Small Wins

If you’ve been running consistently over the past few months, years, or even decades, you understand that it’s often the simple things that keep you motivated to get out the door day after day.  Over time, I’ve come to appreciate some of the “small wins” that can’t often be quantified on Strava or in race results, but still make for a positive running experience and remind me why I’m glad I still do this. Here are some that come to mind, in no particular order:

10)      Sacrificing a shirt you didn’t really need anyways

Back in 2007 I was a marathon pup still wet behind the ears.  I was very fortunate that two grizzled veterans took me under their wing and invited me to join their small training group in preparation for Boston 2008.  I’d show up to Rod’s place every Thursday after work for the specified workout.  Long hill repeats were a regular staple in the training plan, and Rod and I would head out on our warm-up and meet Jim en route, who lived a couple neighbourhoods over.  Rod lived on the outskirts of town and their designated hill was a quiet side street surrounded by woods in London’s west-end.  It was the dead of winter, and being new to the game I was still trying to figure out appropriate layering for particular temperatures and weather conditions.  That evening I recall starting the warm-up wearing a base layer, long-sleeve technical, and short-sleeve technical T-shirt on top.  A few miles into the warm-up I realized that even though it was January, it was still mild enough that I was on my way to overheating.  I also looked like the Michelin Man wearing all those layers.  Now I mentioned earlier that this area of the city was quite desolate; no Timmies, no arenas, no anywhere to do your pre-workout purge.  There were, however, two key amenities that the base of our hill repeat hill offered an abundance of: woods and darkness.  At that point, beggers can’t be choosers and I darted off into the woods to do my business.  I emerged out of the brush a few minutes later and a few pounds lighter.  Rod and Jim were ready to start into the first hill and both looked at me perplexed.  “What happened to your red t-shirt?”
“Uh, I was getting too warm and didn’t need it for the workout.”
And then we proceeded to have a great hill session: 6 x 800m @ VO2max up, jog down.  I felt strong, comfortable, and glad that I could hang with guys whose PB’s were well below mine.  Sure, it had cost me a t-shirt, but I was starting to enter more and more races and amassing a collection of swag anyways, so no big deal.  Having a successful hill session under my belt was worth the sacrifice.  Small win!  

9)      Later retrieving that shirt you thought had been sacrificed

In January 2008 I had been dating this girl Maura for a few months.  Things had progressed to the point where the majority of our spare time was spent together.  One Saturday afternoon we were out running errands in London’s West-end and happened to be driving in the area close to where I had just done a hill workout with two of my training mates on Thursday evening.  As we got closer to the hill, I said to Maura, “Do you mind if we pull off just over here?  I left an extra layer that I didn’t need at the base of the hill before Thursday night’s workout.  I want to see if it’s still there.”
                “Uhh, sure,” replied Maura, just going with it.
She pulled her Honda Civic off the side of the road on the secluded side street, and I darted off into the woods with a plastic grocery bag in hand.  After a brief scan, I found my red T-shirt, covered with a light dusting of fresh snow.  Jackpot!  I picked it up with my hand through the plastic grocery bag and headed back to the car victorious.  I put the bag in the trunk and got back in the car.  Maura wasn’t born yesterday, and pointed up at a sign beside where we were parked.  “Good thing a bylaw officer isn’t here to ticket you.  Didn’t you see that sign right there? It says NO DUMPING”.
                “Oh, woops. It was pitch dark, I didn’t see it.”
Retrieving a shirt you thought you’d never see again? Small win!  Going on to marry the girl who let you de-thaw your frozen shirt in her bath-tub? Big win!

Epilogue:  Even though I retrieved the red T-shirt from the 2006 Around the Bay 30km, I could never bring myself to wear it again.  Two years later, after Maura and I had married and decided to start our life together in her hometown of Halifax, my parents had a garage sale to get rid of all the miscellaneous stuff I wouldn’t be taking with me out East.  Included in the items for sale was my red technical T-shirt for $2.  Was I terrible person for displaying this item for sale, knowing it’s storied past?  I figured “let’s put it out there and see what happens.”  Along came my parents’ friends whose son I’d grown up with.  He was a practical joker and gotten a few on me over the years.  His mom made her way over to the table where I was selling old running gear.  She picked up the red T-shirt and held it up.  “Darren’s started dating a girl who’s really into running.  She did a marathon last year! Ooh, this shirt is made of that new fabric that’s supposed to keep sweat away.  He’s been going for runs lately to try and impress her, I bet he’d really like this shirt.” And with that, she reached into her purse and gave me a toonie.  I had just gotten two bucks for something that easily could’ve been left in the woods to decompose, and I didn’t have the heart to tell her the story behind that shirt.  And besides, I finally got the last laugh on Darren.  Another small win! 

8)    That first run after an injury where nothing hurts

Unfortunately your muscolu-skeletal system doesn’t often give you much advanced warning when it’s about to break down on you.  I can think of numerous times over the years where I was running along pleasantly when out of nowhere I’d get a random strain or knife-jabbing pain somewhere.  Within a few strides I’m reduced to a hobble and on several occasions have had to stick out my thumb and hitch-hike back to my starting point.  Recovery times can vary depending on the nature and magnitude of the injury, and the return to running doesn’t necessarily follow a predictable schedule.  The first good sign is when you can walk normally without limping or feeling an uncomfortable ache.  From there it’s natural to have to psyche yourself up to attempting that first run back.  I get that similar anxious feeling that’s normal prior to a big marathon and various questions run through my head:
“How far should I go?” 
“I’ll just stay close to home in case I have to walk back.”
“Should I give it another day or two of cross training?”
“How much is this going to hurt?”
Seldom, if ever, have I gone out for that first run back and everything is A-1.  There’s almost always some degree of suck involved.  My wife is my physio and her rule of thumb is that if it’s a 2 on 10 pain, you can run through it so long as you don’t attempt to go too fast or too far.  When I return she’ll ask, “how was it?”
“It was ok.  I still noticed it quite a bit and was glad to stop after 4 miles.”
Things are definitely going in the right direction a few runs later when my answer is, “It wasn’t too bad.  If I didn’t think about it, I didn’t notice it too much.”
Next is, “If it wasn’t mangled so badly a couple weeks ago I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it.”
Then the day finally comes.  You lace up your kicks, head out the door, and do that mental scan.  You focus your pain receptors on that area that caused you so much grief a short time ago and realize, “Wow, it’s gone!  I don’t feel anything even if I think about it!”
“I’m back!” 

7)  YouTube and wireless headphones

Remember going to Goodlife circa 2004?  There’d be a bunch of TV’s mounted to the wall and if you were lucky enough to secure a machine in front of a program you could tolerate, what were the chances that the headphones you plugged in emitted more than just static? Or maybe you had one of those slick new MP3 players where you could listen to your own favourite jams.  That’s cool too, until your hand hits the cord and your iPod falls and goes sliding across the treadmill.  For me, being at the gym means I’m either injured or the weather is really crappy outside.  The dread of watching Judge Judy on mute or listening to my 90’s grunge playlist on repeat often led me to run outside when I really shouldn’t have.  Fast-forward to 2018 and working out at the gym isn’t all that terrible.  I had a hamstring strain this spring that kept me on the elliptical and stationary bike for a few weeks, but no biggie – I just got a Wifi signal on my phone, synched my Bluetooth wireless headphones, and watched every marathon major for the past 5 years.  It’s like watching a movie and really isn’t all that bad, and kinda cool when it’s a race you yourself participated in.  “So that’s what those pros were doing miles ahead of me?”  Gone are the days of glancing at the clock every two minutes and wondering how much more of this you can mentally handle.  YouTube and wireless headphones have allowed me to return from injury with my aerobic capacity and sanity still intact, and for that I will be forever thankful for today’s technological advances.  Thank you, On-Demand era for the small win!

6)    When getting out for a run only requires one layer

Winter running can suck to the exponent ⁿ.  Snotsicles and bad footing aside, the time value of winter running also stymies forward progress.  That first really cold morning I will have to set my alarm 5-10 minutes earlier to allow time for putting on and later taking off all my extra gear:
·         Balaclava
·         Toque or headband
·         Base layer
·         Coat
·         Reflective vest
·         Saxx undies
·         Tights
·         Shorts overtop of tights
·         Socks
·         Thin gloves
·         Thicker gloves overtop
That’s the opportunity cost of an extra mile of running plus more time doing laundry.  And if you have to pack all that stuff to run on your lunch break, what if you forget a key piece of gear?  I’ve lost count of how many runs I’ve done wearing my business socks on my feet or hands because I forgot my Balegas or gloves.  After a while, sure, you get into a routine and have fine-tuned your mental checklist, but when that first 10°C day hits in the spring and you only have to wear one layer, even if it’s a long-sleeve, isn’t that awesome? Your mental check-list has been reduced dramatically:
·         Socks
·         Shorts
·         Shirt
Whether that upper layer is a long-sleeve, T-shirt, or singlet, it doesn’t matter.  It’s just one item.  One item you have to set out, one item you have to put on, and one item you have to launder.  You are now set to grab this spring season by the cojones.  And that, my friend, is a small win!

5) When your loved one rounds the final corner towards the finish of a marathon

Going to “watch” your friend or loved one run a marathon is somewhat of a misnomer.  You may see them start the race, and perhaps come through the Half, but it’s often an anxious couple of hours of waiting around, wondering where they are and how they’re doing.  If it’s a major marathon, there are often timing mats every 5 or 10km so that you can track their progress on your phone.  But if it’s a smaller race, who knows if they’ve bonked, cramped up, or really done a number on themselves and are stranded somewhere in the middle of nowhere.  That special someone in your life has probably told you what their goal time is, and as that time approaches you find yourself doing a constant head-swivel of checking the race clock, then checking the final bend of the race course.  “They should be coming any minute now”, you keep saying.  Minutes pass. “Ok, it won’t be a PB today but they can still get their BQ”.  Another few minutes pass.  “I guess today just wasn’t their day”.  Another few minutes pass.  “Geez, I hope they’re ok!”.  Then finally, you recognize their singlet off in the distance.  You peer closer to make certain it’s them.  Then you begin cheering frantically for them.  It doesn’t matter that months of preparation have ended in disappointment because they’re upright, moving forward, and accounted for! 

4) When you make a new running buddy

If you’ve been running in the same hood for long enough, you come to recognize a lot of the same faces and may even be on an acknowledgement basis with the people you cross paths with frequently.  For me, it’s always nice to get a friendly greeting from Purple Coat (who wears the same purple running coat whether is -20° or +20°, Moustache Man (who celebrates Movember all year long), Wealthy Woman (who is very put together and I bet has the great life that every woman dreams of), as well as certain other anonymous characters that I know nothing about.  They don’t run my pace, they’re not in my age demographic, and if I saw them in another context I probably wouldn’t recognize them.  I hope they all have a good life and everything, but realistically my relationship with them will likely never advance past the “wave good morning” level.   But then once in a blue moon if you’re lucky, you’ll see someone in the park, at a group run, or local race that you are destined to become besties with.  They run your pace, live close by, and are someone you could pass a 2 hour long run with in no time.  Having another running buddy in your rolodex to meet up with for some miles turns any run into a social outing.  Given that my Saturday evenings are generally quite lame, interaction with a new member of my peer group on a Sunday morning is a small win!  

      3) When city park staff have just cleaned the washroom as you arrive

If you’re fortunate enough to live in a city that has a trail system or large park which serves as a running oasis, you have already won the geographic lottery.  For me however, having miles of pathway without public washroom facilities scattered alongside is often akin to playing indecency Russian roulette.  Knowing you have washroom options at least every few miles is great for your piece of mind, although they often require you to be well-versed in the “hover” technique if you’re a female or male going #2, as cleanliness can often be highly questionable.  Every so often you may run up on a bathroom hut, bowels about to explode, and find a City Parks & Rec truck parked out front.  Timing is everything, and this could either be a really bad surprise or an awesome surprise.  If the bathroom door is locked with a “Closed for Cleaning” sign on display, it’s panic time.  Do I wait it out? Can I make it to the next available bathroom?  Are the woods dense enough to provide cover?  These desperate times require quick, decisive action.  Some days, however, you may be just #blessed enough to stop your watch just as the City Park Staff is exiting the bathroom, mop in hand.  Here before you is a pristine palace of bathroom hygiene: toilet paper fully stocked, chemical soap topped up, toilet water a pale blue, and a seat you could eat your lunch off of.  There’s no need to burn your already-tired quads in the hover position, and if you take so long in there that your Garmin auto-saves on you, it’s all worth it.  Just relax and savour the small win!

 2) Outpacing a surging Millennial weekend warrior

You’ve seen them out there.  They usually emerge after 11am on a Saturday morning sporting a cotton shirt or hoodie, track pants, and head phones.  They were probably out late having a few drinks last night but are now ready to get their weekend started with some cardio.  They are a Millennial, and they want on-demand fitness!  15-20 minutes of given’er should be all it takes.  Don’t get me wrong, I applaud anyone who gets out there for a run.   And I was born in the early 80’s, so I’m allowed to make fun of my own generation.  But seriously, how many times have you been out for an easy run when someone in their 20’s approaches an intersection at the same time as you and are now running in your direction?  It doesn’t matter who you are, their ego won’t let them be beaten by someone who dare share the sidewalk with them.  You hear a loud panting coming up behind you, they pass on your right without a glance of acknowledgement, and keep surging as the lactic acid begins to pool in their under-trained muscle cells.  They run ahead of you for less than 100 meters until the next side street, and randomly make a hard turn.  You glance over to see them hunched over, hands on their knees, gasping for breath.  Like that was really where they planned to stop their run?  Congratulations Millennial, you beat me during a short segment of my recovery jog!
Last spring I recall one instance where I was just starting a jog around the Halifax Commons when a young man sporting a white cotton beater, black tear-aways, and GNC muscles went by me.  I’ve been doing this long enough that my pride doesn’t get bruised when things like this happen.  It usually takes me a mile or two to get warmed up and settled into pace, so I ended up catching him again about a half-mile later.  No way was this guy letting me go by him.  My pace was naturally drifting down from a 7:30 mile, to a 7:20, to a 7:10, and this guy’s cadence was matching me stride for stride.  I crossed the street and so did he.  Without saying a word it was clear that this guy was looking to race!  His testosterone was increasing with each laboured pant and he was not going to let some guy in split shorts and a technical shirt run away from him.  We were running side-by-side for about 400 meters and it was starting to get really awkward.  He had this really intense look on his face and I was worried he was about to throw a punch.  After a couple minutes of this, enough was enough, and I dropped it down to about 6:50 to get away from him.  He charged hard for a few strides, but then backed off, and accepted defeat.  It was a valiant effort buddy, but now you are going to feel the delayed onset muscle soreness tomorrow morning.  That was more entertainment than I was expecting that morning, as there’s no better way to spice up an easy run than to deflate the ego of a Millennial weekend warrior.  Small win!

  1) Returning from a workday lunch run to find no one’s been looking for you

If you’re already balancing work and family commitments, you know that time is a precious commodity and getting out for a run often requires intricate planning.  The morning or evening may not be feasible and the only window of time to sneak out without shirking your other responsibilities is during the lunch-hour at work.  On Thursdays I block off 12 – 1 like it’s an important meeting.  When I make it out of the office it’s like I’ve escaped from Shawshank – nobody can reach me unless they can catch me, and whatever urgent fires need putting out will have to wait until I get back.  It takes me a mile or two to decompress and not feel guilty about being out there.  By the time I get to Point Pleasant Park my stress hormones have temporarily subsided and it’s serenity now (like from Seinfeld).  All is calm until I return to my office and do the scan:  Red message light flashing from my desk phone?  Nope? Sweet!  Any texts on my iPhone? Nope? Holla!  That little envelope in the corner of my computer screen indicating I have unread e-mail? Nope! Awe-yeah! (like 90’s rappers say “Awe-yeah”).  These are sometimes offset by those times when you have an IM at 12:03 from your boss who needs something important, but when you return from your lunch run to discover no one was looking for you, that is a small win!