Last week I was very lucky. I narrowly escaped three disasters. The last one reminded me of something that happened to me once at an Ekiden race in Japan. It also reminded me that there are so many things we can’t predict or control about life. We need to be flexible, open to new experiences, and—able to laugh in the face of both good luck and bad.
The first lucky thing about last week involved multiple bike tire flats. The lucky part was that all the flats happened at my apartment and I wasn’t left stranded 20 km from home without an inner tube (or the ability to change one!). I got the first flat fixed promptly at a nearby bike shop and was able to enjoy the first of several outstanding rides last week. The next flat was due to a valve problem that by some miracle I was able to fix by myself.
It was so cold on Thursday that my toes remained frozen for my entire hour-long ride. The second lucky thing happened after that ride. I was so frozen and tired that I accidentally left my apartment fob in the bike storage locker room. After I left that room (without my fob), I was trapped in the underground parking lot, with no way to get back into the bike room or get out of the parking lot. I did have my phone, but did I have the building superintendant’s number stored in my contacts? In any case, I knew Peter often wasn’t around or ignored phone calls. I would have to wait until someone else came into the underground parking. And I would be late for work unless that happened soon!
Just then, I spotted a girl heading towards the garbage room on the other side of the parking lot. I sprinted towards her, shouting, “I need your help!” I explained my situation, hoping that her fob would get me into my bike locker room. But no—hers wouldn’t work, because her storage locker was located in a different room, and the fobs are all individualized.
At least she could let me out of the underground parking. I ran to the front of the building, and was able to let myself in with my phone, which is hooked up to the Enterphone system. This system would also allow me to take the elevator to my floor. The problem was, my apartment key was also on my fob, so I still wouldn’t be able to get into my apartment. Would Peter answer his phone?
Once again I was lucky, because a service guy was vacuuming one of the elevators. I asked him if he had seen Peter. “Oh yes, he was here just a minute ago!” Elevator boy disappeared into the ground-level parking lot to look for Peter, but returned shortly. “I can’t find him.”
I explained what had happened. Elevator boy had a full-service fob! I wouldn’t have to wait for Peter. In less than a minute, elevator boy had let me into the bike storage room. I retrieved my fob, got up to my apartment, and made it to work on time with about one minute to spare.
The third narrowly-averted disaster was the worst. On Friday morning I had a job interview for a part-time magazine position. I was awakened that morning by the sound of a cat barfing on my bed. It was my older cat, Mischief, who occasionally suffers from these intestinal upsets. I cleaned the bed hurriedly, eager to get to Starbucks and the gym to cram in a 20-minute workout before I left for my job interview.
All went according to plan: I got thoroughly sweaty on the Arc machine, then put on a few more layers of clothing and did two invigorating sprints on the frosty soccer field, breathing hard in the frigid air. Once back at my apartment, I rushed to shower, eat breakfast, and dress appropriately (but warmly) for my job interview.
Just before leaving, I checked myself in a mirror to see if my red sweater was a close enough match to the red on my red, black, and white colour-blocked dress. To my horror, when I turned around I saw what looked like sh– on the back of my dress! It was in the logical place (which unluckily was one of the white sections of my dress), so it was impossible to miss. It was cat barf, of course. A fresh patch of it must have blended into the bed comforter where I sat to put my tights on.
I could have changed into something else, but my business wardrobe isn’t extensive. Instead, I took the dress off and carefully scrubbed the stain (being fresh, it came out fairly easily). But now I had an obvious wet spot on my dress. I attacked it with my hair dryer until I was satisfied that my dress looked presentable.
All of this didn’t help my pre-interview jitters! But one of the good things about having been a competitive athlete is that I’m familiar with that feeling of intense nervousness, and I can maintain an outward calm.
This cat barf incident reminded me of something disgusting that happened to me at an Ekiden race one time.
An Ekiden relay story
International Ekiden relays are held in Japan a couple of times a year. They are relays comprised of five or six runners who, together, cover the standard marathon distance of 42.2 km, in legs of 5K, 7.2K, 10K, or 12.2K. These relays are international events, in which teams that have competed well in previous years are invited back to Japan, along with a random selection of other international teams and top club teams from within Japan.
I was a member of Canadian Ekiden teams on five occasions; twice as a young athlete, and three times when I was a masters (40+) runner but still good enough to qualify for the team. Ekiden teams sometimes didn’t attract the very best Canadian runners because the events often conflicted with the Canadian cross country championships or other high-calibre competitions.
Ekiden relay trips were fun, in large part because the Japanese worship long-distance runners. We were treated with great respect, given access to excellent training facilities and food, and showered with small but beautifully-wrapped gifts. I could write a whole post on my observations about the ways in which Japanese manners, customs, and expectations about group and individual behaviour differ from North American behaviours.
A brief summary could be that in general, the Japanese are extremely polite, clean, and obsessed with punctuality and perfect organization. Nothing is left to chance; schedules must be adhered to; rules must not be broken. (I remember the horror on the face of our Japanese guide when a group of us, heading from our hotel to a park, crossed the street against a red light. It was very early in the morning and there were no cars to be seen in either direction.)
I believe it was at a Chiba Ekiden in 2000 when I had a relay experience that was memorable in a bad way. It wasn’t anything to do with the run itself. I think I was doing the third leg out of six for the women’s team; a 10K. There were about twenty women’s teams, and all of the leg 3 runners had been bussed to the relay exchange zone at least two hours ahead of the time our team members were expected to arrive. Each athlete was shadowed by a high school student, whose instructions were to stay by the side of “his” or “her” athlete at all times. These students spoke little or no English, and I spoke no Japanese, so it wasn’t a very entertaining partnership, and it made me feel a little like a prisoner. However, at international competitions, you learn that you must be flexible. You must be able to relax and focus on your race plan even though you might not be able to control many things about your environment or your usual pre-race routine.
Our warm-up area consisted of a large paved parking lot. Our “partners” accompanied us on our warmups. No Ekiden would be tarnished by having an athlete chicken out, get lost (in parking lot?), or fail to be ready on time!
As the time drew near for the Leg 2 runners to arrive at our exchange zone, I realized I’d better visit the washroom. There was only one cubicle for all of the athletes, students, and race administrators. After a brief time in line, it was my turn. (Mercifully, my “guard” didn’t have to accompany in the cubicle. As for doping tests—well, that’s another story.)
A revolting sight met my eyes. It was a squat toilet, and its appearance made it obvious that most Westerners didn’t know how to aim. Gingerly, I took my turn, making sure that no part of my body was anywhere close to touching the heavily-polluted surface of the toilet.
After leaving the washroom, I finished the final stages of my warmup. As the first runners approached, I took my sweats off, knowing that though Canada wouldn’t be in the lead with such stellar teams as the Ethiopians and the Japanese in the field, we had a decent team and wouldn’t be too far behind at the 15K point of the race.
But this story isn’t about the race. I had a good run: 34:35 was respectable for a 41-year-old runner, and a lot of other countries hadn’t sent their top-tier athletes either, so I was competitive.
No, the horrible moment didn’t come until I was back at the hotel, hours after the race was over. When I took off my shorts I discovered that I had raced* with a noticeable amount of sh– on the back of my shorts—and it wasn’t even my own!
* Thankfully, it was a cool day so the soiled shorts were covered by sweats except while I was actually racing.
Luckily, it seems I learned a lesson that paid off on job interview day: always look at your rear view.