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Racing into a new era

After an injury-plagued hiatus, crossing the finish line opened the next chapter in my running career.

A running guru once told me that no matter the age you start running you can expect to improve your PR throughout the next seven to 10 years. If you want to see faster times after that, you'd better find a few downhill courses. Now that I'm in my 16th year of running, and closing in on the end of my sixth decade on the planet, I don't expect my times to change by leaps and bounds. But that doesn't mean my journey as a runner is over. I've realized that I'm now in a new phase of my running career, a period full of what I call Modern Era Personal Records, or MEPRs for short.

Ironically, this recent enlightenment came after I was briefly sidelined from the roads last winter. I injured my back after a slip on a boat. It required a long, slow, and often painful recovery. After doing at least one marathon every year since 1993 - and as many as six some years - I found myself relearning to walk, then run, and finally, run farther. I no longer took for granted that my long run was "only" five miles, or that the distance I wanted to run and the distance I was able to run would be the same.

After this change in perspective, the thought of attempting my first postinjury race (and my first one in more than a year) was a little intimidating. But I was ready, so last September I signed up for a 5-K in Toronto, which was part of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I decided to run incognito, with no big Penguin on my chest. I was nervous and wanted to be as invisible as possible, but I had a goal: I was going to find out if my heart, my spirit, and my body were back in sync.

After the gun went off, I focused on finding a pace and a rhythm I could sustain. I wanted to find the edge but not step over it. I had to fight the old idea that this was "only" a 5-K, while also battling the part of me saying I would fail. I crossed the first kilometer a little ahead of my goal. Not enough to panic, but enough to make me wonder if I could hold on. As I passed through 2-K and then 3-K at the same pace, something strange happened. I began to think about picking up my speed. The old juices started to flow. I spotted people ahead of me I wanted to pass. It didn't matter if they were 10 years old or 70, if they were running or walking. I could feel my heart rate rising and hear my breathing becoming labored. I was running hard and loving every minute of it.

When I crossed the finish and saw the clock, I was stunned. It read 32:10 - nearly five minutes faster than my last 5-K. I had set my first Modern Era Personal Record. I had done my best. Not my best ever, but my best nonetheless.

I was reminded of my own credo. On that day the miracle wasn't that I had finished. The miracle was that I had the courage to start. So now I'm going in search of MEPRs. I'll tackle another 5-K and find a flat, fast 10-K for this spring. I'll start thinking about half-marathons and - dare I say it - maybe even a full marathon sometime in the future. I'll train hard for them and take my best shot, knowing that what was doesn't matter any more. I'm turning a page in my running career, and can't wait to see what's in store.

Waddle on, friends.

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