Running Halfway

I didn’t eat pasta last night as every good runner should. We had a beer can chicken on the barbie, Beringer white zinfandel and double chocolate biscotti. I had intended on doing things properly this year, like the pasta thing, logging more than 5km a day in training and being sure to hydrate myself all week in preparation for the half-marathon. I’m a camel at the best of times, walking around in a mostly-dehydrated state. Eight glasses of water a day could very well put me over the edge. Ironically, I had signed up for the Abbotsford Run For Water.

Before last year’s half-marathon I had a jalapeno sausage with sauerkraut and two beers. In 1999, I ran a 20:57 5km race in Toronto after drinking at least eight pints (alternative carb-loading, just not in the traditional tortellini-form) the previous night and was given a bronze medal for it. Ten years later I don’t think I could pull off such a strong performance (of drinking eight pints and/or running a 5k that fast).

I’ve run halfway eight or nine times. My debut was at the “Boston to Brantford” half marathon in Ontario where my then girlfriend and I did it on a whim. We showed up in our best sweatpants and running shoes that we had recently cut grass in. I watched in horror as experienced runners in flashy wind suits and matching spandex with team logos threaded their Asics and New Balance shoes with new shoelaces before the start. The sinewy men rubbed their nipples with Vaseline and a few took off in the opposite direction to run/sprint a 3kmwarm-up. Two snotty spandex-clad women looked Kate and I up and down and asked what our splits and PB’s were. I had no idea what they were talking about and confessed that I had only run 5km races before–fun runs at that. Kate said she had her cast removed just a month ago after a fibula fracture. The women laughed like hyenas and warned us that we probably wouldn’t make it and swished off to stretch and pose like peacocks.

Imagine our delight when we ran like gazelles past the beet red-faced spandex girls who were clearly sucking wind at the fifth kilometer. Even better was the moment when I could gloat that we finished in a respectable first-time finish of 1:58. But I had to wait until they pulled their sorry asses across the finish line at 2:20. So much for their impressive splits and PB’s—the magic was in shabby sweatpants and old shoelaces!

I ran the next half-marathon without Kate (who opted for the 10 km route instead), and figured I’d probably be coming in around the two-hour mark again. My cheerleader dad never missed a Brantford race, and loved the opportunity to holler from the sidelines. When I sailed down Brant avenue at 1:37, I called out to my father who was leisurely walking along the sidewalk towards the finish with a Tim Horton’s tea and muffin.

“Flo!” (Dad’s nickname)

He was startled to see me so early. As I kept pace, he joined me, as he always did, his tea slopping out of the lid and burning his hand, bran muffin shaking noisily up and down in the paper bag. Winded and covered in milky tea, he insisted that I kick it to the end, he couldn’t keep up with his breakfast in hand, and I did. I could hear his voice to the finish, urging me to “Pour it on!”

During those Brantford marathon years I had two other dedicated roadie fans—my dad’s sister Buffer(another nickname, short story is I couldn’t pronounce Cathy as a kid, it came out Buffer), and my grandmother. My Aunt Buffer drove the pace car, a baby blue Celebrity Classic, with Nan hanging out the passenger window pumping her fist. The two of them followed me along the entire 21km route, waving and honking like I was a celebrity. Indeed I felt like it.

My grandmother enjoyed verbally attacking my fellow competitors and between vicious expletives she dabbed her eyes with Kleenex. She was always so proud, and her voice would wobble with emotion by the end, “C’mon, Horse!” (*Horse–another nickname, intended to be flattering).

This year, running up the heart-attack-inducing Huntingdon hill (which seems to sit at a precarious 90 degree angle), I thought of Nan and felt an instant heaviness in my heart and stride. She died in November, but I’m sure she found someone in Heaven today to drive her around the 21km with me, cheering as she always had. Today I had Wanda as my pace car and designated paparazzi, and it was like Nan was with me all the same.

When my quads turned to liquid cement at the 10km mark, I started channeling Ray Zahab who ran 6,920km in 111 days (November 2006-February 2007) across the Sahara desert. Zahab and his teammates, Kevin Lin (from Taipei, Taiwan) and Charlie Engle (US), battled injury, dysentery, testosterone, blisters as big as pancakes, severe dehydration, blinding sandstorms and an unforgiving African sun.

On Friday night Wanda and I went to see the documentary Running The Sahara, narrated and produced by Matt Damon. The film chronicles the dynamic journey Zahab and his teammates made from Senegal on the west coast of Africa, to the Red Sea in Egypt. Zahab, who attended the Abbotsford screening engaged the audience in a conversation as captivating as a fireworks display. He talked about the intensity, intimacy and mental endurance of running with two guys across a desert. And how many running shoes does one need for a Sahara desert crossing? Twenty-four. And 10 litres of Gatorade a day. Remarkably, Ray Zahab only discovered running in 2004. After visiting Africa he became empowered to focus his future adventures and ultra-running challenges to support the water crisis.

As the founder of Impossible2Possible, Zahab has committed to inspiring young minds into social and environmental action. Linking world-class adventures to classrooms around the world, he has created a forum of possibility and change.

After trotting across the Sahara in 2007, Zahab became the first person to trek to the South Pole on foot, a measly 1,130 km. On January 7th, 2009, Ray clocked in (with two Canadian teammates) at 33 days, 23 hours and 55 minutes. Blogging en route, his adventure garnered the global attention of thousands of school children who had the opportunity to interact via the Internet and SAT phones with Zahab.

Before that he knocked off the 77 km West Coast Trail in 16 hours, a feat which takes the above-average hiker seven days of stubborn slogging. Surely I could run 21 km across Abbotsford when the Sahara team was checking off the equivalent of two full marathons in a day.

I talked myself out of a Gatorade-induced stitch in my side, and focused on Pink’s lyrics blaring on my  iPod when chills began to rush through my body and I felt on the verge of a heat stroke. I begged my hamstring not to curl up and for my multi-grain bagel to stay in my stomach. I reminded myself of greater, more hellish accomplishments of others. Hell, Kevin Lin crossed the Atacama Desert in Chile (241 km) in 7 days. He had already run across the Gobi in 2003, and in 2006 took bronze in a 250km super marathon crossing of the South Pole.

And here I was fretting about completing a half-marathon on a bright, sunny day with all-you-can-eat Panago pizza at the finish, and a team of massage therapists ready to rub me? Where was the challenge? At 18 km, I reassured myself that I could always be hooked up to an i.v. at the finish if need be. There were ambulances if I collapsed. As Ray Zahab so eloquently said, “running is 90% mental. And another 10% mental.” I could sit down all day long after I crossed the finish line.

Terry Fox Memorial at Mile 0, Victoria, BC

As I ran, 100% mentally, and felt potentially disastrous twinges in my left hamstring, metatarsal bones jamming in my right foot, and a dodgy lumbar spine wanting to give out, my thoughts moved from the sands of the Sahara to Terry Fox. In 1980, Terry Fox ran 42 km a day from St. John’s, Newfoundland to Thunder Bay, Ontario with a prosthetic leg. After 5, 373km, his Marathon of Hope came to a physical end as Fox’s bone cancer had metastasized to his lungs. He died on June 28th, 1981 at age 22. His legacy is far-reaching, extending from Mount Terry Fox in the Selwyn range of the Rockies near Valemont, BC, to Mount Terry Fox Provincial Park, CCGS Terry Fox (a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker), eponymous streets, highways, libraries and schools. Named “Canadian of the Decade for the ‘80s,” Fox is responsible for the fiery spirit behind the world’s largest one day fundraiser for cancer research, the Terry Fox Run. A celebration of his courage and ferocious determination, the run is held in September each year in support of his vision, to find a cure for cancer.

And this is when the run took an unexpected turn. As the sun cooked my body, and I imagined the road’s surface being a suitable temperature for frying eggs, I thought of water. I could drink clean water at the next re-fuel station, as much as I wanted. I could stick my head under the tap when I got home and drink until my esophagus overflowed. In Africa, 80% of the population doesn’t have this basic luxury, and this was the whole point being slammed home by participating in the Abbotsford Run For Water. It wasn’t about me winning a race (dream big, right?) or beating a personal best (oh, I was about 11 minutes off that mark!). It wasn’t about running at all. The run was designed as a platform to build awareness for a critical situation that haunts anyone who has been to Africa. There are children who have to walk the distance I ran today to gather ‘drinking’ water from questionable, murky sources.

Today, 100% of the funds raised from the Run For Water (over $81,000 donated this year) will support the construction of wells in Choro, Ethiopia in conjunction with the HOPE International Development Agency.

Even though I was running along blueberry fields with snow-capped Mt. Baker and the Coast mountain range in view, I was in Africa. I was back in Entebbe, Uganda on the brick-red dirt roads. And suddenly my muscles found renewed purpose, remembering the basic and monumental cause I was supporting. Clean water for Africa.

Categories: Flicks and Muzak, Into and Out of Africa | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Running Halfway

  1. Ken Baerg

    truly amazing reflections on your experience with the run. I’m the race director with the event and I’m truly honoured to have hosted people like yourself who run “wholistically” for lack of a better description. Thanks so much for putting this out there…I took the liberty of sharing it with the rest of our board.


    • jules09

      Thanks for sharing my blog post, Ken. Sharing is the best thing we can do when it comes to creating awareness about issues outside our tidy lives. I have a bit of a love affair going on with Africa at the moment, so this run was particularly important for me to be a part of. Congratulations and thanks for your efforts in organizing the event. I ate my share of cookies post-race and took full advantage of the Sport & Spine booth.

  2. Hi Jules, I am on the board of the Run For Water Society and I just want to thank you for your blog. You have stated very eloquently just why we do what we do. Your writing brought tears to my eyes and a renewed sense of purpose for myself. Thanks!

    • jules09

      It’s much easier to run with a purpose that is outside ourselves. Terry Fox illuminated that, as did Ray Zahab in his run across the Sahara. The Run For Water has certainly established an accessible platform for those who want to contribute to African causes but are unsure of where to start. Thanks for your comments.

  3. David Letkemann

    Hi Jules, I too am on the board of Run for Water. Thanks for your words. I was so moved this year by the volunteers, the community giving $81,000 of their money in the midst of a world-wide recession, by Ray Zahab and his inspiring and contagious enthusiasm, by the promise we can offer to Africa, and by the first-hand accounts of runners like you.

  4. jules09

    $81,000 is an outstanding achievement. I think the recession, for many, has proven to be a reminder for all that we still do have. Even though headlines indicate that we are “suffering” in a depressed economy, there are so many countries and populations that will never have a sense of our financial security (depressed or otherwise), hope for the future and assumptions for basic health care and sanitation.
    You’re right about the “contagious enthusiasm” of Ray Zahab. We really have no excuses to not run knowing what he accomplished.

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