How running became the city’s collective obsession

How running became the city’s collective obsession

The Running Cult

Last year I turned 30, broke up with my long-term boyfriend and moved into a tiny apartment for one. The domestic vision I’d had for my future—marriage, a semi-detached fixer-upper, kids with endearingly arcane names, homemade pie—dissolved overnight. When I tried to reformulate a picture of my future, alone, my imagination failed. Usually when I’m lonely or stressed out, I run. I’ve been running non-competitively for 10 years. It eases my anxieties more effectively than anything else I’ve tried: psychoanalysis, yoga, eBay buying sprees, binges on HBO series, even anti-depressants. When I run, for one blissful unmeasured hour, my brain stops spinning.

But after the breakup, I was having trouble getting out the door. I’d stare at my bare feet dangling off the edge of the bed, with the intention of putting on my socks and shoes, and find a reason to crawl back under the covers and watch another episode of Friday Night Lights. My running shoes went six months without feeling the warmth of human feet, during which time the ills normally staved off by running crept back into my life: insomnia, anxiety, the loose-fitting pants I store in the back of my closet.

It was during my hiatus from running that everyone I knew seemed to take up the sport. If you head out to High Park or the Beach boardwalk on a Sunday afternoon, or just look out your window right now, you’ll see them—gaggles of breathless runners chatting away or bopping headphoned heads, playing an unspoken game of one-upmanship that’s partly athletic and partly aesthetic. Or maybe you are one of them—an excessively hydrated, neon-clad, chisel-calved urbanite with a marathon on your mind and a bounce in your step (but not too much bounce, lest you strain your knees).

Friends of mine who once jogged casually a couple of times a week were suddenly amateur marathoners, and they were all too eager to tell me about it. At cocktail parties they’d regale me with the triumph of their latest barefoot race, extol the benefits of deep massage foam rollers for aching muscles and show me the settings on their new GPS watches (one friend carries hers in her purse, just in case she needs to fit in a run, or a conversation about a run). I had never talked about running because if you are a non-runner, you don’t want to hear someone prattle on about her cardiovascular supremacy; it’s like listening to vegans talking meat ethics at a barbecue. Obviously things had changed.

Acquaintances started pelting me with well-intentioned imperatives: “You should join a running group,” or “You have to sign up for a race,” or “The sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line is amaaaaazing.” Their descriptions of the marathon experience rang with the reverence of new converts. Supporters will lionize you with Magic Markered signs, I was told, strangers will shout your name at the top of their lungs (it’s written on the bib you wear on your chest for this purpose), volunteers will bestow medals upon you, and your friends will marvel at your will power. It’ll change your life, they promised.

I finally caved to the pressure and signed up for a half-marathon, which is 21 kilometres—roughly the distance from my house near Trinity Bellwoods Park to downtown Mississauga, and about two hours of gruelling physical labour. Maybe everyone was right. Maybe the experience would turn me into a confident, can-do kind of woman. At the very least, I thought, training for the race would fill the interminable blankness in my imagination, if only for the short term.

Marathons are more popular now than ever. In 2010, the lottery for the New York City marathon, the world’s largest run, received 124,000 applications for its 45,000 spots. The Boston Marathon gets so many applicants that organizers tightened up its qualifying times for the 2013 race by five minutes to make entry even harder. The GTA’s three main running events, the Scotiabank Waterfront, GoodLife and Mississauga half- and full marathons, now attract around 30,000 runners combined, nearly double the number since 2003, the first year the GTA hosted all three events.

The running explosion here extends well beyond the big three. This year alone, Toronto will host 32 organized runs, which means there’s a race happening just about every weekend in the spring, summer and fall. Races now compete with each other for runners, becoming more specialized and festival-like. There’s a five-kilometre race on the tarmac at Pearson airport where you can run under the wings of jets, and a women’s-only half-marathon in Sunnybrook Park that sells out every year—it’s the ultimate athletic estro-fest, with a chocolate pit stop, medals designed to be worn again as jewellery, an information tent stocked with Tampax and hunky firefighters manning the water stations.

Races have also become huge fundraisers. Terry Fox set this trend into motion back in the 1980s. The annual run in his name has raised $550 million for cancer since 1981 and is now the largest single-day fundraiser in the world. This year you can run to raise money for pretty much any cause you care about: the Canadian Cancer Society, Princess Margaret Hospital, dystonia, retinoblastoma, thalassemia, Toronto Cat Rescue, the Toronto Zoo, the Toronto Vegetarian Association and scores of others. The GTA’s most popular races—the three main marathons, plus the Sporting Life 10K and the Harry Rosen Spring Runoff—raised approximately $8 million in total in 2010, an unprecedented amount made possible, in large part, by the hyper-efficiency of web-based donation systems and inter-office pledge-me-please email blasts.

As the ranks of runners balloon, finishing times are getting progressively slower. The average finish time for the GoodLife Toronto marathon has crept up by a minute or two each year, from three hours and 59 minutes in 2002 to four hours and eight minutes this past May. The majority of runners are just aiming to finish, which means everyone who crosses the finish line is, by loose definition, a winner.

The slow democratization of long-distance running began in the 1970s, but it was Oprah Winfrey who catapulted it into mainstream culture in 1994 when she finished her first and only marathon, the Marine Corps in Washington D.C., in four hours and 29 minutes (since dubbed the “Oprah Line” as shorthand for a respectable finishing time for beginners). Naturally, she documented her experience on her show and, along with her trainer, produced a bestselling book, companion how-to journal and home video. Millions of women bought the book, including my mom, who has no interest in running whatsoever. Oprah recognized the marathon’s inherent potential for personal transformation and sold it as a mass-appeal self-help project.

To sign up for my race, I went online and, with the click of a mouse, added a half-marathon to my virtual shopping cart (cost of registration: $60). To prepare, I found an eight-week program in Runner’s World magazine, which I tore out and stuck to my fridge. The plan was simple enough: do three 10-kilometre runs three times a week, plus a 15-or 16-kilometre run on the weekend. For the first time, I began to see a benefit to living alone: you don’t have to apologize for the time you spend running, work around anyone else’s schedule or worry about waking anyone up with a 6 a.m. alarm.

I started out slowly. One particularly groggy morning in January, I strained to keep up with a little old man pushing a grocery cart full of ancient, clunky computer monitors in Little Portugal. But I wasn’t concerned with speed. I went wherever I liked for as long as I liked. My best runs happened at around 6:30 on snowy mornings, when the sky was purple and the night’s untouched snowfall absorbed the din of traffic.

Along with my first formal training plan, I decided to indulge in a real running uniform. The ripped cotton Radiohead T-shirt I’d been working for years seemed retro—and not in a cool way. I gave up whatever vestiges of No Logo–inspired integrity Steve Jobs hadn’t already stripped from me and purchased New Balance 760s, loose-fitting Adidas running pants with more zippers than I know what to do with, a hot pink Adidas ClimaCool wicking pullover with a wee key pocket in the back just above the tailbone, and Nike Dry-Fit socks (so technologically advanced there’s an R and an L stitched into them so you don’t compromise your spinal alignment by accidentally putting the left sock on the right foot). It all added up to $350.

For a proper sports bra, I made a trip to the Lululemon in Yorkville. The company, famous for its self-improvement manifesto and yoga apparel, launched its first running line in the spring of 2009, when the recession was driving up consumer interest in running; people sought a form of exercise that didn’t require a costly gym membership or expensive equipment. A $100 pair of shoes is cheap compared with, say, skis or a bicycle. Running apparel now accounts for 20 per cent of Lululemon’s production, and helped the brand’s share prices shoot up by 1,800 per cent in the past two years. Go to any Toronto race and you’ll see Lululemon’s shrink-wrap black pants and sexy pastel-hued tops everywhere.

At the store, a feisty employee gave me a narrow-eyed once- over and immediately whisked something called a Ta Ta Tamer off the rack in the correct size. After scribbling my name on the change room chalkboard and leaving me to try the bra, he yelled from across the changing area, “And how’s Rachel’s self-esteem doing this evening?” I flatly replied, “Not good,” spying my pasty mid-winter skin in 360 degrees of mirrors. I left with the Ta Ta Tamer, a pair of Wunder Under tights and a set of Stride Arm Warmers (sleeves—not attached to a shirt—with thumb holes and cuffs that fold over into mittens; I have worn them once). Total bill: $148.

During my shopping spree, I also stopped by the Running Room, the commercial, spiritual and social epicentre of running in Toronto. John Stanton, the company’s founder, ran his way from being a 250-pound two-pack-a-day smoker to a contagiously cheerful, excessively healthy-looking 60-time marathoner. He opened the first store in Edmonton in 1984 to help couch potatoes like his former self and also to sell shoes. At weekly running groups, hosted in-store, Stanton replaced the masculine go-hard-or-go-home ethos that had defined the sport until then with a softer, more accessible approach: jog for 10 minutes, walk for one. It was the birth of the community-spirited mode of running that dominates today. There are now 110 Running Room locations in Canada, including 38 in southern Ontario, and Stanton is the author of six bestselling books. To Running Room devotees, he is a god in a windbreaker. (When I told one race organizer that I’d spoken with Stanton on the phone, he said, disbelievingly, “The John Stanton? That’s quite a privilege.”)

At the Running Room, buyers and sellers are bonded by a shared culture and common goals. The staff members who sell you gear also run with you and support you through weeks of training, so when the new shipment of Asics Gel-Fortitude5 shoes come in, you’re both super stoked to try them. It’s an ingenious system for producing a cultishly loyal consumer base. Every Sunday and Wednesday, runners of all skill levels can show up at a store and run in a group for free. And if you’re preparing for a race, the brand’s communal training programs are cheap at $50 to $70 for three months of instruction, which includes a weekly clinic where a guest speaker, sometimes a physiotherapist or a nutritionist, will give a mini lecture. Each clinic also has a trainer (generally a volunteer paid in discounts on Running Room gear) who started out as a Running Room customer, moved through the ranks of the company’s programs and is ready to share his or her personal story of transformation. In this last respect, the groups can strike the tone of an AA meeting, except in reverse: these meetings are meant to foster addiction—to the sport and its attendant stuff.

At a recent all-women’s Learn to Run clinic, the introductory level on the ladder of Running Room training programs, the devotion was palpable. The guest speaker was Christine Silva, a 30-year-old researcher for a non-profit organization. Inspired by her sister, also a Running Room disciple, who qualified for the Boston Marathon, she signed up for her first group a year and a half ago. Since then, she told the audience of newbies, the Running Room had guided her through eight different races, including a 30-kilometre run and two half-marathons. Along the way she lost 60 pounds and made lifelong friends, but the best part, she confessed, was winning medals (in most major races now, everyone who reaches the finish line gets a medal). At that point, the Running Room group leader chimed in, “I won’t run a race without a medal.” Silva finished by saying, “If you just have faith in the Running Room, you can achieve your goals. You just have to give yourself over to the process.” I looked around, expecting someone to give her a sobriety chip.

The company’s Fit-Wear intentionally skews modest, even a little full-coverage frumpy, so that you don’t have to be a zero-per-cent-body-fat type to wear it. For example, the Running Room’s iconic brightly coloured running jacket—the one with the reflective stripe around the torso you probably saw all over town this winter—has a “drop-tail” back to cover your bum so you feel comfortable sporting skin-tight compression pants. When you buy one of these jackets, you’re solidifying your membership in a squeaky-clean, all-Canadian athletic club and leaving your formerly unmotivated, unfit self behind. (See the escapist names of some of the clothing: there’s the Be Fresh capri tights, the Stress Free pants and the Escape crew top.)

The toys and textiles are now produced so prolifically, shopping for them has become a hobby in and of itself. Doug Smith is a 43-year-old Bay Street lawyer with two kids who gets up every morning at 5:30 to run 10 kilometres. He told me with enthusiasm that he always has at least four pairs of shoes in rotation, which he replaces every three or four months: trail shoes for ravine and winter running, super-light shoes for the track, medium-weight shoes for tempo runs and maximum-cushioning shoes for long distances. “My wife rolls her eyes at me when I drag her into running stores,” he said, “but shopping for the stuff is half the fun.” It is, but for the record, my new $500 outfit didn’t increase my speed, and my Radiohead T-shirt is back in rotation.

By early spring, I was entering a phase in which running was as much a part of my daily routine as brushing my teeth. When other people at my office went home to their families, I went home to run—and I looked forward to it. Running is the perfect antidote to an urban office culture that traps people in their cubicles, trades on mental labour and leaves their bodies to disintegrate in their ergonomically correct chairs.

Eventually, I was fit enough to extend my running routes and explore neighbourhoods I wouldn’t otherwise visit, like the Junction, with its barely gentrified shabbiness (where I started fantasizing again of a fixer-upper and children on tricycles), and Casa Loma, with its killer set of stairs. I was running six days a week and began overshooting the recommended distances out of the pure joy of being out in the city and not hiding under the covers.

I tracked my distances with a Nike+, a sensor gizmo that goes in your shoe, syncs with your iPod and, when you achieve a personal best, provides recorded congratulations from Lance Armstrong or Tiger Woods (my model was made in the pre-scandal days). But my version of the Nike+ was unreliable, and the more I trained the more I became eager to know my exact times and distances. So I bought a $240 Garmin watch, which is basically a wrist-top computer with more tech than I will ever need. It monitors time, speed, distance, intensity and elevation, then wirelessly generates a comprehensive NASA-worthy post-run report of maps, graphs and other data, which can, of course, be easily shared with other online Garmin devotees.

I was becoming addicted to seeing self-improvement visualized in multicoloured charts. I ran faster and longer to pad my stats and optimize my printouts. I even emailed a post-run PDF to my sister, an uncharacteristic act of bravado. My runs started serving the Garmin instead of the other way around. When I later described this to Kevin Smith, one of the city’s top marathon trainers, he recognized it as acute Garminitis. “You’d think my job would be about pushing people, but I spend more time pulling back on the reins,” he said. “There’s a dark, addictive side to running.”

On May 1, I ran the Sporting Life 10K as a warm-up for the GoodLife half-marathon a couple of weeks later. It’s the city’s most popular running event, and it was my introduction to the modern racing spectacle. Beforehand, Yonge Street was packed with 14,000 runners bouncing, shaking limbs and stretching as loudspeakers blared Top 40 dance hits. People were dressed up in costumes (a hula dancer, a leprechaun and a guy ironically wearing a full suit with sneakers). Six musical acts dotted the course, including a didgeridoo band stationed outside the Eaton Centre. In the last stretch before the finish line, I passed a runner making brunch plans on her cellphone.

As people crossed the finish line and immediately pulled out their smart phones for chuffed self-portraits, it occurred to me that the current running phenomenon, as wholesome, healthy and charitable as it is, is often motivated by a deep-seated narcissism. Members of my generation, raised in the ’70s and ’80s to believe in our intrinsic specialness, have grown up and discovered that the adult world seldom gives out blue ribbons or A-pluses. As our dreams of greatness are subsumed by workaday jobs, we seek exceptionality, achievement rendered in finish times, race T-shirts and medals for all to see.

And we have the perfect platforms for grandstanding. My friends tweet their split times and change their Facebook profile photos to sweaty, mid-run action shots. Race organizers partner with sports photographers who capture and email you your most vainglorious moments, which can be uploaded for a fee, ordered in poster format, printed on commemorative mouse pads, imaged onto mugs and made into key chains and luggage tags. On any given weekend, my news feeds pump out status updates like “I can now say, forever, that I ran the Boston Marathon” and “Feet are wet, legs are tired but I did it, I just finished my first marathon!! 3 hours 12 minutes :-)” and “Final tally: six races in six weeks, 66.6 miles (no joke), four personal records… Woohoo! Time for a vacation.” Their virtual walls are plastered with thumbs-ups and comments like “You’re seriously ripped!” and “You go girl!”

Two weeks before I was scheduled to run the half-marathon, on my way up a slope in Wychwood Park, a searing pain shot through my left hip and diffused into a burn. Each time my foot struck the pavement, I felt the pain deep inside my left hip. I ran through it for a few kilometres until I caught my reflection in a car window: I looked like a limping, spandexed Quasimodo. I walked home, dejected and angry at myself for overdoing it, then iced my hip with a bag of frozen blueberries (not a $120 Moji Knee as recommended in Runner’s World).

I visited a sports doctor, who said my pelvis was jammed on the left side—a common runner’s injury caused most often by over-training. The tendons had tightened up like elastics stretched thin over the hip joint, so when I tried to move my leg from the joint, there was a gruesome pop-crunch sound that triggered my gag reflex. In an attempt to loosen the muscles by race day, the doctor recommended a chiropractor, who pushed and pulled and shot electric currents into my butt with needles. On the Friday before the race, she gave me the green light to run, saying, disconcertingly, that while it wouldn’t feel good, it wouldn’t do further damage.

That evening, I was still undecided, and I met some friends for Korean food. Among the group was an intellectual property lawyer named Noelle, who is also a marathoner. Over bi bim bap, while the rest of the table tuned out, we chatted about the nine-minute mile (she sheepishly confessed it was her slow pace; I exclaimed it was my fastest, most awesome pace), and she described finishing the Chicago marathon in sweltering 30-degree heat. Driven by equal parts competitiveness and enthusiasm, I ate a second helping of rice, just in case I needed the carbs come Sunday. When we parted, she told me to do the race and enjoy the day because when else in your adult life will total strangers cheer your name?

And so, on Sunday, I woke up at 6 a.m., stretched my hip to see if it was still crunching (it was) and thought it couldn’t hurt to ride the shuttle up to Mel Lastman Square and see how I felt when I got there. I boarded the big yellow school bus at the Hilton hotel on Richmond with dozens of other runners. We looked like bed-headed kids on the way to sports camp. It was a rainy, windy morning, so the racers were huddled in the North York Civic Centre. I waited in line for the bathroom for 30 minutes (runners are a well-hydrated people), watching racers contort their bodies into pre-run pretzels.

The GoodLife marathon is less of a circus than many other races in the city, though there’s still entertainment, including bagpipers, along the route. The runners are a little more focused and intense than at the shorter runs. Roughly 5,000 were competing in the half-marathon, 2,000 in the full marathon, and the majority were average-looking 20- to 40-somethings. Of the sinewy, serious full-marathoners, some were reading the paper as though it were any old Sunday morning, while others determinedly swung their ropy legs back and forth. I mirrored their stretches in an attempt to project healthy-hipped runnerly confidence. And here’s the embarrassing truth: I was so busy debating whether or not I should run the race, I didn’t notice that all the half-marathoners, with their yellow bibs, had already left the centre. At roughly 8:05, a full five minutes after the gun time, I realized I was standing among blue-bibbed full-marathoners, who start an hour later. Panic made the decision for me. I bolted out to the start line and joined the back of the hooting pack.

After the first kilometre, I settled into the realization that I was, in fact, in the race and not preparing for it or debating it. The dull ache in my hip was unpleasant but not terribly painful, and I naively projected 20 kilometres of minor discomfort, the best that could be expected. Then I looked ahead and saw the mass of runners climbing a steep hill, like ants on Mount Everest. Toronto’s marathons are known as the country’s fastest because they streak straight downhill on Yonge Street, but this hill, just north of Lawrence Park, is a killer. By the time I climbed it, my hip was screaming, drowning out the sounds of the other runners. I felt overwhelmed by a sudden awareness that my body was my only ride home and all its hundreds of parts had to keep firing together if it was going to get me there.

Then I ran past a group of Lululemon staffers outside the Yonge and Briar Hill store, holding up signs that said “Go random stranger go!” and “You’re kind of a BIG deal!” and was so filled with gratitude, I choked back tears for two blocks. (In my defence, I was in a weakened state.) After the crowd snaked off Yonge and down into the Rosedale ravine with its canopy of early spring leaves, two thoughts occurred to me simultaneously: 1) This is beautiful; why don’t I run in Rosedale more often? 2) How long is this goddamn ravine, because it is taking us directly away from the bloody finish line? A couple of Psychs on Bikes—volunteer psychologists who zoom around the course, offering their services to amped-up or distressed runners—pedalled by and whooped a few words of encouragement. I was so grateful for the support I wanted to pull them off their bikes and hug them.

When I emerged onto Bayview, around the 14th kilometre, I snagged a cup of Gatorade from a volunteer’s hand. I drank it while running—because I knew if I stopped I’d never run again—and splashed sugary blue juice up my nose and down the front of my shirt. With every step thereafter, I considered quitting. A bystander with a large dog, a baby in a stroller and a toddler in tow cut me off while trying to weave her way through the crowd. I yelled “Oh, c’mon!” and threw my hands in the air (the universal sign for “Get out of the way, jackass!”). On Richmond, at the bottom of University, I was one giant, throbbing, angry hip flexor.

The toes on my left foot were numb, and halfway up University I crumpled into a walk. Several grey-haired women—still happily running and chatting away at the 20-kilometre mark—passed me, and I couldn’t muster the slightest shred of vanity to care. As I came up the home stretch along University, the sideline crowds were sparse on account of the abysmal weather, and the supporters who were there, huddled under umbrellas, looked eager to find their loved ones and get the hell out of the rain.

When I finally crossed the finish line (two hours, 11 minutes), a tween volunteer handed me one of the dozens of identical medals slung over her arm and cheered, “You did it, Rachel!” I hung it around my neck and posed for a dishevelled post-run portrait. Relieved and sticky with Gatorade, I leaned against a tree, loosened my shoes and examined loonie-sized blood splotches from the blisters on my heels. I wandered around the banana-and-bagel bonanza, collecting my free chocolate milk and poking my head into the medical tent, where rows of stretchers were filled with exhausted bodies being massaged, iced and taped. It looked like a scene from MASH. I drifted back out to the finish line to watch the other runners come in, some of them limping worse than I was, and I cheered them by name.

It’s been two months since the race, and my hip is still too dysfunctional for running. Insomnia has returned, my Garmin sits unused in my junk drawer, and I have pulled my fat pants out of the closet again. I’m glad I ran, though, because, in the last stretch, the hype, the carnival-like insanity of modern marathoning fell away, as it does for every runner after a certain distance. It’s just you and your vulnerable body in front of thousands of random strangers who want you to get through it. And somehow you do, and there’s something miraculous about that. When my marathon pictures arrived in my inbox a few days later, I didn’t post them online. I’ll wait till I beat two hours for that.