By: Madeleine Cummings
“Don’t follow the Tesla.” That was the final command for the elite runners gathered at the start line of the Edmonton 10K on Sunday morning.
I was among them, though I must admit I didn’t really belong in a group that included national champions and Olympians. As I fiddled with my ancient GPS watch, held together with a hair elastic, I tried not to think about the more accomplished runners around me. These were people who needed to heed the instruction to follow the lead cyclist, not the Tesla, because they would be leading the race, and could make a wrong turn. I had no such fears. Like them, I run more than a normal person deems necessary, and had risen at 5 a.m. in order to eat breakfast at the right time. But there are many differences between elites and everyone else — one of which being, the degree to which abdominal muscles appear without flexing.
How did I get here? Technically I had earned my spot by submitting a time from last year’s Sporting Life 10K in Toronto. Unfortunately, performing well on a downhill race course isn’t a great indicator of physical ability; it’s like finishing the SparkNotes summary of War and Peace.
That said, I was thrilled to be racing with such a deep field in the city where I live. Normal Sunday mornings don’t include running strides beside Reid Coolsaet, though I wish they did.
The race began and I settled into an ambitious pace I knew I probably couldn’t maintain. We ran away from the Alberta Legislature grounds, through the underpass on 97th Avenue, then over Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River.
Runners and cyclists are normally relegated to the bridge’s narrow sidewalks, so racing on the road was exciting. I’d sign up again for that reason alone. Gusts of wind rippled our race bibs, but at this point, I was feeling strong and ready for the gentle hill that leads up and out of the river valley.
My favourite description of racing comes from the short story “Miracle Mile,” by Alexander MacLeod. He writes, “The problem with feeling good in a 1,500 is that you know it can’t last and that eventually, sometime in the next ninety seconds, everything you have left has got to come draining out of you, either in a great explosive rush at the end or some painful slow trickle.”
My painful slow trickle began at the halfway mark, according to my Strava autopsy. It was at this point that my toes began to burn. I could feel blisters brewing on the balls of my feet, so I switched from forefoot to heel-striking — a move that brings relief but slows me down. Mentally, I also began to suffer. I tried to hang onto the pack I’d been running with, but that train was leaving and my ticket had expired.
After winding through residential streets near the University of Alberta, the race course arrived back at Saskatchewan Drive, where streams of runners were flowing in the opposite direction on the other side of the road. Those runners appeared to be having more fun than I was. They were pushing strollers, running with friends, listening to music, and, worst of all, smiling. Cheering volunteers were waving signs, ringing cowbells, telling everyone they were looking great. Meanwhile, I was in a festival of pain.
For the last few kilometres, I ran behind a man in his forties who raised his arms in celebration every time we came across a photographer. I was hurting, but he was having the time of his life.
After crossing the finish line, I couldn’t help my disappointment. My last kilometre had been fast, suggesting there was more gas in the tank. I hadn’t given up, but I also hadn’t run my best.
I thanked the volunteers, who were eagerly filling my arms with free samples and food, and thought of how joyful the man ahead of me had been. He introduced himself after the race — his name was Aksil — and said this had been his first 10K. We smiled for a photo together.
Elite runners have always inspired me, with their speed and ability to push through pain. Winning a race is a wonderful thing, but then again, so is racing with abandon across the High Level Bridge on a Sunday morning.