There was no sun in sight. The streets were empty and dark and grey. A thick fog hung stubbornly over the entire landscape visible from my balcony, threatening rain.
I couldn’t help smiling excitedly. The perfect morning for a run.
I went to bed early last night in preparation for my big day, so I was surprised to find that an unusually large number of emails had come in overnight. Comments on my blog, wishing me luck. Emails with inspirational quotes or mantra suggestions. Videos posted to my facebook page. Links sent to me through facebook messages.
I read them all.
After that I slipped into my black Adidas running skirt and a pair of socks. I put on my bright yellow race shirt from last year’s Acura Toronto 10-miler and pulled back my hair. I grabbed my water and my keys, and headed out. It was 7am.
The sun started coming out gradually between 7:30 and 8am. The fog slowly lifted and traffic started to build. By that time I was thinking about mantras. There was one comment that someone left on my facebook page that struck me in particular. It said:
Mantra: Be present. Do not miss what is happening right now. You are not running 22k, you are simply running and enjoying all your perception is creating.
I decided that would be my mantra for today. BE PRESENT. I like that.
I had decided to run along my marathon route, following the same path that I would face in October. My marathon start line is only two blocks from my house, so I jogged there. Then I began.
I thought hard about being in the present, and looked around for details along the route. I paid attention to the grooves in the road and the various inclines. I tried to memorize where I might be able to pass people on race day, and where I was better off keeping a steady pace. I imagined how the area might look with the route closed off and packed with runners.
The first 10k was the hardest. It was all uphill and by the time it was over I had finished almost all of my water.
I had started at Yonge & North York Centre Blvd. The marathon route would take me straight down Yonge Street, the world’s longest street. Stretching exactly 1,896 km, I knew I wouldn’t be running out of road.
On marathon day, I will run to the point where Yonge Street ends, at the Toronto Lakeshore. I’ve been there a million times, but I’ve never run there from my house. Today I was only scheduled to run to Yonge & Rosedale, exactly eight subway stops away. By subway, this trip would take me about 20 minutes.
Today I will run to Rosedale and back, I told myself. It will take me more than 20 minutes.
I hit Yonge & Sheppard, subway station #1. No big deal. The run to subway station #2, York Mills, was more painful.
Be present.. be present. I kept reminding myself. So I started to look around. I was crossing a bridge with a highway entrance nearby. Traffic zoomed past me on one side as I struggled along the sidewalk. On the other side there were rusted out mental boarders and a fence preventing me from falling into an overgrown army of very itchy bushes.
Along the side of those bushes I spotted a yellow plant that grows all over the city. You always find it in the company of weeds and dandelions. Unkept places where dogs go to pee.
When I was a child, my grandmother would take me out to collect this plant. She would bring me to an overgrown field and tell me to pick as many as I could. She said it was good for tea.
I never knew what this plant was called and I haven’t thought about it since then. When we’d get back to my grandmother’s house, she would boil these and drink the water. I never had any because I was told I was too young for tea. I was just the plant picker.
Unfortunately, my grandmother is one of those people that I can longer speak to. But when I got home, I looked this plant up. I searched through pictures of seemingly every herb that grows in the city that can be made into tea. Hours later, I still couldn’t find it. Then suddenly it dawned on me: maybe this plant wasn’t edible.
Trying to remember what my grandmother had called this plant and wondering if I had picked any that dogs had urinated on, pushed me through my first hill.
I was at Yonge & Lawrence, subway station #3.
Lawrence is the station I exited last Christmas for a church concert with my sister Emma and other family members.
Much like myself, Emma is not one for churches. Except her reasons are different. This Christmas though, she came with me. It was perhaps unwise for me to bring her because Emma and I have an annoying tendency: we laugh like hyenas at inappropriate times for inappropriate things.
The first choir group that sang was not very good. Actually, “not good” is an understatement. They basically killed music. I can’t remember the name of the group, but it was small and they meant well. God bless them.
One of the group members sang something that he had written himself and it was so bad that I had to bury my face in my hands and pretend to pray in order to stop my body from convulsing with laughter. Think: William Hung.
Emma was better behaved than I was, but we still couldn’t look at each other through the entire repertoire. The song was so repetitive that it was stuck in my head for an entire week. On the way home, Emma and I sang it and it became our new favourite. It was like something straight out of South Park.
I’m at Yonge & Eglington. Subway #4.
This is where I go to school. It’s not exactly downtown, but just as congested. The homeless still stake their claims on several warm grates, and the shortest distance from the subway to my school leads me straight through a particularly smelly homeless man’s bedroom. He’s always sleeping when I pass, and whenever I’m headed to class I have to decide whether or not I want to risk waking him, or take a longer route instead.
I actually feel apologetic, like I really am intruding on his home. He’s tucked away just inside a plaza so the smell is a mixture of Pinesol and not ever showering – the Pinesol being the mall cleaner’s attempt at making it all better. But that actual olfactory mixture is so atrocious that it would be MORE bearable without the Pinesol. As I pass, I wonder if I should write a letter to the cleaners.
Before I held my breath around homeless people, I would befriend them. In high school I was convinced that when I had my own apartment I would have a mob of homeless people living with me. Then I moved out and rented a room in a complex where it was me and (wouldn’t you know it!) a whole bunch of homeless people. It wasn’t the dream home I had imagined.
Once when I was 17 I stopped to talk to a homeless man that I saw regularly in my area, which back then was Jane & Finch. His name was Gord. I bought him a pizza once with some money I had saved up and we ate it together. He showed me his journal and he gave me a poem that he had written. I actually memorized it:
I drank to ease this endless pain
Of my awful childhood days
Those rotten people who abused me
I let those painful memories get in my way
I had my first taste of alcohol at 16
And I loved the feeling it gave
I never dreamed 30 years later
It would be leading me to my grave
You’ve probably seen me sitting on a sidewalk
Foam cup in my hand
Expecting passerbys to give money
To this employable, but hurting man
Many a time I have woke up on a dirty sidewalk
Hungover, lonely, cold, hungry, and sore
My t-shirt still soaked with the tears
That I cried the night before
I have no fear when I’m drinking
I’m not even afraid to die
But I’m terrified of everything when I’m sober
Especially the need to cry
– Gord Atkinson
I got home that day and my dad beat me because I was late. I never told him about Gord, I just took the beating and said nothing. Gord disappeared one week after that. I called the number he had left me, but it was disconnected.
Yonge & Davisville. Subway station #5
I’m now running alongside my favourite cemetery in the whole entire world. This was my escape many, many times. I’ve run here, ridden my bike here, walked here, photographed here, or just hung out. Always alone.
Mount Pleasant cemetery is a place of solitude for me. It’s enormous and green, with tons of strange birds and little bugs that I can’t identify. I like looking at the graves. And I wonder things.
I wonder about the expensive stones, and how much they cost. I wonder about the people who don’t have a stone at all, and if anyone visits them. I wonder if anyone got to write their own inscriptions, or what happened to all their assets. I wonder where the most visited grave is. Which deceased person was most loved. Who had the biggest funeral. Who had the person they love fail to show up. I wonder what the most valuable object is that is buried in these coffins. And which one has the most significance. And why. Today I wonder if any other runner wonders these important things when they pass this place.
Yonge & St. Clair. Subway station #6.
This was the location of my very first job. It took a lot to convince my dad to allow me to work. The only reason he agreed to this one was because my aunt worked here, and she would be working with me.
I was a teenager at the time, and I would get off at St. Clair to walk to a senior’s residence a couple of blocks away. This was a very upscale senior’s residence, where everyone gets to pretend that nobody is sick and nobody dies and nobody has been abandoned at ALL – this is actually a resort.
I worked in the restaurant. The function of it was more like a cafeteria, but the idea of a restaurant was an important part of the illusion. It was part of my job to make old people believe that this was an upscale, very expensive restaurant. Except nobody paid for their meals. It was included with their stay in the resort.
It wasn’t hard to convince the people that lived in this residence that this was a 5-star establishment. They bought right into the lie. They would dress up and make outrageous demands. They would send food back and complain until they were blue in the face. They would treat the servers badly and sometimes they would even have temper tantrums.
My aunt was always stressed and flustered, but I was the youngest so nobody really expected much of me. I was there because of my aunt and because they didn’t have time to hire anyone better. That wasn’t exactly a secret.
I DID, however, have a secret of my own. After dinner I would sneak into the fridge and drink milk. A lot of milk. Sometimes I would even bring milk home. Sometimes I would finish all the milk in the fridge.
Yonge & Summerhill. Subway station #7.
This was the location of the church that I grew up in. They had a building right across the street from the subway exit. Real estate here was expensive, so the building was tiny. The years in this church came and went with not much significance. Except for my best friend.
It was around these years when I met my very first best friend in the whole entire world and galaxy and universe. Her name was Silvia. She was from Panama and we were an unlikely pair. She was a beautiful child. A big mess of curly hair. Big brown eyes. Olive skin.
My skin was lighter. My hair was stringy and unkept. And whatever eyes I had were hidden behind a bright orange pair of old woman spectacles, which my dad had picked out of a church donation bin and forced me to wear. Still, for some reason, Silvia worshipped me.
On the weekends we would play. She was into Barbies and I was more into ANYTHING else, so we would compromise. I’d play Barbies with her, and then she had to go outside and do whatever I told her. I was always the “smart” one. And Silvia was the “pretty” one.
I secretly wanted to be the pretty one, so once in a while I would get passive aggressive on her. Make her do stupid things to amuse me. Then one day I found out that she had begged her mom for a pair of glasses like mine. I could NOT compute this in my head. When I confronted her about it, she said she wanted to be just like me. I told her she had lost her mind.
One day Silvia was pissing me off and I really REALLY wanted to hit her. But I knew that I would be in such big trouble that it almost wasn’t worth it. So instead I instigated her to hit ME, knowing that she would be gravely punished.
She hit me a little sooner and MUCH harder than I had planned. Knocked me right in the nose with the rock hard face of a cabbage patch doll. I shot my hand up to my nose, stunned to find it gushing blood. Silvia screamed and ran out the door, still clutching the bloody doll. Her mother brought her back, dragging her by the hair and beating her with a belt. That was a fun day.
Yonge & Rosedale! I can see it!
My legs feel strong, lost in thought. My breathing is steady. The light is red – a perfect opportunity for me to turn around and head home. There’s a park right at Rosedale. I was planning to loop around it before heading back. The park is on my right hand side and the subway entrance is on the left.
The light changes to green, and my path to the park is now blocked. So I keep going.
My high school English teacher gave us an assignment once. This was in an Enriched English class that I had qualified for. Being enriched meant that we didn’t have to respect the normal curriculum. We watched movies in class. Discussed issues in the media. We were encouraged to think more critically instead of just memorizing Shakesphere. We wrote a lot – one essay a day. It was like heaven.
For this one particular assignment, we had to watch Gattaca, a 90s sci-fi movie with Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke. In this movie, almost every birth is genetically altered to form a mentally and physically superior human being based on exceptional DNA formulas.
There was a family with two brothers. One of the brothers was genetically altered to be superior. The other brother was not. Every summer the brothers would play together near the ocean. They had a game. The challenge of this game was to swim out as far as each of them dared. The first one to turn back was the loser.
Time after time the genetically inferior brother would turn back. Until one day… he just kept swimming. They went further and further until finally the strongest of the two turned back. That was the last time they ever raced.
Years later the brothers reunited. The weaker brother confessed to the strongest the reason he had won that race all those years ago. It was simple. “I didn’t save anything for the way back.”
And that’s what I think about now. About not saving anything for the way back. About going.. until I can’t.
Yonge & Bloor.
Yonge & Wellesley.
Yonge & College.
Yonge & Dundas.
Then I turn around, and think for a second… Dear God, what have I done?? But it’s too late. I have no choice. So I start heading home.
It’s not as bad as I imagined. Running home is always easier.
I know what’s waiting for me, and that spurs me on. Air conditioning. A shower. Clean clothes. A lunch.
And North York Centre.
I’m home. I can’t believe it! Back to family and friend and familiarity. Comfort and relaxation. My hardwood floors and my oak table and my balcony. And all those other intangible things – the ones that truly make home a worthy destination.
I’m surrounded by the things that swell me with the courage and the strength to run away in the first place. Knowing that I will always come back. That coming home will always be easier.
Total mileage: 26k.
I’m taking a rest day tomorrow. From everything. So my next post will go live on Monday at 10pm EST. Thanks for all the support!