Thursday, 9 December 2010

And miles to go before I sleep...

Looking out of the 5 a.m. window this morning, I wondered if anyone else has the same fear and trepidation that I have before a winter run.

My routine is pretty simple. I check the weather channel and cross check it with the network news and do a triple verification on a web weather site the night before. If the temperature is supposed to be in the descent range, start thinking about going for a run in the pitch black of a Saskatchewan winter morning. It is of course understood that December 9th is not yet winter.

The whole process is much akin to using the entrails of a chicken to prognosticate and plan the next day's outdoor exercise, or whether (no pun intended), there will be any at all. My threshold for a solo run in the dark, when everybody is still sleeping is -20c. Now the wind often blows here, so -20c is the perceived temperature. This morning, for instance, it was -6c, but with a windchill of -19c (37km/hr winds). I have come to understand that running alone, in the dark at temperatures below that is just stupid.

Now I have been stupid in the past. For instance running the Hypothermic Half marathon in -36c one year and then compounding the stooopid factor by running it again the subsequent year when it was -47c with windchill. Don't get me wrong. It can be done. And other than the panic when I couldn't get my frozen balaclava to work or my glove back on after trying to scrape some frozen gel into my mouth, it was somewhat generally, mostly unpleasant. But think of the bragging rights!

I still remember, during one training run that was longer than three hours, a wise fellow runner wondered "why are we doing this, we aren't training to be flippin' polar bears!"

But I do it because I need to run. Not run inside, but be outside. Moving. Breathing...and being just a little scared of what could happen if I stop.

Returning to my pre-run routine. After checking all the weather information sources, and noting that every one of them offers different data, I decide yes/no based on temperature. If it is a go, I lay out clothing appropriate to the expected temperature. It is all about layers. Then I sleep. In the pre-run eerie darkness, I again check the temperature. Sticking my face out the door is pretty useless because, at this time of year, the wind is more relevant than the absolute temperature. So I look out the window at the evergreens and the chimneys.

When I finally make the decision to run...I face a brief moment of fear. Am I dressed appropriately? What happens if I slip. What happens if I can't run and I'm sweaty? In the five or so years I've been doing this, I have only turned back home once. That was due to so much ice that I couldn't make it more than half a block without slipping.

Still, the fear is there. I never feel this fear in the fall or summer or spring. What if I'm too hot? Well, I can peel off a layer. I can do that every other season. Not now. My layers are at the bare minimum to provide warmth, but limit moisture as I sweat more than the average industrial condenser.

I've often wondered why it is that my heart rate always races the first 5 minutes of the run. Maybe I'm having an anxiety attack over the fear of the unknown.

Still. At 5 a.m. the sparkling white darkness invites me, like the song of sirens into a strangely familiar realm to which I must return.

Within half a block from my house I'm fine, the panic subsides and is replaced by the annoyance of aching joints and muscles. That too subsides by the time I'm on the trail. From there, I find my stride and complete the run I chose to do...and never again consider the cold or the wind or the snow. 

But I dare not stop. 
...Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest mornings of the year...

Friday, 3 December 2010

Becoming the lyric

I’ve taken to listening to podcasts. Not the CBC or NPR sorts where lofty ideas are floated. My auricular  peccadilloes are a little less grandiose, yet so much more expansive. 

I do things to music. I have always done things to music. It composes, not so much the soundtrack of my life, but the libretto of my essence.  Long before the Walkman existed, I remember truckin’ (yeah truckin’!) around town with a portable mono cassette/radio in a small canvas purse-thing and a pair of Sennheiser earphones rescued from my brother’s garbage bin after Rusty, the family dog had chewed them within an inch of their phono 1/4 inch plug.  I still remember the odd looks I got on the ski slope as I got of the chair lift with this contraption strapped on to me like a man purse with brain scan attachment.

A few years later. Sony did introduce it’s revolutionary Walkman. This was truly revolutionary. Even though I had clearly invented the device a number of years earlier, Sony had managed to miniaturize a cassette player and create the first viable portable listening device. The build-up to my crescendo to a onanistic auralgasm through the use of increasingly miniaturized devices parallels a number of narratives of my life. But this isn't the place for it. Suffice it to say that sometime between Kate Bush and R.E.M. I made the leap from portable CD player to MP3.

Since that time I have never been too far from music. I pride myself on having perfect pitch...well, being able to distinguish and occasionally hit any note I hear. This isn't to say that I can sing. My family makes it all too clear that my singing is closer to Leonard Cohen than to Bon Jovi. That's fine. When I sing now, it is often inside my head or outside - with nothing but the asphalt disappearing beneath my clincher wheels. Or on anotherwise empty running trail. Singing out loud while swimming, on the other hand, has proven to be a little problematic -- more from a breathing point of view, than anything else. 

Sometimes, with earbuds connecting me to my little musical stash, I can reach the right note and put the melody together and find my voice. When I am in key, and I know the lyrics it becomes a little pocket of perfection. I can no longer hear the song. Just myself. When I'm in tune everything plays out according to a song sheet that was long ago written. With the right tune, all the training and effort coalesce into a forward momentum that releases endorphins that feel like a peaty whisky entering my blood stream. 

Podcasts extend this euphoric stream of consciousness into multi-hour sessions that would make a transcendental yogi blush. 

I know there are many out there that advocate listening to your own body instead of music when doing endurance training. Sure...maybe for some. But the delicious secret that isn't really talked about is that the music never leaves you. Long after the batteries have run out. Or during the race when you are forbidden from using earphones, your personal soundtrack continues beats on in harmony with your heart.

During Ironman Canada 2010, I had some precious tunes running through my head as I swam, biked and ran through the Okanagan. They cheered me, sped me up, salved my pain and ultimately reveled in the triumph of my personal best time. Apparently there was music all along the course. I never heard it.

To become the endurance athlete that I'm trying to be, I have learned the I first must become the lyric to the soundtrack of my life. Without it, everything goes out of sync and all around me cacophony echoes.

This is the coda. And the overture.