This Marathon Life

I was rooting through my phone this afternoon for sports news, and came upon this headline: Levins Breaks Canadian Marathon Record.  In Toronto today, Cam Levins ran the 42 kilometres (or 26 miles) in two hours, nine minutes and twenty-five seconds.  Good for you, Mr. Cam.

I thought back to my own history in the marathon, grieving my natural aging and the decline in my athletic performance.  This summer’s early exit from the Tour du Canada bicycle ride still hurts.

How has it come to pass that a potpourri of body parts ache?  My left hip, left ankle, right knee, right thumb and central self-esteem – they all hurt!  But as soon as I type this litany of loss, I start smiling.  What a wacky life we lead.  Everything is changing, virtually every day.  New marathons of experience beckon.

I ran in five marathons, all previewed by many miles of training in the coulees of Southern Alberta.  In four of those marathons, I hit the mythical “wall”.  Somewhere around the 20 mile mark, the legs feel dead, with its many muscles demanding I stop.  Four times I did.  I especially remember the Calgary Marathon.  Vices planted themselves on every square inch of leg flesh.  On the count of three, they all squeezed.  Not only could I not run, I couldn’t walk.

1985 was special.  I finished the Vancouver Marathon, in a time of four hours and fourteen minutes.  The thrill was all mixed up with intense pain, and this time it wasn’t the legs.  My heart hurt.  I thought a little cool down walk might help.  I had three hours to kill before my bus would be leaving for Lethbridge, Alberta.  Hmm … bad choice of words.  I dragged myself through some downtown streets, and the pain worsened.  Oh my God, was this a heart attack?  Was this the end?

My steps became staggers and I fell onto a bench by the sidewalk.  I think I curled up into a ball.  “I’m dying.”  I waited for the closing to come.  No long replay of my life.  Just agony.

A gentleman who I later found out was a cab driver came over.  “Are you all right?”  >  “No.  Please call an ambulance.”  He helped me into his car and we sped off to St. Paul’s Hospital.  I stayed put for two weeks.  “Mr. Kerr, you have pericarditis, an inflammation of the walls of the heart.  You will recover.”  Judging by my current typing, I did.

I’ve dreamt of being an elite athlete, but it won’t be happening in this lifetime.  That’s okay.  There are other horizons to move towards.  I sense that mine will be in the realm of consciousness.  Slow and steady will get me there, certainly in a much longer time than 4:14.


Sweat Bands

I like watching myself.  And today I’m watching my tomorrow: I’m going to be on the elliptical in the gym for six hours, the equivalent of 120 kilometres of riding.  My bike is still in the shop, waiting for a part that will help me climb mountain roads like a whiz.  So the gym machine will have to do.

I’m watching my fear.  I haven’t been strong lately and yet my task is huge tomorrow.  I’m also in the middle of getting off caffeine, and the head is a bit fuzzy.  With all of this, I’m strangely calm and excited about the morrow’s adventure.  I don’t understand how this can be.

I sweat a lot on the elliptical and a few days ago I lost my Captain America sweat band.  The only one left is an ode to Batman.  If I go to the gym with just one, my eyes will be flooded with stinging liquid, and finishing the job will be a very large challenge.  So after buying a tent at Mountain Equipment Co-Op this afternoon (for the ride across Canada!), I went searching for reinforcements.

Hey, this should be no sweat.  I’ll go to SportChek.  In I walked and a lovely employee directed me to the band display.  No Captain America, no Superman … just the Nike swoosh and the NBA logo.  I’m not particularly attached to either.

One spiritual perception is that no one thing or moment is better than any other.  So Nike should be just fine.  Except it wasn’t.  I could feel myself pulled towards an expression of me, and there wasn’t any on the stand.  I walked out.

Again, Buddhism would say that there is no me to be expressed.  However Bruceness was clearly alive today and I decided to retrace my steps to MEC.  My tent discussion apparently left no room for sweat band contemplation.  In I walked, and a smiling woman revealed to me that sweat was not an issue for the foreheads of their customers.  No bands.

“Go back to SportChek.” > “No, I don’t want to be branded.  Search on.”  End of discussion.

I know!  A running store.  Makes sense.  So all the way into downtown London to enter the hallowed hall of The Running Room.  A friendly and yet incredulous saleswoman told me they had bands to hold back hair but nothing to mop up perspiration.  Oh.  I wondered how true runners keep their eyes clear.  She suggested I try National Sport.

Runner’s Choice is the other major running store in London, and it’s also downtown.  Due to clogged traffic, it would have been easier to head directly to National Sport but I seemed to be a driven man.  And a huge smile was adorning my face.  It was wonderfully silly to keep travelling between stores just to make sure I survived tomorrow.  So … Runner’s Choice.

Nobody home as I opened the door but eventually an unsmiling clerk came from the back.  No, they didn’t stock sweat bands anymore, except for one patterned pink one.  It didn’t even look like a sweat band to me, and although I love pink, I said no.

National Sport it is.  Another sweat band rack and this time I saw red, white and blue types festooned with some unidentifiable logo.  Sold!  Here’s to Wednesday’s dry eyes.

I marvel at my mind and take joy in watching it at work, with no judgment of the process.  It’s a marvelous instrument, just like yours.  And sometimes it has a mind of its own.



Running for the Ferry

I went to a lovely concert on Toronto Island yesterday. Sunlight streamed through one of the church’s stained glass windows onto the faces of the musicians – violinist, cellist and pianist.  Sweet sounds.

The concert finished with a heartfelt standing ovation around 4:00 pm.  I started chatting with some Islanders, knowing that the next ferry to downtown was at 4:30.  The one after that would be at 5:30.

At 4:10 I decided to bolt for the ferry.  There was no reason in the world why I couldn’t have opted for 5:30 instead.  I could have meandered through the trees and enjoyed the boardwalk back to the ferry dock.  But no … things to do and people to meet.

Two minutes of brisk walking and glances at my pink fitness tracker told me that I wasn’t going to make the ferry.  “Let go, Bruce.  5:30 is a lovely time of day.” However … the  next thing I know, some hidden orchestrator is propelling my feet into the air, otherwise known as running.

“Bruce – stop this!  You’re 69.”


“Well, you might wreck yourself.  And then what would happen to your bike trip?”

“Oh, give it a rest.  I’m running and that’s that.  Get out of my way.”

“But you’re wearing a heavy winter coat.  And you’ll be using muscles that haven’t been stretched this way for years.  Plus you may be psychiatrically compromised.”

“What?!  ‘Psychiatrically compromised’?  You’re nuts.  Watch me fly.”

So I flew (sort of).  Graceful like a duck.  Fast as a dozey turtle.  Proud as a peacock.  Run some.  Walk some.  A trotting young couple passed me.  She hollered encouragement.  I saw them fade into my future.  A glance down at my Polar watch.  Four minutes to the whistle blast. More “running”.  No breath.  Ferry in sight.  Whistle. Twenty-five metres.  Crew member with neon vest starting to close the gate.  He sees me.  He stops.  No air and through the gate.  My woman friend is smiling and applauding.  The gold medal is mine.

Ain’t life grand?

Lying On The Bench

I wrote yesterday about Gabriela and her determination to finish the 1984 Olympic Marathon.  As I was typing, I didn’t think once about my own marathon experience.  How strange.

Sometime in the early 80’s, I ran the Calgary Marathon … well, part of it.  Around mile 21, I hit the legendary Wall.  My breathing was still good, but my leg muscles gave up.  They clamped down, harder and harder.  I slowed to a trot, then a shamble.  And then the vices tightened some more.  I stopped in the middle of the road.  When I tried to get going again, I couldn’t walk.  No Olympic heroics here – I was at a standstill, a thoroughly painful one.  And the sadness descended.  How I wanted to complete a marathon.  But it didn’t happen that day.

I trained hard in early 1985 in preparation for the Vancouver Marathon.  I took the bus from Lethbridge, Alberta and was ecstatic when I stepped onto the downtown streets.  I had lived in Vancouver twice and I was thrilled that part of the route followed the seawall in Stanley Park.

The night before the run, there was a carbohydrate loading meal for the runners … plates of spaghetti piled high.  I looked around at my fellow athletes, some of them elite and some just ordinary folks like me.  All those smiles, all that pent up energy, all those months of training now in the rear view mirror.  I was part of something big.  I was proud of myself.

The next day, probably at 8:00 am, hundreds of us were crammed into a downtown street.  Someone fired a pistol and we were off.  I made sure not to go out too fast and soon I was settled into a good rhythm.  People were cheering us from the sidewalks.  Volunteers reached toward me with full cups at the water stations (really Gatorade, as I remember).

Up ahead in my mind loomed mile 20 and the dreaded Wall.  Would my legs say no?  When I got there, they piped up with “Let’s keep going, Bruce.  This is fun.”  So I did.  The breathing was getting a bit laboured and the muscles were moderately tight.  As mile 20 yielded in favour of mile 21 … 22 … 23 … 24, I realized that I only had two more miles to go.  I also realized something else: my chest was hurting.

“Hey, Bruce.  It’s only an inconvenience.  It’s not like you’re having a heart attack.”  Well, I wasn’t so sure about that.  Oh, how I wanted to see that finish line, to accomplish something truly exceptional.

4:12.  As in four hours and twelve minutes.  My arms were up, the crowd was cheering, and I was done.  Actually, very much done.

I was a bit staggery but no big deal.  And no, I didn’t need a massage from one of the volunteers, nor a dip in the hot tub.  I went into some room, changed into my street clothes, hoisted my backpack and walked back out into the sunlight.  I don’t think anyone noticed my unsteady gait.  “Nothing wrong with you, Bruce.  You just finished a marathon!”

I still had three hours before my bus left for Lethbridge, so I decided to explore some of my favourite downtown streets.  In my earlier youth, I had loved strolling down Granville, Robson, Burrard.  Except on that late afternoon in May, 1985, there was no strolling to it.  My chest was banging, my breathing was so heavy, and I thought I was going to fall down.

Up ahead, somehow detected by my blurry eyes, was an empty bench.  I stumbled and flopped onto it.  I was lying on my back … dying, as far as I could tell.  Commuters rushed by and I knew it was true – death was near.  There was no replaying the 36 years of my life, just this great sadness amidst the heart pain.  I was saying goodbye to Jody (my then girlfriend), to other loved ones, and to my life.


Someone was leaning over me, asking if I was all right.  I said no.  “I’m taking you to the hospital,” said the cab driver.  Minutes later, I was on a stretcher in the Emergency Department of St. Paul’s Hospital.  That building was my home-away-from-home for the next two weeks.  As you can tell, I lived.  Turns out I had an inflammation of the walls of the heart called pericarditis.  A month later in Calgary, doctors sent a little camera through a vein, from my groin into my heart.  The verdict?  No permanent damage.

I am so blessed to be alive thirty years later, to have made a contribution to many people’s lives in the time between.  I do believe I’m on this planet for a purpose.  And may that become ever more clear to me.  Just no more running, please.