It took a little while, but I found out what the overseas area code for the United Kingdom was. Then – this was 1980 – I asked for directory assistance in London. I naively inquired about a residential phone number. To my astonishment, they had his number. I carefully composed myself, dialled, and fully expected either an assistant or someone running interference to answer. The phone rang a few times. Then, a man answered.
“Hello,” the voice said in an Oxfordian accent.
“Hello,” I said, not believing someone had actually picked up the phone. “Ah, would Dr. Bannister be there?”
They’re ba-ack! Over the past few weeks, I’ve watched masses of Canada geese – in giant Vs – winging their way north. I’ve seen a few muscle cars, out from under their custom-fitted winter blankets, taking to the streets. I’ve watched the local hardware stores erect their portable garden shops for the growing season ahead. I’ve watched a few pairs of shorts and bare legs – on both men and women – return to neighbourhood sidewalks. But that’s not the return I’m talking about.
I’m talking about the outdoor runners. They’re back and they’re everywhere.
The week the snow had retreated from the bike paths and walking trails… the day they felt they could safely expose their knees and calves and not suffer frostbite… the moment the pavement was dry enough, the runners were out in their Spandex, their ear buds and their blissful running trances. Of course, there were lots of the diehard year-round runners out there all winter, but I’m talking about the fair-weather runners, who can’t wait to parade their fitness regimen outside, huff and puff stylishly in the early spring air, and make sure the rest of the world takes notice and wonders why.
Well, some of the running is a desperate response to cabin fever. People with a penchant for exercise, suddenly feel they have to get out of the house at any cost. And sprinting to somewhere is as good an excuse as any. Runners appear more eager than most to fight off the effects of being cooped up for the winter. They run outside as a kind of statement of defiance, that spring has finally taken hold, that it’s time to escape the relative inactivity of the living room couch and lead the annual human migration back outdoors. I suspect that’s one of the reasons they stage the Boston Marathon early in the spring.
I spent the part of the weekend down in southwestern Ontario, where warmer temperatures tend to arrive first. There, I spotted plenty of shorts-clad runners along country roads near Woodstock, on the downtown streets of London, and deep into the bike paths that crisscross all of the Thames River Valley. In places they were fighting for space with bicyclists, motorcycle enthusiasts, and even automobile traffic. I visited my oldest friend (celebrating his 65th birthday) in London, and we talked about running this time of year.
“I lose myself when I run,” he said. “I focus on a spot ahead and I’m in the moment. Everything else kind of disappears.”
I can relate to that feeling from my days as a long-distance runner back at high school. Our brand of outdoor running happened in the fall for the cross-country championships and in the spring before track and field trials. When I ran my requisite three or four miles (I can still relate best to miles, despite over 40 years of trying to learn metric) per night, I lost myself in the run just like my friend. Especially in April, the early spring chill, the late winter cobwebs, and the pain of the day before, all went away the moment I began a spring distance run. Like goalies, runners “get into a zone.”
Take for example the case of half-marathoner Krista DuChene, last weekend, in Montreal. As she closed in on the final few klicks of the Montreal half-marathon, she suddenly felt a pain in her leg apparently much greater than lactic acid build up.
“One person in the crowd yelled out, ‘Crawl if you have to,’” she told the Toronto Star, “and in my mind I said, ‘You bet I will.’”
It turned out that a minor undisclosed fracture in her leg grew to a full fracture and she ran the last five kilometres of the race effectively on a broken leg. DuChene is the second fastest woman in Canada at the marathon distance. She’s preparing for the Commonwealth Games in 2014, the Pan-Am Games in 2015 and the Rio Olympics in 2016. And her time proved particularly speedy – one hour, 16 minutes and 37 seconds. But finishing the run on a broken leg wasn’t exactly the way she’d planned it.
I don’t think I could ever run through that kind of pain. But I can relate to it. The last time I competed in a long-distance competition, the regional championship run (about 1968) had us climbing a 30-degree hill right at the end of the race. As I began the stretch, I pushed and felt the pain in my chest and legs move outside me. I felt myself flying up the grade until I saw the finish line. I think I placed 67th in a field of 200 that day. To me it felt like winning the Olympic Marathon. I had beaten the hill, the clock and the elements. And suddenly having the outdoors in springtime … seemed reward enough.
On the third floor of a building in the southwestern quadrant of this major city on the Prairies, sits a non-discript office. Nothing special about its look or identification. Just another downtown Calgary workplace. However, inside resides one of the most precious resources, the city discovered last summer, that helped thousands of its citizens weather perhaps the city’s least predicted natural disaster – the 2013 flood of the Bow River.
“[As many as] 2,159 free counselling sessions were delivered,” the Distress Centre in that Calgary office reported. “Online crisis chats increased 739 per cent,” during the flood.