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Over hill, over dale, over park, over pale

IT ONLY TAKES a mere three months for spring to arrive in Ontario, so here we are at 6 pm on the first warm Thursday of the year, early May, eight runners standing on a grassy secluded hill about to start our weekly tempo workout together. It’s a first for 2011 ­– everyone’s in T-shirts! The sun warms our skin as a cool breeze rustles our hair. We fidget and stretch, shaking off a day of inactivity, readying our bodies and minds for the coming exertion.

The Arboretum cross-country course, adjacent to the university, is quickly becoming my favourite spot in all of Guelph. It’s close to downtown, about 2K by road and only 1K as the crow flies. But it’s also a world apart. You can hear the low hum of the city here – but also the rustling of grass and the twittering of birds. In order to host Canada’s cross-country championships for the past four years a course of looping tracks were created here by UoG’s running guru and coach Dave Scott-Thomas. Dog walkers love it, but more so the runners. It has everything we need: hills, corners, visual variety, and brightly painted posts that demarcate the 400 and 500 metre splits, so we can time our pace.

There are two loops to choose from, 2.5 km and 2 km, not ovals, weaving and winding through a large property. Today we’ll do four times two, with small breaks in between each one, a total of 8K at a hard, but not race pace. Then we’ll all disappear again back to our regular lives. For 45 minutes or so, we’re united, wordlessly except for the breaks, in a collective training regime. We pull a taxing load but we do it all together, which magically makes our individual effort a little easier.

Let me introduce today’s amazing group:

There’s Marie-Soleil, a 30-something PhD student from Quebec City. She’s a level three ski instructor, an elite (international) level women’s soccer referee, and a student of exercise science. We all admire her light-as-a-feather step and high-kicking heels. She was a natural, short-stride forefoot-striker long before it gained its current popularity as desirable form in the running magazines.

Brandon was a new arrival to our club last year, but this 30+ guy with his handsome blond goatee and tattooed arms is an up and comer, showing up all winter long at for our Tuesday tempo runs downtown. He cracked 1:30 for the half-marathon last weekend in Waterloo, placing 6th, and will run another one in Mississauga in 10 days time. His energy seems effortless. He’s shy but really keen, and getting quickly faster. I think he’s a teacher in real life.

Tahira is a marvel. This Pakistani / Brit with jet black hair and equally jet blue eyes was the fastest woman in our club last year when she abruptly moved to Australia with her partner to start medical school and have a baby. Now she’s back, and although modest about her speed, I judge that she’s only a hair’s breadth away from completely regaining her form. Under-trained, she still raced Hamilton’s Around the Bay 30K race last March in 2:13, very near the top of her 30+ age group and 24th woman overall. She will run faster as a mum than she did before the birth, I would be willing to bet.

John is the club’s organizational and spiritual centre. No one calls him coach, but he’s the one who circulates the emails that detail our workouts each week; he says “go” when it’s time to start; he delivers gentle encouragement to all without playing favourites. His diverse and obsessive passions (beyond running and race directing) include: coffee roasting, wine tasting (he runs a club for that too), bread making, espresso machine repair, carpentry, biking and probably others I don’t even know about. He is the link between our Victors running club, the university’s best runners (perennial Canadian champs in men’s and women’s cross-country) and the elite runners (some of them Olympians) who come from across the country to train under D. Scott-Thomas at Guelph’s Speed River Track Club.

Lisa is a 28-year-old nurse in the city hospital’s ER department, anxious to escape the grind of 12-hour shifts before burning out, so now signed up to start her MA in nursing next fall. She’s a seriously competitive runner, a veteran of several Boston marathons, who I think is a bit too hard on herself sometimes. She has been dogged by calf injuries for a year, but is back in form now, a tiny blonde whirlwind with a sunny smile and disposition. She runs with a little head-wag, like British marathoner Paula Radcliffe. Over a short distance like 400 metres she’s very quick, untouchable, I believe, by any of the other females in our club.

Jerry and I are fellow geezers; he’s the only one older than me in this group, since he’s in his late 50s. He fixes jet engines during the day, at the Toronto airport. A Rockwood local who’s been with the club longer than me, he’s slowing down in his race times now but still trains as hard as ever. His skin is farmer-brown at all times of the year and he always breaks a sweat, the only one with moisture on his face during today’s run. We tease each other and bask in our old guy status. Who are we kidding, chasing these young kids around a dirt trail?

And finally there’s Kimberly, a 20-something newbie last summer, just out of university and in her first job with a pharmaceutical company downtown. Small and strong, she always shocks us at how little she wears while still managing to stay warm. No gloves in winter, just sleeves pulled over her hands. She’s been running in shorts for months. Even dressed like that and running in a freak April blizzard she won the local Billy Taylor 5K race last month, although she dismisses her victory because “all the fast girls were in the 15K race.”

John says “let’s go” and we’re off. The course starts on a hill that overlooks Guelph, which sits in a small valley at the confluence of two beautiful rivers. From up here we can see it all, then we round the hill and start descending into a tiny valley. At first we run on grass, then a bit of mud, following by bark chips, gravel and then stone dust. We can run two abreast, no more. No one talks, but we run in a tight pack for the first 500 metres, then spread out a little, not much. It’s a curious sort of intimacy, a collective, silent will to move quickly. I dream we’re all in a big old car together, like those sprawling station wagons of my childhood, taking a drive in the country. The scenery slides quickly by. Running hard is never serene, but this is pretty close.

We speed up as we descend to the course low-point. Marie-Soleil is in the lead, her quick stride floating her down the hill faster than the rest of us. It’s not a race, but it’s not leisurely either. We judge the pace so that we can finish 2K in about 8 minutes, which would be 20 minutes for a 5K.

Just before the yellow 1K marker we face our first little climb. Arms swinging, we dig in. Marie-Soleil slows a little and I catch her. Lisa is right behind me, off my right shoulder, and behind her I sense Brandon and Tahira. Now it’s flat for almost a full kilometre, so we settle into a rhythm. We pass some bare dogwoods with bright red branches, then dart across a grass field dotted with saplings (the Aboretum is after all a tree farm), then thread a narrow trail through a stand of mature cedars. We finish the loop with a long, nearly one-minute climb back to the top of start/finish hill. Although not identical, all seven of us finish within 30-45 seconds of each other, and for a moment we’re all bent over, clutching our knees as we recover from the effort. I look at my watch – 7:52 it says – then hit the save / reset button.

Off we go again. This time, Marie-Soleil and I run side-by-side instead of front and back, matching pace through most of the course. I hear her breathing deepen on the final hill ascent, but her pace doesn’t slow. “Good one” she says as we finish repeat two. 7:57 is the time-keeper’s verdict. During the break I help Tahira figure out how to time splits with her watch. She normally runs completely by feel – the opposite of my vigilant, time-obsessed approach. It works well for her, with a low-18 PB for 5K and sub-40 for the 10. But in her quest to get back in race shape, she’s trying a new approach, monitoring her time and heart rate.

Numero tres. Everyone is feeling the fatigue now and we start a little slower. Kimberly drops back. She ran across the fields to get here, getting a soaker in the process. Now she has a blister forming on the inside of her wet right foot. Brandon is running better this repeat; Lisa has dropped back a little. I’ve slowed too. “8:00” reads my watch at the finish. During the break I discuss stride rate with John. We shared a fascinating YouTube video earlier this week, super-slow-mo footage and analysis of the top seven finishers at this year’s recent Boston Marathon. The conclusion: a short, quick stride is good, but individuals always vary in their genetics and mechanics. Even the elites range between 170 and 190+ steps per minute. There is no perfect stride rate.

John is about to start us on repeat four but we’re all facing in the wrong direction, putting off the inevitable. “This says something,” he jokes. We reluctantly take our places and begin the final loop. When your mind knows it doesn’t need to save anything in reserve you can run a little faster. I concentrate on the short stride rate that John and I discussed. This time, Marie-Soleil is on my heels as we storm down the hill. I keep up the short stride thing – step, step, step – and mount the big hill with one last surge. 7:45, yes! Water bottles appear; we all rest and admire the spring bursting out all around us.

Our denouement is one last, languid 2.5K cool-down loop around the whole property. We run close together, sharing stories and jokes, taking in the beauty of the early evening. Brandon and I agree to drive down to the Mississauga Half together in 10 days. Lisa tells us about her plans for a 10K in Ottawa this coming weekend. John fills us in on the politics of the local campaign to build a world-class, eight-lane running track, to befit the growing importance of running to the city. He wants to make Guelph the Eugene, Oregon of Canada, I think. He just might succeed.

Two of our group drove here in cars. The rest of us bike or run home to a dinner, shower, and an evening of pleasant running memories. Thanks gang. Same time, next week?

Photo: Dean Palmer, Guelph

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