Tuesday, May 3, 2011
Celebrating a life
"My legs are super tired, it's been a big week."
"You are in shape, and if you want to run fast, you will."
Those were my last words from Danny Kassap, expressed just minutes before the gun went off at the Sporting Life 10k on Sunday. They perfectly encapsulated the kind of positive and encouraging person he was. I learned from him that if you want to run fast, you - above all else - must believe that you can; work and train like you are the slowest, but believe that you are the best. He emulated this in his grueling and unforgiving training regime and ambitious goals, such as making the Olympic team for the marathon. If it were not for his tragic heart attack at the Berlin Marathon in 2008, I have no doubt he would have been able to achieve this goal and gone on to make Canada extremely proud.
Not that he hasn't already. In his relatively short time in Canada, Danny has affected and inspired the lives of countless runners. Before even being close to attaining his ultimate goal, he was already a hero to many after coming out of nowhere to win the Toronto Waterfront Marathon in 2004. This, three years after being separated from his family in the Congo, fleeing to Canada and working at a fish and chip shop to make ends meet. But this isn't why Danny's spirit is so engrained within our hearts - it was his sunny, energetic disposition, his benevolent heart, his youthful optimism and his passion for life - and above all running - that made him so memorable. His pure love of running meant he could identify with any level of athlete, whether you were an elite competitor or a recreational jogger. He was just as enthused about advising someone doing their first 5k as he was about learning to race the best in the world in the marathon. This is what made Danny such a special human being, and such a vibrant part of the running community.
Danny winning the Waterfront Marathon in 2004
If I know anyone with a truly genuine joie-de-vivre and generous heart, it would without a doubt be Danny. He had so little, but was willing to share everything. Whether it was personally delivering a pair of Nike Zoom milers to my husband - free of charge - so that he could race on fresh spikes, or making sure the Commerce Court Running Room always had a pair of size 10 Gel Cumulus' for 'Big Foot Coolis' over here, he continually went out of his way for the betterment of others. Not only that, but he did it in the most joyous way, as if he were doing himself a favour in the process. Given what he has had to endure in his life, I have always been incredulous of - and admired - his imperviously happy disposition. And it was infectious; when you were around Danny, it was impossible not to be in good spirits. I can't remember a single conversation with Danny where I wasn't smiling and laughing.
After Danny suffered a heart attack in 2008, his running would change forever. He was advised by doctors that he shouldn't train too hard and would not be able to attain the same level of running as he had in the past. This didn't stop Danny. Danny continued to do what he loved, and in many ways lived for; he continued to prance along the beltline in what seemed like effortless 5-minute miles, to come to road races and share in the fun and competition, and above all smile to every runner he came across. It didn't matter if he was unable to finish a race, if he ran slower than he had in the past, or was merely jogging by - he looked just as happy as he ever had. And he never once complained. It was obvious: he loved to run, and was grateful for every minute he could, no matter what the pace or outcome. Danny exemplified some of the most reverent of human attributes; kindness, determination, compassion, selflessness, modesty and unwaivering enthusiasm. Every time I run down the beltline trail in Toronto, I will remember his long stride and even wider smile and be reminded never to take the simple joy of running for granted.
With tired legs and an aching body on Sunday, I took Danny's advice, and believed I could run a personal best. I pushed all the excuses out of my head, and simply focused on running hard. I knew I would have to dig deep to make the legs go that day, and I did. The last 3k was a struggle but I kept telling myself to push harder and to catch the two women in front of me. When my pace began to slow, I surged, until I had passed them both and my legs were wobbling. I crossed the line in 35:43, 22s faster than last year and 4th overall. I was very happy with my time and placing given how I had been feeling that day and the days leading up to Sporting Life. As usual, the course was a treat, and I look forward to running it again next year on fresher legs - and now, with Danny's spirit in my heart.