When goal races go bad

Not all runners run races. I don’t need to race in order to enjoy my “training”. I enjoy running hard in order to feel good and to generally stay fit and fast. But every now and then I like to measure my efforts with a race, and sometimes I need to have a goal to help motivate me and keep me honest in working hard. I also like testing myself and putting it all on the line in a big performance. I love racing when I feel well prepared and fit and ready to go. I don’t feel the need to do this too often (because it is hard and stressful) but usually once or twice a year I’ll train for a big “goal race”.

This fall I decided it was time. For about eight weeks I ran weekend long runs with pace specific work, Wednesday morning interval workouts where I tried to get faster and fitter each week, did running specific strength training with core work included and daily runs to hit my mileage targets. I was doing all this to get ready to run a fast half marathon. I was getting excited to get out there and see what I had.

But then I got sick. I was still hopeful that I’d recover right up until the night before. But as I lay under the covers with the chills and body aches I knew I wouldn’t be able to race a decent race, so I decided not to go.

sometimes this ...

sometimes this …

... takes the place of this.

… takes the place of this.

Big goal races are like that. Of all my current network of runner friends, I would say that for big goal races for this fall they were about 60/40 for being happy with their races vs. not. And in the ‘not’ category are those who got injured, sick, or just had a bad race below expectations. It is really hard to put a perfect training block together and have everything come together perfectly for race day. The odds, although slightly on your side, are not great. It’s anything but a sure thing. We’re up against work stress, family circumstances, physical injury, poor weather, cold and flu viruses, poor nutrition choices (ok, that last one might be within our control). To add to this, training plans are not sure fire recipes for success and adapting perfectly to a training plan without over or under-doing it, taking all your other stressors into account, is a fine art which I think has a lot of luck written in.

This is not to say we should give up and stop trying. It is just a reminder not to beat ourselves up when we land in the 40% who didn’t reach their goal. I’m finally there. I’ve been doing this for long enough that I don’t feel mad or upset that I didn’t race. There will be more, and I will enjoy training towards a goal, and if it all comes together I will realize what a special thing it is and celebrate with all my heart. And then I’ll go out and buy a lottery ticket.

Like having the perfect goal race.

Like having the perfect goal race.

It’s not the training that’s tough

There is a selfish luxury to being able to train hard. I used to envy the lives of elite athletes who could justify planning their days and lives around their workouts and recovery. Although now that I look back through the lense of age, I can see that I used to live a life not too far off theirs. At least intermittently (I wasn’t always the most consistent trainer). However, there were times when I would look forward to going to bed early and eating a good dinner in preparation for a long, hard workout the next day. I’d wake up and ease into it, fueling with coffee, breakfast and the newspaper. Then, mentally and physically ready, I would hit the road and really give everything I had to my workout. I would leave nothing behind, and come back home exhausted and content, and in much need of a day filled with napping, refueling, and generally recovering. I recall specifically when I was training for the Ironman in 2004 I had some weekend morning workouts consisting of a 2 hour indoor training ride of hard intervals, followed by a 9 mile run with 3 x 10 minutes at tempo pace. I would finish those workouts so depleted that I’d spend the rest of the day on the couch. Reading and napping was all I had energy for.

My ideal afternoon after a hard workout

My ideal afternoon after a hard workout

These days I may have the mental and physical energy to complete a tough workout like that, but the recovery piece is glaringly absent. As soon as I get in the door from a run, I am in demand. I’m lucky if I can grab a quick shower and snack before dealing with kids’ needs, although often I start cleaning up a mess and making food for people before I have a chance to strip off my wet clothes. And then our day begins with various adventures on bikes, in pools, to museums or zoos. I can do these things (and even enjoy them) with a smile on my face if I’m a little tired. But I can’t manage it if I’m in the pit of exhaustion that extremely hard workouts induce. When I’m in that state, if one thing other than a nap is requested of me I turn into a bear and snap and rage, and no amount of coffee can make me human. My kids who are often faced with a happily endorphined mom who probably lets more slide than she should, are suddenly faced with the opposite extreme as I come close to tears when requested to fix a “bumpy sock” for the tenth time, and lose it when someone spills juice on the floor. I just don’t have the energy to deal.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining. I signed up for this parent gig and I love it. I just have to be mindful of my post-workout energy reserves these days, and make sure there is enough leftover after a workout. I’m careful not to go over the edge because the consequences if I do are way too hard on me and my family. Do I miss the feeling of working out that hard? Maybe a bit. But I’d never trade it for the feeling of sharing laughs and adventures with my family.

Knee deep in post-long run adventures

Knee deep in post-long run adventures

A little self hate goes a long way in running

Are runners generally happy people? Maybe after their runs. My anecdotal evidence tells me that many of us are self-medicating through running. Recently a friend was talking to another friend asking how she pushes herself so hard in workouts and why she herself couldn’t seem to. The friend’s reply: “you just don’t hate yourself enough”. I totally get it. Usually I need a little bit of self-imposed suffering in order to feel balanced.

This isn’t always the case with me, but mostly it is. There have been times in my life when I’ve felt generally at ease and happy. Usually these times coincide with vacations (coincidence?) which is why I think it’s so hard to keep up training while on vacation. When I’m not feeling anxious or a little unhappy with myself I can go for runs. I really enjoy them. But I don’t run extra hard or extra far. I don’t feel the urge, so I don’t do it. I’m reminded of the line from the Barenaked Ladies song which goes, “she’s like a baby, I’m like a cat. When we are happy we both get fat.”

Happy Fat Cat

Happy Fat Cat

Some people seem to tolerate pain better than others, and we know that that tolerance can be trained. You can learn to accept pain. But why would you? There is definitely a subset of people who relish the “cleansing” or “absolving” nature of self-flaggelation on the roads, track or hills for purposes other than simply running a fast time in their next race. The race is actually just a socially acceptable way to justify our need for ritualistic masochism.

This is just a better tool ...

This is just a better tool …

... than this

… than this

So the question lies – if you’re a generally happy person who doesn’t hate yourself enough to train hard enough for that next PB, how can you harness this secret power? My running buddies and I had a good laugh about that the other day. Want to run faster? Try bombing a big presentation OR pick a fight with a loved one where you’re clearly in the wrong OR binge out on all your kids Halloween candy when they’re in bed. Whatever will make you feel guilty enough to dig a little deeper on that extra mile repeat the next day. I’m not sure if you can replicate the exact same twisted torment of self-hate that plagues the hardest working runners, but worth a try, right?

Run Parenting

I’m a runner. I’m also a mom. I’ve been a runner for over 25 years. I’ve been a mom for just over 8 years. I could write many books over on running. I don’t think I will ever feel like I’m “doing it right” in parenting. And that is why it is so hard to know what to do when these worlds collide.

I would love it if my two kids (6 and 8) decided they would like to go for runs with me and train for races. I can do that! In fact we have gone for the odd run together, mostly with great results, but the truth is, going for runs really isn’t their thing right now. They’d rather be playing on the monkey bars or skateboarding in the ally, and to be honest, as long as they’re doing something they love and are getting exercise, I don’t really care. In fact, I truly believe that being a great runner in elementary school has very little bearing on whether they will be good, or more importantly whether they will enjoy it, when they’re older. I cannot make them train, I cannot make them love it and I cannot make them want to do well in a race. The only thing I can do is mess it up by putting pressure or expectations on them.

A few months ago my 6 year-old’s best friend decided she wanted to train for and run a kids’ fun run. If her friend was in, so was my daughter. I asked her a few times whether she wanted to go for a jog with mommy to get ready and she always said ‘no thanks’. The race was 1K so I knew she could complete it – it would just be more of a challenge than if she’d trained. So be it – I’ve entered races under-trained as well. The result was she ran it, was shocked by how hard it was, but was happy with her t-shirt and medal. And that was it. No “what was my time?” No “I want to do better next time” It was purely a one-time experienced influenced by peer pressure. But I was proud and excited for her.

Going for it in her first ever race

Going for it in her first ever race

The next weekend my 8 year-old’s best friend was running a 5K which he’d been training quite seriously for. My son decided he wanted to do it with him. Again, my guy had decided not to train, despite many offers by me to do so with him. He did not want to train but he was determined to race. I had absolutely no idea how it would play out. I decided it could be a disaster but at least it would be a great life lesson. It wasn’t a disaster; he stuck with his friend until the last kilometer where he fell a bit behind, but tried his hardest and ran the whole way finishing in just over 27 minutes. Again, I was proud at his determination and work ethic in the race. Mostly I loved how happy he was afterwards and how great he said he felt.

Feeling great after his first 5K

Feeling great after his first 5K

The school cross-country race is tomorrow. They both say they’re competing although my younger one goes back and forth and it will depend on whether her friends are. Mostly she wants the morning off school. My son is also doing it with his group of friends, although I think he’s a little more personally invested. I’m trying my hardest to remain impartial. They can go if they want. Of course I really want them to go and really want them to try hard and have great races! But I have to remember I only want this for them. I love it when they feel confident and great. Just because my vehicle for these feelings is running doesn’t mean theirs will be. Chances are they’ll find completely different outlets and sources of confidence and I will try to cheer and care as much about those (skateboard tricks? moves on the monkeybars?) as I do about the results of running races. In the end, the only way they will ever love anything is if they are doing it for themselves – not to please someone else. And there is nothing I can do but sit back and watch.

Identifying members of our tribe

Many runners these days refer to themselves as being part of a “tribe”. The tribe of runners. The interesting thing about being part of this tribe is the instant recognition of other members. Most runners can spot another runner across a crowded room in seconds. I’m not sure what it is that identifies us to each other – sometimes there are dead giveaways like the wearing of a race shirt, but most of the time you just sort of know.

However recently, I discovered that my “runner identification antenna” is not as finely tuned as I’d thought. I spent just over two weeks in a town in Hawaii called Paia Town. Paia is located on the north shore of Maui which is considered the windsurfing capital of the world. The best windsurfers from around the world arrive on the north shore in the summer to sail the waves, and if it’s not windy, or when the day is done, you can find most of them hanging out in Paia. I see these muscly, tanned, athletic people walking around shirtless, and I have an instant flash of tribal recognition. But then I notice no sock tan-lines and their upper bodies are slightly too muscular to be runners. They also carry themselves with an air of “cool” vs. “runner-geek”. No, these people are not of my tribe.

It's possible he's not a runner. Maybe I should take a better look to be sure... Photo - Pierre Bouras

It’s possible he’s not a runner. Maybe I should take a better look to be sure…
Photo – Pierre Bouras

Not only is Paia full of windsurfers, but it is also a popular destination for hippies. Since the 1970’s, Paia has been known as a “back-to-nature” town where hippies have come to live off the land and share in the free living communal vibe. Many live in yurts up in the hills, in vans, or even maybe under trees on the beach – I’m not really sure. But during the day they mostly hang out in Paia. They are often built like runners – thin and wiry, and their gaunt, bearded faces aren’t that different from some of the hipster distance runners around. They are also surrounded by a whiff of body odour reminiscent of race starting lines. But then I notice the piles of dreadlocked hair which no runner would weigh themselves down with and the dangly, cumbersome necklaces and I realize that these people are not part of my tribe either.

Pretty sure he's not a runner.

Pretty sure he’s not a runner.

There is a third group of people who walk the streets of Paia – the tourists. Unlike the hippies or windsurfing locals, these people wear high-tech running shoes and brand name technical fabrics. While sitting down having a coffee I notice a pair of asics walk by. I look up expecting a fellow runner but that is where the recognition ends. Most of the tourists are either pasty or sunburned and just a bit too doughy to be runners.

Runners meeting for a group run? No, wait...

Runners meeting for a group run? No, wait…

I’ve come to realize that Paia just isn’t a runners’ hang-out spot. It’s not that I’m actively looking for them, it’s just that I’m used to spotting one or two around and the dearth of runners leaves me confused and thinking I spot them where they’re not. It doesn’t really matter to me though – whether you’re a windsurfer, a hippie, a tourist, or a runner, if we make eye contact I will smile and say “Aloha”.


The right to be proud

There is definitely a phenomenon you may notice if you follow runners on social media. Runners tend to post a lot about their daily runs, including much information about the times and distances that they’ve trained. In depth details are shared from how many hill repeats, how many miles run, and the fastest pace attained. Many runners also post pictures of their physiques, sculpted from the hours and miles they’ve spent training. Maybe they’ve lost a few pounds, gained some muscle, or are just plain proud of how they look. To all of this I say … Keep it up, I love it!

I love seeing the pride people take in themselves and their accomplishments. I find it very motivating and inspiring. I also find it touching. Most of the runners I follow are not Olympians or models. Someone might have just run a personal best 5K which is over 10 minutes slower than the world record. They don’t care. They proudly put their time up there and show their pride. Or they may have lost 10 lbs or have muscly thighs from miles and miles of running. They proudly post a pic even though they’re not cover models. They don’t care about the odd wrinkle or lumpiness – they are proud of their bodies. And they should be! I say “congrats” to all who are out there and proud of and sharing their accomplishments.

Personally, I’ve never tended to share my training days or race times because I tend not to be very proud. I always think I could do more, and if it’s not my absolute best, and I post it, it will look like it was a big deal to me. For some reason I’ve never wanted to look like I cared too much. But something has just changed. Tomorrow I’m turning 40. Actually, by the time you’re reading this I’m probably already 40. This means I’m most likely not going to be getting any faster. Or more ripped. Or post longer or speedier workouts. But screw it – I don’t care. I’m going to be proud of what I do from here on in. Also, since I’m now 40 – I no longer care what people think (or so I’m telling myself). So, I’m going to start sharing what I’m proud of more. I know people are faster and do more work and look better, but I don’t care. I love seeing and sharing in the pride and accomplishments of others so I’ll add mine to the pile. Follow or un-follow as you see fit – this is me at 40.

What I’m proud of this year:
I Ran 36:41 in the Yonge St. 10K
I Ran 18:29 a 5K
I Ran 30:53 in the Harry’s 8K

And I like my abs today. (I don’t always and won’t always, but I do today so I’m posting it – sweat and all).


Bad hair day

Like everyone else who juggles their work, parenting and running commitments on a daily basis, I would consider myself fairly busy. For everything to run smoothly, it works best if I’m very well organized and have a strict routine. Unfortunately, my love of spontaneous activities coupled with my belief that I work better on tight deadlines, can sometimes leave me in less than desirable situations. Yesterday morning was one of those instances.

I hadn’t woken up at 5 a.m. to run because I was planning on run-commuting to and from work (4 miles each way). I love being efficient! I did however wake up with enough time to get kids’ breakfasts and lunches ready, eat my own breakfast, help them find their outfits for the day, and fire off a few work emails. Feeling accomplished I sat down and sipped my coffee when I suddenly looked at the clock and realized I only had 15 minutes to get myself showered, a shirt ironed, my outfit and work bag packed and all of us out the door. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem (see my belief in tight deadlines above) – but functioning like this leaves zero room for things to go wrong. They sometimes do.

When I hopped in the shower I realized I’d forgotten to buy shampoo and we were completely out. I scrambled through a drawer and found a sample – one of those single-use packages. As I opened it and tried to pour it out I found it was thick and gooey – more like a paste than a liquid. I thought maybe it just needed water so I smeared it across the top of my head. It did not lather or turn into a liquid. It just clung like wax to my hair in clumps. I had no time to fight with it so I got out and tried to brush it through. Then I realized it was not only thick and waxy – it stunk! I tried to blow-dry (while also ironing my shirt and getting my kids to brush their teeth) but the main top chunk remained stubbornly wet, dense and oily. At this point I had to call it “good enough” as we had to get out the door or we would miss the school bell. I power walked to the school with my kids jogging beside me to keep up (if they ever end up being runners they will thank me for these early years of development training) and hoped my hair would dry slightly on the way. It was then that I realized I’d forgotten a hair elastic.

It definitely says "shampoo"

It definitely says “shampoo”

I ran into work with my thick wad of waxy hair flopping up and down. I usually try to run in slowly so that I don’t get too sweaty and can do a quick change into work clothes to appear professional in minutes. That plan was a write-off, so I ran in quickly and showed up sweaty with a helmet head. I’m not really sure if people noticed. Maybe they were just too polite to say anything. But in the end, I figure I won. I made it to work, got my kids to school on time fed and clothed, and I got 8 miles of running in. Sometimes vanity has to take a back-seat to the more important matters.

I took this picture so my sister could laugh at me. Notice how big the helmet is.

I took this picture so my sister could laugh at me. Notice how big the helmet is.

The joys and sorrows of electronic race results

There is much to be said for having an electronic record of my times courtesy of the timing companies which time, record and post online results for road races. Especially since I’m not very good at my own record keeping, and small details like seconds (and sometimes minutes) don’t always stay in my head. I can look up my times over different distances, check my past results from specific races, analyze my patterns of ups and downs over the years, and find my personal best times all with a few simple clicks. Almost all races these days are electronically timed and those times will sit beside my name on a website forever (or at least probably for my lifetime – scary thought). This is a great service for personal reference, but there is no denying that there is a different level of ego involved knowing my times will go down in history, available to anyone who casually looks up my name.

Tracking my races from 15 years ago

Tracking my races from 15 years ago

There are the times I don’t want, but can’t erase. There they are shining brightly beside my name.

For example: A few weeks ago, I was fighting a bug and feeling pretty run down. I had signed up for a half marathon a few weeks earlier, and had made plans to go with friends. My optimistic (but not always realistic) brain told me that I should still run it because you just never know. I think I had just read a story about an Olympian who had raced a great race while suffering from the flu, so I obviously thought I could too. Off I went, and about 7 or 8K into the race I realized I wouldn’t be racing it for a great time. By 10K I figured I’d just run it in. By 15K I was walking and if there had been a sweeper bus I would have gotten in. It was not pretty but I had only one way to end my misery and get home, so I continued jogging and walking to get there. Then, my dilemma: Should I cross the finish line and officially record a time 10 minutes slower than I felt I was capable of? That would be the time everyone would see beside my name. Forever. It turned out it was too awkward not to cross the line once I’d gotten there, so I sucked it up, crossed the line, smiled, accepted my medal, thanked the volunteers, and officially stamped that time beside my name in history.

Then there are the times which I want to be there, but aren’t.

An example: This past weekend I ran a race to try to reclaim a time which I’d “given” to a friend three years ago. She had registered for a race and gotten injured right before the event. She very generously asked if I wanted her bib. I didn’t think I was that fit and hadn’t committed to racing, but decided I could use a good low-pressure training run and I didn’t want her bib to go to waste. It turns out I was somewhat fit, and surprised myself with a time I was pleased with. But it wasn’t my time – it was her bib so the time was recorded beside her name. Fair enough. It’s not that I didn’t want her to have it, but I wanted it too! So this year I ran the race with the sole goal of getting that time under my name. Unfortunately my ego wasn’t quite powerful enough to propel me up that last hill fast enough, and I fell 17 seconds short. I’ll have to go for it again next year.

A good effort, but didn't quite hit "my" time

A good effort, but didn’t quite hit “my” time

I’m not actually upset about either of these scenarios. I’d committed to them and knew the potential fall-outs. Just a couple of stories to remind you that before you step on any start line you have to have decided whether your result will stand beside your name, or whether you’ll race in anonymity. You can do either, but there’s no changing your mark once you’ve started.

My running fantasy


I had a day the other week where I was recovering from an illness and didn’t have any planned or scheduled runs to do as part of my training. But I did have a few errands and appointments to get to, didn’t have a car, and I happened to have time. So I put my bag on my back and ran (or more aptly, jogged) all around town. It was such a great feeling, and led me to a premonition (or fantasy?) of myself in my later years.

It’s an image of a 60-something woman who just runs everywhere she goes. She no longer cares about races, or times, or proving herself or trying to remain young and fast. She doesn’t care where she falls in the rankings nor what is said about her as a runner. She doesn’t track her time or count her miles. She doesn’t have hard days or easy days. She runs where the patterns of her day and energy take her. Sometimes she gets a good stride going, but usually she just jogs along. She runs with a little knapsack which holds her wallet, phone and maybe a book in case she feels like stopping to read. She runs to visit friends, she runs to appointments, she runs her errands. If she needs to be somewhere which doesn’t require highway driving, she will plan to be there in the amount of time it will take her to run there. On some days she doesn’t have to go far, and on those days she doesn’t run very much. On other days she runs across the city and back. It’s never a bother for her to go to the bookstore to pick up a new book she’s been meaning to read, or to meet a friend uptown for lunch – she likes looking for new running destinations. She’s always running but she’s never in a rush. Whenever she sees someone she knows she stops to chat, and if her phone rings and it’s someone she’d like to speak with, she answers it. She doesn’t stop her watch when she stops to chat since she isn’t timing her run anyway. If she gets hungry she might stop at a cafe and sit down for a sandwich and coffee before resuming her run. Some people who don’t know her well call her “that lady who runs everywhere”. She doesn’t mind. She knows she’s a bit eccentric. Most people call her “that happy lady who runs everywhere” because she is almost always smiling.

I’m not there yet. I’m still fitting my runs into busy days and I’m still timing and measuring myself – trying to get as fast as I can in the limited amount of time I have. I’m not at a stage in life yet where I’m calm or at peace. I’m striving and working and pushing. And I’m enjoying it! I just think this pace may not last for another 30 years, and when I stop struggling, I hope to be that lady.

Kind of getting a little sick of winter running

I generally like to stay positive, especially when I know I could be influencing other peoples’ moods. And I will always love running and generally enjoy changes in seasons as it keeps the routine from getting stale. However, two months into winter I’m sort of over the new and exciting challenges that it brings to running. I need to blow off a little steam about things that are bugging me about running right now. Once it’s off my chest I’m sure I’ll feel better and be able to enjoy running in slushy negative temp conditions again. So here is a list of a few things I (don’t hate) but dislike about running in the winter:

1. My constant failure to get my layering perfect. When the days fluctuate between -5C to -25C within a twelve hour window, it’s really a crap-shoot whether you’ve dressed appropriately. Even if you are perfectly dressed for half of your run, chances are the same combo won’t work once the wind hits you from another direction. Just today I had the annoyingly unpleasant sensation of being too hot on my upper body while at least two of my toes were completely numb from cold.

Another uplifting forecast

Another uplifting forecast

2. Lack of sidewalk space. Most of us city runners have perfected the sidewalk dodge, and are pretty good at judging other pedestrians’ pace and patterns so we can zip between people, strollers and dogs without breaking stride. In winter though it’s a different story. On most sidewalks right now there is room for about one and a half people to pass with snowbanks lining the path on both sides. If absolutely everyone is looking up and follows courteous passing rules (one foot each in a snowbank while turning sideways) then it all can work. Mostly this doesn’t happen though. The other day I was running along the sidewalk and coming towards me were a mother and her young son. I committed to the side of the boy, thinking there would be more room, but then noticed his eyes were covered by his toque and scarf and his head was bent down to protect his face from the blasting wind. His mother and I both saw what was going to happen, but there was nothing to do. There was nowhere to go. Instead of diving into the nearest snowbank I simply stopped and braced myself for the full impact of him walking directly into me.

Good luck passing anything larger than a Chihuahua here

Good luck passing anything larger than a Chihuahua here

3. My poor skin. I know I’m going to sound vain here, but is there anything less attractive than dry, pale, weather-beaten skin? Especially when that skin is on your face? As I approach 40 I’m already concerned enough about every new wrinkle and line. I feel like the skin on my face suddenly just gave up all at once – like the elastic in a bathing suit which suddenly lets go. And yes, I blame winter.

In desperation I've taken to slathering my cooking oil on my face

In desperation I’ve taken to slathering my cooking oil on my face

Ok, I’ll stop there. Winter running can be glorious, gorgeous and fun. There is a lot to love about it, and mostly I do. There, see? I feel better already. Thanks for listening.