October 18, 2017, by Darren Clarke (photos by Caroline Clarke)
“One Kilometre left, let’s kick it into gear!”
My brain with 1 km left in the Run For the Grapes 5K race
“I don’t thing we’re going to make it…”
My brain with 1/2 a km left in the Run For the Grapes 5K race
It was hot. Real hot. 29-degrees Celsius as opposed to the average for September 24th of 18-degrees (that’s 84-degrees Fahrenheit versus 64-degrees Fahrenheit for my American friends). And the combination of me picking up my pace and the unshaded final kilometre down Vansickle road quickly had me sucking proverbial pond water.
The Run for the Grapes in St. Catharines, Ontario, was my fourth race of the year and my final opportunity to improve on my season opening time of 23 minutes 14 seconds at the Bread and Honey Race in Mississauga in June. That day had been wonderful. Cool with rain. Being immersed in a gentle mist while I run, that’s my bag.
The two subsequent races in Grimsby and Beamsville were not as friendly, with both being hot and hilly. The Beamsville race at Mike Weir’s Vineyard was especially cruel. Two laps on a 2.5 km circuit the last half of which was a succession of three hills, each one more steep than the last. No fun. Grimsby I ran in 24:27, Beamsville 25:25.
The Run for the Grapes was supposed to be my season ending vindication. It was at the end of September so I anticipated cooler weather, it was flat, it was perfect. Until it wasn’t.
About ten years ago a co-worker commented to me, “Hey I saw you running the other night… you don’t run like other people. Other people kind of bounce up and down, you glide, you’re fast, you’re moving.” And this sort of thing had been said to me many times before with repeated references in baseball to, “You run like a gazelle.”
I liked that.
But stuff happens as a man moves out of his thirties into his fourties. Meets a girl. Eats regularly. Discovers he likes beer with those regular meals. Has a job that at its’ most physically taxing is a 360-degree swivel on an office chair.
On one of my first training runs this spring I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a storefront window in downtown Thorold. It was jolting. My appearance was less gazelle and more chubby guy trying to sneak up on a Twinkie.
In his great book Ball Four Jim Bouton talked at length about the humbling transition to a knuckleball pitcher after blowing out his arm as a young pitcher. Where prior to his arm injury Bouton pitched for the Yankees in The House That Ruth Built, Yankee Stadium, the book focused mainly on his time spent with the expansion Seattle Pilots in Sicks’ Stadium. Where once Bouton succeeded with power now he was gamely trying to hang on to a professional career with finesse, with guile. Much of Ball Four is the story of the engaging Bouton attempting to master a pitch that is in essence the art of trying to make the ball not do something so it will do something. Knuckleballers, even the best ones, hold the baseball by their fingertips and more shove it towards home plate than throw it. Then they hope for the best.
A recurring theme in Ball Four is Bouton always believing that maybe his fastball would come back. Kind of like me thinking, “Maybe today is the day I will find my glide again.” But time is humbling and that glide can be elusive once it is lost.
Beer though is easier to find. In particular, Silversmith Black Lager and Modelo. Beautiful things. Beautiful summer things. I knew that part of my getting a better time in running was less Silversmith and less Modelo but, but they are so good. I had heard someone say once that fitness guru and former NHL’er Gary Roberts told perspective clients that there was no point in training with him if they were going to drink beer.
But I kept making the same delicious choices anyway.
Coming into September I felt pretty good. I was confident I could challenge my twenty-three minute time from June. The mid-summer temperatures the week of the race planted the seeds of doubt however and the fact that the hottest day of the week would be Sunday, the day of the race, only increased my anxiety.
The day before and of a race I get crazy OCD. By that I mean, I always floss before I leave to go to a race. That’s my mind hard at work- flossing will make me faster. I also usually make a music mix for the race. Some music to transition from chilling me out while waiting for the race to start, through getting me a good loose, into a good eager and then prop me up, take my mind off the minutia, while I ran. For the Run for the Grapes Race I created one called, “Run Man Run.”
The first ten minutes were designed to massage my anxiety while I idled amongst the huddled masses in front of the starting line waiting for the race to start. After getting a good luck kiss from my wife I pressed play on my iPod and waded into the sea of waiting runners as Joel Plasketts’ soothing New California wafted to life. I closed my eyes and relaxed as the mix transitioned to Damu Fudgemont’s, This is an Introduction. I started feeling loose. I felt good. So good I made my first tactical error.
(The Above picture features- Me on the left getting in the zone, but likely the wrong one, before the race, and then me doing what I do best after a race)
As the minutes wound down to the start of the race I neglected to move up to a spot appropriate my pace. I was being nice, I was being passive. I was being dumb.
Usually I look for my friend Jeff Baker who runs all the time and consistently posts outstanding times around and under 22 minutes. I spot Jeff and sit a row or two back of him. But this time, as my playlist took an easy, groovy turn into Ice Cream and Bonus Miles and the not-fast looking people continued to push their way ahead of me I simply continued to bob my head to the song and languidly shift my weight from one foot to another. Jeff was many, many, rows ahead of me.
The race started. But not for me. I had to wait for the block of plodding people ahead of me to get going. I realized my tactical error too late. Ricewine’s Maybe kept me calm as I looked for an easy route around the dawdling mass. Unlike other races however (sadly this was not the first time I’d done this to myself) the bumper to bumper parked cars crammed the side of the road preventing me from bypassing the large group in front of me.
So the better part of the first kilometre was spent wasting energy artfully getting around women pushing strollers and various folks running their own race at their own speed. But it wasn’t so bad.
Over Everything by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile came over my headphones next and it put an easy smile on my face as I settled into a comfortable rhythm. Out on the roads in Western Hill I was happy to find that there was more shade than I had anticipated.
Mid-way through the race I noticed the person ahead of me, a ginger-haired young man with a moderate build had a slight limp. This happens every race. I look around me to find 10-year olds keeping pace with me, guys who look like they are doing a frontwards moon-walk gliding well ahead of me into the distance, chubby dudes and 60-year old women passing me.
The Run is humbling man.
Soon there were people offering water in paper cups. I said thank you to the offer and didn’t take a cup. The first time I entered a race was a 10K three years ago in Niagara Falls. All I did with the drink was first, spill most it on the sweet lady who handed it to me, then, almost choke to death trying to drink while running and finally, I was consumed with doubt as to what to do with the paper cup. I didn’t want to litter. So after some time spent worryingly formulating a decision I put it in my pocket. That’s a lot of drama for a drink I don’t really need.
The Run for the Grapes had promised markers for every kilometre. They lied. There were markers for 2K and 4K. The lack of markers though did allow for me to keep an easier pace than I would have if I’d have been more in tune with the race slipping past me faster than I anticipated.
The playlist eased into Snail Mail’s great Thinning, a Pavement-esque, bit of garage rock genius, that has a great chug to it punctuated by crisp yet sloppy drums and sweet and sour guitar riffs. I was energized. I pulled away from the father and daughter combo that had been running beside me for some time, I pulled away feeling strong.
Turning a corner out of the shade back towards Vansickle though the sun came down at full boar. I adjusted my hat and tried to maintain a decent pace. But the impact was immediate.
The backbeat of Trentemoller’s, Silver Surfer, Ghost Rider Go!!!, now urged me to pick up the pace but if it was a call to war my legs were declaring themselves neutral parties. I geared down a bit thinking that I’d have to adjust my playlist for next time. Trentemoller was out.
Levity interceded next, allowing me to momentarily forget about the sun beating down on me as, Modest Mouse’s, God is An Indian and You’re an Asshole, followed in my playlist-
“God is an Indian and you’re an asshole/Get on Your Horse and Ride.”
I needed that. That is a 5K run playlist keeper.
As I physically passed the marker indicating I had one kilometre to go I sent the message to my legs to pick it up. And they responded. But one kilometre is always more than I realize. And running don’t lie.
The Run don’t lie. But I do. So I can talk about tactics, the sun, the course, the music, the flossing, but it’s never really about that. At my last job I would always get frustrated by the latest gimmick to change the world. It would be this incentive or that incentive, this bag of magic beans or that $1 Grilled Cheese. But the reality is that success is realized by strong, engaged, leadership making thoughtful choices each day, every day. (and maybe using butter instead of margarine on those Grilled Cheese Sandwiches). But achieving that is hard. It takes a great deal of intelligence, charisma and will, to effect the kind of change amongst a management group that allows for positive change in the work place overall.
So, again and again, we chose a gimmick. We chose to floss before the run.
But the run don’t lie.
Shark Smile by Big Thief and then Holy Fuck’s Tom Tom would carry me through the end of the race but after pushing myself to a high paced gallop I quickly realized I wouldn’t be able to maintain it. This was immediately followed by me beginning to doubt if I was going to make it to the finish without stopping. I slowed down.
I was passed by a man about my age, someone likely to be in my run age group. I briefly considered picking up my pace. But I didn’t have it in me.
Soon the finish line at Club Roma was in sight. I strengthened my pace as much as I could. By this point I had entirely tuned out the music. Turning in towards the finish line I saw my wife holding up her phone to take a picture. I remembered the last time she took a picture of me at this juncture of a race and how my mouth was open, gasping in ugly desperation. Determined to be more photogenic in my suffering I straightened up my back, closed my mouth a bit and tried to look, cooly, masculinely, determined.
I crossed the finish line.
The truth was in.
The truth was 24:53.
I was exhausted. Somebody handed me one of the medals they give to everyone who finishes and I mouthed thank you. Eager to get out of the sun I walked to the outdoor Pavilion and once in the shade stopped, leaned over, hands on my knees and tried to catch my breath. My former hockey teammate Jeff had finished minutes before and stood in the middle of the Pavilion having a conversation. I looked over, managed to exhale a breathless hello, then resumed my fevered inhaling.
That’s when I saw him. The guy with ice cream. It was love.
I tried to straighten up as I approached, “Do I get one of these?”
Deeply in love.
The ice cream guy handed me a purple ice cream in a plastic Avondale container and pointed towards the spoons. I leaned back down, hands upon my knees and thanked him, and thanked him some more.
“Oh my God this is awesome.”
Cold ice cream on a stinking hot day. Caroline and I walked over to a bench in the trees, in the shade, and I slowly took spoonfuls of the purple ice cream and let it just sit cooly melting inside my mouth.
We left soon after I was done the ice cream. However, if I would have stuck around I would have realized that while I finished 53rd overall I had also finished second in my age group meaning I had won a medal for placing in the top three.
The purple ice cream was enough for me though.
Some purple ice cream and beer at home waiting in the fridge. After all, a man does not finish 53rd by not going home and having a nice cold beer on a regular occasion.