The Fit Life: 4 race secrets every runner should know.

Two years ago, I became a Race Director.  The race had been around for a while and was one I loved.  In 2016, it had permit problems and other issues and had been cancelled.  When I was approached to resurrect it, my trail group already had a course ready to go, plus a race roster of eager participants and volunteers.  We were golden, right?  Not so much.

When we did our first orientation run, the race’s previous “regulars” were not happy.  What kind of course is this?  This is dangerous!  Do you have permits?? It’s not even runnable! We’re all gonna die!  (The latter might have been their inside voice, but some were definitely thinking it.)  After one especially long orientation run with a few frustrated and very vocal participants, I turned to them and suggested – Perhaps this isn’t the race for you.  They heartily agreed.

There was a lot of pressure to re-design the course to something like what it had been before.  But, I  had my own vision of the type of course I wanted, something that showed off not only how beautiful our natural river valley could be, but that could also hold its own amongst the toughest of races:  gnarly, rooty, edgy, breathtaking and beautiful.  Being married to someone who thinks a lot like Lazarus Lake, also the course designer, I was certain (hopeful? nervously optimistic?) that even if we lost previous participants, we would attract those looking for what we were offering.  The risk paid off.  In just 18 months, the race tripled in size and has been featured in every major Canadian and North American trail running magazine.

One of the things I learned from this experience is that there are races that are right for some and not right for others.  Knowing how to choose the right race for you will help you get the most out of that experience.  Below are four “trail secrets” that every runner should know when choosing their fit.

Trail Secrets I Wish I’d Been Told

When you decide to do a milestone race, choose the race wisely.  Think beyond the training plan to what you want to get out of the whole experience.

  1. Do you want support or anonymity? 

img_9745For my first marathon, I did what I’d done with all my previous races:  I told hubby to stay home and watch the girls while I did my own thing.  It was “me time” and I loved the solitude of the experience, even in a crowd of runners.  I didn’t realize the importance of a first marathon – that sense of accomplishment – until I was at the finish line with nobody to hug but strangers.  It was a let-down.  That said, I know those who prefer to be alone for milestone races, traveling far enough away from home to be guaranteed anonymity.  Know yourself.

2. What kind of energy do you want the race to have?

For my first ultra – a 50-km race in the mountains – I invited Todd to join me.  Marathon lesson learned.  But, I also made the mistake of choosing a race whose energy wasn’t my fit, at least as a soloist.  It was a hyped-up relay race where solo runners could get lost in the masses.   Teams of cheering crowds hardly noticed fatigued soloists crossing the finish line as their own relayers did a fresh-legged sprint and clicked their heels for the camera.   Worst of all, my solo medal was identical to that of the relayers. In a later moment of good-humoured reflection, I used a permanent marker to scrawl “50” on the back of the medal.  I have never gone back.

Two subsequent ultra races that I thoroughly enjoyed had the type of crowd energy I was looking for:160 specifically, they did not have relay teams.  Somehow, knowing that every person I saw was doing the same mileage as me had the feeling of camaraderie and support that I had been seeking.

I know a lot of runners who prefer to run as a soloist at large relay events.  They like the hype and energy, returning year after year.  That I prefer a “true” solo event is really about how I like to race.  Know yourself.

3.  Do you want others to read your race report?2016-07-29 20.50.37

There is nothing more exhilarating than recalling in fine detail every high and low of our race experience.  Race reports are the best…and the worst.

The most important question you can ask yourself when you are writing a report is:  Who am I writing this for?  If you are writing to remember the experience, learn from it, maybe provide insights for others who decide to run it, the more detail the better.  But, if – and this is usually the case – IF you are writing the race report to share an epic event as broadly as possible, keep it short and sweet.  Simple, like an orthopedic surgeon explaining a blunt-trauma compound fracture: “The bone is broke.”  My rule of thumb is, if I have to scroll down, I stop reading.  And I like running!  Imagine how our family and friends must feel.

I wrote my first race report years ago, shared it with my husband, suspecting he would be in awe of what I’d been through. This was his comment:  I’m gonna need the Reader’s Digest version of that – as he handed me back my masterpiece.  Shocking?  Yes!  Am I over it?  So much.  You can thank him for my last race report, which went something like this:

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Occasionally, I read long, detailed race reports.  Either the content is useful, the person is meaningful, or the author is an amazing writer (rarely the last one, including my own reports).  So, decide why you’re writing a race report and who you want to enjoy it, then go crazy within those parameters!  Otherwise, expect skimming and lies.

4.  Which race will set you up for success?

2016-10-14 21.33.39There are rarely race reports by those who didn’t finish.  If you want the medal, you need  to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses in the race you choose.  Not to say that you should do the same race year after year.  Push your limits, challenge yourself, chase the white whale.  But, a lot of things can go right and wrong between the start and finish.  The more you choose a race that matches your skills, the more you can push your limits.

The last race I did was two and a half years ago.  I was going into the race with an injury but was in denial, never good.  Even more significant, I was taking on a race that was going to make me work in areas of weakness for 50 miles.  There are things I do well:  uphills.  There are things I’ve learned to do well: downhills.  All things athletic I have learned that I have to work hard to do well, period.  I’m a runner, not an athlete.

So, I went to this race, in a different province, on unknown terrain, to discover that I was not ready for it.  An athletic person like Todd figured it out in minutes.  He had a blast, whooping and careening down crazy mountain sides.  To date, it’s his favourite race.  It took me about 62-kilometres and 13 hours into the same race to realize that I didn’t have the athleticism to learn on-the-spot and nothing else could prepare me for the tough course except time.  The one thing a race does not give you is time.  I timed out and that sucked.  But, I learned something valuable:  That was not the race for me.  Yeah, yeah, if I wanted to prove something, I could train for the conditions and return to finish it.  For what?  Pride and ego aside, I didn’t enjoy the race, I struggled, I was frustrated with my hesitations and nerves.  It maximized my weaknesses and minimized my strengths.  Not my fit.

Find what you’re good at and do that race, and other races like it, as many as you want. Occasionally, you may want to try something that frustrates and drains you, so go for it.  But, if you’re going to pour time into training, money into racing, and effort into finishing, find your fit.  Train your weaknesses and race your strengths.


Above all, and in case you missed it, in any milestone race you choose, the best trail secret is this:  Know yourself.

to think own self be true

Feature Photo Credit:  Angie Zee Photography


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The Fit Life: how to run winter trails and not die.

56ceae92b53d4725b44a0c2a21c2927aIf you’re living anywhere in Canada that is not along a coastline, at some point you’re facing the reality of frigid temperatures.  Some take their workouts indoors, others stare like Grumpy Cat out the window waiting for the weather to improve.  But, what if you want to run outside in the winter and you also don’t want to die?

Below is tried and true advice for running in a Canadian Winter, even through a polar vortex.  This advice is for trail running, not road running, an important distinction that is missed in most articles on “how to run in the winter”.  There is a difference.  Let’s start with road runners.


Road Running in the winter

Road runners navigate plowed sidewalks, often with a sheen of slick ice over cement sidewalks, occasionally resulting in a broken bone after a slip and fall.  Grips may help but are not ideal for road runners:  If the grips are too aggressive, you feel like you’re running on a hundred painful tacks.  If they’re not aggressive enough, you can still fall if you’re not careful.

https://www.hypothermichalf.com/register-s14929

Edmonton Hypothermic Half Marathon

Road runners also navigate Wind.  Totally exposed, they are at the mercy of the elements.  Wind Chill is their rival, and a mean one at that.

In my opinion, winter road runners are the true Heroes of the North.  And possibly the most Insane.


Trail Running in the winter

For those willing to venture off the paved path into gnarly single-track trails, you’re in for a treat.  In fact, it’s not uncommon for runners to try winter trail running only to find that this becomes their most favourite run season.  Here’s why:

  •  No wind

The trees do this really cool thing – besides looking awesome – of protecting runners from the elements.  Trail runners only care about the true temp, It still might be -20 Celsius, but without the wind choking your breath and freezing your teeth when you dare to suck in air, even the coldest wind-free temperature can be 100% enjoyable.

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    Jeffery Mattoon Photography

    No broken bones 

Trail runners wear grips, usually the most aggressive micro-spikes you can find, which dig nicely into snow-packed trails that smoothly conceal gnarly summer roots and rocks.  There are sometimes icy patches, and the ups and downs of trails can be slippery, but anyone with good grips will find a level of confidence in winter running only rivaled by wildlife.   Plus, if you slip and fall, you land on soft snow, or maybe in a bush, but the landing feels more like a bowling ball on memory foam.  No damage, no breaks.  Just pick yourself up, brush yourself/ego off,  then you’re on your way again!

  • No boredom 

snl 1The views on summer trails are amazing.  However, winter is when Nature really shows off, rivaled only in epicness by peacocky Fall.  While the streets have turned to brownish-gray snow framed in glass-shard windrows, the trails turn into a scene out of White Christmas.  Sparkling snowflakes delicately balance on branches, paths are glistening white.  Even the skies compete for the best performance, with sunlight beams shooting across pristine trails, or plump snowflakes softly descending like a cosy blanket.  There is no bad day.


How to Dress for COLD Winter Trails

26804813_10155783478321343_382602117827485886_nNow that you are convinced that winter trail running is dope, let’s discuss how to enjoy the trails, especially how to survive Deep Freeze runs.  Below is a list of what to wear for IG pics that will blow your friends’ minds, scare your mom, and maybe even land you on the front page of a magazine.

1. Winter Trail Shoes

The difference between summer shoes and winter shoes is this:  protection from the elements.  I’m not talking about wind (remember, we don’t worry about that in the trails).  I’m talking about Snow.  Trails have lots of it.  If it’s -20C and you decide to wear mesh running shoes into the trails, the minute the snow seeps through that thin outer layer and wraps around your toes, they will freeze almost instantly.

Not sure where to begin?  Some of our athletes’ favourite trail shoes for winter are Icebugs, Arc’teryx Norvan, Salomon Snowcross, and Saucony Razors.  These are not ALL of them, but this selection is a good way to gauge if you’re in the right shoe store for trail running.  If the staff don’t know what you’re talking about, turn around and leave.  Right now.  Then, find a shop that carries at least one of these brands and try on some other trail brands, too.  You need to wear shoes that are right for the conditions and also right for your feet.

2. Grips

There are two popular grip options for winter trail running.  The first is micro-spikes and the most popular brand is Kahtoola.  In my opinion, the Kahtoola brand is still my go-to product but it has been declining in quality each year, with the rubber cover getting thinner and less durable. For the hefty price tag of almost $100 per pair, they should last at least a couple seasons.  My first pair in 2008 lasted 8 years.  My last pair barely made it through 2 seasons.  Current runner feedback is hit and miss.  When they last, they’re worth every penny.

25445974_2033737526895516_3106780607157784692_nIf you don’t want to drop that kind of dough right away, there are knock-off brands at a fraction of the cost.  I am not endorsing others benefiting from someone’s creative genius, which is what knock-offs do, copying a great idea that they never came up with and then profiting from it.  BUT, I’m not here to judge.  I just want to see people enjoying trails.  My assessment of the knock-off microspikes is that the actual spikes are not as well done, either over-done or under-done, but if you’re on a budget, they are a consideration.

The second popular grip option are carbide tips built right into the shoe.  It’s what I use and it’s great for those who are more confident with sliding on trails.  You get what I like to call “traction with action”.  If you have spent a season or two in micro-spikes and you’re ready to take your running up a notch, maybe work on proprioception, the carbide tip shoes are a lot of fun.  Still, there are a couple runs each year where I’m pulling grips over these shoes.  Options are good.

3.  Hot Pockets

No, I’m not talking about a microwavable snack loved by teens and college students.  Hot Pockets for runners is slang for hand warmers and toe warmers.  You can buy them at Costco, Shoppers, London Drugs, even some grocery stores.  Throw a couple of these in your jacket pocket or pack when you head out.  If your hands and feet don’t warm up after 5-10 minutes on the trails, stop and jam a pair into the end of your shoes (think about wrapping your toes) or inside your gloves/mitts.  They can be a game changer on a frosty day.

4.  Male Protection

The struggle is real.  Guys, if you care at all about your nether regions, and we know you do!  – you have a couple options.  One – you can buy fancy thermal running underwear – or two – you can throw a pair of shorts under or over your pants.  (This concept also works well for females, but more to keep cold bums warm and less to protect the next generation of trail runners.)

The look you choose depends on how much you care about what other people think.  Ultimately, your goal is to keep the bits frostbite-free and bathroom breaks, pain-free.

5.  Extremities

603999_992714476275_149307489_nIf you have layers on your hands, feet and head, you will be golden.  I often carry an extra buff because they’re so versatile.  Wrap one around your neck, use it to cover your nose and mouth or keep it pushed down if you get too warm.  You can use the other one as a “hat” by tying a knot in the end.  Ear protection and neck protection are key.  Plus, buffs are easy to pull off if you get too warm.  You can buy buffs at any running store, or even at the Dollar Store!

This leads us to one final important piece of information for winter running:

6.  Layers

It is always better to wear four thin layers in extreme cold than to wear one heavy layer.  You’re not just managing the weather; you’re also managing your sweat.  Technical layers are the goal.  (Translation: no cotton.)  If you want an excuse to go shopping, you can find merino base layers and high quality wind/weather resistant outer shells at some of our athletes’ favourite shops, such as Arc’teryx, Track ‘n Trail, Fast Trax, and MEC.  If you’re on a budget or would rather save your money for shoes (who wouldn’t?), go through your old race swag for technical shirts, check out Costco for merino base layers and fleece pants, or head to Value Village for $20 worth of polyester long-sleeved shirts and a fleece vest.


This concludes all the broad strokes to running trails in winter.  The rest are details and usually personal preference.  The best way to get going on winter running and to keep going is to join others in trail adventures.  If you visit or live in Edmonton – an Urban Wonderland in Northern Canada – check out https://yegrun.com/ for a variety of winter running options, including Edmonton Trail Runners for trail adventures at every pace and the Hashhouse Harriers for drinkers with a running problem.  Find your fit!  And remember, it’s not just about the run.

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PC: Ashley Sarauer

 

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RVR Ultra: new year, new look.

For anyone who has risked to attempt Canadian River Valley Revenge, they know that our race is anything but typical.  It was never meant to be.  It is the collective vision of what we love to run, 100 miles of tucked-away river valley trails that most people don’t even know exist.

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PC: Steven Csorba

Interestingly, our course has found a rapidly growing group of athletes looking for adventure.  They want more than miles.  They want a kind of race experience with rigour beyond the data.  Untraceable suffering.   Todd, the course designer, doesn’t own a watch, he rarely carries a phone (even when he should), and he has no idea what his pace is.  He’s not looking for data.  He’s looking for adventure.  Whether that’s the West Coast Trail or the Grand Canyon, or a multi-day race through the Alps.  No data, no go-pro.  More than miles.

2017-08-24 18.49.28So, when it came time to match our logo with our race, it just made sense to capture the wild and untamed elements.  Yes, we have a river, there are trees, even beautiful vistas.  That is the facade, the lie that draws you in.  The course is malicious and mad, chasing racers through haunted woods.  Runners think they want to finish.  In the end, they want only to escape.

 

Are you ready for adventure?  Are you sure?RVR_Logo_FullColour_RGB.png

 

 

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The Fit Life: four “easy” steps to winter bike riding.

164232_10100169984567565_702579136_nI like to bike almost as much as running.  Sadly, my bike season is usually short.  I live in Northern Canada, so it’s barely a six-month-no-snow season:  I start in May if the snow is gone, except when a freak snowstorm gives one final, hacking cough before leaving in a huff.  I end in October … unless September is grouchy – “Just get these leaves off my back already!”.  So this year, I decided to not put the bike away.  Enough!  I live in a half-winter year and I will not be snowballed into hibernation!  Plus, with my new job at the university, I can stay in the trails for most of the ride.  So, here I am, one month into the winter season, with almost every condition already under my belt – a veritable Ph.D. in winter survival skills.  I’d like to pass along what I’ve learned.


  1.  If you’re going to ever move beyond the notion of winter biking to actually doing the activity, you need to prepare.

Practice what to wear during shoulder season.  I tried out all kinds of layersWind resistance is a big thing with biking, even in the trails.  Also, extremities.  A pair of glove-clad hands origami-squeezed into fleece mitts is a bigger commitment than marriage:  I better like the gear level that I started with because I won’t be changing it until I’m done the ride.  There are a LOT of hills between my home and my job.  Climbing that last GD hill to my office in what feels like Gear 50 has had me ponder my own mortality – “This must be what a heart attack feels like.”  ‘Til death do us part.

The head/neck area is especially tricky:  two buffs, strategically placed around my neck and under my helmet, were great…until I warmed up.  Sweat dripping down one’s head like a slowly cracking egg should be on the list of “How CSIS breaks a war criminal”.  42282160_10101417434727445_2138679450374504448_oCombine that with the suffocating feeling of being strangled by a sweat-soaked helmet strap, and the jarring smell of whatever the heck I ate for breakfast, it’s enough to have me ripping off my buffs mid-ride more than once.

And how do you stop little piggies from going wee-wee-wee all the way home?  If there are not enough layers, it’s easy enough to break off the frozen stub-cicles at the end of the ride.  Too many socks, you cut off circulation.  Make that mistake more than once and the only colour you’ll ever see on your feet again will come from the beauty salon.  My solution: Sorels.  Survival is not a fashion show, folks.


2.  Once you’ve practiced in cold weather, ask a pro.

It’s easy to default to “online research” for winter advice.  This does not work.  Mostly because the people who write these articles don’t believe that anyone can actually survive outdoors in a real (insert “not west coast”) Canadian Winter.  “Don’t your lungs freeze?”  Yes, asshole, that’s why we have to smoke so much pot.

Instead, find someone who lives in your city and who actually bikes all winter.  Road or trail, doesn’t matter.  The only noticeable difference is tires; bad-assery is equally off the charts for either group.  I wanted to learn trail skills, so I started asking questions on a social media site called Edmonton Mountain Biking.  In my mind, these were face-tattooed, nipple-pierced MMA fighters who biked trails because driving cut into their training.  Really, they’re more like cheerful Ewoks who never left the forest and don’t ever want to grow up.  Also, the most helpful people on earth.


3.  Once you’ve tried out layers and done some research, get your bike ready.

Biking is no more a cheap alternative to driving as running is a cheap alternative to gym memberships.  We naively convince ourselves that we are going to save SO MUCH MONEY!  Lies, all lies.  You don’t have to break the bank, but you will have to set a budget or by spring, you’ll be mortgaging your home.

For me, I found Shawn.  Shawn is my bike guy.  He fixes bikes for a living and he knows 48917647_2010559975724445_8290596988039200768_nwhere all the deals are, what you need and what’s really not that important.  Shawn has talked me out of a number of pointless purchases.  “Sheryl, I can NOT in good faith upgrade your bike (a gift from a friend’s 10-year-old) any more.  The new cassette is worth more than the frame.”  He has also talked me into value-added winter gear for my price-point:  studded tires, bar mitts, bigger pedals to fit my Sorels.  Everyone needs a Shawn.


4.  You’ve tested your clothing, you’ve made biking friends, you’ve found a Shawn.  Now, the most important thing to winter biking is this:  you must bike.

This step is definitively the hardest of them all.  Once the snow hits, no amount of preparation will ready you for the heart-clenching fear that wraps around your chest in a gnarly-fingered death grip.  I should mention that this feeling may not be true for everyone.  My husband has taken a Canadian Tire 10-speed onto river cliffs with a 45-degree drop just because “it was the most direct route”.  I, on the other hand, am not a natural athlete.  I have to work at it.  And there is nothing graceful about the process.  If I fall, it’s gonna leave a mark.  If I lose control, I may leave a serious dent in that birch tree before I lose consciousness.

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PC: Sharon Chatenay

So, my biggest fear has been sliding and falling.  Here’s how I’ve overcome that fear.  I’ve done a lot of sliding and some falling.  My very first winter ride, I must have slid 50 times.  But, by the end of the ride, my startled shrieks and AK-47 “f*cks” had turned into chuckles and a perma-grin.  It is quite possibly the most bad-ass I’ve ever felt.  And I’ve done some pretty bad-ass stuff.

Yes, I realize that there is a disconnect between how I think I look and how I actually look.  How I think I look:  007 agent parachuting onto the top of a mountain with my bike strapped to my back, riding down a cliff at break-neck speed just slightly ahead of an avalanche in hot pursuit of terrorists.  Basically, I’m saving the world.  How I actually look:  a middle-aged woman balanced precariously on a small child’s hand-me-down while maneuvering wide, groomed trails like a cheerful drunk.  We are what we believe.  We are the voices in our heads.  Mine is on her fourth martini.


44339250_10101431305001305_5741220790452355072_nWinter riding has reminded me why I’m a huge Star Wars fan.  Do. Or do not.  There is no try.    We can theorize and philosophize, plan and analyze.  The reward, the thrill, the high – is to do.  You gotta put yourself out there.

If you’ve been thinking about winter riding, follow the four steps above, it’s that easy.  Except the fourth one.  That’s hard.  The doing is the work.  Everything else is chatter.


 

 

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The Fit Life: the hardest thing to face.

2016-12-26 15.30.55Someone I recently met said that she tries to build community wherever she’s planted. She’s about half my age and I see so much spunk in her that I remember having at the same age.   I recognize that wide-eyed innocence and bubbly enthusiasm, not knowing yet some of the hard lessons of leadership.  I can also see that she’s still figuring out her own place in this world, who she is in relation to others.   Her journey into leading and motivating others is normal and also unique.  The hurdles will be what every leader has faced and will require courage and tenacity, fortitude and resilience.  But, how she faces the challenges and overcomes them and shines her light will reflect her own uniqueness.

If this young woman were to ask me – what’s the greatest challenge she will face, I’d say this one thing.  The hardest thing about building community is not about putting yourself out there.  It’s putting yourself out there imperfectly.  Making mistakes – being human and flawed – while in the public eye.

30712960_10101334394166395_608407084123291648_nIn my own journey, I’ve done some things well and I’ve done other things poorly.  There are moments where I got it all right and just as many moments where I totally screwed up.  I’ve learned from many of my mistakes.  Some of them have been good life lessons about who you trust, managing disappointment and letting go of what wasn’t yours to hold.  Other lessons have been just me being insensitive or demanding or thoughtless, my flaws being lived out under the unblinking spotlight of the public eye.  Standing alone in the glare of my humanity for all the world to see.

Think about silly or embarrassing things you’ve said or done and wished you could take back.  Then think about all of those things happening in front of those you are invested in, actively engaging and supporting.  Think about letting others down, letting yourself down.  Then consider those who never wanted you to succeed, who clap their hands in glee at your failings.  “See, I told you she was [this or that]!”  And those things are true.

But, our flaws aren’t the whole story of ourselves.  And sometimes the only one reminding us that our pluses are greater than our minuses is our heart, “It’s okay.  You’re okay.  Keep learning.  Keep leading.”  And you navigate waters of self-doubt and inner judgment through compassion and kindness that keep you afloat in your own humanity.

2016-09-06 09.23.54After all that, when we decide to create community in hopes that others will join in, the unforgiving spotlight becomes the best teacher of self-love.  In order to successfully lead and continue to lead, we have to learn to love ourselves in the kindest of ways that defies the judgment of others.  We learn to accept our blemishes and we mature, falling in love with all of ourselves, not just the good parts.

To this young, ambitious, sparkling woman who is embarking on a mission to change the world around her, I hope that she will find not only her own inner strength to rise to the challenges, but to also fully embrace her humanity in all its flawed beauty.  We can only give out of what we have, even if we have to figure that out in front of everyone else.

 

 

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The Fit Life: Are you okay?

Connections

snl 1When I was a teenager, my parents ran a home for adults with chronic mental illness.  Depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder.  They were stable, independent individuals who just needed that extra bit of support – “Here are your meds.  Have a good day at work!”  …. “You’ve been sleeping all weekend.  Let’s go do some gardening.”  Everyone had meals together, walked the dog, shopped for groceries, went on road trips.  The goal was normalcy with stability and support.

John* was our longest-term resident.  He had lived with depression his whole life, attempted suicide a number of times.  His sisters would take turns visiting him, but otherwise, he was alone.  Our family unit became his second home.  John was quiet and pleasant and kind.  While staying with us, his mental health stabilized.  Eventually, me and my brothers graduated high school and moved away.  Then, my parents moved to a different province and closed the home.  Shorter winter days came along and we weren’t hearing from John as regularly as usual.  His sisters mentioned that he was struggling again.  Shortly before Christmas, he took his life.  It was devastating news.  That was 30 years ago, but it irrevocably embedded in me the importance of connection.

Not surprisingly, my first career was in mental health.  John, and others like him, are one of the reasons I started a variety of groups over the years – some successful, some not.  It’s also partly why I avoided cliques or people who – intended or not – excluded others. Eventually, I started Edmonton Trail Runners25354067_1674036455950237_3070551520715089948_n.jpgSome who didn’t know my motivations, the back story, were quick to judge my leadership, accusing me of having too much ambition.  This always makes me and Todd chuckle.  I learned to not worry about what others thought.  ETR became a community of care:  fit runners who make every person of every pace feel welcome.  There is no room for cliques because there is no hierarchy of importance.  You’re fast?  Okay.  I’m not.  Did you meet your daily forest raking quota today?  It’s not a good run unless we’ve shared smiles and chuckles – “Glad I came!

Getting to Really Know Each Other

Todd and ScottIn our run club, Todd and I talk about the importance of managing mental health, reminding others that some of us run for mental wellness, to escape addiction, to manage depression, to deal with anxiety.  Good talks, lots of agreement.  Is it helping?

In the last month, three runners from our group have opened up about their own mental health struggles.  Running has helped them, and still, highs and lows happen.  Especially around this time of year.  Shorter days, holiday stress, isolation, grief.  Instead of slipping into the dark hole pulling them down, they’ve reached out.  Without saying it, they’re really saying, “You tell us to talk about this.  I’m talking about it…?”  With each of them, I’ve had different conversations.  To all of them, I’ve said – “It’s good that you’re talking about this.  I’m glad you said something.”  To one of them that I regularly run with, I said – “I noticed.  Remember that.  You’re seen here.”  We all need to hear that, am I right?

How Can I Help?

As we celebrate the holiday season, let’s remember to create points of connection, to reach out when we need someone to know that we’re struggling, to reach in when we see someone around us who looks like they’re struggling.   If you want to help and you’re not sure how, here are some ideas:30741117_10101334394351025_4419477775140782080_n

  1.  Pay attention.  There’s something about running together that brings out a different kind of awareness.  We’re not always talking or listening.  We’re looking at our surroundings in relation to each other, moving around in each other’s physical space.  Sometimes, I’ve noticed someone was off just by running way ahead of them when they should have been way ahead of me.  Or running beside them and noticing that they’re grimacing where they’d usually smile.  This is one of the reasons that we say at ETR – “We compete at races, not on runs”.  You miss what’s going on if you’re just trying to out-pace someone, or get a PB or an FKT.  Do that on your own watch.  In a group activity, pay attention to others.  Why else are you there?
  2. Ask awkward questions“Are you okay?  You don’t seem okay.” … “Do you need to talk to someone?”  “Here’s the phone number of my therapist, he’s great.”  …  “You said you were feeling depressed last week.  How are you doing?”.   You don’t know which question may be the one they need to hear.  Might be none of them.  Might be all of them.  Be curious and inquisitive and sincere.
  3. Follow up.  “Did you talk to your partner?” …. “You said you were going to check in with your psychiatrist.  How’d that go?”   Keep in mind that you are not responsible for another person, and nobody wants that, really.  You’re just checking in.  What if they confided that they were struggling with an injury?  Wouldn’t you ask them about how it was going the next time you saw them?  If they hadn’t seen anyone to treat the injury, wouldn’t you say – “You gotta do that.  It’ll help so much.”  Apply the same interest in someone’s mental health as you would in their physical health.  25446475_323451428134410_5514156625163838548_n
  4. Create points of connection“I’m going to the Saturday run.  Wanna go together?” … “You’re working late?  Come for the campfire.  I’ll save you a spot.”  Sometimes, we all need a little support to show up.  That’s all you’re offering.  You don’t need to save anyone – it’s just a ride and a “good to see you!”.  Connection is that easy.

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I recently saw an Instagram post with the caption, “It feels great to be first”.  I remember how great it felt when I used to take the podium.  Still, I was struck by how we can get so focused on ourselves – our successes and our failures – that we get confused about what’s really important, like others.  People.  ConnectionI see you.  You matter.  Tell that to someone this season, in any way that works.  Giving isn’t just about presents.

 

 

 

 

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The Fit Life: what’s your story?

33091086_10101351501912335_2624161817412239360_nEveryone has a story.  We assume that ours is like everyone else’s – our truth is their truth – or we believe that nobody else has gone through what we have, that we are alone.  The best thing we can do to connect with others is to find out each other’s story.  Every story is important.

This is Todd’s story.  It’s not really mine to tell but he’s letting me try.  It’s hard telling someone else’s story.  Bear with me.

The Athlete

Todd pack mentality 2012Todd started running at the end of 2012.  He ran his first 10km trail race in December, in knee-deep snow at Pack Mentality Ultra.  56 minutes.  Eight months later, he paced a friend at an ultra and accidentally ran 56 kilometres in six hours.  That was the beginning. He was a natural, and he loved the trails.

It didn’t take long for Todd to get private invitations to run with the fast kids.  I didn’t get those invitations, I wasn’t fast enough, but I was excited for him to connect with the trail community.  PC: David CheckelStrangely,  he declined most of the invites, only accepting ones where I’d cajole him to “try it out, meet some people your pace, make some friends”.  It wasn’t long before he’d be back to running alone or letting me chase him along cliff edges and wildlife trails.  Occasionally, he’d find a kindred spirit – someone his pace who ran with him for the love of the trails and not for competition or ego.  Otherwise, he didn’t seem to care about the attention of others.  It baffled me.  Probably confused many others.  For Todd, that was him just forging his own path.  Something he’d been doing his whole life.

The Square Peg

Todd ChildhoodTo every story, there is a back story.  And no story seems to have more impact than that of our Family of Origin.  Todd was born in the late ’60s to a catholic 18-year-old girl from a Norwegian immigrant family.  His dad was black and not in the picture, that’s all he knows.  An adorable boy with thick curls, big dimples and an easy smile, he spent two years in foster care:  nobody wanted a bi-racial baby in Quebec during the political unrest of the FLQ years.  He was eventually adopted by a workaholic dad and an alcoholic mom.  Childhood years were blurred by chaos and neglect.

Todd’s upbringing made it hard for him to fit in.  Every fall before school, his dad took him to the discount outlet store  for a new wardrobe, purchasing pants that were a foot too long at the start of the year and  inches too short by June.   His mom, in rare moments of sobriety, would make months’ worth of sandwiches and freeze them for the countless days that he and his adopted younger sister fended for themselves.  He still cringes when recalling the texture of a thawed egg salad sandwich squashed inside a saggy lunch bag.  Most days at school, he ate alone.

The Cool Guy

The summer before high school, Todd was sent to Sept-Iles to spend some time with extended family.  It was the first exposure he had to living in normalcy, picking strawberries with cousins, staying in a home with laughter and smiles, not needing to be in a constantly hyper-vigilant state of anxiety and apprehension – “what was going to happen next”.   Just before school started, he returned to discover that his parents were getting divorced (a relief after years of fighting).  Mom was in rehab again and dad couldn’t take care of the kids while sorting out his affairs.  So, Todd was thrust back into the foster system, everything he owned boxed up and thrown away.  Within hours of returning home, he was living  in a foster home of thirteen other boys – a different kind of chaos.  Later that year, his father had a heart attack and passed away.  At 15, “home” as he knew it was gone.

In the midst of this, Todd figured out that he was truly on his own and needed to find his own way.  He got a job at Harveys and the pay cheque offered him a better wardrobe, one that actually fit.  He stopped parting his afro hair into a caucasian side-poof.  Looking less like Gumby and more like a “regular guy”, he noticed that all the people who had bullied or ignored him for years now wanted to be his friend.  Almost overnight, he’d gone from outcast to cool.

We all remember those coming of age movies where the geek becomes popular – Sixteen Candles, Almost Famous…  Todd’s story could have played out the same, the quintessential tale of transformation.  Whether it was the hard knocks he’d experienced or just who he is and has always been, he wasn’t interested in the fairy tale.   He could see how others treated him better when he looked a certain way even though he was still the same guy he’d always been.  The only thing different was how he was perceived.  The story that others knew.  Todd recalls how fake the attention felt.  He wanted nothing to do with being defined by others.  He instead chose to hang out with a few who thought the way he thought and didn’t need the pull of the crowd to feel important.

The Story Within the Story

Todd and SherylThere are more chapters to Todd’s story, chapters that got worse before they got better.  Those chapters are for another day.  The story of what happened to him and around him isn’t really the Story.  They’re just the circumstances.  The story that defined him – that defines all of us – was the one inside his head – the beliefs he held about himself and the world around him.  He learned at a young age and never forgot that people will always chase what they perceive to be cool.  Don’t get caught up in it.  That does not define you.  Choose wisely and well where you invest your time and with whom, from friendships to races to the person with whom you share your life.  The only thing that needs to make sense is what makes sense to you.  Be undefined by others.

Todd sinister 2And for those of us who only know our stories, learn the back stories of others.  Get to know the quiet runner in the mid-pack who doesn’t say much but smiles all the way to her eyes.  Chat with the new guy who shows up wearing sneakers and a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve of his cotton tee.  Learn their stories.  Tell yours.   Don’t define others by what you’ve known – re-define your view of the world by what you learn.

 

 

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The Fit Life: which story do you believe?

1488I remember a girl from Junior High. Gail.  She was picked on, had no real friends.  “Bullied” would maybe be the term we’d use now, but back then she was blamed: mocked, alienated.  Gail invited me over a couple times.  I went because I knew she was lonely.  She was angry and negative, spoke badly about everyone.  It was hard to be around her for very long.  At the time, I wondered if she had always been that way or if she had become that way because of how others treated her.

img_4293I’ve only experienced social isolation twice in my lifetime.  Neither experience was great, but the first was definitely the worst.  I was 22 and working at a bank.  My supervisor, Connie, decided she didn’t like me.  She was a bully, the kind whose behaviour is tolerated because of familiarity and fear.  She’s had a hard life.  That’s just her way.  I was the new girl, great at investment banking and terrible at balancing the till.  My weakness was her target.  Every day, I’d watch the sun set while I tried to find that missing 10 cents.  Every day, I’d be out again.  Nobody helped and Connie never relented.  A university education and you can’t even count!  Sneering comments were whispered about me, angry orders yelled at me.  I remember going home one day and sitting in front of my mom, breaking down.  What do I do?  She had no answer.  So, I’d walk to work each morning feeling like I was going to throw up.  And I’d walk home every night filled with self-loathing, the un-balanced till repeating itself day after day.  It didn’t matter if I sold a record amount of RRSPs in a week.  The till – and Connie – mocked me.  Eventually, I started to believe what was said to me – I am dumb, I always make mistakes, I can’t do anything right.

30739809_10101334393303125_227797068150734848_nWhat saved me in that situation was a mentor.  Martha.  She and I would meet every week for coffee and conversation.  She’d teach me about life and relationships and the things that really mattered.  One day, I told her what was happening.  So, she gave me a tool:  Take a small agenda with me to work (this was before we had cell phones), write sayings that I could look at when the day got too much, and keep the agenda at my work station.  Some of my favourite scrawled mantras were – This too shall pass…You are loved…You are smart enough and strong enough.  Every time I was attacked, I’d go to my agenda and read those words.  The words gave me confidence, a little bit re-gained every day.  I began to stand up for myself, to take the hits and respond with calmness and confidence.  I got better at my job, it became harder for her to find flaws.  I still struggled with that damn till but I’d learned ways to succeed even in an area of obvious weakness.  In the end, I moved on to a job that was a better fit.  A new manager eventually joined the bank and cleaned house.  Connie and her gang of fearful followers were let go.

As a young adult, that experience could have shaped my life – my beliefs about who I was and what I was capable of.  What saved me was what I let myself think each day:  The conversations in my head about me and about my worth.

PC: David CheckelI went on for decades without ever having to deal with a situation like that again.  I grew more and more into someone I am very proud of, facing other obstacles and overcoming them with strength and grace.  Not that long ago, I was targeted again, different reasons, same tactics.  Luckily, I had skills to manage the attacks, borne from resilience and experience.  I knew that what people say to us and about us does not define us.  I refused to let what was being said about me become the story in my head.  And it all passed.  As bullying always does when we don’t give it power over us.  This too shall pass.

1309I have lived enough and learned enough to say – nobody  does great things without somebody opposing you.  And, this is important:  There is always a grain of truth in every lie that you are told.  That’s why the lie works.  Maybe you like to make sure that what you organize has the stamp of excellence:  To one, that is responsible leadership; to another, micro-management.  Perhaps you are single-mindedly competitive, able to block out everything for your goal:  To some, that is inspirational; to others, ruthless.  Maybe you are an emotional person:  For one, that is passion; for the other, rage. Every good thing is flawed, touched by imperfections.  That doesn’t make you bad or wrong.  It makes you human.

If you want to do great things, decide what your story will be.  Decide which story about yourself that you will believe.  Celebrate your gifts and acknowledge your flaws.  Always control the story in your head about who you are, and – if you can – surround yourself with at least one person who gets you.  Because we are all great.  We are our own amazing tale.  Even if nobody else sees it.  Yet.WCT sunset

Dedicated to Martha and Todd.

 

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