In 2007 we were still living in northern Ontario, many miles from our families in Alberta. We ventured home for a short visit in late August or early September. I honestly can't remember the exact date. What I do remember though is speaking with my mom about her recent accomplishment. At the age of 50, she had completed her first half-marathon in what was then known as the ING Edmonton Marathon. She completed it in 2:30:25, which is an impressive time for a first-time half-marathoner, no less at 50 years of age. I didn't realize it at the time, but I hurt her that day.
You see, I was so excited to see her and had so much I wanted to share with her about what was going on in my life, that I made light of her achievement by abruptly acknowledging her finishing medal and moving on in the conversation. It was not until this weekend when I completed my own first half-marathon that I realized just how much that race meant to her and just how much my lack of interest in her story really stung.
Of course, even though it seemed I made light of her accomplishment, it blew my mind. I had been into running sporadically for many years, due in no small part to her commitment to the sport. I'd done some fun runs, most memorably the Beat Beethoven 8K in Edmonton (Ludwig kicked my ass in case you're wondering). But it wasn't until last year, when I was talking to her on the phone about the run she'd put in that morning that I started taking it more seriously. If she can run four half-marathons (her best time was in 2009 in Edmonton at 2:22:55, an age-adjusted time of 1:59:37 which is smoking fast for a recreational runner) it must be within the realm of possibility to finish one.
So I set out in my mind to complete the Edmonton half in August 2012. My first step was, as always when I start something new, getting out a book from the library. Called The 16-Week Marathon Method by Tom Holland, it is a great starter book and lays out detailed training plans for beginners to advanced runners for anything from the 10k to a full marathon. And I figured since I was a beginner, I better finish off two 16-week training cycles before the race. So began my journey in December 2011 (an incredibly moronic time of year to START a running regimen in Canada).
In my first two weeks, I could already tell I was going to love this. I was doing great and didn't miss a single one of the eight prescribed runs from the training program. Then came my first two lessons: when you start running, be cautious not to do too much too fast AND respect the elements.
It was a mild winter so night runs were oddly enjoyable, the crisp winter air making for a refreshing run. So it was little surprise when I found myself pounding out a 3-miler in freshly fallen snow just one week out from Christmas. Unfortunately, although it was a beautiful night, when fresh snow falls on a sidewalk, it has a nasty habit of hiding the edge of said sidewalk. Only 3/4 of a mile into my run, I brought my left foot in for a landing right smack halfway on the edge of the sidewalk. The force of the landing was enough to wrench my ankle at an ungodly angle and bring me crashing down in agony. And then the swearing began.
I knew I was done for awhile. Laying in pain, writhing in the snow, dragging myself to my mother-in-laws front door to have her drive me home, it was all I could do not to cry. Even though I was only 2 weeks in, I was already visualizing the finish line in August. I was proud I'd gone from nothing to regular physical activity in a short time and had stuck with it more than one night. And now it was over because I'd been stupid enough to run in freshly fallen snow.
I remember when I got home, I was sure it wasn't that bad. And then I took off my sock. Oh sweet merciful crap. It was MASSIVE. When I saw it, I started crying, punched the wall, and rattled off a string of F-bombs. Then I swallowed my pride and went to emerg. It was a bad sprain and would take months before I could be back running on it. I got fitted for the robo-boot, signed up for physio, and went on my way to wallow in my misery for 2 months.
But I couldn't give up. My mom had suffered setbacks in her training before and kept plugging along every time. Of all the injuries and emotional ups and downs she'd had all those years, she still completed those 4 races, and she still ran incredible distances every single week. I took all my motivation from her and reset my training cycle to 16-weeks out from the race. It wouldn't be easy. In the meantime I had to study for and write my Certified Diabetes Educator exam, adjudicate the national pharmacy board exam, act as president of our local Chamber of Commerce, and work full time. Oh, and still be a father to my 3 kids and a husband to my lovely wife. Nothing to it.
At the halfway point of my training I was having a brilliant 6-mile run. Near the end I was looking to beat my personal best time and I sprinted for the last 200 meters. Two days later I tried to run 3-miles and could barely limp my way through the first 400 meters. I had done something to my knee, and I'd done it good.
The next week all I could manage was running on my elliptical. I had to do this for almost 3 weeks before I could run again, at which point I was able to manage a 10-mile run with very little pain. I thought things were looking up. In the meantime I had it looked at by a nurse practitioner and went to physio twice. I thought this would be it but then I tried to run a few days later and the pain was excruciating. Would I be put out by injury AGAIN? Would I have to give up my dream of completing this race?
I spent a week on the elliptical but still, the pain would not subside. Finally, only 3 weeks out from the race, I did something crazy. I did absolutely NOTHING for a whole week. Well, not nothing. I read. A lot. About running. Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and, on the tails of that read, countless resources about barefoot running including some YouTube videos. Could it be that I'd been running incorrectly this whole time? Now, while I'm not dumb enough to make the transition from shod running to barefoot 3 weeks out from a 13 mile race, I did walk around in bare feet that whole week of rest and did some of the posture and strengthening exercises recommended by some of the resources.
I don't know if it was the week of rest or the exercises I did, but when I started on my final two weeks of training, my knee pain was GONE. Completely. Not just less or tolerable, but gone. The next week I completed 4 runs totalling 15 miles with absolutely no problems. Not only that, but my stride and posture felt better and I was faster than I'd been before. I was one run from pulling out of the race, but when I completed that run exactly two weeks out from race day and it and felt like a million bucks, I decided to risk it and stay in.
And I couldn't be happier. When I got to Edmonton on Sunday morning, I couldn't believe the amount of people running in that race. Between the half and the full marathons, over 1500 people ran. And nothing can prepare you for the intensity of corralling yourself into the starting area with all these people and having them all move as a unified mass when the starting gun goes off.
I knew from the get go that it was going to be a great race. I was running comfortably, breathing easy, and my muscles did not even begin to tire until mile 10. Not only that but I was running 30 sec/mile under my training pace. So when I came in view of the finish line, I was PUMPED. Maybe a little too pumped. I started my kick a little early. 1 km is a painfully long distance when you start a full out sprint!
When I was 100 meters out from the finish, I was hurting, my breathing was rapid, and I was getting this strange tingly feeling in my head. But then I looked up and saw that the clock time said I was at 2:09. I don't know how, but I burst as fast as I could and got across under 2:10, my goal time from the outset. It was then and there that I realized just how much my interest in her accomplishment meant to my mom 5 years ago.
Over the course of my training I suffered two injuries, one severe, one not so much, but still capable of preventing me from completing the race. I ran a total of roughly 230 miles (368 km), averaging about 15 miles per week. I had so much emotion and time invested in this run, to complete it was a feeling I can't explain unless you've done it yourself. I wanted to run to the top of the grandstand and show my medal to everyone willing to look. But I didn't because my wonderful family was there, waiting to congratulate me, hug me in all my sweaty glory, and tell me how proud they were. My kids, my wife, my grandmother, my mother-in-law, my father-in-law. But most meaningfully, my inspiration, my reason for doing it, my hero: my mom.
She was there for me. She got up at 5am that day to drive me there and spent the whole morning waiting for me to finish. She did this despite the fact that no one but her mom was ever at the finish line for her all those times she completed the half. (Well, maybe not "no one", but certainly not me.) Despite the fact that I never really told her how proud I was of her accomplishments and how much of an inspiration she was for me. And she did this despite suffering from what the doctors think is severe sciatica which has all but halted her running for the last couple months. The pain she felt when I didn't fully acknowledge her achievement in 2007, the pain she felt when she saw all those runners take off at the start of a race in which she desperately wished she could run: none of it could keep her away from the finish line to show me how proud she was, to show me that she understands why I do it.
And finally, crossing that finish line, I understood just how much that first race meant to her. And I couldn't be happier that I now share that understanding with her and my oldest sister. An experience and bond that cannot be explained but is none the weaker for it.
Now if you find yourself wondering why someone could be so sentimental about something so simple as running, next time you are in your car on a longer drive, set your trip odometer to 0 and just take the time to truly perceive the distance that a half-marathon represents. 21.1 km. And then imagine yourself running that. Or better yet, do it. Because you'll never truly appreciate how amazing it feels to complete a half-marathon until you've done it yourself. And I have my mother to thank for giving me that gift.