A friend recently asked how I stay motivated to run five times a week. I’m not the best person to ask, because it’s just something that I do. It’s part of my daily infrastructure and as normal and necessary as coffee to me.
Scroll back to elementary school and ParticipACTION, an endeavour funded by the Canadian government to promote healthy living and exercise. In 1972, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau nationalized Sport Participation Canada (the company that coined ParticipACTION) in an early attempt to conquer mounting health care costs with fresh air and jogging initiatives.
For the under ten set, ParticipACTION day was ironically as popular as the legendary primary school Hot Dog Day. There was an opportunity to wear a matching cotton sweat suit (joy!), eat a chocolate bar for energy pre-race (bliss!) AND win badges which moms would later sew on to jean jackets for continued bragging rights.
I think this is when I started running with commitment. All for a chocolate bar breakfast and a gold badge. Times were simpler then. Or were they? Now I run for a cold beer and a hot shower, so, the reward scale has merely been modified.
The ParticipACTION race route was five laps around the school yard (pockmarked in groundhog holes) in whatever shoes you had on, or perhaps, your “gym shoes” that were at-the-ready in the cloak room. They weren’t Nike or anything with a modicum of arch support. I think I ran in blue Kangaroos with the ever-handy zippered pocket on the side of the shoe or Bullits with the laces undone. Then I could run in heavy sweatpants and my power outfit Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt until the cows came home. And, they did—directly behind our pastoral school yard in sleepy Mt. Pleasant. Recess generally smelled like cow shit, to varying degrees, but we were solid country kids, and my grandfather raised pigs. Any good country person knows that cow shit is favoured over pig shit.
Early ParticipACTION badges inspired me to sign up for the cross-country running team circa grade 5, the humble start of my illustrious career. The best part of this team was that it involved several afternoons away from school to attend races in Brant County. They were usually at a hilly golf course or boggy conservation area; generally in drizzly, frosty, I-can-see-my-breath fall days. I loved the time off the dull school routine of learning and appreciated the rewards that came via my dad for competing. He was our biggest cheerleader—if we placed first or ninety-first, our stamina and Torti endurance was always acknowledged with the likes of Kentucky Fried Chicken one-piece dinners, Dairy Queen dipped cones, chocolate-dipped donuts, greasy fries and/or the like.
I developed a golden retriever mentality early on. Will perform for treats.
I’ve never been too serious about running, only seriously committed. There have been many 5 and 10K races. More than half a dozen half-marathons, but no Boston ambitions. I prefer the recreational, hobbyist, sustainable version.
Running is so embedded in my life that I can tell you exactly when I took more than two consecutive days off of my regime. In 2002, the Galapagos Islands (due to being on a 40 foot boat for nine days). In 2011, Egypt (due to heart attack qualifying desert heat, political unrest, soldiers with guns, soldiers in tanks, Smart car-sized potholes and maniac drivers).
I knew I was a chronic runner when I was running with a stitched up groin, not even 12 hours after having a lymph node removed. I confirmed my chronic situation again when I was running with my head turned fully behind me being chased by imaginary awful things before sunrise on a stretch of beach in Panama (just so I could squeeze in one last run before our flight). Did I mention the armed commandos on the rooftops that I passed by with held breath and lightning speed?
I’ve been chomped on by several dogs, nearly collided with a deer being flushed out by hunters, been chased by a sheep and threatened by a runaway pig eating fallen apples in a ditch. I’ve had colossal YouTube sensation wipe-outs and was actually running so fast that when I belly-flopped on the sidewalk last January I gave myself a concussion. It took me a year before I could kneel on my right knee after the Great Highly Public Flip & Spill on Spadina in front of Le Gourmand cafe. I’ve skinned my poor knees more than 100 blindfolded five-year-olds.
I’ve run with an army of flip-flopped children shouting “America! America!” in the Obama election fever days in Kenya. I’ve dodged unpredictable vervet monkeys and baboons in Uganda and only gave up a daily run due to potential lion or waterbuffalo attack (I can be rational, at times) in Murchison Falls National Park. When I was in the Congo, Chantal, the co-director of the chimp sanctuary I volunteered at, bought me a membership at the Lubumbashi Golf Course so I could run safely. Better yet, she would wait for me to finish, offering a wave as I rounded the course and let me sit, sweat and have a 10 a.m. 750ml Simba beer or two. Those were the glory days.
I’ve run in sleet that felt like daggers, rain that saturated me to my bones, high winds wicked enough to blow my shirt nearly over my head. I’ve run under such mental stress that I didn’t realize my iPod wasn’t even ‘on’ for the entire 5k route until I was doing my cool down walk and removing my silent headphones.
I’m not one to check the forecast for exact temperatures and wind chill “feels like” reports. I just go. The ParticipACTION in me is embedded deep in my marrow. If I need an ounce of inspiration I think no further than Terry Fox and I almost want to smack myself for being two-legged and lazy.
I pass several people in Koreatown with canes, walkers, humped over with osteoporosis, limping, shifting uncomfortable weight, saddled with sadness and unsurmountable pain—and I am reminded.
I run because I can. Because I want to. Because there’s a clarity to it that lends to a symbiosis of mind and body. There’s a palpable sense of having “survived” elements. Oppressive, soupy July days in Toronto. The bone-cracking cold of Banff runs with my sister. Soggy west coast runs with an even soggier dog. Wind that pushes with annoying force, making leaves and urban debris take flight into already tearing eyes. Yes, this is good! It makes you feel alive and semi-invincible!
I sometimes listen to music, I often don’t. I can run with equal speed to Florence & The Machine or some sobby Jann Arden track.
It’s half an hour out of my day. Twenty-five minutes, really. Six songs and all I have to do is cruise along. It’s balancing and essential. It means I can guzzle beer, eat cashews and heap on the guacamole with slight abandon. It means I don’t have to give up mighty carbs for a protein-enriched life.
What keeps you chugging along? Or, better yet, what’s stopping you?