A Running Start: Why Your First Race Matters. By Amy Friel

A Running Start: Why Your First Race Matters. 

Here’s something nobody told me when I was younger: the moments that change your life don’t happen all at once. They happen in stages, in bits and pieces, in tiny shifts so imperceptible that often you never know the significance of these moments until they’ve long passed.

On September 22nd 2012, at the behest of an enthusiastic runner friend of mine, I ran the Oasis ZooRun 10K. I didn’t know it at the time, but that first race four years ago would change my life forever.

As races go, it’s a far cry from my most impressive time. But even after running my Boston Qualifier last fall, this first race remains my proudest. I struggled just to finish – but finish I did, thanks, in no small part, to the help and support of my friend and pacer, Chris.

That first race, tough as it was, gave me the confidence to push towards increasingly ambitious goals, both on and off the roads. It taught me about my own ability to persevere through the tough stuff. More than that, it taught me about the tremendous value of friendship and camaraderie in times of struggle. Without Chris, I would never have made it to the finish line. Without Chris, I doubt I would have had the guts to start.

Running might appear to be a straightforward pastime, but from the outside looking in, the sport can be daunting. Taking on your first road race takes dedication, perseverance, and above all, courage – qualities that are difficult to call upon in the best of times, and even more so when you’re going it alone.

So when Toronto-based runner, cyclist, and yogi Heather Gardner founded Tribe Fitness in 2013, she aimed to make the process just a little bit easier. Pairing novice runners up with seasoned running mentors, Tribe established a popular and highly successful Learn To Run program. This year, the Tribe newbies have their sights set on the upcoming Race Roster Spring Run-Off in High Park – for most of them, their first-ever road race.

Lisa O'Donoghue Tribe

“It is a compete anomaly for me,” says Lisa O’Donoghue, who began running with the group in January of this year. “I generally hate exercise, and I’ve never done any sport consistently.”

A newcomer to the city, Lisa moved to Toronto in August of last year from County Kerry, Ireland. She had been toying with the idea of beginning to run when the Tribe group whizzed past her one evening last December. Drawn in by their cheerful, social vibe, she decided to give it a try, and quickly found herself in the heart of the city’s tight-knit running scene.

“It gives a completely different sense of community than any place that I’ve lived previously,” she says. “All the people that I’ve met, I’ve really, really liked. I think it’s such a nice, salt-of-the-earth, genuine group of people.”

This warm sense of community is also what drew Violeta Hernandez to Tribe’s Learn To Run program this winter. Violeta was a track runner in high school, but had since stopped competing. Now a busy mother of two young children, she felt the need to make a change.

“The last couple years have been hectic,” she explains. “I needed an escape. It was a pretty dark time in my life. So I sat down with my Dad and was like, something has to change.”

JP and VioletaVioleta is close with her father, JP Hernandez, perhaps best known as the Dark Knight Runner – the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon’s resident Batman. JP has been deeply involved in the Toronto running community for some time now. So when he introduced his daughter to the Learn To Run group, Violeta immediately felt like one of the tribe.

“It feels like a family,” she says. “One week I was sick, I wasn’t able to make it to Tribe, and I had just met this lady, literally two weeks ago. She noticed that I wasn’t there that day, and she gave my dad soup to bring to me and the kids. It was just really touching, that someone thought about me.”

For Lisa, too, the Learn To Run group has offered so much more than just a training regimen. “It’s that accountability thing,” she explains. “Because if I don’t show up, people will miss me.”

Confident in their training, and eager for the challenge, both Violeta and Lisa have opted for the longer 8K Spring Run-Off course. “I know that I’ve done the training, so I’m not that worried about my ability,” Lisa explains. “I have minor trepidation about the hill at the end, but apart from that, I’m actually quite excited.”

For my part, “minor trepidation” feels like a bit of an understatement. Perhaps I’ve spent a little too much time swapping war stories with my fellow Torontonian runners, but that final climb up Spring Hill Road has been growing steadily steeper in my mind’s eye as race day draws nearer. Can I do this? Am I ready? Whose idea was this, anyway?

(Oh right. Mine.)

In the face of any new challenge, it’s easy to count yourself out. It takes courage to bet on yourself, on your own strength and ability, especially in the face of an uncertain outcome. Which is precisely why groups like Tribe are so important. Because sometimes we need a little help from those around us before we can see just how strong and capable we truly are.

I wasn’t prepared to bet on myself in my first race four years ago. But my friend Chris was. He helped me to believe that I belonged there, and that despite all my doubts, I was, in fact, a runner.

It may not have been my fastest race, but it’s the race that changed my life forever. Even if I didn’t know it at the time.

Join Amy, Lisa and Violeta at the Race Roster Spring Run-Off this Saturday April 9th! Walk-up registrations are still available. Click here for more info. 

All photo credits: Tribe Fitness.

Amy Friel (@AmyFrii) is a Toronto-based freelance writer, two-time marathoner, and unabashed running geek. As a Digital Champion for the 2015 Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, Amy had a taste of the city’s vibrant running community – and hasn’t been able to stop writing about it since. Her work has been featured in iRun magazine, the Globe and Mail, as well as on her blog thelongslowdistance.com