Book review: Taking the plunge into Jonathan Lee’s High Dive

Today I couldn’t resist reading Jonathan Lee’s High Dive until I’d finished every word, including the Afterword and the Acknowledgements. Seventy pages or so. Yeah, I was completely immersed in that book—didn’t take a look out the window, or a break to put my laundry in the dryer; ignored my computer, my phone, and my rumbling stomach telling me it was dinnertime.

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You can see from the photo that I got this book from the library. [Aside: libraries, to me, are the most wonderful institution of civilization—and how else could I afford all the books I read and avoid getting buried in accumulated books?]

But this time it’s too bad it’s a library book. I’m going to have to buy High Dive, because I have to read it again. This time I’ll underline all the phrases and sentences that delighted me—blew me away—made me think, “Jonathan Lee is a genius writer.”

I have this compulsion to write book reviews (see below), but no time. Yet High Dive deserves a book review. Maybe a mini-review will do? Here goes:

What’s it about?

An IRA attempt to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher while she’s in a hotel at a convention in Brighton. The book is based on the actual 1984 event, but the three main characters—the explosives expert, the hotel manager, and his daughter, are fictional creations.

Why should you read it?

  • It’s a damn good story, suspenseful, shifting point-of-views. It has a heroic act at the end, though the hero—(cut—no spoilers).
  • The characters seem real—complicated, confused, messed-up yet lovable. Lee shows immense psychological insight.
  • It’s thought-provoking. There are no easy answers about the morality of IRA violence and its causes.
  • Read it, above all, for Jonathan Lee’s genius-level writing. When I mark up my own copy I’ll be able to add ten or a hundred of my favourite sentences to this review. But most can only be fully appreciated in context.

Here’s just one taste—a description of a thoroughly unlikeable Security man.

Peterson’s smile was pure hygiene, the expression of a guy about to floss. The teeth were big. The mouth couldn’t quite hold them. It was a miracle the lips didn’t bleed. There was saliva pooling on his gums and shining on his bottom lip and when he closed his mouth to swallow there was a faint, squeaky sucking sound, like a cloth being used to polish cutlery. (p. 285)

What’s a fun way to find out more about High Dive and Jonathan Lee?

Listen to the peerless Eleanor Wachtel interview Lee on the Writers & Company podcast here.

***

Afterthought

My book reviews

In my dream world, a world where I miraculously have no need to make money, I would write a book review of every worthy book I read. I love the idea of having a book blog so interactive it’s like an old-fashioned literary salon, but online. I would so enjoy hearing other people’s reactions to books that I think are wonderful, or controversial, or puzzling. The analysis of books is one window into another person’s mind.

In the real world, I seldom have time to write book reviews. Yet still—I have this compulsive longing to write them. Why?

  • It’s because I admire—worship—writers who have the talent to put words together in ways that are clever, or unexpected, or right on. Whose words make music in my head or when I read them out loud.
  • It’s my desire to stay in the book’s imaginary world, with its characters that I’ve come to feel I know intimately.
  • It’s my desire to remember—and hold on to—what I have learned or felt. The discoveries given to me by a great book seem so significant. But despite what I vow to myself while reading, how do I hold on to that book’s impact? How do I make the cliché “It will change your life!” come true?

***

Quote from:

High Dive. © 2015 by Jonathan Lee. Alfred A. Knopf: New York

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Summer Nostalgia I: Lost Summers

Two or three weeks ago Vancouver was still in the midst of a “non-summer.” There had been very few warm and sunny days. Sasamat Lake was still cold. I felt uneasy, almost as though I was in mourning for everything that summer meant to me. This year it was passing me by.

On July 15 I went for a hard bike ride that took me 2K uphill to Mundy Park and my old Coquitlam neighbourhood. For the first time in years, I rode to Blue Mountain Park, a place I visited many times with my son Abebe when he was a toddler—over 20 years ago!

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Blue Mountain Park: Abebe used to love playing around this waterfall.

I also rode a few laps on the 400m gravel track across the street from Blue Mountain Park. When I lived up in Coquitlam, I often injected some speed into my bike rides with 20 or 30 laps on that track. I loved the view to the southeast of far-off Mt. Baker.

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The track at Como Lake Middle School. Too stormy a day to see Mt. Baker.

That ride gave me a good workout. It was also a bit of an adventure, especially when a storm seemed imminent just at the place where I was farthest from home. But the ride didn’t feel like a summer ride. It was a trip back in time, bringing back memories that left me aware of what I have lost.

That day I wrote in my journal:

Lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for past summers.

This year summer is not right. I’m still wearing jeans and light jackets. I’ve hardly been swimming in the lake, and the icy water is not a relief. My hip is injured—I’m unable to run, so maybe I won’t get to do my Sasamat Lake mini-triathlon this year. Also, though I’m happy to have lots of editing work, it means my hours of idleness have to be carefully stolen.

Nostalgia is perfectly described by the adjective “bittersweet”—because you remember good things, but feel a stab of pain at the realization that they are irrevocably in the past.

For me, summer memories are the strongest. They exert a kind of magic that keeps a part of me unchanged through all the years of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Oh, those sense-laden memories! Toronto… The all-over sheen of sweat after a few minutes of morning running, the softness of nighttime summer air, and in between the relentless heat, the welcome relief of the air-conditioned library or movie theatre, dozing during the torpid afternoons while cicadas droned… Vancouver…the shocking relief of plunging into cold lake water, watching splendid sunsets from my balcony as the cooling air soothed my nearly-naked body.

So many summer memories are about family. My happiest family memories are of summer vacations spent at a cottage we rented near Parry Sound. Then, a generation later, my sister-in-law Pam introduced all of us to her family’s rented cottages near Minden, and my brothers and I went there with our kids and spouses and Pam’s childhood friends’ families. These cottage experiences weren’t so very different from my childhood ones: the main activities always centred around the lake: swimming, canoeing, diving off the raft; windsurfing and sailing for the more sophisticated. But also: blueberry pancakes, morning coffee laced with Bailey’s (adult pleasures!), board games, cribbage, card games, barbecues, campfires, badminton. Bike rides and runs knowing the lake was waiting at the finish line. No TV. No computers. Lazy strolls in the afternoon to the little convenience store for candy or ice cream.

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Minden cottage circa 2002: Abebe dives off the raft.

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Abebe and girlfriend Chihiro on the same raft, 2011.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

***

All of these happy cottage memories revolve around families. That got me reflecting about one of my life’s failures—the ending of my marriage about seven years ago. At the same time, my son Abebe left to go to university in Japan. He has stayed there to work and live with his girlfriend, and visits only once every year or two.

This year I noticed that many of my close friends, relatives, and Facebook acquaintances were celebrating long-term marriage anniversaries. Some of them were eloquent and moving in their public tributes to their spouses of 20, 25, or 30 years. I’m filled with admiration for them. They have made it through the many challenges of marriage and parenthood and are now proud of their children, who are launching into their own adult relationships and careers.

These couples have something I don’t have and will never have. They have a shared history of triumphs, struggles, emotional highs and lows, major achievements and milestones, many of which will live on in their children’s (and potentially grandchildren’s) stories too.

I can’t pass on to my son an extensive family network like the one that my parents created for me and my brothers through their long-term marriage.

If my tone sounds sad here, it is in keeping with my mood during those “non-summer” weeks. Sad, yes, but not bitter. I seldom feel any anger or hurt about my marriage breakdown now; I’m on good terms with my ex-husband, who will always be the father of my son.

Moreover, I’ve been in a happy relationship with my partner Keith for almost seven years. Keith has supported me unconditionally through some hard times; we’ve shared the excitement of starting “creative” careers, and he’s shown me that life after running can still be fun!

But Keith, divorced after a 20-year marriage, has no children so we won’t have a future with a blended family.

I don’t want to glorify marriage and family life either; some couples stay together when they shouldn’t, and not all family gatherings are happy ones. The truth is that I’m a person who thrives on being solitary much of the time, and so was my ex-husband. That’s probably part of the reason we didn’t realize until it was too late how shallow our marriage had become. We took independence too far, and didn’t work on strengthening and adding to the bonds that held us together.

***

My next post will be a more positive one—because a couple of weeks ago summer finally arrived in Vancouver. I realized that in spite of all the changes in my life, I’ll always be a summer girl. I’ll never lose my capacity to savour summer’s delights.

4OnRockBorder

Boshkung Lake 2011: Sarah, Alan, Abebe, Margo

 

 

 

Posted in Personal stories, Relationships, Seasons | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Spiritual peace: December 2015

Why am I posting this article now?

There was a week in early December when I experienced a rare inner peace. I was bursting to write about it, but the season’s general busyness prevented it.

There was no big change in my life that week in December; no move, no new job, no new relationship or break-up. No, sometimes there can be turning points that aren’t triggered by such obvious “real” events. Such turning points might be invisible to others, but we sense them happening through intuition and inner conviction.

A series of coincidences made me sense that I was growing and learning in a spiritual way. You might believe in God or you might not (more on that below), and each of us has to decide whether certain coincidences are meaningful.

The coincidences I mention had to do with conversations I had, and articles I read, that all had a common theme: they were about spirit. They gave me the conviction that peace comes from feeling one’s own spirit; accepting and loving this spirit at the deepest level; and also being able to recognize, accept, and love the spirit in others when they reveal it to us. Much of what I heard and read mentioned two words: awareness and gratitude. Without awareness—which comes from being open-minded and paying full attention—we can’t feel our own spirit or others’ spirits. Awareness—of others’ spirits, and also of the overflowing beauty of the world—can’t help but lead to gratitude, I believe.

Coincidence? Five “spiritual” experiences in one week

In a one-week period I was influenced by five conversations or articles that my mind insisted on connecting. Of course, as human beings we are designed, psychologically, to construct meaning out of the vast chaos of events, people, and other stimuli around us.

I also found meaning in the way these five examples were framed, in time, by two extremely personal conversations (with two different people). Both of them were about the other person’s strong Christian faith. The first conversation took place in October with a close friend of many years. He talked about how the Holy Spirit had intervened in his life at several critical times, and some of the things that happened would qualify as “miracles” by almost anyone’s standards. I don’t have space here for an extended article about whether God exists or not. The important thing is that my friend convinced me of the reality of his faith—his belief that the Holy Spirit is always with him. I can’t say that his conviction caused me to immediately feel the reality of the Holy Spirit myself. But what did happen was that after visiting my friend, I felt a deep peace that I believe was the foundation for what I felt in December.

My other conversation happened in January, with someone who is decades younger than I am. We unexpectedly got into a “deep” conversation.It’s wonderful when people who don’t know each other well make this “leap” into revealing themselves. This friend also talked about his Christian faith, and how his family’s finding Christianity had saved his parents’ marriage, shaped his life’s direction, and enabled him to help friends with drug and relationship problems.

One thing I thought significant about both these conversations is that my friends and I did not judge each other for having different points of view or being unable to fully comprehend the other person’s point of view. We were attentive, open to learning, not only respectful of the other person but grateful for the personal thoughts and vulnerability that were revealed.

So it is within the “framing” context of these two conversations that I will describe the encounters and reading that affected me that crucial week in December.

  1. Practicing mindfulness while running

One evening while I was working at the Running room, I had the privilege of hearing David Westorp give an unusual clinic talk. Most clinic topics are about the practical basics of running, such as nutrition, clothing, and the building blocks of a training program. However, this talk was meant to give new runners a glimpse into how their mental state can affect the physical act of running. To me it was valuable because its essential ideas about how body, mind, and spirit work together can be applied to any endeavor.

I was also struck by Westorp’s definition of spirit:

“A force that gives the body life, energy, and power.”

I’ve shared a version of the diagram he showed us below. The centre area, where the three components of body, mind, and spirit overlap, can be understood as a zone of awareness that encompasses all three components of our being.

interaction of spirit, body, and mind

I think the diagram is also meant to show that all three parts can work to strengthen and support each other.

We run at our full potential not only through physical talent and hard training. We also use our minds—meaning rational thought—to plan scientifically-based training programs and race strategies. But the more elusive contribution of the spirit elevates our running to the highest level. I would explain it this way: the spirit is the force behind motivation, whether conscious or subconscious, and it is also the source of a joy that can be expressed physically.

Another key idea I gained from this talk about mindfulness has to do with how our ongoing thoughts lead ultimately to our destiny, through this chain:

thoughts→words→actions→habits→character→destiny

2. Kierkegaard and Camus on being busy

One of my favourite websites, Brainpickings, by Maria Popova (www.brainpickings.org ) had an article quoting Albert Camus which I read around the same day as I heard the clinic talk at the Running Room.

Popova prefaced Camus’ words by saying he was “echoing Kierkegaard’s unforgettable admonition — ‘Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.’’”

Here is Camus:

Life is short, and it is sinful to waste one’s time. They say I’m active. But being active is still wasting one’s time if in doing one loses oneself…  Eternity is there and I was hoping for it. What I wish for now is no longer happiness but simply awareness.

I understood Camus and the Running Room speaker to be saying the same thing: eternity is found in the moment, and through being fully aware in that moment.

I began reading Camus in high school, with L’Étranger in French class, but I guess I didn’t read him enough—I didn’t realize how much he loved life until I read Popova’s article (read it here).

3. Connecting with an old friend over decades and thousands of miles

That same week in December, I got an email from a friend from my teenage years, who now lives far away. He had initially contacted me a couple of years ago after finding my blog on the Internet, but I hadn’t heard from him for about a year. Something I had written in one of my most personal blog articles provoked him to write to me, expressing concern and giving me some wise advice.

That led to an exchange of a couple more messages. It’s a curious thing to encounter someone decades after you were close to them, to recognize that person is still the same in many ways—essence?—spirit? Moreover, you can see your “old self” reflected in the way they write to you and about you. I found it miraculous in a sense to know that I could still communicate with my friend across such a vast swathe of time and distance. There was great comfort in recognizing the permanence of our spirits.

4. Connecting with a stranger

Another kind of miracle takes place when you have an unexpectedly profound encounter with a stranger. At a Christmas party for an editors’ association that I belong to, I got into conversation with the husband of one of the editors. What immediately struck me about him was that he gave off an aura of peace, of being “at home” even though he was at his partner’s social event and didn’t know anyone there.

We talked a little bit about running. When I asked him what his profession was, he named a word I can’t remember, but it was something to do with yoga. He soon mentioned the poet Rumi, and that name was familiar to me though I don’t know if I’ve ever read anything by Rumi. He then launched into a long and personal story about his multi-year inner journey into a spiritual kind of yoga. The last part of the story was about his trip to Rumi’s mosque in a large Turkish city. He had cycled from Munich to Turkey; this was how he spent several months last summer. He spoke about Rumi’s writings, and about this mosque and the thousands of pilgrims who visit and pray there.

He spoke in a soft, peaceful, reverential way. I don’t know if he speaks like this, or about this, with everyone he meets, or if he just judged that I was open to hearing it. Does he have a mission to share what he’s learned? I am open to hearing about others’ spiritual experiences and beliefs. I had the same sense of awe in October when my friend spoke about the miraculous coincidences that have happened to him during his life.

I can tell when someone is sincere; I respect their experiences and beliefs. That doesn’t mean I think that they have all the answers for me. Each person has to find their own way—but I am open to receiving ideas and clues.

5. The writer’s spirit

A final contribution to my thoughts about the spirit that week came from an article I found completely by chance while browsing on Facebook. The article, published on the website WriterUnBoxed, is by writing instructor Donald Maass (read it here).

Maass says that what makes readers love a book or story, what draws them in, is the writer’s spirit. As he says, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how a writer transmits his or her spirit. It doesn’t have to be in the characters, the plot, or the setting, even though these are essential to a good story. According to Maass, the critical thing is that somehow the writer offers the reader hope—(the subject matter is irrelevant)—and this may be subtle. Here are Maass’s words:

Heart is a quality inherent not in a manuscript but in its author.  It is not a skill but a spirit.  Spirit may seem mystical but it’s not an accident.  It can be cultivated and practiced.  Every writing day it can seep into the story choices you make.  The spirit you bring is the spirit we’ll feel as we read, and of all the feelings you can excite in your readers the most gripping and beautiful is the spirit of hope.

***

As I pondered all the experiences of that week in December, I felt a deep peace, and I had more confidence than usual that it wasn’t just an illusion that would evaporate. I wrote:

I feel the spirit. I feel my own spirit. It is a peaceful feeling. It is acceptance. Self-acceptance? It is also related to the increased appreciation and recognition I have for the goodness in others. Maybe I am becoming more aware of their spirits, too.

***

Has my inner peace from December stayed with me? Well, yes and no. But that’s fodder for other posts.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Personal stories, Psychology, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Getting older: Crunch time

At first I was going to call this post “Getting Old,” but that was too blunt. I couldn’t accept it.

Soon I will have another birthday and it will be #57. I’m sure that for a long time, I would have said, “A 50-year-old is an old person”—now, of course, I know that isn’t true!

Yet people around my age are dying. Prince. David Bowie. Friends my age are getting treatment for cancer.

Friends just a few years older than me are retiring; they have had busy, lucrative professional careers and will now travel, down-size, and have more time for exercise and creative hobbies. In contrast, I extended youth in a sense by making competitive running my main career focus until an ACL tear in 2009 completely ended serious running for me. Instead of retiring, I went back to school as a 49-year-old. Learning, for me, was not just about acquiring new writing, editing, and design skills; it was about learning to interact with other adults in “normal” business environments (The Vancouver Board of Trade, the Running Room store), in ways that being an elite runner or a one-on-one English tutor had not required.

So my ACL tear in 2009 catapulted me from an artificially extended youth smack into a more “normal” middle age.

Now, only seven years later, I’m starting to acknowledge that I, too (if I’m lucky!) will be old. I know this because a few weeks ago I noticed that I have white (not gray) eyebrow hairs. I’m used to my thick, dark eyebrows—I’m not ready for white!

On a more serious note, though, one of the most difficult reminders of old age for me to witness has been my partner Keith’s suffering from hip pain over the past year and a half. He thought it was only a muscular problem or an inflammation of the bursa, but this week he found out he has advanced arthritis and will likely need to get a hip replacement. It has been heartbreaking to see him have to stop hiking and even cycling except on the easiest, flattest routes. However, he has a fighting attitude (more on that below) and we are both confident that he will be back cycling with me!

Facing old age: physical appearance and performance

This part could be summarized as “getting old sucks,” and some of my readers might want to skip it. The brave can read on.

The ultimate human tragedy is dying, and the process of aging is a tragic trajectory towards that point.

(I know not everyone would agree. Many believe in an afterlife: they may believe the ultimate human tragedy is not having such a belief; in the Christian tradition, not believing Jesus Christ is one’s personal saviour. Or, one could make a case that the ultimate human tragedy is living without loving.)

Our bodies display our biological nature whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Whatever we believe about the finality of death and our spiritual life now and hereafter, our bodies are part of the “Circle of Life,” as The Lion King puts it.

That inevitable march of our bodies towards death can be seen as tragic and ugly—certainly from an artistic point of view. Many bodies, in youth, are fit for the adoration of the sculptor, the painter, the photographer. The artist tries to capture the nobility of the human form, with its beautiful lines, muscles, and curves, its power and gracefulness. We watch athletes in their prime with admiration as they display the ultimate capabilities of the human animal: its awesome strength, speed, power, and agility.

But no matter how beautiful and impressive a body is, if it survives to old age it will change drastically. Old bodies: lumpy, misshapen, corpulent or shriveled, wrinkled, hairless in some places and too hairy in others, shuffling, limping, sometimes valiant in their efforts but never able to recapture the effortless beauty of youth. Our youth-worshipping culture encourages us to fight the physical changes of aging with cosmetics, surgery, diet, and exercise, but ultimately it’s a losing battle.

I remember reading a story a long time ago—it might have even been a novel—I think it was by Aldous Huxley. The gist of the story was that humans had figured out how to put the effects of aging on hold for about 50 years, so that everyone looked 30 until they were 80, and then within the space of a few days they suddenly looked and moved liked 80-year-olds. Shortly before that happened, the authorities rounded them up and euthanized them. But in this story, a couple of these people had escaped their “holding pen” before euthanization. They were still quite spry and capable of walking around. They tried to hide and find a way to exist “in the wild,” but they needed help from other people. The “young” ones they appealed to for help were appalled by their appearance.

That’s all I remember of that book, but it’s stuck in my memory for decades, that picture of how old age had become abnormalized.

Fighting back

Old age is both a tragedy and a comedy. The only way to cope with it is to see the comedy in it. You can’t hide from the limitations, the embarrassments, and the heartbreaks of old age, so you can only try to diminish its power by laughing at it. You share that laughter with others who are old enough to understand (no one else cares).

We fight against the inevitable with laughter, but we also fight with a positive attitude. Our hopes for ourselves and what we can accomplish become smaller, but we always have to stretch what is possible. That is why athletic pursuits are so empowering for older people, as long as we don’t judge ourselves in comparison to our youthful exploits.

A big part of a positive attitude is being thankful for everything you can do. I’m thankful every day for my good health. I still have times when I feel 100% (as long as I have coffee!). I can be swimming or running and feel graceful, powerful, and fast. Of course I’m nowhere near as speedy as I used to be, and a video would immediately show me I’m delusional about being graceful, but it doesn’t matter if I feel good. On the best days, everything is functioning harmoniously and my lungs feel pure and deep.

On the other hand, sometimes things go wrong in my athletic endeavors to remind me of how decrepit I’ve become. That happened this week.

Fat thigh

What could I possibly know about fat thighs? And why the singular “thigh”?

It happened this way. Monday was a holiday. Usually I love getting out on my bike early on holidays, because there are few cars on the roads. But it was drizzling, and I decided I’d go and do the Coquitlam Crunch. It’s not my favourite workout, but I hadn’t done it for a year and I had a sudden yearning to be high up there, looking out over Coquitlam on a day when the stairs and trail wouldn’t be busy.

My plan was to run up and walk down (to save my knee, which hurts badly going downhill). Twice, if possible. All went according to plan. As I expected, the stairs up were very tough.

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Steps on the Coquitlam Crunch

The circulation in my left leg isn’t perfect (I had a bypass done 25 years ago), so I felt cramping and pain in that leg on the stairs, but the leg recovered gradually as I continued to run up slowly after completing the 437 steps. I did an easy walk down, then told myself I would push even harder on the second run up. I expected to be faster since I was now well warmed up.

However, my leg still hadn’t recovered from its cramping, and the muscles were even worse the second time up—but once again, they recovered. This time, I pushed right to my limit on the last 500m of the climb, and I was pleased to be almost a minute faster! Going back down, I cheated a bit and mixed walking with a little jogging on the flatter sections.

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At the top of the Coquitlam Crunch

It had stopped raining. Feeling ambitious, I refueled with a second breakfast and rode up to Sasamat Lake. I was surprised that my legs felt only a little fatigued, and were able to handle the hill climb without any problem.

The next morning, I woke up with extremely sore muscles around my hip joints. That always happens after I do the Crunch, so I wasn’t worried.

I decided that after the previous day’s intense activity, I would just do an easy gym workout. I was due for some good stretching time after my easy cardio and upper body weights. I noticed that a chronic tightness in my left inner thigh muscle (which had been noticeable for several months, but only when I did certain stretches) was much worse than it had ever been. I did various stretches in an attempt to loosen it up, and that seemed to help a little, but I got a few worrisome twinges of pain.

A couple of hours after going to the gym, I noticed that sitting down was painful. I examined my leg and was horrified to see a huge swelling on the inside of my upper thigh. I had never had a fat thigh before!—and this one hurt!

I sat with a frozen gel pack on my leg for a while, but that didn’t help. Late in the afternoon I decided to see if I could ride my bike. The weather was supposed to be good the following day, and I wanted to be able to go out for a long ride.

As I suspected, sitting on my bicycle seat was pretty uncomfortable. I did a short ride to Rocky Point, standing up to minimize the pain as I went over the bumps on the bike path. It was warm and very humid; it looked and felt as though it was going to pour. As usually happens when I can’t ride or run, I loved being outside and wanted to be able to ride more than anything.

However, I resigned myself to the possibility that I would be swimming the next day. And, being a hypochondriac (could this be a hematoma?), I would try to make an appointment with my GP.

On Wednesday morning, though, my “lump” was significantly less painful (though it was starting to turn blue). The sunshine was so welcome after days of clouds and rain—I didn’t want to resist it! I decided I would try a ride to the lake to “test” my muscle. I could stand up on all the steep hills to avoid pressure against my upper thigh.

As it turned out, I had a wonderful ride. I was all the more grateful to be outside on that sunny day because I had feared it wouldn’t be possible. From the north beach, I rode into the trail and went to The Rock. I sat in the sun, took a few photos, and listened to the gentle lapping of the waves against the shore and the rocks, feeling very peaceful.

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Looking towards the west shore of Sasamat Lake from The Rock

***

Later that day, my GP confirmed that I just had microtears in my muscle—nothing serious; I just needed RICE.

I felt about 80 years old as I walked around with sore hip muscles, a sore inner thigh, and an extremely tender left quadricep—but I didn’t care. I’ll always try to push the envelope.

 

 

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

Little pieces: why write vignettes?

What is a vignette?

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2nd. ed.) says:

vignette 1a a brief descriptive account, anecdote, essay, or character sketch.

At times I’ve questioned whether or not I should publish a piece of writing on my blog. I’ve wondered if the stories I have to tell are too trivial, too self-centred, too lacking in meaning for anyone but myself. After all, I’m no longer an elite runner with exciting reports about international competitions.

But as I thought about it, I decided there are many reasons to write vignettes on my blog. I came up with the following:

  1. Blogs are a perfect medium for vignettes. Blog posts are supposed to be brief. (I know, I fail.) Blog posts are immediate and (often) personal, tied to the moment, the circumstances, the season, what’s in the news.
  1. Is there any reason to be ashamed of the “smallness” of what I write about? No—I say it’s good that I can be satisfied with small pleasures and events because they are what I have. I can’t afford to travel. I can’t afford to attend expensive cultural events or concerts regularly. I don’t have a job with earth-shattering consequences and responsibilities. Moreover, in smallness, one can dig deeper. Apparently mundane events, places, and people can grow in complexity in two ways; first, by using a metaphorical microscope to examine them more deeply—there are almost always more layers of significance and detail. Secondly, complexity sometimes reveals itself by accident: someone walks into the running store when I’m working, and a real conversation develops; a potentially perfect photo is revealed to my ready camera; a new song instantly elevates my mood; I learn something new from a movie, a video, or a TED talk that I happen to stumble across. Temporarily, I escape from the smallness of myself and my ego-centred existence in the world. These “accidental” deepenings require only the ability to be receptive, to recognize and welcome them when they come.
  2. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by the sense of life’s abundance. Other times I forget. Vignettes try to capture a tiny fraction of those riches, to suggest the abundance that is still untold.
  3. Storytelling can occur in a single paragraph or in a novel of over a thousand pages. It can be simple. Something happens to me or to someone I know, and for some reason I care. Personal stories are powerful if writers reveal themselves in a way that makes others care.
  1. Vignettes are a weapon in the battle against the most common excuse for not writing: “I don’t have enough time!”
  2. And after all—writers are compelled to write.

A good example of a vignette blog (not this one!)

Since I don’t have a new vignette to include here, I wanted to recommend a wonderful example from the blog of a fellow writer who was a classmate of mine in the Print Futures writing program at Douglas College several years ago. Jennifer Markham has mastered the art of writing extremely brief blog posts. Her vignettes are, above all, funny. She exploits her own flaws for comedy, but she also makes me care about her because she is observant, spunky, and unashamed of who she is.  Jenn’s blog, unlike mine, takes almost no time to read. Try her Mother’s Day post for a taste of the vignette world.

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Little pieces of my daily life from the past month

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Beauty Behind the Madness: high in the fog

February 2016

I was pumped from the gym. I’d done my whole workout while listening to a new album I’d just downloaded from iTunes: The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness. The Weeknd is Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, a Canadian-born singer-songwriter of Ethiopian background.

I had downloaded the album because I’d heard a few of the hits from it on hit radio stations, especially “The Hills” and “I Can’t Feel My Face.” Like millions, I’d been seduced by the sweet hypnotic power of Tesfaye’s voice and its juxtaposition with his crude language and stories of dysfunction and addiction.

But that morning while I worked out I listened to “Shameless” for the first time, then again…and again.

I walked out of the rec centre, across the empty soccer field, and down the path to the end of Burrard Inlet. Normally I never listen to music while I’m walking or running outside, preferring to hear the sounds of the natural world. But on this day I wore my iPod, and I started playing “Shameless” just as I reached the place where, usually, the view of the Inlet opens up before me.

That day, the Inlet was still shrouded in a heavy fog.

Instantly I was pierced with intense pleasure. It was the music combined with the eerie, sparse beauty of that foggy place. I was isolated in a surreal world where the music covered all the normal urban sounds, including the heavy traffic from the road nearby. Even the usual honking of geese was silenced. The fog obliterated all of the urban landscape—the nearby road, townhomes, and condo towers. I was alone in a stark gray world reduced to sky and water. Only close objects were visible: ducks and geese near the shore, the trees and bushes with their bare winter branches, and the path with its boardwalk and bridges.

I was elevated to another state of consciousness and suspended there while the song held me in its hypnotic, ecstatic grip.

I don’t wanna hurt you but you live for the pain

I’m not tryin’ to say it but it’s what you became

You want me to fix you but it’s never enough

That’s why you always call me cuz you’re scared to be loved…

I’ll always be there for you…I’ll always be there for you…I’ll always be there for you girl I have no shame…

My every sense awash in pleasure, my mind alert yet dreamlike free to wander wherever it would. My thoughts led by the song’s words but also by its hypnotic rhythm.

The pain of loving someone who hurts you.

The pain of loving someone who doesn’t love you back.

The pain of loving someone you’re not allowed to love.

You wanna be good but you couldn’t keep your composure

You wanna be good but you’re beggin’ me to come over…come over…

Oh, I was lost in the irresistible, dark beauty of minor keys. Minor keys—in music and people—a beauty that makes our most primitive strings vibrate.

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A less-foggy November day at the Inlet

 

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Riding into the hail: another little cycling tale

Last Tuesday was my final day to spend time with my parents in Toronto. I was eager to get out for a bike ride before sitting for five hours on the flight back to Vancouver. Last year my brothers had forced my father to “retire” his 35-year-old Raleigh and accept the gift of a new bike. He had protested, but ended up being happy because the new bike made it possible for his 85-year-old legs to climb hills again!

Now I wanted to find out just how fast the new bike could go—and I would wear my Garmin to record.

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At 6:30 in the morning, it looked like it would be a good day for riding.

The dawn that morning had been clear but cold. At noon, when I was ready to start my ride, the sun was bright but it was also windy with lots of clouds moving overhead.

I began my ride from my parents’ apartment building near Don Mills and Lawrence. Finding my way to the paths of Edwards Gardens and Sunnybrook Park without taking any main roads was a bit of an adventure. Going through a maze of residential and industrial streets,  I took “the long way” to Edwards Gardens, my progress slowed by an aggressive cold  wind from the north.

As I rode into Edwards Gardens, the sky looked ominous. It had clouded over completely. I was well-protected with several layers of clothing including a waterproof jacket, but I had forgotten to bring warm gloves and was wearing thin cycling gloves that left my fingers exposed.

Down in the paths of Edwards Gardens and Wilket Creek, I looked at the steep ravines rising sharply on either side of me. Toronto’s ravines, formed by branches of the large Don and Humber rivers that flow into Lake Ontario, are a characteristic feature of the city. They bring back  many memories. As a kid and a teenager, I always had hidden wooded places to play, wander, and tryst.

When I started running as a 16-year-old with my high school cross-country team, the narrow rutted trails along the Don River system were our main training grounds. “Our” trails were just part of the extensive running and cycling network that makes Toronto a green and wonderful place for runners—that is, for seven or eight months of the year. Now, the ravines looked naked, stark, all their secrets revealed by the skeleton trees. I could see the sheer eroded cliffs on the west side of the creek. I wanted to stop and take photos of those dramatic cliffs, but my hands were too cold. If I stopped riding, my whole body would freeze.

I continued south into Taylor Creek Park. I was flying on the bike, the wind pushing me. Suddenly, enclosed within that vast panorama of park and darkened sky, I was seized by the ecstasy of speed as the path unwound effortlessly before me.

Why have I been riding a mountain bike all these years? I have to get a road bike again—I love this lightness and speed!

But the sky looked evil; the wind was becoming stronger and colder. Hail began to fall, lightly at first. My fingers were frozen now. Reluctantly, I decided I had to turn back. I couldn’t get too far away from my parents’ apartment, not when I was inadequately dressed. At least I had my cellphone with me.

When I turned back north into the wind I became aware of its full force. Now I would get a workout! I kept my head down to reduce the stinging of the hail against my face. After a few minutes the hail turned into heavier driving snowflakes.

All I could think of was that I had to get home as quickly as possible because my fingers and toes were frozen and the rest of my body was barely warm enough. I would take the most direct route by riding north along Leslie Street, a busy and hilly main road. I exited Sunnybrook Park just north of Eglinton Ave. and began the perilous ride on the road, with cars whizzing by me. My light bike and light body were buffeted by the wind which seemed to come not only directly against me, from the north, but from the side as well, making me feel unstable. I was worried about losing control of my bike in the traffic, so I moved onto the sidewalk.

At one point, as I rode  downhill, I had to shift to an easier gear because the wind against me was so strong. But my legs were strong too. I was thankful for the many tough climbs I’d done recently back home, on hills that made Toronto’s undulations laughably small.

As I pushed against the relentless wind, I remembered riding along the same street as a teenager, before I became a runner. The hills had seemed so hard then, and a 20 km ride was an epic feat of endurance. Of course, I only had a basic 3-speed bike then, but still—I realized how  becoming a competitive runner has shaped my whole perspective since then. At 15,  I could never have imagined what my body was capable of doing, not only as a teenager but as a 56-year-old!

Luckily, I only had to ride a little over a kilometre on Leslie Street before I could escape to some small residential roads.

Then, suddenly, the storm was over! The sun came out. I recognized a long level bike path my dad had taken me riding on before. Finally I had a chance to test the speed of the bike! I was inhibited somewhat because there were other people using the bike path—walkers, joggers, and other cyclists. At one point I had to be especially careful because a class of  middle school students were doing timed sprints on the path. However, I was happy I was away from cars again, and could challenge myself freely. I would look at my Garmin splits later.

After zooming back-and-forth on the 2K bike path a couple of times, I headed back to my parents’ apartment, finding my way through the residential streets more confidently than I had at the start of my ride. Getting lost is the best way to get to know an area.

By the time I reached their building, the sun was positively benevolent! It was hard to believe this was the same world I had been riding in only 20 minutes earlier. Now, I didn’t want my ride to end. I crossed the road into another residential neighbourhood with its wide, curving, empty crescents and cul-de-sacs; a typical Don Mills neighbourhood where the streets followed the topography of the ravines and many homes backed onto the suburban semi-wilderness.

This was a good way to end my Toronto visit—cruising in the warm sunshine that had finally thawed my fingers and toes. My ride had reminded me of the early springs of my childhood, the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde nature of Toronto in March and April: Icy winds, snowstorms, but longer days…  The deceptive thaws and deliciously mild days when I could suddenly run in shorts…  The smells released by the melting snow—earthiness, but also the winter’s accumulation of dog deposits…  The delightful scents of flowers and freshly mown grass were still to come.

I rode back to my parents’ building and took the bike back up to their storage room. Exuberantly, I told my mom and dad about my adventure in the hailstorm. They hadn’t even been aware that the sunny day had changed for a while.

I had only an hour or two left to have lunch and chat with my parents. I hoped I could bring some of the day’s freshness, energy, and sunlight in to them. My mother has COPD and is always on oxygen. It has been a long time since she could ride a bike. My father will be riding again when the weather is consistently warm—no fighting against bitter wind and hail for him! And he is in line for knee replacement surgery—as I, too, will probably be some day.

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Another cold bike ride from my trip back East. This one was in Waterloo,                                 with my sister-in-law Sarah.

***

I’m sitting on my balcony as I reread this post that I almost finished writing last week. It was warm in Toronto today, but here in Vancouver it was HOT! I’ve abruptly moved into summer mode, when my favourite time of day is the post-sunset time on my balcony. I feel the gentle, cooling air on my body, listen to the building’s water fountain below me, and watch the changing colours in the sky.

This blog post is now hopelessly out-of-season.

Why do I write posts about my little bike rides, anyway? Well, that will be the subject of another post—coming soon, I hope.

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Posted in Cycling, Seasons, Vignettes | 2 Comments

A lucky bike crash

I’ve had lots of luck as a cyclist. Last spring, I had my second flat ever in about 40 years of cycling (and that included years when I had running injuries and was riding a lot!).

My luck is especially astounding considering I combine the fitness and fanaticism of a “serious” cyclist with a complete lack of technical riding expertise, mechanical ability, and proper cycling clothing.

This morning, although it was raining, I hadn’t been on my bike for six days and had a strong urge to get outside. I couldn’t run, because I ran yesterday and my knee needs at least two rest days between runs.

I couldn’t face being a gym rat this morning. Besides, it was only raining lightly

I dressed warmly, with thick tights and several layers of long-sleeved technical tops beneath my waterproof jacket. Unfortunately, my tights, shoes (old beat-up running trail shoes), and gloves aren’t waterproof.

Being outside was as exhilarating as I’d hoped. Yes, it was raining lightly. Yes, there were tons of deep puddles along the bike path that comprises the first part of my ride to Sasamat Lake. But my legs felt great; I pushed hard and that, plus my well-dressed upper body, kept me warm in spite of the rain and puddle water that soon soaked my feet, legs, and butt. It was one of those days when I wanted to ride wildly, and I could—the rain seemed to have discouraged the usual crowd of runners, mothers with baby carriages, and dog walkers from being out, and I had the bike path to myself.

After 5K of riding, I started the 1.5K tough uphill climb towards the lake. My splits so far were fantastic! I attributed this to my fresh legs, riding hard to keep warm, and my spanking new tires.

My exhilaration started to dim when I reached the highest point and began my descent into the park towards the beach. This is normally the most fun part of the ride. After the gruelling climb, it’s wonderful to fly down the road, seeing the awesome views of the mountains and glimpses of the lake through the trees. But now I noticed that it was pouring. There was more water on the road than I’d ever seen before. The splashing was so plentiful I might as well have been in the lake. The waterfalls I passed were roaring with their abundance of water, so different from the moderate trickles of summer.

I couldn’t fly down the final hill to the lake; I had to worry about slipping and crashing. There would be no stopping at the beach, either, to admire the tranquil views, catch my breath, take a drink, or take photos. Because now I was COLD. From now on this would be a 20-minute survival ride home.

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This is the lake in November. No stopping for photos today!

Most of the ride back is downhill, so that couldn’t help me stay warm either. Normally I love the speed of riding downhill back to Ioco Road; that is the reward for having to climb! But today I had to be very careful because of the deep puddles. My usual downhill split of about 1:30/km was 1:42 instead. My eyes were closed to slits as the heavy rain drove into my face. I had trouble changing gears for the few small uphill sections as my fingers were frozen inside my inadequate gloves.

But I made it back! Thankfully, I pressed my fob button to open the underground parking lot where my bike storage locker is located. Riding in, I immediately felt relief at the warmth inside the building.

Then, as I turned the corner towards the locker area—CRASH! Suddenly I was lying flat on my stomach on the hard concrete. PAIN. I lay still and took inventory. Left hip. Left elbow. Lie still a few more minutes. No witnesses, no one to help. Fob lying on the ground only inches from a sewer grate—without it, I couldn’t have gotten out of the parking lot, into my bike locker, or up to my apartment.

I’m OK. I can move. I’m still very cold. I get on my bike, ride the short distance to the bike locker, and proceed as normal.

Once back to my apartment, it’s wet clothes off, hot shower, and hot coffee ASAP! I’ve had my morning exercise high.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Cycling, Personal stories, Uncategorized, Vignettes | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Memorabilia from the 1932 Olympics: Photo blog

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about keeping artifacts in a digital age. (Read here.)

I thought about this because an old running friend of mine, Ross Patterson, recently mailed me three old documents from Toronto. His wife’s father, Russell (Russ), competed in cycling in the 1932 Olympics. Ross sent me an Official Program from the Xth Olympiad, a Xth Olympiad Complete Program of Events/Ticket Information, and a related document he knew I’d like to see, the program for the First National Indoor Track Championships  (1929), held at Toronto’s Coliseum at Exhibition Park.

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This is one of many Official Programs. They were updated daily. Each one showed results from the previous day, the events of the day, and the events to come in the following day.

The photo below shows a “Results to Date” page from the program. Notice that only the winner’s time is given for each event or heat.

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Russ Hunt’s story

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Russ Hunt, Canadian cyclist, in 1932.

The newspaper article below gives Russ’s story. It seems incredible now that someone could be selected to an Olympic Team and not even consider going because they couldn’t afford to pay their own way. Then, with no notice at all, Russ’s co-workers and boss at The Royal York hotel collected enough money to fund his trip, and presto!—off he was to Los Angeles!

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Being an editor, I noticed that Russell’s name was misspelled repeatedly in the top section of the article.

In the months before the 1932 Olympics, spectators could make their plans for the Olympics and purchase their tickets by referring to a “Complete Program of Events/Ticket Information” booklet. The one shown below says it was revised April 15, 1932. Note the simplicity of the map graphic on the back of the booklet!

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The inside cover art for the booklet is very basic by today’s standards, too.ProgramOfEventsCoverArt

A piece of memorabilia related to these 1932 Olympic documents is shown below; I’ve scanned Ross’s copy of the First National Indoor Track Championships program booklet. The meet was held in Toronto in 1929—87 years ago!

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The races were run on a new indoor track that had been built inside the CNE Coliseum. You can read about it below. As page 1 of the program booklet says, the track was twelve laps to the mile and only twelve feet wide. Yet Event No. 1, the Two Miles race (a distance offered only for men, of course), featured thirty competitors! That would have been something to see, as the men fought to break the Canadian Indoor Record—9 min. 14 3/5 secs.

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History of Toronto’s indoor track built at the Coliseum in 1928.

When I started running indoor track in high school, I also trained and raced at the CNE. But by that time (1976) there was a much better track there. It was a board track that was put up and disassembled each winter. It was considered “fast”; it was a nice springy 200m track. However, it was housed in a building we called “The Pig Palace” for good reason—the pigs stayed there every November at the Royal Winter Fair, before the track was installed. Their pungent smell never left the building during the winter. The dry indoor air was terrible for hard efforts—I remember the severe lung burn and coughing that followed 1,500m races in that building.

I’m sure every serious Toronto runner of the 1970s remembers the Pig Palace. Luckily for us, by the fall of 1979, the new track complex at York University was ready, and it was a joy to move to that excellent facility. It smelled much better but the air was still tough on the lungs.

I loved looking through that 40-odd page Indoor Championships booklet, not only to see the names of many of Canada’s best athletes of the era, but because the ads gave such a feel for what Toronto was like in early 1929. Our language, as well as our printing technology, has evolved so much since then. The ads sound corny and unsophisticated to a modern ear. But in all the writing there is also a certain formality of language that isn’t common today.

Below, I’ve added a page spread that shows two ads: one for Eaton’s “Renown” hats and one for C.C.M. Bicycles.

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“Torchy” Bill Peden was on the 1932 Canadian Olympic team with Russ Hunt, and they appear together in this photo that Ross sent me.

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Canada’s cycling team at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. “Torchy” is on the far right.

My friend Ross Patterson found a personal connection in the Indoor Championships booklet: it contained an ad for The Patterson Candy Co. Ltd., founded by Ross’s great-grandfather.

Ad for Patterson's Candy in 1929 Indoor Track Championships program

Ross’s copy of the program is autographed in pencil by no less an athlete than “The World’s Fastest Human,” Percy Williams!

On the same page as Percy’s photo and autograph, you can view the “Definition of an Amateur,” which seems seriously outdated, and “The Ten Commandments of Sport,” which are just as true and relevant today as they have always been. #10 is worth quoting here:

Honour the game thou playeth for he who playeth the game straight and hard wins even though he loses.

Percy Williams' autograph on Indoor Championships program

Women took part in this 1929 National Championships, but the only events offered to them were the High Jump, the 60 Yards Dash, and the Ladies’ 440 Yards Relay. (A Girls’ Club relay was also included.) I pity them for the uniforms they had to wear—I’m assuming Innes Bramley, pictured in the photo below, is wearing her competition garb since she has a medal around her neck. But couldn’t the photographer have picked a more flattering pose?

Innes Bramley, one-time world record holder in the high jump.

Musings about memorabilia

I’m grateful to Ross Patterson for sending me these three old souvenir booklets. Such artifacts are relatively rare now. They give us an enlightening (and often amusing) glimpse into a version of our sport and culture that is close to a century old. Much has changed, but not everything (as The Ten Commandments of Sport remind me).

What motivates people to save written materials? It’s a desire to hold on to memories of our most valuable or extraordinary experiences, perhaps a desire to hold on to certain versions of ourselves. It’s also knowing that later, we can share these experiences with others. It’s part of the desire for immortality. Human beings have always tried to leave records, even from the time of cave art depicting animals and hunting.

I chastise myself now for not keeping more records from all the Games and international road races I took part in. What I did keep provided me with a wealth of information and pictures that I could use in this running blog, so for that I’m thankful. My training logs and newspaper articles also proved to me how faulty memories can be!

What will happen now when so many of our records and photos of events exist online? How many people still produce or hold on to the physical forms of these records? It’s all in “the cloud,” a cloud that can be as transitory as those cumulus and cirrus formations in the sky—if we’re not careful to transfer our digital records from one form of technology to another.

 

 

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Running with flair

 

What do I mean by “running with flair”?

I’m talking about what a runner in superb condition can do on a good day. I’m talking about the times when an athlete not only runs fast, but does so with style, with a combination of mental and physical effort that can include toughness, agility, surprises, foolhardiness, gutsiness, and—sometimes—the sheer beauty of the human animal at its best.

Those of my readers who watch the highest levels of track competition know that this “running with flair” isn’t seen as often in the staged races where there is a rabbit (or even multiple rabbits) whose job is leading and keeping the pace for the marquee athlete who is going after a world record. All the real racing happens when the rabbit steps off the track and the competitors have to make tactical decisions.

I admired the best female runners of my generation for their front-running. Mary Decker and Ingrid Kristensen always ran from the front, because they weren’t satisfied to be merely the best in the world; they demanded of themselves that they do their best, and if no one else in the world could run the pace, they did it alone. I was a distant second to Ingrid Kristensen at the World 15K Road Racing Championship in Monaco in 1987. She had to run the race entirely by herself, and set a new world best time for the distance of 47:17.

In racing, the distance runner has to hold back. The race must be perfectly paced; the runner has to stay right on the edge, running as fast as possible yet not so fast that anaerobic metabolism paralyzes the muscles before the finish line. One of the elite athlete’s skills is the ability to feel their own perfect pace for a certain distance. This skill can be sharpened by training with a watch, but it’s still largely an instinct—because on race day any given pace should feel easier than on a training day. Why? Partly because of being well-rested, partly because of the flood of adrenaline that competition releases, partly because of an intense desire to win.

It’s wonderful to watch a race where athletes take risks, where they toy with the sensible, even pacing that distance running demands. This gutsiness, this risk-taking is also what I mean by running with flair. I think of Alison Wiley, at age 20, coming second to the great Grete Waitz at the World Cross Country Championships in 1983. She ran at a ridiculously fast pace right from the gun, against most of the world’s best distance runners. Spectators might have initially thought she was crazy; what was she doing? She was running instinctively and courageously, testing her body to the limit, not letting her rational mind put any limits on her performance.

Sometimes athletes take risks and pay a terrible price. When I raced the Bali 10K in 1988, Liz McColgan bravely decided to go after the extra $1 million in prize money offered to a man or woman who could beat the world best times (on the road) for the distance. It was a gamble because of Bali’s terrible heat and humidity.

We were lucky to get a cooling downpour of rain early in the race, but Liz’s luck ran out as an acute attack of intestinal distress forced her to slow down dramatically near the end of the race. Although I hadn’t seen her after the gun went off, I closed rapidly on her 400m from the finish line and ended up winning the race. She normally beat me by at least a minute over that distance.

Thus do the greatest athletes play: surging is a game in which they experiment with their own bodies and test the strength of their competitors’ minds and bodies. What is demanded? Split-second decisions. Courage. Instinct. Willpower. Running with flair.

Did I ever run with flair?

Even when I was at my fittest and fastest, I never ran with perfect form. But running is not an artistic sport in which points are given for perfect technique and appearance.

I recall standing on the starting line of a university 1,500m race. One of my fellow competitors, a tall girl whom anyone would have guessed was a better runner than I, said to me in a tone that wasn’t at all nice, “How can you run with such skinny legs?”

I won the race, and probably beat her by at least two hundred metres.

I had some good racing days, when the self-confidence I gained from my punishing training schedule gave me my own kind of flair. Sometimes I could stand on the start line of a Canadian road race and know that no other woman could beat me. And I, too, was willing to run hard from the start to get a good time and prove what I could do. I used my strengths. On hilly courses my lightness made uphills relatively easy. On hot days it was an advantage to be small, too, and Toronto summers made me well-adapted to hot, humid conditions.

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The Commonwealth Games trials, 1986. Photo from Athletics Magazine.

I knew how to play the psychological games, too.

Strike at the top of the hill! No rest—immediately push the pace when opponents are suffering. Fly down the hills—let gravity do the work. When passing a competitor, appear as relaxed as possible, with controlled, even breathing. Betray no struggle!

But near the end of the race, there is no energy to spare for cunning or disguise. Then it’s the time to become an animal, to run on instinct and guts, to give everything to get your body over the finish line before your opponent′s.

I experienced the excitement of being in some of the big American road races in the early 1980s. This was before African women were racing much. I knew that the international stars could beat me, but I was eager for the challenge of racing against them and some of the best Americans. It was thrilling to stand on a start line with a group of super-fit women, like at the Tufts 10K for Women in Boston, or the elite women’s-only start of the Lilac Bloomsday 12K in Spokane. In front of us loomed the wide, empty road that our long strides would soon be eating up. All that pent-up energy and nerves, those taut muscles rested and ready to spring! On my best days I would be part of the front pack, with only the road and the lead vehicle ahead. There was one year at Tufts (1987) when I led the race from start to finish, hearing the first mile split of 5:05 without fear because I could feel that the pace was right.

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Heading for the finish tape at the Tufts 10K for Women, 1987. It was the only time I ever beat Lynn Jennings, who was in a “rest” phase of her training cycle. Time: 32:22. Photo: The Boston Globe

Do you have to be an elite to run with flair?

So far, I’ve written about racing with flair, and how elite athletes do this with a combination of fitness, bravery, and competitive instinct.

I defined flair partly as “the sheer beauty of the human animal at its best,” and this is why we marvel at the elites. I love watching 100m sprinters; to me their powerful musculature and explosive speed exemplify the pinnacle of the human animal in motion. What amazes me the most, though, is the way the champion 1,500m runners look at the end of their races.

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After my last 1,500m ever: at the U.S. Masters Championships in Spokane, 2008. A poorly-paced race cost me the win. Photo: Warren McCulloch

For me, the 1,500m was always crippling in its anaerobic pain. Yet the best international winners can immediately smile and break into their easy victory lap, as if their unbelievable pace on the 3.75-lap race was effortless.

But there is another aspect of running with flair that isn’t dependent on being extremely talented, fast, and fit. This kind of flair might not be apparent to anyone watching you run. It’s more about experiencing a sense of joy and harmony with your body as you run. The times when everything “clicks” perfectly in a training run are more enjoyable than racing, because you don’t have to suffer the pain that giving 100%  entails.

I remember doing a training run in Mundy Park with Richard Mosley about 15 years ago, when he was part of our Phoenix club. I was in my early forties and he was a talented but off-beat teenaged distance runner who dyed his hair a different colour every week and competed in pole vault as well as distance events. At that time he was faster than me, but not by much. On the day I’m remembering, we ran for perhaps 45 minutes. We kept gradually speeding up. The pace wasn’t hard for Richard, but it wasn’t effortless, either. For me, it was one of those days when my body just did what I demanded of it. I was running at a pace that was on the very edge of what I could maintain, without going over that edge, without suffering. I had a wonderful sense of power to be able to run at that speed, to match Richard’s pace. I loved the perfection of all my body’s systems—heart pumping, lungs filling, legs striding and arms swinging, all so rhythmical and united.

My body will never feel perfect again—I′m always aware of my arthritic knee, my broken link. Yet I still have those wonderful rare days when I’m immersed in the joy of running. I’m slower now, and anyone watching can detect a slight limp, but I know my joy gives my running its own kind of flair.

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Still want to compete! At the Ambleside Mile, 2015. Photo: Rick Horne

 

December 1, 2015

Today I ran 7K in Mundy Park. I’m a slow jogger for the first kilometre. But after that I feel almost like the athlete I used to be.  I can still run with a long stride. I can still run on my toes and sprint. My body’s lightness and freedom spreads to my spirit, and all is in harmony.

Running with flair

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Running for fun in Mundy Park. November 28, 2015. Photo: Keith Dunn

 

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