Sunday, June 17, 2012

why run? are there zombies coming?

Kudos to Eric Madill for the PhotoShop additions

Been a while since I’ve written a blog post, and so made a lot of sense as I return to this to try and describe the one habit I’ve developed over the last year that has been nearly a lifetime in the making.

After I dragged my beleaguered laptop down from the upstairs office and wiped the cobwebs from its face, I thumbed my way through our downstairs Apple TV menus to Computer, to Playlists, to a recently assembled playlist of songs inspired by the English speaking remake of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and retro crime Drive called “Dragon Drive” and the first track to issue out of our TV’s speakers became  House of Pain’s “Running Up on Ya.”

Couldn’t be more apt. What better song to set the tone for a blog post attempting to divulge how and why a 210 pound and nearly 42 year old beer bellied misfit might decide to take up running half marathons?

Let me start from the beginning.

I hit seventh grade freshly uprooted and relocated from Telford, Tennessee to an even more remote patch of land among farm fields afar, a patch that wore Washington College Academy like a county fair best of show ribbon left too long to weather in the sun.

Up until the end of sixth grade I’d been ferried by my folks a half hour away to St. Mary’s Catholic School in Johnson City, Tennessee. Compared to the mile or more space between neighbors in Telford, Johnson City had seemed robust and dense packed, urban and full bodied concrete jungle. Retrospectively and a touch more world travelled; Johnson City is to big city what a goose bump is to Dolly Parton’s chest.

 I’d found myself enrolled at St. Mary’s early into fourth grade courtesy of the wondrous generosity of my great aunts up in Ohio. I graduated from St. Mary’s at sixth grade, the highest grade they went up to. I spent a summer in Pennsylvania. I returned to Tennessee just in time to help the rest of my family pack up for the move to Limestone, or thereabouts, where Washington College Academy sat stitched into a quilt of farmland and cow pastures gone to seed. I’d left St. Mary’s to attend Washington College Academy, once upon a time a women’s college and finishing school for local women from families of at least blue collar means. My Dad’s Mom went there back before the Second World War I believe.

Washington College Academy warrants essays I’ll work out some other day. For now, relevance is geographical and chronological. I arrived at the campus helping haul boxes from the pea green Ford into the tiny house owned by the school that came with the job my parents took running the school’s industrial kitchen.

One of those heavy boxes of books lead to my discovery of Devo inside the pages of a Playboy magazine, discovered when the bottom blew out of the box. Discovering Devo subsequently lead to a life long appreciation of potatoes and arty alternative music, further imprinted soon after by a key episode of Square Pegs.

Discovering the Playboys subsequently lead to learning how to discern, access, and not get caught reading my Dad’s stash of gentlemen’s magazines.

I helped sort, unpack, effectively unfurl my family across every available square inch of that small two story, two bedroom, one bathroom house with a couple weeks remaining before classes commenced. A couple weeks to fearfully stay close to the new home and spend considerable time helping my parents acclimate to taking charge in the kitchen with Mrs. Ramsey and her two kids, fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, both largely kind to me for more reasons than just my parents being their mother’s new boss.

I had a couple weeks to warm up to the idea of beginning seventh grade. Two weeks culminating with a patio party for the school’s ever angling and fiscally precarious president on the patio of his mansion at the tip of campus property. The school swung open her doors to welcome another year of students new and returning, the money most of the students’ parents were dumping into the coffers, and welcomed me into seventh grade, and with seventh grade came Mr. Mathews and gym class.

At some point prior to my arrival a generous donor had bestowed the school grounds with an uncharacteristically state of the art gymnasium. Upstairs you could find a reception hall lobby rippling with glistening trophy cases that accessed a massive basketball court and bleachers bristling cathedral, while downstairs dwell locker rooms, suspiciously spooky hallways, bare bulb lit service rooms, a machine shop, and a beautiful enclosed pool banked by a high wall of windows and rafters rife with birds nesting gaily.

This gymnasium building became a central aspect of my two years at Washington College Academy and warrants a separate post about bullies, underage kitchen servitude, a killer incinerator that provided ample lessons about the risks of combustibility, and a college student lifeguard that made air stop working like a Thom Yorke song.

For today, let’s focus on the Physical Education classes run by barrel chassis, bullfrog necked Mr. Mathews in his perpetual grey shorts and threadbare navy blue polo shirts straining across his considerable girth and perpetually rigid nipples.

In gym classes run like boot camp installments on that polished and waxed by the hands of minors wooden slat basketball court Mr. Mathews regaled us with nostalgic recounts of his days playing soccer as a youth, back before refs checked shoes before the game, back when the studs on the shoes were layers of leather held on by metal tacks and wicked boys were quick to figure out the vicious potential of those tacks once the layers of leather pulled away. Sheer a kneecap off a boy, Mr. Mathews would wistfully recount, glisten of a tear forming at the corner of his eye. I decided around then that the man embodied, or at least regularly channeled pure evil. Pure evil that inadvertently lead me to running today.

Mr. Mathews believed we were all of soft bellies and pampered existence, an assumption he made based on the place being a private school, ignoring the fact that several folks in the class, myself included, attended because our parents worked for the school. He made us jump the jacks, crunch and sit up, push up and wind sprint around like broken toys. He barked and coughed and barked again. He stomped the wooden floor and made it thunder like God’s own drum skin.

And he made us run.

Further, he made us run with competitive threats not dissimilar to those from BattleRoyale. Further back you were in the herd, the more punishment awaited you when running came to get done. Extra helpings of exercise sets, social ridicule, even personal errands for anyone slow to cross the finish line. Mr. Mathews excelled at mental bullying better than almost any drill master I ever encountered in Navy boot camp, or otherwise. I recall some upperclassman claiming Mr. Mathews had been in the Army and discharged for being too grumpy. Wasn’t a tough story to sell to those of us in his gym classes. Slack and get punished. Slack and feel the full regard of his loathing and fear his ire. Slack and wish to hell you’d just run harder in the first place.

And so I ran. Adverse to extra exercise, I ran. Adverse to being last man and made fun of by the one reigning authority figure, I ran. Adverse to ridicule, loathe being the social outlier when I seemed to always live in that turf anyway, I ran. And noticing that if I beat the folks that regularly mocked and bullied me, I could enjoy seeing Mr. Mathews humiliate them instead, I ran even harder.

And I ran with intent focus, lap after lap around that basketball court, trying with all my night to lap DeAngelo; a rich boy to pampered to let his jerry curls touch the ground without an interceding polyester rag in between. Lap Junior, class bully and destined for either America’s Most Wanted or America’s Funniest Videos, vote is still out. Junior might have been Mr. Mathew’s prodigy had the latter wanted to look into a mirror willingly. Trying to beat Rebecca, a butch girl that used to free throw bales of hay into lofts and could punch bruises into late bloomers like me with a look alone, though a really nice person otherwise, record be fair.

Trying to beat all the other kids, I ran. Small, scrawny, lanky, socially awkward, and about as much insecurity as an independent party public pollster volunteer, I ran because the rules favored my disposition. Simple goal, no balls to wrangle or teammates to appease, I simply had to focus on continuing to move, to catch up, to pass, and too stay ahead.

Became quickly apparent not everyone had the ability, passion, or interest to bother to run hard as though from calamity, regardless of threats about extra exercise or other ridicule. Also became swiftly apparent I would never beat the forerunner, I would at best, and most, be second place to Mr. Chuck Kennedy.

My classmate and fellow bully magnet Charles Kennedy never cut me a break; he high stepped his way around the track lap after lap as though running from all the issues afflicting him. As he’d been amply more bullied than me, perhaps he was, though he also seemed to simply enjoy running, so simple and pure, and perhaps he did so better because he never felt need to look back over his shoulder, to worry about loss, because he had his stride engaged to the best of his ability and couldn’t care less about the rest of the universe. I suspect Chuck also might have been autistic to some degree, however I’ll never know for sure.

I chased Charles through two years of PE classes, avoided whatever punishments and ridicule Mr. Mathews handed out to the slow movers. I never beat Charles, but I came close, and that remains the single fastest mile run of my entire life. I hurled afterwards into one of the urinals in the men’s room, shoulders heaving and tears streaming down my cheeks. Crying after a particularly intense run isn’t unusual, turns out, and sometimes I still do. I discovered that day how emotional running can be.

Outside of PE class I began running the 1.4 mile loop of roads stretched thin between cow pastures off the shoulders and hips of the school grounds. I learned the loop through joining the school’s soccer team coached by Mr. Mathews. Fortunately by the time I played referees checked foot gear prior to every game. Rubber spikes ok, screw on or layered spikes no. I guess enough kneecaps had been peeled to incite a sport overhaul for safer conditions.

I ran the loop for fun. I ran it with an eye for time. I ran it to impress, until the day I ran it to impress my Dad. I saw my Dad headed from our tiny house to the backdoor of the school kitchen and asked him to watch how fast I could run a mile. And then I ran, I opened up, I put my soul into running as fast as I could muster, because to describe my relationship with my step-dad as strained would be adding some lipstick to that pig of a circumstance at the time. I ran the four corners and whipped up the last bit of asphalt slope past Paul Gabonet’s presidential manor beneath droopy willow manes and found my Dad huffing from the kitchen back towards the house. He looked at me, amazed but unintelligible all at once, a version of dry humor and irony I didn’t perceive, understand, or appreciate until Dad and I became actual friends during my college years.

“That fast?” He said; dry as a dusty desert dinosaur bone. “Surely you didn’t really run the whole way?”

I stood huffing and puffing and clutching my kneecaps while my eyes went wide with disbelief and anger. I didn’t get the ribbing. I got offended. I didn’t speak to Dad unless forced to for days. I pouted. I sniveled. I became all the more withdrawn. And I never ran the four corners again.

Fast forward the clocks a bit, say maybe a couple decades plus or minus a half. I’m smoking a pack a day and weighing in at nearly three hundred pounds but have begun to worry about my health some. So I start playing soccer with the C league in Eugene Oregon. I suck but the elders in the league patiently teach me to properly play the most beautiful game until might appear to the uninitiated that I had half a clue. Apparently Mr. Mathews had overlooked a lot of the basics when teaching kids like myself the nuances of soccer. Like ball control, sweeping, setting up drop passes, and a myriad other things that wouldn’t bear relevant to a bruiser employed to take opposition down rather than worry about there being an actual ball or goal involved. In the C league I quickly learned that slamming into people is frowned upon, and smoking while suiting up really does little to help your performance out on the field.

Fast forward again to Vancouver, Canada. Still smoking, begin playing drop in soccer matches with a mix of people from Radical, the game studio I worked at. Most of them had been playing since they were kids. Fortunately their patience and the lessons from the elders in Eugene kept me from embarrassing myself too badly. With focus on defensive ball control, I begin to get the game at last. And as my skills improved, so did my sense of investment, and I began to take playing more seriously, smoking less, hydrating more, practicing more, actually stretching.

Around then I also began to make marathon hiking excursions around the city, a practice I retain to this day. I built up my endurance, directly increasing my effectiveness on the field, subsequently affording fresh rushes and perceived wins that empowered more endurance building and more effort expended on excursions all that much further away, like my somewhat precedent setting  hike from my friend Celine’s old place by Lougheed Mall to my old place in West End, Vancouver that started out at 4 am and rambled on well past dawn as I followed the Sky Train's elevated tracks and inadvertently took the less than direct route back into town past a lot of industrial park and through one very strange hobo camp that has since been replaced with a paved commuter bike route.

Fast forward to working at EA, a place that has a soccer pitch in the crook of the two key buildings and enough staff to populate two leagues of competitive soccer team action. At EA I began playing on a team, the first time since 8th grade, contrary to many the yarns I’ve spun about my high school years at Tates Creek where the Soccer coach happened to be my German teacher and hence required the lion’s share of his team to take his language class so he could better guide them on the field via his native tongue. I never played for him, nor had the balls to ever try out, although retrospect I really should have, Except that then I would have missed out on speech team, debate team, mock trial team, numerous plays, battle of the bands, yearbook, newspaper. Actually, I’m pretty happy how high school turned out, so never mind about the soccer team and lack of letter jacket then.

Just before I left Radical to jump ship over to EA, I quit smoking.

At EA I learned in proper matches how to play as part of a structured team. I became a small part of the nefarious and mightily talented Grey team, brought aboard by my friend Gustavo, an old pal from my Draw Jam days, a network of friends and series of events that warrents another post on another day.

Gustavo hooked me up on the team, and I learned very quickly like a drowning man hopes to tread water what I could and couldn’t do to help out; when to roll up, and when to put away. And the field didn’t let for a lot of strolling. The position and slot I fell most comfortably into called for a great deal of ball tracking and field coverage. I began running. And began running more. That I’d quit smoking just might have had some bearing. My weight had dropped down to below 220 by this point.

After EA I moved to Next Level Games. While at Next Level Games I signed up for a couple 5k runs following the lead of coworkers James Mansfield and Brennan Russell. Earth Day happened first, and I got to see David Suzuki live and in person, something of a definite honor and privilege, just wish I’d learned who he is prior to race day.

After that I ran a couple more 5k races, one from Scotia Bank, and another celebrating the beer and bratwurst of Oktoberfest. During the latter I had a pair of runners costumed as giant full headed beer steins run past me after about 3k. What more incentive does a runner need to pick up the pace?

Another job shift lands me at Slant Six Games, where I meet Vivian Tan-Ng, a fellow that runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week along the sea wall connected to Granville Island where the office resides. I join him and soon we’re trudging along quite nicely. I’ve also begun bike commuting at this point and the 5 kilometer bike ride to and from work definitely does wonders for helping my stamina. Within three months of working at Slant Six, my weight is down to 200 pounds.

More runners from the office join in, or rejoin from the Slant Six running groups of old, and soon I meet cats that have run marathons, and ultra marathons, and ultra trail marathons. One of more hard core runners, a fellow named Paul Martin, is also part of the Slant Six's owner group. Paul convinced the other owners to subsidize a running team for upcoming Vancouver races, the Sun Run and Scotia Bank Half-Marathon specifically. 

Paul has a friend named Ryan Melcher that is a professional distance running trainer. Ryan came into the studio every Thursday to help people transition into training regimen, though his tactics were considerably gentler than Mr. Matthews ever were.  Mostly, anyway. I’ve heard that the more experienced runners were pit against each other to race sprints up the Burrard Bridge as they worked on building up their leg strength,, the winners getting to break early while losers having to run more sprints. Coaching appears to be synonymous with tough love and competitive tactics for more advanced athletes, apparently.

I found at some point along the way over the past year that I wanted, even needed to run longer distances. Perhaps from peer inspiration, as another runner named Ben Hanke certainly afforded a lot of inspiration with the way he regularly runs marathon distances just for fun, as did my coworkers and cohorts Pete Doidge-Harrison and Naoki Terai who kept me on course to reach and exceed ten kilometers back when.

My neighbors have been my neighbors for almost five years now. Our starter home is  the north facing side of a duplex. Somehow, for almost this whole time, our neighbors and I never discussed running, sports, or anything else related to physical exertion one iota really beyond my marveling over my neighbor Joe’s Spam brand emblazoned biking jersey as he and his wife Lu Anne stomped past in their clip shoes with their touring bikes hoisted onto their shoulders. Five years of not knowing that as I began to run, I happened to live next to a couple of veteran Iron Man triathletes who run, bike, and swim regularly distances that I still find largely inconceivable. 
A bit more than a year ago I began this running thing with earnest and intent, and over the past year I’ve managed to creep my competence and confidence up by a kilometer at a time to finally managing thirty a time or two. I’m not breaking any speed records mind you, and I still have the non-Olympian habit of rewarding long runs with a burger and a pint or two. No wheat grass smoothies for me, thank you. I’d been gaining ground and distance a good six months or so though before I happened to finally run into my neighbors, pardon the pun.

One morning I took Boomer, our 100 pound SPCA rescue mutt for a run, for a run. I had determined to stick firmly to a schedule laid out for me by a trainer from Slant Six. A lot of the Slant Sixers had never or barely run before, and even those who had, like myself, were haphazard about training regimen at best. The trainer Ryan, who coincidentally is also the guy that helped fix my running shoe & support problem at Kintec, had anyone hoping for finish the Sun Run in 45 minutes or less running five times a week for distances that increased through the week, then tapered off allowing rest and recovery time for the next week, when the distances would all be longer. 

Rinse, lather, repeat. 

And frequent running sessions means finding new routes that afford new things to see, new places to strive for. One thing about Vancouver, no shortage of grand sweeping views if you follow the right trails or draft along behind someone who can lead you through the Endowment Lands, Lynn Valley, Stanley Park, etc. I discovered very early on that I needed to set destinations that would pull me into new areas and challenges. I'm not suited for running laps around tracks or fields, I get bored very quickly, and I start to focus to much on being tired, etc. A great run is feeling surprised when you discover how far you've gone, at least for me.

I began tracking my runs with Run Keeper on my iPhone and I began inching my goals up, a couple kilometers here, and a few more there. Ben and Paul remained role models for me as I pushed my distances out further and sustained my runs progressively longer.

While I only attended a couple of the Thursday training sessions, I took the training schedule to heart, and for nearly two months ran or exceeded the distances called for. And that meant running through the wet, cold, slushy Vancouver winter. Thank goodness I discovered Solomon store over on the North Shore. They've been my go to place for shoes, jackets, and tights. Solomon as a brand focuses more on trail running, however I've found their sizing, sensibilities about stream lining with adequate pokets, vents, heat and moisture management and deflection to suit my sweaty, heaving bulk quite well.

After a few weeks follow that training schedule, I took the dog out for a run, and I ran into my neighbor Joe. We laughed about my gear a bit, turns out we both have a penchant for picking gear that works but also makes fun of the sleek, expensive norms. Too tacky or cheesy appears to work for Joe and I. Chatting lead to a casual invite to come running with Joe and his friends one weekend. At that point my runs with folks from Slant Six Games and alone on some extended lunches along the way had pushed out to over 15 kilometers. That turned out to be the barrier of entry for running with Joe’s friends.

Joe, Lu, Des, Linda, and Mad Mary have all run and done things I wouldn’t previously have considered goals to achieve. Joe has completed innumerable swims, triathlons, half marathons, and a couple Iron Mans. Lu Anne as well. Des has 26 Marathons under his belt and I wore one of his old hand me down vests recently for my run first half marathon run in the 2012 BMO. Linda has, among a myriad of other things, has run a 100 kilometer marathon through South Africa, finishing in about ten hours and forty five minutes. Mad Mary has also completed multiple Iron Mans and a wealth of other contests and triathlons besides, like running the Rim to Rim that crisscrosses the Grand Canyon with her brother for a birthday lark.

Joe and his friends run together on most Sundays, early in the morning, somewhere new every weekend, or at least the route is. After a few runs with Joe and the gang, he invited me to join them to run the BMO half marathon. I noted that the BMO happens about a month before the Scotia I’d already signed up for, so why not? I checked with the calendar and my wife, then signed up, making the BMO my first ever half-marathon attempt instead of the Scotia.

I ran the BMO with Joe, Linda, Mad Mary, and a few thousand of our friends. I finished roughly mid-pack among the men, my age and otherwise, running twenty two kilometers in under two hours. I couldn’t have been happier to cross the finish line, except maybe for how I felt not to be running any more. 

I’m well known for having lots of interests and ideas and starts to personal projects among my friends. I’m also just as well known for being flaking and finishing very few of those things I set out to do, best intentions though I might have had. 

I ran the first half of the marathon with Joe, learning through doing how to pace myself, to utilize the water stations, how to duck into a Tim Hortons for a potty break to dodge the queues at the port-a-potty honey buckets that BMO had furnished. I learned when best to employ a gel, and that lemon-lime gel will haunt you for a good half hour souring the after taste of every burp and belch as you chug along.

After the midway point Joe checked his watch and gauged our pace, then decreed that if I wanted to finish in under two hours, I would need to find a way to shake the lead out and pick up my pace some. I begrudgingly agreed and unwrapped my ear buds from my jacket pocket, thread the line under the front of the jacket to hug the line close and prevent tangling, popped the ear buds in and plugged them into the iPhone and dialed up my running playlist. I waved to Joe, who waved back with a shoo fly gesture, and I picked up my pace to match the cadence of the first song that came up, some electronica dubstep thing, something by Spor I believe. Bear in mind that Joe doesn't slack along, so for me to pull away and go faster took some measure of magic I didn't know I had. Later on I caught up with our friend Linda and slowly passed her, though I never caught up with our other friend Mad Mary.


My running playlist has a strange sense of timing and often plays songs i have no recollection of ever adding into the playlist. As I came around a bend on the north western side of Stanley Park, I found myself running through speckled sunlight surrounded by a couple dozen female runners on a stretch of the race devoid of fans or much support crew really. I seemed to be the only man in sight for as far as the eye could see. And Hellen Reddy begins to sing "I Am Woman" in my ear buds. I felt my Mom would've been proud right about then, my Women's Studies teachers as well. And I recalled that macho joke from boot camp all those years ago, when a drill master might notice someone flagging behind or slacking off, and ask with a great show of knitted brow concern about whether particular parts of the suffering boy's anatomy might be hurting. Parts said boys don't typically have.
Nearing the BMO finish line, running out from from Stanley Park’s lush forest canopy into the tall glass towers of Vancouver’s financial district, sun just so among the grey wash of passing rain clouds, creating halos around the tops of the bow shaped sky scraper facades while seagulls wheel past, a epic remix of Prodigy’s “Smack MyBitch Up” pulsing in my ear buds from my carefully crafted running playlist, seeing thickening lines of people waving us runners on with signs and bellows as we pad and pound down the center of the wide avenue, pedestrians owning the vehicular jugular like a reflection across a teardrop of time, and ahead a sharp bend to the left, towards the finish line, and one song ends and another begins, Slayer picks up the pace to bring me Clydesdale heaving with everything left I have to give to cross the finish line with no baggage, burden, or breath left to give. 

Past the finish they handed out bottles of water and dropped heavy metal medals strung on thick blue ribbons around runners’ necks, everyone a winner, and everyone feeling like one.

Sometimes I feel like there is a lot I haven’t been able to complete or wrap up. There is a lot of potential accomplishment that I've yet to bootstrap myself up to tackle properly or cohesively. I suspect I’m incredibly lazy, disorganized, defeatist, and easily distracted by shiny objects. To run, to reach a goal, a distance, a pace that I know I couldn’t a year ago is satisfying, validating, and affords a degree of focus I’m now trying more and more to apply to other things. Like work, writing, drawing, family, and of course, running. 

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