The Vancouver Eastside 10 km race takes place 6 days from today.
Who would want to run on the Vancouver East streets? Whose idea was this? Idiots! Was my internal conversation when back in 2013, I received an invite via email to register for it. I dismissed the message, and all the ones following related to it, and continued on to my regular daily routines.
However, at the end of the 2014 Half-Marathon, I found myself conversing with an older lady that told me she had run hundreds of races in different cities, and that the Eastside 10k was her favourite. She picked my curiosity, and I went to check the results from such first race. Around 1,200 runners had run it. Not bad for a first edition, in fact, that number was very good.
What would make all these people register and run in such a neighbourhood? Would it be the discounted or low-cost fee and free shirt? Could it be something else?
Wikipedia: “The Downtown Eastside (DTES) is a neighbourhood in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The area, one of the city’s oldest, is notorious for its open-air drug trade, sex work, and high rates of poverty, mental illness, infectious disease, and crime. It is also known for its strong community resilience and history of social activism.”
It reminds me of places I’ve lived and been to, not always pleasant memories for sure.
The very first thing that came to mind when I visited the east side for the first time was Nogales. There is a Nogales, Arizona town which borders with Nogales, Sonora. The US Nogales is a small town which population could be around 20,000, while the one in Mexico is at least ten times that. Two cities with the same name divided by a fence. The contrast between the two you can imagine. The latter is the cause of my memories.
Every time I went to Nogales, I just wanted to complete the scope of work I was assigned, and then leave as soon as I could. Sometimes I had to stay there for days if not weeks, so I worked as many hours I could each and every day, trying to finish in the least amount of time possible.
I was young then, on my mid-twenties, and I felt very uncomfortable in such a miserable place: the city was built by the accumulation of generations of Mexicans and Central Americans whose intention was to cross the border searching for a better life. Some of those people could not go through, and therefore, unable to come back or go forward, were stuck in there. There was no good infrastructure of any kind, and due to geography one could easily get lost if not familiar with the streets. The core business and what really maintained the city was US “tourists”. The border area consisted of restaurants and many bars that were in reality strip clubs. These were full on Friday and Saturday nights, most of such tourists were not even legal age, yet you saw them from bar to bar putting dollars in the dancers’ minimal clothes, and buying cheap drugs, getting drunk, passing out, and going back to the US, DUI and all.
“You need to go to Drogales.” (Droga = Drug) Was the way my boss and everybody else referred to it.
Once, after a long workweek and realizing I would not be able to finish but until the next one, I decided I needed to do something to get fit, for I felt I was losing shape. If there were any schools with sports fields, or parks with trails, or any race tracks, nobody I asked knew of their existence. On Sunday morning, I put on my runners, a short, a sleeveless shirt (it’s always hot there) and headed out to run for about 5 or 6 km along the main street. The streets were deserted except for some people readying the restaurants Sunday breakfast when they knew lots of hungover guys would come looking for. Most of the other early risers were drunks still drinking, and very few train station workers.
It was a difficult run. The streets were very uneven and broken, lots of garbage littered the sidewalks and roads, and sometimes crates, garbage bins, broken bottles, and many other obstacles were in the way. Some people were confused, checking where I was going and then where I came from, not sure whether I was running away from something, or trying to catch perhaps an imaginary bus. I ignored the groups of drunks shouting me offences as if their way of life was normal and mine an aberration. One of those even stood up and “ran” with me for 50 meters or so, while mocking me about the length of my shorts, and the futility of my enterprise.
I blocked the noise and sights as best I could. Except, I noticed a small figure intently looking at me from the back of a pickup truck that had just passed me. I turned to meet his eyes, three times. He was in his late teens, and he looked like he wanted to ask me something, but did not dare. He stood up, opened his mouth and was ready to shout the question the last time I met his eyes again. He did not ask anything, the curved street and distance between us didn’t allow any more interaction.
I felt out of place in there. Once I got back to my room, I took a shower, had breakfast-lunch-dinner at once, read for the rest of the day, woke up early on Monday, and headed to work with the firm intention of finishing my work and leave the place for good as soon as possible.
So, because the old lady runner had said See you on the East Side, and because I wanted to experience it, I registered for the 2014 one, along with roughly 1,450 other runners. The participants number grew!
And there I was, footing the start line, hesitant to go through arguably the most dramatic neighbourhood in all of Canada. Except for the start/finish, there is only one kilometre of ‘nice’ streets in the race. Everything else is in fact, the East Side: garbage bags piling and overflowing the bins, syringes by the roadside, broken glass here and there, rotten odours, litter everywhere, and some onlookers still under the influence that look at us wondering what exactly we are doing, but somehow happy to see something different highlight their streets.
Last year -2015- and despite a downpour, we were more than 1,700 runners passing through such streets. Waving and smiling back at the people in line for charity-organized breakfast, thanking those that clapped and cheered us on, and (I’m sure) thinking about how good we runners have it, compared to all those individuals to whom life’s not smiled at as plentifully and often. We also think about whether we make a difference to those people by showing up and running on the Eastside. Do we inspire them? Do we make them feel that they too matter? Do we at least make one of their dull days better?
Will this year’s race bring close to 2,000 registrants? Will there be more East Side people watching us, clapping and/or smiling? I don’t know, but I hope so.
I don’t know the significance of the race. I don’t know if that one is better than, say, the 50,000+ people that participate in the Vancouver Sun Run, I don’t know if I, as an individual, contribute enough of positiveness of aiming for a healthy lifestyle for all. The more I think about it the more I’m convinced whatever we runners in general, and as individuals, do when participating in these events, is only constructive.
I felt proud when I finished my first Marathon back in 2001, I felt great when I ran 14 various different races within a year, I was happy when I finished my 9th consecutive Half a few months ago, and I’ve been elated by family and friends when they know my times, my streaks, my feats and all, and comment. All positive.
All of those emotions and feelings put in the mix and with perspective, is what makes me realize exactly what the question from that boy was all those years ago. Which I answered him right there with a facial and body expression: yes, it is worth it, and anybody can do it. Just lace up.
So, yes: my most significant race? 1 runner, around 1993, Nogales, Mexico.