Catching Up (April 2018–March 2019)

One of my reasons for starting this blog was to get away from the yearly catchup posts I previously made on my professional blog, and to move to more frequent, shorter, less burdensome updates. But since I haven’t posted anything since I wrote about the Boston Marathon in April 2018, and it’s now almost a year later, another big catchup post is in order.

Joining UTTC Masters

In the fall of 2017, I taught a fourth-year seminar on Virginia Woolf. One day I shamelessly bragged about my decent finish in the Scotiabank Half Marathon (1:17). A little while later, one of my students emailed me to say that she was a varsity runner, and to ask if I’d heard of the UTTC Masters group.

I hadn’t. As it turns out, they’re a group of very competitive runners over 35 years of age. The head coach of the distance group is Paul Osland, a 1988 Olympian and multiple masters world champion. I was definitely intrigued, but I was in the middle of training for the Boston marathon, and I had decided to follow the Hansons Marathon Method plan, so I decided not to think much about it until I finished Boston.

Which I did. I wasn’t particularly destroyed after Boston, since I decided not to push myself too hard in the ridiculous 2018 weather conditions. But I still needed a bit of time off. I mostly spent that time in Italy, where I was on vacation and writing some travel articles. I only did a bit of running, mostly because I had a hard time finding good running routes in places like Ischia, where the roads were hilly, busy, and without sidewalks. By the time I got back home, I was dying to get back into it, and decided to try out the UTTC Masters.

Conveniently, they were training that summer at the Central Tech track, only about a kilometer from my house. They were immediately welcoming. They showed me the ropes (I’d never run on a track in my life!) and gently got a gauge on my fitness. The whole thing was informal and relaxed. Every week, I’d get a set of workouts from Paul in my inbox. These were arranged according to goal race, and specific intervals distances and speeds for Monday and Thursday nights at the track. I wasn’t training for anything in particular, but I had a vague idea of running the Scotia marathon in September, so I followed the 10K–Marathon plan (quite a range! — the others were 400-800, 800–1500, and 1500–5K).

The workouts were structured in a way I didn’t really understand, like 1200m at 3K pace, or 200m at 800m pace. I’d never run a 3K or an 800m, so I had no idea what these paces were! Thanks to the McMillan Running Calculator, though, I was able to get estimates based on my half marathon time, and eventually figured things out. At first, the faster paces felt really awkward, like my legs couldn’t bend in such a way as to allow me to move that fast. But eventually I started getting the hang of it.

The informality of the group extended to the approach to coaching. I never sat down with Paul, Mike, or Walter — the coaches — to discuss my plans, and they never gave me much explicit feedback. If I asked questions about training, goals, or injuries, they’d offer their advice. I was as much “coached” by fellow members, many of whom are vastly experienced, as by the official coaches. I got the bulk of my advice and feedback from Jay, who quickly became a good friend. In a more British way (there is a sizable British continent in the group), Simon would occasionally offer subtly veiled feedback, even praise. At one point, after I ran a 400m repetition late in a workout in 66 seconds after running the previous ones in 72 or 74, Simon said, “You’ve been sandbagging me this whole time! You’re no marathon runner — you’ve got speed!” I took note.

Over the summer, I did very little racing. I ran an MEC 10K in June in 33:28, which sounds pretty good until you hear that the course was badly mismeasured, more like 9.4 than 10km, and so my time added up to more like 35:30 or so. I felt totally dead at the end of the race, which was good and bad: good because I usually hold back too much, and it’s nice to really push; bad because I’d been hoping to be below 35:00.

I didn’t race in July or August — I just kept up my twice-weekly runs with the UTTC Masters. I would end most of these workouts with my ears popping, a weird quirk of my body that indicates I’ve pushed myself hard. By the start of September, when most of my club mates were off to Malaga for the Masters World Championships, I’d decided to downgrade to the Scotia Half-Marathon once again, and it was time to start dedicated training.

Canadian 5K Road Race Championships

Before that, though, I wanted to test the fitness I’d gained in my summer with the UTTC Masters, so I signed up for the Yorkville 5K, which doubles as the Canadian 5K Road Race National Championships. My previous PR for a 5K was 17:30. I didn’t want to set any strict goals for this one — I just wanted to go out and push. It helped that my GPS was totally useless on Bay Street, because of the all the tall buildings, and that the course is really uneven and hard to pace, with the first half downhill and the second half uphill. But I do remember passing the 2km sign and seeing that my watch had me at 6:05, and thinking, “Well, this is going to go really well or really badly.”

Smile or grimace? Finishing strong on my way to a national silver medal.

Well, it turned out really well. I finished in 16:23, a huge PR — and I got second in my age group. That made me a national silver medalist. Not a bad way to cap off a summer with the UTTC Masters.

The Scotiabank Half Marathon

I had an incredibly busy fall at work, especially since I was teaching my first ever graduate class, a somewhat overwhelming experience. But I still made time to follow the grueling Hansons Half Marathon plan, which calls for tons of half-marathon pace running, lots of threshold intervals, and plenty of long runs. It didn’t help that I spent the days before the race in Montreal at a busy and important conference — or that I had to take a 5-hour train ride the day before the race. But I went in to the race feeling really strong.

The weather was perfect for me: cold and overcast with no rain. Boston had taught me exactly how to approach cold conditions. I got a full sweatsuit from a thrift store, jogged in it to the start, and abandoned it right before the gun. The only hiccup was my stomach — I had to make a bathroom break en route (thankfully a hospital on University had a bathroom I could use) and I had a feeling it didn’t totally resolve things.

You know you’re doing well if you can finish with Natasha Wodak!

It’s been many months now, so I don’t recall the race all that clearly now — but half-marathons, in my experience, go by really quickly anyway. I was trying to maintain a 3:35/km pace, and I did that pretty easily. I felt strong and smooth. A few friends came out to cheer me on at strategic points, and that really helped. At one point, I passed Sasha Gollish and chatted with her for a bit (she explained that she wasn’t really racing that day, because of her difficult Berlin Marathon). The main memory I have of the main part of the race was running next to Dan Way through water stations I don’t know him personally, but know him from Strava and through friends). Every time someone offered him a drink (so, 10-20 people per water station), he would say, “No, but thank you!” Very, very polite. (I would later learn that he was just starting to hurt at the time I was running next to him, and he was running the full marathon, struggling and still with 30ish kilometers to go — but he was so nice!)

Everything was going really well until the last 5km, when the tummy troubles returned. I felt like I had a lot of energy left, but just couldn’t accelerate without causing distress. I finished the race in 1:15:21, two minutes better than the previous year. So a very good time — but I finished wondering if I might be capable of 1:13 or 1:12.

Cross Country Season

While I’d been training for my half-marathon, the UTTC Masters had been getting ready for Cross Country season — running hill repeats on training days, and even starting to race. After a short layoff, I jumped back into training with them. I was in really good shape from all the tempo and threshold training I’d been doing, which showed in workouts and drew a few typically British compliments from Simon and Coach Mike.

Nearing the finish like at the Sunnybrook 8K.

Exactly two weeks after the Scotia Half, I ran my first ever Cross Country race: the Sunnybrook 8K organized by the Ontario Masters Association. I had no idea what I was doing, and had literally never worn spikes before that day, but I had a total blast. I ended up running a smart race, letting the eventual winner go away and then running at the back of the chasing pack until passing everyone on the last climb and racing to a solid second place overall.

Two weeks later, my second cross country race was ACXC2019 — the Canadian Cross Country Nationals in Kingston. This felt like a big deal — everyone was taking it really seriously — and I wanted to race my best. Despite my lack of experience in the discipline (or in running generally) and despite the fact that I hadn’t really trained for it, I came in 6th overall in the Masters race, 2nd in my age group. Another national silver — very exciting! I’m really looking forward to cross country next season — it seems like my kind of thing, and I’m going to focus on it much more deliberately (no Scotia this year.)

Near the start of the ACXC2019 Masters race. I’m actually in second place here (look for the shadow!), but still… En route to my second national silver medal of 2018. Photo by UTTC teammate Doug Shaggy Smith.

In the weeks leading up to Kingston, I’d been doing some Saturday morning pace runs in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, with a group that includes noted sports journalist Alex Hutchinson, author of Endure a book I devoured in a day last fall. I ran with him much of the ACXC race, and he had some good advice for me on the cooldown afterward. He said I’d had too much left over at the end (my last km split was 3:17, well faster than my average pace). He said that you know you’re running the right pace when, at the halfway point, you’re not sure you’ll be able to finish. I definitely hadn’t felt that way; I’d been holding back.

Loaded down with race swag in Santa Monica (even the sunglasses were free). Note patriotic singlet.

A few weeks later, I was on vacation in Los Angeles and signed up for a 5K race, the Santa Monica–Venice Christmas Run. My idea was to put Alex’s advice into practice, and try to go out really hard and experience what it felt like to totally bonk. Alas, I couldn’t seem to force myself to do it. I ended up running consistent splits — and setting a new PB of 16:20, and coming in second overall.

Indoor Season

I was really looking forward to indoor season. It would be my first chance to actually race on a track, after all the practicing I’d been doing on them over the summer. My plan was to try out as many distances as possible — everything from the 800 to the 5000. The season turned out to be a bit of a disappointment in this respect, partly because I injured my calf during the weekend of a key meet (the result of my body not being used to training in spikes), and partly because another vacation to Los Angeles was terribly timed, getting in the way of two more meets.

But I did get three races in: two 3000s and a 1500.

The first was in January, at the OMA Mini Meet #1 at York University. I ran this one with Jay, and our plan was to share the pacing duties and to try for a 9:15, which is what my race calculators predicted I was capable of. This turned out to be very optimistic: I finished in 9:35, feeling pretty dead, and having been badly out-kicked in the last lap by Jay. Still, my first track race was behind me.

Working hard at my first ever track race. (I’m happy to say that I now have a Toronto Track singlet that fits, by the way. I also got a haircut.) Photo by Doug Shaggy Smith.

I got a second chance at the 3000 a month later at the Athletics Ontario Open Championships, also at York. This time I managed a 9:23, working so hard that I was barely conscious at the finish line. At least I didn’t have the feeling of not having pushed hard enough — but I was a little disappointed I wasn’t able to hit my predicted time. I won’t have a chance to improve that time until this summer; this was the last 3000 of the indoor season for me.

Five days later, I ran the 1500 at the Hal Brown Last Chance meet at the University of Toronto, my home track. This race was with a bunch of high school kids, and Simon sagely advised me to let them go out fast on the first lap and then just reel them in, one by one. That’s what I did, and it was extremely fun. I got all but one of them, and finished in a solid 4:25, feeling like I had a lot more in the tank. I enjoyed that race so much that I decided to make the 1500 my goal race for the outdoor season.

Looking forward

That pretty much catches us up. Since Hal Brown, my teammates have all been training for the World Indoor Masters Championships in Poland (where they are all right now, as I write this). I’ve been joining them for their hard workouts, and also obsessively preparing for the outdoor season — upping my mileage, reading books, scheming like mad… and starting this blog. I’ll explain all that stuff in separate posts in the next little while.

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