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.