The assignment landed on my desk with a thud. Well, at least it felt that way. Like most things these days, it actually came to me via e-mail, but in my mind there was a dramatic thud. An emotional one anyway.
I was to enter the Tom Longboat 10k run and write a first-person story about my experience. The run, which was to take place on the Six Nations native reserve near Hamilton, Ontario, was in two days.
Not sure if they had the right person, I wrote a quick reply: “You are trying to kill me, right?” I asked hopefully.
Sadly, I was the intended recipient of the e-mail. So two days later, I found myself sweating profusely through the first minute of what was sure to be a 90 minute—if I was lucky or could flag a cab—ordeal.
With my throat feeling like I was gargling sawdust, I began to scan the nearby fields for an escape route.
Suddenly, some of the livestock looked promising. Knowing that there was a rodeo coming to the area, I thought I might be able to convince my editor that a first-person account of me riding a bull might make a better story.
If it bleeds it leads, they always say. Think of the possibilities: “Local sportswriter gored by bull,” the headline would read. It could work.
Alas, I knew it wasn’t to be. One kilometer down, I only had one option.
I had to keep running.
Not a runner’s body
Those that have met me will likely understand that I don't really have a runner's body. I'm, to put it charitably, a little…rounder than most people you would see at a 10k.
OK, I admit it. I'm tubby. Not a lot, but a little. And I'm terribly out of shape. The great irony of sportswriting is that you spend so much time watching sports that you don't have time to take part yourself.
Whereas I once played recreational hockey, soccer and basketball weekly—and worked out four times a week on top of that—now I just eat at Taco Bell.
Sadly, as I trudged along, slowly, through that first kilometer of the run, I came to the realization that there wasn't going to be a bean burrito anywhere in my near future. Rather, the next hour of my life promised cramping, sweating, sore feet and some serious soul searching.
I'm sure the organizers of the run would appreciate the soul searching part. After all, the stated goal of the run was to convince people to become more active.
Using the example of Tom Longboat—a Six Nations man who for a period of time early last century was the greatest distance runner in the world—it was thought that people may be inspired to take better care of themselves.
A worthwhile goal
It's hard to argue with that. It would be a worthwhile goal anywhere.
Considering that studies have consistently shown that Aboriginal Canadians have, on average, higher rates of obesity than non-Aboriginals, and that as a country Canada has one of the highest obesity rates in the world, it wouldn't hurt any of us to go for a run now and again.
As a sportswriter, I know first-hand that Six Nations is a fairly active community. With about 3,000 people taking part in at least one program offered through the Parks and Rec department, many people are already buying into the idea of an active lifestyle.
Still, as good as the 3,000 number is, Parks and Rec director Cheryl Henhawk told me that she would like to see it grow.
"It comes down to resources," she said. "I only have one full-time staff. It would be nice to have more so that we can offer more."
However, she said that she was ecstatic with the turnout at the run.
"It's great to see this many people out," she said while cheering on the late finishers. "We're happy with how the day went."
As she should be. With more than 150 people taking part, it was an impressive ribbon of complimentary white and purple Tom Longboat t-shirts making its way along the roads around I. L. Thomas School.
Many were running, some were running and walking, a few were biking or rollerblading, and some just walked.
It was all good, really. Not everyone can be the next Tom Longboat after all. His was a special talent that only comes around every couple of generations.
That's why the run Thursday wasn't a race. There were no timers and no first place ribbons. Henhawk said that's exactly the way that it should be.
"I don't know," she said when I foolishly asked who the first runner to cross the line was. "That's not really the point."
What was the point again?
Ah, the point. I must admit that while huffing and puffing my way up one particularly nasty hill I was having difficulty understanding what exactly that point was.
I know that if my car suddenly, magically appeared on the horizon I would have had difficulty resisting the temptation to jump in and "finish" the race in it—pushing down the accelerator, that's exercise, right?
And then I saw it. A simple purple sign strategically located at the top of the hill. "Challenge yourself," it said. "You're almost there!"
I've never been one for the Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil inspirational gobbledygook, but there was something about that sign. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the sight of so many others struggling up the hill, but at that moment those words were exactly what I needed to see.
"Damn right," I thought. "I can challenge myself. I can finish this run!"
And I did—slowly.
After talking the night before with my better-half Andrea (who recently completed the Ottawa half-marathon and was having a good laugh at my expense when I told her that I had been asked to run in the event), I employed the time-honoured "five and one" strategy of long-distance running. For every five minutes I spent running, I would walk for one minute.
Also on Andrea's advice, I only ran for half the distance, choosing to walk briskly for the last half ("you are no good to me dead of a heart attack" was what she diplomatically said the night before).
She's a smart one, my Andrea. Understanding your limitations and devising an exercise program that fits within them is key for anyone looking to get back on the fitness wagon.
Mixing walking and running is highly recommended for novice joggers. The recovery that walking provides allows you to train longer and to run longer distances.
It also helps to prevent you from hurting yourself. "No pain, no gain" is an antiquated concept that is universally rejected by those who know what they are talking about.
Those who properly build their running capabilities through a walk/run strategy will be motivated to stay with the sport longer. Soon, instead of walking for one minute for every five minutes of running, you will stretch things out to 10 minutes of running before walking.
Eventually, a 10k run won't be daunting at all. Depending on your age and current fitness level, it could take as few as 10 weeks to go from being a non-runner to being able to run that long a race reasonably.
Out of control
Not that running is the be-all for everyone. Beyond the extra "padding" on my waistline, an old soccer injury makes distance-running challenging for me. But, as I completed the last few kilometers of the event, I understood that things had gotten too far out of control.
I'm not yet at the point where I need an elevator to go up a flight of stairs, and people aren't yet pointing and staring at me on the street. But I'm not happy with myself for letting my fitness level slip to the point where I legitimately have to consider whether it is safe for me to try and run a 10k.
I work long hours, but so do lots of people. Like we've always been told, it really does only take 20 minutes a day to get and stay healthy.
As I was chastising my too-tubby self, I started to look around at the other participants. I wondered what brought them out. Were some, like me, forced? Were others there in an effort to jumpstart themselves into a healthy lifestyle? If so, was it working?
And then I spotted him: a young boy, maybe 10 or 11, running erratically along the route. I say erratically, because he was running at full speed up the course, stopping, turning around, and then running just as fast back to almost the same point that he had started at. His mother drove beside him in a SUV, encouraging him.
Remembering when it was fun
Not that he required much encouragement. As the rest of us huffed and puffed, he carried on full, lengthy conversations while sprinting along the course. It was clear that to this boy running wasn't exercise so much as it was a form of transportation.
Watching him got me thinking about my childhood. How I used to get up on a Saturday morning and play tennis for two hours, then road hockey for four more, all as a warm-up to my soccer game in the evening. I remembered the pure joy that activity used to give me and I longed to go back to that point of my life.
At what point in our life does taking part in a physical activity become work, and why does it have to happen? Maybe I can't ever bring the type of energy to an activity that the young boy was, I suddenly understood, but there was no reason that I couldn't bring the same enthusiasm.
Above all else, the young boy was reminding me of an essential fact about physical activity—it's fun. A blast, really, and it has the potential to bring joy, purpose and a tremendous sense of achievement to our lives.
It was with those thoughts in my head that I turned the final corner of the course. With the finish line in view, I broke into a light jog, looking to finish the event with a little style. Then suddenly a smile broke across my face—I had challenged myself and I had been successful.
It felt amazing.
Crossing the finish line I spotted the young boy again. He was walking towards me carrying a new volleyball.
"Look what I won!" he exclaimed to me. "Isn't it awesome?"
Stopping, I took the ball and held it for a moment, spinning it in my hands as I looked it over.
"It is awesome," I said, "really awesome."
In our X-Box world, it was a relief to see a child legitimately excited by something as simple as a ball. And at that moment I had no doubt that the boy would make good use of his new toy.
It was just a ball, I understood, but I had hope that it could be an instrument for so much more. It could lead to a healthier life for the boy, it could help keep him out of trouble and, just maybe, in time, it could help him become a hero and a role model for his community.
Yes, it was an awesome ball indeed.
(originally published in June 2007)