Chronicles of a writer abroad


Before, during & after

I want to share the experience of  the completed marathon with you. Given my tendency to be too verbose, however, I thought it best to break this down into three lists which together encapsulate my experience on Sunday.

Before the race

  1. Wake up before dawn, thinking why the heck did I want to do this again?
  2. Feel doubt that my training has been enough. Engage in negative self-talk, reminding myself that I was never an athlete in high school or college.
  3. Try to remind myself of the more than 650km that have been accumulated in these months of training. Try to tell myself that I’ve done it before.
  4. Continue to feel niggling doubt.
  5. Make it to the site and see fit runners “warming up,” which they do by running faster than I do at top speed, with a casual expression showing that they’re hardly exerting themselves. Tell myself again that I do not belong.
  6. Resolve, even before the race begins, that I’m never doing this again.

During the race

  1. Before 2km: become sorted with my people — the ones who go about the same speed as I do, and who have the same kind of somewhat-but-not-very-fit physique. Start to relax.
  2. 2km: Begin to be assailed by hard rain and wind. Start to worry.
  3. 10km: 10km runners mixed among us finish their race with exclamations of “ugh, that was horrible!” (referring to the bad weather). Try not to think about the 32.2 km I still have to run in said weather.
  4. 15km: hands freeze. Shoes squelch. Head down, I concentrate on the shimmering, almost mirror-like reflections the runners ahead of me cast on the wet pavement.
  5. 25km: Turnaround point. Rain has stopped; sun comes out; endorphins kick in fully. These alter my perception of time and allow me to drift mentally.
  6. 30-40km: Notice that legs are getting quite sore. Drift. Look at the lake. Drift. Watch the funny choreography of runners trying to drink while running, then trying to lob empty bottles into roadside repositories. Drift. Share a smile with the person I’ve been running beside for a while as we cross a timing mat together. Drift. Notice that legs are getting ever sorer. Drift.
  7. 40-42km: No longer drifting, but having to concentrate on not stopping.
  8. 42 km: See Stelian, give him a high-five. Keep going. Watch two kids belonging to a woman running just in front of me jump over the barrier and take their mother’s hands to run the last 200 meters with her. Feel the total euphoria of the finish line.

After the race

  1. Feel bewildered as someone takes off my timing chip, someone else puts a medal around my neck, other people offer fruit, drinks, food.
  2.  Think how awesome the experience was, and immediately revise I’m never doing this again to I’m doing this again for sure!
  3. Wonder how come I can’t walk at all.
  4. Begin to experience the trinity of sore, stiff muscles, nagging unspecific hunger, and general fatigue.
  5. Revise I’m doing this again for sure! to Maybe…we’ll see.
  6. Wonder why all those hours are condensed into just a few memories.
  7. Ask myself if I really did it after all.
  8. Review the evidence.

Race medal, showing the course along the Zurichsee to Meilen and back.

The coveted (and cat-approved) finisher shirt.

Bonus: There is a video of me (in white hat) running to the finish behind the woman with her kids here.



Running from superstition

Soooo…ever since last week, when I waxed poetic (literally, and unfortunately) about the beauty of our spring weather, guess what’s been happening? It’s been raining or otherwise badly-weathered, pretty much constantly. The four-day Easter weekend passed in a blur of grey skies and raindrops; on Sunday it even snowed. As I sit here typing this evening, it’s raining and 7 degrees…this afternoon I went for a run in my winter gear and came back rain-stippled and shivering. In short, it’s a far cry from the sunny, warm days of a week or two ago.

It’s funny how the human tendency to superstition arises in such situations. A mental scoundrel, whom I will refer to here as Egocentric-Pattern-Detecting-Centre-of-My-Brain (EPD-COMB, for short) whispers, Look, you went and jinxed the weather! Yes, little old me, controlling the entire region’s weather pattern…But in all seriousness, superstition is a hard thing to get away from; our brains seem sometimes to be wired for it, and it’s evident in all kinds of human behaviour. It’s the reason, for example, that I haven’t yet announced to you that I’m planning to run the Zürich marathon in 10 days. Yes, on April 22nd, which happens, by coincidence, to be the date of my 30th birthday (EPD-COMB: See, the world is revolving around you again!), I will run 42.2 kilometers for the second time in my life.

Cool way to celebrate a birthday? I think so, but some of you might disagree. The thing is, I’m used to spending my birthdays outside, and this is because I’m born on Earth Day, which has existed since 1970, or about 12 years before I came along. In elementary school, it was always a day where we were  loosed from the classroom and allowed to do something outdoors, to connect us with Mother Nature (Younger EPD-COMB, in childlike voice: it’s because you’re special!). I remember, in fact, that one year we released helium balloons with little personalized note cards on them, requesting that if anyone found the balloon, they would send the card back to us. I can’t remember why we released the balloons — as a lesson about pollution? To see how far they would travel? But we released them on my birthday, and what do you know? Some weeks later, my balloon-card comes back in the mail. The man who found the balloon, elsewhere in Toronto (my memory might be embellishing here, but I believe it floated onto his balcony) wrote on the card, “This was special because the balloon arrived on my birthday.” True story, and my mom might still have the proof tucked away in a box somewhere. (EPD-COMB: You and him! You’re the chosen ones! The balloons have honoured your specialness!)

But back to the marathon. You know how I tried to run it last year…tried with a great amount of pain and frustration, not realizing at the time that it’s very difficult to train for a marathon while one’s body contains what my doctor described as “the smallest amount of iron possible.” Now, thanks to pills, infusions, and meaty meals, I’m no longer anemic, and following a training program since January has been a (comparative) breeze.

But still, I haven’t said anything. (EPD-COMB: If you reveal the plans, they will fall apart, like they did before!) Even as I completed all of the long runs (30 km, 32 km, 35 km), with the expected aching muscles but no signs of injury, I refused to mention it, and I refused to sign up for the race, waiting until practically the deadline. Now, I’m tapering (which is when you sit around, running much less than before, eating and hydrating, and trying to visualize yourself succeeding) and I realized that while I might still get sick (a cold has been threatening) or injured in some unforeseen way, it’s time to say “I’m doing this.”

One kick in the pants was the realization that today, April 12th, marks thirty-two years since Terry Fox (who attended Simon Fraser University, one of my alma maters) began his Marathon of Hope, in the year of my sister’s birth. Thirty-two years ago today, 21-year old Terry dipped his artificial leg (the real one having been lost to bone cancer) in the Atlantic Ocean near St. John’s, Newfoundland. Then, in order to raise awareness and funds for cancer research, Terry began to run the marathon distance every single day for 143 days, moving across Canada towards the Pacific Ocean, until his progressing disease forced him to stop.

EPD-COMB: Wait. Okay. Wait. Every day? 143 times? With a terminal illness and one prosthetic leg? So much success, despite so many obstacles? Doesn’t compute…doesn’t compute…frying…ahhhh!

Following Terry’s example in a much smaller way, I’d like to ask that if you had any intention of sending me a birthday present, you just think of me on April 22, and make a donation to a cancer charity of your choice instead (yes, if I was less superstitious I would have announced this earlier. Next time!). Cancer research and treatment has come a long way since Terry was alive, but it still has far to go.

So this is one attempt to travel from superstition to reality. To accept that this is not about whether the universe wills it, and it’s not about luck…it’s about pledging to make every step happen, until and unless circumstances force you to stop. On my birthday, then, 42.2 kilometers of communing with Mother Nature. Leaving superstition in the dust. But you can’t really blame EPD-COMB, can you, if it’s cheered by the sight of a balloon floating in the sky, somewhere along the way.


Know when to fold ’em

I am a person who likes to achieve their goals. Who usually operates with a “when I say I’mma do something, I do it” mentality.

But at the same time, I understand that sometimes your aims overshoot your means and you have to make concessions in order to “know your limit and play within it.” You have to take to heart the ineffable wisdom of Kenny Rodgers when he urges you to “know when to fold ’em…know when to walk away, know when to run.”

Or not run. Not as much, anyway.

Things came to a head in my marathon training this week. It was the morning of what would be, by its full unfolding, a 33 degree day. Still slightly jetlagged, I’d gotten up at as early an hour as I could stomach to try to avoid the strong sun during my long run — but by two hours in, the sun was strong, and the day oppressively hot. I was trying to ration the one litre of water that my hydration belt carries, knowing that it wasn’t good to be feeling so thirsty and that I should have found a way to bring more fluid. And to make things even more unpleasant, there was a painful popping sensation in my left hip with each stride of my left leg. As I endured another hour like this, I considered my motives, and the marathon training season so far. It’s been, to select just one word, joyless. The heat (which I do not tolerate well) has been unrelenting, the new terrain has been challenging, the distances have been…just too far for anything close to comfort.

I went home and thought some more. I hobbled around, nursing my hip, which did not have any serious injury, just an annoying and unpleasant condition called “snapping hip syndrome,” wherein the inflamed iliotibial band snags on a bony structure in the hip at each step, producing the snapping or popping feeling. As I type this, it’s already gotten much better, but it was a message from my legs – too much, too soon. We’re not ready.

I chose to listen to them, and I’ve now downgraded my entry in the Amsterdam marathon to the half-marathon distance. My revised plan is to run that race as well as I can, which will provide a solid base for training for and running the Zürich marathon in April.

If I want to, that is. From time to time I have to remind myself that running, in addition to being something that I do to stay healthy, is something that I have really enjoyed in the past, and that I want to continue enjoying — I don’t want to burn out, as I feel myself doing. Furthermore, there’s no need to pretend that anything more than my pride hinges on me having to put off running my second marathon. At this point, I’ll happily take a reduction in pride if it means I no longer have to lope through long runs like an injured animal crossing the fiery Sahara.

So there you have it. This grasshopper will be exercising patience…and, I hope and suspect, rediscovering the joy of this thing as I resume training at a more civil pace.


Running from shame

There’s been a lot of talk, since the Vancouver riots, about the ethics of public shaming. Some claim that the desire to shame offenders publicly stems from the same kind of mob-mentality that may have fuelled the riots themselves; others insist that it is a natural progression for a society in which people are fed up with the court system due to its perceived leniency and lack of efficacy.

I’m not going to go into these issues, but I am going to do a little experiment in self-shaming. Here, I’m going to show you something that I am embarrassed by:

I said I was going to run a half-marathon, not a marathon, in Amsterdam this fall, but then I signed up for the longer distance. One of the reasons I decided to is because I’m running quite slowly, so I rationalized that I might as well run farther. The figure that I highlighted in red above is my average pace across all my training runs so far (I started training last month), and it is about a full minute per kilometer slower than what I was training at last year. In case anyone is wondering how information about my runs gets transmitted to my computer in this way, I wear a Garmin GPS watch while running. It is hands-down the best investment I ever made in my running — I am a data geek, and I really get motivated by seeing numbers on the screen.

But in this case, the numbers are not so encouraging. Possible reasons that I am moving slowly include the fact that I am 8-10 pounds heavier than I was during my last training season; the fact that Zürich is very hilly, and I’m bad at hills; and the fact that I allowed my fitness to slip a lot during our overseas move this winter.

But now I’m determined to get at least most of the way back to where I was before the Vancouver marathon. I have nearly four months until October 16, 2011, when I will (barring any unforeseen injuries) run the Amsterdam marathon. I will do an honest report about my training every month between now and then. Let’s hope to see that number in the red box decrease! And hey, if my talking about this motivates anyone to go running — even for a short distance — then my public shaming will have accomplished another worthy goal.



Running and writing: an extended metaphor

There’s a lot of running advice available to those who want to read it. So much advice, in fact, that deciding which books, magazines, and online articles to read can be daunting, and can suck up a lot of time that you could have used to…well, go running. Some of the advice is good, some of it is detrimental. Some of it works for some people, and not for others.

When I trained solo for a marathon, I sought out a lot of advice. Some of it was highly technical. But what I remember today, and what was most useful, was very simple advice that went along these lines: start gently, and build slowly. But be persistent; keep going. Put one foot in front of the other. To my amazement, I found that I was able to take one step after another, all the way to the finish line. As a result of that journey, I arrived at a place where I was comfortable saying to people: “I’m a runner.”

If I’m going to blog honestly about my life in Zürich, then I’m going to have to risk boring you, from time to time, with my reflections on running and writing. These threads are woven deeply into my everyday life, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that they are twin threads, composed of the same fiber.

In both things, starting slowly is of utmost importance. A person who can’t run the 5K distance probably shouldn’t sign up for a marathon; a new writer might find themself hopelessly mired when thinking about the amount of work that goes into a novel (I know this is often the case for me). In both things, there are sudden challenges — the runner’s hill is the writer’s moment of realizing that he or she doesn’t know how to make a scene work, or that characters are refusing to stand up and tell the reader who they are. In both things, there are periods of boredom, feelings of loneliness and uncertainty, and epic battles against inertia. In both things, there are injuries: moments when one’s body, one’s pride, or one’s sense of “this is worth doing” is greatly challenged or wounded.

Admitting that you engage in either running or writing regularly can cause others to question your sanity, or your instinct for self-preservation. Why are these activities –both of them frequently painful — worth doing? For me, they offer similar rewards. The scenery gets to me, first of all. I get to see things that I never would have if I was sitting on the couch — exciting and beautiful things that I never knew existed within my city or within my imagination. I get to see progress: as I add up my miles, or tally my word count, I notice that my stride or my prose has gotten a little smoother along the way. I write things and run distances that I never would have believed myself capable of; I get the feeling that I am developing, getting stronger. Maybe most importantly, I still feel the excitement of starting out on a run or a writing session with a loose plan, but without knowing exactly where I’ll end up going.

There is a lot written about writing (not surprisingly, I guess). Just as a runner can pore over the minutiae of hydration, fueling, intervals, and tapering, a writer of fiction can obsess over whether their plot is in good shape, their dialogue is working well, their characters are believable. All things that I need and want to learn more about, and that I will learn more about. But it’s more basic advice that keeps me afloat on a day-to-day basis. Advice that says, “just keep writing, and let the experience pile up.” Advice that says, you can and you should (thanks, Stephen King, for the permission slip). Acknowledgement from other writers that it’s hard, but it’s worthwhile, as I have found to be true about running.

I’m not someone who is comfortable saying to people, in response to the question of what I do: “I’m a writer.” But I am sitting here, building slowly, being persistent; putting down one word after another. Hoping to someday cross that line.