There is a beauty and elegance to running. When done well it is free-flowing, powerful, and feels like flying.
But there can be a danger about it as well.
Three days before the 2014 Goodlife Fitness Toronto Marathon I started to feel run down. A cold started to make its presence known and despite my best efforts I awoke on race day still lethargic, sneezing, and with a scratchy throat. All in all I knew it was going to be a rough day. But I didn’t foresee just how rough.
The winds were menacing all morning. Even with the downhill portion of the race we were heading into some strong headwinds which nullified any advantage the decline would usually proffer. After that it was a solid 14 kilometres, between the 21st and 35th kilometre points, that once more the winds would conspire against us. I knew this. As is the case with any runner worth his or her salt I had been obsessing with the weather forecast for days. Winds from the west at 20km/h. Not so bad. I could handle it. I’ve run in much worse.
But the forecast was gravely understated. Not only did the winds come from the south during our downhill stint along Yonge, but when the winds swirled to mount their assault from the west, they were far more formidable than a mere 20km/h. How strong? The 36 kilometre signpost was felled. As were a number of steel roadside barriers. We were not in Kansas anymore. How strong were the winds? Strong enough that when combined with my cold, the gusts would trigger my normally dormant asthma.
I haven’t had problems with my asthma since hiking at altitude in the Andes 15 years ago. And as a result, rightly or wrongly, I don’t have an inhaler. If I were to finish this race I would have to do so while my bronchioles gradually constricted. The air necessary to propel my efforts at a precarious low. My muscles began to cramp from loss of oxygen. And my eyes began to tear. No one likes it when their body breaks down. But I would venture that for athletes this bodily betrayal is all the more infuriating.
Helplessly I watched as the 4 hour pace bunny passed me. I vowed to keep him in sight. Even with my mounting breathing difficulties I refused to let him go. But despite my best efforts, he and the runners surrounding him started to fade like a shuddering mirage in the midst of the Sahara.
I was alone.
More than anything this race was going to teach me about my limits. About how far I was willing to go to hold onto a sub 4 effort. About how tough a runner really is. And perhaps a little about my own foolhardiness. For in that moment, I would do anything and everything, despite the toll on my failing body, to finish this race under the mortal’s mythic standard that is the 4 hour marathon.
Agonizingly I plodded forward. At the 28 kilometre point I wanted to walk. To lull in the luxury of no longer running. But I knew if I could hold on to a 6 minute kilometre then I could still finish under 4 hours. There would be no indulgences on this morning. Just how bad do you want this Rod? How deep are you willing to dig? I told myself not to think of the remaining 14 kilometres. In my vulnerable state that would assuredly overwhelm me, spelling my imminent doom. Instead I rallied myself around the fact that after 7 kilometres I would switch directions and finally align myself with the winds’ power.
Even still, that would be about 40 minutes away. I had to hang on. I had to fight.
My mind threatened to falter but I refused to succumb. Onward I pressed. Over the Humber River bridge and through the winding turns that frustratingly turned me further and further away from the finish line. But at the 35 kilometre mark, when I finally hit the turnaround, I was richly compensated. The winds, the very Gods of nature, were with me. And they had rewarded my diligence. The 4 hour pace bunny was right in front of me.
For the next 5 kilometres I would pursue him with the stubborn tenacity of an African Wild Dog in pursuit of its prey. Not by overpowering it, but by eventually running it into the ground. And with 2 kilometres left, that is exactly what I did.
Now I was the prey. And it was up to me to hold my advantage.
My senses now heightened to ensure my survival, I could hear voices. I could feel footfalls. But none of these belonged to the pace bunny. Mercifully he was solidly behind me.
Wheezing and gasping from the demands of the day, I would cross the finish in 3:58:09.4.
I had hoped for faster. I had trained for more. But I am grateful for what is. In many ways this was my sweetest victory.
I defied the elements.
I defied the dangers of the illness which had all but kidnapped my lungs, indeed my entire body.
I not only survived.
You triumph over the adversity. That’s what the marathon is all about. And therefore you know there isn’t anything in life that you can’t triumph over after that.
-Kathrine Switzer. First woman to finish the Boston Marathon. 5 years before women were officially allowed to compete.