Vanessa de Hoog, a teacher in Ottawa, is preparing to run the Boston Marathon in April. Here she shares an expert from her collection of short stories about her relationship with running, how it has helped her overcome and connect with children and adults.
That is the first thought that goes through my head as I wake up Sunday morning. My head pounding. My eyelids heavy. Natural consequences to last night’s lunacy. I groan and roll over and check the time.
11:45 AM. DAMMIT.
I sit upright in bed. As my bare feet slap the cold parquet, I bury my head in my hands and rub my eyes. The unwashed mascara from yesterday transfers from my eyelashes to my fingertips, blackening them. Again, the pounding in my head. I rise and walk lazily towards the full length mirror beside my bedroom window.
Nice. You slept in yesterday’s clothes. Really on a roll here champ.
I painstakingly pull my black hoodie over my head, unzip and step out of my beige pants. Still, the pounding. My freshly darkened hair seems to highlight the dark circles under my eyes this morning. They are temporary tattoos, these dark circles, carved into my face thanks to an erratic sleep pattern. My gaze tracks downwards, and I note that my mental anguish has begun to manifest physically.
My body has obviously softened. Muscles that were previously firm, toned, and visible are now hidden amongst new folds of skin. This is not good, I lament. Not good at all.
My eyes continue to work their way down and fixate momentarily on the scar on my left knee. The most pronounced scar I have.
Somehow, I always know which mornings he will come into my room and tell me we need to go for a run. Intuition? Seven years old and my Dad has me training for yet another 10km road race taking place in spring. Looking out my bedroom window, I almost jump when he orders me to get my running stuff on.
We run down Swan’s Way without speaking. The only sound,our feet striking the concrete in an unsynchronized rhythm. The neighbourhood, quiet. Populated by elderly families, rarely seen outside their homes at this time of day.
He peels ahead of me, as he always does. The distance between us grows further and further. The physical parallels the emotional. As he turns left onto the next street he is at least 400 metres in front of me. He never looks back, I think to myself.
Then, I trip and fall onto the concrete. My left knee splits open. Blood makes its way down my pale shin. I look down and see that the cut is full of little pieces of gravel. Tears fill my eyes. The overflow paints the walls of my cheeks. Vision blurred, I look down Swan’s Way. He is well gone. Won’t be looking back. I remove my left shoe, peel off my sock and dab at my knee. I then make my way back to the house. An orphaned sock and slight limp accompany my return home this morning. I keep looking down at my knee. It’s bad but it will heal, maybe even into a scar, and one day, I can only hope, serve as a gentle reminder to keep my head up. To keep moving forward.
I shake off the memory, unhook my bathrobe from behind my bedroom door and let the black silk envelop my nude body. Next to it my wedding dress hangs in a clear plastic bag to preserve its…virginity?
I enter the bathroom and execute what was now becoming an unhealthy and familiar routine. Open the medicine cabinet door. Dry swallow two extra-strength Tylenol. Take my medication. Another dry swallow. My feet dodge the scattered kitten toys on the floor as I arrive in the living room and observe the remnants of the scene from the night before. It had been fun, I thought. Irresponsible in the end – but fun. I collect the empty wine bottles one by one and bring them to the kitchen.
Too many bottles.
I collect the assortment of scattered dishes and load them into the dishwasher after rinsing off the leftovers of the meal I had prepared for my girlfriends some fifteen hours ago. You need to get those out of here today, I tell myself while looking at the collection of empty wine bottles in the corner of the kitchen. The pile has been growing over the course of the month. Beside it, a wall of thrown-out take-out containers.
I stare at the refuse. Just another form of medication. The wine, a sleep aid. The take out, a workaround, another device to avoid thinking. I feel like jumping on the pile. What’s one more empty container? How simple it is to know the right path when racing. Cones, kilometre markers, and crowds, all there to point you in the right direction.
But what about in life? In love? What are the markers here? Notes from a therapist? Fear of judgement? Fear of rejection? I so desperately desire the same clarity. I am at a loss re: my next steps. I know I have demons to battle. A broken heart in need of mending.
How do I even begin to tackle that?
Well, for starters, I am going to train my ass off for this Boston. The ramp into the underground parking lot is backed up with cars. My hands drum impatiently on the steering wheel as my Honda inches forward behind the endless line of cars. Entering the garage, I trade the grey outdoors for grey concrete. Fully packed lot. Must be an event on. While I wait to access my parking spot I continuously skip songs playing off my iPod.
Definitely can’t listen to that song right now. Or THAT one.
“I think about you…” Oh, be quiet Bryan Adams!!
Eventually I make it to my “secret” parking spot. Two motorcycle parking spots, side by side, in the west end of the parking lot. A tight squeeze for the average vehicle, but my small hatchback fits into the space easily. A routine we have perfected over the last few years. Weaving through traffic on my way to the gym entrance, I try not to breathe in too much of the exhaust expelled from the lineup of cars still waiting to park. It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
A familiar voice calls my name as I scan my membership fob and enter the gym. I look up and see my friend, breathing heavily, out of the saddle, smiling on the stationary bike. Her towel hangs between the two handlebars of the bike creating a hammock. It catches the perspiration from her forehead. I smile. She is the only other athlete I know that sweats as much as I do during a workout.
I grab two towels off the counter and make my way towards my friend.
You didn’t ‘long run’ with the group this morning?
(I hope the shame isn’t written all over my face.)
Nope. I actually needed the sleep. What’s your plan on the bike? Want to lift after? Easy 45, and sure!
During our short exchange I’ve stripped out of my track pants and hoodie and stuffed them into one of the small lockers at the front of the gym. Dressed, or barely so, in a black sports bra and black shorts I make my way to the treadmills lined behind the bikes and inform my friend I should be done in about an hour.
It is a manageable workout today. My coach, Trevor, has been adjusting my training on the fly as I provide him updates on my success (moreso lack thereof) as per the weekly training plans. Focus. You’re here now. Just think about this workout for the next hour. Step onto the treadmill. Turn on the fan. Seriously?! One of them is broken? Well, I guess a little extra salt never hurts. I smile, now that would sell on a series of Nike tees.
The machine’s belt groans to life and so do I. My rhythm adjusts to the warm up pace I have set at 5:00 min/km. Keep it sane. Adjust the incline to 1.0. My stride falls into place as my breathing regulates. My body knows this routine well. Time to check in. Chest up? Shoulders relaxed – but arms engaged? Avoiding the default heel strike? Trevor has me train these positive habits at a slow pace for automatic execution in races.
As the minutes of my warm up pass, my friend continues her workout on the bike in front of me. I watch her rise out of the saddle. Her turnover picks up. A flash of envy. She’s built like a runner. Slim. Toned. Slim. And, fast. I track her training, but what I don’t see online, someone will tell me about.
“Did you see her easy run pace on Strava?”
“Man, she’s in really good shape these days!”
“She’s been crushing her workouts!”
Suddenly, I am all too aware of my body. Wide shoulders. Large hips. Hefty quads. Not so slim. My thoughts avalanche. I feel heavy.
15:00 lights up on the treadmill clock. I click pause. And straddle the belt. Warm up done. Passing my friend on my way to the water fountain, I offer her a smile. Get. It. Together. Remember why you run.
Back on the treadmill. Time for the meat and potatoes of the workout. First up? 15 minutes at marathon pace. My legs welcome the slight increase in speed and happily cruise along to the 4:40 min/km pace. Though my most recent marathon in Toronto clocked in at 3:21:19, the hills of Boston demand a faster-than-usual training clip to balance things out.
It feels like cheating, getting to run 15 minutes of a workout at this pace. Relative to training at faster paces for shorter races, like the 5 km, this 4:40 min/km pace is a gift. Time ticks away, still, I feel myself getting antsy.
This doesn’t feel like work…I want to run faster! Would it really be a big deal if I jacked things up a bit, say, to 4:30 min/km pace?
8.0 mph is lit up in red on the treadmill’s screen. Seeing the slow speed displayed on the screen frustrates me. I want to pick up the pace. But then I think about Trevor. His philosophy on coaching is about training beyond the physical elements. Your mind has an equal role in this equation. Each workout he designs is done with intention, factoring in both my physical and mental state. I realize this part of the workout is the mental test he knows I will struggle to pass. I smirk. He knows me.
I keep it sane for the remainder of the 15 minutes (albeit reluctantly) and embrace delayed gratification. I focus on the meditative sound of my soles.
Three minutes of easy jogging, a transition to the next section of the workout, ten minutes at tempo pace. I eagerly adjust the treadmill’s speed and increase my turnover in tandem with the new 4:20 min/km pace.
My body wakes up fully thanks to a change in the agenda. The dust gathered on my legs over the past month shakes off. I am coming back to life. The muscles in my calves stretch and contract as my toes strike the belt. My core keeps me stable. My quads absorb the shock of impact with each landing. An obscene amount of sweat covers my body as I break the five minute mark.
Lactic acid, oh, I’ve missed you old friend.
Pushing through the final minutes of the tempo, I am satiated. Patience has paid off, as per Trevor’s plan. I’ve passed his test.
Running is raw.
The sport requires minimal “equipment.” Even shoes (debatable) are optional. Running is its own reward because you are solely responsible for your success. You make the difference. Regardless of speed or incline, each step you take is of your own accord, and objectively making you stronger.
Crazy endorphins. Such a high. No wonder humans have been doing it forever. My speed picks up. Two minutes left in the workout, prescribed at race pace. Don’t get cocky, kid.
Bump the speed to 4:00 min/km. Keep the arms relaxed.
3:50 min/km. Breathe.
3:40 min/km. Lactic.
3:30 min/km. Panting.
Sweat drips into my eyes and temporarily blinds me. I’m wrung out. Exhausted. Finished.
My jello legs carry me to the fountain. I drink greedily and splash my face. Completely drenched in sweat, I lick my lips and make my tired way back to the treadmill for a cool down.
I taste the salt.
And, just like that, I’m back in the game.
The author would like to dedicate this writing to Fitzgerald for inspiring her.