couple of weeks ago I was running on a slightly downhill trail and concentrating on my footing. A man seeing me approach asked with real concern in his voice, “Are you all right? You look like you’re in pain!”

Actually, I had been enjoying my run—but I had probably been favouring my arthritic knee—and he saw me as a cripple in pain; he probably thought I was crazy for even trying to run!

Now I’m experiencing first-hand another truth that the age-grading tables predict. Performance doesn’t deteriorate at a linear rate. Once you get past 60, declining performance is the only thing that’s accelerating!

I am now negotiating the transition from being middle-aged to being—what—a senior?

It’s no longer simply knowing that my PBs are all behind me and I will inevitably run a little slower with each passing year. No, now it’s not only about getting slower: it’s about my body’s unpredictability, and the many ways it is beginning to betray me.

In the past year, it has struck me that there is no longer such a thing as “an easy run”—all running is hard. On my right side, I have an arthritic knee that has seen two surgeries (roughly ten years ago); first for ACL repair and second for cartilage removal. Contrary to my surgeon’s predictions, I’ve been able to continue running, but I never know when my knee’s going to act up with stabbing pains, and its slight instability contributes to my uneven gait. On my left side, I know my femoral artery is getting narrower again (I had bypass surgery almost 30 years ago) because all my leg muscles cramp up and get weak during heavy exertion.

Because of these problems, I’ve reached a point where I’ve questioned whether I want to run. For someone who has run, and loved running, for forty-five years, this thought is sacrilegious.

Sure, there have been many periods in the past forty-five years when I didn’t run—for weeks, months, or even years at a time. It was always because of injuries, surgeries, or pregnancy. And I was always chomping at the bit to start running again.

Those were the days when my body was a finely-tuned, practiced running machine, almost ideal for its function (though the chassis always had weaknesses in the knees, heels, and Achilles tendons). There were a few years in the ’80s when I could stand on the starting line of a Canadian 10K race and know that no other woman could beat me. Or, more often, I’d be on the starting line of one of the huge American races, at times racing against the biggest stars of those years: Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristensen, Liz McColgan, Wendy Sly, Lynn Jennings, Anne Audain, Rosa Mota. I’d be bursting with nervous energy, my muscles springy and well-rested. I knew my limitations, I knew I couldn’t beat those superstars (though I beat several of them once, when they had bad off-days), but I could trust my body. I knew what I had to do: run at the perfect pace and have the mental toughness to drive myself to the limit.

Now, no amount of mental toughness can alter the reality of my body’s betrayals. Instead, the toughness I gained through running competition can be put to another use. I’ll grapple with questions that all aging athletes face:

Who am I if I am no longer an athlete?

How will I contribute now? My public face is that of an ex-Olympian. How can I continue to inspire people though my pitiful physical efforts are best kept private now?

And finally: How do old people get high? How can we “senior” athletes find joy in life without the continued infusion of brain chemicals from the “runner’s high”?

***

Of course aging, with its limitations, injuries, diseases, and pain, must be faced by everyone who lives long enough—it’s not merely a concern to athletes. However, to us (athletes) its effects may be starker and harder to accept because at one time we reached such a high physical peak, with all its attendant joys and triumphs. We are used to paying attention to our bodies, and we are supremely aware of their decline; moreover, we can measure that decline in our performance precisely.

My way of coping with this is not focused, mainly, on physical interventions such as surgery, stretching, physiotherapy, better nutrition, or any kind of “magic” anti-aging potion. These are all limited in their usefulness. Instead, I turn to my other lifelong passion, reading. From books I gain perspective, sometimes comfort, sometimes inspiration, sometimes just affirmation that what I’m experiencing is common to all of us. In my next post I’ll write about how recent reading or conversations with people have stimulated my thoughts and helped me find possible answers to the questions I wrote above.

Sasamat Lake on January 15, 2021
Posted in Cycling, Injuries and Getting Older, Personal stories, Racing, Running | Tagged | 6 Comments

Spirit of a Rose

I am close to letting go of this year’s roses.

I have three rosebushes. One is deep red, and arrived with a description highlighting its “incredible fragrance.”

An Incredibly Fragrant rose in June, showing its distinctive white streak

My second rose variety is called “Grande Dame,” and it produces giant, dark pink roses that also have a lovely fragrance.

I have named my third rosebush “Charlie Brown” because it is scrawny and always looks dead by sometime in July, when heat and aphids have done their best to kill it. Yet it always manages to produce an abundant (though not fragrant) crop of small red roses—last June there were at least fifty.

Charlie Brown blooming in June

All my rosebushes appear to be close to death during the heat of summer, but they grow new shoots in late August or September that eventually produce a few late flowers. This year the second growth started late. Charlie Brown bloomed first, and boasted seven roses. Grande Dame produced a record second-growth crop in September, and Incredibly Fragrant also made several new roses.

An “old” Grande Dame blooming in September
My last Fragrant Rose during an October sunset

I was amazed how fast new shoots grew from the latter two plants in September, but some of the shoots started too late. Both Grande Dame and Incredibly Fragrant produced a last bud that grew to the stage of being ready to open, with some colour showing. But by then it was October, and there was little warmth or sunlight to be had on my balcony. Those buds stayed suspended in their “poised-to-open” state for many weeks. Finally, at the beginning of November I cut back my roses for their winter rest.

A Fragrant Rosebud, frozen in time

Yet I couldn’t bear to cut off those brave buds. I felt so much regret and sadness for them! I thought about all that beauty and fragrance still unreleased. I couldn’t help but think of those buds as sentient beings. They wanted to be roses! That was their potential; that was their destiny!

It was not to be. Four days ago I cut off each bud. I sniffed each one, but couldn’t detect any hint of fragrance. I still didn’t want to put them in my garden waste bag. I filled a teacup with water and added plant food. Then I placed the buds in the cup and put it on my living room windowsill.

Days later, I noticed that a few petals had unfurled from the Incredibly Fragrant bud. I brought it to my nose. Yes! The inimitable fragrance was there! Maybe it didn’t have the strength of a full-fledged rose, but nonetheless it expressed its unique quality. For a second, that fragrance reminded me of all the abundant, flagrant senses of summer.

***

Yesterday morning, before it started raining, I cycled to Sasamat Lake. I haven’t been riding much since the weather turned cold, and I found the climb very tough. The toque I was wearing under my helmet made my breath sound like distant thunder in my ears, a faintly ominous sound that amplified my perceived effort.

At the lake, I could see no living thing—not a person, not even a goose. All the colour in the beach maples was gone.

A gray day at Sasamat Lake. I hope the cougar is gone by the summer of 2021.

Yet I was happy to be there. To me Sasamat Lake is beautiful and familiar in every season. I’m grateful to be outside and to be healthy. I’m not as fast or fit as I used to be. But like the rosebuds, I’m doing the best I can to express my nature. My spirit. The way I love running, walking, cycling, having all my senses alive, appreciating my surroundings whatever they offer. Like the rosebushes I have my seasons, and, unlike them, my body won’t have spring or summer again.

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

Ayad Akhtar in Conversation With Eleanor Wachtel about Homeland Elegies

I recently listened to a special presentation of this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest: a 90-minute conversation between Ayad Akhtar, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and playwright, and Eleanor Wachtel, the host of CBC’s Writers & Company. They talked about his recently-published book, Homeland Elegies. (Links to the conversation are at the end of this post.)

Akhtar is a writer who won’t compromise his ambition or soften his language to make his points more palatable. After all, he is the writer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 2012 play Disgraced, described in a Chicago Tribute review as “a howl of rage.”

Akhtar’s mission is urgent and begins with a “Letter to America” in which he appeals to his fellow citizens to examine the reasons for what he calls his country’s state of “institutional rot.” Certainly, having a president whose “insanity and childishness” are manifested every day hasn’t helped, but Akhtar believes that the current moment is also the result of long-term resentment against colonialism and US global interventionism. Also, how are Americans complicit in allowing this to happen? What moral values and social culture led to Donald Trump’s being elected president of the United States?

The pursuit of wealth, entertainment, and the “hot story”

The way Akhtar sees it, Americans have always been fascinated by the pursuit of wealth. He explains Trump’s popularity as coming from the way Trump performs success. Americans know Trump lies, but “we love the performance . . . too many people prefer a hot story to the truth. If you want entertainment and distraction, that’s what you get.”

Modern technologies and social media have insidiously encouraged a short attention span. According to Akhtar, “entertainment is the dominant mode of politics and thought.” But what happens when people become unable or unwilling to read deeply and think for themselves? Those whose education comes from hatred-fueled Twitter and Facebook feeds and rallies intended to push their emotional buttons of fear, inferiority, and entitlement? People who refuse to engage in civil conversations or to listen to an opposing point of view?

You get a country where conspiracy theories are growing like wildfire, even among members of Congress. You get a country where a large percentage of the population can’t even perceive reality, what Akhtar calls “widespread mass psychosis.”

Akhtar sees America as a place where the accumulation of individual wealth is idolized and the long-term consequences are ignored, where no one asks, “What is the collective good?” It is culture of entitlement, with the idea that the self is central.

Akhtar gives the example of a Walmart store taking over a town, killing almost all of the local businesses with countless trickle-down effects. Why is this allowed? It’s because people accept the rationale of “lowest prices” without giving any thought to the deeper implications of global monopolies. According to Akhtar, this is part of the reason why “we have technical behemoths who are transforming our very cognitive functions to make money—for themselves.”

Akhtar’s perspective as the son of Muslim Pakistani immigrants

Akhtar is the son of Pakistani parents who emigrated to the US in the late ’60s. His father was a doctor who made huge contributions to his profession and his society, a man of great appetites who was a successful example of achieving the American Dream. His mother was a less flamboyant, more thoughtful person who missed Pakistan. Akhtar, with his family background and his outstanding career as a writer in America, seems the ideal person to be a role model for the Muslim community, to write a book that “explains” Muslims to Americans and shows that not all Muslims are like the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Yet that was not the book he wanted to write. He acknowledges that questions of identity, which include not only the immigrant experience but minority experiences based on skin colour, religion, and sexual identity, are significant, but they are not what he calls the “fatal illness” he wanted to address in his book. His ambition was to write a book that would probe American history, global military interventionism, and current social culture to explain the crisis in America today.

This is not a book written to make Americans understand Muslims, but being a Muslim in America gives Akhtar (and his alter ego in Homeland Elegies) a unique perspective. Akhtar sees himself as an American, but one who can also see and articulate the flaws of his country—he describes himself as “a kind of conscience for his fellow citizens.”

As the son of immigrants, Akhtar can see the consequences of American interventionism since 9/11. He notes that immigrants have relatives in their countries of origin who have suffered, and in many cases, died, because of America’s warmongering.

Also, he says, most Americans don’t understand the complexity of what lay behind 9/11. “What we are seeing now is a consolidated pushback against the heritage of colonialism.” He reminds readers that the Industrial Age, a so-called time of enlightenment and progress that changed the world for the better, was built on horrific systems of slavery and exploitation; on individual fortunes made in sugar, rubber, and cotton.

“What can’t be disputed are the long-term emotional impacts on cultures. Burning resentments still exist.”

In both Homeland Elegies and Disgrace, Akhtar’s Muslim characters say shocking things. One says, “I felt a sense of pride watching the Twin Towers falling” and another, “They deserve what they got and what they’re going to get.”

Of course, many Muslims hate Akhtar for writing such things. They expect him to be a role model for other Muslims and to give a positive representation of the Muslim community in his books. Akhtar explains that such an expectation shows a “fundamental misunderstanding of what an artist is meant to be doing.” Akhtar is trying to write what he believes to be the deepest truths. He is not trying to be a PR person for the Muslim community.

Why does he have his Muslim characters say such inflammatory comments about 9/11? It’s not that these comments reflect his own feelings. Yet, as he explains to Wachtel, this dialogue is necessary to explain the complexity of the Muslim reality in America. As the son of Pakistani immigrants, he understands the deep-seated resentments of minorities in a way many Americans do not. What has it been like to be a Muslim in the US since 9/11? Akhtar says: “Seeing the word ‘Muslim’ is like hearing the word ‘cancer’ in this country,” and “Muslims could only be from somewhere bad.”

Akhtar says the US has not healed from the wound of 9/11. Whether people are conscious of it or not, the country is motivated by revenge and has “inflicted the wound on others” with its interventionist foreign policies.

Why I felt compelled to write this blog post

I wanted to write about this conversation because I admire Akhtar hugely for having the courage to write the book he wanted to write, the book he felt was necessary. His comments about the purpose of art are compelling. Artistic integrity does not mean doing what people expect of you, even if doing so would accomplish something positive and helpful. It means following your own ambition and purpose. In Akhtar’s case this meant writing a book that could help both Americans and an international audience understand what is at stake because of the failure of the United States and its leadership.

This interview stretched me to my intellectual limits. Akhtar’s comments about the current situation and its historical roots rang of truth, of personal experiences tempered with much thought. In his book he uses words and arguments that go against the political correctness of every country and religious group. He had the courage to expose himself to hatred and misunderstanding from all sides.

He speaks the same way in this interview. He doesn’t try to simplify or soften his comments to make the interview easy to listen to. Indeed, he tells Wachtel that he appreciates what he sees as her open, welcoming questions. They encouraged him to speak on a radio show with as much honesty as he does in his writing.

When Wachtel asks Akhtar whether the Covid-19 pandemic has made the message of his book even more urgent, he confirms that the pandemic has made the “institutional rot” he talks about more obvious. He compares this particular moment in American history to “an absolutely dreadful [TV] program that does not seem to end.”

Wachtel asks him why he chose to write Homeland Elegies as fiction rather than as a memoir; its characters are clearly semi-autobiographical. Akhtar explains that as a playwright and dramatic writer, he doubted he would be able to write memoir. Moreover, he says, he wanted to address reality in his book, but forming it as fiction allowed him to give it an addictive thrill, like reality television. Writing in this way would enable the book to capture a large audience, he hoped.

I considered what Akhtar said about the shallowness of people’s engagement with serious issues, their desire for constant entertainment and distraction.

I can’t help but think how much of this Ray Bradbury predicted way back in 1953 with Fahrenheit 451, a book depicting a society where mindless entertainment is pumped into people’s ears constantly, the walls of their houses have become TV screens, and books are banned. But even Bradbury could not have foreseen the horrific depths to which the United States has sunk. He couldn’t have predicted the power that each individual has, with their personal computers and smartphones, to willingly take part in the “dumbing down” and their own demise by spreading hatred, conspiracy theories, and mindless (though cute) entertainment.

This blog post is, in a small way, my own attempt to engage more deeply with a subject and a book I feel are significant.

I felt a surge of inspiration and hope because of the artistic integrity Akhtar demonstrated in writing Homeland Elegies. He tells Wachtel that writing this book has given him a feeling of “something settled, something secured . . . something integrated to the centre.”

This comment reflects what I mean by artistic integrity. He has accomplished what he was driven to do. His family background was what created him and he has the unique experience and genetic makeup that could have produced Homeland Elegies. So it was most satisfying to get it out, despite the risks and criticism he exposed himself to.

To me, Ahktar’s words “integrated to the centre” articulate the way maintaining artistic integrity is part of maintaining our personal integrity—our sense of wholeness as an intellectual/spiritual/physical being—and being at peace with ourselves.

Listen to the conversation (full or abbreviated)

Spotify link (87 minutes)

iTunes link (87 minutes)

Writers and Company (59 minutes)

Posted in Book Reviews, Commentary, Writing, Writing Criticism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Third Beach in the summer of Covid-19

Above Third Beach, Stanley Park

Being at Third Beach in Stanley Park this year seemed like an escape to a fantasy world.

I always try to make the trip to Stanley Park to swim at least once every summer. I’ve never left it to September, but our recent week of scorching temperatures encouraged me to grab my chance.

Keith and I found a place both familiar and strange. Third Beach was a world where everyone appeared happy and relaxed. I didn’t see any masks. The parking lot was closed; instead, there was a full rack of bikes, and cyclists were constantly arriving and departing.

We hadn’t known about the closed beach parking lots, but we were lucky and found a parking space in the small Hollow Tree lot high above the beach.

Hking down to the beach

The washroom/changeroom building was open, and people were washing their sandy feet under the taps as usual, but the concession was closed. There was no lifeguards’ sign to tell us the air and water temperature or the tide times.

We had a late afternoon and evening of relaxed perfection. Even in “normal times,” Third Beach is my favourite place in Stanley Park because of its relaxed ambience. It’s more isolated than Second Beach or English Bay.

However, my main motivation for making the long trip from Port Moody is to swim in the ocean. It’s totally different from my usual swims at Sasamat Lake!

Even on a relatively calm day, the waves tell a swimmer who is in charge. I need to time my strokes and my breathing to the massive surges of water that throw me around. It’s fun! The salt water is much more buoyant than the lake I’m used to. Instead of trying to do a swim workout, I just let the water play with me. I can “sit” on it to be rocked and carried. When I’m too cold to stay in any longer, I swim in and the waves bringing me in make me feel like Superwoman.

After drying out in the hot sun for a while, we climbed up the trail to get our simple picnic dinner from the car and returned to eat at a table above the beach. I had no desire to go to the Cactus Club, like we did last year when we went to Third Beach.

We went back down to the beach to wait for sunset. I didn’t want to swim again; I knew I’d get too chilled now that the sun was no longer hot. But I walked up and down the beach with my feet in the water, taking photos, people-watching, being immersed in all that beauty. I thought about how people have been swimming at English Bay, Second Beach, and Third Beach for over a hundred years; Vancouver is so lucky that this place was preserved as a park.

A few people were still going in the water right up to the moment of sunset, but most were just quietly watching, as we were.

Five minutes after sunset, as Keith and I slowly climbed back up the trail, my mind went back twenty years to when my friend Judy and I used to bring our boys here. The same trail seemed shorter then. The boys would run down it eagerly. I didn’t have to think about my knee.

As we reached the top, a cyclist sped by us at incredible speed, far beyond the 30 kph speed limit. Other cyclists followed in the gloom of the deepening twilight. The whirring sounds of their expensive bikes and their quick disappearance added to the surrealistic atmosphere of this magical day’s ending.

***

I wondered what “real lives” all these relaxed beachgoers were returning to after their hours in the benevolent sunshine and sparkling waves.

We are all participants in a world of uncertainty, restrictions, and fear. Most of us have adjusted to much-diminished social lives.

I am better off than many people. I still have work. I don’t have the responsibilities of children, including their education.

Yet in the wee hours of the night, after that golden evening at Stanley Park, I was awake for a long time. I couldn’t stop my mind from turning to fears about what the coming fall and winter will be like, when we don’t have such a lovely outdoor environment for solace and socializing.

We can’t always deny the losses that the “new normal” has imposed.

I miss the many talented people in my Toastmasters club who chose not to continue when we had to switch to Zoom meetings. We continued as a small but dedicated group and were able to meet in person at Rocky Point Park. Now, with the earlier sunset, those outdoor meetings are coming to an end.

I miss the Phoenix Running Club, now disbanded, and the Mundy parkruns that I thought would help me stay connected to my running friends and community. I miss the Run Club at Running Room. I miss the monthly Editors BC meetings where I could socialize and share professional tips and opportunities with like-minded people.

However, we must be—and are—resilient. Living means change. Changes don’t always appear to be positive, but even out of sadness and loss there can be unexpected growth.

I have a scrawny rosebush that I’ve named Charlie Brown, and it is my reminder about resilience and pluckiness. This year it had a record spring bloom with about fifty roses weighing down its tiny branches. Then it was infested by aphids and all its roses and leaves died. Yet a month ago it started sending out new shoots and now I’m about to see its seven new rosebuds bloom.

Goodnight, Third Beach
Posted in Personal stories, Seasons, Vancouver events and entertainment | Tagged , , | 4 Comments