Reunited, Running, and It Feels so Good

November 14, 2021, I ran the 10k Fat Ass Trail Race in Batawa, Ontario, just north of Trenton. I was the second woman to cross the line, and an old rival, Shannon McMinn, was the first. We were 7th and 8th overall out of 86 runners, finishing 13 seconds apart. Two weeks to the day earlier, I had become an aunt, so I dedicated my silver medal finish to my brand new baby nephew. But my road to this fateful race, where I earned the privilege of communing with my soul on the gruelling course, racked up my first piece of silverware in well over a decade, and reunited with an old rival turned new dear friend, was a long and winding one, and perhaps some of you will read my story and relate—or get curious about what racing (again) could hold for you in 2022 and beyond.

For me, much of life is waiting, but running is being, and racing is coming alive.

32 years full of so much and it’s still my favourite thing on earth to do. It is life on another plane. It is transcendental magic. Racing, we inevitably run into our souls and slip momentarily into all we are meant to be. We come alive. When hundreds of people are there together on that elevated plane…Well, it’s like Prefontaine said: “Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run.”

I’ve been in love with running since I could run, which is to say, since I was a toddler. And so, when I rounded out high school with 3 LOSSA cross-country team titles and 3 individual medals, along with 1 LOSSA track gold and many silvers and bronzes, 4 straight OFSAA cross-country performances, and a graduating female athlete of the year award from my high school, and then went on to run cross-country and track at Queen’s University, living and training with Leslie Sexton my 2nd year, one might be surprised to hear that my Fat Ass silver arrived on the heels of a decade riddled with injuries which sidelined me from running and racing entirely. My journey back has been life-affirming; simultaneously grounding and exhilarating, and I wonder how many of your journeys could be as well.

I came to run the Fat Ass 10k while reeling from the recent loss of my job, sacked a mere 72 hours after completing my first marathon in October as it turns out, and mulling ways to keep my spirits up for my partner who had suddenly become our family’s sole breadwinner, I realized that old habits die hard, and that the very best thing I could do for my morale and for my family’s well being, was to race. To race like my heart depended on it, because it did, and to run like the wind, because in so doing, I always, always found freedom, and ran into my soul, which were the two things my family and I needed most. So I signed up on a whim, after scouring the internet for an in-person race, close enough and affordable enough, for broke, jobless relocated Ottawan me to afford. I found Fat Ass. At $25 I could afford this; it would be a worthwhile investment besides. But only the 5.5k had spots left at this late date, mere days before the event. Luckily for me, another runner couldn’t make the 10k and, in typical running community style, generously gave me her bib. Little did either of us know it would really change the course of my life over the next few months. Of course I barely slept the night before; typical for me before races, and my pup woke me up before dawn anyway, in time for me to make the early morning trek across the province for a date with my soul, and an old nemesis as it would turn out. This would be my first cross-country race in 13 years, since the fall of ‘08, and I thought to myself in the days leading up, and on the drive out the morning of, “I would like to see if I can place in my age group. I’d love to do that for my nephew.” Little did I know that I still got it, as the kids say.

I should back up a tad though, to explain that, three frigid Januaries ago, after a decade of being plagued by more injuries and pain than I care to ever relive, I found myself on my third date with my now common law partner, detailing my love of running, when he, perceptive as they come, remarked, “You’ll be like a bird with clipped wings until you run again.” I grimaced. I knew. He had hit the nail on the head, wording it like that. But I also knew I couldn’t run, probably ever again; something was very, very wrong, even by my masochistic distance running standards. “I have a guy who will fix you,” he continued. “Yeah right,” I said with my eyes. “Seriously. He fixed me.” (My partner was and is a powerlifter whose masochism puts mine to shame.) “I really think he can fix you.” He paused. “But if he can’t, no one can.” My last chance. This is what I had been waiting for for so long. I was far too scared to cash that ticket though. Running was my first love, you see, and I was very much a bird with clipped wings, sitting there at 29, separated from myself; I had to have hope, however absurd, that I could run again one day, if I couldn’t have running itself. By July I finally worked up the nerve to go see Adam Dunitz at the Ottawa Sport and Health Centre. He did fix me. I’m still stunned and overwhelmed with gratitude. It took time, a plethora of patience, courage, and faith in my peculiar calling to run, but Adam fixed me, the only practitioner out of dozens I’ve seen over the decades who has healed my legs; the only one who understands the human body completely inside out. And so I came to find myself reunited with myself and on the way to my second race in as many months, a year and a bit into really running again after a decade’s hiatus.

As the nerves built on the last stretch of my drive, I determined I would cross that line beaming, softened and wizened some by the years as I had been. I would bask in the glory of freedom and transcendence which putting one foot in front of the other brings. In fact, after my marathon, I was actually excited for my date with the sneakiest hypnosis known to man; the Valhalla underfoot; the Nirvana within; the secrets of the soul, its “open sesame” accessible to all of us, every one, if and when we gather the courage. 

And so, 10 treacherous kilometres later, gold went to the perennially indomitable, tough as nails, kind as they come, heart of gold Shannon McMinn. It was wonderful to reunite on course and cheer for and push each other again as we passed each other back and forth, (two decades after we had done so dozens of times), through rain, hail, near-cliffs (up and down), shin-deep creeks, and Heart Lake-level mud; a course truly not for the faint of heart. (“You used to run with Amber!” she opened with, breathlessly, mid-course. Amber Cushnie, OFSAA 3,000m champ, steeplechase bronze medallist, and my high school team-mate, she was referring to.) It turns out that half a lifetime later, Shannon remembered me for the way I cheered everyone on back at high school meets. I always knew we were doing something special back in our glory days, I thought to myself. Before our 10k was over, we crossed paths with another old LOSSA mainstay, Trevor Dieleman, finishing up his first 50k ultra, but still somehow with energy to cheer us on as we flew by and I breathlessly shouted, “Hey! I remember you!”

Shannon and I stood there after our victory, elated, (we still got it; we were born to beat boys) and simultaneously bewildered by the times we used to pull, daily and weekly; the levels 2000s LOSSA pushed us to (led on the boys’ side by Matt Hughes).

Like so many thousands of times before, I was reminded of my favourite essay, penned by Roger Hart, which ends, “And what did we learn from running 70,000 miles and hundreds of races, being the first to cross the finish line and once or twice not crossing it at all, those runs on icy roads in winter storms and those cool fall mornings when the air was ripe with the smell of grapes, our feet softly ticking against the pavement?

“We learned we were alive, and it felt good. God, it felt so good.”

After high school ended, we both dispersed into the melee of post-secondary education amidst the ever-increasing travails of our personal lives, and it would be a decade and a half before we ran, literally, into each other again. But cheering for each other on those final switchbacks of our 10k in Batawa was akin to being in the company of one’s oldest, dearest friend, and the joy in both our voices as we brokenly shouted across the hills was palpable, almost tangible. We had bled for this jubilation, and we were cheering for each other with all the triumph which suffering and wisdom bring. We pushed ourselves a little too hard in our youth to ever get a word out mid-race. But here we were, in our 30s, having conquered ourselves and so much else, filled with all the elation in the world, and the euphoria of crossing that line and breathlessly asking each other if we were the first women over the line, was the kind of feeling people search their entire lives and the world over for. And we found it hidden like a treasure in the hills of Batawa. Or even more precisely, in our souls. Just then, as we were catching our breaths, a man who we had passed back and forth over the gruelling 10K, crossed the line and told us he’d be telling his 5-year-old daughter that two women beat him. My mind tripped, and for a second, I kicked myself for what I deemed to be a couple strategic errors in my racing, until I realized that had I not made them, this new old friend would have been lost to time and distance, which of course running has the special power of warping. Shannon and I talked and talked, introverts infected with runner’s high, shy souls imbued with the confidence which running into your soul and finding it is so strong, gives; so we talked and talked, catching up on so much and so many people we once knew, many Olympians and Ironmen now, others no longer running, and reminiscing about our glory days, and then, just like that, we reached Shannon’s car, soaked and freezing, and departed, without even a picture for photo evidence, the elusive way of the long-distance runner; the mysterious and magical other-world fleeting already, though accessible to us at any time we cared to lace up and gather the courage again…

Even as I type this, so much of what I’m referencing has slipped away, just beyond my grasp, like water or sand through one’s hand; there truly is no substitute in my experience; this life on another plane is not for sale on any old corner, and yet, as it goes in “Once A Runner,” “[that old familiar feeling comes right back]” every time the gun goes. And everything else falls away. Long after the legs stop flying in all the ways they used to, and long after the rest of life has damaged your spirit. The encapsulation of the magic of my marathon (the Muskoka Marathon, October 3rd) is even further from my grasp now, but running is a rock in a nebulous world, racing an anchor in a very stormy sea; a way back to all we are meant to be.

And so, that second place finish imbued me with an energy and a reinvigorated confidence in myself as I once again grappled with so much in life outside of running, and moreover, while Shannon and I never got to know each other well in high school, now, in our 30s, we have come to learn we both endured uncannily similar hardships and tragedies in our respective youths, and both came out the other side okay—specifically thanks to running. It’s a tale as old as time I know; running being the rock in someone’s life, but for each individual it really can’t be understated, how special and important running is, and for youth in particular, it makes all the difference in the world in terms of the direction of their lives.

For Shannon and I, blessedly, we both had coaches who believed in us from the start, and teams who loved us and let us be ourselves, Shannon’s donning green ribbons in their hair at races, and mine maroon nail polish and cheering for days; my coach, Amanda Miles-Berry and her sister Angela reading Roger Hart’s Essay on Running to us before an OFSAA race, and Shannon’s coach, Bill Cunliffe, showing her team “Without Limits,” helping us make that fraught but all-important journey into truly believing in ourselves. Before my silver medal LOSSA XC senior girls’ performance in ‘05, while tying my spikes on that crowded, frantic start line, my life off-course more challenging than I’d wish on any 16 year old, my coach, Berry as we called her, told me calmly and firmly, “You can do this, Emma.” That became my mantra. I repeated it many times the morning of the Fat Ass trail race. I repeat it to myself at some point most days of my life. It stuck because of the perfect faith with which my coach said it. Anyway, our coaches have kept in touch with both of us, and remain a guiding force in our lives. 

My coach now is my canine, my little black lab bestie, who gets me out the door every day. Through COVID, running has been my antidote to life’s chains, and also, to the depression which has ripped through my family like a runaway freight train, and which is always at my door, and sometimes in my bed or head with me. My pup reminds me it doesn’t matter how long you run for or how fast or far you go; once you’re out the door, you’ll be okay. And by the time you’re nearing home again, you’ll be happy; happy to be alive. My training is unorthodox to say the least; no watch, not enough mileage by marathon-training standards, and just endless fartleks basically, my dog leading me on the chase for the perfect stick and the perfect dog to greet, and keeping me honest about how fast fast running really is. But my training seems to have just enough heart and soul to lead me back to that buried treasure within, and so, for about an hour a day, everything is okay.

After our victory (and that is what it ended up feeling like; *our* victory) at Fat Ass, Shannon and I launched into catching each other up on the last couple decades, including various ordeals we were both facing in light of COVID, and, of course, traded names of races we were each entered in in hopes the other could join us. We hoped for the chance at a reunion run in December, but alas, Christmas came and went with life cooking up many new tests for both of us, and so, talking had to suffice in keeping our spirits up. The thing with long-distance runners is that we are natural cheerleaders, peculiarly shy beasts who come alive when impassioned by the fires of our souls and soles. On course or off, it is our default. So we cheered each other on, through medical challenges and car trouble,  job and lack of job stress, running injury, a serious health scare for my month old nephew, and a run-in with a sleeping driver which ended in my beloved bicycle being totalled (I activated my inner ninja and came out unscratched thankfully), and the general malaise par for the course in today’s COVID world.

Two nights ago, mere hours, blessedly unbeknownst to us, before Doug Ford announced our latest lockdown, Shannon found herself sifting through old videos, photos, and results, organizing her running past so to speak, when she fell upon remarkably grainy footage of our last LOSSA cross-country race, from October of ‘06, with me leading the way in first, and Shannon not too far behind. My step-son and shift-working partner asleep and my pup curled up for the night, I checked Facebook, and found myself happy as a kid on Christmas morning at this glorious footage in my messages. And so we talked and the weights of this world briefly faded away. New friends but long lost ones all at once is what we are; we get each other, and that means something in this life, especially at this uniquely isolating juncture in history, on the eve of yet another lockdown. When I finally tried to sleep, far too pumped up to actually do so, a sobering reality hit me. The footage I had just watched on repeat was not just footage of yet another awe-inspiring performance on the heels of three straight LOSSA team titles and individual medals, albeit belying how hard we worked, how much we suffered for that trophy year after year, and how much personal effort, and love and belief in me from the best coach and team on the planet it took to propel me over the earth and its punishing courses at such ungodly speeds. No, there was more, a lot more. This footage was from the most tumultuous week of my life, harrowing to think back on even now, even with 15 years of space and life in between. But this is the strength of the human spirit on sport; this is the transcendence about which I write. 

How many of us toeing the line that day were enduring our own secret hells? But such is the power of races, to tilt the world and each of us, towards good, towards the strength of our souls. And that is no small thing. 

I’m off now, to run with my canine sidekick, and catch up more with my newfound long lost friend, Shannon. Whatever 2022 brings, and it has the St. Lawrence Marathon in store for me in April to kick off the spring season, I know I will get through it all, and I believe you can too, one step at a time. I wish all of you the very best for 2022 and hope you brave the trails and the roads and the treadmills, and find out there just how strong you are and just how good it feels to be alive. I also hope I have the privilege of meeting some of you! Happy Running, guys.