A race is a very special undertaking. For some reason that can’t possibly relate to logic or reason, I’ve chosen to run two in the past three weeks.
It might not be good for my body to run a race every day.
But maybe it would be better for my mind and my spirit to run a race every day.
I did not feel like running this race. I wasn’t even sure my training was sufficient, despite some hard work over the summer. As predicted, my ability to train on the weekends dropped off as soon as September arrived, and with it the book. I ran that half-marathon three weeks ago as a training run. Because otherwise, I’d dropped down to three runs a week, none of them over 12.5 kilometres. Yesterday’s race was double that at 25 kilometres, and on steep winding trails, very hilly, while the half-marathon route had been a gently rolling road with no real hill challenges.
But I went. I set my alarm for early, slept poorly, woke and forced myself to eat and to drink and to prepare, and drove to Pinehurst Conservation area, and picked up my race kit, and stood in line at the bathrooms, and sat in the truck trying to stay warm and eating almonds and reading toward the ending of A Tale for the Time Being and then it was time to lace up my shoes, pin on my number, and go to the start line. And then it was time to run.
So I ran.
I didn’t know whether or not I was up for this particular challenge. In fact, I feared that I was not up for it; certainly knew that I would not be choosing to do it, had I not signed up months ago. But that’s a good enough reason to do something, I believe: sign up, show up, offer what you have in you to offer on the day it is required of you.
It might not be as much as you could offer under ideal circumstances, or at a different time in your life. That is okay.
A race is more about marking the moment with the offering of your effort than it is about finishing or competing or putting up race times. In fact, that last one is just a number and is worth something to you alone, and you get decide, therefore, its value.
I decided yesterday that the numbers didn’t matter.
I ran without a watch. I ran on gut instinct, following my body’s ebbs and flows of energy, without judging or critiquing my body’s efforts, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, but then stronger again, always with a mind to the effort needed and the desire and pleasure of speed and forward-motion. On some of the downhills, it felt like I was flying. On some of the uphills, I was bent double and slowed to a walking pace. I tuned a lot out. In fact, the experience had an otherworldly quality, or the quality of a dream I did not control, but only moved through.
For long stretches, I thought of nothing, saw little, only was aware of motion itself, the path immediately ahead, the tree roots, the leaves, the colours, the sticks and stones under my feet. I remember the sun shone for awhile, its brightness on the fallen, wet poplar leaves so strong that it hurt my eyes to focus on the ground and yet I knew that I needed to focus lest I lose my footing or trip. So much of my mind’s work went into the path immediately ahead.
When my energy flagged, I practiced staying in the moment. I thought of old Jiko in A Tale for the Time Being practicing zazen (though this was moving meditation). I used a few mantras, chosen at random from the flotsam and jetsam of information that had passed through my mind either right before race time or during the race itself.
A phrase on the back of a t-shirt that I saw while waiting in line in the women’s bathroom: “The mind leads the body.” For a while, I was saying it backward: “The body follows the mind,” which worked too, but then I ran behind the woman with the t-shirt for a stretch and saw the words as they were, so I switched to that. I tried to thank her when I passed her, but instead said, “I like your shirt.” Which wasn’t quite the right message, but there was very little oxygen available for communication.
Communication was rudimentary. I felt myself pulled deep inside my body, my eyes tools only, unable or unwilling to connect, almost a blank of observable emotion.
The flying mantra came from a comment posted on Facebook by a friend in Ottawa, encouraging my race effort: she said the damp would keep me cool and I would feel like I was flying. And I did, sometimes.
There was one more mantra, from Elizabeth Gilbert, the author, who I follow on Facebook, who said that your fear is the most boring thing about you. So, whenever I felt the trickle of fear approaching, or questioned whether I was running too well, too easily, too strong, and would therefore shortly most definitely crash, I told myself: your fear is the most boring thing about you!
I knew the second lap would be difficult, and was not prepared for it to be as manageable as it became. I’d lost all fear by that point, and the kilometres seemed to melt rather than be counted, as I wasn’t paying much attention, and would miss kilometre markers altogether, so it seemed like before I knew it there were only 5 kilometres left.
I drank coke and water. I sucked on an energy gel pack that my friend Heather, who I run with on Thursday mornings, had given me along with a new pair of socks as a surprise gift for race day. I wore the socks, too. I thought of Heather during that last 10 kilometres because we run that distance together and we run it far faster than I’m used to covering 10 kilometres, so I told myself that if I could keep up with Heather, I could easily complete these last 10 kilometres. In fact, when I realized I had only five kilometres left, it seemed as if the race had happened too quickly.
Not that I wanted it to go on longer.
Just that I was shocked to realize how quickly the time had passed, how deeply inside of it my focus was and would remain, with little ticks and breaks here and there, until I crossed the finish line.
In fact, I sped up significantly when I realized I was completing the last kilometre, and sprinted the last 600 metres, passing many runners, none of them choosing to challenge me, although I kept listening for the sound of footfalls chasing behind me. None came. I knew I could carry myself over the last stretch, and the sprint felt easy at the end, strong.
I don’t know what time I got. I was too totally inside the focus to look at the clock as I crossed the line. I do know it was faster than I’d hoped for, but slower than previous races.
As I drove home, it came to me that a race is an opportunity to prove to yourself that you’re stronger than you think. That’s what it felt like. During the race, I felt so much stronger than I’d thought I was, only hours earlier, so much braver, so much calmer. I’m doing this, I told myself; you’re doing this. It was exhilarating and fun and joyful. I will do it again. I will approach it with the same spirit, with optimism, with training to underpin the approaching effort, and without giving in to fear. It isn’t that the fears won’t rise, but I don’t have to bend to them.
This is life, too.
For example, I can’t not write another book for fear that it won’t match my previous books. I can’t let fear guide my choices or shape my decisions. I need to show up for the challenge, whatever that challenge may be, with the best effort I can offer, right now. I’m stronger than I think; you’re stronger than you think.
Busy. I don’t have a more entertaining descriptive for my weekend. Saturday, noon, I read at Word on the Street in Kitchener, and Sunday at Word on the Street in Toronto, but Saturday afternoon the whole family found time to get outside and enjoy the heat.
I needed a long training run, and had accidentally, blissfully, slept in on Saturday morning. Slept in, read newspaper, drank coffee, ergo did not run. Serious bliss, followed by speeding off to my reading, tromping through downtown Kitchener in my high-heeled clogs, staying to hear my friend Tas’s presentation, all lovely, but somewhat dehydrating, in retrospect, and lunch became a forgotten meal.
Tasneem Jamal, reading at Word on the Street, Kitchener, from Where The Air Is Sweet
Home again, sunny and warm, we set off for Rim park, where I ran along the Grand river and the kids and Kevin practiced soccer drills, ’cause that’s what we do for fun.
Here’s where the dehydration comes into play. It was going to be an easy 15km run. Should’ve been easy, anyway. I started off feeling fab, a little too fab. Well-caffeinated, perhaps. Perhaps shamed by the marathon champion I’d interviewed on Thursday who, now in her early 50s, still runs at a 7-minute/mile pace. I should be doing that! I told myself (not actually managing to do that, quite, because people, do you know how fast that is?!). But there I was, nonetheless striving for greatness, passing all the teens on roller-blades, feeling swift and mighty and mighty fab. I knocked back the first 5km as if I were running a 5km race.
And then I died. You should not die at 5km when pacing yourself for 15. The rest of the run was a slog, which gradually became a torturous slog, and finally a suffering-from-weird-physical-symptoms-slog: terrible chills, in the heat. Not a good sign. Dragged myself back to the soccer field, a mere 12.5km accomplished.
But you’d never know from these photos I took, back at the soccer field.
We had so much fun. It took hours to recover my equilibrium (I stayed chilled for ages), but we mowed down hamburgers and poutine, and went to bed early, and all was well for Word on the Street in Toronto the next day.
Travelled by train. With my friend Tas, whose new book is out this year too — it’s called Where The Air Is Sweet, and you must read it or make it your book club’s pick.
Toronto, viewed from a window at Hart House
I was reminded that it’s always better to travel with a friend. With a friend along, and friends to meet up with, you travel in a frame of mind that welcomes all kinship, and is open to new connection. You travel more securely, perhaps. All things said and done, Sunday was another fun day, sunny and windy and fine. I deliberately aimed to eat and drink at regular intervals, though I do slightly regret the choice of a cup o’ soup on the train ride home.
Hey, am I ever glad to get to do what I do.
Good things I did yesterday: wrote in journal, wrote blog post, received kind messages from friends, publisher, agent, etc., made detailed class plan for teaching gig tonight, read (and wept) through Katherena Vermette’s GG-winning poetry collection North End Love Songs while curled in front of fire, walked dogs, did not put on brave face, picked up kid from field hockey practice, napped, drove kid to and from gymnastics, ordered Chinese for supper, laughed, shared sadness with family who refused to come to my pity party, played piano duet with 6-year-old, read picture books to kids, folded laundry, went to bed knowing all was well, set alarm for early morning yoga.
Dumb things I did yesterday: did not eat lunch, did not answer phone.
Six-year-old: “So your book didn’t get a medal?”
Eleven-year-old: “Go for a run, Mom, you’ll feel better.”
A list of Canadian authors also with books out this calendar year, also not on this year’s Giller long list, posted in my FB feed yesterday by a friend: Margaret Atwood. David Adams Richards. Ann-Marie MacDonald. Caroline Adderson. Michael Crummey. Johanna Skibsrud. David Bergen. Kate Pullinger. Fred Stenson. Rudy Wiebe. Emma Donaghue. Thomas King. (To which I will add those names I’d hoped or expected to see there too: Richard Wagamese. Tasneem Jamal. Kim Thuy. Dionne Brand. Kathryn Kuitenbrower. Claire Cameron. Angie Abdou. Michelle Berry. And I could go on.) All of which is to say, I’m getting over myself. It usually takes me exactly 24 hours to get over myself. Hi, self.
I want to argue with my own expectations. I do. I want to blame them, get angry at them. But they’re such an integral part of me. Here’s how Kevin put it (this is why I married him): “If you really didn’t care, well, you wouldn’t care. You wouldn’t be who you are.”
Before, above, with my magnificent party planning crew.
And after, below, as the evening begins to swing.
I did not take photos during the party. These are by AppleApple. It was such an evening, a moment out of time, and all I can say is thank you to everyone who made it happen. Kevin told me I was laughing in my sleep last night.
Yesterday was devoted to running.
I started by running 10.5 km early in the morning, before and then during the rain. My Tuesday running partner couldn’t meet up, so I headed out alone. It was very dark and extra-early, because I’d taken swim girl to the pool first. On early dark mornings I stick to neighbourhood streets, when what I really want is to run out toward the open sky. But on early dark mornings that path feels isolated and unlit; I err on the side of caution. I’d gone a dull 4 km when I saw a familiar jacket ahead. I ran faster to catch up. A friend! (Not my usual running partner.) Running with her livened up my route immensely.
Basically, aside from the odd evening out, my social life is anchored by early morning exercise with friends. And texting. And threshold conversations, such as when dropping a kid off, or waiting on the sidelines/poolside/at music lessons. Does this sound familiar to anyone else?
I spent the day reading through the Girl Runner galley, sharpened pencil in hand. This is gruelling work, I’ll admit. Because I’m still reading as the writer, still working to improve (not to say perfect) the words on the page, I can’t read as a reader. After many hours of this, all I wanted to do was run.
Maybe I was inspired by Aganetha.
Kev and I were tag-teaming supper prep, but it wasn’t ready in time for soccer girl to eat before soccer practice. I was taking her. I grabbed a handful of almonds, dashed upstairs and came back down in running gear.
Kevin, in the kitchen, puzzled: “Didn’t you already run this morning?”
Yes, but. That seemed ages ago, like it belonged to another day, another season. Plus, at soccer practice I can run out under an open sky. And it had stopped raining.
So I went, and I ran. And as I ran, I didn’t think about anything in particular. I didn’t think about punctuation or trimming words from sentences. I didn’t think about publicity planning. I thought about running. I repeated a few key phrases that remind me to improve my form, or push harder, or to relax. Quick feet. Tuck in. Shoulders down. I decided I would complete a half-marathon distance in one day, this run being the second stage. And so I did. And that’s what I thought about, really. That’s all.
change of focus
Daily life is a mixture of noise and quiet, connection and interiority, an ongoing attempt to stay focused on whatever is the priority at the moment. To not get distracted. I spend a lot of my daily life trying not to let myself get distracted. Maybe I need a few key phrases, like those I use while running. If I’m with someone, I want to be with them. If I’m working on something, I want to be working on it. It’s where squeezing everything in breaks down, attempting to do too many things all at once, splitting one’s focus. Am I tuning out the right things? Tuning in to the things I mean to? Our brains seem wired to get off on distraction. Quick hits of excitement. But really it’s focus that’s deeply satisfying. It’s running and emptying the mind. It’s reading a stack of picture books to a kid before bed. It’s listening to what a friend is saying, not jumping ahead to what you’ll say next.
Change. When you make art on the driveway in winter, here is what happens to it over the course of several months.
I would like to speak today about the idea of being, at least in part, a public person. I wonder how others do it. How do you manage to travel, to run to appointments, to make presentations, and dress professionally, and be brushed and unwrinkled and fresh smelling? How do you exercise and eat well and keep a sharp eye on your children’s needs, both physical and emotional? How do you clean your house and yard and fold laundry and cook food from scratch, and lovingly tuck your children in at night, and read them bedtime stories? How do you go to the soccer practices and piano lessons and swim lessons and travel tournaments and meets? How do you teach classes and welcome students and read essays and comment and mentor and remain open and flexible and funny and never bitter? How do you host meals and go to parties and celebrate birthdays and be a good partner? How do you meditate and feed your spirit and do yoga and stay fit and healthy of body and of mind? How do you continue to make art that is worthy of being called art?
I know I set the bar high, and I know it’s me doing the setting of the bar. We all have our (tragic) flaws. Mine may be that I want to do it all, big and small.
I want art on the driveway. I want books in translation. I want to run fast. I want singing. I want fun. I want to braid hair and apply bandaids and hold hands and honour all the stories. I want deep still quiet reflection. I want to stir. I want to comfort. I want invention.
And I’m sitting here in my office with the dogs, slumped on my stool rather than walking on my treadmill, with eyes at half mast and emails unanswered, wondering how exactly to do all of this. Because I really don’t know.
advance reading copy, i.e. not for sale, still needs to be proofread, but looks awfully book-like
And then this arrives in the mail. Seeming to say: well, you’ve done something you wanted to do, woman. Now, enjoy it for a moment. So I sit on the radiator (because I’m cold because it’s still winter, this spring), and I read the first chapter out loud to myself (and the dogs).