Road to Recovery

After months of resting, icing, not getting better, not knowing what was going on, I have finally FINALLY figured out where my stupid foot pain is coming from and what I need to do to start to recover.
Just to review how my injury happened, and what’s been happening since, about 2-ish months ago I was walking down the street minding my own business, when I felt a sharp, stabbing pain in the ball of my right foot. I hobbled the rest of the way to the coffee shop, thinking that the pain would go away if I gave it a moment to rest, but two hours later, I still found myself hobbling home. When I took off my sock to examine my foot, my second toe and the area behind it was red, tender, and swollen. I RICE’d the shit out of it, but the next day, the red had turned to purple and the swelling had gotten worse. I went to the doctor who told me it was either a bad sprain or a mild stress fracture, but either way, REST. Try to stay off the foot as much as possible for at least 6 weeks. This at a time when I had just ramped up my training again. This was about a week out from a 2 and a half week trip to BC where I had planned to spend at least part of every day trail running through the forests of the Sunshine Coast. I tried to find other activities to occupy me. I tried yoga, and that hurt my foot. I tried swimming, and that hurt my foot. I tried pilates, and I hated it.
7 weeks in, my foot wasn’t improving, so I went and had an x-ray to confirm that it was not a stress fracture so that I could start physio. I’d been going for 3 weeks, and it was helping a little, but what had actually gone wrong was still a complete mystery.  I was pretty sure that there was some kind mechanical weirdness happening in my feet, but it as just a strong inkling on my part, with nothing concrete to back it up.
Well, this week in physio there was FINALLY a breakthrough. I kept talking about how things weren’t improving, and how my other foot also has similar but different issues. And this week my physio started remarking about how the callousing on the bottom of my feet is really unusual (the middle of the ball of my foot has a heavy callous), and pulled in the foot expert from their practice to take a look. He remarked that not only is my medial arch fallen, but that my anterior transverse arch is also 100% not there. WHAT. I didn’t even know that this arch existed. And suddenly everything made sense. After more exploration, my physio and I realized that I was essentially using only my second toe to stabilize my entire foot. We tested out the strength on my outer toes, and they are basically ornamental at this point. What the hell?!?! I can’t actually even begin to express how exciting it is to finally have an explanation for the weird pain I’ve been having in my feet (left starting 3 years ago, and right starting 2 months ago). I’ve talked to GPs, Sports Medicine experts, osteopaths, and other physios, and they have always done some exploring and then given me a big ol’ shrug when nothing showed up in my scans.
I’ve still got a lot of work to do, and mindfully trying to walk while focusing on my arches and how they SHOULD be working rather than how they HAVE been working is really really difficult. It’s kind of like I have to relearn how to walk all over again. I’m continuously baffled by bodies, and how we seemingly have to teach ourselves over and over again how to actually use our own bodies properly to keep us from injuring ourselves. Shouldn’t something as simple as walking just be intuitive? Apparently NOT.
ANYWAYS. Mystery solved! While I’m still in pain, I now have a plan, and can actually see my road to recovery. Can’t wait to be hitting the gym, and road, and trails, again very soon.

PS. Giant thank-you to Ossington Chiropractic and Rehabilitation for helping me to finally solve this horrible mystery.

PPS. As an aside takeaway from this whole ordeal. You know what is going on with your body. You have intuition. You have feelings. And never doubt that you should listen to them. I’m very lucky in that I’m assertive, English is my first language, I’m extremely health literate, and I am fortunate enough that I was able to afford access to physiotherapy. If even one of the pieces of this puzzle was not in place, I would likely still be hobbling around in the dark in extreme pain. I would likely have an incredibly frustrating couple of months ahead, before finally being told that I should probably just not be a runner, and should try to find something else. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to be an advocate for your own health, and to trust your gut 100%.

An update

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There’s been a lot of change in my life in the past few months, and there’s going to be even more in the months to come. I wanted to make an update post to keep people that I know in the loop about what the heck I’m up to these days.

  1. I’ve had an injury. The week after I made my post about how active I was and how much I love being active, I got a stress fracture. I was told to immediately stop any activities that had a high impact on my foot (ie: running). I tried yoga, but the upward to downward dog transition hurt my foot. I tried swimming, but the foot paddling associated with anything but the breast stroke also caused foot pain. I tried to walk less, but I’m such a big walker, and honestly it’s been a crazy struggle. 4 weeks later, I’m not feeling that much better, and I’m wondering if the end will ever be in sight.
    I’m going to try to get back to going to the gym, but with no box jumps, skipping, steps ups, etc etc etc, and see how it goes.
    I’ve seen so many runners that I know deal with injury, and it’s so fucking difficult. On the plus side, it has made me MISS running so much. I constantly think about how much I love it and how much I want to get back out there. Distance is definitely making the heart grow fonder in this case. So much fonder.
    I’m trying to remember to see the long game (patience!). In the big scheme of things, one month off (or two…) is so short when you compare it to a lifetime of physical activity.
    This injury was also a good reminder for me. I knew that it was time to replace my shoes. I could tell that they were worn. But I put it off. And with the level of physical activity that I was putting in, that was a fucking stupid decision. I will never do it again.
  2. I’ve started freelancing full-time. This decision came about in late 2016 after a series of personal breakdowns and revelations, and I finally realized, “I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT” and went for it. I spent the next few months taking every meeting and coffee that I could get, and now things are starting to come together. I’m so god-damn excited about the year ahead. I’m excited for the variation in projects and clients, and the feeling that I never have to be stuck in a specific job if I don’t want to ever again. BUT WHAT DO YOU DO, ALTAIRA? Well, I’m still kind of figuring that out.
    For now it mostly falls into a few buckets:

a. Writing. I love writing, and I’m good at it, and I can pretty much write about anything. I’m hoping to do more health care communications work, some work related to environmental and social issues, and also some work making online resources on various topics. This will be balanced with a healthy dose of blog posts on things like running and mental health and creativity. Writing all the time.

b. Research. I’m good at digging for things online, I know how to identify legit sources, and I’m basically a professional lurker. If you need something from the Internet, I can find it. I love going down knowledge rabbit holes and digging forever until every bit of useful information has been found. Whether it be for an environmental scan, or a policy paper, research holds a special place in my heart. It is a good partner to writing.

c. Other consulting. This third basket is a mixed bag of other things that I like doing. This includes some consulting about events (how should it run, what issues might you come up against, what are your goals), some strategy, and I’m hoping in the future to help teams develop online courses/workshops etc to supplement their own consulting work. I’ve helped to shape countless workshops and online education modules in the academic world, and I’m ready to take those skills and apply them to creative projects.

d. Workshops. I’m also running a series of workshops here in Toronto called Just Write. The purpose of which is to give participants the tools that they need to turn off the part of their brain that tells them that they can’t, and to just start the writing project that they have been thinking about, because that is the first and most difficult step. The next one is THIS SATURDAY. If this sounds interesting to you, I encourage you to register. This month’s workshop is only 45 bucks and will include a really great yoga session by City Yogis.

  1. I’m (mostly) moving back to BC. You heard me. May 2017, I will be packing up my Toronto life and moving it back across the country to Gibsons, BC. I’ve known for a few years that I would be planning a move to BC’s Sunshine Coast, and now the stars have finally aligned and it’s time to go home. I. CANNOT. WAIT. If we’ve ever spoken about my homeland in real life, you will have noticed how my eyes light up when I talk about the smell of the forest, and the damp air coming off the sea. I’m ready for bonfires and vegetable gardens, for trail runs and swims in the ocean on my lunch break, for easy west coast hangs that blend from morning into night, for long table dinners in apple orchards and afternoons spent holding baby sheep. READY. FOR. IT. In large part, this readiness has been facilitated by my decision to freelance. I was always hesitant to move back, because even though my heart ached for the West Coast, the thought of leaving my Toronto life completely behind, and visiting a week or two a year was just too much to bear. So at the moment I’m building up my Toronto clients, with the plan to have a home base in Gibsons but to come back and live in TO 2-3 months a year. The Sunshine Coast has so much possibility, and I cannot fucking wait for the projects, events, community building that I have started brainstorming for the year ahead.
  1. I’ve met so many wonderful people. WEST COAST HIPPIE MOMENT. When I finally gave in to what I really want from my life, I started to meet even more of the best people. I already have some truly wonderful, supportive, funny, generous friends in my life. But the connections that I’m making have just started to explode off the fucking charts in recent months. It’s blowing my mind a little.
  1. Everything is always working out for me. My fam, Jacqueline Jennings Pierrot has started using the term, “coming out of the spiritual closet” for people connecting with their purpose, and generally getting into new age spiritual practices like tarot readings, crystals, positive vibrations with the universe etc. One morning, on my most recent trip to BC, she was like, “I’m listening to this positive thinking podcast, I know you think that it’s stupid, but whatever, it’s totally working”. One of the things that she said from the podcast as a positive mantra was, “everything is always working out for me”. And my immediate reaction was *EYE ROLL* *FUCKING GAG ME* and J was like WHATEVER. And then I started saying it as a joke, because it was too self help, new agey for me, but then actually everything started just working out for me in exactly the way that I hoped it would. Soooooooooooooo… EVERYTHING IS ALWAYS WORKING OUT FOR ME.

Update COMPLETE. Big thanks to everyone who keeps reading my blog, and sending kind words or letting me know in person that a post that I wrote really resonated with them. You’ve helped me to write more consistently and honestly in the year that’s passed, and encouraged me to dig more deeply in the year ahead.

 

Tips and thoughts on first ultras

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I know, I know. We get it, Altaira! You ran an ultramarathon. What do you want, another fucking medal? Why do you keep writing posts about it? Also, we know that you run! Congratulations! Why not write about something else maybe? I will soon, I promise! But also, get ready for me to probably write about running for roughly half of all future blog posts.

Anyways, after my brief ultra summary post, I also wanted to write a list of lessons learned/general thoughts tips if you’re considering an ultra, or if you’re getting ready to run your first.

  1. You’re stronger than you think

I know that this one is a cliché at this point, but some clichés become clichés simply because they’re true. With the work and the will, you can become stronger and faster than you’d once imagined, and you can accomplish big goals that you’d never have thought were possible. Running has been an on-again-off-again activity in my life, but when I decided to be on-again in the fall of 2013, I had no idea how integral running would become to my life in the years to come. I remember my first run around Kensington from my first shitty Toronto sublet. I probably only went out for about 5k, and it was slow, and it was painful. I felt heavy and weak. I wasn’t running because I had a goal, or because I loved it; it was simply an inexpensive form of exercise that I had once done, that would be easy to pick up again with no commitment.

One day a friend tagged me in an Instagram post about Parkdale Roadrunnners, and more to make social contact in a new and lonely city than for a dedication to running itself, I became of devout attendee of Tuesday night runs. A way to get fit evolved into a way of life, and the rest is history. Nothing in my life has ever given me the sense of my own strength both physically and mentally that running has. It has left me forever changed, and I imagine that there are many more changes yet to come.

  1. Test your gear

636050460845428430This might sound like some serious “no shit” advice, but it really can’t be emphasized enough. TEST. YOUR. GEAR. When I ordered my running vest, I followed the sizing guide, and it seemed just fine when I put it on unloaded. But 5 blocks into running with the water bottles filled, and I knew that it was all wrong; I traded it in for a smaller size later that day. If I’d waited until race day to try it out, my vest would have been an excruciating burden, instead of a source of support. Also, remember that something that feels mildly annoying over a distance of 5k will become a colossal pain in your ass over a 6+ hour run. Make sure that you’re comfortable going out, you’ll experience enough discomfort without adding unneeded chafing and blisters into the mix.

 

  1. Read about running

This might not be a thing for everyone, but it was immensely helpful for me. I’d never really read much about running before, but in the 6 months leading up to my ultramarathon, I got into running lit. The four that I read were, What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Mirakami; Eat and run: My unlikely journey to ultramarathon greatness by Scott Jurek; Older, Faster, Stronger: What women runners can teach us all about living younger, longer by Margaret Webb; and Marathon Woman by Kathrine Switzer. By reading about their experiences, these runners got inside my head, and they got under my skin, in the absolute best way possible. When I felt like I didn’t have more left to give, their stories would come back to me. Their will to go on and overcome their own limitations, helped me to push myself that extra step to overcome mine. If books aren’t your thing, there’s also no lack of blog posts and articles about running out there. Other people’s stories can give you that extra bit of inspiration you need to try something new, to believe in yourself, and to keep going.

  1. Read about your race

20160716_075456Yes, road race courses vary. But trail races vary a lot more. Is the trail “technical”? How? What time of year is it? Will the course be slippery? Will part of the race be run in the dark? Do you need to learn about trail markers? Is part of the course single track? All of this information will affect how you train, but it will also strongly affect your gear; especially your shoes! While road shoes might be fine if the course is mostly packed dirt, you might risk injury if you don’t choose more rugged shoes for a trail that involves a lot of rocks, roots, and steeper downhills, particularly if the course is wet and slippery. Reviews and the course guide will also tell you how well supported the race is. If it’s 12k between aid stations, then you need to make sure that you’re carrying enough water/electrolytes/gels to make it between stations on your own. You’ll also need to eat real food throughout your ultra, so if you have severe dietary restrictions, you might want to check with race organizers to see what will be available on the day of. If nothing works for you, having a friend meet you at spectator points with a snack, carrying food in your vest, or having a well-stocked drop bag, will be essential. I’d also recommend reading up on trail running etiquette.

  1. Cross train

Cross train. Cross train. Cross train. Months of box jumps and single leg deadlifts didn’t make the uphills on my ultra easy, but it did make them waaaaaaaaaay easier. It also helped me to avoid injury. Trail running is a full body sport, and particularly if you live in a mostly trail- and hill-less city like me, cross training will be your best friend in the lead up to your ultramarathon. Long runs on flat city streets can only take you so far. If your race has a lot of long hills, I would also consider hitting a treadmill on a steep hill setting once a week. Sometimes hill sprints just don’t cut it. If you have easy access to hiking trails, I would also highly recommend doing a big hike every week or so as part of your training. Maybe a no-brainer, but sometimes it’s too easy to just put in the distance and hope for the best on race day.

  1. Do a sweat rate test

A running friend recommended that I do a sweat rate test, since I’m a heavy sweater, and he suspected that I was drinking too much water. I got lazy and didn’t make time for it in the lead up to my race, and then really regretted it half-way through. I was drinking pretty steadily and feeling good throughout the first half of my ultra. I also made the horrible mistake of taking electrolyte tablets for the first time (SEE NUMBER 2) during my race. At some point my fingers started to swell like little sausages, and I got worried and didn’t know what to do with myself to correct this. Sadly, the aid station attendants were also not well-versed in electrolyte-water balance, and they advised that I just drink more water. I found out later that this is not what I should have done. If I had done a sweat rate test, I would have had a better handle on the situation, and wouldn’t have had to run with a low level of worry and fear of dehydration or hyponatremia.

  1. Enjoy yourself

As mentioned in my previous post, focusing on the pleasure of running, and of being outside really got me through the pain, exhaustion, and mental resistance to running my ultramarathon. Focusing on the physical beauty of my surroundings took me out of my head, and helped to ground my body in my surroundings. For me, trail running is the ultimate exercise in mindfulness. Notice the colour of the sky, the smell of the dirt and trees, the feeling of the breeze against your skin. Seriously, just taking the time to notice that you are somewhere beautiful will make the whole journey a million times better.

Any advice you wish you’d heard for your first ultra? I’d love to read it in the comments!

 

 

Crushing KMs and 2016 goals

13697023_1045612325474873_3095487871918566861_nBlue Mountains, Ontario. All photos courtesy of The North Face.

A few weekends ago, I ran my first 50k ultramarathon – The North Face Endurance Challenge at Blue Mountains, Ontario. I had no idea what to expect going into it, beyond knowing that it was going to be a challenge. It turned out to be so much better than I imagined it would be.
Don’t get me wrong. It was hard. It was really fucking hard. But it was also beautiful and exhilarating and wonderful.
636050461481989480The thing that I have always loved about trail running versus road running is the variety. Instead of a regular and consistent gait, using the same muscles over and over, you are using your whole body to push you up hills, to skip over rocks and roots, to run down mountains. While the distance was a serious challenge, it was this variety in effort and landscape that ultimately kept me going. Over the 50k, there were some seriously steep rolling hills, and challenging forest switchbacks, but there were also beautiful expansive grassy meadows with a single, soft track running down the middle; easy, flat forest trails, with young spry trees forming a light-dappled tunnel of green overhead; and long-stretching lake and valley views.
At 26k, I hit a wall, and I was 100% certain that I was not going to finish. I arrived at the aid station thinking that I’d run further than I had, and felt so defeated to learn that I still had double the distance to go. I couldn’t fathom it.
I don’t know what kept me going at that point, but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward. My mantras for the next 16k became “run when you can”, and “come on legs”. I hiked up the steeper hills, and every time I was tempted to keep walking, I would kick myself into gear, and repeat these two mantras to myself. I focused on the beauty of my surroundings, and the joy of being outside doing something that I love. I focused on the other runners I know, through friendships or through legend, and carried them with me. I focused on my own strength, and my will to get through this thing that I’d set out to finish.

636050460739805458Finding my happy place.

And then at some point it got easier. I rolled into the 42k aid station feeling light and energized, happy and free. It was the home stretch, and I ran it joyfully. Near the end of the course, there was one very long, very steep downhill. We’d run it once before early on, so I knew what to expect going into it; my knees and quads were screaming at me, but somehow it was easier the second time around knowing it was the last difficult challenge to overcome before a quick straightaway to the end. I’m sure the other runners around me thought that I was crazy, but halfway down, I let out a loud, “FUUUUUUCK THIS HIIIIIIIIIILLLL!!”, then painfully laughed my way to the bottom. I picked up pace, and sprinted in to the finish line. I don’t know that I have ever felt stronger and more sure and proud of myself. When I finished my first marathon, I was surrounded by a huge crew of people that I loved cheering me on, and it was such a struggle to make it to the end. And here I was, pushing myself to the end of this 50k trail race on nothing but my own will, with springy legs and a light heart.
The next day, it was hard to walk, but I couldn’t help but start the Google search for my next ultra, and think about how I can’t wait to do it all over again.

 

Why not run an ultra maybe?

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If you’d told me when I started running with Parkdale Roadrunners, in late 2013, that in 3 years I’d be running an ultramarathon, I would have laughed in your face. Even in early spring of last year, I still had no desire to run anything further than a 10k. Then after a series of light peer pressure long runs, I made the commitment to run a half marathon, and then a marathon. During part of my marathon training, I was visiting the West Coast of BC, and I found that I could easily cover a 25k distance without additional water and fuel, while feeling energized the entire way. This was in sharp contrast to my long runs on city streets in Toronto, where I felt like my shoes were filled with bricks, and fuel and water were always lacking. Nature definitely put a bounce in my step.

I also found more and more runner friends from the West Coast posting trail runs, and found myself feeling jealous that they were spending so much time zipping through the forests and mountains.

Through the magic of Instagram’s discovery function, I also stumbled across Sorrell Walsh’s account. She’s an English runner who has become an ambassador for the #ultra5050 movement, aimed at achieving gender parity in ultramarathons. Specifically, I found myself incredibly inspired by her own group WMN RUN 100, which started as a platform to increase women’s registration in The Race to the Stones. Seeing photos of the rolling countryside in this race, and of women laughing and supporting each other over such a great distance, made me think for the first time that I wanted to be one of those women. Someday.

Then a few months ago, a fellow runner from Parkdale mentioned The North Face Endurance Challenge on Slack. I thought, “If she can do it, I can do it.” I enlisted three other women to join, and it was finally a plan. I had a lady-crew together, and we were going to run our first ultramarathon. Then, one-by-one, these women had to drop out for various reasons; including the fact that we had all been training for the Cabot Trail Relay, which fell smack in the middle of what should have been our ultra training plan. I was a little dismayed, and was about to drop out myself, when my cross-training coach Jenny McConnell (Academy of Lions & Relay Collective) decided it was time to give me the reality check that I needed to stick to it. “You’re not as behind as you think on training. And you have the time. You’re strong enough to do this, and if you don’t do it now, then when?”

So there you have it – the next 7 weeks were filled with long runs, hill sprints, adventures in eating real food while running, experimentation with packs and hydration, and lots and lots of reading. And now it’s finally here. I still don’t know what to expect. I could have had a longer training plan, and I could have made it out of the city for more practice runs on real trails, but it is what it is. I may not be finish fast, but I am going to finish strong. And I am going to do my part to add to the #ultra5050 movement. Forty years ago, no one believed that a woman could even run a marathon distance, and just look us now.

Camp Saturdays – Cabot Trail Relay

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Team Camp Saturdays at the beginning of the Cabot Trail Relay. Special thanks to team organizers, Pretty Mudhar and Jenny McConnell. Photo by Fred Goris. 

This blog post is a slight departure from my usual posts, as it’s not meant to necessarily appeal to the general blog reading population. Moreso, it’s meant to give a summary of some (and hopefully in the months to come all) of the legs of the Cabot Trail Relay.

A few weeks ago, I ran the Cabot Trail Relay with a group of really amazing, strong women from Toronto (see the #CampSaturdays and #RelayCollective hashtags on Insta). While training, a lot of us found it difficult to find information on our particular legs. Sooo… in response, I asked the women on my team to each send a little description of the part of the trail they ran. I’ve had a few submissions so far, but am hoping that the list will grow as I have a chance to check in with people in the weeks/months to come. Below, please find a little summary of each leg, as written by the lady who ran it.

Here goes.

Leg 1 – Altaira Northe

My leg! I felt really lucky to be kicking off the start of the Relay, and also be racing at a pretty normal time of day for racing. The energy around the starting line is great, and it was really nice to be able to get sent off by my entire team. Leg 1 starts at 7 am, the temperature was cool, but not cold, and it wasn’t until the end of my leg that the bugs started to come out. I hadn’t been to Nova Scotia before, and I don’t really know how to imagine the real life hills that I see in elevation maps, so I didn’t know what to expect from the hills in this leg. They were not as bad as I had imagined. Yes, there were lots of rolling hills, they weren’t tiny, but they also weren’t HUGE. There was one very long steady hill partway through the course, but there was also a lot of pretty gentle downhill. A few notes just for me personally – I was using a watch for the first time, and hadn’t made sure that it showed total distance, which would have been really helpful. I also feel like I could have pushed harder at the end if I’d made a mental note of roughly where the last few hills fell along the course. The course ends along a long steady downhill curve heading into a bridge before a tiny upslope, sending you into a small church parking lot to finish.

All in all, this leg was difficult, but not horrendous. This could also be because for me personally, running in nature makes everything seem more enjoyable and more chill (when compared to city racing). By the end, I wish that I’d pushed harder, but all in all, great experience.

Another aside – I brought clothes to change into right after my leg, but wish that I’d actually brought a third set to change into after being on the road for another 12 hours.

Leg 7 – Carissa Gregorio

Leg #7 is described as 13.1k of rolling hills with a 90m steady incline over 8km and rated 3/5. At the time of the race, I was running against the cold wind with overcast skies. Besides the wind, it was ideal weather for the steady climb as it kept me cool.  The leg did involve rolling hills, and it seemed I reached the peak of that hill just before 6km and had about a 4km downhill. The views at the top of the hill and then going downhill were amazing. There were two unexpected (steep) hills during the last few kilometres, at about 10km and another one just before the finish line. The most challenging aspect was the long (fast) downhill and being able to readjust to going uphill again and keeping the pace. Regardless of the leg, running the Cabot Trail was unforgettable, the quiet and the sounds of the trees and the breathtaking views were all worth it.

Leg 9 – Steph Kelley

Leg 9 has been described by others as “career ending”, “makes Smokey Mountain look small”, and “the hardest race of your life.” I would describe it simply as tough and rewarding. Yes, it will likely be the longest and steepest hill you’ve ever run in your life; measuring 6.2km uphill on the official Leg Map. Yes, your legs and lungs will burn – a lot; but remember, not everyone gets the privilege of running one of the hardest legs in the entire race. So we’re clear – it’s hard, but let’s get into some more specifics so you know what to expect. The first 2 kms are actually pretty flat (contrary to the leg description which say it’s 6.2 km uphill from the start); this was a nice surprise for me as I was expecting to be on the pain train from the start line. I used this first section to shake out the legs and get into racing mentality. The next 4 km takes you on the infamous climb up North Mountain; it starts steep and only gets steeper as you climb up over 380m. This is where the practice comes in – if you do one thing before the race make sure you get both anaerobic and aerobic hill training in, you’ll need both. At 6 km you reach the top of the mountain, on this particular day we actually ran through the clouds at the top which provided a hauntingly beautiful backdrop. There are a few rollers but the 3 km across the top feels extremely flat; I used it to shake out my legs, regain my breathe, and mentally prepare for the second half of the race. At 9 km you start the descent (into the sunset!); the road takes you 3 km straight down to the bottom of the valley. My personal goal here was to maintain a consistent fast pace down without burning out before the remaining 5 km of the race. It’s extremely tough on the joints but it’s a nice change from the uphill section only a few minutes before. By the time you reach the bottom of the mountain dusk has fallen and the reflective vests start doing their work. There’s still another 5 km of the race left; a few rolling hills and a whole lot of grit. The last km provides one last challenge with a small climb to the finish line where you cross from the left side of the road to finish on the right at the Mountain View Restaurant. I was ecstatic at this point to finish 4 minutes ahead of my scheduled time (thanks to some spicy kms on the downhill) at 1hr 26 mins, granting me a third place female finish. My career did not end (contrary to some other descriptions), but it was probably the most challenging race I’ve run to date – but by far the most rewarding.

Leg 15 – Amy Chen

Leg 15 is a fairly easy one, and not too long in total 15.43km (I mean, compared to other legs, like leg 4, leg 9). But it’s not easy to run (at least for me).

I am a person who prefers rolling hills, up and down, because I usually recover super fast. Leg 15 is a relatively steady, but gradual uphill. That being said, I didn’t do a great job to be honest, even though I pushed myself the hardest I could. My pace was 5’50’ and my goal was 5’35”, so far from my goal.

The leg starts from 5:40am, when the mountain is jut waking up – not too hot, not too cold. Everything looks lovely during the early morning golden hour.

The first 6km was relatively flat with some small inclines, and for each short incline, you have a shorter decline, which is good. The scenery was really great, really peaceful, green, lots fields, and pretty quiet.  After that, the course goes up-flat-up-flat until the end.

 

 

Running and crying

The other night, I had a conversation with a non-running pal about running. She’s interested in getting into it, so we talked a bit about what I love about it, and the conversation eventually turned towards running and emotions. After re-counting a few of these stories, my friend and I were both happy-sobbing, and she said, “I hope that you’re writing all of these down somewhere.” So here I am, writing these down.

The first time I ran a half-marathon
I signed up for my first half-marathon kind of on a whim. I had never run more than 10k, and then on International Women’s Day, my run crew did an optional 15k route, and I decided to give it a try. About a week later, I was peer-pressured into signing up for my first half. I did two more longer training runs, and then it was race day. I started the race with my regular running partner, Mary Higgins, and had the goal to just keep up with her.

Around the 17k mark, I started to lag; she was pulling ahead, and I was ready to accept that this was where we parted ways. Just then, an older gentleman padded up beside me, placed his hand on my shoulder and softly said, “don’t let her go.” He ran by my side, giving me that little push to catch back up with Mary, and then went on his way. I almost burst into tears right then and there. As a result, Mary and I finished the race together.

Watching other runners on my crew finish the marathon
That same day, after finishing the half, I went to cheer with the rest of my run crew at the marathon finish line. Every time someone on my crew ran by who I knew was running their first marathon, I got teary eyed.

I also got teary-eyed about strangers though
At the same finish line, there was a young woman who was coming in hard for the final 100m stretch. Her mom was standing on the sidelines cheering. The woman’s mom didn’t look to me like she ran herself, she had a stereotypical softer middle-aged suburban mom-bod and was dressed in a grey crew neck, mom jeans, and keds; but when her daughter came running through, she cheered so loudly, grabbed her daughter’s hand, and sprinted to the end with her. Another woman on my run crew and I both saw this, then made eye contact and burst into tears.

Every time I run by cheer squad. Every. Damn. Time.
I run with the Parkdale Roadrunners, who are notorious for being supportive, and for having a really over-the-top cheer squad at pretty much every race in Toronto (and sometimes in other cities). Every time I know that I’m about to round the corner before cheer squad, without fail, I start to cry. I can’t help it. Sometimes, I call it tearsquad.

When I was running my first marathon, PDRR was also hosting Bridge the Gap, which is a global run crew movement where run crews all over the world will come in for one race. So cheer squad was a million times bigger than usual. While running through the half point cheer squad, I almost had my first asthma attack because I was so overwhelmed with emotion.

Then at the final finish line cheer squad, I was the last marathoner on my crew to come through. I felt like a god damn celebrity in an episode of “Altaira Northe, THIS. IS. YOUR. LIFE.” People ran up to me and grabbed my hand and ran me through a tunnel of flags and confetti and other people shouting my name, and cheering me on. Then two of my run coaches sprinted to the end of the course with me, yelling, “You can do it! Faster! You’re almost done!” I died. It is one of the most memorable moments of my life. There was a video taken, and whenever I see it I bawl my god damn eyes out.

Mary Higgins’ first marathon
Mary ran a huge chunk of my first marathon with me, so I offered to run a huge piece of hers with her. I was eagerly waiting at the half way(ish) cheersquad, and when I saw her, my eyes filled with tears. I tried my best to suck those tears back into my eyes though, because we had a race to run!

But then at the end…
Mary powered through the end of her race like a champ. We hugged and high fived, and then looked behind us to see who else was coming across the finish line. Just then, a much older woman, after crossing, glanced back at the clock, and threw her hands in the air, yelling, “Boston!” I’m crying just thinking about this. I find older female athletes so inspiring; maybe because I didn’t ever think of it as a thing growing up. I don’t think that I knew that you could be a 70 year old woman, and be choosing to run a marathon with the goal of qualifying for Boston rather than choosing to just let yourself “get old.”

We turned around and congratulated this woman, and gave her a big group hug, and we all cried. CRYING FOR EVERYONE. One day, I will be this woman, and I hope that like her I can inspire younger women to keep being active well into their later years.

So those are my main stories about crying and running. Full disclosure – I’m a really emotional person, so crying about things that inspire/overwhelm me is not a rare occurrence. But the thing about running is that I didn’t ever expect to find it emotional. The first time I felt tears in my eyes watching another runner finish a race, I was taken completely by surprise. Because whatever – it’s just running, right? But something about it ends up digging these very raw emotions out of you. You feel your gut drop, and your heart just catches in your chest. You can’t help it. I know that it sounds like a cliché, but it’s a triumph of the human spirit. Even if in some ways it seems kind of frivolous, you get out there and push yourself to run. You run to show yourself that you can do it; you run to prove to yourself that you can push through pain and adversity; you run because you can.