Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Pain in the Park

Thursday after work, instead of doing my usual yoga class (or changing into pajamas now it gets dark at 4pm), I change into running clothes as soon as I get home. I grab my headlamp, do my hip exercises, and head out to meet up with 20 or so of my closest run friends to hurt a lot in the dark.

I run with VFAC (, coached by John Hill. We run out of Stanley Park and the Point Grey track (or at least, I've heard rumours of track workouts, but haven't attended more than two in a row since early March).

origin story
Four years ago, after writing my UFE exam, I decided that I needed to get a life. Or, due to my low alcohol tolerance and preference for early bedtimes, the closest thing to it - a run club. I took a break from reading celebrity gossip online, and instead thought about potential clubs to join. Several months earlier,
I had gone to a Wednesday John Hill practice with my friend Lucy. We did 2x2miles, and I remembered being both destroyed and happy. So, I figured that VFAC looked promising: Stanley Park was nearby and easy to get to, the evening times worked. The only downside: the fast times posted by the athletes intimidated the hell out of me. I e-mailed coach John. Instead of getting a reply e-mail, I got the hour-long phone call. Afterwards, I was still slightly confused, more than a little nervous, and committed to showing up at practice the next week.

One early October night, I jogged over solo to meet at Brockton at 6:15, as John as said. I was the first person there. Runners trickled in around 6:25. To run with VFAC means you need to have a flexible concept of time. There were people of all ages, and a very intimidating group of fast-looking women wearing kneesocks. Before I was too scared off, I met a couple girls my own age: Emily (who is now in NZ, and a new mother), Chessa (a trail runner / cyclist) and Heather (still running with VFAC!).

We warmed up for what seemed to be a really long time. The workout was announced: 4 miles, then 2x1mile. Holy shit. Before the workout could start, John had to do his rounds: First, to give everyone their times - the pace he estimated that they could run at. Second, to assign everyone to a pace group, and stagger the groups - slowest leaving first, fastest leaving last.

I started the 4 miles, and quickly realized the magic of VFAC: I hurt like hell, and I was still going. Having a group of other people - all with the same ragged breath and sighs - who weren't giving up made me not give up, either. I somehow finished the workout, nauseous and elated. And went back the next week.

off and on
The next couple years, I kept going to VFAC sporadically. I would go for a month, two months, three months during training for the 2009 Vancouver marathon. I did the occasional tempo. I would get a bit faster, then would get injured, or leave on a hike trip, or get busy with work.

What I did gain from the practices I showed up to was a glimpse at another community: people who woke up and ran, without excuses. People who raced hard on Sunday, and then showed up to run intervals the following Thursday. I gained girlfriends who were just as active as me: hike buddies, run buddies, even swim buddies.

I saw people who had joined after me get PB after PB as they followed the training plans John gave them every two weeks. I saw pictures (heavily edited, as I found out), of the Haney to Harrison relay, or post-race and post-workout drinks. I saw how supportive everyone was to those racing.

Finally, this January, I decided I wanted to be one of them. It's been a bit of a learning curve since.

the timing could be better
I started training seriously in January. Training seriously means Tuesday tempos, track workouts, trail intervals, long runs: week in, week out, no excuses. One week into training, I got sick. One month into training, my old live-in boyfriend broke up with me, and I was suddenly living in my friend's basement in West Vancouver. And here was the amazing thing: thanks to my teammates, I kept training for a marathon. I had Allison come drive to where I was staying and run 26k with me before work, in the rain, in the dark. I learned the special Park Royal meeting place to run over to practice. I had Brooke drive out of her way to give me rides home from track. When I moved back to the West End, I had Angela and Jackie to meet for early tempos. Some days, I felt like I could drift away, and VFAC helped to centre me.

But don't get me wrong: the club is full of quirks.

shirtless season starts in April
In April, when the evenings are (marginally) less dark, the workouts are on the Stanley park trails. The extra daylight seems to be some sort of signal to most of the guys, who choose to go shirtless. This would be fine if the weather was warmer. Or sunnier. Or even not mostly raining until well into July. Though the extra skin seems to attract more than an extra share of the Beaver Lake mosquitos, so perhaps I should just be grateful.

patience is a virtue
Or, as I call it, "social time". This is the time between the end of the cooldown and the start of the workout. This can last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes (a good rule of thumb: the earlier / more important your post-workout plans are, the longer it will take for the workout to start). During this time, John assigns paces and arranges pace groups. He also will tend to any potential injuries or tight muscles of the group members. Pretty much any injury is tended to by John digging his fingers deep into your hip muscles - to a surprisingly high success rate. The longer team members wait for the workout to start, the antsier we get. I think this is a deliberate strategy on John's part: instead of dreading the workout, we actually are desperate to start it. (that, or with the increasing amount of members and injuries, it takes a while to assign times).

When I started VFAC, the waiting around bugged me. Now, as long as there isn't driving rain or a zillion mosquitos, it's a way for me to catch up with my run friends...and occasionally to recover from the warm up.

we fought the law...the law occasionally wins
In October through to January, workouts move from the track / trails to the Stanley park roads. The roads are pretty quiet - except for the tour buses and the Christmas train traffic. These vehicles don't always appreciate it when a group of runners, many of whom are wearing dark clothing and no headlamps, try to play chicken with them in the middle of the road. At the start of the workout, we all listen as coach John tells us: stay on the sdewalks, stay in the parking lane, DO NOT RUN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD.

Then our pace groups start. And, usually, I immediately fall towards the back as everyone opens into a fast pace. I know I need to find a sidewalk, but my run-stupid brain is convinced I will not get dropped, if only I stay exactly in the middle of the road, running just next another girl. Yes, there are cars trying to pass. Yes, some of them are honking. But I am hanging on! And feel like I could make a move to pass. And the only way I can do this is by disrupting all traffic.

As a result, when the group is standing (partially in the middle of the road), in an unlit section, giving John our workout times, we are occasionally visited by a police cruiser. This has happened several times.

The last time,  by our standards, went pretty well: the policewoman waited to talk to coach John until after we had all finished giving him our workout times. Some of the team members used this pause to try and persuade the policewoman of how fast she would become after a couple months of the VFAC training program. She remain unswayed, but our club now has a firm headlamp and reflective clothing policy (a good change from our old "black on black" dress code).

creative distances
I attempt to explain our workouts to other athletes. A typical discussion might go like this:

Non-VFAC-member ("NVM"): "I did hills - 8x3mins on with 2min rest".
Me: We do hill workouts too! I like the trail one. We do 5 hills.
NVM: How long are the uphills?
Me: We run from the trail intersection, up the hill, and stop just after the stump.
NVM: How much rest do you have?
Me: We jog down in groups. We do another interval downhill, from a different trail intersection to a signpost. Coach John sometimes yells at us if we go too fast.
NVM: ...

We have workouts with descriptions like: 1 mile 5/8th, 2k net downhill, "back half" (one of my favourite workouts). We have ways of orienting ourselves: "When you can see the ocean through the trees, you have 200m left", "At the trail intersection wiht the stump, it's 400m to go."

There is a quote: "Running gives more than it takes." For me, this is very true.

Running has taken my weekends, my early mornings, my ability to wear heels, my toenails, my after 9pm social life. It has given me a community of strong, inspirational, positive people. It has given me friends who think meeting at 5:45am to run a 21k tempo before work is a completely legitimate activity. It has given me teammates who come out to watch us run races and cheer us on. It has given me the chance to celebrate the sucesses of others: from my teammates who win races to those teammates who run marathons for the first time in their 40s. It has given me the thrill of achievement when coach John "likes" one of my trail running status updates on facebook.

A year ago, I never thought I would have girlfriends who would run 38k with me on a Tuesday morning before work as part of marathon training. I never thought that I would look forwards to gutting it out, in the dark, on the roads in Stanley park as part of late season training. Part of it is the endorphins. Part of it is pushing to the point where I want to quit, and still going. But mostly - it's the people. I like the long waits where I get to hear about everyone's week. I like working in a group, all of us going as hard as we can, and finding the energy for a bit more. I like the drinks after practice (ok, I like them less the following morning) and after races.

The great thing, to me, is how much club members support each other. We all have our own goals, and we are all working hard to achieve them. To some, it's winning races. To others, it's a PB. You have to be a little crazy to do the training we do, week in and week out. And I like that we're all a little crazy, together.

No comments:

Post a Comment