Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Pace, Pride and Perseverance at STWM2014

"Don't judge each day by the harvest that you reap but by the seed that you plant."
~Robert Louis Stevenson

It's easy to feel small, even insignificant standing shoulder to shoulder with runners waiting to start a race that boasts 26,000 participants; that's a lot of bodies and nearly twice as many feet. For someone running their first race at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (STWM) the electricity in the air can stir up even more anxiety than is typical at a race start. Even those who find themselves repeating this event can feel like  small fish in a big sea. This event is loved by a lot of runners.
At the start...

I stood in my start corral, among these runners, as I did last year when I ran my first marathon. This year a few things were different though. The corral color was different, for one. I had trained my ass off under the watchful eye of my coach, Rejean Chiasson at Pace and Mind and as such had made huge improvements in my fitness and subsequent pace times. I had some confidence in my ability as this would be my third marathon in a year. The goal I had set of a sub 4 hr finish was lofty, but reachable if the formidable running gods found me in their favor. I stood knowing I  would run a massive personal best time even if I didn't cross the finish at 3:59:xx. Last year I debuted as a marathoner at this race in a time of 4:51:xx; with all the hard work I did over the season my time would be better than that. The most important thing that was different this time, though was that my friend of more than 35 years, Laurie Ruyter, stood along side me in that corral, readying herself for her first half marathon.

In 1978, we met in Kindergarten at Marchmont Public School...the same school my kids go to and my husband teaches at; the school that I look out my side bedroom window and see every morning. The same school at which I ran and won race after race, as a kid. Laurie lives a short 2 km run from my house, with her husband who also went to Marchmont, as a kid. They live in the same neighborhood they grew up in.  Tradition, friendships and ties run deeply around here and I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Laurie,  Me and LeeAnn
Laurie has been by my side through heartbreak and celebration; through life and death; through good times and bad. We learned the alphabet together. We graduated from grade eight together. We skipped school together, in high school. We went to parties together. She held a cool cloth to my head after I almost passed out getting my first tattoo, over 20 years ago. She was my maid of honor, 15 years ago. It was to her that I made one of the first heart wrenching phone calls after my Mom was taken off life support and pronounced dead, at 47 years old. Her arms were among the

Laurie and Tucker
first to cradle my first born; at which time we agreed that neither of us would know what to do if the kid cried and further agreed we would just have to call a nurse, if he did. She drove me to an appointment to talk to my doctor about my drinking, a year before I actually quit drinking (she drove because at 10 am that morning I was already too drunk to drive myself). She has been around for all of the big stuff and all of the small stuff, so standing with her in the blue corral on October 19, at her first big race and her first half marathon was a prideful experience for me.

I didn't feel lost in the sea of runners. I felt grounded as I stood beside my friend, about to run 20 km of her race with her. I had someone by my side who would keep me company for nearly the first half of my race and that meant a lot to me. The spring had come and gone and so had the summer and its' warm days as we shivered waiting to run. In those moments before any race begins, I climb deep in my memory and reflect upon the work, the kilometers and the people who have gotten me to the start line and this day was no different. I thought of my husband Mike, who actually stood just meters away, on the other side of the fence that separated runners from spectators. I thought of my kids. I thought of my friend Tamara. I thought of all the long runs I had done to get here. I also thought of Laurie, who set a goal,
worked hard to train for it and stood waiting anxiously to my left to get on with it.

I had supported her training the best I could over the previous months and with each long run that she completed, I cheered with pride. I even had the privilege of having her join me part way through some of my long runs so we could finish together. I know she was grateful to have me running beside her and her dog Dutch, as their runs increased from 12 km to 15 km and to 17 km from week to week. What she didn't realize was as much as I helped her, she helped me finish 30 km, 33 km and 35 km runs with company, support and smiles.

As the start of the race was signaled the butterflies disappeared, the anxiety melted away and the kind of calm that comes from being able to just run settled in. Our chatting was minimal as I set into 'all business' mode, where energy would not be wasted on talking unless necessary. I offered short one or two word directions as we navigated groups of slower runners, water stations and the tangents.We eased into the first 5-7 km taking in the sights. As we approached Toronto Western Hospital, I told Laurie,

'that's where my Mom died'.

The memories and tears were undeniable as they were last year when I ran past this landmark and as they were the two years before that, when I ran the half marathon. My heart was never so broken as the day I walked away from her lifeless body, in that hospital. I lost my biggest fan that day. Laurie was quick to offer reassurance as we ran passed the building silently. My Mom had been important to us both.

Laurie kept pace and focus. Prior to the race, I told her I would pace her to a great finish time up to the 20 km split, but it was up to her to dig deep on her own from there. For much of the first 10 km she was by my side as we were inspired by cheering stations, funny signs and crowds of people who cheered with such enthusiasm that you would have thought they were our own families. At one point, four of those people cheering were Laurie's family! Her sister-in-law Tara, along with her niece and nephews were heard yelling before they were seen. It was a nice moment with high fives, all around.
Laurie and her family

As we continued to tick off the kilometers we started to see the elites heading toward us on Lakeshore. This brings goosebumps to my skin and tears to my eyes every time. I feel so proud of all of them; it doesn't matter which country they run for. At this point, Laurie asked me if we would see Lanni. I did a quick calculation of the men we had seen and of the women who were leading and told her we should see her any minute and we did. That was inspiring for me and for her as we had met Lanni during the summer at the Pace & Mind Toronto Island run. We shouted like cRaZy girls, but the focused and fierce look on Lanni's face told us that she didn't hear a thing.

At the turn around on Lakeshore, Laurie began to slow a bit, but still stayed just off my shoulder. I knew she was strong and prepared, so I stayed in my head and focused on my pace times rather than constantly checking for her. She had this, with or without me. I was on pace for my goal finish, but my legs were tight and were not loosening up any, so early on I began to doubt my ability to hit my finish time. If my legs hadn't relaxed yet, they were unlikely too, which would mean trouble the farther I ran. It was just a matter of how bad would it get. I thought to myself, time will tell.

At 19 km, I couldn't see Laurie when I took a quick look, but again, I knew she was there somewhere. I
Seeing Richard, Danielle and Rejean
had hoped to give her a smile and thumbs up at the split but I didn't see her again for hours. I did see Richard and Danielle from Pace and Mind, along with Rejean. Their cheers of encouragement brought tears to my eyes. Rejean asked,

'Are you good?'.

I nodded 'yes', as I headed toward the 20 km mark. I was mentally preparing for the long last half of the race when I looked to my left and there was Rejean running by my side. Before he could give me a quick pep talk, I asked him,

'Did you see my friend, Laurie back there any where?'.

I wanted him to say 'Yes! She looks good', but with a sea of runners, it stood to reason when his actual answer was 'no, I didn't'. His pep talk was brief and then he was gone. I was alone for the first time in 20 km, no Laurie, no Rejean. I was alone with thousands of runners, facing the tough part of the marathon.

My pace was on target and my spirits were good ,but my legs were threatening to cramp with every step and I was dizzy. These were threatening to be pace altering problems as I was only a couple kilometers past halfway, what hope did I have that I could keep rolling through without impact. I stopped briefly to swallow a handful of energybits with a gulp of water and continued on. This season I had practiced being in my head and blocking out all other stimuli which was helpful in ignoring my legs and I am often dizzy because of low blood pressure, so I was able to run to 32 km before I started to break. I sent my husband a text at this point and said,

'I'm done. My legs are tight and ready to go into knots. How's Laurie?'.

I didn't wait for a response because even though my words said I was done, the reality was I needed to get back to the finish area and it was cold and there was no other way to solve both issues except to run. I could feel my phone vibrating responses in my pocket, which were no doubt panic induced words of encouragement from Mike, to keep going. As runners do, I ran. I experimented with my pace and found a comfortable speed that seemed to keep the legs cramps from rearing their ugliness. I was also reignited by seeing team mates and fellow digital champions who called my name and cheered me along. There were so many friendly faces raising their hands and giving me nods that any loneliness I may have felt evaporated. I actually was seeing people I knew and had run with over the past year. This was different than other years. I had running friends out on this course who gave a damn about my performance while fighting for their own. Toronto is not my home. In fact, my home is an
hour and a half north of the city and the only person that I know who cheers for me at this race is my husband, who waits at the finish. This was new and very heart warming. Thanks to my P&M team mates, Michael Oliphant, Alan Tou and Olivier Dyason who gave shouts or nods. Thanks to fellow Digital Champions Mike Thornton, Andrew Chak, Heather Gardner and Karyn Cooper and these are only the ones that come to mind right now, that offered encouragement. I saw other social media friends too. It was just what I needed. I ran on.

At 36 km, I pulled out my phone again. I read  messages from Mike that said to keep going. I also had a single message from Laurie that said,

'You can do it!'

I sent Mike a quick message to say that I was okay and to tell Laurie I would see her soon. I was far off my goal finish time, but in those moments, it was about survival to the finish, not about any particular time. Unlike the previous two marathons I ran though, I was aware that as tough as it felt, it really wasn't that long or far to go to the end. At this point in the other two races, it might as well have been another 20 km to the finish because it felt hopeless, not so on this day. I had a bit of experience that told me it would end soon if I kept at it.

The over pass at 39 km was no more friendly this year than it was last year. I had to stop part way and walk that sucker. As I did last year, I noticed the railing and the traffic below but unlike last year, I was not tempted to end it all by jumping. I was in way better shape mentally and physically than I was last year at this point and I acknowledged that and was inspired once again to get it done. Just before I started to run I met a really angry man that was full of cuss words about the over pass and the marathon in general. While I did not feel as angry about things as he did, the sh*t disturber in me couldn't help but fuel his fire. I responded with a bevvy of my own snarling curse words about the elevation gain and the race and marathoning in general. It was wrong, I know, but I got a kick out of his anger.

The last few kilometers hurt and so I jumped back into my head and shut out all of the pain and the spectators and the noise. I fixed my gazed and headed for the end. My goal time was blown long ago, but I have never ran a race that I didn't run hard at the end no matter what, so I ran like I was chasing time. I looked to my left as I came up the finish chute and I gave Mike an almost imperceptible head nod which he knew meant 'I did it!' and his eyes meeting mine in that split second said 'I never doubted you.'. As I stopped my watch, the tears pooled in my eyes at missing my 'A' goal of a sub 4 hour finish. The pools grew heavy and let go and allowed a couple tears to slide down my cheeks. The tears were halted by the angry guy I met at 39 km. I was making slow progress through the volunteers who held medals and sheets and when I looked up through my tears there he was. He was still cursing. He sent congratulations my way that were book ended by f-bombs and I couldn't help but smile. He ranted about losing five eff-ing years from his life by running that race. Once again, I couldn't help myself as I incited his anger by emphatically agreeing with him. He decided he needed two medals for the race he just ran. I told him he should ask. I credit him for turning my tears into a smile. My feelings of disappointment didn't hold a candle to the level of emotion this guy was roller-coasting on and for some reason that felt good.

Nearing the end of the walk through the finish area, I saw Laurie. She was waiting for me. She gave me the biggest hug and said,

'You did it!'

The tears built again and I said,

'I failed. I missed my goal."

She said,

"No! You were great!'

I snapped out of my sadness. This moment was her moment! I hugged back hard. I congratulated her on her race and told her how proud I was. It wasn't about me or my missed goal. I was more proud of her accomplishment than I was sad about my own. This girl did the thing that I admire most in a person. She set a tough goal. She made a plan to achieve it. She worked the plan. She realized her goal! She finished her first half marathon at what I think is the best race around and she did it in a debut time of 2:02:18.

This day was more about the seed in her that had been watered and allowed to grow. Her pride in her accomplishment and her newly realized belief via her achievement, that she can do anything are what it's about. I am proud to have been there. The only thing better would have been if I crossed that finish with her.

I am looking forward to many more running adventures with my friend, as she has been bitten by the running bug.

Thanks to Alan Brooks and the CRS team for a great race. Thanks to Jenna and the Digital Champions for camaraderie that I couldn't run without. Thanks to Rejean and my Pace and Mind team mates for expecting the best from me. Thanks to Mike for always saying 'Yes', and thanks to Laurie for being there, as always.

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