I met Gary Malloy in the lobby of Hotel Le Concorde in the heart of Old Quebec, on the Friday night before my final cross-country race as a St. FX X-Man in 2016.
I really met Gary Malloy at 4 am on Sunday morning, more than 24 hours later and 10k deeper into my running career, following the race that made Runners of the Nish a book of clear tragedy. In the early hours of the cold morning he aimlessly stood outside our hotel, after a night of licking his wounds. Quite like us, the Lancers had sorely missed their team goal, and he was the head coach.
“Alex?” he asks as if not sure (who’s sure of anything at 4 am?), and fair enough, we don’t know each other. “You hungry?”
What else am I to do? It’s morning. I haven’t stomached anything since an arsenal of OUA athletes passed me in the final stretch of the race, almost a full day ago now. So I’m starving. Plus, this old dude is the Windsor coach - that’s where I want to go to school next year. His weird invitation is definitely a sly recruiting ploy – this guy must have been waiting for me in front of the hotel for hours (Gary later told me his cab driver that night was a 2:12 marathoner from Ethiopia – needless to say I was a distant consolation prize).
I followed him up the road and then down a few stairs into a grungy basement cum fast food eatery cum dystopian mosh pit filled with crestfallen runners, running on nothing much. Years later, Gary still called it a “Donair restaurant.”
We ordered some “Donairs” and I got ready for the job-like interview that a prospective coach might deliver to a prospective athlete. I was ready to rhyme off my PBs, what my mileage was like, and whether I thought Salazar was doping his athletes and whether Centro was a douche on Instagram. But we didn’t talk about running. Gary instead amused himself telling silly stories about the night that just passed. I jumped in and told him I had been kicked out of the bar, only to be negotiated back in by Emmanuel Boisvert in a messy Québécois war of words with the bouncer that my Acadian dialect just could not win. Gary laughed.
“Ahhh, alcohol,” he said, “The great equalizer.” By no mistake did the erudite retiree borrow Horace Mann’s assessment of education itself and apply it to what some would call his second passion.
“It brings us all down to the same level.”
As if Gary ever thought he was above anyone.
Two and a half years have passed since our first interaction. I went to Windsor for a Master’s degree and I have been injured for most of that time. To allude to Steve Boyd’s eloquent post from a few weeks ago, my injuries, to me, had been a more crude intimation with death than anything I had encountered. Until death itself, that is. Gary was there for me, helping me through the tough times with words, Wings tickets and the occasional outing with friends. Without his optimism – which I have yet to see paralleled –, and the support of my teammates, amidst the injuries I would have left Windsor.
But I didn’t, and when I got healthy, Gary made my summer of 2018 a special one. He brought us to historic Hayward Field (and begged the meet director to let me race despite my off-standard 1500m PB, and white lied his way into convincing them I’d pace the race - I didn’t). He hosted “Cyr you later” BBQs when I left town and, obviously, he helped me reach my running goals for the year. He was the first one (slightly before Evan Ubene over the Hamilton track microphone) to tell me I had broken 3:50 in the 1500m, a goal I had chased all summer.
“Trois Quarante Sept!” he said in my mother tongue, clenching his stopwatch, giddy at the finish line.
I was so happy with myself – mainly because I thought my race had made Gary smile so hard. But in reality, he wore the same grin he bore when I finished any other race, and when we’d come back from a cool down or show up for a warm-up. It was never about the results. It was about our personal growth – about us learning something new, and coming back tomorrow for more. He was the truest form of teacher – full of wisdom and free of judgment. Maybe because of that, he was someone you toiled to make proud, but never someone you were afraid to disappoint.
Gary was the same every day, with everyone he encountered. He lifted us when we were down, and challenged us to buckle down if we were flying close to the sun. He offered the same time, respect and friendship to everyone, regardless of age, standing in life or mile time. He was a rare peacekeeper in a track world full of egos and quarrels. He was a better equalizer than the drink he praised.
Funerals are also a great equalizer, but they offer no buzz. No matter who dies, the hymns don’t change, people hug when they run out of things to say, and every visitation room smells the God damn same. The strongest – and most haunting – equalizer, however, is the following: everyone is painted in a glowing white light when they die. No matter who they were, what they did, whom they touched and what they left behind, the discourse in church is roughly the same. It inflates some and does justice to others. And I get it, how do you go about using words to accurately credit (or God forbid, discredit) a life?
But what happens when the person in the casket is remarkable beyond measure? How can we, observers brutally intimated with death, tell that someone truly special has left us, when most variables around the funeral are the same? Maybe today it had to do with how the priest was choked up and how the church was packed - how tears flowed despite yesterday’s long preparatory visiting hours and how a whole varsity program transcending generations dropped their chores and came back to honour Gary. Maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s about how you feel after you leave the funeral. Today, I feel like I lost a stalwart friend and a role model, and I feel like many others have lost just as much and more.
Gary, thank you for picking me up on the street in Quebec, and many times after that. Thank you for helping me reach new heights on the track and beyond. Thank you for teaching me how to be good for the sake of being good. I can’t imagine what you did for those you had known longer.
Rest in peace, dear friend.
“Read what you believe, teach what you believe, practice what you preach.”
I am sitting in my grandparents' living room. It's December 26 and all 26 members of my mom's side of the family cramp up the bungalow for a Christmas dinner. The lack of real estate encourages a yearly wrestling match, which used to be much more fun for me when my little cousins weren’t six feet tall. I cite my recent knee surgery - and not my fear of getting fed a taste of the medicine I have been dishing out since 2008 - as my reason to sit this year out. In consequence, my cousin Joel takes most of the beating. Sorry man.
Amidst the flailing arms and flying Christmas wrapping paper, I spot my grandfather. He sits at the other side of the room in his usual chair, diverting his attention between the living room's calamity and his usual fix: a cup of coffee and a Budweiser. He rarely drinks in excess, but I would bet that his consistent mixed intake of caffeine and alcohol would make him immune to the stiffest Four Loko by now. He makes eye contact with me, smiles, falls asleep for about seven seconds and denies it when I call him out.
"I'm not sleeping, I'm just taking a break."
When you’re 80 and have been playing off these seven-second slumber sessions for the last ten years, you don’t think much of them anymore. That doesn't stop me from poking fun at him.
"Don't blink again, you'll miss dinner," I said.
"I'm wide awake," he said back, fixing his sitting posture. "Everyone's here... best day of the year."
My growing caffeine addiction and creaky legs notwithstanding, I have little in common with my grandfather. He is not a school guy. At my current age he drove trucks for a living and was about to get married. He doesn't watch sports, let alone play them, and he can skin a live chicken without squirming and chucking it over to my uncle Raymond. When I visit him, I usually talk, and he usually listens (if you’re married to my grandmother, you have to be a good listener). We have always been different, but our thoughts may have never been juxtaposed quite like they are right now.
In the living room, my grandfather is in bliss, having anticipated this familiar moment for weeks. He loves sitting back and watching the life he has created – the life currently trying to kill each other on the carpet with the help of a well timed Half-Nelson. He never fails to comment on which one of us grew, who forgot to shave, and who has a bad haircut. I can’t speak for him (or bother him to write a paragraph) but I think he lives for these gatherings.
While he lives in the moment, I am somewhere else. I enjoy my time at my grandparents’ house too, and I am having fun, but like most other 23-year-olds, my mind wanders. I think about getting back to Windsor, and my trip to Toronto the next week. I think about meeting some friends in Halifax soon, and how much mileage I might be able to run when I visit my parents in Florida in March. I think about finishing school and making something of myself once I break free of academia’s tedium.
My grandfather and I, though for completely different things, find the same happiness in anticipation. Thinking of good times ahead decorates our future with promise and spikes our present with thrill. Feeling anticipation is to know – or at least believe – that we will have something to be happy about in the future, and that is true even if we ever struggle in the present.
In the last six months, I have struggled mentally - more than ever. I lost my ability to run, and it’s not yet back. I cannot anticipate races, workouts, runs with friends, or earned after-parties. I deal with a lot of my struggles quietly. Not because I don’t feel like I can talk about it – I do - but because it is how I am most comfortable overcoming my battle. As we celebrate our ability to talk about our struggles, I want to share a vice with those who, like me, may not feel like talking about internal turmoil every time it arises. That vice is anticipation.
On days that I see no light, I use my short attention span and neuroticism to my advantage by trying to anticipate better times ahead. I make an effort to think of nights with friends that are coming up. I think of a book event I have planned. I think of the next time I can be reunited with my family and hopefully take it to my "little" cousins. I think of the days when I can run again.
My grandfather deals with minor health issues and the insidious loneliness that accompanies old age and restricted motion. I cannot help but think that sometimes he strains physically and mentally. When those times come, perhaps he cheers himself up by looking forward to the next day we come to him, and perhaps that thought brings him momentary peace. In that way, I can relate with my grandfather. In fact, I think I can relate with many people – perhaps we all want to escape the present sometimes.
Focusing on the positive aspects of our lives and thinking about what gets us excited will not get rid of mental illness, but perhaps a bit of introspection can enrich our conversations around mental health. It may at least remind us that things get better when they are not great. Making a mental exercise of identifying great moments I anticipate has helped me take courage in these last months. And if I can anticipate like that until I am 80 and my grandchildren are kicking the crap out of each other in my living room, that is a lot to look forward to.
It's been nearly six months since Runners of the Nish was published, and I now feel sufficiently removed from the book release honeymoon to reflect on my journey thus far. When my two-year project hit the shelves in July, it was nearly impossible to predict how it would be received, and where it would take me (if anywhere at all). With a small amount of gained perspective on the world of publishing, I feel better positioned to qualify my experience up to now. Here is how it measures up to my expectations:
**saved the pictures for the end - partly because I don't want to break up the writing, and partly because I still don't really know how to properly format a Weebly blog.**
- That I'd be a total rookie: I knew that this project would take me on a steep learning curve, even away from the writing. I had to figure out how to contact bookstores and position my book in a way that sells, despite spending the first few weeks of August not knowing about writing to reading ratio or what a consignment sale was - I since was thoroughly educated by the manager of a local Coles bookstore (thanks Linda).
- It created intrigue: I hoped that people of the running community would be at least curious about the book. As it turns out, they were. I rarely go to a race without someone asking me what the book is really about, or how it's doing, or the always intrusive and often fun "hey Cyr how many copies have you sold? Are you making money off this?" The book has even earned its own (mostly) positive Trackie thread (thank you Oldster for taking care of the trolls :) ).
It has been well-received: Probably the most positive of surprises. I started writing this book to challenge myself, to remember our last year at St. FX, and to gift my coach Bernie Chisholm. Because of both the book's initial purpose and the limitations that existed in plot development (as I was limited by how well we would perform at the U SPORTS championship - spoiler alert, limited indeed), selling lots of copies was not a goal I had set. Despite my approach, the book became the #1 best-selling title on the Friesen Press website, it ranked in the top 10 running books on Amazon.ca on multiple occasions, and it has enabled me to travel to speak at various events. Over 1,000 copies have already been sold, and they are still in demand (and thank God, because books are still invading my small room in Windsor).
- Some people recognize me and my teammates as characters. When Nic Favero and I were walking around the STWM race expo, we ran into someone who had read Runners of the Nish. Favero introduced himself, and right away was asked "Oh Favero, the guy who was in the library all the time? Sociology guy, right?" Hey, if my teammates are cool with this happening from time to time, I am as well (sorry Nic, should have given you that alias you had asked me for).
I got to know other new authors: After publishing, a few friends who were working on their own manuscripts messaged me. Some wanted to share their idea, and others asked about the process of publishing. While I am nowhere near an expert in this field, I was at least able to share my experience with them so as to provide a bit of clarity. Publishers are often overloaded with new manuscripts, so they rarely advertise their business (or existence in general). They are all around us, but we can't really see them - it's kind of like they live in the Upside Down. So, most new authors are in the dark when trying to get their first work to grace the shelves. That being said, without dropping names, a few neat books covering topics ranging from hockey to running to fantasy are hitting those shelves in the next few months...
I learned that presenting my book to the right crowds is essential for its marketing. In November, I got to set up a booth at the Canadian Cross-Country Nationals (BIG shoutout to Clive Morgan and the organizing committee in Kingston for having me there and for hosting a flawless championship), and show my book to many new people across the country.
I hope to keep making my way to running events in Canada with some copies in the new year. If I am lucky, I will be racing at them anyway. 2019 is off to a fast start, as I was fortunate to share my story with the Charlottetown Rotary Club on January 2nd, and then with Toronto West Athletics Club at their year-end banquet on January 4th. I never thought I would enjoy sharing the story of the book's creation this much - it is very cool to have people interested in something you did.
On that note, my main takeaway six months into this project is the following: I am thrilled with the book's reception, and any thought that this project would be perceived as weird or even alienating has been put to rest. I think it is natural to expect scrutiny and criticism whenever we try and do something unconventional. One might think that displaying something to the world that is artistic and purely my own - something that I may find silly or foolish in ten years - took guts. The truth is that I was so well supported by family and friends that it was not scary at all. Thank you for reading, sharing, and being my allies in this project.
Onwards to a great 2019!
I’ll cut right to the chase, as some Law student who calls Biology a pseudoscience accused me of waxing lyrical in previous posts (lawyer me that one, Frisky F ;) ).
I have been out since July - no running or cross training. I have not been able to do consistent aerobic exercise without having knee pain, and it has completely changed my lifestyle. I eat less, sleep less, and go for walks to get some sort of blood flow going. I am a tablet of Metamucil away from becoming Mister Rogers circa 2000. I have never endured a more trying five months - I am living my worst nightmare.
I have been seeing world-class therapists here in Windsor and have been doing so many glute exercises that I can probably crack open three walnuts at once. Yet, there has been no change in pain levels. So, I have no choice but to fight this injury with more fire - I'm getting arthroscopic surgery.
The date: December 14th
Passengers in the Cyrmobile: so far, two (three more seats available – come see me recover from anaesthetics as you may be able to convince me to buy you dinner pretty easily).
Recovery time: 6 weeks to 3 months
Surgery efficacy rate: 50/50
I met the surgeon today, and after reading my MRI, he told me I have patellar tendinopathy. That was always what we thought, but it is nice to know that nothing else is going on in there, and it is nice to have the diagnosis confirmed. The pain has been pretty severe at times, so it got me worried that its cause was something more sinister.
According to the surgeon, the injury could go away by itself in several more months, in a year, or in a few years. It is curable with rest and physiotherapy, but surgery often accelerates the process. Since arthroscopy is non-invasive and relatively low risk, and since I was able to get under the knife this fast, I saw it as the best option.
So that’s where we are. I am optimistic (thanks Warren Buffet) and I try to approach this challenge with a positive outlook, but I can’t help being nervous. Living as a non-athlete has been an interesting experiment, but it has strengthened my conviction that, health willing, I will never quit running. I hate this loss of structure and I don’t feel like myself – running has become a huge part of my life in these last five years.
Plus, it is very hard to explain to people who are not in the sport (or sport in general) what I am dealing with. It’s not that I am missing out on making the Olympics. It’s not about the Olympics – it never was. What I am missing out on is trying to crack the top 10 at U Sports XC. It’s travelling to new places for training camps. It’s running on new grounds with new people. It’s logging 100 miles in a week and smugly posting on Strava about it. It’s going for a run with my sister and my two little bros when I get home for Christmas. It’s putting Angus Rawling in his place, dammit (which seems increasingly hard to do)!
I love this sport, and the people in it. I am meant to run. I don’t know how fast, and I don’t know how far, but I am meant to run.
So let’s end this.
I decided I would make it in the sport of running in December of 2014 when I was exiting the Halifax QEII hospital with a little scar on my chest and a deeper one in my ego. A doctor had nestled a heart rate monitor underneath my skin, shallow to my ribcage, following my second fainting episode in a few anemic months. I had just missed my third consecutive season with the X-Men. I was 19, confused, a relative nobody with no credentials. Nothing mattered to me nearly as much as did running, and that pursuit had in no way been fruitful. Still, I wanted to put everything I had into it.
I was not even marginally successful, but I was hungry. I wanted to turn heads so badly. Back then, I was motivated by a combination of sources. There were the wholesome satisfactions of feeling fit and setting new PBs, and then the hellish desires to make incredulous jaws drop and gain recognition from my superiors. Like only an immature 19-year-old speed-obsessed teenager in an Eminem and testosterone-induced perma-trance could, I wanted to rub my nameless spikes on a seldom frequented East-Coast track and set the damn world on fire. It did not matter who cared. I romanticized the craft too much to notice that most people probably didn't.
I wanted so badly to get faster that I probably wished it into existence. Soon, things started clicking. By my arbitrary standards, I was fulfilling my promise - I was starting to make it. A few months removed from that small surgery, I won a conference bronze medal. Then silvers, then I finished my time at St. FX with gold. Our team won championships, our group travelled the country for road, cross and track races. I beat Cal's PB. He beat mine. Neuffer crushed both of us, we crushed him back. I beat Riley for the first time. I beat Lee for the first time. Angus came in and beat me for the first time. Scott stayed for a fifth year and raised us to his level. I chose to move to Windsor to keep running. There were new personal bests. I ran on Hayward Field. I chased Nick Falk on grass, on dirt, on pure hate. I came back to PEI for the summer, by then having run faster on the track than any Islander before me. I won road races at the Highland Games. I saw Luc, a runner from my hometown whom I helped coach make his first strides at St. FX. I wrote and published a book on our team's journey to the 2016 U Sports championship.
I love reminiscing on these moments, no matter how insignificant they may seem to whomever. Not because I want to boast - many would have much more to boast about anyway - but because they are rewarding to me. Lately, I have been inclined to reminisce, because the memory of these moments has been my crutch.
Immediately following a fun weekend of racing at the Antigonish Highland Games in early July, I gradually descended from a rarely-interrupted three-and a-half-year-long high. Now three months into a knee injury, I was told there is bone degeneration on my left patella. I am not surprised, as my knee hurts to walk on. The development of pain was insidious, and crept up on me so discreetly that I don't think I could have been more diligent in trying to catch it. According to the doctor I am working with, the healing potential for this kind of injury, like its best treatment option, is unknown. Tomorrow, I am being given a PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injection to stimulate healing. If it does not work, I might have to opt for something more invasive.
These last few months have been difficult. It's not so much the time missed, as it is the uncertainty about my return timeline that keeps me up sometimes. Hobbling the Windsor campus without answers just weeks since I excelled here makes the setting sobering and dystopian. The possibility that I will not run again - that I will not feel high again - scares me, and brings tough questions to mind: If I do not make a comeback, have I wasted all this time trying to make the unmakable? Have I lost years of my life in vain? Should I have quit years ago?
For four years, I elected running as the focal point of my life. I needed nothing else. Running with the X-Men (and now the Lancers) has pushed me to chase academic degrees. I found a social life during runs, team suppers and the odd after-party. I cultivated business relationships through the sport, and used running as a vehicle to develop other interests and passions I now have. My sport enabled my growth in multiple directions. I needed nothing else. At 23, I am convinced I still don't.
I now think that we never fully make it in running, but running makes us a bit more every time we get out the door. I've been incredibly lucky to stay healthy and grow within this sport over these last four years. Without health, I would not have gotten here. Not even close. I would not be writing, I would not be in a Master's program, I would not have the friends I have, and I probably would not be happy. So, regardless of what's next, how could I regret that rage-fuelled stubborn decision to blindly chase running that 19-year-old me stubbornly and miraculously nailed? I can't.
I am 23, and for the first time in my life, I am facing a career-threatening injury. Stuart overcame one. Myriam overcame one. They are beatable. They have to be, because I cannot stop here. I want to chase more track times. I want to wear the Maple Leaf. I want to move to the roads. Maybe become a Roadhammer. Maybe progress to the marathon. I want to meet up with the boys when I'm fifty-three and tired from my day job and get my creaky but healthy joints out the door. On some level, by chance and circumstance, I've been made. But, I want to be made more. I don't want to be done. I don't want to be done.
I’m quivering. From the cold, I think. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just my rapid breathing that is making my chest twitch almost rhythmically. Either way, I’m beat, mangled. I can open my eyes, but not for long. Long enough to feel the wind on my eyeballs – a continuously present wind – that my somatosensory receptors have selectively ignored for over half an hour now.I cover my eyes to shield them. My hands are pulsing, but so is my forehead. They synchronize and throb together as I roll over to my backside, face still twisted in complete agony.
The Plains of Abraham have not seen such a spectacle for 258 years, buthistory has a weird way of repeating itself. The battle for land, between the French and the English, turned soldiers against each other. Multiple clans, fighting for the same purpose – to extinguish the opponent – depleted their resources, so much so that it was difficult to distinguish the winners from the losers. The line was blurred. Everyone looked the same. Teams were broken down to their purest forms – handfuls of individuals – sprawled out on the battlefield, waiting to learn if their self-sacrifice was worthwhile. Waiting to know if their self-sacrifice was honest enough. Today is not much different.
Here I am, a French-Canadian lying lifelessly, soon listlessly. I’m Montcalm reincarnate. Defeated on the Plains, a heaping pile of war residue. Next to me lies Wolfe, – no, Dewolfe – equally as trashed. We’re unsure of who crossed the finish line before us. We have no idea what’s happened behind. I think Bernie is close by, and the look on his face would be telltale. Too bad I can’t get up. Too bad I can’t see.
I need something – food, maybe. Water…something to make my stomach stop turning. My homeostatic levels are severely threatened from all angles. I feel empty in more ways than one. But there will be a banquet – there will be drinks. We will soon feel alive again. Sustenance is not an issue. I need reassurance. I need comfort so direly that I pick my arms up from the ground and use them as support to push my body up into a sad Vinyasa pose.
I open my eyes, and look at Cal Dewolfe, sitting with his head between his knees – beat, distraught, confused. Thank God he is close. I would surely collapse under the weight of my chest and blood-filled head in seconds. I open my dry mouth, knowing that the moment will unveil the value – the significance – of these last months, of these last years. This moment of clarity and truth will be the one I remember. I sacrificed countless hours for this mid-November moment to be a good one. Hoping that he knows better, I turn towards my lanky training partner, roommate, friend, and rival and hope – wish – for some good news.
“How’d we do?”
Find out what happens next.
Wishing you all a great cross country season
This is the reaction I get from most people when I tell them about this project:
A book? Like, a novel? Cool! ...why?
It all started with a blog. When my coach Bernie Chisholm suggested I keep writing about my experiences with the X-Men and write a chronicle of our last cross-country season together in 2016, I took the idea and ran with it. It was the perfect project. Writing about something so real and fresh in my mind would be an ideal gateway into storytelling.
To my delight, as the XC season grew older and I advanced in this project, I realized that, indeed, we were living a story worth being told. Our time at St. FX was special. The team, the coach, the culture, the synergy... hell (Ferg voice), the Zeitgeist. I don't know if it could ever be perfectly replicated. I don't know if it can be perfectly captured. But, I tried my very best.
Runners of the Nish: A Season in the Sun, Rain, Hail and Hell is about a few things. Most prominently, it is about the 2016 edition of the St. FX X-Men and our quest for national success at the CIS championship. It is also the story of how a team of contrasting characters came together and worked to put their differences and individual aspirations aside to function as a team. As well, it is about our coach Bernie Chisholm's last appearance at the CIS championship with a full team of men. It's about running, it's about facing adversity, it's about St. FX, it's about the odds game, it's about how we got lost during a long run in the states, it's about secret dates, rookie parties and possible eventualities... it's about some of our best memories wearing the blue and white.
This project was never about business or sales, but I have taken steps to endorse and advertise it. I want to make it fully visible, so that it can be shared with anybody who is interested in reading it because, obviously, I think our story is great. Obviously, I am biased as hell.
I plan to make regular posts on a blog on www.runnersofthenish.com about the adventures I live as a new author. Some of the content may be informative, some of it may make you laugh with me, and some of it may make you laugh at me. The truth is that I am learning as I go, but I am enjoying and embracing the role of rookie in this industry.
I started writing about our journey to the CIS championship with no clear destination in mind, so I suppose it is appropriate to release this work into the world with no other set goals than to enjoy the ride and to share this story with all you running nerds. You are the best kind of people.
Thanks for reading,
Website - www.runnersofthenish.com
riting an article about "advanced runners to-do list before they retire." list?
Alex Cyr is a competitive runner, Master's candidate, freelance writer, and author of Runners of the Nish.