Running and Dancing to the Beat of my own Drummer
It seems fitting to me to be interviewed by a blog called Socially Fit as a large part of my physical activity these days involves social engagement, while also seeking to stay fit.
This past year my main focus was training for the ING NYC Marathon, on behalf of Team for Kids, a program run by the New York Road Runners to help underprivileged children gain access to running programs and nutritional information. As many of you know, the marathon itself was cancelled due to Hurricane Sandy, but that didn’t negate my fundraising efforts, nor stop me from completing a marathon, albeit under very different circumstances. But then again, my fitness journey has not always taken a very linear path. As a child, sports were more of a source of tension for me than excitement. Struggling through a few seasons of T-ball, I never progressed to Little League, instead joining the less popular and perhaps less physically-demanding Youth Bowling Council. While I would go on to successfully compete at the provincial level, let’s just say the trophies failed to gain much attention on the playground.
Indeed, I was the proverbial last one to be picked for dodgeball, the one tripping over his own skates at school outings to the local rink and the one too scared to jump into the pool until the threat of a failing grade outweighed that fear. Given my recent venture, it’s interesting that it was on the track where I first exhibited a strength that also impressed my classmates. Literally bypassing them all during practice, I was selected to represent the school in a series of short distance sprints and as part of a relay at regional meets. But the pride I took in these accomplishments was short-lived after choosing dance as my next venture. While neither of my parents batted an eye at their son entering this female-dominated sport – and make no mistake, it IS a sport – my schoolmates were quick to rib me. While I enjoyed some success in competition, the bullying was overwhelming, and I abandoned lessons after three short years.
Dance, however, would continue to play an important role in my life on so many levels. Despite having given up on classes, I auditioned for the Stratford Festival and was fortunate to be chosen to perform in Gypsy. This experience exposed me to the discipline (physical, mental, etc) required to be in the arts and influenced me to apply for a local performing arts high school. For the next four years, I devoted all of my energy to exploring dance, music and theatre. Pushing myself to my physical limits, I was accustomed to pain, exhaustion and leaving my heart on the stage. In many ways, it was the world of dance where I experienced the most growth through learning a variety of styles and eventually choreographing my own works. I continued this journey even during a year abroad in France on exchange, but stopped abruptly when I got back to Canada and began university in Toronto.
As I began to gain exposure to a certain segment of gay urban life, I realized that a gym membership was going to be necessary. While my years of dance had served to keep me fit, I suddenly found myself bombarded with the “bigger is better” aesthetic. I immersed myself in books, magazines, websites, a personal trainer and jumped from gym to gym, all in pursuit of an elusive ideal. Elusive, because it was imposed by external influences and therefore subject to change. A membership at a boutique gym led me to reconnect with the dance world I had left behind. Stepping into a ballet bootcamp run by Jennifer Nichols at 99 Sudbury, I was faced with the initial “Are you sure you’re in the right place?” After the first class, however, Jenn attempted to recruit me to dust off my dancing shoes and perform with her company, Hit and Run Productions. I initially resisted, but when the opportunity came up to perform at Fashion sCares I agreed, assuming that it would be a matter of a few chassés down the runway. Arriving at the rehearsal, I quickly learned that it would involve partnering, lifts, etc. – much more work than just werq. While that was a one-night only return to the stage, I’ve continued with classes, following Jenn from one studio to the next and using her approach to movement to motivate my muscles.
My fitness path had also led me back to running. My first race was for the Pride and Remembrance Run in 2008 and in preparation for the 5k distance I joined the Toronto Frontrunners, an LGBT running group. An interesting mix of the social and the physical, the Saturday morning training runs allowed me to meet other members of the community and get tips on form, gear, nutrition etc. From that initial run, I chose to add a charity aspect to my races, raising funds for causes such as prostate cancer, children’s arthritis, leukemia and lymphoma and various disabilities, while gradually increasing the distance to 8k, 10k, a half-marathon and 30k. When I felt like giving up, I simply remembered who I was running for.
While I enjoyed my time with Frontrunners, and later joined Team in Training, even becoming a mentor with them this season, running also became a time that I could dedicate to me and my thoughts. Alone with my iPod or iPhone, I find myself able to focus and reflect in a unique way. In fact, it was on a solo run in Washington, D.C. where I found the spot to propose to my partner.
During the summer of 2009, though, I hit a major roadblock to all physical activity. While vacationing in New York City, I experienced what was later diagnosed as an acute psychotic episode. After an attempt on my own life and hospitalization, I would go on to face severe depression and anxiety that quite literally paralyzed me and forced me onto short-term disability and caused me to retreat from almost all social interaction for several months. Due to medications required during my treatment and literally not leaving my bed, I suddenly encountered a problem for the first time in my life: weight gain. Fortunately, I have not been on this path alone. Through the support of my husband, my family and friends, I have moved past this dark moment in my life and actually feel stronger to have gone through the experience and come out the other side.
I had established the goal for myself of running a marathon prior to my 30th birthday, but because of this setback, I didn’t feel prepared when the time came. So earlier this year, I decided to once again look at the possibility. I chose to participate in the New York City Marathon as a way of reclaiming the city that I hadn’t returned to in three years and to truly close the chapter on the mental health crisis that began there. During my training and fundraising, few knew the true importance of the event. In fact, this is the first time I have publicly shared this part of my story.
As I said before, my fitness journey hasn’t always followed the course I laid out for myself. Three weeks prior to the marathon, I developed walking pneumonia, but after a round of antibiotics and stocking up on puffers, I got medical clearance to run. I then arrived in New York City on the Friday of the marathon and picked up my race kit, only to learn of the cancellation an hour later. Having overcome the mental hurdle of heading back to New York, I also decided that the cancellation wouldn’t stop me from keeping my commitment to those who had encouraged me and supported me over the past year.
So, the final chapter of this story took place on November 11. Some critics accused those looking to continue with the marathon in the aftermath of Sandy as being purely interested in a parade of ego. Personally, I chose to set out alone, on a 42.2-kilometre course that I had mapped out across Toronto. Without any bands, water stations or onlookers, I ran the entire distance, keeping in mind the importance of Remembrance Day, stopping at 11 am for a moment of silence. And when my iPhone ran out of energy before I did, I simply listened to my heart, grateful for the ability to continue running and dancing to the beat of my own drummer.