When the Queen passed and organizers pushed the Army Run from September to November, many participants looked for a refund or deferred their registration to 2023. For me, however, it affected my race in a whole different way. It also helped that my spouse left the country long enough to allow me to make silly decisions.
When I originally registered, the 5k was an easy choice. I had just completed that distance at Ottawa Race Weekend and confirmed that it would be impossible for me to run a longer race. It took me right to the edge of what I could handle physically, thanks to MS.
Rubbery Quads and Calves – Every hill starts those weak leg muscles twitching, which serves as a warning that pushing through the incline can lead to waves of uncontrollable spasms. Those Bambi legs were also a safety issue in the crowded Ottawa Race Weekend, where hundreds of children in our corral sprinted for 300m and then stopped abruptly. Some ran in surprising zigzags, and a couple fell without warning. Like a cruise ship, I have limited speed but even less ability to turn or stop suddenly, so there were some close calls.
Foot Drop – I have trouble lifting my toes. Even with my miraculous braces, I can go only 3km before I’m tripping over flat ground. By the end of 5km, I’m swinging my hips like Shakira in order to throw my legs forward. I’m told it’s not nearly as sexy.
Toe Burn – This one is mysterious and nasty. I have very little sensation below my ankles until I’ve been on my feet for too long. It can be as little as 30 minutes or as long as an hour, but if I don’t take a load off often enough, the numbness is replaced by a feeling of pressure and burning in my toes that cannot be ignored. Like a visit from certain relatives, it is intensely unpleasant and there’s no way to predict when it will end.
With all that in mind, I signed up for the Army Run 5k and hoped for the best.
A New Toy
My new wheelchair arrived in mid-October and running suddenly took a back seat. It was much more fun to roll around the neighbourhood, but it also gave me a sense of athletic potential I’d been missing. With running, I have physical limits that will prevent me from improving my performance. Regardless of training, diet, and coaching, there is a hard cap on how well I can run, and it’s not much better than I do after months of watching TV and eating chips. It’s hard to find the point of practice.
With the wheelchair, however, there is daily improvement in technique and strength, and I rediscovered the motivation to be out there training as often as possible. It wasn’t long before I had my very first “Hill Training” day, and I rolled home sweaty, exhausted, and happy.
I started talking about the Bytown Challenge, which is the 2k/5k/10k combination at Ottawa Race Weekend. I figured I’d run the 5k and roll the 2k and 10k distances, perhaps becoming the first person to complete the feat in that way. It was more than six months away and it seemed like a reasonable goal.
Each time the topic came up, however, Kanako tried to rein me in. It’s a crowded race, and I’d be a menace to other participants. 10k is a long distance, and I should work my way up to it, instead of dreaming a little too big after two weeks of rolling around. Practical advice, to be sure, especially since it’s a full-body workout and 6km of hard rolling usually leaves me feeling like I’ve been in a car crash the next morning.
Which is why it was so helpful that my spouse flew to Japan to visit her family for the first time since the pandemic began. It gave me the unfettered freedom to be frigging foolish.
At the Expo, some volunteers were encouraging participants to invite friends to register. With numbers lower than they had been in the pre-COVID years, there was lots of room. I stared at the Information table as I felt an unwise impulse slowly take hold. Would it be possible, I wondered, to change one’s registration from a 5k to the 5k + 10k Challenge? Without anyone there to slow my roll, it was all too easy to make what turned out to be an excellent and terrible decision.
Kanako sent many encouraging notes on the morning of the race, and I sent a video message from the 5k start, mentioning nothing at all about the 10k portion of the day. After an uneventful run during which I realized once again how many hills there are downtown, I reported to her that I’d had what was probably a personal best MS time. She replied with gifs and emojis of congratulations. I said nothing about how I was fighting through toe burn and hurrying to fetch my wheelchair in time for the 10k start, because there wasn’t enough time to read a dozen WHAT ARE YOU THINKING messages.
Participants in the 5k + 10k Challenge had been warned that we had to make it to the start line in time for the final wave, in order to be part of the second race. I barely made it there as the final runners took off, and then I did my best to give the field a head start. I took a selfie, adjusted my cushion, and then pretended that there was something wrong with my brakes, all while watching the last runner jog far up the road. Two volunteers with a yellow barrier rope moved slowly toward me, and although they looked reluctant to tell the guy in a wheelchair to get a move on, they clearly wanted me to get rolling.
I took a deep breath and pushed across the starting line. Everything felt good, except for the police officers and dozens of drivers waiting for the roads to open at each intersection along the first stretch. Because Kanako worried so much that I’d be running over everyone on the course, I had cat toys tied to my chair, and bells pinned to my gloves. All alone on the bumpy course, I felt more than a little embarrassed to be jingling along the silent streets and pushed hard to catch up to the crowds.
At the 400m point, I moved into second-last place, and all those cars waiting for roads to open became someone else’s problem.
The first long uphill climb just after the 2k point made me wish a little that Kanako had been there to keep me from registering for the race. It had been hard enough to handle that incline on foot, but I needed to focus on all the techniques I’d been learning in order to roll to the top.
The joy I felt while cresting the hill didn’t last very long, however, because as our group passed the one-third point of the race, we could hear the excited announcer hollering about how someone had just won the 10k event. Although I’ve been in many races where the winners were crowned while I still had a long way to go, it’s humbling to be close enough to see and hear it happen long before reaching the halfway mark.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have long to sulk before my wheelchair started falling apart.
Ian greeted me cheerfully before trouble began, and I gave him a confident smile. Right after that, my foot plate scraped the ground, and I realized that the unending vibrations of the paved road had allowed the tubes at each side to slide down more than two inches. Although I had ordered a device with larger tires and a carbon fibre skeleton, my wheelchair wasn’t really designed for racing.
I rolled to a stop, flipped the chair upside down, and used my fist to hammer things (mostly) back into place.
By the time I passed the 5km point, I was trying to keep the weight off my feet, especially on the rougher and bumpier places, and I realized that the real challenge was going to be crossing the finish line before it became impossible to do so. Every few minutes, I flipped the chair and hammered things back into place, and each repair revealed more pieces coming loose. I’d also lost a bolt along the way, and the rattling of the loose seatback blended nicely with my assortment of bells. With all the racket I was making, it was increasingly unlikely that I would need to worry about running over unsuspecting walkers.
Not long after seeing Ian on the return trip, the foot plate fell right off, dragging along the ground while I scrambled to stop. Without tools, it was only going to get worse, and as I hammer-fisted things into place, I again cursed the rookie mistake of leaving my wrench and allen keys in the car.
Many participants and volunteers wanted to help, but of course no one was carrying a toolkit. I might have fared better in a bike race.
Somehow, I reached the final 200m of the course, and the steep climb to the War Memorial seemed like an impossible final challenge, despite encouragement from spectators. Without a working foot plate, it wouldn’t be possible to use the momentum of my upper body to help my tired arms push the wheelchair forward. Slowly, with weary runners urging me forward as they passed by, I inched my way up the most unkind finishing stretch of any race I’ve ever run.
As I passed the finish line, the announcer urged spectators to cheer for someone who had done an impressive 15km by wheelchair. I was too tired to feel bad about accepting that acclaim after rolling only 10km, and just tried to lift my arms high enough to accept fist bumps from all the military personnel gathered there.
Someone in uniform pressed a finisher coin into my hand, and I immediately dropped it. She picked it up and handed it to me again, and I tried my best to grasp it in my tired, numb, and bruised hands. A few feet beyond that, someone else handed me a different coin. Then came water bottles, a banana, and packages of food. I thanked the soldiers and volunteers as I received each gift, and struggled to balance everything in my lap. I’d better install a basket before the next race.
The long-term goal is to find a way to purchase a racing wheelchair, and to qualify for the New York Marathon.
In the meantime, I’ll be back at the Army Run next fall, and I’ll try to complete the 2k/5k/10k race at Ottawa Race Weekend in May…
Before then, I’ll be sure to visit the shop to have them bolt, solder, and glue things into place. I’ll be sure to bring some tools with me, too!