Saturday, April 28, 2018

Gratitude Versus Expectation: A Marathon Meditation

When the Boston Marathon competitors complete their dawn pilgrimage to the Starters’ Village in Hopkinton each year, the conversations turn to previous versions of the race. In 2018, as we shuffled for warmth in the pouring rain and glanced at the mounds of ice surrounding the tents, comparisons were made to the heat of 2012 and the rains of 2015. In 2019 and beyond, the weather on race day 2018 will have a special place during these pre-race chats. It will not be a mere passing point of reference drawn from a Marathon veteran’s mental scrap book, but an epic retelling requested by one who missed, escaped or avoided it. Details about the will-breaking rains and headwinds will be feasted upon by those who missed it while it evokes an un-nostalgic shiver among the narrator-survivors.

On more springlike days, there is a festival atmosphere in Hopkinton. The runners scatter and sprawl on the school fields to savour arrival and cobble together this version of prerace ritual. They stretch, splay out on the grass, and relax - zone out in their own way. Selfies at the sign marking the start are taken. In 2018, they huddled for warmth in the tents, jammed to near standstill, the runners shuffling their feet in the muddy bog as the hours to the each wave’s start slowly ticked by. There was an airport expectancy. That may be the case every year, but with the weather as bleak as it was, the race start felt more like a demanding evacuation exercise instead of a premiere sporting event couched in a century-plus of tradition.

Beyond the overnight sleet and ongoing rain, there were cold temperatures and strong winds that only promised to intensify throughout race day. Many of the spectators who brought signs to the race route eschewed the pithiest old school running signs for Pixar’s lexicon: “Just keep swimming.” The descriptions of the race weather will vary from runner to runner when these Boston veterans return to Hopkinton or the tales of this exceptionally epic iteration of the Marathon are recounted over Thursday night beers or Sunday morning long-run brunches among running clubs. 

Those volunteers hoping to collect discarded clothes on race day on behalf of Big Brothers Big Sisters stood in the torrents to little avail. Despite expectations of warming up, people kept their clothing on throughout and discarded little on route. If ever the temptation to drop a layer welled up, it was pounded away by a gust of wind that stunned you with a sheet of rain that metaphorically or psychologically stopped you in your tracks or sent you reeling backwards. There is the reality for some runners that it actually stopped them. As I encountered the headwinds, I dreaded the possibility of the cold rain pounding my forehead until the aching numbness of the third eye set in to double me over in a full-body wince. My thin toque managed to fend off that sensation.

Runners would admit that they really wondered why they were racing through these conditions merely for the sake of completing a marathon. For myself, a first time participant in Boston, there was only the most fleeting thought about quitting. I was propelled by the sense of privilege of being on that storied route. There was an overarching sense of pleasure in running that route and having that experience among my races. I noted but did not mind the rains and headwinds. 

As I have slowly come to realize during my previous 10 marathons, the mental component is crucial.  I ran my first Boston Marathon with a serenity that made the miles disappear behind me with little doubt or anguish about the remaining steps. When the rain made its mark it did on the day, I took the pressure off myself and proceeded. I decided the goal would be 3:40 and precisely ran that.

Coming away from the race, I have contemplating the relation or opposition between gratitude and expectation. When expressed from a more A-type mindset, expectations can quickly turn into an anvil to lug up Heartbreak Hill while a sense of gratitude can keep you steady, serene and clear of the flight or fight reactions that accompany a more tense frame of mind.

The opposition between gratitude and expectation echoes the tortoise and hare parable. The elite runners had more expectations during the 2018 Boston Marathon and the sense of gratitude had likely been eroded by years of rigorous training, top level competition and calculating each step, bite and stretch with an eye to peaking for the right races. They were working with not only higher expectations, but the calculus that amounts to risking the outcome of a future race by expending so much energy in a losing battle. To that point, it is significant that Yuki Takeuchi, the 2018 winner of the Boston Marathon runs a compulsive number of marathons, a number the limits the stakes of each individual race and, consequently, his expectations each time he toes the start line because another race is not too far down the line. (Takeuchi raced a half-marathon six days after completing Boston.) There is a willingness to seek fun rather than reward as is evidenced by his Guinness record for fastest half-marathon in a panda costume and less chance of being enslaved by an arbitrary goal such as a certain time, ranking or compensation.

The weekend warriors made up the gap between themselves and the elites, in many cases, with the sheer mass of gratitude they brought to the start line. Finding the gratitude when facing adversity — whether in running or elsewhere in life — keeps you engaged and striving, even if the progress is not evident or satisfying. Parenting, work, relationships and creating are just a few areas of life where you can be stopped in your tracks. It is common to assume or expect that things will just happen and that a high performance state will be entered with mere desire for it. However, there is slogging and strife at times. Finding the gratitude to realize that you have at that moment, the privilege, the energy and resources within to accomplish something and leave your mark is great way to actually position your self within sight of the possible. Shedding or examining your expectations and assessing your perspective at a given moment in terms of expectations and gratitude (or privilege) can reshape a challenge or a moment into one were success and contentment can outstrip frustration and hardship.

My other running posts:
Big Sur 2014 
Vancouver 2016
Nashville 2016 - missed my BQ by 9 seconds
Calgary 2017
Edmonton 2017 BQ
Portland 2017
Prelude to Boston 2018
Boston 2018 (1)

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Pat Metheny NEA Jazz Master Acceptance Speech - April 16, 2018

In April 2018, the National Endowment for the Arts int he United States recognized, as it does annually, four jazz artists for their contributions to the art form. Among the recipients this year was guitarist Pat Metheny, whose career has been one of the most diverse and significant in music over the last four decades. 

By his own admission Metheny graduated from high school thanks to the generosity of his teachers in Lee Summit, Missouri, who overlooked the marks that were pummelled by his teen years spent on the jazz bandstands in near by Kansas City. Despite his limited formal education, Metheny is one of the most articulate and insightful public figure I know and while I suspect he would rather let his music do the talking, his commentary on music, society and the arts has been quite value.  With that said I would like to share this transcription of his speech from the NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert:

"Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you. 
First off, I’d just like to deeply thank the NEA for this amazing award. It’s an honor beyond anything I ever could have imagined growing up out there in Missouri. And it’s especially great to have my beautiful family. My wife Latifa, my boys Nicholas and Jeffery, my daughter Maya are here. I’ve got a whole bunch of cousins that came here from all over the States on the Metheny and Hansen side of our family. They flew in here just to be here. And to look out and see so many of my favorite musicians and favourite music people just makes all of this even more meaningful.  It has been such a special weekend too to share this honour with Todd, Joanne and Dianne. Folks I admire so much and to be able to hear them speak and to be able to be around them makes it all so much more memorable.

And to have Christian and Antonio, my brothers and the whole crew of these amazing five guitar players that are just out there doing their thing. It just makes it absolutely fantastic.
It has been such a privilege for me to have lived and worked alongside with so many great musicians of our time, some of whom have been bestowed this award.  Among them, my most important mentor, Gary Burton who I could never thank enough for the many lessons in all departments learned along the way through him. And my best friend in life, Charlie Haden, whom I miss every day. And my two all time favourite drum heroes, Jack DeJohnette and Roy Haynes. Also two of my favourite people in the world. And to be noted among them and so many of my other major heroes in this music tonight is an almost overwhelming honour.  When I look at the community of musicians recognized historically by this distinction, representing an almost indescribably wide variety of musical dialects, I see one common thread: a complete commitment to creativity. A commitment to represent who they are and where they came from with honesty and integrity and soul and a commitment to bring a sound into the world that reflects their own personal experiences and individuality. 

To me, that mission is the central objective in this music and my goal has always been to do my best to try to meet that aspiration. As musicians, we find ourselves trading in a currency that has way more actual value than the people at the top might realize.  Sometimes it takes years, decades even for the true impact of what this community has offered to be felt. Politicians come and go. Great music has a way of lasting and remaining influential for a really, really, really, really long time.

Anyone seeking long term political influence should probably pay attention to that. What is represented in this music at its best and the incredible range of musicians who populate it is often transcendent of the culture that it is made in even while being deeply formed by the forces at work at the time of its inception.

Right now, without question there are major cultural and political challenges that we all have to face. It is important to note, whenever possible, how the language of music and this music in particular offers its value, intrinsically and fundamentally, within the currency of good notes and sound itself with little regard for the more everyday kinds of ways that folks tend to measure value.  The messaging system that has evolved through the work and research of the practitioners of this music, the actual values that we trade in every night can serve as an ideal model for many the goals that we aspire to as human beings and as a society. 

Having lived through a number of political ups and downs; if I think back on my favourite music it is hard to remember which administration was in place during this time or that time because the hard currency of music the arts has a way of going far beyond any of that. Even if the work is formed by a particular time and place, the best music suggests a way of living and being that often provides a kind of timeless substance that goes way past the immediate conditions of its creation, even while presenting sometimes important perspectives on current events or the circumstances of history that effected its arrival.
One important thing to note on this front is that the NEA knows this. The fact that we are all here tonight is such a testament to that. It is very important for all Americans to fight for and support its continued survival. It represents, the NEA represents on an institutional level the soul that a functioning democracy must have to exist.

In closing, there is one observation that I have had over the years that I have tried to point out to musicians as often as I can. The majority of the people who are going to get the most out of this music are likely not on the planet yet. Our biggest audience and the folks who will gain the most from what we are all working so hard on and are so committed to are quite possibly not even born yet. There is a very particular kind of faith revealed in knowing that and still devoting every waking minute to finding the right resolution, the right groove, the right ways to push and pull and to fight and to listen. What we are all swinging for is something eternal. It is always worth it, no matter what the struggle.  And this music at its best is proof positive of the true value represented in that faith. The kind of value that makes the contents of Fort Knox seem utterly insignificant in the larger scheme of things. The essence of music somehow contains the secrets of how we all got here and where we all are going. 

What a privilege it has been to live inside that music.

Once again thank you to the NEA for this incredible honour. I am thankful and grateful beyond words. Thank you."

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Tempest

My medal and my bag of wet gear post-race as 
photographed with my fogged up cellphone camera.
When I recount this race in the future, I will either understate or grossly, grossly exaggerate the weather conditions that defined my first Boston Marathon. As I look out my hotel window, the race a few hours behind me, the screen remains clogged with the rain and the visibility limited.  The wind still howls with a reminder of what happened throughout the day. Chafing went to a new extreme on this one and my neck seems serrated by the rubbing of my shirts against my neck and the drawstring of my shorts had done the same to my waist.

My brother and I both had about two hours sleep and were up before the alarms struck at 4:30. While the weather proved daunting, the commitment of the racers and the community astounded me throughout the day as runners funnelled from our various hotels across the city to fill the busses that would take us west to Hopkinton to settle in and bide our time until we toed the start line for the return trip on foot. After decades of anticipation, and a few trying efforts to qualify, it was on.

I managed to keep the logistics of the day at arms' length throughout the day as my Boston vet brother guided me through the procedures of the day. The wet, windy weather had been forecast prior to heading to Boston, but the conditions were worse than even the most recent forecasts had anticipated.  As the hours ticked by and the tents in the starters' village filled with runners looking to bivouac through the morning with their creative uses of plastic bags to keep feet and body dry, the school field that we camped out on turned into a muddy bog. (Sorry, kids.) The conversations turned to other races and where people came from. While the puddles deepened, runners made comparisons to the rain in 2015 and the blistering heat of 2012. Some acknowledged their odysseys to beat the stormy weather to barely make it to Boston for the race and added that there were others who got stuck in old man winter's tight grip in April. The Floridian and Louisianan I met suggested I was accustomed to the weather, but since arriving in Boston I deepened my fondness for the dry cold of Calgary.

After my 2 1/2 hours of waiting passed, it was time to brace myself for the run. I stripped off my garbage bag raincoat and changed my shoes. At that point I was skeptical that I would shed any of the layers that I had.

The race started well for me. The route heads downhill for most of the first 16 miles before reaching The Newton Hills, which concluded with Heartbreak Hill. The cold weather made it difficult to feel my legs loosen up and give me a sense of settling into a rhythm after the first half hour of the race. All I could do was count on the gravity and hope that my legs would stay in the tight medium they were in rather than tightening up further.

It was a battle throughout the race to keep warm and to fend off the rain. The legs tightened further, however, but whenever I looked at the watch to see how I was managing, I was still on my goal pace for much of the race. Any edge I was going to gain in the race was going to have to come from the will and the heart alone with little chance of the legs responding enough to improve my race.

I pushed on, though as the race moved into the last third the effort was intermittent as the elements sapped the concentration needed to stay relatively fast. At the Wellesley Scream Tunnel, which I heard from about 500 metres out, I picked up the pace to push by and I did not take a detour to collect a few kisses from the student body. I suspect the turnout was smaller than more pleasant years, but I was impressed as I had been at several points already through the race at the commitment of the spectators who braved the elements to cheer us on. There was an aspect of the Boston Strong post-2013 spirit that buttressed that, but I sense that the interest in the run has been this strong for much, much longer.

With the Scream Tunnel passed, I found myself doing the math to determine how long it was going to be before I could get out of the rain. The Newton Hills loomed at the 16 mile mark and I managed well with them. Heartbreak, which began at the 20-mile mark rather than the 21-mile mark as I had long assumed turned into a lighter moment. Having finished the climb, there was an inflatable arch in the distance. At first I could only make out "Heartbreak" and I braced myself for the climb but as the arch became clearer I was able to read that Heartbreak was behind me. Route beaten.

With five miles to go, my will welled up to push me along. The route flattened out and gave me the chance to pick up the pace a bit. It felt like the 38th kilometre was the longest of the race and getting down to the last three and the last 15-16 minutes seemed all too long.  As I completed the 40th kilometre and I was met with a fierce squall of wind and rain to daunt me one last time.  I pushed through I kept my eyes peeled for the left turn onto Boylston Street for the homestretch. It occurred much later than I expected, but when I completed the turn with less than a kilometre to go, the blue arch of the finish loomed as close and as distant as any finish.

As the last few hundred metres relented to my finishing kick, I thought about the opposed insistences that did battle throughout the day. The weather -- which exceeded the bleak forecast for its headwinds, rain and cold -- versus my own insistence move forward and not let the race get to me. When the weather set in the night before, I thought about a half-marathon my brother and I did last May in similar, though far less severe, conditions. At the end of the race, however, I thought about the marathon I ran last May, under more summer-like conditions. Last May, when running the Calgary Marathon on a hot day with things just "off" in so many ways I had a tough mental battle, most significantly with the anticipation of people congratulating me for finishing a race that was less than satisfactory. There were times during that race last May when I dreaded having to accept congratulations for getting out there and doing it. From the outset of Boston, I was more flexible in the face of the conditions and the expectations I set. Even under these conditions, Boston was a goal and it remained a privilege to run, regardless of the circumstances. There was never a question of whether or not I would finish or if I had it in me to grind through to the end. The only aggravation was a wonky zipper on the jacket I wore for most of the race and discarded with about 10 minutes remaining.

Given the other results logged that day, my race was a decent one. The elite races featured upsets and much slower times than are typical for the race. When I surveyed the angels I had on my shoulder throughout the race, the people who would be most interested in the outcome and the results, I realized that they weren't going to give me grief about my result. Their response would be overwhelmingly positive, despite the queries about my sanity that running in those conditions ought to provoke. I am not sure if it was a matter of me having already slayed my white whale in qualifying for Boston or a new lasting contentment I had found over the last 11 months, but I was more open and accepting of what came my way during this race.  The weather conditions and the support were both, in their distinctive ways, unconditional. While the race unfolded, I checked in with the same guide posts that I cited during my better races. The distance and the time were manageable rather than daunting. The biggest distinction between Boston and the other marathons was the sheer mass of runners that were out there. Whenever I looked to the horizon, the road was clotted shoulder to shoulder with masses of runners and there were so many different races and paces being run that the people running closest to me changed constantly, there was no familiar pack to fall into step with or bond with. There was less a sense of competition with the other runners and the camaraderie was less tangible than it could become over a 10K stretch of conversation about life.

The steps that followed crossing the line blurred. I was bloody cold and the slowing of stride was bringing on hyperthermia. I was still overwhelmed with a sense of what the accomplishment was and the thoughts about those angels who have been on my shoulder and the gratitude I have toward them. I'm not sure when the next marathon is going to be. Next up is pacing a half-marathon group in late May, but for the time being there is a void somewhat akin to Inigo Montoya's when he realized he achieved his goal. I assure you though that I'm not pondering a life of piracy - my time in today's nor'easter cured me of any aspirations for a life at sea.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Prelude: The Path Thus Far

       The Boston Marathon.

       Me?  ME??
       The Marathon has been in my thoughts for much longer than I have ever acknowledged. In Nova Scotia, we are reminded of the race each spring due to its proximity and the legacy of Johnny Miles, a Halifax runner who won Boston twice in the 1920's and whose legacy adorns one of the most significant marathons on the Nova Scotian racing calendar. Those annual reminders, replete with the legend of his father shaving down his shoes to keep them light for one his Boston efforts, were lore embedded in my imagination from my pre-teens on.
        The mythology of Boston would find me regularly. During the second season of the 1980s medical drama St. Elsewhere, Denzel Washington's character took on the course, albeit solo on an overcast low-key day. When he came to the bottom of Heartbreak Hill and stopped to assess it before tackling the ascent, another page of race lore was embedded in my imagination. This is a tough bugger.
        I have never considered myself an athlete. I played sports yes, but in hockey it was only in my last game of organized hockey that, given a yawning open net, I slid a puck across the abyss from the blueline to the faintest tink of the vulcanized rubber against the back of the net. The goalie was out of position, not on the bench, and the puck moved fast enough to cross the line before he could reposition himself.
        Running, though, had long been in the background. During my adult years, I had run intermittently to fend off the accumulation of brownies and sundry other temptations. For the most part, running has been motivated by maintaining fitness, not improving it. When a change of employers meant that I would have to abandon the mechanized tedium of cardio machines for another means of fitness, running - outdoors, pounding my joints and exposed to the elements - was the quiet classmate who never really bonded with me until we, surrounded by strangers in a new locale, decided to strike up a conversation on the basis of relative familiarity. Runs had their rewards, but more often it was the scenery rather than the runner's high. When I lived in Kyoto for example, I regularly ran through the city's photogenic bamboo grove and one run was crowned with the cinematic solitude of a lone shakuhachi echoing through the river valley on a misty Sunday morning.
      Racing and training, though, never entered my mind until my 40s. The elementary school experience of being the slowest of a group that played tag or raced each day to assess ourselves and -- as my eight-year-old self-worth -- made me reluctant to compete as a runner, even with myself. My first race, in 2005, was an 11K trail run which I finished in an embarrassing 93 minutes; a light year from a Boston Qualifying (BQ) time. It was not a matter of being unfit or having another few stones of fat that I would shed before I got to this particular weekend in 2018. I just went out too hard and lost to inexperience. It would be four years before I raced again. A change of employer had just occurred and exiled me from the fitness centre I relied on for my brownie-burning turns on ellipticals.
      Oddly enough, I gravitated to the half-marathon rather than taking baby steps through a 5- or 10K. Was it just the m-word luring me? The shorter distances were available at this race, but my running commute home was about 11K so I felt comfortable pushing myself to the longer distance. The admission would likely be, that yes a marathon was ... THE marathon was always in the distant back of my mind.  The muted memory of Johnny Miles and Denzel Washington, that hill and that neighbouring city, Boston had leaked into my consciousness as early as age 9 or 10 and loomed as a possibility even before my youngest brother attained the goal as he quietly racked up his sterling results in the marathon.
     After a few half marathons, I indulged in looking up the BQ time for my age group and did the calculations. I was daunted and decided I would only attempt a full marathon if i could do it in in under four hours.  After another four years, in May 2013, I felt confident that my sub-4 hour goal was in range and registered for the Big Sur International Marathon. Those who know that race, are  likely snickering at how oblivious I was to making things easy on myself. Goal accomplished, however. And... I was hooked.
     From then on, I hoped to improve from one race to the next, but more enjoyed the transformational experience that each race proved to be. at this point, I want to circle back to that word that I wear so hesitantly, "athlete," and suggest that the accomplishments come not from gifts of agility, flexibility or the strength that we cite when thinking of basketball, soccer or hockey. Yes there is cardio capacity and endurance in my version of athlete, but much more of my training and racing has been about the journey within.
       For the scenery that I have seen in jogging Kyoto, racing at Big Sur, hobbling through Stanley Park or racing along the foggy shorelines in Nova Scotia, there has been an examination of the scenery in my mind. Whether my darkest, loneliest thoughts are haunting me or luring me with the option of quitting and walking away or my most poignant, palpable anticipation of a joy that is 58 minutes away, replete with the kind wishes of the people who inspire me, the marathons and the training have been more spiritual than athletic. Crossing a finish line is an occasion to reflect on what those particular 42.2K -- good or bad -- indelibly inflect in my voice, smile or posture.
      Boston has been a goal longer than I've admitted before but race day will not entirely about the clock. The zone that I found myself in when running on a beautiful day in Nashville is a hard to articulate but even more of a treasure because it is so personal. When the passage of time leeches into my capacity to outrun younger selves, it will be that zone and contentment that I aspire to.
       Ah... to outrun.
       The goal, getting there, was attained seven months ago and the question that has lingered for several years was whether it was better to qualify for Boston or to run it
       A few days from now I'm going to figure out what shoes to put on -- no, I haven't figured that out yet -- and join the queue for my next deep journey within.  The hopes and the unknowns are still wallflowers at a junior high dance but on Monday morning, they will pair up and find the music and rhythm they want to move to. They will break off with one another and re-pair throughout the race as I follow a route that I have heard about for 40-odd years. I will grapple with darkness, remind myself of inspiration, cling to it dearly and grant myself a moment to acknowledge that tenacity, not numbed habit, got me there, and put one foot in front of the other until I cross the line, my distance put in and another chapter of commitment, perseverance and reflection written.
      There will be a small fist pump, handshakes with the people I shared the last few miles with, and hugs with my brothers when I find them. I might get exuberant, especially if a personal best or a long stretch in the zone define the day. Ultimately, there will be the unknown that follows attaining something that not so long ago seemed unrealistic. From this perspective, with the race days way, the first steps beyond the finish line with the medal around my neck and a banana in my hand seem mysterious, charmed and full of promise.