Community Class is in Session: Lyndsay Tessier on the Olympics, and Back to...

    Class is in Session: Lyndsay Tessier on the Olympics, and Back to School

    Lyndsay Tessier, a teacher and Canadian long-distance runner who represented Canada at the 2019 World Athletics Championships, poses for a portrait near in High Park in Toronto, Friday August 21, 2020. Photographs by Tyler Anderson

    Lynsday Tessier doesn’t want you to call her “elite.” She doesn’t even really want you to refer to her as a “runner” first. “I’m a school teacher,” she says proudly. “I’m a runner, I suppose, but it’s a distant second for me.”

    Considering she’s the national master’s record holder in the marathon, and her 2:30:47 PB ranks her 12th fastest Canadian woman of all-time, the 42-year-old’s running story is surprisingly short. Tessier only started running about nine years ago. “My first race was a local 5K, and I was wearing a pair of those Lululemon yoga pants — the ones that belled out at the cuff,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh. She thinks she finished in around 22 minutes, which surprised even her, as it felt freeing. Her friends encouraged the Toronto-based elementary school teacher to continue exploring her ability, and she quickly unlocked a long-hidden potential — little did she know it was Olympic-calibre talent. Since she started focusing more seriously on training in her late 30’s, Tessier has gone from running a surprising 2:54 to a shocking 2:45, to a 2:36—which everyone assumed was her limit—to 2:30, as a 41-year-old. 

    After smashing the 40+ national record at the 2018 Berlin Marathon, Tessier was selected to represent Canada at last year’s World Championships in Doha, Qatar. The race was situated in the desert, and started at midnight local time with the temperature floating around 40 C — it was as if the event was designed to see runners spectacularly fail. But Tessier and her coach Steve Boyd saw all these obstacles as her path to yet another breakthrough. 

    Tessier’s training up until that point had been magical. “I met her for a two hour, forty-five minute long run and we ended up running 42.2K — a perfect marathon — basically breaking my PB,” says Marco Li, a 38-year-old school teacher who is one of the few people Tessier regularly runs with. “She loves just putting her head down and does the work, and is quiet about it,” he says, pointing out that she’s methodical, patient and always focused on the bigger picture.

    Three weeks before Doha, Tessier drove up to Kingston, Ont., where Boyd lives, for her last big workout — 25K at marathon pace. She ran a hilly gravel 5K loop on her own, with Boyd handing her water bottles. “I had to slow her down at one point because she was running 3:28/km,” says Boyd. “She was in 2:26-27 shape going in.

    After that workout I thought, ‘Anything is Possible,’ here.

    Leading up to the World Championships, Tessier watched Diamond League races, the top track events in the world. “I remember thinking, ‘How am I going to compete against some of these people in a month’s time?’” she says. “It’s like being a hockey player in a house league — you don’t think you’ll ever be in the NHL. I’m not trying to sound humble, it just wasn’t on my radar at all until it suddenly was.”

    Tessier and Boyd devised a race plan that meant checking her ego and giving up about 15 seconds per kilometre from what she felt she could run in ideal conditions. In the first loop of the course, she was nearly dead last. By the end of the race, she’d passed nearly the entire field of world-class runners, finishing ninth overall. Her performance meant she qualified for consideration to be selected for the Tokyo Olympics. Of course, all that has been put in a holding pattern since the onset of the pandemic.

    Instead, Tessier’s next challenge will be getting back to the classroom and doing what she does best — shaping the minds of her Grade 3 students.

    A Change of Plans

    During this year’s school March break, Tessier was supposed to travel to Flagstaff, Ariz. for a training camp. The World Health Organization declared the global COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic on the day of her flight. 

    “The days leading up to going were excruciating because I was getting cold feet; my fear was that if I went I’d have to quarantine when I got back and wouldn’t be able to teach,” she says. She decided to stay put in Toronto and wait to see how the situation evolved. “We got the message that we weren’t going to come back from March break for two weeks, and that’s when the weight of the world came crashing down on us as teachers, as that just doesn’t happen,” Tessier says. “It was scary at that point.”

    Ontario teachers had a week to learn an online platform, and Tessier turned her living room into an e-learning production studio. “I’m teaching kids to read, not technology,” she says. “They don’t even know how to type, right? They don’t have keyboard skills.” Tessier says that 95% of her teaching is dependent on social interaction with the children. “I can see by their body language and their reaction,” she says. “Now I have no idea how they are receiving the work, if they have any questions or confusion.”

    As Tessier struggled to get a grasp on how to guide her students, Canada pulled out of the Olympics, then the organizers were forced to postpone the Games in Tokyo until 2021. That meant that her running, which has always functioned as an outlet and source joy and release, entered into a strange holding pattern as well. 

    “When my confidence in teaching took a hit, my running suffered as well,” she says she now realizes.

    Much of my identity is built upon the success I have in the classroom. I wasn’t feeling confident or strong — actually weak — and I felt weak in running. My morale was low. Running became very, very secondary when my professional life blew up.

    Tessier’s inner dialogue became negative. “Runs became really onerous and difficult,” she says, “and I don’t even mean workouts—even easy runs.”

    Some of her students were struggling, handing in work at all hours. She became completely preoccupied by this, and her work-life balance blurred. “I’d find myself on the computer for hours each morning starting at 5 a.m., and my runs would drift into these odd times in the day, and I’d feel guilty every time I was out for a run,” she says. “I resented that I had to get out for a run when I felt that I should be back doing my job. There became no beginning, middle or end of the day. There was no division.”

    Tessier says that by mid-April, she didn’t feel like a runner anymore while she attempted to train for an Olympic spot that may never come to fruition. “I felt like a teacher who was playing hooky.”

    Tessier stil did every run, but says she didn’t enjoy it. “That’s a big part of running for me — actually enjoying it.” 

    She feared that a spark within her had died.

    Rediscovering Running and Embracing the New Normal

    She held at 130K weeks, quietly suffering through exhausting 90-minute runs. It’s a volume that Tessier previously found is very manageable when she isn’t trying to peak for a big race. By May, she started feeling good about her daily lessons, which she produced with an iPhone and props from the Dollar Store, like a DIY animation studio. The kids began to respond and became more comfortable with the flow of the program. It was then that she got her love of running back. “I gave myself permission to be a runner again,” she admits. “Creating boundaries is huge and not easy to do, especially with children.”

    As far as the Olympics go, Tessier is currently qualified for Tokyo, but there are three Canadian women ahead of her — Malindi Elmore, Rachel Cliff, and Dayna Pidhoresky — holding down the available spots on the team.  “I am going to let each runner’s story unfold the way it was going to,” she says of her zen approach and decision to forego trying to run yet another marathon before next summer’s Games.

    “I like to chase, but I don’t like to force — I thought that trying to squeeze in a marathon after trying to train through a Canadian winter, in the midst of teaching, which is always a really busy period with report cards coming out in March, I felt like it would have been really forced. I thought I would let Doha speak for itself and let it be whatever it will be. I placed top 10 at the World Championships. So I just decided I’d stay fit and be ready, just in case any other runner isn’t able to go.”

    School Ties

    Tessier opted not to participate in any virtual races during the pandemic. She uses a Garmin to track her effort with each run, but is not a fan of Strava, so she’s mostly kept to herself, both for safety’s sake, and because it allows her to run on her own terms. She says she’s also going to wait until big city races are able to safely take place once again before she goes all-out in a run, and feels a responsibility to stay as safe as possible as she re-enters the classroom.

    “I’m really excited to get back to school, and I don’t know a single teacher who would prefer to teach online,” she says of her desire to get back in the classroom this fall. “But it needs to be safe. There’s a little bit of apprehension going back, knowing that we are being treated as a bit of an experiment — as guinea pigs. But I’m really hopeful that we will establish a new normal. If there’s one thing March to June taught me is that the teachers, parents and children are very resilient. It seemed pretty hopeless in the beginning, but we ended up figuring it out and making it work. I’m hoping that the same will apply in September.”

    She knows that anything can happen in the immediate future, and she’s trying her best to be her best, and be ready.  And, as far as running goes, she’s realistically optimistic. “I know that one day soon I’ll look down at my watch in a marathon and I’ll see that number I want to see. It is going to happen,” she says. “Until then, I’ll stay in a holding pattern. That’s fine by me.”

    Photographs by Tyler Anderson.