I wrote a column a few weeks ago about the issue of DNF (Did Not Finish), and I know that it's something that resonates with a lot with runners. The stress, and the feelings of inadequacy that comes along with not being able to finish something that we set out to do can be overwhelming. Many of you contacted me after that article, sharing your own experiences with having to drop out of a race, but I should also point out that although difficult at the time, most of you seem to think it was an important part in the growing pains of becoming a more well-rounded athlete.
This week I thought I thought I would write about something that has become rather timely in my life—DNS (Did Not Start). As a high-profile athlete, and someone who spends a lot of time on social media, I'm usually quite open about my upcoming races and events, always quick to post pictures and updates right after my races.
As many of you know, I am currently training for a Quadruple Toronto Waterfront Marathon later this fall… That's 168.8 km in one day. Whenever you prepare for an endurance event such as this, it's always a difficult process trying to strike a balance between getting in the right number of long and taxing training runs, while trying not to tip the balance into overtraining and potential injury. This past weekend I had planned to run the 100km race at the Niagara Ultra Marathon held in picturesque Niagara on the Lake. As race day drew near, I began to get more concerned about the forecast for brutally hot conditions on race day.
I was also aware that there were quite a few people who were expecting to touch base with me out in Niagara on that day, not to mention, I always like to support this race put on by two of my close friends Di and Henri. For those of you who haven’t done this race before, I highly recommend it. The beautiful course follows the Niagara River Trail, with the turnaround at the majestic Falls.
One of the most important pieces of advice I’ve received over the years came from a friend of mine who has had a long, relatively injury-free running career. His philosophy has always been, "If you are not going to win the race, you might as well enjoy every moment of the preparation for the event and your time on the course the day of the race. And the only way to do that is to listen to your body, and be prepared to step back when it requires extra care and attention." Going into the race this past weekend, I had been battling chronic anemia, something that has visited me on and off over the past 4 to 5 years. When I saw that the temperature on race day was expected to be in the mid 30s, I knew that my body would not respond well to those extreme conditions—and so, with somewhat of a heavy heart, I made the decision not to race the 100km on Saturday.
On its own, this is not that unusual a story for runners. But I wanted to point out how I have matured as a runner when it comes to dealing with ups and downs like this. There was a time not too long ago, when I would have buried my head, engaged in a two-day pity parade, and avoided social media at all costs—Who wants to see all the finishing pictures and pre-race selfies of the runners who decided to go to the race! But that is exactly what I did not do!
I've grown to realize if I want to have longevity in my running career, it's important to feel part of a community, and that means supporting others even when I can’t run. So that's what I did... On Saturday I messaged my friends down at the race to wish them luck and then tracked their progress throughout the day on social media. The surest antidote to avoiding the plague known as the pity parade, is to turn your attention toward someone else, someone who is facing his or her own battle, joy, or adversity.
The other thing I did on Saturday was to enjoy my time with my wife, Mary-Anne. Initially, she was planning on getting up at 3 AM on race morning, and driving out to the start of the Niagara 100km race. She was also planning on waiting around for 9 or 10 hours while I ran just so she could drive me home safely after the race. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, there is no way I would be able to do what I do were it not for the incredible support of my wife, who I affectionately call the world's best running Sherpa!
My weekend didn't work out the way that my schedule had planned, but it worked out the way my body needed it to. I spent Saturday morning enjoying the warm weather, and that included going out for brunch with my lovely wife. And as far as training is concerned, I set my alarm for 4 AM Sunday morning, and got in a 60km training run. So what's the lesson in all of this? Don't treat yourself too seriously… Always keep the big picture in mind… And when in doubt, reach out to those in your community who always look to your support.
People always ask me why I run SO MUCH, and that got me thinking. . .
I run between 170-200km/week all year long, but why do I do it to myself?
I run because I grew up in a home where no one ever told me I was good enough, or strong enough, so every day I’m out running, I prove them wrong.
I run because it forces me to honour a commitment that I make to myself every day to go out the door and “get it done.” Honouring commitments makes me a better person, and it allows people whom I love to know that they can count on me.
I run because some of the best people I’ve met in my life are runners who are part of a huge supportive and loving community. This reminds me that “family” can come in all shapes and sizes…. I “love” my running family with all my heart.
I run because it has helped me battle my drug/alcohol addiction and now, it is helping me come to terms with trauma from childhood sexual abuse. When I run, my mind is free of the everyday “noise” in my head, and it’s a time to work out problems and find solutions.
I run because it keeps me in tune with my body. Runners know how to stay healthy, how to fend-off injury, and how to recover from aches and pains. This reminds me that my relationships with others will never be “fruitful” unless I look after myself first.
I run because I get stressed when I’m away from my home. When I travel, I always go for a run in the morning, and this allows me to not only explore a new place but also feel comfortable that my routine has traveled with me.
I run because no matter what mood I’m in, how happy I am, what I am afraid, or even how lucky I feel… Running ALWAYS makes my day better.
I run because nothing makes me feel “better in my skin” than that feeling of tired muscles, burning lungs, and heightened awareness that one gets after a hard run.
My name is Jean-Paul, and I AM A RUNNER.
It doesn’t matter who you are—a five-year-old racing around the school playground at recess or a fifty-five-year-old squeezing in a 30-minute tempo run between corporate board meetings, the same thing holds true for all of us--Running will change your life if you let it. From the elite Olympian sliding on her racing spikes to the weekend warrior lacing up his trail shoes for a little 10k run through ankle-deep mud, running is a gateway on which you can slip away from yourself as you run towards the “you” that you’ve always wanted to be.
As a veteran of over 100 marathons and ultra marathons, I have witnessed first-hand how running has ripped me open and laid me bare, only to build me back up again with fortified resiliency. One of the joys of being a high profile endurance athlete is that I am often invited to speak to running groups in order to share some of my running journey with other passionate athletes. The question I’m asked most often is what motivates me to keep running, so I thought I would share my answer with you now.
There is one thing, and one thing only that is standing in your way, and that’s you! For years now, I’ve been waking up at 4:15 every morning and heading out the door for my run, and it’s not because I enjoy running through the dark, lonely streets of Toronto. I run because it is a commitment that I made to myself to build a better me than I was yesterday. My motivational mantra is “Get up. Get out. Get ‘er done!” You know what? We all say we’re too busy. We have no time—I think that’s a lie we tell ourselves because we are too afraid to reframe that question: “What are my priorities?” The best way I’ve found to silence the naysayers in my head that tell me I’m too tired, too busy, too stressed, is to get my run in at the beginning of my day, and in so doing, I make my physical and mental health my number one priority.
Forty minutes into a hard tempo run when my calves are twitching, my quads are screaming, and my lungs are burning, it's as though I’m floating on a magical endorphin high that makes me feel invincible. But when I really think about what motivates me to get out the door for my run, it’s not the buzz of the run itself, but the serenity that follows my workout. A friend of mine sent me this quote today that completely encapsulates what running can do for you. “I run because somehow completely exhausting myself is the most relaxing part of my day.” I guess another way of looking at it is to say sometimes you have to speed up in order to slow down.
I also believe that deep inside, all of us have something that eats away at us, something that just doesn’t sit right. Maybe it’s some trauma from your past, or hurtful words that still resonate, or even some “dis” ease you are currently living with. For me, it was coming to terms with sexual abuse in my childhood. I can think of no better motivation than to invite you to turn your negative cruel into positive fuel. Reach inside and tap into that part of you that lives in the darkness and slowly begin to embrace it for what it really is—adversity that has made you the stronger person you are today.
And finally, try not to forget that with every stride you take out there, you’re not only leaving your footprint on the road or on the trail but also leaving your trace on someone’s heart--Be that inspiration that pulls someone else into the running community and into a richer life. The more you run and the farther you run, one thing becomes crystal clear. The less you carry, the easier it is to run. So, maybe it's time to ask yourself: “What am I still holding on to?”
I can’t really nail down when it exactly happened, but there was a precise moment when I ceased being a “jogger” and became a “runner”. It’s hard to deny the fact that right across North America we are in the throes of another running boom. Although average finishing times for the marathon and half-marathon have crept up a little, the number of finishers in both events has seen a steady increase year after year. The most popular distance is still the half marathon, and the greatest influx has been the huge number of women who have decided to lace up their shoes and join the running community. Of note is the fact that as of 2013, females comprised 56% of race participants. When we add in ancillary events like the Tough Mudder, Spartan, and adventure races, we zoom the lens out and capture an even broader appeal of our sport.
Our identity has its roots in our family and ethnicity, but the expression of our inner being, our creative and emotional soul, is found in the tribes we align ourselves with. It’s within our tribes that we attain a sense of validation and a relief from the alienation that's part and parcel of our modern life. I refer to the word “tribe” not in its anthropological sense, but having more to do with a fluid entity that is less defined by its structure and more in keeping with a feeling of shared passion or purpose of being.
If I look at a snapshot of my life 18 years ago, I see a young man ravaged by a spiraling alcohol and drug addiction, a man fractured in spirit desperate to claw his way out of the darkest hell of a deep depression. Shortly after entering a treatment program to deal with my addiction issues, I took my first tentative steps into the world of running, and before I knew it, I had found my “people”—I had stumbled upon my “tribe”.
With each passing year, the more I realize that life is less about striving for your goals and realizing your dreams, and more about brushing up against boundaries, and learning how to navigate those spaces, and hopefully that comes with the help of a supportive community. What is a “boundary” other than simply an artificial barrier, a crux moment in which you can recoil to safety or embrace the dissonance that comes with moving beyond your comfort zone.
Unlike so many other sports, running is pure in its abject simplicity. It asks only that you put one foot in front of the other, and in return it will be a vehicle to take you away from yourself, and if you’re fortunate enough, bring you back to your true self. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re a novice runner building towards your first 5k race or an elite runner toeing the line at the start of the Olympic marathon. Every runner must come to the same artificial boundary—The place where you ask yourself how can I quiet my mind and silence my doubts, while enlisting all my inner fortitude to keep moving when all I want to do is quit? There in lies the beauty of running, a metaphor, or a manifestation of how we can slay those nay-saying demons in all aspects of our life.
Having completed over 100 marathons and ultra marathons, I’m more motivated today than ever before to not only make space for running in my life but also reflect upon why it as been such a faithful companion these past 15 years.
When I first came to running, it was as an escape—quite simply, a magic aerobic delete button. That's what running was for me for many years, a not so subtle way of pushing away residual hurt from years spent abusing drugs and alcohol, and the subsequent toll they took on my mental health. I don’t think it’s any surprise that endurance sports are populated by quite a few recovering addicts, those who look to replace the destruction wrought by one addiction with a “healthier” addiction to an endorphin rush brought on by extreme physical exertion. There’s a great analogy that explains this early phase of running in my life. Imagine you are walking around, and you discover you have a little stone or piece of grit in your shoe. You really have only two choices how to deal with this problem. You can take a painkiller or some other drug to distract you from that discomfort in your foot, or you can stop what your doing, take off your shoe, and remove that stone. My first ten years of running was all about the former, using running as a distraction from what was really causing me discomfort in my soul.
With time, and a lot of training miles behind me, running became less about escaping and more to do with making my world bigger—pushing the boundaries I continually brushed into. Every runner can identify with these moments, however fleeting, as it’s within these moments that we discover what we are really capable of. It’s that razor thin edge that separates mediocrity and new-found growth. I know I’ve reached this threshold when the butterflies are dancing in my stomach as I stare ahead into the great abyss of an uncharted territory. For me these transformational moments arrived at various points of my running career: my decision to jump up from the half marathon to full marathon distance, the first time I broke three hours in the marathon, and arriving in South Africa to run the prestigious Comrades Marathon, an epic 90 km race up and down the most beautiful, yet unrelenting terrain I’d ever seen.
Most recently, running has become my sanctuary, my spiritual oasis. This past year I logged over 9,000 km, and at no time out on the roads and on the trails was I distracting myself with an iPod or other device. Running is my spiritual practice, so I am desperate to stay completely in tune with the natural noises and rhythms around me, be it the gentle trickle of a stream or the rumbling of a garbage truck making its way through the urban core. The best thing about running for 3 or 4 hours is that you are alone with your mind, and the worst thing is that you are alone with your mind. Somewhere in the middle of that dichotomy lies the "sweet spot", the place where in losing yourself, you actually come to find yourself. Without a doubt, running has been a gift in my life, and like any gift gratefully received, in order to keep it, I must be willing to give it away. In addition to being a guest speaker at running clinics across the city, in 2014 I ran the Boston Marathon twice in the same day to raise funds and awareness for survivors of child sexual abuse, an issue that is part of my past. Later this fall, I will be running a “Triple” Scotia Toronto Waterfront Marathon, that’s 126.6 km all in one day, to raise awareness of the #BeenRapedNeverReported campaign.
I have no idea where running will take me next, but I’m confident that wherever I end up, I will find a better “me” than I am today. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Like most people, I too have been blindsided by life’s curveballs that at times, have left me feeling battered, despondent, and alone. And through all that, no matter how far I’ve fallen or how high I’ve rebounded, running—my constant companion—has never left my side. It makes no difference if you’re a veteran of over 100 marathons and ultra marathons like I am, or if you’re heading out the door to pound the pavement or to hit the treadmill at the gym because you promised yourself that, “This year, I’ll start running.” Your faithful companion asks only one thing of you—simply to show up. Running is in our veins. It’s organic and primal, and it reminds us of the freedom of our childhood and harkens to the earliest of our ancestors.
I’m a creature of habit, so I typically rise with the alarm at 4:15 every day and head out into the dark city streets for my run that ranges anywhere from 20 to 65km, depending on the day. No matter how bad the weather is, or how tired I may be, I know that by the end of my run, I will feel better, lighter, and more joyful. I’ve logged a lot of miles on the pavement and on the trails, and throughout the years, a few simple truths have revealed themselves to me.
1. My priorities have most definitely changed. There was a time I’d stay up late on a Saturday, eat and drink whatever I wanted, but not anymore. I’ve shifted my priorities to make room for running in my life, and in the process, running has cleared a space inside of me that allows me to appreciate what is really important in this world.
2. Believe it or not, I became less socially-competitive and more self-competitive. Don’t get me wrong—the moment I hear the gun go off at the beginning of a race, I want to cross that finish line before the person in front of me. That being said, the majority of the time I’m running and training, I’m only competing against myself, trying to beat my last kilometer split on my Polar GPS watch.
3. Instead of running away from something, I started running towards something. As a recovering addict, I spent a lot of years numbing myself with drugs and alcohol and running away from all of the things inside of me I just couldn’t face. One of the gifts you get when you lace up your shoes and head out for a run is that you begin to connect to that part of your soul that demands your complete attention. The longer I run, the more I run towards that place inside me.
4. I am now completely in tune with my body. Unlike most other sports, running is just about you, and you alone, propelling your body through space. It’s because of this very simplicity that runners are naturally more in tune with their body. Stick with it long enough and you’ll do your damnedest to stay healthy and keep your body in motion.
5. In order to pursue your passion, you need a “Sherpa”. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pampered elite runner or a novice out for your first 5k race--every runner needs a “Sherpa”. I would be completely lost without my incredible wife, Mary-Anne, who drops me off at races, snaps pictures of me along the course, and is always waiting for me at the finish line with a BIG hug and warm clothes. Running has made me realize that to be successful in any passion you pursue, you should never underestimate the importance of your support team.
6. Running has brought me to my senses. Let’s face it—We as a society are becoming lazier. We drive everywhere, and we entomb ourselves in a little iBubble, a byproduct of our smartphones, headsets, and game devices. I love running because it puts me right into the streets or into the wilderness. When I run, every sense is electric and buzzing. From the crunching of the snow beneath my feet to the sounds and smells of the city core coming alive, I feel authentically connected to everything around me.
7. For a sport that uses a stopwatch, time is really irrelevant. Even if you’re in the middle of a race trying to hit your goal time or on the track for a speed workout, time is ultimately irrelevant. Running compels you to stay in the moment, connect with your breath, and roll with your cadence. So for me, every run has nothing to do with cumulative time, and everything to do with a series of connected and highly charged moments.
8. I have built up my resiliency bank. Running has made me not only physically stronger but also more mentally resilient. Running requires you dig deep, and access that “will” inside that many non-runners never access. I think this has a lot to do with why runners wear their scrapes, bruises, and blisters like badges of honor. You’ve earned it, so wear it proudly!
9. I’ve learned the importance of belonging to a tribe. My running family is an incredibly supportive community. I look forward to connecting with my “tribe” every day on social media, and meeting them at races across the country, and around the world. This caring group of friends has been there to share in my triumphs and to hold my head up when I’ve hit some dark, challenging times.
10. In order to keep it, I need to give it away. The irony of running is that it is a bountiful gift that will bring immense joy into your life, but in order to keep that joy, you need to give it away and “pay it forward”. I owe an incredible debt to the running community for everything it has brought to me and for everything it has unearthed in me. It is with this in my heart, that I am always eager to speak to running clinics around the city so that I can share the wealth of this way of life.
You know who you are. . . You're the people who put up with our running insanity. You're the people who are always there to drop us off and pick us up from races. You're the people who make it possible to do what we love to do--Run! This ode is for YOU!
Many of you seek worship at synagogue, mosque, church, or temple
But we runners put our faith in one who is more monumental
Most weary we approach the finish line in the distance
In a crumpled heap, we drop into your arms for assistance
You must be a saint to put up with all our insanity
Cater to our runner’s whims and athletic vanity
Rarely do you complain about our nine o’clock slumber
Nor in the morning as you help pin on our race number
You love us despite our quirks and complaints
Put up with unending pasta and dietary constraints
Our many sins are chafed nipples, black toenails, and snot rockets
Pursuing a passion that leaves us with creaky joints and sockets
Why you don’t get rid of us, we’ll never know
In our taper madness, with your wisdom you lie low
The laundry pile is stinky, sweaty, and muddy
Salt-stained singlets, compression socks a little bloody
Three pairs of running shoes always sit by the door
Running magazines piled waist-high on the floor
Family vacation built around yet another big race
Dragged along to the expo, you accept it with grace
We runners would be lost without you by our side
Your cheers and support always fill us with pride
Please accept my humble offer of a sweaty loving embrace
And did I mention my dear, next week I have another race
I have a faithful companion who has always been there for me—in times of joy, in times of pain, and in times of wavering doubt. It reminds me of a quote by the American writer Tahereh Mafi: “The moon is a loyal companion. It never leaves. It’s always there, watching, steadfast, knowing us in our light and dark moments, changing forever just as we do. Every day it’s a different version of itself. Sometimes weak and wan, sometimes strong and full of light. The moon understands what it means to be human. Uncertain. Alone. Cratered by imperfections.”
I’ve struggled with a drug and alcohol addiction for most of my adult life, and that’s been manifest in mental health issues, primarily ignited by childhood trauma. I think it’s safe to say that I’m “cratered by imperfections”, but I wholeheartedly embrace each and every one of those imperfections, as they have been the catalysts that have shown me how resilient and thick-skinned I’ve become.
No matter where life takes me, running has never let me down. What I love most about running is that it only asks one thing of me—simply to show up. It makes no difference whether joy is coursing through my veins, or if sadness is sitting heavy in my heart—As soon as I lace up my running shoes, my faithful companion will travel that path with me. When I step out the door and empty my mind, it’s as though magic or alchemy happens. I typically head out by 4:30 each morning, so I gently trod through a sleepy metropolis bathed in the mysterious moonlight shadow.
With running, like any loving relationship, you get out of it what you put into it. It doesn’t really matter how far you run, or how fast you run. What matters most is that you nourish this relationship by acknowledging that, “running changes everything.” At times it will ask that you dig deeper than you ever thought possible, and at others, it will open your eyes to beauty that lies inside and around you.
To be honest, I’ve never figured out if I’m “running away from something” or “running towards something.” But what I am certain of is that I go to bed each night feeling grateful that my loyal companion has held my hand for yet another day.
Some of us run to push our limits, to see what we are really capable of. Others run for the camaraderie—the feeling of belonging to a tribe. And others, run to vanquish demons and soar to new heights. Whatever your reasons are for lacing up and setting out on a 42.2 km journey, you are bound to stumble on some bumps along the way. As a veteran of over 80 marathons and many ultra marathons, I thought I would share some of the lessons I've learned on the road.
1. The enemy lies between your ears.
To the normal people out there, it just doesn't seem sane to push your body through the hell of training for, and competing in, a marathon. If we listen to those naysayers, we set ourselves up for failure. I've learned that pain is often caused not by the current unease or discomfort, but by your perception of it. Learning to quiet those voices in our head telling us "It's too difficult. You can't do this" is what separates us mere mortals from the elite athletes. As Dr. Seuss said: "You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go."
2. You are not going to like this, but…
If long-distance running has taught me anything, it is that what I think I need, may not in fact be what I really need. Coming in from a 35 km training run, all I want to do is hop in a warm shower—the problem is, that's the worst thing for my recovery. What I have forced myself to do is to jump into a freezing cold ice bath to flush the swelling from my muscles. Other tricks I've learned that seem counter intuitive is to go for a little run the morning after a marathon or long hard training run. Trust me, your brain will be screaming No!, but your legs will thank you later that day.
3. Getting your medal is all about testing your metal.
There will be points during your training, and throughout the marathon itself, when you'll want to give up. Success in endurance sports requires walking the tight rope between overtraining and under training. Whenever I encounter a rough patch, I look at all the adversity I've come through in my life. I've managed to battle a drug and alcohol addiction, and I am now 17 years clean and sober, one day at a time. I'm also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, so I draw on my resiliency to get through any adversity. I invite you to consider all you have come through in your own life, and use it as a wellspring to power you through adversity.
4. Instead of listening to Justin Bieber, why not just be there?
I head out the door most mornings at 4:30 to run through the streets of Toronto. I don’t run with an iPod or any other type of headset because I want to be totally aware of the traffic noises around me especially considering I usually run in the street rather than on the sidewalk or trails. I’m a little militant when it comes to runners zoning out to their iPods, and I would be ecstatic if they were banned from races. I really believe that you put yourself, and those around you, in danger when you run in a “music bubble”. Running on a treadmill with an iPod is another story entirely—You might lose your mind if you don’t have something to distract you.
If I listen carefully, the streets of Toronto have their own rhythm—their own chorus. On my morning runs, I’m serenaded by the grinding of the streetcars along King and Queen; downtown I hear the echoes of the early morning delivery trucks; when I arrive back to the Beaches, I’m greeted by the waves lapping up on the shore. I’m also intimately attuned to the sounds of the changing seasons—The screeches of the raccoons in spring, the humidity-induced rumbling of the thunder in the summer, the shuffle of the blowing leaves in the autumn, and the crunch of the ice and snow under my feet in the winter.
5. Don't lose focus now that race day has arrived.
So you put in the long hard miles of training—now is not the time to lose your focus. Learn how to manage your race to get the most out of it. 42.2 km is daunting, so break up the distance into manageable 5 km chunks. All you need to do is make it to your next mental milestone. One of my biggest race pet peeves is erratic behavior at the water/aid stations. Practice proper running etiquette—Don't dart out in front of other runners to grab your drink, and don't stop suddenly in your tracks. When you see the aid station coming up in the distance, make your way over to that side of the road well in advance. Another strategy I rely on is if I know there is a part of the course I am dreading, maybe it's a hilly section, I try to do a lot of my training runs going over that section. That way, when race day finally arrives, I'll attack this section with confidence. Finally, even the best plans go awry, so make sure you have an "A", "B", and "C" goal. Weather, stomach issues, and even a last-minute injury may cause you to reevaluate your goal.
6. It's a lot easier summitting Everest with a Sherpa.
In the midst of an endless sea of running advice, a critical consideration is often neglected—Have you lined up a faithful running Sherpa? If you don’t have your running Sherpa already lined up, my wife has provided some sage advice on how to cultivate or acquire your very own. Pick destination races that offer a great time to check out a new city or country—preferably ones with excellent shopping and fantastic restaurants. Also, don’t hold up in your hotel room the day before the race saying: “I want to rest my legs before the race.” Remember that running is a family affair and it can be an awesome time to break you out of your comfort zone and explore a new place with your loyal Sherpa. Most importantly, remember why you started running in the first place, and be thankfulof all of the incredible things you will discover about yourself along the way.
When the first bomb went off, I turned to my wife and said: "It sounds like the the grandstand just collapsed." Twelve seconds -- that's all it took for us to realize our lives would never be the same again. Everything was happening so quickly, but there was this strange feeling that the chaos was unfolding in slow motion. With the second explosion, huge plumes of smoke burst into the air, and drifted over the buildings on Boylston.
Almost immediately there was a sea of panic-stricken runners and their families trying to flee the destruction, but the barriers along the marathon route funnelled everyone onto the adjacent streets. Sirens from the first responders echoed through the narrow streets, and that's when I grabbed my wife and scrambled through the crowd to the nearest T-station. My only thought was getting us out of there in one piece.
But I've gotten ahead of myself. Let me tell you what brought me to the streets of Boston last year to compete in the prestigious Boston marathon. I didn't intentionally set out to become a long distance runner, but rather running "found me" -- or what I now believe -- running "saved me."
I was brought up in a very physically abusive household, and that continued until my mother left when I was nine years old. Everything started to spiral out of control in my early teens and continued through my early 30s. I struggled with alcohol and drug addiction which seemed to dovetail nicely with a diagnosis of manic depression, for which I was heavily medicated. I'll spare you the pathetic details, but it all came to a head when I became suicidal and my drinking spun out of control.
This was the point I came to what I call a "crux moment." Whenever crux moments appear in my life, they are steeped in fear, uncertainty and self-doubt. I always know I'm at a crux moment when the fluttering of butterflies in my stomach turns into a full-blown stampede. My fingertips tingle, and I'm almost incapacitated by fear. I was faced with the decision to deal with my addiction issues or lose my wife and young son to the ravages of self-destructive behaviour.
When I entered a treatment program for drug/alcohol addiction, I felt beaten, pessimistic and like I had burned every bridge of trust I had. I needed a new outlet to not only get physically healthy but also psychologically grounded.
In one of my 12-step meetings, I met two other men who were just starting to train for a fall marathon, and I asked if I could join them on their long run each week. Over the period of the next four months, we grew to depend on one another, and we started to rebuild those bridges of trust as we demonstrated to family and friends that we could set a goal and keep on track week after week.
Each of us crossed the finish line of that fall marathon, and we all managed to meet the qualifying standard of the Boston marathon. What I didn't know at the time was that running would evolve into a spiritual practice in my life. Running tends to quiet my mind and it gives me space to process whatever challenges or excitements greet me throughout my day.
It would be dishonest of me to say that my life continued on an upward "rosy" trajectory. In fact, there have been countless times throughout the past 16 years when I've been desperate for a drink or a drug to numb what I was feeling inside. The only constant in my life that has kept me sober and somewhat sane has been running. I've been blessed to have the opportunity to travel all over the world to different races, and I have now completed 75 marathons and quite a few ultra marathons as well.
I believe in immutable laws, those things in our lives that are unchanging over time and act as our "default position" to guide our thoughts, actions and feelings. I would never wish addiction or depression on anyone, but if you are able to breathe through it and come out the other side, you can not deny that you are governed by the immutable law of "resiliency." I try to think of adversity not as an obstacle in my path, but a stepping stone to catapult me to further growth.
This brings me to three weeks before last year's Boston marathon. I had reached another crux moment in my life, a secret that I had buried deep inside -- an overwhelming feeling of shame that had inevitably been an underlying factor in my life-long battles with addiction and depression, had finally come to the surface and needed to be set free.
I somehow mustered the inner strength to do what I thought I would never do -- I disclosed to my family and friends that I was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The moment those words came out, I started get that "voice" back that had been taken away from me at such a young age.
With the euphoria of releasing that burdensome secret came a disarming crisis of self identity. I tried to explain this to my wife by saying: Imagine living in the same house for 35 years, and one day waking up and discovering there was a room in the house you never knew existed. You'd be excited by the discovery, but a little uncertain about what to do with or in this newfound space. I signed up for a treatment program that specializes in working with adult male survivors of childhood sexual abuse that was set to begin the week after I returned from the Boston marathon.
Halfway through the Boston marathon, I broke down in tears and was taken into a medical tent. All the emotions percolating up since the disclosure became too much to handle. I begged the medical team to let me back on the course, and thankfully, I went on to finish the race.
I had just gotten out of the shower and had headed out back to grab a bite to eat with my wife when the first bomb went off one block away. The day after the Boston Marathon I was an absolute total wreck -- I was incapacitated by PTSD which was only compounded by having disclosed the childhood sexual abuse a few weeks before the marathon.
Fast forward to today, and the man you see before you has worked hard to free himself from the shame of the abuse. Part of my healing process to come to terms with the abuse in my childhood has involved "going back" to that young boy who was "left behind" and to bring him forward into a place of safety where he has a "voice" and can thrive.
I've come to realize that although there are troubling things from your past that are better left behind, there are others that you just need to "carry forward with you in your life" .
What if I told you that you should fly halfway around the world, board a bus at 2 a.m., run almost 90K up and down unrelenting mountainous terrain while living in fear of not making the 12-hour cut-off and being denied not only a finisher’s medal but also a chance to cross the finish line? Tempted? Then the Comrades Marathon in South Africa is the race for you.
Comrades was 86 years old this year. With a field of 18,000 participants, it is the world’s largest and most prestigious ultra marathon. Every year, the race alternates direction between an “up” run and a “down” run. This year was a “down” run starting in Pietermaritzburg and finishing in a cricket stadium in Durban.
This race draws elite runners from across Africa and, in increasing numbers, from Australia, Great Britain and North America. And it’s a race that reaches far beyond its participants. The entire 12 hours of the race is broadcast live with an average hourly television audience of 1.5 million viewers.
You have to qualify for Comrades, and depending on your qualification time, you are seeded in corrals “A” through “H”. Unlike most races, your result is based on “gun time” not “chip time.” With a 12-hour cut off, almost a quarter of the field does not finish; and the majority who do finish, cross the line in the last hour of the race.
My journey to Comrades was a road wrought with physical, psychological and spiritual turmoil. I am a recovering addict who has managed to stay clean and sober for 15 years, one day at a time. Before I entered treatment, I was suicidal, manic depressive, and so dependent on drugs and alcohol that everything else in my life—including my wife, my son and my health—took a back seat to the ravages of my addiction.
In my first year of a treatment program, I met two other men who, like me, were sarcastic, stubborn and runners. As addicts, we never do things by half: together we trained for our first marathon with the goal of qualifying for Boston. We met every Sunday, pounded out our long runs while discussing how to stay sober and become respected members of society.
Those long runs were instrumental to my sobriety because they taught me to set a goal, be on time for meetings and get out of my head and “into” my body. We all qualified for Boston in that first marathon and have stayed sober and physically active since.
My wife will attest to the fact that I’m a happy person and a better husband and father when I get out for my daily run. I’m not naive or self-deluded; I know I’ve simply replaced my addiction for drugs and alcohol with a running addiction. In terms of addiction though, it’s a sweet elixir, as it’s made me physically and emotionally stronger, allowed me to meet some amazing people and taken me to races all over the world.
Like most runners, I’d heard about Comrades and dismissed it as too far to travel, too far to run, and too crazy—even for me. But last summer dear friends moved from Canada to South Africa and invited us to visit them in Johannesburg. I investigated the Comrades race and the qualification process. I mentioned it to my wife, expecting her to laugh and veto the insanity, but instead she said: “Sure, why not!”
I’ve run almost 60 marathons and ultra marathons including Boston (six times), New York (five times) and Chicago. Comrades was going to take me out of my “comfort zone.” I needed to run farther than I’d ever run before on a course with a profile that looks like an erratic EKG and has a tragic side to its glory.
Most finishers, along with over a million viewers glued to their televisions, hang around for the 12-hour cut off. A minute before the cut-off, a race marshal walks onto the field and turns his back to the finish line. The crowd starts the countdown, until the marshal fires the gun and the finish is closed.
It doesn’t matter if you’re inches from the line, once the gun is sounded, you are not allowed to finish the race. You get no medal; and you have no official record of participation. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but that’s part of the allure of the race.
wo months after registering for the race, I started to worry about our safety in South Africa, my ability to complete the race and the exorbitant cost of the trip. I decided to back out of the race and do Leadville instead, but my wife convinced me to go to Comrades. Witnessing me living clean/sober for 15 years, she believes in me and sees my inner strength.
En route to South Africa, we planned a four-day stopover in Dubai. It was over 40 degrees in Dubai (even at 2 a.m.) and I was pig-headed enough to get in my daily run despite the extreme conditions. As a result, when we got to Johannesburg three days before the race, I was bed ridden for 24 hours with severe dehydration. With my race in doubt, my wife and friends pumped me with16 liters of fluid and rehydrating drugs from the pharmacy.
The next morning I was able to drag myself onto a flight to Durban to pick up my race kit. I thought there was no hope that I would finish the race.
Comrades is an epic race for many reasons including logistics. To get to the 5:30 a.m. start in Pietermaritzburg, we needed to board buses by 2 a.m. Some runners managed to get three or four hours sleep; others none.
The atmosphere at the starting corrals was electric. 15 minutes before the start, the entire field of 18,000 runners started singing the national anthem followed by the most moving rendition of Shosholoza. I was not the only one wiping away a tear at the majesty of this occasion.
We all took off into the cool darkness to the soundtrack of “Chariots of Fire.” Although 2012 was a “down” run year, the first half of the course follows long, nasty hills as you pass kilometre markings counting down from 89 to 1. I had read that the only flat part of Comrades is the last 300 meters of the race when you enter the cricket stadium. Truer words have never been spoken.
People line the streets for the entire course and the festivities are heightened by the ever-present aroma of their barbecues. As an international runner, I was assigned a blue race bib, along with my Team Canada singlet, meant I was greeted by “Go Canada” the entire race.
The mostly rural route has you climbing up and down past some pungent chicken farms until you hit the highest point of the course about half-way through the race. I was aiming for under 9 hours and 45K into the day, I was on target. But with 30K to go, my quads felt like Jell-o and my feet felt like minced meat. My pace slowed until I resembled the “Tin Man” from the Wizard of Oz. Before I started the race, I thought I would need to walk on some of the intense uphill sections; ironically, I was begging for uphills and crying on downhills.
With 10K to go, I knew the sub 9-hour medal was slipping out of reach, so I eased into the last hour and soaked up the camaraderie of the race. I talked to more runners in that last leg of the race than I’d spoken to in all my other races combined. We were not competitors but willing participants in one of the most challenging and life-affirming events of our life.
When I entered the cricket stadium, I was awed by the thousands of spectators and I felt a surge of adrenaline. I was no longer running on tired legs, but flying on the best drugs I’d ever taken: accomplishment and humility.
100 meters from the finish line I heard my wife call me name and that’s when I knew I had made her proud; Comrades had changed my life.
When my wife met me at the finishing line at 9 hours and 22 minutes, I broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. My journey to Comrades was built on overcoming depression, isolation, addiction and fear.
Then I sat down and said, “I’m so proud of myself for doing that, but I NEVER need to do that again!” Three days later, the pain was leaving my quads and I realized I had been bitten by the Comrades bug. I’ve signed up to do the “up” run next year, booked our hotel and started tweaking my training schedule.
As soon as I got back to Canada, I got the Comrades logo tattooed on my arm. Something so permanent in my psyche needed to be permanent on my body.