Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Archive for the category “Running”

First Bite Out of the Big Apple: Weekend in NYC

I’ve visited a fair number of US cities over the years but surprisingly, never New York City. So, when my corporate wunderkind little sis suggested we meet up in the Big Apple for an extended weekend, I was all in.

Ever the planner and trip-maximizer, I happily marched over to the World of Maps shop in Hintonburg to pick up some pre-trip research materials, namely Lonely Planet’s Discover New York City, National Geographic’s Walking New York, a super-handy and compact Popout map of New York, and of course, the latest issue of The New Yorker magazine at my local newsstand. This systematic review of NYC was rounded out by consultations with NYC-savvy friends and colleagues along with studying a vast number of electronic articles and resources.

I figured, rather blusteringly on retrospect, that hey, I organized and executed a solo first trip to Europe last fall by myself, so how hard could it possibly be to take in all of NYC that I wanted to see on a 3 1/2 day extended weekend?

Afterall, I thought, I’m an infinitely curious person with energy to spare (especially when it comes to travel and exploration), I’ve got a keen sense of direction, and am a consummate strategist and contingency planner. Perfect, right? Wrong. Despite all of these desirable qualities for travel in tote, even I would be forced to admit that I am not super-human and this portfolio of assets, though valuable, would still not permit me to simply discard any notion of having to make rational choices or trade-offs and instead live like a hedonist in an economically-lawless utopia (or dystopia, depending on your view).

In the end, in spite of not getting to see everything I wanted to see, I still wound up with a good introduction to NYC. Kind of like making new friends at a meet & greet with a promise to meet up again for more than just wine & apps. Until next time then, here are a few slices out of my Big Apple trip. (More to follow later…)

Waiting for train into Penn Station from Newark Airport

Waiting on the platform for a train into Penn Station from Newark Airport, which was kind of sketchy…

On Broadway Ave outside our hotel in Times Square

Exploring Broadway Avenue outside our hotel in Times Square after rolling my suitcase (with a broken wheel) 14 blocks  through a sea of people to get to our hotel. As my little sis aptly observed, NYC is like ‘Toronto on steroids’. Indeed. Couldn’t have described it better, myself.

Interior of Marriott Hotel in Times Square

Interior of NY Marriott Hotel in Times Square where we stayed  overlooking the lounge below. The whole time, I was trying to figure out whether the design was representational or abstract. My logical-thinking left brain insisted that the repeating pattern of lines & curves was clearly a stylized rendering of musical notes and symbols along bars & staff lines as the hotel’s acknowledgement of being located on Broadway Avenue. Never did get around to validating this theory though…

View of Times Square from hotel window

View of Broadway Avenue/Times Square from our hotel window. It’s true what they say: New York never sleeps, though it was a lot quieter on the Sunday morning.

Grabbing a quick lunch at Pret a Manger near Times Square

When I was in London, UK last fall, an ex-pat friend there had introduced me to the popular Pret a Manger chain for picking up fast, healthy lunches. I was quite pleased to discover it upon arrival in NYC. They post total calorie counts for all their food, which is fantastic for helping one make purchasing decisions. Pax Wholesome Foods was a similar restaurant that posted total calorie counts for everything they sold. My little sis and I visited the Pax shop on Broadway in Midtown a couple of times to pick up lunch/brunch en route to Central Park for an al fresco meal under the trees on a park bench. Thanks to the posted calorie info, we discovered that a half-sandwich along with a small beverage and treat (usually a small cookie) provided ample energy to fuel an afternoon of walking the streets of NYC. It would be nice if restaurants in Canada likewise posted calorie info to help consumers (including travelers without access to home-cooked meals) make better food purchasing decisions.

Thursday evening diners at Eataly

On our first night in NYC, my little sis, her work colleague, and I decided to check out Mario Batali’s Eataly on Fifth Avenue for supper. I was particularly curious since the combination resto-market had come highly recommended by several friends. It did not disappoint! The space is huge and the vibe energetic, sophisticated but unpretentious (thank goodness, since I was not exactly rocking my most chic self in jeans & sneakers). It clearly looked like the go-to spot for the after-work crowd. After hearing we wouldn’t be able to snag a table for supper for close to an hour, we decided to check out the bar scene and soak in the atmosphere in the interim.

Eataly is a combination restaurant-market, so expect to see many people come in for different purposes including to pick up groceries, mingle and enjoy a few after-work drinks with co-workers, or relax over a leisurely supper with friends in the restaurant space. I personally thought Eataly had a magical, almost festive quality about it, making it a potentially great spot for a date or a celebratory outing. Speaking of dates – sort of, I was flattered to be approached by a well-dressed, lean, fit man while waiting in line for some stracciatella gelato on our way out of Eataly.  The guy, a silver-haired, smooth corporate type from Brooklyn, looked exactly like John Slattery of Mad Men fame. He chatted with me in line and then proceeded to buy my gelato. (Guys take note: buying a girl ice cream is always a good call compared to offering a cheesy pick-up line.) ‘John’ happened to also be out with two other variously intoxicated, but well-attired businessmen, who then (like loyal wingmen) proceeded to engage my sis and her colleague in sidebar conversation. After a while, and especially since everyone but me was sporting a wedding ring, we girls decided to conclude the evening festivities, much to our prospective suitors’ dismay. We quickly made our way out into the night, and after failing to hail a yellow cab despite our best efforts, we made a run for the nearest subway station under an inadequately-sized single umbrella as it began to rain again. [Above: The ‘meat market’ at Eataly.]

Wine & appetizers at the Eataly bar

The bar scene: Where we, along with the after-work crowd, initially congregated at Eataly. Small, elevated rectangular tables served as the anchor for delicious food & drink, animated conversation, and  the requisite people-watching. It was standing room only.

Enjoying wine, cheese, and a charcuterie plate

My comparatively more food & wine-savvy little sis & her colleague ordered a nice charcuterie plate with cheese along with some wonderful wine. It would be easy to spend the entire evening simply enjoying these delicacies, as the couple next to us seemed to be doing

After-work crowd enjoying drinks & apps and plenty of socializing

After-work crowd enjoying drinks & appetizers and lots of socializing at Eataly.

Running route along western side of Central Park

After our memorable, epicurean night out at Eataly, I was keen to get up early and go for a run in Central Park, which I had yet to explore. As someone who much prefers running on quiet trails in the woods to unforgiving asphalt in a noisy, urban, concrete jungle, Central Park turned out to be a little piece of paradise for me. [Above: Running route along western side of Central Park with the famous San Remo apartment cooperative in the background.]

Central Park mall

The lovely Central Park mall, which reminded me of the time I spent walking, running, and cycling through London’s Hyde Park last September, and to some degree, the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. NYC nannies with their precious charges, dog-walkers,visual artists, food and NYC knick-knack vendors, and musicians could all be seen along the route.

Central Park mall

A couple is spotted walking under the protection of their umbrellas along the Central Park mall on a cloudy morning marked by occasional light showers.

View of Bethesda Fountain near upper Terrace

Toward the end of my run, a view of Bethesda Fountain through the trees from the upper Terrace in Central Park.

Central Park St. Bernard puppy

I spotted this gorgeous, 4-month-old St. Bernard puppy named ‘London’ lounging at the  steps to the Lake in front of Bethesda Fountain. Of course, I had to pat him (he was so soft!) and chat with his gracious owner.

mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

'London' contemplating the beauty of Central Park

‘London’, like a Wordsworth, clearly contemplating the inspiring beauty of Central Park (all the while, unaware that I was crafting an elaborate dog-napping plan once I hit upon on a suitable diversionary tactic to distract his owner. ;-)).

Nostalgic gelato shop near south entrance of Central Park

Central Park had made such an impression on me that previous cloudy morning that for the remainder of my stay in NYC, it became somewhat of a ritual for me (and my sis) to visit this urban oasis each morning/early afternoon before hitting the busy streets and shops for a packed day of sight-seeing. [Above: Nostalgic gelato shop located near south entrance of Central Park.]

Father and son watching the boaters on the Lake at Central Park

Father and son contentedly watching the boaters on the Lake at Central Park on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Four children gather at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park

Scooters and children seemed to be everywhere in Central Park. Here, four young children pause from their spirited play at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

Talented children's singing ensemble performing in the Terrace Arcade in Central Park

Soaring, angelic voices could be heard from the ornate Bethesda Terrace Arcade in Central Park from a talented children’s musical ensemble. We encountered performers  of all sorts in the Park, including a lone saxophonist and a lively crew of very athletic tumblers.

View of the San Remo  across the Lake in Central Park

Wherever we walked in Central Park, I always found myself drawn back to the Lake to admire the scene of dozens of rowboats before me. It brought back fond memories of the all-too-brief afternoon I spent in Oxford, UK, last fall when I happened upon punters under the Magdalene Bridge. (Now, that was romantic on a scale of Lord Byron. (sigh)) [Above: Couples and families enjoying leisurely paddle across the Lake in Central Park with a view of the San Remo in the background.]

Fit couple in foreground enjoy leisurely paddle on the Lake in Central Park

A very fit, tanned, attractive middle-aged couple in the foreground articulates the romance of a paddle on the Lake perfectly, particularly as the woman enjoys a chauffered ride on the water like Cleopatra with her Mark Antony on the Nile.

Young boy stares longingly at the remote-control sailboats on the Conservatory Water in Central Park

I came upon another lovely water scene at the Conservatory Water in Central Park, where a young boy stares longingly at the remote-controlled model sailboats gliding atop the pond in Central Park. A model sailboat-hire kiosk was located nearby, where children and adults alike indulged in this time-honored activity dating back to more than 135 years. Even E.B. White‘s beloved Stuart Little sailed these storied waters.

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Ottawa Race Weekend in Review: Snapshots from 2012 and 2013

This weekend, Ottawa played host to the largest road race in Canada – the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. Although it wasn’t sunny & warm like it was for the 2012 edition, the cool temps, gusty north winds, and grey skies for this year’s races nonetheless didn’t stop some record-breaking finishing times.

Like I had done last year, and since I was still dealing with running-related injuries, I decided to practise some action-shooting with my new Canon EOS 60D SLR camera, which is a beast compared to the more vintage (but respectable) Nikon model I was using last year, and also a bit of a challenge familiarizing myself with all its advanced gadgetry! Hopefully, with time and dedicated practice, I will come to tame this beast. I took in the 10-k race on Saturday night (May 26th) and the half-marathon race on Sunday morning (May 27th). Since I’m not a morning person, I opted not to take in the marquée marathon event, since it got underway too bright and early for my liking on Sunday morning at 7:00 AM…

The picture below was taken from the Bank Street Bridge over the Colonel By Parkway. It shows the crowd of 10-k runners closing in on 7 km in the final stretch of their race. The night was sunny, warm, and spectacular for spectators and photographers. If I were running the race, I think I would’ve preferred the cooler conditions we had this weekend. It’s awful to be overheated when you’re running, so a good rule of thumb is to always dress a bit on the cooler side, knowing you’ll warm up as you get going.

2012 10-k race along Colonel By at Bank Street Bridge

2012 10-k race along Colonel By Parkway from Bank Street Bridge

This shot was taken of  some 2012 half-marathon runners progressing past the 4 km mark along the Queen Elizabeth Parkway just before the canal empties into Dow’s Lake. I had found a prime piece of real estate on the grassy median. Prior to descending to this spot, I had been perched atop Bronson Bridge and had a fascinating chat with a fellow SPAO student experimenting with long-exposure photography using a homemade pinhole camera. I never did get to find out how his photograph turned out…

2012 half-marathon race on Queen Elizabeth Parkway at Bronson Bridge

2012 half-marathon race along QE Parkway near Bronson Bridge

This final shot from the 2012 Race Weekend was taken from Bank Street Bridge overlooking the Queen Elizabeth Parkway just over 3 km into the race. You can see the stream of 10-k runners peeking through the trees with the old (now demolished) Frank Clair Stadium in Lansdowne Park in the background. In the foreground, a couple in a canoe alternate between paddling the Rideau Canal and cheering the runners on.

2012 10k race on Queen Elizabeth parkway at Bank Street Bridge pre-Lansdowne demolition

2012 10-k race along QE Parkway at Bank Street Bridge pre-Stadium demolition

A bit of a blurry shot of these super-fast elite women runners (=the leader pack) past 3 km into the 2013 10-k race before they disappeared under the Bank Street Bridge along the Queen Elizabeth Parkway.

2013 10k elite women on QE parkway at Bank Street Bridge

2013 10-k elite women on QE Parkway from Bank Street Bridge

The even faster elite men approaching the 7 km homestretch mark of their 2013 10-k race along the Colonel By Parkway from the Bank Street Bridge.

2013 10k elite men on CBy parkway at Bank Street Bridge

2013 10-k elite men on CBy Parkway from Bank Street Bridge

The leader of the pack after 4 km of the 2013 half-marathon as seen from Bronson Bridge. He clearly owned the road at this point, as the next competitors were several seconds behind him. I actually thought he would overtake the guy on the pacer bicycle, who looked more like a recreational cyclist than serious athlete. This guy, a local Ottawa runner, held the lead and went on to handily win the half-marathon race.

2013 half-marathon elite men leader after 4k on QE Parkway at Bronson Bridge

2013 half-marathon elite men leader after 4 km on QE Parkway from Bronson Bridge

This threesome of cyclists, who I think were probably volunteers with Race Weekend, were particularly spirited with their loud cheers and even louder cowbell. There were plenty of high fives and lots of smiles from those 2013 10-k runners who decided to glance their way or reach out for a high-five. As a spectator, it was quite a festive and fun atmosphere being alongside this group, who were stationed along the Colonel By Parkway just before the ramp to head up to Bank Street (south).

Cowbell-clanging cyclist-cheerers lifting the spirits of weary 10k runners along CBy at Bank Street Bridge

Cowbell-clanging cyclist-cheerers lifting the spirits of weary 10-k runners along CBy Parkway just before Bank Street Bridge

Tinkering with my shutter speed as another group of 2013 10-k runners speeds past me along the Colonel By Parkway just prior to the Bank Street Bridge.

2013 10k runners speeding toward Bank Street Bridge along CBy

2013 10-k runners speeding toward Bank Street Bridge along CBy

A dad encouraged his kids (who were all likely there to cheer on their running wife/mom) to step out and extend a high-five to the 2013 10-k runners making their way into the homestretch along the Colonel By Parkway toward the Bank Street Bridge. The cheering kids were clearly delighted with how many runners obliged them, often flashing them a wide smile. In the background, you can see the steady stream of 10-k runners progressing through the first 3 km of their race on the opposite side of the Rideau Canal on the Queen Elizabeth Parkway. You can also see the huge cranes punching the skyline that have become a permanent fixture in Lansdowne Park as redevelopment is now well underway.

Cheering kids delight in giving 2013 10k racers a much needed high-five along CBy at Bank Street Bridge

Cheering kids delight in giving 2013 10-k racers a much needed high-five along CBy Parkway near Bank Street Bridge

The throng of 2013 half-marathon runners progressing through 4 km of their race along the Queen Elizabeth Parkway as seen from the grassy median before Bronson Bridge. Note the pacer bunny in red in the middle, whose job it is to keep her racers on pace for meeting the group’s finishing time goal; these pacer bunnies are definitely the unsung altruists in the race, putting the glory of others ahead of their own. Having said that, it was interesting to hear how the elite pacer (sans bunny ears) from Kenya initially charged with keeping the elite marathon men’s leader pack (two men for most of the race) on track for challenging a course record decided to throw down against his lone runner protégé from Ethiopia for the gold medal through the final 10-k or so of the race. The Ethiopian runner, however, ultimately eked out the win but with the narrowest of victory margins (i.e., less than seven tenths of a second).

Pace bunnies play an essential role helping 2013 half-marathoners meet their race goals

Pace bunnies play an essential role helping 2013 half-marathoners meet their race goals. (Shot from the grassy median along the QE Parkway just before Bronson Bridge)

This woman cheering on the 2013 10-k runners along Colonel By at the Bank Street (south) ramp was so enthusiastic I thought she had to have been a varsity cheerleader with that energy. Not only did she wave a homemade poster à la American Idol or The Voice with a message she said was designed for no one in particular (‘You are Super-Fantastic!’), but she was also unwavering in her cheering words of encouragement for all the runners who raced past her.

Cheering fan holding poster proclaiming to all 2013 10k runners  'You are super-fantastic!'

‘Cheerleader’ fan holding poster proclaiming to all 2013 10-k runners ‘You are super-fantastic!’

A mass of 2013 half-marathon runners with varying gaits and cadences along the Queen Elizabeth Parkway just before Bronson Bridge. It reminded me of a conversation I had recently with my hard-core, younger running cousins, who are varsity runners in their track & field and cross-country teams at university. They noted that most people do not run as efficiently as they could, in large part because of the tendency to heel-strike instead of striking with the (more aerodynamic) ball of one’s foot. They believe that the less efficient heel strike is as prevalent as it is among recreational runners because of the design of running shoes today, which they say, favors this type of strike. They also spoke of how amusing it was to see how extensively some runners pack their fuel belts with hydration solutions and gels for such relatively short-distance runs; they personally do not don this nearly standard piece of recreational running apparatus. (Since I personally use a fuel belt to run – not to hydrate, however, but to house my i-pod and keys – I must admit to having felt slightly sheepish and a bit uncool owning up to my own habit of regularly cinching up with a fuel belt, despite my non-traditional purpose.)

2013 half-marathoners passing the 4k mark along QE parkway at Bronson Bridge

2013 half-marathoners passing the 4-km mark along the QE Parkway just before Bronson Bridge

The enthusiastic cheering section along Colonel By for the 2013 10-k race. It was such a chilly evening (owing to those strong north winds) standing out there. I actually wore gloves and dressed in layers, but still left prematurely owing to getting chilled! By comparison, this time last year, people would’ve been in tank tops and shorts, and enjoying weekends at the beach or outdoor community pool. I’m not complaining since I don’t love those protracted heat & humidity waves that invariably settle in the Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto corridor over the summer months, but it seriously felt like a mid to late autumn evening. Nearly ideal for running, though, were it not for those strong headwinds on the final half of the 10-k.

Crowds lined CBy at Bank Street Bridge as the 2013 10k racers closed in on their final 3k

Crowds lined the CBy Parkway near Bank Street Bridge as the 2013 10k racers closed in on their final 3 km.

This is a shot of a particularly determined group of predominantly male 2013 half-marathon runners along the Queen Elizabeth Parkway just before Bronson Bridge. This was a great vantage point for taking some close-up shots of the runners, but I had to be vigilant of where I was in relation to the runners as some who were doubtlessly chasing PBs were so (understandably) intent on breaking free from the pack, that they would off-road it temporarily onto the grassy median where I stood before inserting themselves back onto the road. Fortunately for me and the other spectators, race volunteers were out in force to limit this leap-frogging, likely to minimize the risk of a Betty White-like Snickers ad tackle on an unsuspecting spectator.

2013 half-marathoners pushing toward Bronson Bridge and Dow's Lake after completing 4k

2013 half-marathoners pushing toward Bronson Bridge and Dow’s Lake after completing 4 km

Swimming: A Yearning for the Life Aquatic

Summer, 2012

I’m out for another evening work-out on another sweltering summer night in the city. I have never seen Ottawa looking so dry. Alarmingly so. We have not had rain for more than a month, and the straw-colored grass is just thirsting for water. During the day, it looks as if we live in a giant wheat field like the one depicted by the 20th century American realist painter, Andrew Wyeth, in his tableau, Christina’s World. An odd  juxtaposition of happy sunbathers can be seen along the canal near the Corktown footbridge soaking in the intense sunshine seemingly either blissfully unaware or undisturbed by the desperate, drought-like conditions surrounding them. As night falls, our sun-scorched earth becomes a version of Van Gogh‘s ominous Wheatfield with Crows, where pedaling along the parched Arboretum‘s lonely bike path expectedly triggers the doleful a-hink-a-honk chorus from the hundreds of resident, apathetic Canada geese, floating disinterestedly on the warm lagoon waters.  A small, skittish cohort suddenly breaks away in V formation, having decided to seek skyward sanctuary; their remaining feathery flâneurs left bobbing over the small series of waves generated from the wake…

Another day, another night of heat. The wind has changed, and so the smell of smoke from a brush fire in the city’s west end now permeates the warm, humid air, causing me to defer my run until tomorrow morning in favor of a swim indoors. I’ve just started working out at the university pool since my community pool is closed for the summer for much-needed renovations to its dilapidated roof and ventilation system.

The Quest to Conquer the Fear

The university pool is a hard-core, 50 m competition pool filled with water tending on the cold side, conducive for supporting top performances by its varsity swimmers; my unassuming community pool, by comparison, is only 25 m in length with a balmy ambient water temperature perfect for more casual or leisure-inclined swimmers. I was slightly intimidated by the prospect of kicking around on a flutterboard in this big pool, imagining all those aspiring Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin swimmers lapping me several times over…

I am still learning to swim properly. It’s not so much the physical aspects of swimming that elude or intimidate me, but the considerable psychological baggage I carry for deep water that I can’t seem to unpack. It’s been more than a year that I’ve been incorporating pool work-outs into my athletic routine, but I am growing impatient with the plateau I seemed to have hit in my swimming progress.

My interpretation of the famous Edvard Munsch painting, The Scream.

I took some adult lessons last winter, which began with promise, but then I seemed to lose momentum. I struggled fruitlessly trying to master the art of treading water without exhausting myself from the effort. I’ve tried both the ‘bicycle’ and ‘egg beater’ techniques, but my legs and arms invariably tire after moving about at Mach 8 or like the powered-up propellers of Porter‘s Bombardier Q-400 turboprops. I cannot seem to get myself to slow down in the belief that I will float. By contrast, the rest of my less fit classmates easily mastered this essential water safety skill. I was discouraged, but soldiered on, albeit dispiritedly as I watched my peers transform into confident, competent swimmers, effortlessly completing 25 m up and 25 m back. I would achieve no such breakthrough.

During the in-between time of my lessons, I mostly stick to my security blanket routine of non-stop laps up and down the 25-m section of shallow water at the university pool supported, of course, by my large, trusty red flutter board. Because I kick away vigorously and continuously for almost an hour, the effort usually provides a decent cardio (and muscular endurance) work-out and most importantly, a much-needed cross-training break from the unforgiving, repeated pounding my lower limbs have sustained from all the years of exclusive running.

Physically, I do not look like someone who cannot swim. In fact, I probably look like someone who swims well — possibly at a Master’s level. With my focused, hour-long flutterboard sessions, I would often be queried by curious swimmers in the adjacent lanes about what I was training for; I did not fit their image of a non-swimmer and so they were always more than a little surprised to learn that no, actually I was still learning how to swim.

What is it about Deep Water?

I don’t eschew the deep end of the pool entirely. In fact, I often enjoy doing laps on my flutterboard there especially to avoid the usually crowded lanes of the shallow end or getting hit in the head by a wayward ball from the rambunctious pick-up water basketball games among the 20-somethings that go on concurrently in the adjacent leisure lane. When I’m relaxed in the deep end, I imagine myself being supported on top of a giant bowl of Jell-O or a very big waterbed; I can easily sense the difference in buoyancy between the shallow and deep end. When I’m not relaxed, work-outs can become suffused with anxiety, where I experience a hyperawareness of the depth beneath me and a consequent need to remain within relatively easy reach of the pool’s side wall; I still persist with my work-out, but I am relieved when it is over and I can exit the deep end.

In spite of this long-standing fear of deep water and the challenge this presents to learning to swim, I have perhaps surprisingly always derived a great deal of artistic, spiritual, and intellectual inspiration from being near water — especially oceans and lakes. I think it is this desire to one day be able to safely canoe, row, or kayak solo in open water that most fuels my desire to learn to swim.

If I think back to my youth, there was a time when I delighted in going to my community pool for public swims to cool off during the hot summer months with my friends and sisters. Like most kids, I took swimming lessons, even excelling in my early series of Red Cross classes; however, I had not yet reached the level at which classes would be conducted exclusively in the deep end.

One day, during one of those care-free summer afternoons of my youth spent at the local pool, I remember wanting to try jumping into the deep water in such a way as to minimize splash. I was not a slim kid and so my jumps into the pool tended to be more on the ungraceful, cannonball side. I was also becoming increasingly aware of my slightly excess corpulence as a girl on the verge of puberty coupled with a generally increased self-awareness of physical appearance.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the outcome of my attempt at a rip entry jump. I jumped in straight, entering the water feet first with pointed toes like an arrowhead. However, I must have let myself descend too far since I began to panic. Fortunately, survival instinct kicked in as I was able to claw my way back up to the surface without drawing attention to myself. Hovering over the side of the pool, alternatingly gasping for air and clearing my throat of the water I had inhaled, I remember physically trembling as I thought about how differently this experiment could’ve turned out. Sadly, I don’t recall ever returning to the pool after that incident.

A Cautious Reacquaintance with Water

Fast forward many years later to the summer of 2011 when I decided to finally go back for another go at learning to swim with confidence and proficiency — and to tread water, all because of being sidelined last summer by a running-related injury and a determination to preserve my hard-earned cardiorespiratory fitness.

I can still remember that first Friday evening last summer when I tentatively slipped into the shallow end of my community pool. Why is it that pools are always so uninvitingly cold upon initial immersion? I recall the two young, teen-age (or so I thought) lifeguards confidently sitting sentry on their chairs, and how they would generously dispense stroke improvement tips to the eager, mostly novice or average-ability swimmers in the pool, a motley assortment of parents with their young children or toddlers, a few teenagers, some senior citizens, and me. Flutterboard-shod, I stayed close to the wall that night, but did venture partway into the deep end under the watchful eye of the lifeguard. My ankle, wrapped securely in Kinesio tape, was a curious enough accessory to behold as to prompt an inquiry from one of the lifeguards. We engaged in a chat about possible differential diagnoses for my injury, along with my long hiatus from the pool, my fear of the deep end, etc. I remember how reassured I felt when the lifeguards asserted that I would have nothing to fear under their watch. One of them also encouraged me to don a pair of goggles whenever I came to the pool for a swim. He explained that I might feel less anxious about the water if I could open my eyes and see where I was actually going. He was right.

The Comfort and Characters of the Fishbowl

After a few more drop-in visits to this modest community pool, a certain comfort with the staff, the facilities, and the other swimmers began to develop. I decided to commit to this pool and took out a 3-month membership. For the rest of that summer, my non-running fitness routine would consist of daily cycling and visits to the pool 3-4 times per week or more; my ankle tolerated this regimen well. In the process, I had become something of a regular at the pool, recognizing, and often chatting with, other regulars. This pool felt comfortable; it felt like my pool. I renewed my membership and my routine continued through the fall, winter, and spring, replacing the cycling with some cross-country skiing in the winter.

My imagination being what it is, it was inevitable that I would start to create visual stories or character sketches in my head about some of the other swimmers at the pool. This mental storyboard game I would play also proved to be an effective distraction strategy, increasing my comfort in the water by turning my thoughts away from the water, itself.

Cast of Characters

Inspector Clouseau was a year-round mustachioed (not just for Movember) swimmer, whom I could always count on to release a torrent of water over the lane buoys that separated us as he thrashed his way past me down the Fast lane. He was constantly working on his arms, wearing a flotation device between his legs so he wouldn’t have to kick.

Gargle-Mel was a member of the senior water-walkers crowd, who bore an uncanny resemblance to an old boss of mine. I always knew when he was in the water before actually seeing him because of the distinctive gargling sounds he would make underwater, which I would hear from a lane away as he trotted up and down the deep end with his flotation belt cinched to his waist.

A couple of times, I crossed paths with scowl-faced Maxine, who reminded me of her grumpy elderly doppelganger of greeting card fame. Maxine would often swim next to me in the leisure lane, and would lambaste me for any amount of splash I might inadvertently kick up from my powerful lower limb outboard motor.

The Indomitable Frogman was a weekend fixture in the pool. He always distinguished himself by his alarmingly nude color swim trunks and, despite his advanced age and glacial breast stroke pace, was either completely oblivious or didn’t give a whit about the traffic jams he would routinely trigger behind and beside him as a queue of swimmers (including me & my flutter board) successively manoeuvred (or leap-frogged) their way past him…

Wednesday evening swims were among the busiest sessions at my community pool, where accomplished, fit swimmers could often be seen chasing or racing each other in the Fast and Very Fast lanes. Wearing goggles was a must because of all the splashing, thrashing, and churning of water. On some nights, the water could become so rough that I had the impression of swimming in the open water free-for-all of a triathlon.

Among the talented Wednesday night swimmers were a couple, The Great White Shark Lady and her husband/partner, Scuba Steve. I was forever baffled as to why the Shark Lady would always opt to swim in the Medium lane when she so clearly belonged in the Fast lane. When she entered the pool’s waters, she would inevitably swim circles (figuratively-speaking) around everyone else in the Medium lane seemingly without breaking a sweat or exceeding her resting respiratory rate. Scuba Steve, on the other hand, was a regular in the Very Fast lane with the other hard-core swimmers, including some strong women. I felt like I was at Marineland watching a frisky dolphin as I admired Scuba Steve’s powerful flip-turns off the wall underwater as he progressed through his series of successive 25-m laps. I would always marvel at how he never misjudged his distance from the wall.

There were other interesting characters, as well, such as Waltzing Matilda who, like so many of the older adults in the pool without a swimmer physique per se, nonetheless seemed to just dance on water with her effortless, graceful interpretation of the breast stroke. She would almost certainly never break a sweat, looking more like a proper lady at a Victorian ball waltzing up and down the pool in her imaginary floor-length frock. 

One of the more fascinating characters to observe was The Amazing Flying Lake Trout. If I were going to cross paths with him, it would almost assuredly be during one of those busy Wednesday night sessions. His appearances were almost theatrical, with his grand entrance parading not one, not two, but three full-length towels, which he always carefully draped in parallel (like Patrick Bergin‘s character would’ve done in Sleeping with the Enemy) over the observation deck. Next, instead of beginning his lane swim in the shallow end as was customary at our pool, he would walk over to the deep end, greet the lifeguard on duty, and then unceremoniously launch himself from the deck like a WWE wrestler atop the ropes in the ring executing his finishing move — in this case, a sort of bouncy butterfly stroke into the Medium or Fast lane. The tidal wave generated from his entry and subsequent pounding, single fin-like kick of his feet had the effect of clearing the lane in which he was swimming, as the other swimmers quickly strategically switched lanes or waited for the tsunami to pass before continuing their work-out. The energy that the Flying Lake Trout would’ve expended with his inefficient stroke must have been considerable, which made it all the more remarkable how he was able to swim a series of brisk 25-m laps before taking a break.

Sauna-Addiction-Lady, by contrast, was not a swimmer that I could tell, but she would always come to the pool on Saturday afternoons with her swimming family. While her husband and children frolicked in the pool, she would disappear into the wooden, poolside sauna shack, spending an inordinate amount of time luxuriating inside. One weekend afternoon, she emerged so completely red-faced and dehydrated that I thought she was going to faint. A couple of ladies were concerned enough to offer her water, despite her protestations and assurances that she was fine. Personally, I do not understand the allure of the sauna and the desire to make oneself dripping hot, but then I also do not understand Bikram yoga or people who choose to take their vacations in tropical areas. I chock it up to being a Nordic girl, but maybe I am part amphibian…

And then there was Mr. Even-Though-I’m-Old-Enough-To-Be-Your-Father-I-Can-Still-Rock-A-Speedo…  Why is it that men of a certain age — those nearing or at retirement age, who still hit the health club — seek to attract the attention of women at least 25 years their junior? What’s wrong with pursuing more age-appropriate women? Having had enough unwanted, poolside encounters with said men, I’m seriously starting to wonder a) how old I actually look and b) what kind of unintended signals I may be giving off. One such awkward encounter occurred last spring with an older man, whom I initially thought was just engaging in friendly, professional chit chat about our common industry. So when I agreed to go for coffee one afternoon, I did so on the assumption that it would be for professional networking. The thought that he might have been interested in me never crossed my mind as he was clearly old enough to be my father. However, when I began the conversation with an animated analysis of where I thought the industry was headed, Mr. Speedo’s true intentions were suddenly and awkwardly revealed when he interrupted my diatribe, lamenting how we always seemed to talk about work… [For the record, just in case there was any uncertainty on the subject, Speedos should be outlawed for all but competitive male divers, such as Alexandre Despatie.]

What It Will Take for this Aspiring Fish to Earn her Fins

To finally become a swimmer, I am going to need to find the right instructor and the right pool. Someone patient and creative, and perhaps with a gift for psychology. In particular, someone who knows how to teach and work with adults, which is not the same as teaching and working with kids. Kids are fearless and mostly uncomplicated, more apt to bounce back from setbacks.

In the meantime, until my community pool reopens, I will keep exposing myself to deep water at the university pool while dodging stray basketballs. It may also be time to leverage that analytical brain of mine and check out a couple of well-reviewed books on swimming (Conquer Your Fear of  Water by Melon Dash and Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton).

A Walk Amid the Beautiful Autumn Leaves: Thanksgiving Weekend in Maritime Canada

After returning from a three-week, whirlwind, action-packed trip to Europe, where I visited London, Oxford, Paris, the Loire Valley, Heidelberg, Cologne, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam, a weekend respite during this Thanksgiving weekend seemed in order.

There is nothing like a stay in the Maritimes — Canada’s east coast jewel — to recharge and relax amid a slower pace of living, expansive, still largely untouched natural spaces (including forests and beaches), and of course, renowned Maritime hospitality. Fall is also a magical time of year for running, second only to the season of winter, in my opinion. This past Thanksgiving weekend, I was thankful to be staying in the home of my childhood — that of my parents— just steps from our much beloved nature park, where I had spent many happy years running and cross-country skiing, among other outdoor pursuits. Knowing the forest would be awash in color this time of year, I looked forward in eager anticipation to lacing up my trail sneakers and getting outside for a meditative run through these woods to contemplate nature and its brilliant autumn hues on display.

Having grown up in the Maritimes, returning is always a homecoming of sorts, even though much has changed since those youthful, care-free days as a child spent playing outdoors with friends during cool, fall afternoons, raking huge bales of fallen, red and golden maple leaves to alternatively jump into or throw at each other.

Fall has always been my favourite time of year.  The air is crisp and cool, not subtropically hot and humid as is becoming so disturbingly typical of summers in central Canada. It signals the beginning of the new academic year, the restarting of activities and clubs that were on hiatus during the lazy summer months. The release of new films and books. The always stylish and plentiful offering of fall fashions, especially the shoes and boots. Concerts, conferences, work-related travel opportunities. Pumpkins, Hallowe’en, farmers’ markets. Earlier nightfalls, frosty mornings. Silvery moons and twinkling stars. Cozy fires and wood smoke that permeates the night air. Flannel blankets, goose-down comforters, and chilly night breezes rustling the branches and leaves and  blowing at the drapes through a partially open bedroom window — delicious sleeping weather.

In the fall, the leaves change from lush greens to a canopy of rich yellows, oranges, and reds, which are reflected in the surrounding lakes, rivers, and canals like an Impressionist painting, gradually falling off the trees along with the pine needles to the canal paths and wooded trails creating a soft, sometimes crunchy Klimt-esque like tapestry on which to walk, run, or cycle.

I had initially thought, when I set out on my early-ish Sunday morning run that I would complete my loops around the serpentine trails first and then take pictures afterward. However, the combination of colors and lighting was too beguiling and so I acquiesced to my photographic muse, pausing frequently and pulling out my compact Sony Cybershot point-and-shoot camera in a sort of Sysyphean or Monet-like attempt to capture Nature in its ever-changing, elusive light. The morning light gradually giving way to clouds, I put away my camera and happily completed my trail run, enjoying all the sensory delights of the forest, especially the fragrance of fresh pine trees after an overnight rain.

After visiting so many opulent castles and beautiful, ornate churches in Europe,  my re-acquaintance with our breath-taking Canadian landscape and scenery — found even in the greater backyard of my parents — reminded me of how blessed we are as a people to be living in a country as beautiful and as geographically diverse as Canada. In a continent where millions of people must reside in such close proximity to each other, often tolerating high levels of pollution and limited access to natural spaces,  it is a gift that as Canadians we are able to so accessibly enjoy clean air and the natural beauty of our country both inside and outside our national and provincial park systems.

And yet, despite the hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of parks in this country and the myriad opportunities to discover, explore, and play in our giant, natural playground, we don’t. Not really. Sure, there are many of us who do on a regular basis, myself included. So often, however, we choose to stay indoors, preferring to hunker down or cocoon during the fall and winter months watching television, playing video games, or engaging with social media for hours at a time, instead of nurturing our physical and spiritual selves by embracing our outdoors and this invigorating time of year. Our European counterparts envy our natural spaces and our ease of access to them. I have no doubt that they could teach us a few things about appreciating our land.

Interestingly, Europeans also seem to invest far less time idling in front of the screen; I was astounded by how many people I met in Europe, who did not own a television. Unlike large sections of our country, which were built around the automobile, European cities are, by comparison, a walker’s and cyclist’s paradise, whose infrastructure and esthetic seem purposefully organized around human power supported by a modern, efficient public transit system and extensive national rail networks, largely obviating the need for car ownership. That is not to say that Europeans have all the answers. The prevalence of smoking remains maddeningly high and still quite socially acceptable in contrast to Canada. When it comes to exercise and active living, however, it was striking to me and to my brother who had visited Europe before me, just how fit and spry Europe’s senior citizens seemed to be. When I arrived in the Netherlands, for example, my great aunt who walks with a cane, rushed in to greet me at the train station and insisted on helping me carry my heavy luggage! Her husband also maintains an active lifestyle, cycling daily several kilometers with an outdoor cycle group and playing golf. Again, not to say that we do not have active seniors in our country, but I think it is fair to say that more often than not, our aged-matched seniors are generally not so physically strong and active, likely a product of our sedentary North American way of living. I would suspect, too, that many of these same European senior citizens are also fitter than many of our Canadian parents and middle-age adults.

I think our country has forgotten how to play in our great outdoors. It’s time we started stepping outside more often. Whether it be for a walk, a bike ride, or a jog. Make it a family thing, if you’re a parent. Recreation is not just for the kids; your kids look to you as the role model, so get off the couch and get outdoors. Help them develop a lifelong love of the outdoors and being active. It’s fun — you’ll see, and it’s healthy. Step outside. Inhale that fresh, fall air. Jump in the leaves. Take out your bike. Embrace that inner child. Start somewhere. Just start.

Adventures in comparison bicycle-shopping in Ottawa

Last June, I sustained a running injury to my right foot. I wasn’t sure what I did, but running any amount of distance resulted in pain, swelling, and stiffness. My range of motion (including dorsiflexion) was also reduced because of the swelling, which made running up hills difficult and uncomfortable. Fearing I had torn a ligament or had incurred a stress fracture, I reluctantly decided to stop all running as a precaution until my foot was able to be assessed. To that point, I had been running three times per week, including 21-22k (or a half-marathon) every weekend. The idea of losing the considerable cardiorespiratory fitness I had built up over the years was inconceivable to me, and so overnight I had to metaphorically ‘flip the switch’ and transition to activities that would preserve (or, at the very least, mitigate any loss of) my fitness.

Bicycle along Front Street East in downtown Toronto

Since I had already been using my aging, but trusty, purple Trek mountain bike for commuting back and forth to work every day, I simply decided I would just have to up the ante and add a separate 20-k bike work-out every day. However, I wasn’t sure if daily cycling would be enough to safeguard my fitness, so I also decided to face my fear of deep water and check out the community pool nearby. [My swimming adventures/misadventures will be chronicled in a subsequent post.]

Not surprisingly after biking almost every day to/from work and then at night for exercise last summer and fall, my 17-year-old Trek took a beating. Since I still needed it as a commuter bike, I decided I would have to look into getting a hybrid bike that would withstand work-outs on both the road and trail.

The freedom and pleasure that comes from riding a bike: a Sharpie sketch colorized in Photoshop.

Shopping for a bike is no small task — especially if you live in an über-athletic city like Ottawa (or Vancouver) where there is no shortage of sports stores and the specialty, independent, neighborhood bike shops — with their exclusive, often non-overlapping  lines of bikes — can be found on just about every other street corner. As someone with little mechanical inclination or in-depth knowledge of cycling, comparison-shopping for bikes became akin to collecting, synthesizing, and analyzing data for the purpose of answering a complex (to me, anyway) research question.

I decided to do what any good researcher would do: conduct a field study or pragmatic trial (since a controlled trial would be impractical, if not next to impossible). I visited several shops (a sort of non-random sampling of the population), and conducted extensive bike-related Q & A interviews with the sales staff who approached me. (Lucky them! And no, I did not formally consent them into my research study! ;-))

Bikes in a Queue, Rideau Canal, Ottawa

One place — store # 1 — I was particularly impressed by, for both knowledge and service, advised me that most bikes within a given price bracket are comparable in quality. What becomes important to the purchaser, however, is the after-sale service and the shop’s location. All things (or bikes) being equal, it was better to pick a place close to where you live, and which provided great service. Good advice, I thought. And, very customer-focused as opposed to being solely business-centered. This salesguy scored big points with me for his honest advice.  His shop was fairly conveniently located, but unfortunately, they didn’t have the kind of hybrid bike I was looking for at the price I had in mind. I really wanted to do business with this shop, and had even test-driven a decent retro-looking da Vinci hybrid bike. In the end, the bike was not aerodynamic enough and more importantly, it exceeded my budget. I felt bad. The guy was so nice, knowledgeable, and passionate about bikes. On top of the great advice he had given, he even offered me a spare metal pant clip that they had lying around (to protect my trousers when commuting to work) so I wouldn’t have to purchase a set. (Tip: Velcro clips are not a good alternative; they just don’t stay securely fastened.) A small gesture, but again, super customer service. Other businesses could learn a lot from this place. (On a related note, I similarly had a great customer service experience at this store in the winter when I had brought my classic xc-skis in for cleaning after applying an absurd amount of Klister wax — my first time trying this highly tenacious, but effective wax — to my skis to maximize my performance in spring skiing conditions. When I returned to pick up the skis, the technician who had cleaned and re-waxed them actually ran out to my car as I was packing the skis away just to explain exactly what he had done and to reassure me that the ski wax he had applied would be perfect for the weekend’s forecasted conditions. I was impressed. This guy was clearly passionate about his job and obviously took great pride in his work and in delighting his customers. I’d definitely be back.)

My next bike store (#2) — even closer to my ‘hood — had a powerful-looking, slick Stevens hybrid on display, which wasn’t as stylish as the previous store’s candidate with its boring combination of grey, red, and black, but it still looked racy and fell within my budget. I decided to take it out for a (joy) ride.

The problem with this second shop is the history that I have had with its hit-or-miss customer service. It’s weird, because there always seems to be plenty of staff around — young 20-somethings buzzing about the showroom — but every time I visit this place, I almost always have to seek out the staff instead of vice versa. Not cool, especially since I purchased my road bike from this store. I have also found that their mechanical servicing has been a bit hit-or-miss, too, when I’ve had to bring in my decidedly unflashy, cheap commuter bike for some tweaking. We’re not talking catastrophic oversights here, but I have had to come back on several occasions to deal with unresolved little mechanical problems that nonetheless impacted my bike’s performance. It made me wonder if my old Trek bike suffers from a sort of ageism at this store as there seems to be a particular focus on supporting competitive or elite cycling and related bling despite a mixed clientele. There are definitely some pretty flash, upper-end skus in that store. In any event, I liked the way this Stevens hybrid bike rode; it was fast, powerful, and I noticed it seemed to fit me better than my commuter bike, which is a bit small for my long limbs. However, never the one to rush a major decision — especially when a not-so-insignificant amount of cash is involved — I decided to check out one more reputable shop before I made my purchase decision.

Cyclist out enjoying an afternoon ride in the Arboretum, Ottawa

This third and final store has a great vibe to it, much like the first store. As with the first store, I had also previously done business with store #3 when I had purchased a great set of skate skis for xc-skiing. (Subsequently, my sister had also purchased a set of classic skis from this store, on my recommendation, which she continues to be very happy with.) In addition to store # 3’s great ski products and advice, I was given the name of a wonderful xc-ski instructor when I wanted some help improving my classic technique. Given my past success at this place, I was therefore optimistic I would find an appropriate comparator bike here to complete my field study.

Bikes are a popular mode of transportation for completing errands in Ottawa’s trendy Glebe neighborhood.

While this third store caters well to both the hard-core cyclist and the rec rider, the first store is probably more focused on the rec (or intermediate-level) cyclist. Store # 3 is also a well-known shop with a great reputation among the athletic community — both for cycling and cross-country skiing — with knowledgeable, friendly staff, but unfortunately for me on this occasion, a limited selection of hybrid bikes owing to an apparent, recent run on their bike inventory.

As I studied store #3’s  leftovers, an astonishingly handsome young teenage salesguy, who looked like he’d just stepped out of a preppy Tommy Hilfiger magazine shoot approached me. (My reaction immediately made me think of the recent, provocative essays by Globe & Mail writers, Ian Brown and Margaret Wente on the topic of the propriety of admiring and being admired by those much younger than oneself.) Since I could — biologically speaking — have been this boy’s mother, I forced myself to return my focus to quizzing him with my mental set of prepared bike Qs. It was clear he not only knew his stuff, but was charmingly and refreshingly a bit shy. Curious to know where this knowledge came from, I learned he was a competitive xc-skier on the junior international circuit and cross-trained by cycling in the off-season; he similarly loved skiing in Gatineau Park. After asking me about my intended use for the hybrid (e.g., errands vs exercise) and the budget I had in mind, he recommended a white Giant bike. This hybrid bike was the most aggressively styled of the three with its road bike-like aerodynamic design, bullhorn handlebars, and thin tires. I could tell it would be fast, and was assured it would keep pace with the road bikes along the canal paths and parkways. I decided to take it out for a spin. It WAS fast! And, lighter-weight compared with the other two I had tried. However, I was unsure whether it possessed enough stability for me; making turns could be a bit dicey (especially if there was any amount of rain on the road), I noticed, depending on my speed. I returned to the store, still unsure about the ultimate suitability of this bike. Mr. young, chiseled good looks salesguy, although interested in making the sale, wisely did not attempt to pressure me when I indicated I needed to try out the Stevens bike one more time at the other store.

That weekend, I took the Stevens bike out again from store # 2 (with the spotty customer service), racing it all along the canal paths, seeing how fast it would go, how my legs felt on it, and how well it kept up with the sample of road bikes out there. It passed with flying colors. (Pun intended.) Although not quite as fast as the Giant bike from store # 3, it had that little extra bit of stability I wanted. So, I took it back to the store and proceeded with the purchase and selection of accessories (i.e., requisite bell, front and back lights, and fenders to guard against big puddles). The order for the installation work was placed and I left, confident I had made the right choice, though knowing I had made a potential trade-off for a lower-level of customer service.

Bikes parked for the Sunday morning Famers Market, Ottawa

A couple of days later, I returned to store # 2 to collect my new bike and bring it back to its new home. I am now the proud owner of a nuclear family of three bikes: my matriarch Trek commuter mountain bike, my teenage Opus road bike, and now the new baby — the unassuming yet racy, Stevens hybrid bike. Needless to say, I will not be having any more bikes; my two-wheeled family is now complete! 🙂

Montréal, je t’adore: Why I love the neighborhood of Outremont

If I ever move back to Montreal, and had to choose a neighborhood to live in, my first choice would be Outremont. Bustling Bernard Avenue is probably my favourite street in Outremont. It’s also where I learned to run through the très sympathique Running Room formerly located on the corner of de l’Épée. In fact, signing up with the Learn to Run program back in 2004 at the Outremont Running Room was probably the means by which I came to develop such a fondness for Outremont. Up to that point, I didn’t have any particular reason to visit this neighborhood. A nice little spin-off on my road to becoming a runner! 🙂

I used to live in Montreal – in the Town of Mount Royal, just next door to Outremont. TMR was and is a beautiful neighborhood. I spent nearly 10 mostly happy years there. (In fact, I still go back and visit when I can, especially to dine at my favourite little converted railway station-resto, Pizzaiolle. Awesome wood-fired, thin-crust pizza and a peculiarly-named, sinfully delicious dark chocolate écureuil — or ‘squirrel’ — dessert with a dollop of crème anglaise.)

[This picture shows the Piazzaiolle location in Outremont.]

Despite, however, the convenience of the Deux Montagnes train de banlieue running right through the centre of TMR, whisking you into Gare centrale downtown in under 10 minutes, TMR felt, at times, a little too suburban for my lifestyle. Maybe I would’ve felt differently had I been raising a family.

On the other hand, there’s something inherently magical, if not a little bohemian, to me about living in a downtown enclave, perhaps in a stone walk-up with one of those famous Montreal staircases, complete with an urban garden, a big, leafy park nearby, and lots of shops and restos.

I used to occasionally run down the heavily tree-enshrouded section of Avenue de l’Esplanade bounded by Avenue Mont-Royale and Avenue Duluth in the Plateau, facing Parc Jeanne Mance and Mount Royal Park and imagine myself living in one of those early 20th century — and completely unaffordable — tony, stone triplexes. I also have a fond recollection of spending a particularly sweltering hot summer evening dining al fresco on the rooftop of a friend’s triplex in the very urban Plateau Mont-Royal district, where we enjoyed stunning views of the city and Mount Royal at sunset, before our gang of girls headed out to see Cirque du Soleil perform at the closing night of the Montreal Jazz Festival outside Place des Arts.

Outremont — only slightly further from the downtown core than the Plateau and a favourite, old running haunt of mine — has always appealed to me for its proximity to Mount Royal Park, its big, leafy trees overhanging its streets, its collection of long, steep hills (Avenue Pagnuelo was where I used to do some hard-core hill-training, the gradient of which compares well with some streets in notoriously hilly San Francisco or St. John’s, Newfoundland), and the stunning, stone mansions in upper Outremont. I also love the overall vibrancy of this eclectic neighborhood with its interesting mix of cultural diversity, where secular francophones and allophones live alongside Hasidic Jewish families.

What I remember most about Outremont was how the whole community seemed to come out on warm, summer nights and weekends. Sidewalk terrasses on Bernard and Laurier Avenue were always packed to capacity with adults, kids, and their dogs enjoying a café or leisure déjeuner, soaking in the sun and ambience of the scene, content to wile away a lazy afternoon or relaxing evening. I can still see all those well-dressed diners sitting out on the terrasse in the early evening hours enjoying their oyster delicacies at La Moulerie restaurant across the street from the venerable Théatre Outremont before going to see a play or film.

My favourite glacier artisinale place in all of Montreal — Bilboquet — is also located in the heart of Outremont on Bernard Avenue. I first discovered this whimsical place when I was learning to run and it was love at first sight — and conveniently located from the Running Room! 🙂 We would always go for an ice cream or sorbet reward after our Wednesday night group runs, thinking we’d earned it after ‘pounding out’ a 2 to 5k run!? (Yes, we were definitely running-newbies back in those days!) Of course, I kept with my running and those miles (and my fitness) increased exponenentially, easily providing a justification (if one was ever needed) for a Bilboquet ice cream after inducing a significant caloric deficit from the regular, early Sunday morning long run on the Mountain.

If you ever get a chance to taste Bilboquet’s ice cream or sorbet, I highly recommend the dark & delicious Choco Chic + Tire d’Érable (one scoop of each in a cup; and yes, I realize I am asking you to combine dark chocolate with maple, but trust me – it works!) for ice cream or if you’re looking for something a little lighter and fruity, the Poire sorbet. (If you’re in the mood for chocolate chip cookies, these are very rich and delicious, too. Almost cake-like, in fact.)

For an extra special Bilboquet experience, try and visit during a hot summer night. This is how you will really experience life in Outremont. Everyone — and I mean ‘everyone’ — seems to come out and queue for ice cream to cool off, often late into the evening. The line can sometimes extend out the door and stretch down the street, but it moves pretty efficiently; the ice cream scoopers are pros. 🙂 In this long queue, it’s likely you’ll see tons of parents with their very young children, many of whom are adorably dressed in their pyjamas; teenagers or 20-somethings out on dates; senior citizens; groups of friends; and of course, cute dogs on leashes. It’s a fascinating scene, and a classic Montreal memory for me.

If you like to cook at home, Les Cinq Saisons is a great little grocery store, also on Bernard. It is a very French épicerie and has the most wonderful produce and the best selection of imported chocolate (to support my addiction! :-)). As their name would imply, they always had the exterior of their storefront nicely decorated for the seasons; I especially enjoyed seeing their Hallowe’en displays with all the fresh pumpkins. Just down the street from Les Cinq Saisons is a Première Moisson boulangerie, where I would often go on weekends to buy a baguette, miche, or pâtisserie such as a piquant truffé (a very rich, mini dark chocolate mousse cake that looks a bit like a dragon fruit), or simply get lunch.

Aside from the wonderful running routes, beautiful scenery, and great food, there are many other reasons to visit Outremont. However, I will leave this for you to discover the next time you visit Montreal and want to check out this hidden gem of a neighborhood! À la prochaine! 🙂

‘Bad Idea Jeans’ commercial or just another night out running…

RULE # 1: DO NOT EAT A BIG MEAL BEFORE RUNNING… OR SWIMMING… OR CYCLING… OR JUST ABOUT ANY SPORT.

You know the quote. It goes something like this: “the definition of insanity is repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result” – Albert Einstein. So, why do I still insist on ‘breaking’ the cardinal rule of running and loading up with a lavish meal before heading out the door?! It’s the same drill every time. I get home from work. I’m famished. I head to the fridge and nosh down on some dark chocolate-covered almonds, grab a peanut butter sandwich, maybe a slice of cheese and a glass of milk, then out I go, thinking I’m going to Usain Bolt myself down the canal path. Yeah, all that acutely consumed protein and fat is definitely the rocket fuel of world record setters. (Not!). If my gi tract could talk, I’m sure it would be cursing me for my repeatedly ill-timed and ill-composed food. Especially after only allowing my stomach a half-hour to digest it all. And yet, I repeat this pre-run nutritional pattern over and over again, thinking I’ll be fine this time… Insanity!

RULE # 2: DRESS ON THE COOL SIDE FOR YOUR RUN. (DON’T WORRY: YOU WILL WARM UP.)

Alas, Rule # 1 was not the only running rule I broke tonight. Because of being chilled by the ‘arctic cold’ air-conditioning blowing at me all day long at my workplace, I made a rookie error in judgment (oh the shame!) and overdressed for my run. Being overheated on a run due to excessive clothing is the worst. It’s no fun being cold either, but being hot on a warm, muggy night is just so unpleasant. (Especially when you add in the black flies that collide with your face, arms, legs and become fixed in place by your sweat.) Admittedly, tonight’s weather was a bit of a crapshoot for planning. When I biked home from work, the northeastern part of the city was filled with foreboding, dark, storm clouds with light winds out of the SSW while the south end was overcast, but bright and non-threatening. I originally was going to head out in shorts, a t-shirt, and (somewhat reluctantly) a ballcap, but then the heavens opened up and there was a torrential downpour starting just as I was about to go out the door. So, the last-minute plan B decision was to don a light jacket — my shelter against the elements. (Like a cat, I hate getting wet on a run unless it’s super-hot and humid and then the rain is soooo refreshing.) Bad idea. I have yet to find a running jacket for rainy runs that actually keeps me dry AND breathes. (Same conundrum with bicycle helmets.) So, I headed out, my black Nike cap’s long rim shielding my face from the rain, but the jacket acting like the predictable sauna I knew it would be, compelling me to unzip it most of the way and roll up the sleeves to my elbows to try and dissipate the extra heat. (I shudder to think how I must’ve looked like an older version of my 1985 tomboy self or an old school hip-hop dancer.) Of course, by now, I’m also having to contend with increasing indigestion… (So much for a fast time tonight.)

RULE #3: AVOID RUNNING DURING THUNDERSTORMS

OK, normally this is a rule I follow to the letter. (Like a Golden Retriever, I hate thunderstorms and would probably dive under my bed to hide when they rolled in, if I could actually fit under there.) I know what the stats say about it being highly improbable being struck by lightning, but why do we seem to hear more and more reports of this happening to people? Plus, Ottawa’s summer thunderstorm season seems to be getting a lot more violent over the past few years. (Hello, Bluesfest stage collapse last summer?) Anyway, this rule was broken tonight as my path was illuminated by a sudden, familiar flash of light and the distant rumbling of thunder. I contemplated turning around, but I was already more than 1/3 into my distance, and I wasn’t willing to scrub this run since my schedule was not free tomorrow night. I comforted myself with the fact that there were still a number of people out walking, running, and biking. So, it can’t be that perilous, right?.. I was running among trees however. What was that they say about thunderstorms? Seek low-lying areas? Stay away from trees?.. (Probably diving into the canal wouldn’t be a wise choice either — possibility of electrocution, picking up a skin infection from the pollution…) I began to take mental notes of where I could seek shelter quickly if the storm intensified. Being a regular runner for the past 7-8 years does confer a certain empirically-acquired expertise in weather-watching (translation: being a runner turns you into an amateur climatology geek), however, so I hypothesized from the drop in temperature, the appearance of the sky and the relatively wide intervals between the lightning flashes and responsory thunderclaps that this was a series of mild, fast-moving storm cells. In short, I wasn’t overly worried about funnel clouds and tornadoes. So, I continued on. Stomach still queasy, but on the mend.

During the last 1/3 of my run, it really started to pour. I’m sure I could’ve been mistaken for someone in a wetsuit by this point; my soaking clothes were just plastered to me. My stomach felt better though, so I was heartened. I was pretty much the only (crazy) one left on the canal path at this point, but had to dodge a new hazard: speeding cars sending tidal waves of water onto the path. Forget the running jacket — I now needed hip waders and a sou’wester!?..

When I finally sloshed my way up the walk to my house, I felt vindicated. I had done it. I had not quit. I had won the battle. It wasn’t the fastest run for me, but it was the second wettest. One of those ‘character-building’ runs. (The wettest run I ever had was in Montreal running a 21-k training run through Mount Royal Park and Outremont on an oppressively hot, humid summer day. When the rain finally came, it was a total monsoon — but a refreshing one! I remember wringing water out of my clothes like a sponge when I got home. It was reminiscent of that old Sprite commercial Zulu song, ‘Rain, rain, rain, rain… Beautiful rain…’)

Stoked and totally soaked from my run, I decided to head to the pool for an hour-long work-out. I had done the hard part — completed the run — so the pool work-out was gravy. Happily, the pool ended up being a great work-out and I felt so relaxed and energized afterward… 🙂

Poetry in Motion: Byron meets Van Gogh along the canal…

With apologies to both Lord Byron (& the Romantic poets) and Van Gogh… BTW, can’t wait till the Van Gogh exhibit comes to the National Gallery of Canada next month! 🙂

[Below: Runner takes flight over canal – this is a mixed media illustration initially drawn with pen & ink, colored with watercolor crayons & wash, and then scanned into Photoshop to darken the lighting of the image and add some wispy white clouds to create a more dream-like ethereal feel.]

The Great Re-Set: Part 2 – A brand new job in a brand new city…

Moving to Ottawa wasn’t exactly love at first sight for me. It was definitely no Montreal (downtown Ottawa practically becomes a ghost town after 5:00 pm) and as for being a national capital, it felt more like a small town masquerading as a big city. But my initial reasons for moving to Ottawa were more strategic than the job for which I was recruited: I was conveniently located between Montreal and Toronto, where friends and family resided and where some of the most innovative medical/health research in Canada takes place…

I was also on a high from having just returned from one of the best trips I’d ever done to this point: a weeklong visit with my little sister who was living in Calgary at the time. It was my first visit to Calgary, and we ended up doing this fabulous road trip through Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper. I was just in awe of the Rockie Mountains, glaciers, pristine emerald lakes, and lush forests. This was the type of scenery of my imagination — what I had always idealized as distinctly Canadian. On a par with the Canadian Shield. Both landscapes immortalized by members of the Group of Seven.

[Photo taken near Moraine Lake in Banff National Park, October 2008.]

Speaking of the Group of Seven, if you’re a fan — particularly of Tom Thomson — you must see the Canadian film, West Wind – The Vision of Tom Thomson. I saw it a couple of weeks ago and loved it. I found it particularly (and unexpectedly) moving seeing and hearing about Thomson’s singular focus, his passion — his creative calling or vocation — to paint (in this case, nature in all its colorful, seasonal splendor in Algonquin Park). There are even some previously unseen paintings on display. Lots of great commentary by various curators and experts in art history, too. (I first fell in love with the Group of Seven at the 2003 exhibit held at the National Gallery of Canada. After that, I just couldn’t understand why my grade 12 art teacher always used to diss these guys’ works… What resonates as great art can be so subjective, I guess.) Another more contemporary Canadian landscape artist, whose works could be thought of as a modern take on the Group of Seven style (as seen through stained glass), is Tim Packer (a former cop turned full-time artist, which is a pretty cool and interesting career change). I tried to pick up a small, limited edition framed giclée print downtown last month, but I missed out 😦  — I’m sure because of a story that ran in the Ottawa Citizen promoting an upcoming exhibition of his work.

Getting back to my move to Ottawa…

I had to initially live in a downtown hotel for about a month and a half, which sounds posh, but it wasn’t really. (It wasn’t that kind of hotel.) It may be hard to believe, but hotel living can actually get pretty frustrating and tiresome after a while. It’s not really your home; you’re just squatting there temporarily. Finding an apartment in Ottawa was tough, though, especially in late fall. The housing/rental market was and continues to be very tight, and I refuse to live in a condo box. I need my space and connection with the outdoors — just not in suburbia. Eventually, I found a first-floor flat in a triplex in a vibrant, eclectic, urban neighborhood close to the canal and to the downtown. I moved in to my new digs on a snowy day in December, which would herald the start of the coldest winter I can ever remember experiencing — and I generally like winter with all its snow and cold (just not regular temps of -30 C!?)… I had seriously thought I’d been dropped off in Nunavut, not Ottawa. Ottawa is apparently one of the world’s coldest national capitals. I suspect that infamous distinction could be changing, however, with the milder winters of late along with the sizzling summers we regularly get. Ottawa is definitely a city of extremes, including of extreme athletes…

[Picture of typical architectural style of many triplexes in my neighborhood with wild, often overgrown gardens, Summer 2009]

So my new job… Let’s just say it was an adjustment, having never worked in government and not being a willing conformist by nature. I also had to learn Bureaucratese, a language with which I was previously unfamiliar. (Check out this playful video for a sample of the third most common language spoken in Ottawa: http://www.youtube.com/embed/OtLL7pLM-yE) I wouldn’t say I’m fluent or a regular speaker of the lingo now, but I have developed conversational proficiency (out of need).

The work I do is far from a perfect fit, but I wouldn’t have necessarily known that going in. I’ve learned that, like my entrepreneurial dad, I don’t like to be told what to do and how to do it. Nor do I like a lot of rules or meetings for rules’ or meetings’ sake. Or hierarchy. I was also somewhat surprised to find out that I don’t love technical writing or sifting through ginormous amounts of data either… And, I’ve discovered, I actually prefer not to multi-task, at least on things that require a lot of thinking; it just takes too long to refocus when you’re constantly interrupted and having to shift gears…

So, I guess as much as I enjoyed working in a hospital emergency department in a previous job a few months before, I probably wouldn’t have made the best ER doc, had I pursued a career in Medicine. I don’t have high idea productivity (I have quality but not quantity) and I like to stay focused on the task at hand (where the ER can be Grand Central Station) — unless it’s mindless stuff and then I can develop situational ADHD. I can’t picture things in 3-D very well (definitely a problem for performing invasive procedures), and my biggest shortcoming, arguably making someone like me incompatible with ER medicine, aside from my strong aversion to the smell of vomit — I am the most unmechanical person you’ll ever meet. IKEA furniture assembly — except for maybe the most uncomplicated of tables — all but stymie me. I’ve screwed up the simple installation of a Brita filter on my kitchen tap. I’ve even destroyed some sections of wall trying to hang up framed pictures without first trying to locate the stud (that’s of the non-human variety). A couple of days ago, my toilet stopped working. I thought, ‘oh maybe I can just find a good Youtube video to guide me on how to fix it’, but me playing plumber would be akin to an SNL Bad Idea Jeans commercial!? (Fortunately, good sense prevailed and I called an expert instead.)

All this tangential prose to make the point, rather emphatically: don’t count on me to be able to figure out how to do a bronchoscope insertion without severing vocal chords or anything else that gets in the way… But, could I ever give a master class on parallel-parking! 🙂 (Stall-parking? Maybe not. I know, I don’t get it either…)

[Picture of Bank Street Bridge – familiar landmark to the running community of Ottawa, Summer 2009]

Aside from the work in Ottawa not panning out as I had hoped (despite some internal lateral movement – can you say, bureaucratese-speak?), I’m persisting with it for now while I figure out my next move. (I know, slippery slope to a relapse of inertia. Duly noted.) On the personal side — and to compensate for the professional side — I did hook up with an amazing, hard-core, mixed running group. The people were wonderful, and it was such a nice change to run in the company of fast, fun, fit athletes and to enjoy some variation in my work-outs. I would run with the group twice a week and by myself two more times during the week, including running the equivalent of a half-marathon (~ 21-k) every Sunday. OK, admittedly, running a half-marathon distance every weekend was an insane ritual on my part, and I would eventually pay for that excessive mileage (without benefit of cross-training) that I’d been stubbornly logging for 5 years. It certainly was not a part of the group’s approach to training and the coach had actually repeatedly warned me that I needed to periodize my training or risk an injury sidelining me. (He was right, of course.)

In the meantime, working as a square policy peg in a round hole + intensive training (running) was my initial dance rhythm in this new city of Ottawa back in 2008-2009, but this relative comfort and routine would soon be upended again by a life event so profound as to make me question or re-evaluate almost every aspect of my life. The construct of existentialism, and my own life’s purpose. I would never again view life the same way after this event…

Umbrellas: the ne plus ultra fashion accessory for those April showers…

I love umbrellas. Big umbrellas, small umbrellas, monochromatic umbrellas, patterned umbrellas. Even the ubiquitous, comparatively conservative black umbrella, which can be so chic when paired with a sophisticated trench coat and some nice Wellies (don’t get me started on how much I love these boots – and splashing in puddles with them! :-))… I especially love plaid umbrellas, though, with the traditional wooden stem and crook handle. (Must be my British heritage speaking.) I can remember how particularly excited I was to buy this beautiful, bright red and blue plaid Esprit umbrella (with Esprit engraved into the wooden stem, but no crook handle, sadly) from a tiny little boutique in a small university town back in the early 90s. What a find! A patterned umbrella was so fashion-forward back then, and I used to delight in rainy days as an opportunity to proudly showcase my coquette parapluie as I strolled the sidewalks (or more aptly, “catwalks”) across campus to class… Now, I own a decidedly more mature, brown, red, beige, and and black plaid umbrella complete with the requisite wooden stem and crook handle. Definitely looks Burberry or London Fog-inspired (see fun watercolor crayon sketch below left).

I think my love of umbrellas can be traced back to Mary Poppins – that classic (1964) Disney movie-musical starring Julie Andrews as a no-nonsense, but caring, magical nanny, who accumulated Air Miles points via domestic umbrella flights over the rooftops of London. (Mary’s umbrella also featured a rather opinionated parrot crook…)

So, it’s still unseasonably warm in Ottawa, and maybe it’s the unease I have about this premature, protracted heat wave that has me thinking (perhaps wishfully) about rain and cooler spring days – and umbrellas. I know, I’m sure there are many of you, who are thinking, ‘Is she crazy? This weather is fantastic!’ No, I’m clearly just a Nordic girl, who does better in cooler climes, and who admittedly would’ve revelled in another couple of weeks of snow, enjoying some thrilling spring xc-skiing (i.e., crust-cruising) on the hills and trails of Gatineau Park. Oh well, as much as I miss the snow – it is also wonderful to run on hard-packed snow in the woods or along the canal – Ottawa is truly beautiful in the springtime with the bursting of new leaves from buds in the trees, the thousands of colorful tulips that blossom along the canal and in several major parks in the city, and the return of all the songbirds (but not those pesky, aggressive red-winged blackbirds, who’ve dive-bombed me several times along the canal! Ouch!). There is also nothing like running in the woods after a fresh spring rain, which always leaves the air so fragrant and the vegetation looking all the more lush and green. One of my all-time favourite running routes, especially on grey-green spring days, was/is up to the summit of Mount Royal Park (a park landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, who famously designed New York City’s beloved Central Park) , then down the meandering, sloping road of Mount Royal Cemetary, and finally through the eclectic, vibrant, tree-lined burrough of Outremont in Montreal.  If you’re a runner and you’ve never run this route, you must the next time you’re in Montreal. It is almost a religious, Zen-like experience running the steady ascending serpentine trail to the peak of Mount Royal Park. (And what a sense of accomplishment and euphoria when you reach the top! :-)) It is an oasis of greenery and a temporary respite from the constant hum of the city that never sleeps. The views are absolutely spectacular, too. I used to live in that glorious city, and when I knew I’d be bidding farewell to my home of nearly 10 years, I made a point to spend some time just photographing and contemplating the Park and its many lovely vistas. It was my personal Elysium, enjoyed year-round, whatever the weather…

In keeping with the theme of rain and umbrellas, I decided to attempt another Crayola sketch from my much-loved, Style Book. This drawing is an interpretation of another vintage black and white photo shot in 1958 (location unspecified) of a woman modeling an oversized umbrella with matching cloche hat against a plain black shift – apparently a new trend for women’s accessories for the racetrack at that time. I should say that the original black & white photo features a check pattern to the umbrella and cloche hat, but because of my partiality for plaid, I thought I’d exercise artistic license and sketch a plaid pattern instead. Truthfully, I think I could’ve gone with less detail in the umbrella. Originally, I thought I’d just sketch in a bunch of rough, bare bones, curved black lines. I liked the effect, but was seduced by the idea of plaid and so pursued it. I also think I should’ve left the background grey rather than colorizing it in a greyish-purple. I still like the image, but I think it would’ve been stronger had I quit while I was ahead. Instead, I think I’ve created an edgy Disney movie poster of the wicked queen from Snow White taking Manhattan!? Oh well, as one of my handsome, free-spirited running friends once said, “Many artistic endeavors often end dramatically”. How true…

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