It starts with a run

It seemed appropriate to read Kenny Moore’s “Best Efforts: The Long Blue Line” on the plane on my way to Eugene, Oregon for the Prefontaine Classic. Even if I were going to be making a stop in Victoria, BC first. After all, the point of my trip to both places was to discover what makes a distance running community successful, and reading Moore’s stories of some of the greatest runners ever was surely an excellent starting point.

Some of the stories are well-known (the Bowerman keys on the thigh in the sauna story, for example), and others, less so (Lasse Viren’s cat also enjoys a sauna!). Still, the common thread seems to be the mindset, or more broadly, the philosophy of these greats. Something holds them together. Part of my mission here is to find out what that is, or at least, to put it in a very academic way, find out what role “place” has in distance running greatness.

I should explain a bit why I am doing this. The level 4 coaching course at the National Coaching Institute, or whatever the official name for it is (INFE in French) allows for a “special project” and I decided, perhaps influenced by my academic background, to undertake a kind of social study of the distance runner’s habitat. I chose Victoria and Eugene for specific reasons. Eugene, aka Tracktown USA, is perhaps an obvious choice as the North American running Mecca. Victoria, for Canadian content, and because it is designated as a High Performance Centre by Athletics Canada. I don’t presuppose similarities between the two places: it was just easy to match the two up, as they make a nice Western swing.

Last summer at the Canadian track and field championships in Calgary, I had a conversation with the lead coach of the Victoria HPC, Wynn Gmitroski, and he agreed to help me with my project. So, here we are. I could have chosen Vancouver, or more obviously, Guelph. I may have chosen Victoria for the same reason many athletes have chosen it: the scenery and climate. Also, I did my undergrad in Kitchener-Waterloo, and I’ve been to Guelph a few times. That’s not to say it’s not a model worth considering. It is, and I certainly have done much informal research, discussing the ins and outs of the sport with the people there. Victoria was a more exotic destination.

The idea of informal research is important though, as that is what most of this will be, I think. Runners transmit our codes and morals in a very specific way: we talk on the run. It’s not so much, “what happens on the run, stays on the run” but “what happens, happens on the run.” And so, upon arrival in the capital of British Columbia, having been picked up by my host, James Davison, a former 30min 10k runner and member of UVic’s CIAU XC championship teams in the 1990s, the next natural step was to go for a run. Even though it was 10pm local time, (and 1am for me, my internal clock still in the Eastern time zone), James explained that, now that he had kids, this was the only time he could get out for a run. So a brisk 35min jaunt through Oak Bay caught us up.

With such familiarity, you would think we were old friends. Actually, I believe I had only met Davison once before, at Peter Cardle’s wedding. Still, the brotherhood of the run being what it is, we both knew that we shared at least that one thing. It turns out we shared more, such as having a backyard that may once have been a gravel pit, and having recently laid down cedar mulch. Also, the trust that Cardle once said to me, “yeah I think you and Davison would get along” was probably enough to assume he was cool. And I promised that, unlike his last billet (the expection to the rule of the brotherhood), I would not be using EPO (Apparently Christian Hecht stayed here a few years ago for the Victoria International Track Classic).

So it begins, as it always does, with the story of a run. Not an epic run. Nothing on the scale of what I hope to do (run Pre’s Trail) or witness (Cam Levins break the Canadian 5000m record). But I think it’s important to emphasise that it starts, always, as long as we are able, with a run. And no matter how great the runner, or how tale the tale, we all have that one thing in common.