Monday, June 28, 2010

The running diva

Marilyn Arsenault discovered she was a world-class runner later in life.

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
July/August, 2010

The runners walked the course before the event, following a sandy path looping around a hill covered in dirt and scrub. A steep but short climb with a quick descent was followed by a long, steady rise that all knew would be excruciating.

“Bloody hell,” thought Marilyn Arensault. She had traveled halfway across the globe to Jordan for the biggest race of her life and she was not entirely sure she would be able to finish without collapsing.

Much of the route was stony and hard, except for the lowest level. Rains created patches of slick mud, a treacherous hazard. The course had been carved from alongside a nine-hole golf course in which the main feature was sand, and not just in traps. The scrubby moonscape offered one small oasis — a strip of grass placed at the finish line like a carpet. At least if she finished she would do so on turf.

Five Canadian women qualified for the world championship cross-country race at Amman last year. All but one were in their 20s, the prime of an athlete’s life.

Arsenault came late to running. She played other sports, did her studies, settled in Victoria.

Most remarkably of all, she was 41.

Not so old in real-life terms. Ancient for someone make her debut on the running world’s stage.

Arsenault is known as The Running Diva. The nickname refers not to prima-donna behaviour, but rather to her career as a lyric soprano. She has sung as Clotilda in “Norma,” Chocholka in “The Cunning Little Vixen,” and Papagena in “The Magic Flute” for Pacific Opera Victoria. During the day, she works as an administrative officer for the political science department at the University of Victoria.

The 5-foot-3, 110-pound (1.6 metre, 49.9-kilogram) dynamo squeezes her training regimen between a full workday and daily vocal exercises.

At any age, it takes dedication to maintain fitness. Arsenault’s typical week is chockablock with running sessions and workouts. She begins the week with a 75-minute run on Monday morning, followed by a 30-minute evening run. Does a workout with intervals (sprinting, jogging, sprinting) on Tuesday mornings. No running on Wednesday. A two-hour run on Thursday. Fridays are like Mondays. If not competing, Saturdays include workouts with hard intervals. Sunday, the supposed day of rest, includes 90 minutes of running.

Believe it or not, she does not mind the routine. “We have so many beautiful trails,” she said. “Most of my runs feel pretty terrific just because of the environment I’m in. It’s rare to have a run where I fell I don’t want to be out there. We’re pretty lucky to be living here.”

Our temperate weather and glorious vistas, combined with the capital region’s never-too-old mentality has encouraged many of us to return to the sports we loved as children. Several Canadian Olympic programs have established their training centres here — the rowers, the divers, the swimmers, the mountain bikers, the triathletes. They are served by coaches and trainers, creating a pool of talent in a city in which many older athletes find support for their midlife exertions.

Sarah Macdonald, a lawyer, had been a competitive swimmer through her teenage years, even swimming for Simon Fraser University at age 18. But she gave up the pool only to return after her daughters began swimming. Soon, she began setting masters world records for her age group in such hotly contested disciplines as the 50- and 100-metre freestyle, as well as the 100-metre individual medley.

Sandra Froher, a fitness trainer who operates Muscle Lines, began her career as a competitive bodybuilder in 1980. After almost three decades of competition, she continues to win titles. At Las Vegas last August, she placed fourth in the category of Bikini Divas, won two other categories, and was named Overall Ms. Figure at the International Flex Appeal championships.

In the Times Colonist 10K race this spring, Maurice Tarrant completed the waterfront route in 47 minutes, 58 seconds, breasting the finish line three minutes ahead of his son. His 48-year-old son. Tarrant is 80. While he was finishing, one 50-year-old magazine writer was huffing and puffing somewhere about three kilometres behind.

We are leaner, fitter, and active in Victoria, where we not only enjoy the facilities on offer at Saanich Commonwealth Place (the same pool used by world-class athletes) but are blessed with several spectacular running routes. No wonder so many of us work so hard in midlife. Jogging the Dallas Road waterfront is less a chore than a delight.

The Running Diva finds a midlife sporting career creates less angst than she might have experienced earlier in her life.

“I come to the sport with a different attitude than a 20-year-old who might be more anxious at getting results. Because it’s their identity. For me, it still feels like an extra thing I do. I mean, it’s important to me, but I know I’m not going anywhere further. I’m not going to the Olympics.”

She returned to running while studying vocal performance at McGill University in Montreal. A friend’s husband, Malcolm Balk, wanted her to try a body-awareness program known as the Alexander Technique as a runner. “I ran recreationally, for fun, but he decided to use me as a guinea pig to teach me to run with good technique,” she said. “He tried to teach me to run with a better form.” She soon discovered she had “an aerobic talent,” honed, no doubt, by her breathing technique while singing. After moving to Victoria in 2003, she joined the Island Road Racers.

She got a coach in Jon Brown, a British-born Olympic marathoner who now lives in Victoria. In short order, she shaved minutes from her times. Running inspired her in much the same way music did.

“It instills a deep sense of self and confidence. You’re alone doing it. Its not a team sport. You have to rely on your inner strength and confidence.

In a few years, she went from novice to serious challenger to the varsity team at the University of Victoria. Frankly, she was old enough to be the mother of some of her teammates.

Arsenault’s appointment schedule has been filled with races. In April, she raced the Carlsbad 5000 (“World’s Fastest 5K”) in California, finishing as top masters woman, taking home a $1,000 US purse. The following weekend, she contested the Canadian Half-Marathon Championships, finishing as the top female master and fourth overall among women to claim a total of $1,200 in prizes.

Her goal for this year is to contest her first marathon. She’s got her eye on the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in September.

“A lot of older athletes are showing us we can keep improving longer than we thought,” she said.

The world championship proved to be a test unlike any other. The downhill and level sections were not long enough for her to recover from the arduous climbs. She felt her breathing was off. She knew she was in trouble. She even walked for a brief stretch, which is not the way to contest any race, let alone the world championship. A passing teammate tapped her on the shoulder, encouragement to keep going. She knew she was not going to win, but she also did not want to finish in last place. Now, she was struggling just to complete the course, avoiding the humiliation of not finishing.

Near the end, she spotted a teammates collapsed across the course. She hurdled over the sprawled figure, like a steeplechase runner.

Minutes later, her feet touched grass. She had finished. Her ranking: a humbling 81st. Not first, but not last. Not bad for 41.

No comments: