The curious joy of Tempo Tuesday
It’s dark. And cold. A winter wind blows from the north. My watch reads 6 pm. I should be home enjoying a drink or a meal, right? Yeah, but it’s Tuesday night. That means group tempo run with my club, the Guelph Victors.
We do a weekly 10-kilometre undulating loop that starts easy but ratchets up in intensity when we hit the first hill. Curiously, I relish Tempo Tuesday, both for the running, and for the mix of friends. Come have a look.
As we start the run I fall in beside Sandy, an old buddy. We met in Fergus, where our families both lived when our kids were small. In fact, our respective youngest children were born just weeks apart, and they had birthday parties together as toddlers. He enquires about my grown-up kids and I about his. He confesses that he has only been running three times a week for most of this year, so his progress has stalled. He wonders aloud whether his fastest days are now behind him, as he approaches his mid-50s. I doubt that, but it’s every runner’s tendency to be a little pessimistic about our speed, especially as we age.
The group is large tonight, almost 40 people. By necessity, we run on sidewalks to get out of downtown, eventually finding our way to Dufferin, a quiet back street that parallels the main north-south artery, with hardly a car to disturb us. We run right up the middle of the road, in a big, noisy cluster. If any vehicles appear, someone yells “Car up!” or “Car back!”, and we move to the side of the street so they can pass.
We approach three runners from behind. They left a few minutes before the main group because they anticipated running more slowly. My club mates Dean and David have been mentoring a new runner for two months, and this is his first night out with the large group. Andrew is highly autistic, and needs accompaniment to keep him focused on his task. The three of them are beside us on the sidewalk. This is a new route for him, and Andrew is distracted by a huge display of Christmas lights. Then he sees a single bulb in a backyard shed, and hears chickens clucking – Guelph’s new urban farming trend.
I stick with this threesome, and the larger group glides ahead – I know they’ll stop and wait for us at Speedvale Avenue, the next major intersection. Dean and David are encouraging Andrew. He doesn’t reply to them during their runs together, and in fact, he’s wearing headphones to help him concentrate. But afterwards, he’ll email them a detailed commentary on the workout, his preferred form of communication.
After about three kilometres at an easy pace (about 6 min. per kilometre), we cross the Speed River and swing onto Riverview Drive. We’re about to turn up the heat. I manage a quick chat with Aaron, one of the fastest men in our club. He’s a truck dispatcher in Cambridge by day. Last year, at 32, he also became a new father. I congratulate him on winning outstanding achievement at our club awards dinner last week, for his 2:47 marathon finish this fall.
Aaron is tall and sturdy, not the usual ectomorphic runner’s build. But his speed on the track is outstanding – he can run close to 60 seconds for 400 metres. As recently as three years ago, I could keep pace with him on these Tuesday runs, but no more. He has improved dramatically. We turn the corner onto Waverley Drive, with a 600-metre long hill in front of us. Aaron quickens his pace and breezes to the front of our pack.
I don’t worry too much about the first hill. It gets my heart rate up fast enough, but my legs still feel relaxed and strong. Our tight cluster of runners quickly strings out into a long line. There’s a little dip as we approach Waverley School, then another small incline, followed by a flat stretch back down south towards Speedvale. I settle into a brisk tempo pace, somewhere around 4 minutes per kilometre for me. Although it’s not quite as fast as 5K race pace, you still can’t talk at this speed. I run in silent communion with Jess, one of a cluster of 30-ish females, many of them ex-varsity runners, who are the fastest of our Victors women.
We reach the intersection and stop to re-gather the group for a second time. The hard effort means everyone is sweating now, so we re-calibrate clothing, shedding unwanted hats or gloves into pockets. There’s no traffic light here, so we wait until a sizeable break in the cars before crossing the four-lane street en masse.
Marie-Soleil immediately darts out in front as we climb our second hill. She’s been doing this for weeks, and no one follows her at first, although eventually Aaron and Jeremy take chase. Her conditioning has been spectacular this year and she has lowered her 5K time to 18:15. We’ll run this hill twice, doubling back around the block after the first effort, so I bide my time. As we start the second loop, I catch Marie-Soleil, although I think it’s because she slowed, rather than me running any faster.
It might seem strange to be playing these games of cat and mouse on dark back streets. No one is keeping score, or measuring our time, and there are no awards or prizes. The urge to catch or stay with another runner is very primal, and so is the impulse to escape someone on your tail.
I pass Marie-Soleil but I’m aware that Jess is right behind me again. She leads the two of us up hill number three. After we crest, we run almost a full kilometre down Walnut Drive, before coming out of the back streets at a major intersection on Eramosa.
We fly down the hill, easily running at about 3:45 pace. We catch Jeremy, but not Aaron, who is far ahead. When the road flattens, Jess is still pushing hard. I cling, barely, to her lead. At any moment, if she surges any faster, she’ll drop me. From behind, she appears solid and tireless.
But when we reach the intersection, which is another group stop, Jess heaves a big sigh of relief and confesses to me between gasps: “I’ve never run so fast down that hill – you were pushing me!” I was doing nothing of the sort, at least not deliberately. I was just trying not to lose her. I was never in front. That’s the curious back-and-forth of training with other runners in a symbiotic competitive relationship.
We wait several minutes at the lights. Some slower members of the group only looped once on the previous hill, so we’re almost all together again. My friend Dean arrives out of breath. He and David left their protégé Andrew at his house, back at the very first hill. It means that Andrew ran about four kilometres continuously, motivated by the group. “That’s his best run ever,” says Dean with a huge smile. Dean, who is a professional photographer (that’s his shot illustrating this blog), is obviously enjoying this new experiment, discovering the world of autism up close and personal.
As we wait, I chat with Ed, an Air Canada pilot and avid trail runner who’s about to retire, and Karl, a young biologist and salsa dance friend who has run on his own for years, but only joined the Tuesday Tempo group a month ago. There’s laughter and joking as we wait at the lights. Cara lives only a block from here. It must be tempting for her to just duck home at this point, but she’ll continue with the group for our final leg.
When the group is together again we set off for one more interval at tempo pace. We’ll climb the large hill overlooking downtown Guelph on the east, via a gradual 1K-backside slope on two streets, Lane and Palmer. It’s not the steepest hill of the evening, but it’s definitely the longest, and our legs are feeling the accumulation of all this climbing. I’m glad to see that both Karl and Gabriella, another Tempo Tuesday newcomer, are running strongly. Four weeks of this has adapted them to the rigours of a hard group run, sustaining their pace right through to the last hill.
Once again, Marie-Soleil and Aaron are out front, climbing the incline in the darkness. It’s a narrow street, and a little dangerous at night as we near St. George’s Park, because there is usually some traffic here. Last week, Marie-Soleil nearly collided with a car at a four-way stop. Dean is beside me, but is fresh from his slower paced run with Andrew, and he attacks the hill as it steepens. Again, I’m behind, just trying to hang on. Twice he gaps me, and twice I pull him back.
Once we summit the hill, we run four blocks pretty much flat out, down Stuart Street and left on Lemon. We draw even with Marie-Soleil, and the three of us race to the corner of Arthur Street, where Aaron is waiting for us. We high-five and congratulate each other in the darkness. It’s still one kilometre down the other side of the hill, then across the river by footbridge and back to Quebec Street, but we do this as a cool-down run, at an easy pace. Again we chat, about race plans.
Before long, we’re back where we started, at The Running Works store. It’s just before 7 pm. The last shoppers are leaving downtown, and traffic is now light. The group is re-forming as runners arrive. We linger for a few minutes, but our sweat means that we cool quickly. I spot Jocelyn, a super friendly woman with a broad-faced smile, and wish her a happy birthday, then set off on my own for the two-kilometre jog home.
I’m happy with the effort, filled with the stories and plans of my training mates, and looking forward to a beer and supper. After 14K of running and a mess of hills, sleep won’t be a problem tonight.
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