Running With: Mental Strategies to Run Stronger

First published in Canadian Running, September 2012

By Margaret Webb

It did not take long for pre-race enthusiasm to ratchet up to high anxiety. We had already accomplished what we thought was the hardest part of the Boston Marathon — qualifying under the tough new standards for 2012. So what was there to sweat, other than the 1,200 training kilometres to get to the start line? Yet when we met for dinner to discuss race goals, our hearts started pounding like we were already pushing up Heart Break Hill.

Expectations began piling on top of expectations. The Beaners, as we came to call our training foursome, thought personal bests were within reach. At the very least, we wanted to requalify for Boston at Boston, something fewer than 40 percent of racers do. And two Beaners were celebrating 50th birthdays so we wanted to run fast and happy. Remembering the pain and occasional misery of past marathons, running happy seemed the biggest challenge of all.

During a recent half, I spent the last five kilometres mentally lashing myself for falling short of my time goal, even as I grunted out a personal best. The abuse I’d heaped on myself had left me deeply shaken, and I was determined not to let my fierce inner critic ruin the racing highlight of my life. Indeed, after another bottle of wine, we all determined to be at our very best at Boston, in every possible way.

“I think we’re going to need therapy,” pronounced Phyllis Berck, 60, the most experienced runner amongst us 50 somethings. “I’ve been in rough spots in races before, and I wanted some inner resources to help me through.” Well connected to athletics since working on the organizing committee for the Calgary Winter Olympics, she drew on her contacts to make that happen.

Two months later, 75 members of our Runner’s Shop club in Toronto packed a nearby pub to hear Peter Jensen, one of Canada’s leading sports psychologists, address what many recreational runners neglect: the mental side of preparing for a race. Jensen, who has coached some 60 Olympic medalists as well as executives at Fortune 500 companies, says mental conditioning can not only make the difference between a great and subpar performance but also increase enjoyment of running and even help athletes excel in other areas of life. “We know physical energy is deeply connected to what the mind is thinking, yet we don’t train the mind as we train the body, to unpack energy.”

A life-long runner, Jensen had to dig deep into his own bag of tricks to get back to his sport after a battle with throat cancer. And though we did not know it then, The Beaners, who became even better friends after adding “group sports therapy” to our training runs, would rely heavily on mental conditioning to face the blistering heat of the now infamous “water station to water station” Boston Marathon that 4100 runners opted out of, sent 260 runners to area hospitals for treatment and had 2,500 seeking medical treatment for heat exhaustion and dehydration on site, including two Beaners (one received two IV bags and the other was packed on ice like a fish – her words).

But things could have been worse. The mental conditioning we did worked, though the emphasis is on “work” because, while Jensen’s strategies may sound easy and maybe even obvious, they don’t work unless you practice them.

Visioneering: Imagine the future by setting clear goals and developing a realistic plan to achieve it.

Most long-distance runners are pretty good at this. We follow training plans to prepare for specific races or join clinics to get faster. After spilling our guts about our fears — of pain, falling short of goals, post-race let down — The Beaners determined to become mentally stronger and happier runners. And that led us to seek out Jensen. “You have to set a specific, realistic goal or you can’t see what comes into your world, to help you,” says Jensen. “It might be an article, a course, whatever. When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

Imaging: Develop positive images for each stage of the race and practice them in training.

“Your body speaks imagery, not English,” says Jensen. “As far as the subconscious is concerned, the imagery playing in your mind is real.”

Long-distance runners must build up a slide-show of imagery to endure the sport’s unique challenges: staying focused for hours and managing the fatigue curve. Jensen says runners need imagery and a corresponding mood word to conjure up that positive imagery to help them through each stage of the race: conserving energy at the beginning, tackling hills, focusing on technical aspects, pushing through fatigue and unpacking energy for the finish kick. “You can’t have a single focus. The marathon is too long. The mind gets bored.”

He urged us to tap into the “huge running IQ” of our club to discuss what imagery we found helpful. “Asking others what they do is so obvious it’s ridiculous,” recalls Phyllis, “but very useful.” And fascinating. Winter training miles flew by while picking each other’s brains on that one. Turns out, conjuring up sexual imagery and chasing a great pair of legs are common strategies for pushing through fatigue. To get up hills, runners admitted to being carried by eagles and horses, pulled by T-bars and winches, and pushed by running heroes and mentors.

A crucial part of Beaner Danielle Beausoleil’s pre-race preparation is imagining herself running tall and strong at the 20 mile mark, “when the marathon begins,” and also sprinting the last 400 metres. She works on the imagery and corresponding paces during training runs so that when she hits those marks in a race, the imagery — and energy — “switches on.”

For the third Beaner in our group, Mary Speck, talking about imagery with fellow runners filled up her imagery bank. “You have these little things of your own that are helpful, but sometimes they stop working. Being a skier, the image of being pulled up a hill by a t-bar really spoke to me. It can be embarrassing talking about this stuff, but you find others are thinking about it. When you get tired, the worse aspects of self come out. That’s helpful during a race. Using imagery made me a mentally stronger and happier runner.”

Energy Management and Active Awareness: Check your altitude and your attitude to find the appropriate energy level and focus on being present, before and during the race.

Energy management, says Jensen, is usually about controlling pre-competition jitters. “It’s almost always trying to bring your energy down, but there are certain days when you have to get more engaged and move up a level, maybe to put more effort into a training session or a hard set of hills.”

Active Awareness, “the foundation of it all,” is “about noticing your experience at the body level (what’s it going through), at an emotional level (how are you feeling), and the mind level (what you are thinking about and how you are thinking about it).”

If either energy or mental focus drifts out of an optimal zone, runners can readjust with centering techniques — deep breathing, relaxing the shoulders, positive imaging, reviewing goals.

Jensen helped hurdler Sarah Wells readjust her “altitude” as she struggled back from injuries to try to qualify for the London Olympics with an incredible PB. In the months leading up to the games, Wells had to hit a number of time standards. Jensen says she was focusing on “externalities” rather than her actual performance. “It was throwing off her arousal level, big time.” For recreational runners, worrying about work or family problems instead of being in the moment of training or racing can also zap energy. To help Wells refocus her energy, Jensen jotted that day’s date on the bottom left corner of a piece of paper and the date of the Olympic trials in the top right hand corner then connected the two with a straight upward line. “I said, none of that external stuff matters. You have 40 days to prepare for your race. Imagine improving a quarter percent a day, how fast you’ll be. In her first race, she blew away the standard and PBed.”

Hurdler David Hemery told Jensen about making a similar adjustment to attitude just before setting a new world record in the1968 Olympics in Mexico City. While pulling on his cleats, the British athlete saw an American runner blast past him and caught himself thinking, “wow, he’s fast.” Says Jensen: “David realized that wasn’t a productive thought an hour before he had to perform, so he thought back to a time when he felt fast. That was when he was recovering from injury and running in water. So David took off his cleats and ran bare feet on the wet grass on the infield, to relive that positive thought. That’s noticing how he was thinking in the moment —is this helpful or not? — but in a relaxed way. He was taking care of business.”

Jensen recommends mentally preparing for a race two weeks ahead, by reviewing goals and training logs to “remind yourself you’ve done the training, you’re prepared” and check anxious thinking with positive imagery. “Runners can get caught up giving hills or competitors or the race too much respect, then anxiety and negative thoughts creep in, and it’s like trying to row a boat with a hole in it and water’s gushing in.”

During training, the Beaners practiced “active awareness” or what we called “running in the moment,” especially during a brutally hilly half marathon to prepare for Boston’s notorious Newton Hills. Danielle describes the state as “having a clear mind, and the body and mind being synchronized. It’s a level of awareness that makes you extremely free. I’m not thinking about the big goal, just my body moving in the moment. I’m really enjoying the moment. It’s a powerful way to be.” But to achieve that, she laughs, you have to practice it. The day before that race, she flew home from vacation and didn’t prepare mentally. “I failed completely at running in the moment. I was thinking about the next hill, the next loop, and I suffered the whole way. I was more sore after that race than after my first marathon.”

My goal was to enjoy being the moment. I focused on the ease of my turn overs, the wind on my face, the stunning winter scenery, the camaraderie of racers. I flew up wickedly steep hills, carried by eagles and horses, imagined myself a Crazy Canuck skiing the down hills and thrilled on the speed. I had never enjoyed a race more, until the abrupt uphill finish: I had no positive imagery for that. Rather, I imagined struggling on the hill and that’s exactly what happened.

But instead of beating myself up for that mental lapse, I determined to learn from it.

Perspective: Define what success means to you — and time should not be the sole definition.

“Getting a healthy and realistic perspective on a race,” says Jensen, “is akin to how a friend might advise you, and that’s what you give to yourself.”

He recommends defining success by other measures beyond time. Think about why you run — health, enjoyment, thrill of competing? Determine things to work on in a race —  sticking to strategy, using imagery, enjoying the experience, giving yourself positive self talk.

As for time goals, he suggests having three — a “bare minimum” you can be satisfied with, one that’s “good enough” and an “oh-my-god.” But using only time to measure success will ultimately lead to disappointment. “Ten minutes after a race, you’re always going to think you could have run faster.”

The Beaners worked hard to get a “healthy” perspective leading up to Boston. But, if anything, the race had become even bigger in our minds. We had pushed each other hard in training and supported each other as intensely. Barely a day went by without a flurry of email exchanges to check in on tight hamstrings or shore up fragile confidence. We had done group sports therapy together! We were primed, physically and mentally, to have the races of our lives.

And then we arrived to that withering dangerous heat wave. Race organizers urged runners to drop out by guaranteeing them a spot in 2013 and cautioned those still determined to race not to race — it was not a day for time goals.

Mentally recalibrating was not easy. Danielle says she let go her goal of requalifying “intellectually, but not emotionally. I crossed the start line not knowing why I was there. If not for time, why was I racing? I suffered immensely those first 7 kilometres. All these bad thoughts came in. Then Phyllis told me, there’s 35 k left. That’s a training run. We can do that. After that, not one negative thought came in. I redefined success and it was a lovely race.”

Mary tried a requalifying pace for five kilometres before adjusting her perspective. “If you only use time and you can’t meet that pace, then you’ve failed before you even finish. If I couldn’t requalify, what did I care about time at all?” She shifted her focus to enjoying the experience and stopped to wait for us.

Phyllis and I had less trouble letting go of time. Two weeks before the race, I wrote out ten measures of success — time not among them. Even before the race, I could put check marks beside most — got in best shape of my life; learned to become own best friend, to keep me running happy, hopefully, for life; forged fantastic running friendships. And a key goal was to soak up every second of my first Boston, something best done at a more relaxed pace. And as Phyllis pointed out, the heat wave delivered a beautiful opportunity: to set aside individual time goals and run as we had trained, as a team.

Searing hot as it was, I glided along with my running pals, chatting with other racers, high-fiving Wellesley College gals, even cheering and high-fiving the amazing fans who cooled us down with ice cubes, water hoses and spray guns.

By Heart Break hill, I realized I had poured too much energy into reveling in the circus-like hoopla. I jammed ice cubes into my cap, but could not feel them against my head. I could not keep liquids down, and my calves were cramping so bad I feared pitching forward on my face. Then my dream of the Beaners finishing together fell apart as Phyllis and Danielle held pace and pulled ahead.

Cue dark thoughts but I stopped them. Instead, I thought back to my measures of success and determined to run with gratitude in my heart, for qualifying and running Boston on my 50th. I got to the top of Heart Break Hill, where Mary was celebrating her 50th by downing a shot of beer handed to her by a fan. Though she had energy left for a decent finish, her new goal was to bring me home, and I was truly grateful for that.

Phyllis and Danielle finished seven minutes ahead and were whisked into medical tents to be packed in ice bags and administered IVs. Over the final miles, Mary and I passed runners who had started well ahead of us, in the first and second waves, but had been reduced to a staggering walk or had collapsed, while we jogged haltingly, triumphantly, to our slowest ever marathon finish.

Mary Speck, Danielle Beausoleil, Phyllis Berck and me


Running With — Canada’s Olympic Poet, Priscila Uppal

I hardly recognize professor and writer Priscila Uppal when we meet for a run just a few days before she jetted to London to compete in her very own endurance performance event: Pumping out two poems a day covering Olympic & Paralympic action.

Dr. Up, as her writing pals call her for her PhD in poetry and upbeat personality, jogs into Toronto’s Winston Churchill Park looking like a rock star on her way to yoga. Her long hair is died Canadian-flag red and she wears hot pink sports shades with a funky running skort over tan running legs that are nearly as long as her list of accomplishments — two novels, 9 books of poetry, 5 anthologies, her first play being workshopped, professor of English and Humanities, all by the age of 38.

That Priscila looks smashingly glamorous in running gear shouldn’t surprise me. This is a woman, after all, who has been wearing capes, grand operatic hats and hair plumage to grungy Toronto literary events since long before we got fascinated with Kate Middleton’s fascinators. And she is just as likely to arrive at a friend’s book launch with a massive bouquet of flowers for the writer — big-hearted generosity is yet another way Priscila brings drama to an occasion.

Creating her position as Olympic poet in residence to the Canadian Athletes Now Fund (CAN Fund is a charity that raises money for elite athletes) is yet another luminous act of munificence. She invented the role for Canada’s Winter Games in Vancouver and is reprising it for London. Not only is she elegizing athletic achievement and drawing vastly greater sporting audiences to the near empty stadium of Canadian poetry, she donates all royalties of her cross-pollinating efforts to CanFund. Her collection about Canada’s winter Olympics, Winter Sports: Poems, and her London poems are available on that site — and nothing has made me laugh harder that her rhapsodizing about the sex life of snowboarders and curlers getting their rocks off.

To do all this good work, she pays her own way to the Games as well as purchasing her own tickets to events. When I suggest she might merit just a little support from the Olympics – as in a media pass for gadsakes – she brushes it off. “Swimmers train their whole life for the Olympics and they get only one ticket to their event – so they have to choose which parent to give it to. It’s tough.” Plus, she says, covering the Games from the vantage point of fans in the stands and also the streets gives her a more intimate perspective.

As we float along a trail that winds through one of Toronto’s western ravines, Priscila proves she has plenty of running heart too. The former high-school athlete (basketball, track, volleyball) drifted away from sports during her PhD, but she has been putting in 5 miles a day pretty much since taking up running in 2009. During that time, she’s dropped her 5k time from 27 minutes to 23. And though she trains for 5k and 10k races, last spring she entered the Niagara Falls Women’s half marathon on a last-minute whim. Without training for that distance, she finished in 1:47.26.1, just a minute off the persona best I set during a year I ran two marathons. Then again, her running coach and partner is former Pan-American champion race walker Ann Peel.

The more I hang out with Priscila the more I wonder if there’s anything this woman cannot do?

Actually, there is one thing she can’t do and that is call herself an athlete. “I have too much respect for what they do,” she says. “It’s like someone who writes in their spare time or dabbles in their journal calling themselves a writer.”

So let me paraphrase — Priscila reconnected with her sporty past when she became a professor and faced the horror of lecturing to 200 undergrads. She figured a way to get over her fear was to do something that terrified her even more, so she took up 3-metre and platform diving. Pretty gutsy considering she’s afraid of heights.

As we jog along in this brutally humid Toronto summer morning (making Priscila answer questions on the run is a great way to slow her down, um, so I can keep up), she tells me that she became a bit of an athletic flanneur, after she realized that diving had something to teach her about poetry. (See my story on Priscila in the Globe and Mail)

She took fencing lessons (which made her think of the strategies of essay writing), then figure skating (similar to drama) and has since fallen in love with running, “definitely an endurance sport like novel writing,” she laughs.

I think Priscila’s onto something. I took up training for a marathon, I thought, for perhaps the most bizarre of reasons – I wanted to write a novel and figured the marathon had something to teach me about long-distance writing. You don’t just wake up and run a marathon just as a completed novel doesn’t suddenly land on your lap. Both require careful planning, training, patience and confidence building as it takes months and even years of training/writing to get to the finish line of both.

But I also admit to Priscila that, as she did with diving, I also tackled the marathon because I was afraid of it. I hoped the fear of all those training miles would distract me from my greater fear of writing fiction. And it mostly did, perhaps because 90-kilometre running weeks keep me too exhausted for anxiety.

Since realizing the link between sports and creativity for herself, Priscila has organized conferences on sports and creativity and edited anthologies of sports stories. And she also tells her creative writing students at York University that being fit will help them become better writers.

That topic burns away a few kilometres of trail as she tells me how she works out solutions to writing problems during her runs. “I’ve now learned that my brain will solve things for me when I’m running. I get ideas all the time. During the first few kilometres, I frequently work out what I’m angry about, what’s frustrating me. I think very actively about that for the first 20 minutes, and then I go into a meditative state and solutions start to come up. Now I will start a run by actively thinking about what I need to find solutions to. And, of course, it calms the nerves.”

The Olympian poet has even put running to use solving her transit problems – a non driver, she now frequently gets in her five miles a day by running from her St. Clair-area home to downtown literary events, plays, meetings and even the opera. “People have learned that if they invite me to a party, I’ll likely be changing in their bathroom.” Luckily she has one awesome partner in Chris Doda, also a poet, who frequently takes the transit and packs along the capes and operatic hats for the wonder poet to change into.

But to gauge exactly how competitive Canada’s Olympic poet is, I ask if she ever tries to beat Chris as he takes the subway or streetcar to meet her? Priscila’s laugh comes out in a high-pitched gush. “Yes! And I usually win.”

Then Dr. Up, ever modest about her own sporty abilities, points out that this is grid-locked Toronto after all.



Radical Food Fun

First published in IN TORONTO Magazine:

I haven’t felt this giddy about the eating scene since the local food movement exploded nearly a decade ago. Why go out to restaurants that serve bland industrial slop when I can get picked-that-morning tastiness at my favourite city farmers’ markets? I’ve connected with local farmers to fill our freezer with “organic-plus-plus” meats — heritage, grass-fed, free-range — that shame factory-farmed meats and the chefs who serve them. Heck, the chickens we get from Lover’s Creek Farm are so free range I have to take care not to run over them when I pull into the lane for my order (along with the orders of a half dozen friends who are turning our Mini into a delivery truck).

Having grown up on a farm, I get the economics — if we don’t support our local farmers, we’ll lose them, and be condemned to suckle on the teat of big food and agribusinesses who reap profits from addicting eaters to cheap, high-fat/salt/sugar processed food. Our globalized industrial food system not only tastes bad, it’s killing us. You’ve heard about sky-rocketing obesity, cancers and diabetes. Consider why: When we eat something, we’re basically having sex with that food as well as everything that food has taken into its system. After all, we take those substances into our deepest bodily recesses where they, in turn, feed the reproductive processes of our cells and become part of us. Do you really want to be having sex with the likes of Monsanto and their genetically engineered soybean and corn seeds grown in chemically laced soils often fertilized with barely processed sewage sludge? Or meats pumped with antibiotics and growth hormones?

The only condom to shield you from that nastiness is to eat organic. (I wish I could claim credit for this you-are-the-food-you-have-sex-with idea, but it comes from esteemed University of Guelph professor of veterinary science, David Waltner-Toews, author of Food, Sex and Salmonella).

Over the past decade, the best Toronto chefs have come to realize that the ingredients they serve have to be at least as good as what savvy eaters are enjoying at home. Or why go out? Yet the monumental challenges — sourcing scarce supplies, forging new connections with local farmers and fishers, learning the politics, health implications and cooking techniques — can hamstring creativity. Menus often featured the work of the producer (rightly so) and the accountant (passing on increased costs) with little more than a side-serving of righteousness from the chef.

It was tasty and expensive and then it got boring.

But now we have a generation of chefs raised on the ethos of local food champs such as Jamie Kennedy. With the protocols and politics in place, these young upstarts are starting to strut their stuff. Impatient to flex their creative vision, they’re giving the finger to big investors, industrial food suppliers, show-off wine lists, white tablecloths, and the suits and ties, instead taking up power tools to bang together DIY hole-in-the-wall eateries in sometimes grotty pockets of town to serve real local food with sizzling style and tattooed attitude. At affordable prices. And people are packing the joints.

They recently gathered, these “New Radicals” as they’ve been dubbed, at the Terroir Symposium on local food in Toronto, to explore how to push farther into sustainable food frontiers — without losing the fun.

“[Chefs] have the power to make the earth and people healthy.”

One speaker, Barton Seaver, a Washington, DC, chef and author of For Cod and Country, called on chefs to take the lead in resetting expectations about food as desire — fetishizing the rare, the expensive, the insatiable appetite. “We face a crisis of scarcity,” he said. “Chefs [with their food choices] have the power to make people and the earth sick. So we have the power to make the earth and people healthy.” He urged restaurants to stop dishing off responsibility to diners to make ethical choices, pulling out the sustainable seafood charts and haranguing servers about whether the fish was raised or caught sustainably or swam in the pesticide swill of some factory farm. Instead, chefs should limit themselves to serving only sustainable options, then unleash their creativity to make those “limits” delicious. That way, we can all relax and get back to enjoying dinner.

Tama Matsouka Wong, author of Foraged Flavour, sees through the doom and gloom of scarcity to a future of more possibility. Indeed, she sees a delicious future in weeds. The lawyer-turned-food forager pointed out that our industrial food system has narrowed food choices to about 60 plants (the majority of our calories are supplied by just 12 industrial plants.) “Most modern health problems are not diseases,” she said, “but nutritional deficiencies.” Letting nature do its thing and collecting that bounty can expand our choices to the thousands and gives us the healthier and more diverse diet our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors enjoyed. Turning us into a nation of weed eaters is pretty far-fetched in the short term, but innovative chefs and foragers (who serve as their think tanks) can show us the way. And when some disease infects single-species corn or soybeans or those seeds unleash some genetically modified horror, we’ll be thanking the likes of farmer Mark Trealout  (Kawartha Ecological Growers) who uses downtime to gather wild greens as well as chefs at Buca and Langdon Hall near Cambridge who are showing us how to turn that strange bounty into exotic treats.

Toronto chef Doug McNish, author of Eat Raw, Eat Well, is one of the local young radicals dishing on the possibilities of a more plant-based future. The guy turned his body into a laboratory of radicalism and lost more than 100 pounds on an organic vegan diet (with a little exercise thrown in). Like many chefs, he started out cooking pub grub and watched his weight soar and health plummet. Now the 27-year-old promotes “kale as the new beef.” In minutes, he whipped up vegan kale crisps that tasted like the richest sour-cream-and-onion chips, proving that a raw vegan diet can be delicious and easy. “I want no chemicals in my body,” he said. “Most of our food is from agribusiness, grown by huge corporations. I want to support people doing the right thing and the food tastes better. [Raw, vegan, natural] is what food was for our ancestors.” It will soon be the food of the Über-rich too as the luxury Muskoka resort Taboo recently hired him as a consultant to inject a little raw into their menu.

But the most rad leader of the local food movement remains an old radical, Michael Stadtländer; a weekend trip out of the city to his Eigesninn Farm restaurant near Creemore and Collingwood is a foodie dream trip. The chef cooks for just 12 guests at a time, and he grows about 60 percent of the ingredients on his 100-acre farm, sourcing the rest from nearby farms. As Stadtländer says, when you eat here, “You are eating the land.” The restaurant has been named one of the 50 best in the world and is easily Canada’s most interesting. He recently opened a more affordable sister restaurant, Haisai, in nearby Singhampton. Worth a stop and a sleepover is the historic village of Creemore, home of Creemore Springs Brewery, the 100 Mile Store and several art galleries.

What I love most about these food radicals is that they’re no longer content just to source locally: They’re taking food politics beyond our palates, to the street. Stadtländer teamed up with chefs across Canada to start the Canadian Chefs Congress, which promotes education of local food systems. And last fall, again led by Stadtländer, some 70 Toronto-area chefs hosted Foodstock to protest a proposed mega quarry that would destroy 2,000 acres of prime farmland in Central Ontario and threaten the water supply of the entire region. Farmers wondered if anyone would show up on that brutally cold and rainy October day. But some 28,000 concerned eaters donned rubber boots and bussed it two hours to the hinterland to show their support. This fall, chefs and eaters will take the fight to the streets of Toronto with Soupstock. They’re fighting to protect the best farm land in Canada and also our food system from domination by transnational corporate food companies.

This may well be the food movement’s defining moment, its Stonewall. The shame is that the LGBT community has not joined with the “occupy food” forces in any numbers, which is odd as it fights for things queer folk hold dear: The right to decide what you put in your body and who puts it there.



Beast Meat with a twist. 96 Tecumseth St. (647) 352-6000.

The Bellevue A delirious diner experience. 61A Bellevue Ave. (647)

Buca Artisinal charcuterie, Italian style. 604 King St W. (416) 865-1600.

Cowbell Pioneer in the whole-animal movement. 1564 Queen St W. (416)

The Gabardine One of the only hip places in the financial district. 372 Bay St. (647) 352-3211.

Grand Electric Fantastic Mexican. 1330 Queen St W. (416) 627-3459.

Hopgood’s Foodliner East Coast fare updated. 325 Roncesvalles Ave. (416)

Keriwa Café Local, seasonal, aboriginal-inspired. 1690 Queen St W. (416)

Parts and Labour Hipster scene, stylish food. 1566 Queen St W. (416)

Raw Aura Organic Cuisine Familiar foods prepared in a novel way (nothing heated above 43C). 94 Lakeshore Rd E. Mississauga. (905) 891-2872.

Ruby Watchco Fresh and fantastic, like dining with a chic family, but dished up by TV’s Pitchin’ In star, chef Lynn Crawford. 730 Queen St E. East (416) 465-0100.

Yours Truly Prix-fixe fare inspired by availability. 229 Ossington Ave. (416) 533-2243.


Eigesninn Farm Michael Stadtländer’s original playpen; considered one of the best restos in the world. Private bookings only. (519) 922-3128.
No website.

Haisai Restaurant and Bakery Stadtländer’s whimsical new resto in town. 794079 Country Rd, RR2. Singhampton. (705) 445-2748.

100 Mile Store Local and organic produce. 176 Mill St. Creemore. (705)

50 Thoughts # 9: Celebrate by completing Boston Marathon in 87 (F) heat wave

I was certain the day would yield a personal best.

As we left the Hopkinton start line, the temperature hit 78 degrees, rose to 84 as we passed through the Newton Hills and screamed up to 87 degrees as we ran into Boston.

The Boston Keeners Beaners I had been training with all through the winter (Phyllis, Danielle, Mary) started out together, forming the “Boston Bus.” Mary had energy so scampered ahead, running with Joanne from Texas who lost 200 pounds (not from the start line that day; since she started running). Then Mary realized that she has a young daughter who’d like her mom to see her grow up so Mary reconvened with the Boston Bus at 6 k or so.

To survive the heat, we ran slower than even our training pace and I obnoxiously sang “XX number of bottles of beer on the wall” as we passed mile markers, knocking one down for every mile. The math got difficult to do after 10k, which suggested brain in need of cooling….

The crowds were absolutely awesome. Between official water breaks, fans were handing out water bottles and cups, glorious ice (I probably put about 3 dozen ice cubes in my sports bra over the course of the race and tucked another 3 dozen into my cap). Home owners along the route turned on lawn sprinklers, sprayed us with garden hoses. Kids had a blast shooting us with water guns. Crowds were screaming at the top of their lungs, cheering us on, yelling “go Canada” and even singing “oh Canada” as we passed – thanks to Danielle’s Canadian flag on her shirt.

Running easy in the heat, I was having an awesome time through that first half, cheering on the fans and waving like I was the frigging Queen of Canada. Managed to high five every Wellesley girl (well, almost) as we passed by them. My right arm was sore going up that hill. A few kilometres on, I even high fived a dog — it was very cute. But maybe I should have conserved that energy.

Because at the half, the awful Gatorade and heat were starting to wreak havoc. We could not keep enough liquid in our systems — struggling to drink at water stations but couldn’t take enough in as the inclination was to throw it all up.

The wheels started to come off the Boston Bus (or at least my wheels came off) with about 12 k to go. Danielle and Phyllis pulled ahead of me at Heartbreak Hill. I struggled to keep up but was starting to cramp — let me count the places. There were stomach cramps, the cramps in the calves that made me fairly afraid I might pitch forward and land on my face. I had to stop and walk to stretch those cramps out. I’d start running again and get maybe .25 k in and the cramping would start all over again.

Mary was scampering ahead of us, setting the pace, such as it was, like she was out for a Monday run on Patriot’s Day….impressive energy & stamina. She noticed me falling behind so like the sister-for-marathon-life she has become, she dropped back to run me in. (She turned 50 in January, me in April, so this is the way we celebrate — we didn’t get the memo about the Caribbean cruise). She really had way more in the tank and could have finished way faster, but she stuck by me and I’m so grateful because there’s nothing worse than being on the marathon course in a 87 degree wave when you feel like you’re either going to throw up, seize up, or die. But she claims I kept her alive by holding her back– or at least I kept her out of the medical tent.

We passed our fans — Bruce, Alan, Katherine, Nancy — with just under 2 k to go to the finish. They were out early enough to see the elites pass and watched the woman’s winner of last year’s Boston Marathon WALKING past them — it was that kinda day. They were very close to our B&B so were able to dodge back there for beers, cold drinks etc. and watch the marathon on TV in the AC then scamper back out to watch us. (They said they needed the break from the sun — PLEASE!)  It was pretty emotional for them — they were afraid for us…. They were tracking us on the Boston Marathon website so knew we were running “slow” (we called it running “smart” in the heat ) and coming along way late. Meanwhile, they had to see some wicked performances of runners stumbling, walking, looking about ready to keel over while they waited for us, wondering what shape we would be in.

I was so happy to see them — familiar faces to cheer us on and give us energy for those last brutal 2 k. I gave my partner Nancy a huge sweaty Gatorade-soaked hug, then pressed on.

Mary runs to finish line. Marg runs to fans.

I don’t remember a lot of the last mile except the streets were lined several rows deep with screaming fans who really understood how brutal the conditions were. Mary said we passed  waves of faster runners who had started before us but were just done in by the heat and struggling to stay on their feet to finish. The whole field was batting just to keep moving forward. Yet, even if I cramped up again and had to walk past Boston College, the students screamed encouragement like it was the bottom of the ninth at a world series game, with Boston needing a run. It was wild.

I had the thought of tears in my eyes but was too dehydrated to cry them out.

Danielle paced Phyllis to a 27th place finish in her age group (60-65) — not too shabby for Boston. Bloody impressive, I’d say. They crossed the line together, about 7 minutes or so ahead of us. Then they immediately headed to the medical tent — Phyllis was feeling faint. The medics got her into an ice blanket (“packed up like a fish on ice,” as she reported later). She begged for an IV but was denied. While watching Phyllis get help, Danielle passed out. She scored two IVs. She’s competitive like that.

Mary and I stumbled across the line at 4:38ish, about an hour slower than Mary was aiming to run in “normal” marathon temperatures of mid 50s, and quite a bit less than the 3:50/3:55 I was hoping to run, but we held hands and raised our arms in “we survived” triumph. Damn, we earned those Boston medals.

Canadian Joshua Cassidy set out at 9 a.m. in slightly lower temperatures and wheeled to a world record in the wheelchair race. Yeah Canada!!!

And mother nature set a PERSONAL BEST for the Boston Marathon, hitting 87 and knocking off records for 2002 and 2003.

Like I said, I knew a personal best was in the cards. The personal best set among the runners was for our very good cheer in enduring it.

I was thinking as I ran (I lost track of the bottles of beer falling), given the spirit of the awesome fans and the won’t-quit attitude of the runners, the human race could really get together and accomplish something special — like solving this climate change thing. Hey, we could ditch the cars and run to work and truly green our food production by eating organically and just, you know, simplify life a little.

That would make it “win win” for mother nature and the Boston Marathon.

Otherwise, I think they better start the run earlier next year — like say 5 in the morning — because this race was verging on the dangerous.


50 Thoughts #8: I’m only 35 in gay years! (And how to use the calculator)

You subtract a year from your chronological age for every year you spent struggling to be something you’re not and living in misery for it.

I call these the “lost years.” You can’t go back and change them from anything other than a colossal waste of time, so consider them well and truly lost. Why let those years count against you now? Lop them off. Eliminate them.

What you have left is your gay age, your spirit age, your true age of living the life you consciously intend.

You don’t have to be gay to age only in gay years, though when I introduce the concept to gay people, they get it, instantly.

Other folks need some explaining.

You may know from the “It Gets Better Project” that life for gay adults is way better (though they leave out the caveats: IF you live, work and play in socially progressive circles).

But the fact that life is better now does not make up for the “lost years.” I’m with Rick Mercer on this: We need to make life better for gay kids right now.

They have a right to happiness as much as any kid. If they are miserable, not only do they lose, society loses out on the best of what they have to offer.

It’s lose, lose, get it?

My experience growing up gay was not nearly as horrific as it is for gay teens now, given that 20Teen teens know all the queer markers and ruthlessly bully hapless victims.

I wish I knew the markers when I growing up, so that I could at least see them in myself! In high school and university during the 70s and early 80s, virtually all girls wore jeans, sweatshirts and runners or work boots. It was okay (and often pretty easy) for girls to be smarter than boys. Sexuality wasn’t turbocharged by the pedophiliac pink princess culture consuming girls now. Few wore makeup or frilly nonsense. I didn’t even have to try to fit in. In fact, I didn’t even know what “gay” looked like.

But I did know what it felt like, and it was awful. The derogatory remarks, the paranoid and insecure attitudes, the relentless, oppressive heterosexuality of society, it all tells you that being gay is abnormal, bad, sick, despicable. I didn’t think I was any of those awful things; therefore, I was not gay.

From high school (subtract five years), through university (four years) and a heterosexual marriage (six years), I tried on the straight jacket. Yes, it kept the gay feelings under wraps but, often, all the happy feelings too.

Which left a whole lot of misery. Too much misery. Misery is a black gob of useless weight. It saps energy, obliterates vision, gets in the way of learning, excelling, contributing to society, of living a full, joyous and meaningful life.

I managed to get a degree and start a career, but I was a shell of what I could be. And if I let myself look back on those lost years, I can get spitting mad furious in the time it takes to say “Rob Ford.”

I like being happy, so I don’t count my conscious years as properly starting until I came out when I was nearly 30, which puts me at 35 now, plenty of joyous spirit time left to do the things I want and help save the world too.

So, if you’re looking for a little boost to help you through a little midlife crisis, there it is — the gay age calculator. Feel free to use it to lop off your own “lost years,” whatever they may be, to calculate your true spirit age. Just remember to pay back the gift by making life easier for gay kids now.


50 Thoughts # 7: Can I repay the gift the Ethiopians gave me?

I am running the Boston Marathon, a week after I turn 50. I don’t need gifts, cards or anything like that. Rather, I’m asking friends, family and those who like this blog to consider throwing a few bucks towards the Girls Gotta Run Foundation, which you can do by visiting my FirstGiving page:

I learned about the organization when I travelled to Ethiopia last summer, on a mission to find out why Ethiopian women are emerging as the world’s best marathoners.

In the capital of Addis Ababa, teenage girls dreaming of professional running careers train in Meskel Square, an outdoor amphitheatre in the city centre. One morning when I ran to the square, six teenaged girls were training together, repeating one-kilometre laps — up 50 uneven dirt steps, across the back row past homeless people sleeping in cardboard boxes, down the other side, along the front row of seating through thick clouds of exhaust pouring up from the city’s main intersection, all keeping in perfect rhythm with each other.

When they stopped for a break, and I asked for a picture, they giggled with excitement, thinking I was a Canadian race promoter, here to help them. “Only a writer,” I said, holding up my notebook. They ran ran off to do more laps.

Washington Post correspondent Emily Wax first wrote about these girl running gangs in 2005. As the running infrastructure in Ethiopia is centralized in Addis, many girls run away from their families in the countryside to train in the square, hoping to get noticed by a coach or running team. Often, they’re fleeing horrific situations — desperately poor parents may marry daughters off as young as age 12. According to UNICEF, Ethiopian women and girls are more likely to die in childbirth than reach grade six. The country also has one of Africa’s highest caseloads of AIDS, and girls are expected to quit school to care for sick family members.

The girls throw themselves into training, believing that becoming a professional runner will allow them to escape early marriage, stay in school and control their own fate. But their dreams don’t always work out — many end up living on the streets and working in dodgy nightclubs or get pushed into the sex trade.

When retired university women’s studies professor Pat Ortman read the article, she started the nonprofit Girls Gotta Run Foundation (GGRF), a United States-based charity that raises funds for coaching, shoes, racing expenses and food to help the girls train. The goal is not necessarily to produce professional runners but to use the discipline of training to help girls stay in school and pursue careers to become economically self sufficient. “These girls are demonstrating courage and gumption and determination,” Ortman told me. “These are leaders in the making. If we support these girls, they’ll make a living and support so many more people than young girls having babies. They will drag the rest of the country into the future.”

Girls Gotta Run now sponsors girls at four different training camps and have forged a partnership with a fifth, Ethiopia’s first private athletic facility, the new $80 million birr Yaya Village built by businessman Joseph Kibur, who was born in Ethiopia but grew up in Canada, where he became both a successful cross country runner and high-tech entrepreneur. Yaya has a four-star hotel for running tourists, which will help offset training costs and accommodation for Ethiopian athletes. Legendary Ethiopian runner Haile Gebrselassie, an enthusiastic supporter of girls’ running programs, is a partner in the venture. The two plan to provide one-year scholarships of full board and training to GGRF athletes. “This hopefully will act as a stepping stone to them becoming independent and escape poverty,” Kibur told me.

After visiting the square, I met up with Mersha Asarat, who coaches GGRF athletes as well as male runners sponsored by Running Across Borders (RAB), a similar US-based charity. Asarat and I took four city buses (15-seat vans into which about 20 of us squeezed) to get to a bare-bones RAB house on the outskirts of Addis. Eleven athletes lived there, including Dinkinesh Mekash. Like many of the Ethiopian greats, she grew up in Arsi and became strong doing farm work and running several kilometres to school. When a man tried to abduct her at a local market, she was able to use the professional opportunities opening for women runners and her talent to convince her parents to let her move to Addis to train. Now, she divided her days between training and studying. She won the first marathon she entered and lowered her time by some 12 minutes in her second marathon in Rome. She told me that running was about achieving respect first, then earning money to send back to her family who have invested in her and repaying GGRF by helping other athletes. “People don’t view men and women at the same level here,” she said. “Women have to show their strength and make an effort to become equal, to rise up. When I train, I change not only my body but my mind. What I have learned from running is to work hard, be patient and responsible.”

Other stories Ortman’s proud of — two young runners rescued from homelessness graduated from the GGRF program and started a foundation to help others like themselves; another recently entered an engineering program in university. The only thing GGRF asks of its runners is that, one day, they “pay forward” the help they received to help other girls in their country. “We hoped for good things,” said Ortman, “and we got wonderful things.”

While in Addis, I also had a chance to meet and train with some of the country’s top female marathoners, coached by Haji Adilo.

I wore my running gear to Adilo’s training sessions, hoping to sneak in a run with the world’s star runners, Dire Tune who won the 2008 Boston Marathon, and Mare Dibaba, who finished second in the 2010 Toronto Waterfront Marathon. The women set off to do four loops of a five kilometre course, starting at a 4:23 per kilometre pace and getting progressively faster. I got caught up in a conversation with Adilo. As the women approached for their third loop, I figured it was now or never to realize my dream of running with the Ethiopian stars. I leapt onto the road in pursuit.

I figured if I went full out, maybe I could keep up for a kilometre. But after chasing their heels for 200 metres, the pace and altitude (Addis is the world’s third highest capital) had me doubled over, sucking wind and laughing hysterically at my feeble attempt. As I watched the knot of runners disappear over a knoll, I wondered if running on the same road counted as running with the Ethiopians?

I decided that it did and continued on.

The dirt road looped through farm fields that were being converted into housing though, like everything here, slowly and haphazardly. Half-built houses loomed against the sky with not a worker in sight. Goats and chickens wandered onto the road and farmers driving donkey carts clattered past. Even stranger, farm children walking to school waved at me ecstatically. On the back stretch, three kids, about 25 metres off the road, squatted in the long grass, performing their morning ablutions. As I passed, they waved even as they squatted, and screamed, “running, running, running!”

Taking in my white skin and the red Canadian flag emblazoned on my running shirt, they probably thought I was a Canadian elite runner here to train with their running heroes. For the sake of Canada, I desperately tried to pick up the pace.

Then, with about 300 metres to go in the 5k loop, a woman who had broken away from the group to do speed work, pulled alongside me. Her running clothes were badly worn, and she was so far down Adilo’s depth chart that when I looked for her later, I couldn’t find her name. I picked up the pace, trying to match strides with her. When I faltered, she pointed to the ground beside her. “C’mon, c’mon,” she said smiling, insisting that I run with her!

I dug deeper, way deeper, and she checked her pace ever so slightly, though not so much to be condescending I like to think, and we ran into the finish together, arms and legs thrusting through the thin cool air, joy dripping from every pore of my body, for it is like she had just plucked a beautiful fruit from a tree and given it to me as a gift.


Me and Mare Dibaba (who finished 2nd in the 2010 Toronto Waterfront Marathon) and Dire Tune, winner of the 2008 Boston Marathon).




50 Thoughts # 6: I’m only 26, in marathon years. But this is what it takes:

Admit it. You’d love to have the experience and wisdom of fifty, but packaged in the body of a twenty something.

Whoa, I discovered it’s actually possible.

Last Wednesday, a month before I turn 50, I stepped on a set of whoop tee do scales at my personal trainer’s. It calculates a whole whack of things — bone and muscle density, water percentage, weight — including health age.

My health age, thanks to marathon running, is 26 and that’s a super-fit 26 year old.

Most runners have a time goal for the marathon. In training for Boston this April, a week after my 50th birthday, I set a goal of being in the best shape of my life — and finishing the marathon happy.

No question, I’ve already achieved goal one. Late for my annual physical last week, I jumped off a streetcar stalled in rush-hour traffic and ran the last four kilometres to my doctor’s office, arrived barely breaking a sweat and registered a heart rate of 68 and low blood pressure. Doctor pronounced me in excellent health.

Proud? Damn right I am. Determined? Even more so.

Certainly, I love the aesthetic benefits of being super fit. In three years of marathon training, I shed about 20 pounds and got rid of sags, saddle bags, chins, cheeks and even thigh bulges I’ve had since I was a kid and I thought would never disappear without plastic surgery (were I so inclined, which I’m not). Running has, as many of my running buddies have told me, literally transformed my body.

I love being strong. Physical challenges don’t daunt me (climb Kilimanjaro, as I did last year? No problem. Run a half marathon right after that? Bring it on). My body is a vehicle that carries me around the city — running, walking, cycling — with sweet joy and little effort.

Best of all, I love the healthy productive decades that being fit will give me to make big dreams come true.

Hitting 50 is about going after the thing you’ve always wanted to do — start that business/dream career/volunteer/ political work that allows the highest expression of your values; commit to deep learning (in books, adventure, psychological horizons); end the negative relationships; grow the positive ones; start the farm/art form to feed the world organic goodness.

As a writer, I feel I’m just hitting my stride. For whatever reason, I’ve explored virtually every genre a writer can, run down the path of poetry, playwriting, screenwriting, journalism, fiction. Now all that experience is coming together as I tackle big projects this year, and I want decades more work time for creative pursuits.

How much would it suck if my body were giving out at this glorious moment?

But what does it take to turn the age calendar backwards?

Here’s a look at this week’s training schedule — a peak week leading into Boston.

Sunday: 35 kilometre long run with about 10 major hills.

Monday: Stretching out those tight leg muscles.

Tuesday: 18 kilometres.

Wednesday: 8 kilometres and a one-hour personal training session with leg-strength training and ab work.

Thursday: 16 kilometres with fast tempo, hills.

Friday: 15 kilometre run.

Saturday: One-hour ab workout (equivalent of 500 sit-ups) and weight training.

Total Kilometres: 92

Total Hours of training: 12 to 14.

I didn’t get there over night. It took me three years to build up from three 6-kilometre runs a week to Boston qualifier. Put another way, it only took three years.

And it’s a true anti-aging formula. No B.S. No snake oil.



50 Thoughts #5: Finally, I get what the marathon has been trying to teach me

A couple of weeks ago, renowned sports psychologist Peter Jensen came to speak to our fabulous running club, The Runner’s Shop. As he talked about performance in sports, I was thinking about writing.

I rarely acknowledge this, and certainly never to myself, but running long, writing long — indeed, chasing any big dream — is brutally hard. It takes physical and mental strength, focus, discipline, a sense of humour, will, and, toughest of all, a belief in the worthiness of yourself and the thing you’re going. And that can only come from deep within yourself.

No one else, nothing else can give it to you, not money, awards, fame, booze, drugs, not even great sex or therapy. At least this much I have learned as I stare down 50.

I took up marathoning for a bizarre reason, perhaps. I wanted to write a novel. I sensed that running long had something to teach me about writing long. Yes, you have to set an end goal, establish a writing schedule, put in the word count, be patient with the training drafts, sharpen creative skills, blah blah blah. It’s not like I’m new to this writing game.

But for the biggest dream project of all, I sensed I had some deeper lesson to learn, though I had no idea what that was, until it clicked during Jensen’s talk.

Running is my pure place, my innocence, my five-year’s joy and glee and ecstasy. Yet, as I pushed towards the finish line of my novel, anxiety, doubt and dread began to bleed into my running, stalk my steps, weigh down my strides. I was training for Boston — Boston! I had qualified for Boston! By 16 minutes! — yet something was sucking the thrill out of it.

Jensen was explaining strategies to deal with hitting “the wall” in running, that precipice when physical energy is exhausted and all you have left is mental energy to carry you to the finish. What mental energy are you going to summon when you’re at your weakest? Positive? Negative? Friend? Foe? Believer? Critic?

What your mind feeds, the body eats.

Negative energy is a McDonald’s Big Mac. Positive energy is a grass-fed, organic steak.

As Jensen spoke about hitting the wall in running, I realized I was hitting the wall in writing. I could see the end but rather than being energized, I felt dread. Rather than having a friend on my side as I wrote into the homestretch, I had a snarling black dog questioning whether I had the finish in me, whether all the time, effort and love I had put into my novel was a big fat useless waste of time.

For years, friends have told me I’m hard on myself. I finally heard them. I was stripped to the core. And what I saw, I did not like.

Jensen preaches the power of positive visual imaging to Olympians and other high-performance athletes. Like any training, it takes work to come up with feel-good images that can power you through the wall — and practice to fix them in your mind, so that you can draw on them when you’re most vulnerable to the snapping black dogs.

I hate platitudes, like you have nothing to lose by going after your dreams. Oh, there’s everything to lose if chasing the dream stirs up a voice that’s intent sucking the life and vitality out of you. Maybe there’s good reason I put off that novel.

Which poses a question to self: Can a brain that’s so clearly brilliant at taking me down, with a little conscious rewiring, be as brilliant at taking me up?

This much I know after two university degrees and 20 years of teaching university courses: I’m a physical learner. I know things through my body.

Towards the end of a brutally hard 30-kilomentre run last winter, on a freezing, blustery, snowy day, this memory flew into my mind, actually flooded it so that I felt like I was inside the image. I was a kid again, riding my horse Rebel, who was full of wild, pent-up winter energy, and we were burning off that frenzied power by galloping through deep snowbanks, and he was lunging through the air, and I was hanging on, terrified, laughing. And in that moment, my exhausted aching runner’s body became weightless, floating, and I charged through those last kilometres, a smile on my face, a kid’s zealous smile.

Now as I write, I will focus on summoning up the marathoner in me, to carry me home.




50 Thoughts #4: The future is here and it looks a lot like yesterday

I detest platitudes — like learning to live in the moment — yet here I am working on that very thing in my Boston marathon training.

I put off writing this because I thought these 50 Thoughts would be bright, humorous dispatches — as if colonoscopies and forgetting words for groceries when you’re making a grocery list is downright hysterical.

Talking about depression has become all the rage since Stephane Richer admitted to trying to kill himself four days after winning a Stanley Cup, while driving his Porsche 911; since speedster Clara Hughes confessed that the black dogs have hounded her through six Olympic medals.

I don’t know if this makes me feel better. You’d think folks with Stanley Cups, Porsches and Olympic medals would have it all going on. And I don’t have any of those things.

I did have a father who wanted to end his life, whoa, starting at the age of 50! I don’t worry about a genetic inheritance. I can put that in a box. He was a modern progressive farmer. His brain had been polluted by agricultural chemicals (gee thanks, Big Ag!) and also dented by a rock to the head. When I was researching an eight-part series for The Toronto Star, “Crisis on the Farm,” I spoke to Carlton University researcher Shawn Hayley, who studies the links between Parkinson’s and pesticides. He thought the bang on the head (causing inflammation) was like “throwing a match” into the chemicals that had pooled in my father’s brain tissue, starting “a forest fire” in his head. The researcher actually used that poetic language (thanks, literature!).

My dad saw the black clouds of confusion closing in. I came home from high school to hear the tearful ultimatums he gave to my mom: either take him to hospital to fix his confusion or take him to the cemetery. The doctors tried and could not fix his Parkinson’s dementia. We hid the hunting rifle, the keys to vehicles, kept an eye on him. He once managed to go for a walk across Highway 400, though the police apprehended him and returned him home, “safe,” ironic quotation marks fully intended.

I was 15 when dad started going off the rails. Being the kind of kid who wrote poetry, I perhaps sympathized too intensely with his drama. I went through high school asking myself this question each and every day: What makes life worth living? And every day, I would have to come up with an answer, for both dad and myself.

I really struggled with answers for dad. His autopsy report, which I bizarrely keep on my writing desk, says he lived to 70, though it was in a thick mental fog for the last 15. Still, he lived to meet all six of his grandchildren, and he delighted in them and I think they felt that he, confused and unhappy as he was, gave them a lot of positive love.

As for me, I always came up with the same answer. Growing up gay and denying it to myself for many years (cause it was considered vile and despicable, like it’s changed all that much for kids) didn’t make high school or university life particularly peachy. So my answer was always rooted in future. Things would get better in the future. I believed in the future. And for too much of my life, I have lived not so much in the now, as for the future.

But at 50, the future’s not such a great place to live. If there’s ever a time for an occupy-the-present movement, it’s now.

Last night, I was at my alma mater, University of Toronto, doing speed work around King’s College Circle, pounding out 10 kilometres of laps, passing undergraduates spilling out of evening classes, thrilling in being in the best shape of my life (and likely better shape that 95 percent of those 20-somethings).

I was not thinking about Boston or the blessed end of the workout or even the next lap, but exhilarating in the speed and gruesome effort, living in the wondrous moment of each stride. And I was strong. And I was happy.


50 Thoughts # 3: I’m not freaking out. I’m running marathons.

I have been turning 50 for more than two years now.

At age 48, I decided to train for my first marathon. Actually, I hadn’t even turned 48, but that January, when I started my usual three-month preparation period to deal with the psychological trauma of my birthday in April (the cruelest month), I realized with some horror that my mom was 48 when I first took note of her age and by then she was already old.

Though I’m a writer, I can do some basic math. At 47, you’re closer to 45. At 48, there is no turning back. It’s a flashing, fret-lined, fat-fuelled, free fall to the big ‘ffing fifty. Might as well skip the denial and accept that you’re already 50.

The number has a way of concentrating the mind — even mine, which given my sign, a goat, is prone to scrambling up this mountain pass, only to reach an impasse; then scrambling up that dead-end path because the view is just spectacular over there; and then trying another whole new route because I’m curious like that; and on and on.

As I stared down 48, 49, 50, I realized there was no more time for scrambling. I had just two years to grow up!

Bizarrely, that’s when I decided to train for my first marathon. Never in my previous five or six lives did I ever dream of running one. I have flat-feet for gadsakes.

But in the middle of some hot flash of genius, this idea came to me: The marathon had something to teach me.

I figured that by chasing that terrifying goal, I might develop superior commitment, discipline, focus, even fearlessness, and perhaps other things (maybe a tight runner’s butt?), which I could apply to my career.

Because there are a few really big things I want to accomplish and time, as they say, is running.

So far, my strategy has worked, for running anyway. This April, a week after I turn 50, I will toe the line of my third marathon, at the big kahuna of all marathons, Boston. Yes, I qualified in the 50 to 54 age group. Yep, moving into THAT age category (another set of numbers to prepare for.)

But I’m okay with it. Really, I am. I mean, I’ve been preparing for 50 for more than two years now. How bad can it be when it really happens?