On Victoria Day I met with some of my Phoenix Running Club teammates to run the loop around Buntzen Lake. We gathered in the parking lot at 8:30 on a perfect morning. It was still cool but the sun promised heat to come.
It was more special for me than for any of the other five runners in our group. I hadn’t run the Buntzen loop for nine years—since before I tore my ACL. Subsequent surgeries and worsening arthritis have severely curtailed the amount of running I can do.
In our group we had two seasoned trail ultra runners as well as three very fit middle-aged guys. This was to be a social run, so our loose plan was to run together. Actually, my plan was to run with the group for about half the distance, and then hike the second half.
We stayed together for about 3K; then four of us went ahead. Matt chose to stay back with Kathryn, who was the oldest and slowest runner in our group.
It wasn’t long before I lost contact with my three companions. The terrain had become very rough as we proceeded along the western side of the lake. I could handle the steep vertical climbs, but I had to move cautiously on the downhills. I expected Matt and Kathryn to pass me again.
I reached 5K alone, but now I was on the most difficult section of the trail. My young Phoenix teammate Simrin passed me easily, running like a mountain goat as she explained that she and her mother Neelam (another experienced trail runner) had arrived late. Although I am still faster than Simrin on a road course, I couldn’t run with her here and she was soon out of sight.
The views as the trail came out in the open at the highest point above the lake were stunning. It was peaceful here too—so far I had encountered only the occasional runner or hiker moving in the opposite direction. Going downhill, I had to walk often because the footing was bad, with many loose rocks. Kathryn passed me, showing her agility and technical skill. She is over 60, but has the body of a twenty-something. We ended up running together quite a bit before the swinging bridge.
After a washroom break at the north beach, I told Kathryn I would go ahead since I’d heard that the trail was in good condition on the east side of the lake. I would run the whole distance after all. Maybe it wasn’t a sensible decision, but I couldn’t resist the challenge. Besides, I reasoned, my knee had already gone through so much after all those steep climbs and descents; it was too late to save it if it was going to react badly to this run, and it seemed to be OK.
I was astonished how hard the last 4K turned out to be. My quads had turned to Jell-O. I was beginning to get very thirsty, and my water was waiting for me in my car. Another problem was that the trail was becoming crowded with all the holiday hikers. I was constantly having to slow down and run around groups of people and dogs. Plus, even though the surface was quite good on this part of the trail, the punishing climbs continued.
When I heard the barking of dogs getting louder, I realized I was near the off-leash section of the beach; almost done! I ran up the trail beside the fence enclosing the off-leash area. As I reached the path above the beach, I stopped. My Garmin read 10.7K. With relief, thinking about my water bottle in the car, I started walking back to the parking lot. I was soon overtaken by Kathryn. She stopped running to chat with me. I told her that I’d found the run very tough. It demonstrated to me, once again, the mantra of “specificity of training.” Right now, I would say I’m quite fit and fast (for my age), but I lack the agility and leg strength of a regular trail runner, as well as the endurance of someone used to running long distances.
In the parking lot, the four speediest runners in our group were already gathered around Dale’s impressive “triathlon van,” along with Cathy and Dave, who had been hiking the trail. Everyone was eagerly eating the bran muffins Cathy had brought. I needed water first!
Soon Matt and Neelam appeared. The run around Buntzen was nothing for these two veterans of ultra trail running. Both, I noted, were wearing lightweight vests with water bottles.
The ten of us stood around eating and chatting in the parking lot while Larry and Simrin snapped photos.
As I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group, I was overcome by a sense of gratefulness. I was grateful for being able to complete this run in spite of my knee’s fragility. Also, I had slept little the night before because of jet lag after my Toronto trip.
As always, I was thankful to be part of this group. I’ve run with some of these people for decades. We started the Phoenix Running Club in 1991, running mainly in Mundy Park. Over the years, we’ve often had a special summer event at Buntzen Lake, with a run followed by a barbecue and swimming. I liked the way the Buntzen run on Monday gave me this memory connection to something I used to do.
My long-time running friend Alex reminded me how fast he, Dave Reed and I used to be able to do the Buntzen Lake loop. Our times from “the old days” seem unbelievable now. My decline, in fitness but especially in agility, is huge. It’s humbling but it’s not very important. My expectations about my running performance have changed. I’ve accepted that I’ve changed physically, and I don’t have to prove anything about my running ability.
Before we left the park, Dale asked me if I wanted to join him for an “easy” bike ride of the 25K PoCo Trail that afternoon. Dale is fifteen years younger than me, a sub-elite triathlete who devotes a high percentage of his non-work hours to training. He has the body of a whippet.
I told him that the Buntzen loop had been a big run for me; that my legs were exhausted and I’d had enough for the day. He was surprised at my lack of enthusiasm! Dale remembers how fast I used to be before my knee arthritis. I know he can’t fully understand the huge impacts that age and my knee injury have had on me.
When we left the park at 10:20, cars were circling the full parking lot like buzzards, and the entrance gates were closed. Cars were lined up as far as the eye could see along Sunnyside Road, waiting for the chance to be let in. This is one way the Tri-Cities’ exploding population has become obvious. I felt sorry for all the people who had planned a special holiday excursion to this beautiful forested park; now they were sitting in hot cars waiting to join the crowds that had already converged on the beach and trails.
I’m thankful that I’m an earlybird. It’s painless for me to get up early to avoid the crowds; there is nothing better than the peacefulness and freshness of summer mornings at 5 or 6 a.m.
After the elation and accomplishment of the run, I soon plunged into a paralyzing exhaustion. The run itself was only one cause of this, though I certainly felt the tiredness of my legs and a general stiffness in many muscles following that unaccustomed effort.
I was paying the inevitable price for getting only a broken 2–3 hours of sleep the night before, following a whole week of poor sleep.
Usually my afternoon slump after nights like this is so extreme that I feel paralyzed. Any kind of intellectual or physical work seems impossible.
In this blog, I usually write with optimism and enthusiasm about my running and cycling adventures. This reflects what I think of as the “real me.” Yet when I’m in one of my frequent lethargic states, I’m often overwhelmed by negative thoughts and a sense of hopelessness. I hope that by acknowledging this, I can reassure others that it’s all right to have these ups and downs. It seems to me that middle age is a time of bittersweet extremes, both physical and mental. The highs are wonderful, and the awareness of time’s sands running on makes middle age cherish them more than youth ever could. But the lows can also be exacerbated by the knowledge of that diminishing time and the inevitable downhill slope.
I’ve learned that I always have the capacity to bounce back from exhaustion and depression. The morning after the Buntzen run, I woke up early, rejuvenated after a good sleep. It was a perfect sunny morning. I had regained my usual energy and eagerness, and looked forward to an easy bike ride; that would be taxing enough for my sore muscles.
I was riding back along my usual route home from the lake when I was passed by a male cyclist on a road bike. He appeared to be riding easily, and quickly opened a large gap on me. Then my competitive spirit kicked in. I decided to see if I could catch him and draft for a bit. I got a big kick of adrenaline and put my quad muscles to the test. In about a minute I caught him; I only hung on for a minute or two, but it gave me my fastest kilometre ever on that part of the route!