Today was a Saturday morning so I ran, as usual, with the Phoenix Running Club in Mundy Park.
The ambience of the park was fitting for Remembrance Day. It was gray and calm, fairly mild, with a few drops of rain that became more regular near the end of our workout. The park was more peaceful than it usually is on a Saturday morning, when the crowds of dog walkers and their dogs are out in full force during the off-leash hours.
The dogs have become increasingly difficult for runners to negotiate around on the park trails, so I’ve been picking workout loops that aren’t as crowded. Today we were starting at Mundy Lake and running a 1500m course that includes the challenging 1K stair loop plus the Mundy Lake loop, where dogs are not allowed.
My reflections while running were a bittersweet mixture of sadness and gratefulness. Just like the weather, my thoughts seemed appropriate for this holiday that is still meaningful for Canadians a hundred years after World War I.
One reason for disappointment was that I had to do most of the workout alone because very few Phoenix members showed up. This has been an ongoing problem for our club for the past year. I couldn’t help but think of the “glory days” of Phoenix when we’d have six or eight fast people searing their lungs on the demanding steep uphill section of the loop. We’d be at our limits as we crested the hill at the top, after completing many stairs, and we tried not to slow down too much as we turned left and headed for the downhill trail back to the lake. Then it took all the agility we could muster to gallop down the trail at top speed, finishing with a sprint to the edge of the lake. We rested a minute or two, then were ready to tackle the stairs again—and again—five or six times.
Today I was the fastest Phoenix member there. Yet I was aware of my clumsiness on the stairs and the slight pain in my bad knee. I pushed hard to the top, but running downhill I could no longer run fast; not only did I have to save my knee from the pounding, but dogs were constantly blocking my path. I couldn’t risk being tripped. I had to slow down and weave my way carefully. Then, once I got back to the lake, I did the 500m lake loop as fast as I could before taking a rest.
It was on my third (and last) circuit of the lake that I thought about how Remembrance Day is a time for celebration as well as for remembering the tragedies of the two World Wars and other conflicts. For me, the celebration comes from acknowledging the health and peace I have in my life. Here I was, still striding out at a pretty decent pace, running freely in this beautiful forest. I was exhilarated to be outside, breathing hard, even though it was gray and raining lightly. How could I even begin to imagine what people suffered in war, living in trenches, always cold and wet, with poor food and rats all over the place? Seeing their friends’ lives extinguished in a moment or after hours of hideous suffering, knowing that each day could be their last?
The Phoenix club is in danger of folding, after twenty-six years. But today, though we were a small band, I appreciated seeing my long-time running friend Alex, and being able to do part of the workout with him and Wendy, a newer but regular participant. Some of our members are older and can only walk now. But a few of us are determined to find new members and keep the club going.
I think about the immense support I’ve had from my Phoenix teammates over the years, and the enduring friendships I’ve made. Ever since I first starting running in high school, I’ve found that racing with teammates produces a camaraderie and shared memories that bond people together, sometimes for life. After all, racing is a test of so many things: physical strength and courage, mental toughness, strategy, and good sportsmanship. The emotions of fear, nervousness, and excitement—plus the exhilaration of victory or even finishing a tough race—are powerful.
The Hershey Harriers’ Remembrance Day 8K Cross Country Race
One of the races that the Phoenix team often participated in was the Remembrance Day 8K in Stanley Park, put on by the Hershey Harriers club. Every year I think about this cross country race, which the Hersheys had to discontinue a few years ago. Competing in this event, which was always held on Remembrance Day regardless of the day of the week, was a fitting way to acknowledge Canada’s veterans.
For most of its existence, the race was for masters (35+) only. One or two of the oldest competitors had served in World War II. For many masters runners, this was the only race they competed in; it was their way of showing respect and for reconnecting with the running community each year. The race always started at 11:02, after the Last Post was played and a moment of silence was observed by the nervous and solemn runners on the starting line. Long-time Hershey Harriers coach Jerry Tighe fired the starting gun. I’ll always have a picture in my mind of Jerry standing on the muddy field by Brockton Oval, wearing warm clothes and high rubber boots.
The race was always hard; the field was often soaked and muddy, and after the “easy” flat tour around Beaver Lake, competitors had to climb up and down two brutal hills. The results were age-graded, so that the efforts of men and women of all ages could be acknowledged.
I do feel sad that the Harriers’ Remembrance Day 8K is no more, and that I will never again test myself on that challenging course. The last time I did the race, in 2012, I had gone through two knee surgeries (to repair an ACL and to remove cartilage from my knee), and I knew I’d pay a price for running that tough, hilly course. But I was running because I still could—and also in remembrance of my coach George Gluppe, who passed away in April 2012. I don’t know how many times George stood out in the rain at that Remembrance Day race, cheering for me and all the other Phoenix competitors.
Today, Remembrance Day 2017, I ran once again in celebration: of my health, my legs, my running friends, and the beautiful trails of Mundy Park.