Dark clouds hang low on the early Sunday morning sky. It was chilly and
drizlling when I pulled out of the back alley lane and was headed to the
city. Traffic was light and it took less than five min to cross the
river valley and arrive at the old hotel's concrete garage embedded in
the bluff on the north side. They were offering free parking for the
1. Back To Where It All Started
Two days ago, I came to this northern city for my 20-year anniversary of
landing in America. It sounded like an excuse for someone with too much
money and time at hand. I had too much of neither but an urge to come
back where I started, meet someone I knew, and do something hard.
The university had expanded and businesses flourished around it. Old
buildings had been well maintained and new ones erected. New shops,
Starbucks, H-Mart, etc., stood side by side with the venerable Tim
Horton's, Second Cups, and Real Canadian Superstores. The diner near our
former apartment remained and, with the same clientele, long lines
formed at the door, just as in the old days. As brick-and-mortar
bookstores were rapidly exiting the scene in the US, how delightful it
was to read in the same Chapters!
2. Met the Professor
Five years from retirement, my professor was strong as an ox. He was
about 5'7", sturdy and muscular. Under a head of short salt-and-pepper
hairs were a pair of clear blue eyes, a large nose, and a set of square
jaws. Mike had always been active and used to be an avid whitewater
rafter. "I bike to work everyday and 15kms one way. That kept me fit."
"We had lots of rain this summer" he informed me over mouth-watering
spaghetti, and that must have made the great plain to the east of the
Canadian Rocky Mountains so verdant, a stark contrast with the arid
California central valley.
I warmed up to him as always. The language barrier between us had shrunk
and I could more appreciate how special the guy was. Well read and well
travelled, the engineering prof bore lightly an encyclopediac knowlege
of languages, cultures, music, and even investing. Talking with him was
always pleasant as he never came across as smug or showing-off.
With a clear voice and focused gaze, he talked in a thoughtful manner at
an easy pace and with few idle remarks. He told me our work two decades
ago was still cited today. I had no idea. I had remained a software
engineer shovelling the proverbial snow while he morphed into the CIO
of a major Canadian university, with over 300 people under him. "That
must require a different talent than programming." was my honest opinion.
3. Ran the Marathon
3.1 A Mistake
Parking, finding the expo, and registering the drop-bag, were silent and
smooth. As a soldier played the bagpipe to call us to the start line and
we sang the Canadian national anthem, however, something felt wrong:
there were only about 50 of us. Where were the thousands supposed to
storm the city today? "Have you seen any pacers?" I asked a perky
elderly lady in a colorful hat with two red spikes like horns.
It turned out I didn't pay enough attention to the manual. Full-marathoners
were divided into two groups and ours consisted of slow runners with
6hr+ finishing time. We would start at 6:00am, one hour earlier than the
fast group so not to block traffic for too long. I didn't mind the stigma
associated with running slow, but how very thoughtful!
For the half a dozen overlapping running and walking events, the course
design was simple. The expo and start/finish line sat in the middle. a
full-marathoner would run toward east and back on the same course to
finish 13.1 miles and continue to the west and back for the second half.
The half-marathoners would start two hours after the 6hr+ group and
would be heading to the west.
Registered for a full marathon months ago, I planned to run only half
today as I told Tim I'd come back at 9:00am. I didn't feel comfortable
leaving him alone for more than three hours at the Airbnb room. I
intended to keep my promise. And there was no damage to my ego. I have
been running regularly with the belief that within the activity itself
lie the virtues and benefits, not in races or records.
3.2 The First Half
It was great running weather and so few of us had the entire main street
to ourselves. The course boasted great views of the lush valley of the
peaceful and meandering river. The east just began to turn white with
the sun behind heavy clouds. Columns of steams from a glittering power
plant upstream flowed lazily up the sky.
Cheers from volunteers and attention from police and crew made me feel
pampered. The Canadians resembled the British or northern Europeans more
than Americans. They were quiet and reserved as polite and considerate
and they kept to themselves. On the race course, however, they opened up
a bit. I socialized as much as my energy allowed and passed runner number
two on the second quarter. "I'm going to cheat and run only half" I told him.
Shortly after, the second horde of marathoners appeared on the radar
from the west, led by two Africans. Contrary to the general image of
skinny elite runners, they were yoke-shreded. They were going to pass me
in the third quarter.
I clocked 1hr55min for the first 13.1 miles at the mid-point where the
half-marathoners were ready and five minutes later would stampede toward
the west behind me.
3.3 Another Mistake and The Second Half
As I was still feeling OK and it was early, why not run a couple of
miles more? I thought and kept on. In a few blocks, to my horror, I
found I had passed the point of no return.
As the city woke up, more people came out and cheered us on. At this
point, all marathoners(full and half) were starting their journey to the
west(no pun intended). To turn and run back in the opposite direction
alone on the empty side of the course would be too conspicuous. People
would think the mid-aged Chinese guy in glasses and sandals was trying
to cheat. My fellow Canadians might not say it to my face, but the
thought was too much to bear for whatever Chinese national pride left in
me. So for the next hour, the racist in me felt I had no choice but to
give up my fun run, bite the bullet and try to finish the whole thing.
After mile 15, all I could think of was to find the right spot to turn
back but I was never able to. The residential neighborhood was beautiful
but felt endless. The half-marathoners and the first battalion of
full-marathoners kept passing me and that felt depressing. It seemed I
passed no one after half the race, paying back for the early start.
Electrolyte and water didn't boost energy. Inside the portable bathroom
at an aid station, I felt dizzy and had to hold onto the bars on both
sides. A bag of gel at the next aid station saved me from collapsing but
by that time I had come to a 12min-per-mile crawl.
Nonetheless, my glutes and core kept me going. I struggled not to walk.
No one else around me walked. And an overwelming happiness swept over
me in the last two miles and lasted for days. I was redeemed.
My finishing time was just over 4 hours, a 30min improvement over SFM
four years ago. I weighed six pounds more, however. I would like to think
I gained muscles but had I cut back to 140 lbs, I could have run faster.
I had two peanut engergy bars before the race and one bag of gel in the
first half. I could have had more at the half-marathon mark instead of
waiting till the last stage.
Last, the Z-Trail lessened the ground impact and was the right choice.