Death to the Left!

There are a lot of ways to die on the Bruce Trail. There are rattlesnakes and bears. There are yawning crevasses. There are a billion slabs of jagged limestone, all waiting to split a runner’s head wide open.

Perfect place for a blind woman, right?

RM being pensive

Rhonda-Marie Avery claims she was completely sober when she decided to run the 885 km Bruce Trail from end to end.

She was minding her own business, drinking a cup of tea, when she heard a news story about a guy who’d set a new world record. Cody Gillies of Orangeville, Ontario, had run the trail in just twelve-and-a-half days.

And Rhonda thought, yeah so?

“I mean, he was twenty-nothing,” she says. “He was young and fit, no disabilities, a fire-fighter. Of course he’s going to set a new world record. What’s so impressive about that?”

As she drank that cup of orange pekoe tea, Rhonda-Marie decided to one-up the fire-fighter. Not only would she run the trail from end-to-end. She’d do it with only 8% vision.

Cody Gillies (the fire-fighter) and Rhonda-Marie

Cody Gillies (the fire-fighting, BT world-record holder) and Rhonda-Marie

Rhonda-Marie was born with a rare genetic eye disorder called achromatopsia, which means she has no cones in her retina.

“She sees better in the dark than in the light,” says Don Kuzenko; captain of Rhonda-Marie’s support crew. “You know how well you can see in the dark? That’s what RMA can see, which obviously isn’t much. In the daylight it’s worse. Imaging a floodlight shining in your eyes on the morning of a bad hangover. All you can see are bleary blobs and shapes.”

Five years ago, when Rhonda-Marie was first getting into running, she met with a group called Achilles Canada. Achilles paired her up with guide runners, and taught her how to run safely. Now Rhonda-Marie is returning the favour. This summer’s run is all about raising funds and awareness for Achilles.

bruceTrailMap

Rhonda-Marie began her run 12 days ago in Tobermory, Ontario. She’s running south to Niagara Falls. If all goes well, she’ll complete her run at noon on Saturday August 23rd. She’s right on track so far, having run more than 500 km.

RM & guide

Given her disability, RMA enlisted 50 volunteers (a minimum of 2 per day for each of 20 days) to help “guide” her on her run. I was a guide on days 6 and 7. This is what I sounded like:

“Rock. Root. Rock right. Rock salad. Toe grabber. Ankle-grabber. Limb-eater. Okay, take three steps up! Now two steps down onto flat soil. Thread the needle! Dinosaur steps!”

This language was developed collaboratively by Rhonda and her guides. It continues to grow and evolve. Recently, the term “gnocchi” was added to the lexicon. It means large, rounded, piles of rock. “Mashed potatoes” means muddy trail. “Scalloped potatoes” is mud with rocks and roots thrown in. A “chicken head” is a root sticking straight up. “Cheese Grater” is a pile of pitted limestone.

When the trail opens up and becomes smooth enough for running, that is called butterscotch pudding.  

The most important phrase of all is “death to the left!” That gets used whenever oblivion comes within inches of the trail.

death to the left 2

Rhonda-Marie’s crew spent three days at my cabin near the Beaver Valley. It was like a friendly army had invaded. Don Kuzenko and Rhonda-Marie were there, plus a documentary film crew, led by filmmaker Lisa Lightbourn-Lay. Two volunteer guides appeared each day. Plus, assorted friends and family popped in and out. Most importantly, Scott Garrett, Rhonda-Marie’s partner was there. Scott helped cook meals and kept Rhonda-Marie laughing.

“Day seven!” Rhonda-Marie cried. “I’ll take Crazy Person Goals for 600, Alex. What’s 900 km long and a foot and a half wide and can make a grown woman’s toenails bleed? Oh yeah, that’s right, the Bruce Trail!”

Death on the left

Day Seven was tough. The team covered 42 km in brutal heat and full sun. One section of the trail was closed for maintenance, so we had to make a 4 km detour. 4 km may not sound like much, but on some stretches of this rugged trail, fully-sighted people are lucky to average 2 km/h. That little 4 km detour added 2 hours to Rhonda-Marie’s day.

“Look at it this way,” said Cody Gillies, who was also guiding that day. “The Bruce Trail is now 889 km long, not 885 like it was back when I ran it. So thirteen days from now, when you finish this thing, you’ll own the new record for the fastest end-to-end trip, on the longer trail.”

It was a brilliant thing to say, given Rhonda-Marie’s ebbing spirits. Generous too, considering the record she’d be eclipsing was his own.

“You can keep your title,” Rhonda-Marie said. “I’d rather have two extra hours sleep.”

RM nutrition break

Sleep has been the biggest challenge so far. Rhonda-Marie’s daily runs are averaging 12-13 hours. When you add in meal breaks, travel time to and from the trail-heads, stretching, planning the next day’s route and meetings with the next day’s guides, she’s left with only 4 or 5 hours of sleep per night. And it’s a splintered sleep, since her muscles keep twitching after running all day long.

Then there’s the pain. Rhonda’s feet are getting battered. Her knees are swollen. She takes ice baths each evening and tapes her legs every morning. I try to imagine what the pain must feel like. My best guess: giving birth to triplets while simultaneously having a root canal while your kitchen is being renovated and is going way over budget.

Rhonda-Marie, me, Shawna

Rhonda-Marie, me, Shawna

But then there are the great moments.

At the end of Saturday’s run, the crew headed back to the house. The shower was going non-stop. Rancid-smelling trail shoes littered the mudroom. The laundry room was a sea of toxic waste. For the first time on the tour, the whole crew ate together. Rhonda-Marie was in a good mood. Her partner Scott was there and so was Cody Gillies. There was a mountain of food: 10 pounds of vegetarian and non-vegetarian lasagna, veggie burgers, spring rolls, garlic bread, a colossal salad. For dessert, vanilla ice cream was scooped into bowls. Rhonda added Wow Butter and pumpkin and sunflower seeds to hers. Candy sprinkles too.

RM ice cream

There were toasts and laughter and afterwards, hugs. Then, bit by bit, the house slipped into silence. Don was the last to go to bed, studying maps until the wee hours and making the next day’s bacon-and-cheese sandwiches.

At 3:30 am everyone was awake again, toasting bagels and filling hydration bladders. By 4:15 the motorcade was pulling onto dark country roads, and snaking its way back towards the trail-head. The moon was a huge red eyeball in the sky. I checked my phone and read Rhonda-Marie’s facebook status: “Never felt more loved,” she’d written. “Or more completely alone.”

RM typical bruce trail

As I write this, Rhonda-Marie is somewhere near Singhampton 30 km north of Mono Centre, Ontario. She has run more than 550 km.

I believe she will successfully complete this run. But she still has eight days to go. Eight days full of pain, sleep deprivation, and guide runners who Rhonda-Marie may or may not have run with before, and whom she must entrust with her life.

You can follow Rhonda-Marie’s journey here.

If you wish, you can make a pledge of support at GoFundMe. Money raised goes to support Achilles Canada, which connects disabled athletes with volunteers. Rhonda’s phone vibrates whenever someone makes a pledge. It totally boosts her spirits on the trail. I’ve seen it happen.

Finally, Rhonda did a trail-side interview with CBC’s Mary Ito on Day 7. I make a short appearance as well. You can listen to it here:

2 thoughts on “Death to the Left!

  1. David – this is a very touching blog post. I am in awe with what she has already achieved – and still going. WOW.
    I have tried twice to donate via the link you provided … and it hangs on credit card transactions.

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