06 August 2015

the life-altering perils of running

this week i had the privilege of speaking to a group of runners gathered for a symposium at our local MEC store.  the event was called "A Celebration of Runners" and it was organized by my pal and running sensei jim and the team at MEC Barrie.  while i felt completely inadequate and underqualified to be addressing such a diverse and experienced tribe of athletes (including my friend keith, a sub-3 marathoner and prolific 100-mile racer who was sitting pretty much front row centre) i shared a little bit from my own running journey in the hopes of providing some nuggets that might be encouraging or helpful to others who share this same passion/madness called running.  and in the hopes that some of this might be interesting or beneficial to anyone else, i thought that i would publish the substance of my presentation here on the rendezvoo point.

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i dislike running. really.

what i like is sleeping in.  i like KFC.  i like digging into a tub of ice cream and bowls of doritos after 10pm. i like not having to do the laundry every other day.  but since 2009 one of things that i've discovered about myself is that i was born to run – and more importantly, i like what my life has been like since i started running.

and yet it’s not without its perils.  i say that in all earnestness (ok, well mostly earnestness) because i think that as many of us here have discovered running is not just an activity.  it’s not something that you do, its something that has the potential to change your life.  some of the best stories about running are about people who have monumental turnarounds in their weight or health (physical and mental) as a result of taking up this sport.  yeah, it’s got that kind of impact factor.  it can and often does become so much more than just "going for a jog" or "lacing up the sneakers".  the best parts of it we can happily buy into and appreciate – and some of it can be like the force and have a dark side.

i want to share a quick list of  five things that i’ve discovered about what running has done to this human being with the hope that it might resonate with you – even if you haven’t found these to be true of your own running experience, i’m pretty confident that there are some takeaways that will benefit you in your own exploration and journey with running.

how i started into this running thing had everything to do with elvis.  i was cast in a community theatre production as an elvis impersonator, and specifically the version of elvis that appeared clad in black leather tip-to-toe in his 1968 comeback tv special.  the wardrobe person couldn't make the costume for me so she had to take my measurements and try to find the appropriate apparel items at the local thrift shops.  the leather pants that she found for me were definitely marked with the appropriate sizing tags but when i first tried them on they were practically painted on, and i pretty much had to have some fellow cast members help extricate me out of them.  but i was told that that was the best option available so it was my show outfit - and knowing that i had to not only don them performance after performance but also be able to dance around in them i determined that i had to lose some weight.

it was opportune then that my next-door neighbour should be trying to find a new home for his treadmill as he was in process of a downsizing move to a new house - i volunteered to lighten his load and put the treadmill in my basement in behind my computer workstation.  when i first started running i would throw a music video on YouTube and just try to last through the 3-4 minutes ... and as they say, that was the beginning of the end.

given that i started running to lose weight, it's been an issue that has taken up a bit too much of my attention during the past couple of years.  it's not often spoken about - at least not in circles involving the male of the species - but weight issues can be a bit of a struggle amongst focused runners (there are two great articles that i would recommend that can be found here and here).  i for one have found myself at times consumed with desire to lose weight in order to gain precious minutes in the marathon, having read that 1 lb. lost can equal 1 min. shaved off of a marathon performance.  but it's something that can be easily obsessed over - and while it may prompt healthier eating in terms of choices and plate portions, one of the things that i've come to realize and accept is that there are all sorts of different body types and that your ideal racing weight is the weight that you race and feel your best at, whatever it might be.  fuel and train smart and let the results speak for themselves - not the bathroom scale.

in the bible, specifically the old testament/hebrew scriptures, exodus 22:22 says "don't mistreat widows or orphans."  i don't know about your family situation, but my wife is a running widow and my kids running orphans.  don't get me wrong - i love what running does for me personally and the great community of people that i've been introduced to and the new friendships and bonds that i've struck up with others who take to the roads and trails alongside me.  it's just that we each have a set or primary/priority relationships to which we need to stay attentive.  one of the big reasons that i'm an early morning (i.e. pre-dawn) runner is so that i do not shirk my responsibilities at home, which may or may not include getting kids up and out of bed, helping with lunch bag prep and/or serving breakfast. 

i wish that my family shared my degree of investment in running - my wife will take to the treadmill on occasion and has been out for two short runs with me.  as for my kids, aside from participating in the girls on the run/move program at their schools they're not much for running ... so this year when they asked me what i wanted for my birthday i told them that i wanted to run a 5k MEC race with them this fall.  they've indulged me on this - now i just have to get them out the door and training so that they don't show up at the start line with the look that says "what am i supposed to do now?".

so in your efforts to go the distance with running make sure that you don't lose the relationships that matter most along the way.

as far as my running is concerned i like to have structure.  since i haven't yet discovered the pure joy of running, i'm motivated by races and PBs - and to be able to put out my best i rely on training plans.  i've used everything from your base-model plans easily found on the interweb to a customized plan crafted for me by my former running coach rick ball.  the benefits of a training plan is not only the structure that it offers but also that it will (if it is thoughtfully and purposefully designed) incorporate different workouts intended to stimulate various adaptations and systems, including but not limited to speed development, fat-metabolizing runs, hill training and recovery runs.

the dark side of training plans is that they can become cruel and unyielding taskmasters ... if you let them.

i remind myself frequently that the training plan is meant to serve the runner, and not the other way around.  it's easy to become 'enslaved' to a training plan, which is different than being committed to one.  commitment recognizes that training plans are useful for pushing you beyond your comfortable limits, and making you fitter, stronger and faster by extending your boundaries.  on the other hand enslavement happens when you or i look at the training plan and try to punch out each workout no matter what - the adverse/dangerous weather conditions, extenuating circumstances (e.g. sleepless night because of kids or special social events), accumulated stress, nagging/emerging injuries.  it's more important to be well attuned to what your body and life circumstances are trying to communicate to you than it is to be able to cross out a scheduled workout on the calendar.  

remember - the dog wags the tail.  the tail doesn't wag the dog.

i have a couple of running friends whom i would consider 'colleagues' in the sense that we started running in and around the same age, are similar in physical build and training habits and overall fitness (i.e. with respect to general activity and injuries).  however, a few of these colleagues of mine have turned in blazing fast times in distances from the 5k through the marathon - the kind that i could only wish for, and i'm left wondering at times 'what's wrong with me?' 

this characterizes a dangerous (and fruitless) pursuit that i'll affectionately term 'the barbie complex'.

you know barbie, right?  the doll from the 1950s/60s that has become iconic not only because of it's dress-up versatility and playability with girls of all ages but for the fact that if she were a real person her proportions would make it physically impossible for her to walk upright or keep her head from flopping over?

and yet she has somehow become an image of feminine perfection, and the object against which all others are compared.

the barbie complex is all about comparing yourself to those around you - which in a certain light can be helpful because we can help sharpen one another in terms of knowledge and execution.  we can and often do push one another to be better.  the thing is that there will always be someone faster than you, and almost assuredly there will be someone who is slower than you.  getting caught up in a game of comparison can be a vicious cycle because you are uniquely you whether in terms of genetics, running history, life circumstances and raw potential.  if you're going to compare yourself against anyone make it against the person that you were yesterday or last week or last month or last year.  a worthwhile goal is to be focused on becoming a better version of you than you were before ... and lay all of the other comparisons to rest.  you'll be happier and easier to get along with that way.

as a rabid introvert these ^^ are my favourite running companions.  that's why i love getting my workouts in before most people's alarm clocks ring, and having the opportunity to disappear out on some rural concessions.  since i live with five women (my wife and four daughters) there tends to be a bit of 'verbal activity' that happens around my place, so running affords me an arena where i can embrace the silence and engage the recharging process.

that doesn't mean that i'm out and out anti-social - in fact, one of the things that i've loved about becoming one of the barrie running ninjas and participating in the MEC group runs is the opportunity to generate new connections, build bonds of friendship with like-minded people and to learn from and be interwoven with intriguing life stories.  what i've discovered is that the running community is an extremely generous one - with most individuals willing to share their time, experiences, accumulated wisdom and even tangible resources with others.  in particular i've found that the MEC running groups encourage a culture of community and not competition - it's not about who can go the fastest or furthest, but about how we can nurture one another to be the best that we each can be ... and wholly enjoying the relational development along the way.  this is the kind of accountability that is attractive and that i will happily buy into ... even as a rabid introvert.



  1. Fantastic! Enjoyed reading it and would have loved hearing it. Sorry I couldn't make it up there for the talk. Turned out to be fortuitous with the way my day went.

    Thanks again for sharing. Amazing.

    1. stan, you are undeniably my number one running fan, supporter, role model and inspiration. i hope that there might still be an opportunity to feed into one another's development as athletes and as (now) speakers!

      looking forward to celebrating a new PB with you this fall!