category : ‘Heroes Big and Small’


IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A MARATHONER

05.17.2018

A strange title to be sure, but maybe not after you hear the story.

 

Boston. 6 Star Finisher (2018)

Running in the Zone (me) was very excited to sit down with a runner who had (as of Boston 2018) just completed the Big Six or Abbott Marathon Majors races to become what is known as a Six Star Athlete. I was primed with questions that all us eager runner types would find interesting: How long did it take (first to last)? Did you qualify, buy your way in, use charity entries, get lucky in the lotteries? Ummm, ……………. how much did it all cost???

OK, let’s step back for just a moment and get everyone on the same page. The Abbott Marathon Majors and the Big Six races that the mortal man must run to qualify to become a Six Star Finisher, represent quite a list of global running races! In annual order the events are: Tokyo (Feb), Boston (Apr), London (Apr), Berlin (Sept), Chicago (Oct) and New York City (Nov).

How it looks, approaching the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Recapping the general introductory stuff, just a bit more: it takes luck and/or money (and the will to spend it on running), if you expect to achieve this goal. I was also going to say a bit of speed since you generally need to qualify for Boston, but if you were right down to it and only had Boston left, there is the Charity Entry as an option. Some of the events will let you ‘buy’ your way in with a travel package that includes a guaranteed entry. After researching all six races, it seems like the two most certain ways to get in are to be fast enough to meet the qualifying standard for a guaranteed entry, or to buy the travel package with guaranteed entry. For most of them, the lottery is a pretty so-so option considering the odds of success.

OK, so now everyone is kind of in the same place here and should understand why I was so excited to sit down with someone who actually owns one of the NIFTY completion medals showing all six races.

What happened next is where the title originates and by which it was inspired. At first I was shocked, then amazed and finally realized I couldn’t agree more.

Our intrepid runner actually said he would prefer that his name wasn’t even used, because that isn’t what he wanted people to take from his experience or this write-up of the whole thing. I pointed out that while I understood his point, SOMEBODY actually went and ran those races! That said, I am going to do my best to stay true to his sentiments and intentions in talking publicly about this matter.

So! What ‘village‘ was responsible for bringing this marathoner along? Our Superhero, we’ll just call him Major Tom for obvious reasons, is a long time member of the Forerunners Marathon Clinics. As he puts it, the community of runners, coaches and supporters. That is the village to which our title refers. As he talked, I realized how many of us who are part of that community probably feel exactly the same way. I am particularly happy and humbled to try to convey his feelings and core message.

Let’s start at the beginning and see if I can do justice to the story and the information shared.

As for many of us, at first running was kind of a health and wellness thing for our Superhero. He would get up early before work, get the gear on and do a modest run of up to maybe 10K. Every three months or so he would enter a half marathon somewhere around Vancouver, but more as an excuse to justify why he got out of bed to go for a run when asked by his non-running friends. He was “Training.” Over the years he ran probably a dozen half marathons, before someone planted the seed in his mind one day: “You should do a Full marathon! It would be a great bucket-list item!” Like all good ideas, once it was planted, the idea grew over time until he decided to do something about it…

So, with a little bit of Dutch courage one night (all the best life decisions are made this way, right?) our Superhero decided to test his luck and put his name in for two race lotteries. If he was only going to run one marathon in his life, it had to be a good one! New York or Chicago were the obvious choices (apparently). He told me he forgot all about this after the evening, something about waking up the next day a little hazy, but a couple of weeks later he got the “Sorry, try again next year” email from New York (a common experience). He confided in me that there was even a little relief when the rejection came. He admits it may have been one of those “What did I just do?” kind of things. Then, a couple of weeks later, there was another e-mail. “Congratulations! You’ve been accepted into the Chicago 2014 Marathon.

A sense of panic quickly set in! What was he going to do? He figured he’d continue to do what he had always done, get up and go for a run… but just a bit longer! This didn’t quite go to plan. He went for a couple of longer runs of 25km – 30km with what he called “horrible results”. He found out what “The Wall” felt like half way around Stanley Park one day and couldn’t get over the mind games that he kept playing with himself as well. You know the thoughts that sneak into your mind sometime around the 30- 35km mark of a marathon when everything is hurting? Yes those ones…

Where it began in 1986, Forerunners on Fourth Ave.

So he found himself in a bit of a dilemma. He knew that because getting into the race is pretty hard and a lot of people miss out, it would not be right to just blow off the entry. Still, he felt he couldn’t do this alone either. After a few conversations with a couple of other runners  and a little internet research, he walked to the Forerunners store on 4th Ave.

He recalls the first night that he showed up to the clinic. Butterflies in his stomach, he started to question his decision about joining when the Coach started talking about pace groups and times. It should be noted our Superhero has never worried about his times, but I’ll get to that later. He also recalls feeling like an imposter. Everyone was wearing marathon t-shirts from various events they had run. To his eye, they were all serious runners and he was definitely not. He mentioned that everyone seemed to know everyone else really well. People were hugging, joking and talking like they were all life long friends. He figured that all the people in the clinic would obviously be running Victoria, it is only a short ferry ride away after all, which meant he would be on his own for the Chicago Marathon. Oh well, it’s going to be a one and run event anyway he told himself, so, “Suck it Up”.

Major Tom nails the first one.

Shortly after, while doing a speed workout with the Forerunners folk, he began talking with one of the group leaders, She asked him if he was training for anything, the answer obviously being Chicago. Her response: “Me TOO!” Within a few moments, there were several more people in the group who revealed they were also running Chicago. He didn’t realise it at the time, but he would have a little “community” there with him and a group of people who would push him along the way through his little journey.

Some of the ‘Villagers’ that did Berlin together!

Once into the Forerunners group, and the various training options offered, he found himself part of a close-knit group of people of similar talent and ability as well as the larger community of all the people of various levels of talent/ability that make up the clinics. It felt good. It felt welcoming. It became a kind of stimulus to work at running and to challenge himself to improve on his own abilities. Now, our man is hardly a back of the packer, but he is still waiting to break three hours, soon probably, but not done yet. It doesn’t matter, but does give context.

Typical Saturday morning at Main Street. Pre-run, marathon clinic.

I don’t want to seem to be jumping on his personal band wagon, but as we talked I realized we couldn’t agree more on the community and encouragement side, and I AM fast becoming a back of the packer. It is part of what makes the magic in the running community. And, while we are talking here about a specific situation and a specific community of runners associated with Forerunners, it is a common experience in running groups whereby you do become part of a true community that supports and encourages.

Maybe this is a good time to get some basics of this particular story, out of the way. It is no secret that all SIX of the Big Six got done, so here is the sequence: (1) Chicago (2014), (2) New York City (2015), (3) Berlin (2016),  (4) London (2017), (5) Tokyo (2018) and (6) Boston (2018). It would be wrong to suggest he only ever ran these six. It isn’t so. Needing to qualify for Boston required hard work and a good race to ensure a time fast enough to meet the ‘fastest first’ policy now applied to the BQ. While there were a number of “Crash and Burn” events, he actually BQ’d twice in 2017. The first time was by 43 seconds, which was not fast enough to guarantee a spot, so he tried again and succeeded 6 weeks later. This time, finishing with time to spare.

London Marathon. Oh! Did we mention Major Tom is from Australia?

Once all this began, the ‘village’ kept him moving forward and for four of the six races, some of the ‘villagers’ came along for the ride. OK, nobody was just coming along. Everyone had their own reasons and goals, but the race(s) turned into something far more than a race with time goals and PR attempts. Far more. It was the experience.
One of the experiences related to me was the impression of finishing the London Marathon. Apparently, the vista before the runner as he approached the finish near Buckingham Palace was so amazing and perfect on the day, and knowing he would not likely see it again, he actually slowed down to take it all in and savour the moment. Would that we might all do that; experience such a moment.

Something I know about our Superhero is that he doesn’t much do ‘technical’. Oh, he has a sport watch with GPS that he uses, but is known in races to tape over the face so he can’t see it. I’ve seen him do it. I actually ran the first race at which he ‘just qualified‘ for Boston, and saw his watch. He just likes to run as his body tells him he should. After, he is quite ready to assess how well he did with it. Although I can’t personally say I’ve ever taped over my sport watch, I do understand his point and I know I get far more out of it post-run when I analyse what went right and wrong, than I do while running. Maybe I need to get that tape out myself one day soon. Whatever, his approach and success is inspiring.

NYCM is in the ‘books’.

We know that all six of these major marathons got done, but that wasn’t the primary message of the story. Before getting back to the community of the Forerunners training groups, I must relate one more anecdote from the roads.

As anyone who pays attention knows, Boston Marathon 2018 was one of the most brutal Boston Marathons in recent history. If you don’t know, it was raining the proverbial cats and dogs, was very windy and was cold. With the wind-chill factor, the commentators of the elite races stated that temperatures never got above 0°C. Apparently it did warm up marginally later in the day but was still very, very cold.

Making it happen on one certifiably AWFUL day in Boston.

At the bottom of Heart Break Hill, there were nine runners going all about the same pace and had been for much of the race. That happens in big events. You often wind up in a small group that never seems to really break up, at least for a long way. One of the more assertive members of this intrepid little group said something like: “Right, three in front, three in the middle, three in back. We are going to do this thing together.” They took turns of about 200m, with the leaders dropping to the back and next row moving up, until they were through that section of the course. Amazing story, but yet another aspect of what runners do together.

Tokyo Marathon (2018). He looks pretty happy. Just one to go. Little did he know what Boston was going to be like!

Back to Vancouver now and the four years from 2014 to 2018, over which the Major series was done.

Don’t worry, we aren’t going to review every workout and minor race done over that time! What is important is that the clinics and run groups go pretty much year-round. You can do that in Vancouver, although some of the winter runs can approximate this year’s Boston Marathon, at least for wind and rain. What is special about that is not that we silly runners will go out in such conditions and run/train, but that our common coach, one Carey Nelson, has for more than 10 years been out on that course manning a water/aid station, waiting for each of us to make our way through. Some of the better runners, cover the distance pretty quickly on our long runs (usually Saturday mornings), but until I began coaching the Learn to Run 5K clinic, I was the pace leader for the slowest marathon pace group and trust me when I say we were a LONG way behind the fast kids!

Water station on NW Marine (UBC Hill).

Coach Carey was still there for us. He could have been out doing his own training, because although he is a one-time international elite runner, he is nonetheless very much an active and very good runner. He is not alone though. This is a bit of a norm with the founders of the store, Peter and Karen Butler do such duty when needed, and other coaches too, as the stores have expended from one to two, to three.

A few of “The Villagers” stop by to wish a local Olympian well. Major Tom is in the back right.

In what other world do you see Olympic athletes not just supplying truly expert and often personalized coaching advice, but also standing out in the rain so clinic groups can keep hydrated, providing tissues for runny noses and if necessary taking people off the course when something isn’t going right. This is the kind of thing that is meant by the community of runners.

Another thing is the encouragement and inspiration that comes when part of such a group. Before a race, clinic members support and push each other to improve. By push, it is not meant as the idea of cracking some kind of whip. No, nobody who runs (or plays other sports), always goes out, every time, feeling great and running to peak performance. It is on those days that the others drag us along (in a good way) when we just aren’t feeling it. Other times it is you who is doing the ‘dragging’.

In representation of “The Village”, Coach Carey symbolically ‘presents’ the Six Star Medal.

When it is all said and run, this community sits down after a workout or after a race over a coffee, beer, food to just kick it all around. Congratulations go along with the ribbing. Trash is talked, but heartfelt concern shown for those needing support. Individuals come and go as life dictates, but over the years a group seems to endure and to have the spirit that inspired this man who wanted me to write about that part of the experience that got him from a sometimes lonely early morning run to the owner of a fancy Six Star medal, supported by this amazing community made up of all its components, only some of which is described here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guh Haad n Dun!

08.09.2017
Proud Emblem of a Proud People

Proud Emblem of a Proud People

My Jamaican friends and friends of Jamaica will have little doubt about that title. It is inspired by the closing out of the active racing career of one Usain St. Leo Bolt.

I guess we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves on that, as there is still the 4X100 Relay, but Bolt (or any of the other team members) can only do so much toward the success of the whole. He says his solo career is over. I tend to believe it. Personally, I think I wish he had decided the Rio Olympics was the time for that.

The literal translation of the title is “Go Hard and Done“. It implies (across a wide range of possibilities), a philosophy or approach. Put into ultimate practice, you could just translate it to “Usain Bolt”.

I’m not sure where to begin with my little tribute to this man who is without doubt, and with no intended diminishment of the achievements of so many other amazing athletes,  the best sprinter ever. There are some hard statistics that just take the statement from an opinion to plain simple fact. He holds a World Record at 9.58 for 100m that it is hard to envision being broken. If it is, I imagine it will be done by someone as yet unborn. His 200m record is 19.19, which averages to 9.59/100m, or essentially just ‘more of the same’. He has personally won double gold (100m and 200m) in three successive Olympic Games and a total of seven golds at 100/200m at IAAF World Championships. I am leaving out the Relay Golds, simply because they are team efforts that can’t be attributed to any one runner, and are always vulnerable to a bad pass, baton drop or a lane violation. Only the solo events are ‘pure’ in the sense that nobody else’s performance is involved except as head to head competitors. The record is pretty much undisputed.

Usain-700x400

Usain Bolt – London – IAAF World Championships

There was a sadness in seeing Bolt take ‘only’ a third place in the 100m event just a few days ago. But, he was THIRD, not LAST nor was he eliminated prior to the final! Let’s go just a bit deeper into this. To be clear, I am not saying he should have won. The winning time was 9.92, Bolt clocked 9.95. He was 3/100th of a second off of Gold, about 30cm or one foot. So, the sadness was more sentimental than reality based. Some would argue that Gatlin, who took the Gold should never have been in the race because of two drugging ‘convictions’ and suspensions. According to reports in the news at time of writing, one of those people is none other than Sir Sebastian Coe! As a Canadian, it isn’t hard to remember Ben Johnson, rightly disciplined for his transgressions, and yet we have Gatlin on the top of the Podium in London. How does that happen?

Still, there could easily have been someone else ready to lay down just as quick a time, even if Gatlin wasn’t competing. As a Canadian, the name Andre De Grasse kind of pops to mind, but in racing you just never know. And, regardless of such speculation, there is the small matter of Coleman who nipped Bolt by 1/100th of a second, mostly by getting his ‘dip’ just right. Bolt knew Coleman had him as they neared the line and clearly tried to out-dip the young speedster, but maybe did it almost a stride too soon. That is just my opinion on watching and re-watching the finish. Bolt could be seen/heard in his gracious congratulations, saying to Gatlin, “I didn’t see you!” Would it have made a difference? On that night, I personally don’t think so. The race was probably lost in the starting blocks. It was reported that Bolt’s reaction time was 0.044 slower than the rest (or at least the guys that mattered). Slower by 0.044. But look, 9.95 – 0.04 is 9.91. If he had just got an even start, I would be writing a different story. A bit more on this later. [Ed Note: My mother had a saying that covers this kind of speculation: “If the dog hadn’t stopped to pee, he’d have caught the rabbit!”]

As a ‘highly Seasoned Athlete’ of 72, it feels silly to talk about Bolt as ‘old’, but in terms of the kind of performance required of him, or any other elite sprinter, 31 is getting pretty long in the tooth and in his case, he didn’t just pop onto the scene. He has been competing hard since he was 15 years old.

There is no doubt that Usain Bolt has a physical advantage over many other sprinters, but it seems he also has a work ethic surpassed by few. Because he is a natural showman, some would say ‘clown’, it is easy to just see this guy who comes out, fools around, runs really fast, then fools around a bit more. We (well most of us) love the public personality of this man. He has brought a lightness and joy to the world of track and field that has not been there for a long time. When you combine his behind the scenes willingness to work, sweat, and suffer, with the physical advantage (his height and stride), you get Usain St. Leo Bolt, Champion.

It has been reported that Bolt generally takes about 41 strides over 100m. Most sprinters, even the best, need about 44 strides. Let’s look at that in the simplest terms. Every stride taken by Bolt averages 2.439m. Every stride taken by his competition covers 2.273m. That doesn’t sound like a big difference, just 0.166m per stride. But, it isn’t as simple as stride length. There is the driving power behind that stride. Now let’s assume that Bolt can match the turn-over of the others in any given race and that he can realize the differential built into his stride. That gives him something very near a 7m advantage. The assumptions are only valid if we accept there is a kind of ‘all things being equal’ aspect to his training relative to the others and his readiness to race on the day. As noted, Bolt does not have a lightning fast start. Reaction times from this last race showed that alone as enough to put him into First, had he only matched the field. The advantage in his stride, has made up for the ‘slow’ start in more than a few events. When we see him flowing down the track and shutting down with 10-20m remaining, it is probable that he did get a good start and was able to achieve full stride and power at an early point, more or less dooming the rest of the field.

Anyway, enough of this. My point is that it is going to take a special person to bring both the necessary physical stature and work ethic to the track, and in any way challenge Bolt’s achievements. It is not hard to see that his 9.58 100m record came on a day when EVERYTHING was just right. He had a fabulous start, was in top form and could capitalize on his physical stature; and weather conditions had to be right as well. To threaten the record someone would have to be able to deliver all these things at the same time.

Now, in relation to his career record, imagine some individual sprinter doing it for at least a decade in terms of winning virtually all the big races. Remember, Usain Bolt has dominated both 100m and 200m and there are specialists in EACH of those distances that are just a bit faster in one or the other. This unknown successor will have to dominate the specialists at BOTH distances – for about 10 years!

In ‘getting it right’ there is also the balance of effort when you must run heats to get to the race that counts, the final. Any runner must go just hard enough to move on, but not so hard as to risk injury or fatigue before the race that ‘counts’. In training and preparation, elite athletes are always on that edge. You don’t just walk up and register for a spot in the Olympics or Word Championships. You must win your way into such positions, which means you must race, and race hard just to be able to get into those ‘heats’. Andre De Grasse is a bright light on the Canadian sprinting horizon, but he isn’t there yet and even though he has been having a brilliant season, had to pull out of the World Championship due to a hamstring strain. Anyone wanting to be ‘the new Bolt’ has to deal with such potential situations too. Regarding De Grasse, and while it upset those who just wanted spectacle, withdrawing was the right decision for a young runner with a huge potential.

Soon Come? Rio Olympics - 200m

Soon Come? Rio Olympics – 200m

I was personally saddened that the confrontation could not happen, not because I 100% wanted to see him defeat Bolt, but because I wanted to see the head to head race and to at least see our Andre with the chance to perform in competition with Bolt, as something more than the ‘out of nowhere’ up-start that he was at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Because of everything I said before about Bolt’s physical and other advantages, I can’t see De Grasse or anyone else of his physical stature breaking Bolt’s records. On the day, Andre might have been able to win a race. That, I was kind of 50/50 on as to whether or not I wanted to see Bolt lose. Of course, if someone was going to beat him in a race, then I would be all over it being our boy!

While I’m talking about Andre De Grasse, he provides an excellent example of everything having to be perfect on the day. It happened just weeks ago, in this track season. Clearly, Andre brought his A-Game to one of the Diamond League events earlier this year, and laid down a 9.69, but, it was wind assisted and did not count for the record books, other than as a win over those competing on that day. It was by far the fastest time by anyone this year, but IT DIDN’T COUNT.  That’s how it is. That’s just one reason records are so hard to come by!

So much for the mechanics. In some ways it is the least of what Bolt really means to the world of Track and Field and to a small country called Jamaica.

Being inspired at Reggae Marathon! To the World!

Being inspired at Reggae Marathon! To the World!

As anyone who ‘reads me’ knows, I have my own little love affair with Jamaica and will be continuing my attendance streak at the Reggae Marathon, Half Marathon and 10K, with 2017 being seven years in a row. I admit part of it is how much I love the event and the people associated with it, but I also feel like Negril, JA is my ‘happy place’. I have no intention of analysing this, but there is no place that gives me such a feeling of calm and peace (and NO, I’ve never indulged in the ‘herb’). More than once, including this time, I have extended my stay beyond the core time of the Reggae Marathon. The extended stay is all about having time to feel that other aspect of being there. They say there are two kinds of Jamaicans: Jamaican by birth and Jamaican by association. I think I may be one of the latter!

Anyway, my point regarding Usain Bolt is that  you cannot go ANYWHERE in Jamaica without seeing his influence on the pride and mindset of the people. It is quite amazing and positive.  There is no doubt Usain Bolt ‘lif dem up’. Like many, he is just a boy from the country. From my perspective it isn’t just his running but more his spirit. Jamaica boasts a line of world level sprinters unequaled by any other nation. To name a few, the list includes Herb McKenley, Don Quarrie, Asafa Powell, Yohan Blake and these are only the men. Not only that, Jamaica has also provided other nations with top sprinters who can claim Jamaican heritage. That includes Canada, and our Harry Jerome, Donovan Bailey, Robert Esmie and Andre De Grasse. These names are just off the top of my head and I suspect some of our other top names have at least a little Jamaican blood flowing in their veins.

Jamaica is a young country. As I write, they are celebrating the 55th Anniversary of Independence. It hasn’t been easy. There have been struggles and the politics has been problematic. Many people hear Bob Marley’s music and for the most part are caught up with the rhythm and lilt of the reggae sound, but REALLY listen to his lyrics. They are powerful and political in the sense that he admonished the people of Jamaica to take control of their lives (Lively Up Yourself). Many of the songs talk of poverty and life (No Woman Nuh Cry) – his own early life. His ‘non-partisan’ political stands nearly got him killed and resulted in his self-inflicted exile for some time. He was so popular with the people that both the main political parties wanted his endorsement, yet really wanted him to just shut up. This is just a tiny bit of background as to why Usain Bolt means so much to Jamaicans. He represents hope and success. Marley was the voice of protest. Bolt is the vision of hope. At least that is how I see it.

I believe Bolt’s success can be explained without the need of PEDs; at least I hope so. I’ve often thought how devastating it would be for the people of my favourite island nation, if he fails a drug test and all of this turns out to be ‘dirty’. To his people he is so much more than just a world class sprinter. He sets an example and is truly ‘one of them’. He brings it home when he is not training and competing. Now that he can, he even makes sponsors come to Jamaica to make the commercials he does. He spends a lot of time in Jamaica and spends his money and dispenses his charity at home. He gives his time because he knows how it impacts his people.

For a nation that sometimes seems unsure, Usain Bolt answers Bob Marley’s question: Could You Be Loved.