Wednesday, November 04, 2009

At one end of the frail bridge
spanning the chasm of impossibility
a terrified man takes a step; at the other,
wonder awaits, impatient.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


I know the title is way hokey, but WTH. That IS what the poem is about, in one sense. Wrote this about a year ago but haven't dared to post it. I guess I'm ready to let the world see it now.


Arisen from our bed, still warm and close,
your presence comforts even as you leave
this place for good, a kindly smile that shows
you’ll always hang around. That look deceives
the innocent but lights my way: I streak
along your wake, forgetting in my haste
to dress--and so I turn the other cheek;
you seem surprised I could remain so chaste.
However chaste, I chase--farther, faster.
Come hither eyes melt into cold white stare,
laugh down on fools--dolts who’d court disaster
to glimpse your dark side. Thus I run. Though Mare
always was the goal,
I’ll never land there lest I lose control.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Happy National Poetry Day (if you're a Brit)

In honour of National Poetry Day in Britain, I've dredged up and am posting a poem I wrote a few years back. Go ahead, read some poetry today. You might be surprised at how pleasant you find it.

I Stop and Listen to a Winter Wren

Perhaps jealous of the sound—a rivulet trickling
down to wash stones and fallen branches—
the winter wren sings its spring digs,
a tangled rising-and-falling in the brush.

Surely the trill must soon cease its winding
progress through the trees—surely this small
brown creature cannot go on so,
drowning out the stream? It must be all lungs.

It does end, of course, and the unconscious
duet of water and earth emerges in the ensuing
quiet, seeming to pick up where the bird trails off,
dipping up and down over moss and twig.

The wren again inhales damp May air;
it cannot sing forever, though it will die trying.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Why are races so fun?

On the latest episode of my favourite science podcast, Quirks & Quarks, host Bob McDonald interviewed researcher Emma Cohen, who recently published a paper about pain threshold when exercising solo and exercising in a group.

If you don't want to click through, the gist of the research is that people who exercise in groups experience lower pain thresholds than those exercising alone. Cohen theorized that there's something about the social experience of exercising together that boosts endorphin output and, hence, lowers pain threshold.

This story was kind of an "ah hah" moment for me. I vividly remember my very first running race. It was the Park Lafontaine Classic 10k race two years ago. I ran well and was pleased with my time, but what struck me most was the special feeling I had being with all those other runners. There was something euphoric about being with so many other people working toward a similar goal. It made me happy, pure and simple. And I've since noticed a similar effect at other races; there's an infectious spirit you can't help but get caught up in.

And just about any recreational runner will tell you about what I like to call the "race effect," which somehow pushes you to a better result than you ever managed in training. While some of this can be attributed to the competitive jolt of the race context, I could definitely see how some of it also comes from the extra endorphins produced by being around so many people.

This year's Park Lafontaine Classic will be my third in a row and will have to stand in for my marathon goal. Whatever happens, I'm sure it will be a blast.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Listening to your body

I consider myself a rational person. No touchy-feely spiritual mumbo-jumbo for me, thanks very much. The universe is just a random series of events, of which I am a conscious participant and fortunate to be so. So when I hear the all-too-common phrase "everything happens for a reason," I just shake my head and smile. Coincidence is coincidence; nothing more, nothing less.

So when I broke my foot early this summer, though that phrase might have passed fleetingly through my mind in a moment of weakness, in response to my intense disappointment at having to stop training toward a marathon, I never really believed that there was any rhyme or reason behind my stepping on that rock. It just happened. Deal with the consequences, learn from it, move on.

The latest obstacle is much less dramatic than a foot fracture: I merely caught a cold. But when your training schedule is as tight as mine, there's no room for error, and missing out on almost a week of training has pretty much put the kibosh on any hope I had of achieving the kind of shape required to run a marathon in three weeks' time. I suppose I could still register and just walk part of it, but I want my first marathon to be a good experience, something I can look back on with pride and accomplishment.

I wouldn't be human if this second hurdle preventing me from reaching my marathon goal this year didn't send me reaching for that old security blanket phrase again. But even I must admit that there may well have been a reason for my catching this cold--a perfectly rational reason, in fact: I'm pushing my body too hard.

For an athlete, pushing your body is almost the raison d'être of training in the first place, so it's extremely hard to hear and listen to--let alone accept it--when your body tells you that it has limits. So often have we heard the phrase "no pain no gain" that to give in to the pain, to stop running when your body just wants to lie down by the side of the road and sink into the dirt, is somewhat anathema to the philosophy of running. This is what running a marathon is all about, right? To push yourself beyond what you ever thought your limits would be. Even at the most basic level, part of the pleasure of running is pushing yourself.

But there are limits and then there are limits. Training for a marathon in two months was, by most people's standards, a pretty crazy goal. I knew I was pushing the envelope when I set it. I told myself that I'd give it my best shot but that if I failed, I wouldn't be too hard on myself. The 26k run last weekend was hard, but I thought I recovered pretty well from it. I ran a solid 6k the next day and an excellent 12k last Wednesday. But that evening I started feeling a little raw in the throat. By Thursday evening, I was feeling pretty shitty, and Friday was even worse. No doubt about it; my body was sending me a message.

So this past weekend's planned 30k didn't happen. At best, I might have postponed it for a week, which would then have had me doing a 34k long run the week before the marathon. And that, to me, is simply too close for comfort. If my body was so badly stressed after 26k that I caught a cold. What might happen after 30 or 34k, let alone a marathon?

Which is not to say I don't think I'll ever be able to handle that distance, but I recognize more clearly now than ever that, especially at my age, I have to build up to it more gradually. Going from 0 to 42k in two months just isn't feasible for me.

In his book ChiRunning, Danny Dreyer talks about what he calls "body sensing" and often talks about listening to your body. And while I don't think I was actually over-training, I'm pretty sure that my body was reaching the limits of what it could do, even if it didn't really seem that way.

Am I disappointed that I won't be running a marathon this year? Sure. But as a wise friend of ours once told us, when you're faced with a difficult decision, a good way to figure out if you're making the right choice is to "try it on" for a few days. In other words, make a decision one way or another, with the option to back out if you want to. In my case, I mentally made the decision to not run the Toronto Marathon this year. To my surprise, what I felt most was not disappointment but relief.

So I'm pretty sure I made the right decision.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

And now the real running begins

Today my marathon training entered a new phase: the pain.

Last week was the Montreal Marathon and, as part of my marathon training, I ran the half-marathon. I was determined to take it easy and integrate the race into my training regimen, rather than treat it like a normal race. The reason for this reasonableness is that with only five weeks to the Toronto Marathon, I couldn't afford to take 4 days off recovering from a race (which is my normal routine). So I promised myself I wouldn't focus on pace during the race and keep my heart rate in the 155 range. I was aiming for a time of 1:45, which I figured was a good compromise between a decent race pace and a slow-run pace. Of course, when it came time to turn on my Garmin 305 at race time, I realized I had stupidly forgot to charge it. Like it or not, I was running "free," that is, without any toys, just like the pre-humans did on the savannahs of Africa.

So I took it out easy and tried to keep a steady pace. And lo and behold, near the end of the race, I found myself having a fair bit of gas left for a good kick over the last 1.5 kilometres and a furious sprint to the finish. My final time: 1:44:50. I must say I was pretty happy that I managed to judge my pace just right and that I had a good finish, especially considering the fact I had only been training for a month. So while it was my slowest half-marathon result ever, it was in some ways the most satisfying of all.

But that was last week. This week it was back to the regular training grind with a planned long run today of 26 km. I was nervous before today's long run because I have never run over 25 km before, and no more than 21 this year, so I wasn't sure how my body would react.

The run started pretty well and I felt good up to about 15k. But by 19k I was struggling. I suppose the dinner party we had last night, during which I imbibed my fair share of wine, didn't really help the endurance side of things. But in the end, I managed to complete the distance, and with a respectable slow-run pace of 5'30"/km.  I was very happy to stop but the good news is that my foot, shins and knees all held up well. I really tried to focus on the ChiRunning techniques, and I think that stood me in good stead. But I'd be sugar coating things if I said it wasn't a really hard run.

Next week, the long run will hopefully be 30k, which is getting into the realm of the dreaded "wall." More uncharted territory and cause for nervousness. But I guess that's the whole point of trying to run a marathon, right? At any rate, I think I'll skip the wine with dinner the night before.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Music, language and the brain

I very rarely run while listening to music. For me, running is very much a meditative activity, and listening to music only distracts me. And yet I am one of those people who, on some level, always has some music playing in the back of his brain, and this is especially true of running. So I guess in some sense, I do "listen" to music while I run. 

The idea that music is part of what makes us human is fascinating to me. And so I found this link to a series of videos from the World Science Festival very interesting. It features a panel of neuroscientists who study music and the brain, with special guest Bobby McFerrin. If you're at all interested in the science of music, or if you just want to hear some very cool performances by a very, very talented musician, I highly recommend clicking through.  

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back on the trails

So after two months off healing my foot, which included a two-week vacation to Switzerland, which itself included several days' hiking in the Alps, I am running again. Yippee!

My first run was actually only a few hours after stepping off the plane. A great way to loosen up after a 9-hour flight, but perhaps not the ideal start to a training program. It was only 5k, and it was exhausting, but it was also exhilarating.

Ten days later and I'm up to 12k, though at the (for me) pretty leisurely pace of about 5'35"/k. My body's still adapting to the stress of running, but I think it's time to incorporate some speed work, at least over the shorter distances.

I'm pretty sure that barring any further injuries, I'll be able to run the half of the Montreal Marathon in three weeks. As for the full marathon in Toronto a month after that, well, time will tell, but I've pretty much given up hope of qualifying for Boston. I need to just enjoy running again after so long a period off. Trying to BQ would be too much pressure. So at this point, my goal is simply to run a marathon this year. BQing will have to wait.

But MAN is it great to be back!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Where the hell have I been?

And the answer is: "Not here." Obviously. Blogging has lost a lot of it's appeal of late, especially with the rise of Facebook and Twitter, which allow me to express myself in writing, with the added advantage that I know at least some people are reading what I write, even if it is only snippets of 140 characters.

But I admit that the blog does have its advantages too, and sometimes the status update feels a little like literary fast food. Perhaps it's time to start doing some real writing again. The question is, as all writers ask (or at least they should), "what do I have to say?" And the (short) answer is: "I love to run."

It seems my life is a series of infatuations, each of which, while continuing to hold a certain sway in my existence, nevertheless eventually loses its hold over my imagination. I could name many such infatuations but I'll just mention science fiction, beer making, bird watching, single-malt scotch, and (wait for it) blogging as a few subjects that have deeply interested me at one point in my life but that are no longer front and centre in my consciousness; I still enjoy them (well, for beer, it's more beer drinking than beer making nowadays), but they're no longer serious hobbies. The one major exception is music, which, while holding various levels of importance in my life at different times, has deeply engaged me ever since I can remember. Poetry came a long later in life and is still important, though it too has lost some of its fascination for me, but I'll throw it in the music pot, since I believe that on a certain level, they are the same thing.

All of this is a long-winded prologue to the fact that my current "passion" is running. I have always loved to run but only started taking it seriously in about 2000 and then really caught the running bug in 2006. I have run two half-marathons and, until recently, was training for my first marathon. And I have been toying with the idea of using this blog to chronicle that experience. Then three weeks ago, while out running some intervals, I stepped on a big rock and broke the fifth metatarsal of my right foot. As I hobbled the three kilometres back home, I had ample time to reflect that my marathon plans, at least in the short term, were in as much trouble as my foot.

I am now walking again but won't be running for another three to four weeks, so there is no way I will be in shape for the Montreal Marathon on September 13. Assuming I am able to start running again in mid-August, the plan now is to run another half-marathon in Montreal and maybe, just maybe, run the Toronto Marathon on October 19. Perhaps if I can start running again I'll start writing again too. But don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Sherry Baby

For S. on the occasion of our 20th anniversary.

Sherry Baby

This orchid is no hothouse bloom,
no annual who won’t be here come fall.
Her roots run deep, her leaves may sprawl,
but twenty years has she been monarch of this room.

And when she deems the time is right,
she awes you with her fireworks display
and draws you close with her bouquet.
Yet flower or no, she’s always my own delight.