Monday evening I am feeling a bit cooped up and grumpy, but also filled with inertia. I don’t want to go outside. I’m not sure what I want to do. Maybe this is the way babies feel when they’re just crying and don’t need a new diaper, don’t want a bottle, aren’t wanting to go to bed. They just feel crappy. Or perhaps this is the way cats feel when they’re always on the wrong side of a door.
I push myself to go outside anyway and prescribe myself “the longest run of 2020” to treat my crappy mood. When I get outside an icy wind is blowing. I stand next to one of our building’s exhaust vents to get a little warm air while I wait for my GPS watch to get its signal and look around the neighbourhood. A few people are out, most not wearing masks but maintaining excellent distance. They’re all wearing down jackets, hats, gloves, scarves and boots. I’m wearing a pair of leggings, shorts, a long sleeve shirt and a windbreaker. I know this is enough, having taken the advice of “Dress for how you’ll feel 20 minutes in to your exercise” to heart. But for now I’m shivering. And I’m still grumpy.
My watch beeps, telling me it has enough of a GPS signal to track my run and I am relieved to be able to start, first with a brisk walk, and then five minutes later with a full run. It feels good to be out and I decide I’m going to head toward what I think of as the city proper. Toronto is a huge city land-wise, but only certain parts have lots of tall buildings close together, a subway beneath them and bigger crowds (when it’s not a pandemic anyway) and so I head south.
I like cycling because it means I can experience the city at a more human pace, noticing sights, sounds, and smells. Running is even slower and so even though I have biked this stretch of road dozens of times, I find not just a single, but double sized Little Free Library.
I’m happy to see it but I don’t browse too long. I’m finally warm and the longer I stay still, the more likely I am to get cold again. And what if I actually found a book? Would I carry it around for the rest of the run?
I reach the Bloor Viaduct and feel a little excited. This is the farthest from home I’ve run in at least four years. As I cross the bridge, I feel a strong cold wind blowing and realize I didn’t bring my wallet. If I were to get injured or too cold, I have no transit pass, I’d have to make due. This is a habit I have on purpose to discourage laziness but on a cold and windy night it seems like less of a good idea.
Finally I am closing in on my destination. The normally busy area round Yonge and Bloor is nearly empty. A couple of guys stand on a corner smoking and drinking coffee from large Tim Hortons cups but otherwise there are few people. The holiday lighting is still up and it makes it seem a little less bleak.
A topic that has been in my mind a lot this year has been the idea of pushing myself further rather than coming up with reasons to do less. I’ve been known to cut a workout short because “Oh, that’s close enough – I’m really tired and I should probably start dinner.” The antidote to that has been to do the opposite on random occasions. So today, instead of just going straight to my destination of Yonge and Bloor, when I get to Church Street I surprise myself by turning right and adding a small loop and an extra kilometre to the run. Take that, lazy Todd!
As I run on Church street I see a woman running on the opposite side of the street. I feel such kinship with her – we’re two runners out in the cold at the same time – that I almost wave and then realize I have no idea who this person is and waving would be weird. Still, the power of shared experience is really interesting.
I pass the Toronto Reference Library and look through the windows. Normally at this time of year, this place would be bustling with patrons, perhaps some special guests doing presentations, people taking refuge from the cold, but today I can only see a room filled with boxes labeled as “holds”. Our libraries are open still, but only for curbside pickup of holds ordered online.
I reach Yonge and Bloor and turn back east. This will now, for sure, be at least a couple of kilometres longer than my longest run of 2020. The area around Yonge and Bloor may be mostly empty save for people out walking their dogs or having a smoke when they’re not allowed to inside, but it still looks lovely.
As I head toward home I notice an annoying twinge on my right foot and the back of my left knee. I adjust my stride to be a little shorter and try to land a bit more lightly. I still have about 8 kilometres (5 miles) left to go.
A couple of blocks later I stop to stretch and see if I can make the pain in my legs go away. It seems to help a little bit though my foot still is hurting. While I’m stopped I see the shadows of gravestones of St. James Cemetery behind a fence. It looks particularly eerie and I go to get a photo.
After taking the photo, I turn back toward the road, preparing to leave. As I turn, I see a tent pitched in the shadow of the cemetery fence. It is windy and below freezing and someone is going to be spending the night here even as just a five minute stop has brought a chill on.
I cross back over the Bloor Viaduct, stopping to stretch again. I’ve still got 5 kilometres to go and the pain in my foot and knee is getting worse. I take a break on the other side of the bridge and click a photo of the beautiful city centre I just left behind.
That’s it, time to run again. I pass an empty Mexican restaurant and smiling Day of the Dead skeletons watch me pass.
Back north I go, past the Little Free Library, and then it hurts too much so I switch back to walking. It’s a tough balance, though. Running keeps me warm and gets me home faster but it hurts, walking doesn’t hurt but eventually gets cold so I run again. As I favor my left more to spare my right foot, the back of my left knee decides to air its grievances. I listen to them and walk again. And on it goes cycling like this.
I turn off the main road and on to a residential shortcut. I see a road that dead-ends over the ravine I often ride and run in and despite being in pain, I run an extra block down to the end to appreciate the view. On the right I can see our building and it looks so far away. I’ve had enough of a break, I think I can run again. A loud, driving heavy metal song comes up in my running mix and I decide that it’s got the right cadence and should induce just the right amount of adrenaline to flow. I put it on repeat.
I make it back to the last bridge before my neighbourhood and remember bits from many of the books on endurance sports in which the author talks about pushing through pain and tears to get to a goal. As I start across the long bridge, a bus that goes directly to my doorstep passes me. I ask myself if I would take it if I had my wallet and am surprised to find the answer is “no”. I think that too often I come face to face with difficulty or discomfort, turn away or give up. Today this is not going to happen. I’ve got almost 2 kilometres (1 mile) to go and I decide that I am going to run the entire length of the bridge. There will be no breaks for walking until I am on the other side. 500 metres, 1,640 feet.
I’m no longer just battling my lazy self, I’m battling physical limits. I’m battling the idea that I’m entitled to comfort and achieving my goals. But sometimes that just isn’t true. Most of the time you get to choose one.
It’s one of the hardest runs I’ve done. In the past I’ve felt limited by my heart and lungs. I want to go faster but am winded. Today my legs are the limit.
Two thirds of the way across the bridge I am surprised when my right foot almost gives way underneath me and I stumble. It might be cold walking but it will be even colder sitting on the side of the road unable to walk. The next three steps I take hurt a bit but are solid and I keep running all the way to the end of bridge and slow back down.
The temperature is dropping and now my shirt is sweaty underneath my jacket. I know this because when I turn right onto our road and the wind hits me it feels like I’ve opened a freezer. I walk a bit further and then set a new goal: I will run to the next stoplight. I pick up the pace and start to feel warm again. The light turns red before I get there and I’m happy for the break, taking the opportunity to stretch a bit more.
Just a few hundred metres ahead is where I typically start my cooldown – where I would normally start walking at the end of any run in this direction. I resolve that I’m going to finish strong and run until that point. The light turns green and I run until the end and then walk the rest of the way.
Inside I am extra careful not only to stretch well but use a foam roller on my IT bands behind my knees where I often have pain after a too-intense run. Once that’s done I make my way to the couch and relax. I may have suffered for it but I did get my longest run in: 15.1 km / 9.4 miles. I am pleased and the pain is mostly forgotten.
The pain is forgotten until the next day. My foam rolling has paid off and I have next to zero knee pain. The tendons in my right foot are, even two days later, quite unhappy. So for the time being I’m staying off my feet except when necessary. It’s definitely improving and I expect to be doing fine in the new year.
And in the end it was all for good. I learned a few good lessons. Of course I learned that running too far is not a great idea. And related to this I learned that running on pavement this much is also not so great. My next-longest run was only a couple kilometres less than this but had only half the distance or so on pavement.
But I also learned an object lesson in the need for persistence in chasing one’s goals and that we can’t reach our stretch goals without extraordinary effort. In my case it was in the form of pushing through pain and mental barriers to it, but it could just as easily have been effort in the form of additional slow, steady, and regimented training. In the end, there is no scenario in which I can both be a person who runs 15 kilometres and a person who doesn’t make any effort to get there. And this applies to whatever goal I have ever had or will have. That lesson is definitely worth a bit of pain.