“Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life.” – Haruki Murakami
When I was 13, running claimed my heart. It was a love that took me by surprise and turned my life around. I was a mediocre athlete who was bookish, musical, overachieving, insecure. Soon, I was also a fierce competitor with ever-changing goals, confidence inspired by an encouraging coach and teammates who were like sisters. Those experiences and our shared joy in the journey set the pattern for the kind of runner, coach, and friend I strive to be today.
Cross country was my first love — which in NW Iowa usually took place on golf courses — but track, that had its own painful appeal and a wide variety of gut-wrenching distances and intensities to choose from. I thrived at races ranging from 400m to 3000m, and the shared miles and sweat paid off in numerous individual and team state championship victories for my high school cross country and track teams.
There’s nothing quite like the bond forged through shared miles and conversations, encouragement and pain, victory and defeat. I had forgotten that, only to rediscover it after my second daughter was born in Milwaukee. I started picking up 5k races here and there and getting fast again. Later, in Iowa, my running buddies convinced me I could do a marathon, so I ran my first in the Twin Cities in 2012. I even talked some of them into joining me occasionally for weekly speed work at the track. When our family of six made plans to move to Edmonton in August 2016, losing close touch with friends who are also running buddies was double heartache.
So how do you start over? It’s complicated to move to a new country and a new city when you’re in your 40s. The easy friendships of childhood and shared histories aren’t there and need to be built from scratch. Meeting new people isn’t always easy. But running made it much easier, and the Edmonton run community is vast and welcoming. Before long I felt like I actually really knew (and liked!) some people here.
November Project Canada was my first run crew in Edmonton, and I’m pretty faithful. It’s rare that I miss a workout if I’m healthy and in town, and from there, I’ve met most of the dozens of people I run with. Through NP, I became aware of the Edmonton Trail Runners. For several months, I joined their runs when I could, exploring our incredible river valley and meeting some now-close friends. Through these groups, I also met an amazing local entrepreneur, Jill Boychuk, creator of Earthgroove Activewear, the most comfortable running tights I’ve ever worn.
Last winter, I started running with Croissant Run Club, a social run crew that meets early Sunday mornings for 10k or 20k (20k starts at 6:30; 10k at 7:30), followed by a breakfast social. I’m now a regular, and the post-run goodies and conversation are just as good as the run.
The following spring I came across the Frank MacNamara Cross Country races, a no-frills run series in Edmonton parks that brought me back to those high school glory days, but with less pressure. I also discovered the 5 Peaks trail running series, which embodies everything that’s great about running in Edmonton: beautiful scenery, rollicking (and sometimes challenging) singletrack paths, family fun, and people who really know how to spread joy and have a good time at a race. And pretty much the best swag you’ll find at a race anywhere.
Trail running was brand new to me, and Edmonton offers some of the best of it. Initially, I was afraid to run on river valley trails for fear I’d turn an ankle leading up to my target marathon. When I finally hit the trails in my “off” season, I was hooked. I love the feeling of freedom and exhilaration that comes with being immersed in wild natural areas that make you forget you’re in a large urban centre. I love getting away from a slavish attention to pace and instead running by feel. I love being able to occasionally walk up a hill in a race and feel like that’s OK. I love the strength my body gains from using so many muscles to stabilize my steps, turn sharp corners, scramble up embankments, and careen down hills. Honestly, I sometimes just feel like a kid at play, running wild with no cares, watching the sun rise over a beautiful river valley.
But there was still something missing: speed work with people to hold me accountable and help me push my limits. Edmonton has track clubs, but many meet several times a week and aren’t cheap. It was time to start something new. A Facebook conversation with Ben O’Rourke and Patrick Kiernan a year ago led to the launch of an informal crew called Need for Speed. At first, on Monday nights at the Scona track it was sometimes just me, Brendan Airey, and a few others, including my 18-year-old daughter, who was training for track provincials. Before long, we were gathering a handful or two of people each week, including the rest of NFS co-leaders, Morris Koppola and Paul Hill who committed early and became regulars with a shared vision for our group.
Since I was planning the workouts for NFS during our outdoor season, I initially tried to keep it simple and invite people I thought would be similarly paced or a little faster than me. But it soon became clear that this ad hoc track crew had broader appeal, and we decided to open things up to any local runners who were willing to put in some hard work and try to get faster. That took a little juggling for each week’s workout plan, but we kept growing all summer. One of the things I wanted to be a regular feature is an opportunity to cool down and refuel with stretching, conversation, and food afterward. From the beginning, I brought food to share, and before long, we had potluck breakfasts showing up on a regular basis from three to five people each week.
As we grew and acquired regulars, I watched people get faster and start crushing race goals. We ran a one-mile time trial in the early summer and just before fall, and some people had taken more than a minute off their previous times! I felt like a proud mom.
Here we are a year later, with a thriving crew of 30 or so NFS regulars at the indoor track at Kinsmen on Tuesdays. The rest of the week, we’re surviving winter in Edmonton together in what has been a bitterly cold season. Thanks to Edmonton’s run crews, I’ve put in the miles outside in -30 or colder more than a dozen times, something I never would’ve done two years ago. Living in this winter city, I’ve finally learned to love the cold and snow and have tried to adopt the mantra of “no bad weather; just bad gear.” My newest run crew commitment, Wild Rose Runners, got me to my highest mileage month ever this January (411k), and mostly outside, with the incentive of the January Battle.
I think it’s safe to say there’s plenty left for me to discover in Edmonton, and I can’t wait to see what the rest of 2018 brings. For the first time since college, I’m working with a coach I met after a trail running film festival at Telus World of Science, Jacob Puzey of Peak Run Performance. I’m pretty excited about getting some direction for my training as I prepare for a mid-April 50K at Diez Vista. In looking at the participant list, I’ll be in good company with dozens of others from Edmonton making the trek to Port Moody as well. I hope to check out some new run crews as the year goes on, and to give back at least as much as I get from the wonderful people I continue to meet thanks to running.
Cheers, Edmonton run community. I can’t wait to see what’s next.
– Sonya Jongsma Knauss