Friday, August 8, 2008

Ryan Shay and the spirit that pushes us all

For anyone who has any hobby, sport, or something they train for there has to be a type of motivation. Something inside of them that drives them and pushes them to go further than they ever imagined. For me, as a runner it is the story of Ryan Shay.

Of any of the gifts or personality traits that I may possess, my tenacity and ability to doggedly push myself is the trait I am most proud of. I do not look like a runner to some. I may not be as fast as many of the runners I train with or run with, but I feel that I can match tenacity, intensity or the desire to compete with anyone. And this is where Ryan Shay comes in.

Ryan Shay was an American marathoner, who died at the 2007 US Olympic marathon trials after 5.5 miles from a heart malfunction at the age of 28. He was the type of runner that other elite marathoners would envy due to his training regimen and ability to push himself. He had no lower gear. He possessed that Steve Prefonatine ability to realize that his strength was his strength. He was one of the rare athletes that could make it appear that it was 100% effort and guts, with little or no natural talent. The truth was that he a record setting high school and collegiate career and was immensely talented, but it was through his work ethic that I began to follow his career and become a fan.

As I watched the Olympic marathon trials and learned of his death, it affected me deeply. I was shocked with how sad it made me feel. The only way I could process what had happened was to go out for a long run and try to sort through my feelings. That was going to be his day, he was going to achieve his goal of qualifying for the Olympic marathon team. It was going to be a day that all citizen runners like myself could be proud of and celebrate. But it didn't happen and all we were left with was what could have been.

I was too young to have watched Steve Prefontaine, another great runner cut down in the prime of his life, but I had Ryan Shay. Since that day I have had a picture of Ryan Shay posted on my fridge and give him a high five as I leave for my (mostly) daily runs. When ever I am having a hard time, or thinking of quitting during a run, I think of him. What he left behind is the spirit that inspires myself and others like me to go that extra mile when you don't think you can and to sprint up that hill when you want to coast. I wish I could thank him for that, all I can do now is just honour his life with my effort.

So while watching the opening ceremonies for the Olympic games I felt a twinge of pain, thinking he should be there. I cannot imagine what his young wife or family might have been thinking.

I will be watching the Olympic marathon and cheering for Brian Sell, Ritz, and Ryan Hall hoping that they can bring home a medal for Ryan Shay. I have a feeling that by the end of the Olympics, everyone and just not those in the running community will know the name Ryan Hall. He is going to do what Frank Shorter did for running in the early 1970's and bring running back up to the level of prominence it deserves in the public eye and inspiring the next generations of Ryan Shays and Steve Prefontaines. It will also give me a much needed boost leading into a very busy fall schedule in life and running.

Once again good luck in running and life and which ever races you choose to run.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Noshing and Moshing

Back on the road again, running today. A very easy and nice 8 kms, without Ipod. Just enjoying the sound of my feet hitting the pavement and the sound of my breath as I exhale.

I found myself looking forward to the beginning of fall when the leaves change color and I can feel the cold sting of the air as it enters my throat, to observe the leaves changing colors day by day and watching the world change before your eyes. I find a change in season allows you to look at old and familiar sites through new eyes and enjoy their ethereal beauty.

I had an amazing and wonderful experience yesterday, I was able to reconnect with some old friends, make a new one and apologize for inconsiderate things I had done in my teenage years (I was a little bit of a turd back in high school). It allowed me to show myself as I am now and the man I have become. As well as the opportunities for laughs and jumping from a pool deck onto a floatation device known as the "Racer" and try to ride it for eight seconds, rodeo style. It was amazing and I have not laughed that much in years, and enjoy the benefits that unadulterated fun can bring.

There is something cathartic about being in your hometown and even the experience of running past the house you grew up in, there has to be some type of metaphor for moving on in there somewhere.

It seems that the theme for my life lately has been renewal and moving forward. As well as getting strong enough to stand on my own to feet again.

Monday, August 4, 2008

My Unfinished Life

Today, I feel like an ass. Yesterday was not my best day, and neither was the day before.

The good news is that I have the choice today to change that but the question is that with all of the knowledge I have, will I make that choice?

Recently an earthquake of epic proportions hit my world, my whole reality changed and everything I knew or thought I knew was shaken or broken. It was like my life was one of those little glass snow globes that you pick up and shake, only it wasn't snow in the globe, it was me.

So here I am, starting over. Looking forward to life and all the new experiences that are yet to come. Yet I feel frozen at the starting line, unsure of where to turn or who to move on with. That is the question I have to ask myself, am I ready to get of the proverbial dock and jump in the water to see if I can swim? I have long felt like a spectator in my own life, watching rather than participating. With all of the changes that have happened in my life lately, there are more to come.

I don't think the world has seen the best that I have to offer and the only way to truly move forward is to continue to change and to evolve. My dynamic has to change. There are people that need to be removed from my life and new friends to be made. New boundries have to be established. There are patterns that need to be stopped and a new way of thinking adopted. All I need to do is take the leap. And to be honest, it scares me. It will force me out of my comfort zone and to confront the big questions that I have been avoiding, and make me look into the dark spaces that exist in all of us and take an objective look at what is missing, what is good and what needs to be fixed.

I think its time to clean the slate and truly accept what has happened. I am almost ready to take that leap and show the world what I am, about how good of a person that I am and to figure out the best me.

One of my favorite movies is All The Pretty Girls, in the closing scene of the movie, the main character Paul is trying to teach his dog to swim. He is telling the dog that it has nothing to be afraid of, to jump in and trust that everything will work out. Only thing is, it is not the dog he is talking to. He is telling himself to move forward and move on. That is how I feel right now.

To those who stick with me, I thank you. I apologize for some of my erratic behavior and want you to know that as I evolve and start to fulfill my potential the payoff will be immense. I am just starting to find my way again and appreciate those who are taking the journey with me.

The Last Days of Pompeii

I was walking down the street recently in downtown Montreal, and instead of being satisfied and relaxed there were images that I could not get out of my mind. There were panhandlers, sometimes 3 deep on the sidewalks and people sleeping in every available stairwell. The thing that struck me most is that people are so immune to it now, it is commonplace to see this and does not affect people any longer. Today for some reason it affected me. For some time now I have been willingly part of the herd, always looking to improve my existence with the newest gadgets and to choose style over substance. I think that thought process is coming to an end for me. The thing is that I have no way to know how to start. If I start preaching about the perils of overindulgence then I will be dismissed as a socialist who feels that we should all drive 1982 Toyota Corollas and take public transit and work for a government wage. If I don’t say or do anything, I feel that I will be leaving a terrible world behind for my children and for any generations that come next.

I feel like a resident of Pompeii in the last days, watching with gloom as Mount Vesuvius thunders and knowing the end is coming. In our Pompeii, the government is telling us that it is all okay. That they are implementing plans for the next 20-50 years to stop the eruption. That no action is required, in fact most in power don’t believe that Vesuvius will erupt at all. I look at my city with its crumbling infrastructure and social services stretched to the limits, creating cracks so large that our most vulnerable are falling through it. I see an apathetic electorate and our houses of government embroiled in petty partisanship preventing any consensus or bridge building that could benefit the whole rather than certain constituencies or special interests. I see our elected officials unable to talk unless it is from pre-arranged talking points or a 10 second sound bite. I see the people being talked down to, rather than participating in a public conversation about how to best proceed. I see governments ruling by religious and dogmatic beliefs rather than what might be best for society as a whole. The sad thing is, this isn’t Pompeii, this is today in my own city and in my own back yard.I have no idea how to start the change.

Is it too late to slow or to change the direction? I feel bitter about this. Where is the just society we were promised, where is the society where we are to be judged only by the content of our character? Where is the society that should feel moved to action when fellow humans are sleeping in streets and stairwells and suffering in third world counties when we know we have the means to correct this? And yet here I am sitting in a 4 star hotel in Montreal typing this on my laptop, feeling I am barely getting by. Still following the herd I guess. But I do know that I started my change today by at least noticing the world around me and letting for even a moment what I saw affect me. As uncomfortable as that is, acknowledging that as a society and in my own life amends have to be made for our ignorance and overindulgence is even more difficult but necessary. I realize that some will dismiss this as the ranting of a hypocrite liberal socialist, but for me the first step is admitting that we are going nowhere fast unless we at least open our eyes and take an objective look.

“We've got the means to make amends. I am lost, I'm no guide, but I'm by your side.”

Eddie Vedder, Leash

Memoirs of a Running Fool

2012 miles since I decided to start running...

On Feb 11th 2007 I decided to run the ING Ottawa Half-Marathon. I figured since my (not so) better half at that time was off at school and being an “idle hands are the tool of the devil” kind of guy I needed an outlet for my free time. I just wasn’t sure how to handle time free of nagging and free of domestication. One day while talking to a friend I announced “I am going to run a half marathon”, there was a moment of silence as I am sure they needed time to compose their thoughts and prepare reasons why I shouldn’t do it. All she could say was “Are you sure?” and wished me luck. You see I used to feel that people who ran more than five miles a day had mental problems. Seriously, but as a full blooded hypocrite and flip-flopper I decided to join the craziness and start running.

It was a slow start, and I am sure the image of a big plodding jogger brought a smile to the morning commuters. Through all this something inside me began to change. Instead of wishing for death at the end of runs I began to look forward waking up to go running. Surprisingly, I stopped counting minutes and started counting miles. I became addicted to the runner's high and enjoyed the quiet mornings. I still love the constant challenges that running brings. Should I come to a training peak I cannot stay there. I must start each day at the bottom and climb to the top.It was during these runs that I was able to center myself and ask the difficult questions, like “Do I really want to work this job the rest of my life?” and “What does this all mean?” and any other existential dilemmas mankind kind had ever faced. My runs became like therapy with some issue or problem in my mind, and me working through it while running on side and country roads. I would usually come to some form of resolution at the end of the run.

To me there is nothing better than pushing yourself to your limits and to see how far you are willing to go. The only reason to set a goal or a limit is to push through it. For me, it started as a challenge to impress my friends and became a lifestyle for me. Like Descartes said “Conquer yourself rather than the world” and for me that is what running began to symbolize.

Needless to say on the day of the race I was terrified. No matter how many fartleks, hill repeats, tempo runs and long slow days I had put in, I did not feel prepared. But to quote the great marathoner Alberto Salazar “I had as many doubts as anyone else. Standing on the starting line, we're all cowards.” And that is how I felt, scared. What if I could not finish it? Before I could get too into my head, the horn went off and before I knew it, it was all over. There was no way to describe how I felt as I ran the last mile, 10,000 people on the sides cheering. It was almost a transcendent experience, if not for every muscle and joint in my body screaming bloody murder. And what they say is true; as I crossed the finish line I knew nothing would ever be the same.
I do not want to sound hokey, but once you push yourself farther than you ever would have realized you could, there is no stopping you. I was totally hooked. 3 more half marathons followed and 1500+ more miles.

I have to say that the best experience I have had as a runner is finishing and watching and cheering on the other runners as they sprint the last 100 meters and observe that look of elation mixed with complete and total pain. It is amazing to watch, and even better to share.

I stopped looking at myself as a jogger and started to look at myself as a runner. You do not have to be an elite athlete to feel like you have accomplished something special, and knowing that you are following in the footsteps of the elite runners only spurs you on more. If you were motivated enough to train for and participate in an organized running event, then you are a runner. Anyone willing to risk public failure in order to be a part of the running community--no matter what his or her pace per kilometre might be--is a runner. Period.

So for anyone wanting to take that first step, let me know. If I can do it, anyone can. And for everyone else, please don’t call it jogging, I am a runner. To quote John Bingham “I AM A RUNNER because I am willing to lay it all on the line. I know that every finish line has the potential to lift my spirits to new highs or devastate me, yet I line up anyway. I AM A RUNNER because I know that despite my best efforts, I will always want more from myself. I will always want to know my limits so that I can exceed them. I AM A RUNNER because I run. Not because I run fast. Not because I run far.”

Good luck to all in whatever races you decide to run.

Beijing and the greatest act of non-violent political protest

Two pairs of black socks and two raised fists were all it took to show the world how a group of people felt. In that amazing moment two men, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, created one of the most memorable moments in Olympic history but also a milestone in America's civil rights movement. It was powerful, it was understated and it came with out any boycotts or bloodshed.By today’s standards, the protest seems fairly tame, but in 1968 Smith and Carlos were met with such outrage that they were suspended from their national team and banned from the Olympic Village. They also faced death threats and were banished from sports for many years after the Mexico City Olympics. It is also interesting to note that Peter Norman, who is white, participated in the protest by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badge.

What does this have to do with current world events? Everything. A lot has been written and said about the upcoming Beijing Olympics. I am not going to debate about China and it’s horrible human rights record -- I agree that it is reprehensible. I am going to debate the move to perhaps boycott the games. It seems that a lot of political and media types are advocating the boycott of the Olympic games.

It seems that the only people who are not being asked are the athletes. You know the athletes. The people who have been training their whole lives for this moment, the people who put their lives on hold, living on next to no money to compete for their nation. The people with perhaps the most to lose by an Olympic boycott.It seems that the U.S. Olympic Committee has been warning its athletes to not make any political gestures or statements during the games. This is what I will take issue with. Lets encourage our athletes to speak their minds and to make bold statements if they wish. As a nation we cannot allow the Canadian Olympic Committee to censor our athletes, and to dissuade them from making their views known. Surely if we can debate an Olympic boycott we can give the athletes the discretion to make a stand. The athletes had no part in the decision to award China the Olympic games, why should they be punished for it.

The ability to speak ones own mind is what separates us from brutal, repressive regimes around the world. It is what makes us unique, that an individual can choose to use their moment to protest an injustice or make a statement. Just like Tommie Smith and John Carlos did in Mexico City in 1968, but without the fear of being ostracized or censored.