Posted by: Karen | December 2, 2007

Systems Check

Yesterday Little Runner and I picked up Carrie and Nikayla in the north, dropped off Soccer Boy at the south soccer centre for a game, and continued on south of town towards Okotoks for a cross-country foot race. We got there by about 11:20 for a noon race, which gave us time to register, fuss about what to wear, lose, find, and scold the kids three times, chat excitedly with friends about the weather and their clothing strategy, fuss over layers some more, lose one of my Yaktrax, and hop up and down near the starting chair.

The chair was out on the football field, marking where the clock would eventually be set up. We hopped up and down next to it, because our running-shoed toes would go numb if we didn’t. I’m not exactly sure how cold it really was outside. Some people say it was -20C/-4F, but it didn’t really feel colder than -15C/5F in the sunshine. There was a very, very light, fresh breeze. I left off the single Yaktrax I could find, because if I ran in only one I’d end up going in circles. I think that happened last year, too.

Three brave little girls all bundled up in snowpants and boots showed up to run the kid’s 1k loop. Little Runner was the tallest, and won it handily. Yay, Little Runner! She headed off inside to watch another kid’s portable dvd player while us grown-ups took off on our big race. There were a couple of kids doing the 4k, including Nikayla, the smallest.

Nikayla was not impressed with having to wear boots and a snowsuit, and decided she didn’t want to run. She did hike briskly over the course, but she just didn’t feel like running. I totally understand; I felt like that last weekend.

I headed off down into the coulee with my calves loudly protesting the burst of activity. They had seized up Friday after the Thursday stair workout, but I figured they’d just stretch out when they warmed up sometime in the first loop (4k was one loop, twice for 8k). The single track path was covered with a few inches of shifty, sugary snow; standard fare for this particular race. I worked to keep my trot just on the edge of uncomfortably brisk, and tried to save any walk breaks for uphill climbs out of the valley. The uphill walk breaks weren’t really breaks, as the calves shouted OWOWOWOW at me every time.

I engaged with other runners I knew around me in the first loop. I knew most of them were doing the 4k and the banter distracted me from the first waves of tiredness. I had brought along my camera and the 2-way radios for fun, but found that my fingers were too cold to work them without the bulky mittens, especially since I was so busy running. I had given the other radio to Nancy, but we ended up leapfrogging most of the time, so didn’t really need to use the radios to communicate.

At about 3k Les decided he was all warmed up and decided to put in an effort. As he passed me on a skinny path in the woods he nudged me hard with his shoulder and said mockingly “Oops! Sorry!”

“Uh HUH.” I grunted back. “You’re just sorry you didn’t knock me down in the SNOW.”

Les tossed a defense over his shoulder, “I um, must’ve lost my balance or something.”

“Yeah,” I sassed back at his receding form, “I hear when you get OLD, it’s one of the first things to go!” Heh. I let him go at that.

I was all warmed up myself by this point, and peeled off my fleece. Nancy generously offered to carry in any extras I didn’t want, so I happily handed them over and cheered her on to a strong 4k finish. 

I began the second loop wearing my fleece hat, mitts, two long sleeved shirts, lined windpants over thin long johns, and two thin pairs of socks in my running shoes. 

I sensed someone behind me as we passed the 4k turn-off and called out to identify my company. Bari-with-a-European-accent answered, and I returned her greeting before flying pell-mell back down into the coulee. When she caught up to me on the mild roller coaster trail below we occasionally gasped bits of info back and forth, while using each other to keep our pace strong and steady. She was from the Netherlands, had been in Canada about a year. She hoped I didn’t mind her tucking in behind me and using my pacing strategy, and I welcomed the challenge of forging the way.

Throughout the race there were times when I felt tired, but I challenged myself mentally by doing what I call “systems checks”. Here’s how the inner conversation sounded:

Sensible Me: I’m tired. Can we walk yet?
Crazy Captain Race Brain: We’re Racing, SM! You’re just bored. Systems Check! Body parts report!
Cardio Vascular System: Solid breathing rhythm established, Captain. Heart pounding hard but efficiently, Sir!
Arms: Pumping and balancing, Sir!
Hands: Sweaty. Can we take the mitts off again? Ahh. Thanks. No wait, now we’re cold. Put ’em back on! Ick. Sweaty, hot…
Knees, Ankles, Feet, Quads: Variable terrain is slowing our progress, but we’re warmed up and doing our best, Sir!
Belly: FINE. Can you tell the calves to shut UP, Sir?
CCRB: Calves! Shut UP. Carry on, everyone.
Downhill Eyes: Downhill HO! Wheeeee!
Every Sensible, Breakable Part of Me: Aaaaaaaa!
CCRB: Initiate extreme balance recovery sequence!



ESBPM: Whew. We’re still alive and moving. Aw shucks, now we have to go up again. I’m tired. Can we walk yet?
Calves: owowowow…

I managed to lead Bari until the last 3-400m in the flat, dipsy-doodle turns through the trees. I knew we were getting close to the finish, but I was running out of steam despite the systems checks. I told her to take the lead and as she complied I held on for dear life. I had guessed she had some reserve left and I strove hard to wring out every last drop of mine. She beat me by a solid 10-20 feet and we celebrated gloriously at the end.

I shouldn’t have given her permission to pass – she bumped me out of 3rd place. Then again, if I hadn’t let her go, I wouldn’t have known if I’d beaten her best, or just her kindness. We both had worked harder together. We were both thrilled to bits with our effort.

We headed inside to soup and I scored some chocolate brownies from the dessert table. When my camera came back to me it had been passed around and had some great finishing photos of some skinny-fasts I never get to see finish, which I will post later.



  1. Sounds like you made the most of the environment, cold and coulees and all. Sorry to hear you got bumped from third, but it still sounds like you really enjoyed this one.

  2. I’m not sure why, but I read this like a video game. You can either play Karen, or you can be Les and try and knock Karen into the snow. The challenge is to keep on the goat path while other players stop, bump, pass, etc. and your YakTrax come off, get tangled in bushes, or your glasses fog up, you slide down a gully. You have a heartrateometer that can’t get above a certain number without depleting your internal cookie engine, and you have to save enough energy to outkick someone you just met at the finish. And it would have live chat!

  3. I enjoy all of ’em, especially when there’s someone my pace keeping me challenged and/or entertained. Running is not a lonely sport for me!

  4. Love the video game comparison! Maybe my teenage son would try it if I explained it like that.


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