Wednesday 25 August 2010

Rocking the Tely: Adventures in the Republic of Warmth and Grace

Time, once again, flies! To my astonishment, it has now been a month since my visit to St. John's and my running of the famous Tely 10, and I'm only now getting around to telling the tale.

Last month, I finally made good on a longstanding intention to visit Newfoundland when I accepted an invitation to give a training talk for on-line athlete Colin Fewer's St. John's based club, Athletics North-East-- an invite that included an opportunity to run the famous "Tely 10" road race, whose lore I have long been familiar with through my friendship with Paul McCloy, the province's greatest athlete, one of Canada's best ever distance runners, and, unsurprisingly, the holder of the Tely course record-- an outrageous 47:06. The trip fulfilled all my expectations, and became, unquestionably, the highlight of my summer.

To begin with, I felt an immediate and intense level of comfort-- a strange familiarity, if fact-- with cultural feel of the place. Like my own Irish-Canadian extended family-- Catholic on one side, Protestant on the other-- the Newfoundlanders I met (and perhaps I was just lucky) were easy and fluent talkers, quick with joke or a good story, and able to make guests feel instantly welcome and at home. Our St. John's hosts--Colin Fewer, his wife Becky, and Colin's family from Harbour Grace-- were effortless in their charm and hospitality, from the minute we arrived to the hung-over day of our departure. No sooner were we off the plane than we had been given a quick, drive-around tour of the city, followed by a little run around the ponds near Paradise, Colin's home and training base, and starting point for the Tely. Over the next couple of days, we were treated to a trip up to Cape Spear (which was, despite the initial promise of clear skies, fog-bound that afternoon), a lovely home-cooked dinner of fish cakes, cod au gratin, fried scallops, tea and dessert (in the warmth of Colin's family home, following a run in his old stomping grounds near Harbour Grace), a drive up Signal Hill (on a day when the sky was almost clear enough to look across to Galway Bay), and a spectacular post-race party, including a "Screeching-In" ceremony (our own, I'm happy to say!) and a late evening of music and dancing (not to mention a high-level running history/trivia smack-down with resident running guru and masters ace Arthur Meany) in the pubs on George St.

In return for all of this, I was asked to give a talk on running a couple of days prior to the Tely. To my amazement and delight, 150 people packed a lecture theatre at Memorial University to hear what I-- someone most of them would only just have heard of-- had to say on the topics of serious training and youth development. The NL running community, I was to conclude, was small but serious and determined, in spite of the obstacles it must face in the form of isolation from the larger continental racing scene and an inhospitable winter climate (which I feel I know, both from listening to Paul's stories all these years and from reading Colin's training updates last fall and winter!). (I would, by the way, contrast my experience here with what I encountered this spring while participating in a full-day workshop for coaches and athletes sponsored by Queen's University on the eve of its hosting of the World University X-C Championships, a well advertised event that featured a handful of the most experienced and high-level presenters in Canadian distance running today, including Guelph U. coach Dave Scott-Thomas, Canadian elites Reid Coolsaet and Dylan Wykes, and two-time Olympian Thelma Wright. In spite of its very modest admission price, this event attracted, at most, 50 participants (8-10 of whom were actually Physi-Kult Junior athletes!). In other words, 150 St. John's area runners were willing to show up on relatively short notice, on a Thursday evening, to listen to a single speaker of whom most had likely never heard, while only 50 Ontarians (including NO local high school coaches) were interested in attending a well publicized, high-level, yet affordable, event on a springtime Saturday the day before one of a handful of international running competitions ever held on on Canadian soil. I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions.)

The talk itself was lively and enjoyable, and included a couple of good-natured but pointed exchanges provoked by, among other things, my airing of the view that serious marathoning was generally not advisable (generally but not universally) for runners over 45 who would like to maximize their potential at shorter distances and, more importantly, continue to enjoy their running into old age. Less controversial but still provocative were my views on the importance of high volume and the use of orthotics (that the former is indispensable for serious runners at all levels, and the latter are generally over-prescribed). The whole event amounted to one of the most enjoyable experiences I've every had talking running with a group of recreational athletes, and I left the hall with the strong sense that my message-- that recreational runners can improve faster and enjoy the sport more thoroughly by taking a serious and systematic approach to their training and racing-- had been understood and taken to heart by many of the assembled.

From the minute the lights went off in the hall and we headed downtown for quick pint before retiring, my thoughts turned to the Tely, and how I was going to negotiate the rolling 10 miles of asphalt between Paradise and St. John's, a route I had only seen through the windshield of Colin's car as he drove over it on our way to town, pointing out the mile markers and other important points of reference, including the underpass at two miles that, Colin explained, used to be a line of class and social division in the community as well as a piece of infrastructure. I made a point of remembering, in particular, a stiff hill in the 7th mile of race, the hill on which Colin had broken visiting distance ace Ryan Mackenzie for the win the year before, and a climb that, I was pretty certain, was going to mark the difference between a good race and exercise in mere survival.

As it turned out, my first Tely landed midway between these two extremes, and not because of my own failed execution. Full credit for making me work far harder than I had intended to in the early stages must go to Quebec City-based Newfoundlander Grant Handrigan, who chose the 2010 Tely to have one of the strongest races of his young career. Getting right after it on the long uphill in the first mile, Grant and visiting runner Graydon Snider, drawn along by leader Colin Fewer, who was bent on becoming only the 3rd athlete to break 50 mins for the Tely, dragged me through 2 miles in just over 10mins-- about 10 seconds faster than I had planned to run in my quest to break 52mins. Watching the young Snider begin to falter just before 3 miles, and wondering if Grant would be for real this day, I relaxed, gathered myself, and closed the 3-4 second gap that had opened up over the previous mile. As soon as my little charge caught his attention, and before I could make myself comfortable on his heels, Grant dropped the hammer once again,reestablishing his demoralizing little gap. That was the closest I would get to him. When we finally hit the aforementioned hill at 7 miles, Grant's gap of 10-odd seconds had quickly become 20, and would grow to 30 by the time we both crossed the finish line-- me stiffly and he still full of running-- on Bannerman Rd., to the cheers of several hundred enthusiastic spectators. I would better my goal of 52mins, but just barely (51:55). In the back of my mind had been Paul McCloy's master's record of 51:28, which I knew would take the kind of performance my recent training had not indicated I was likely to produce. (And a vignette illustrating the depth of local knowledge of the Tely 10: As I passed the 9 mile marker, I overheard a spectator say, in a full Irish brogue, "He's not going to get McCloy's record today." This happened to be at the very same instant I was consulting my watch-- which read 46:42-- and coming to exactly the same conclusion. I was astounded that someone had taken the time to figure out what I, a visiting runner taking on the course for the first time, would need to pass the 9 mile marker in order to beat, not the open record or the 50min barrier, but the record for over-40 runners!

Meanwhile, up front, Colin was making good on his widely publicized goal of breaking 50mins. He overcame his lack of serious competition, local pressure at revealing his intentions, and the rapidly rising humidity to take the tape in 49:48. And not far behind Grant and me, women's winner Kate Vaughan was turning in an outstanding near-course record performance of 56:36 to win that race by 2:30. Trust me, it won't be long before Kate has made a name of herself on the national road and X-C scene, should she manage to sustain her current rate of improvement.

With the hard work of the race out of the way, we were able to get back to what, it seems, Newfoundlanders, runners included, know how to do better than we mainlanders-- which is enjoy one another's company and the fruits of their labour! A fine brunch at the Yellow Belly, a magnificent, five-storied brewery pub on Water St. was followed up by a brief repose, a couple of toasts to our performances in the Tely, and a huge house party hosted by members of Athletics North-East. At said party, I learned the following: that every guy in the province can play the guitar and sing (as well as remember the words to multiple songs, new and old); that there are many more verses to "I's the Bye" than I ever learned in grade 2, and that most of them are much, much dirtier; and, that kissing the lips of a dead codfish is not at all bad (it's quite salty, unsurprisingly). Eventually, house party gave way to pub party as we all decamped for George St. and yet more fantastic live musical entertainment (the aforementioned running history/trivia smack-down between Mr. Meany and me ended, by the way, in a gentlemanly draw). The evening ended with a long cab ride back to Paradise, during which we were unsuccessful in convincing the driver (who, by his own admission, was seriously addled by 12 hours of non-stop driving) that he, in fact, had the winner of the Tely riding in his car. (He claimed to have heard that it had been won by "a Chinese guy". Such is the stature of the Tely in St. John's, however, that a 300lb cab driver at 3 a.m. knew exactly what it was and what it meant.)

I cannot adequately express my gratitude to my Newfoundland hosts, and will do my utmost to return for the 2011 version of the Tely, if they will have me (actually, now that I'm an honorary Newfoundlander, I don't think they have any choice!). I'm even considering organizing a Tely tour group for mainlanders. If you have never been to St. John's, or have but have not run the Tely, I urge you to consider including both in your summer vacation plans for next year.

July POM:

There are two very worth nominees for July POM:

Dylan Wykes' fine win in the 5k at the national track and field championships (he was actually 2nd place in the race, but to resident non-Canadian, Kip Kangogo). After struggling somewhat on the track throughout the spring, Dylan turned things around in superb fashion, with a massively negative split 14:03, suggesting that, in a deeper and faster race, he would almost certainly rewritten his personal best of 13:59, and likely by a good measure.

And, Colin Fewer's solo, sub-50min Tely 10 victory. Although Colin's performance did not surprise me, it impressed me; for, only a few months ago, Colin was taking his first running steps following a soul-destroying 12 weeks on the elliptical trainer, healing a hip problem that came on in the early weeks of the winter. His Tely performance was actually the third of three remarkable post-injury efforts, the first two coming in April in Victoria and Vancouver over 10k (personal best of 30:42) and HM (near P.B. of 1:07:52). Although Colin had had a reasonable run of training since these initial outings, the Tely represented a special challenge for him. Being by far the most well known race in Newfoundland, and subject to wide shifts in wind and temperature, the Tely held certain risks for Colin-- or rather, predicting that we would win the race and be the third athlete to run the course in under 50mins posed risks. He knew that failure to do either of these things, even if through no fault of his own, would undermine his stature in the eyes of a broader community of friends, family, and acquaintances that knows only the Tely. His poise and determination in going out and doing exactly what he predicted he would, in the face of community pressure, a lack of real competition, and an increasingly ominous humidity level, earns Colin POM honours for July.