Back in August, I spent three days ‘guide running’ for Rhonda-Marie Avery; a legally blind runner who successfully ran Ontario’s 900 kilometer Bruce Trail, from end to end.
A documentary film crew followed Rhonda-Marie every step of the way – for twenty days. That documentary will be released later this year, but here’s a sneak peek of what happened on the trail. At this point in the story, Rhonda Marie has run 780 km.
You can see eleven other ‘previews’ of the film, capturing all sorts of hijinx and heartbreak and, yes, twisted ankles. Just go here.
Back in the fall, my publisher mentioned they’d be “interested” in seeing my new novel – provided I finished writing it by the end of the year.
Unfortunately, by the end of November, I’d only written 30,000 words. I needed to write 20,000 more – FAST! So I booked a week off work, and ran away to this cabin to write.
I didn’t speak to anyone, didn’t play Super Mario Brothers, and didn’t watch a single cat video. All I did was write. And occasionally run. For nine straight days. It was…intense.
The view out the window
December 3: I’ve been here for three days, and I’m not sure how productive I’ve been. In terms of page totals, I have nothing to brag about. The first couple of days were consumed with organizational stuff – mapping out the chapters, going through old drafts, harvesting descriptive passages for re-use, blah blah blah. Boring, but necessary.
Kai called yesterday. He asked if my characters are surprising me with their words and actions. I think I disappointed him by saying no. My characters aren’t very clear to me yet. I’m not sure what motivates them. I don’t even know what kind of music they like. Hiphop or Christian metal? Shoegaze or bro-country? Until I nail that stuff down, they can’t possibly speak for themselves, never mind set out on an unexpected murder spree.
4 December. I’ve been at the cabin for 4 days. I’ve only squeezed out 14 pages so far, and by no means are they polished pages. On the bright side, 10 of those pages were written in the last 24 hours, and I expect to continue writing at that clip (10 pages / day) until I return to Toronto Sunday night. I’m still hopeful that I’ll break the 160-page barrier while I’m here.
On the running front. things are great. I knocked off an icy 28k tempo run today in 2 hours 20 minutes. Didn’t even raise a sweat. Saw a beaver in a swamp at the side of the road.
5 December: Ideas are flowing now; literally tumbling out of my mind, one after the other. One of my characters did something I totally wasn’t expecting! I need to call Kai and tell him. I love it when that happens!
At the end of the day I went for a three hour run. It was cold and icy and I ran straight into the sunset. Later, sitting cross-legged on a cushion for 45 minutes, I felt my mind go quiet, and I thought: I do not want this day to end.I want tomorrow to be just like today, I want to write another 6000 brilliant words.
It won’t happen, of course. Tomorrows are never like todays. I need to be okay with that.
6 December: Another solid day of writing. Churned out 14 pages, including a soulful chapter involving Finn, and Tab, and a guitar. Basically, I was writing about my old friend, Christopher Lailey, who invented Wikepedia (without knowing it) when I lived with him in Ottawa in 1989.
So now I’ve written 29 pages in 5 days and I expect I’ll tie off at least another 5 pages tomorrow. That’ll take me up to the climax of the story when the storm hits and Finn runs away to the floating island.
11 December: Back in Toronto. I’ve been feeling gloomy lately. I’m still working on this crazy novel, every spare moment I can find, and I’ve become the most boring, least fun person in the world. All I do is write. Every. Single. Moment. I’ve forgotten how to joke around or have fun. I am a fun vacuum. It seems like forever since I’ve laughed or even smiled. I keep ignoring invitations to Christmas parties. I don’t even know how to speak to people anymore. I just mutter-mutter-mutter-mutter-blah-blah novel.
I don’t like myself this way. I don’t want to be a fun vacuum. I want to be the opposite. I want to be a fun...forced air gas furnace? A fun…leaf blower? Yes, that’s it. I want to be a fun leaf blower. I want to blow joyful leaves all over the place.
18 December: Got an encouraging note from a young friend. I met Luka at a school visit this past fall, and he took a picture of me, and photo-shopped me into the Sahara desert. I’ve always wanted to run in Africa, so thanks Luka, for making another of my running dreams come true!
23 December: I need to start my Christmas shopping, but I’m having trouble taming three sections of the book: Pages 125-132, pages 156-163, and pages 180-188. The rest is fairly smooth sailing. But I need those time-travel sections to hold together. Without them, the novel will crumble to pieces like that dry vegan cheese that doesn’t taste very good. Okay, that’s a bad metaphor. But you know what I mean.
25 December: It’s Christmas morning, and yes, I’m still working on this book. Chapter 14 is a total wreck, and I need to start laying track for the final 3 chapters. Will I finish this thing in time? I have one week left.
1 January 2015: I finished the novel yesterday, so yay. It’s 212 pages / 58,500 words.
I have no idea if it’s any good or not. I cried while I wrote the ending, so I’m hoping that’s a good sign. It might just have been the exhaustion though.
The chapters that take place in the magical land of Perpetuum still need to be sanded down or amplified or…something. I’m not sure what. I need time away from it. Later on, things will be clearer, and I’ll start in on the rewrites with a fresh mind.
There, I just sent it off. Mission accomplished. I don’t care what happens to it now. I just don’t care.
Post script: Last night (New Year’s Eve), me and Shawna drove to Collingwood for a party. The weather was appalling: freezing rain, white-out conditions. Biblical stuff. As we passed over the Blue Mountains, slipping and sliding through the Siberian landscape, I thought to myself; what if we spin out, what if we get sandwiched by a truck or smash into a hydro pole? My novel will never be read by anyone! It’s locked on my laptop and nobody knows where it is. All that work will have been wasted!
I drove the rest of the way at 15 km/h. I swear. Writers are so vain.
Writing a novel is hard. Have I mentioned this? Writing a novel is like running up a mountain of razor blades in an Antarctic blizzard while wearing high-cut Richard Simmons shorts and a pair of barefoot toe-shoes.
I was reminded of this particular brand of anguish these last couple of months. See, back in the summer, when I was younger and happier and the birds sang more sweetly, and my house hadn’t yet begun leaking and needing $87,452 in repairs, yes, back in those halcyon days, I sat down and wrote the first 70 pages of a new novel.
It was an innocent time, and the words flowed like honey, like an Iggy Azalea song really, and my potential publisher was encouraging about the direction of the project. Not so encouraging that they offered me a book contract. It was far too early for that. Still, they were warmly supportive, and they offered lots of feedback and guidance, which is, frankly, more than I deserve.
Anyway. I asked this esteemed publisher a very important question. If they did, potentially, one day, wind up publishing the book,when might it theoretically appear in book stores?
Potentially next fall, came the answer.
And if that were to happen, I went on, when would you need the full manuscript?
The publisher sat me down on a comfortable chair, and then said one word: Christmas.
NOTE: At that time of this conversation, Christmas was 58 days away. The novel was not even half written.
No problem, I said.
Seriously? the publisher said.
No problem, I repeated. I work best with a deadline.
So it began. I had 58 days to write half a novel. I determined that I would somehow accomplish this, in spite of having a full-time job and (more importantly) a full-time relationship.
NOTE: If you harbour any dreams of becoming a writer, you may want to STOP READING THIS BLOG NOW. The following journal entries detail some personal thoughts from the 58 most exhausting, most infuriating, most miserable and most euphoric days of my life.
9 November: Wrote all weekend. Like, every single moment from Friday night until now. Every 20 minutes my opinion of the book changed. It’s awesome! It’s a crap sandwich! It’s awesome! It’s a crap sandwich!
I hate the names of all my characters. I want to change them. Possible new names: Paz, Kap, Coley, Philly, Saba, Sab, Constant, Paquette, Skyforce (a dog)
* * *
20 November: Ermagherd it’s cold. I have to work upstairs because the main floor of this doofusy house is so frigid. I just sent chapters 10-14 to my trusted reader. Just to see if I’m on the right track. The novel is currently 113 pages, 33000 words. I just need to write another 20,000 words, or roughly 80 pages, in the next 35 days.
* * *
28 November: I heard back from my trusted reader. She had questions about the floating island section of the novel. Not questions. Problems. Yes, I think it’s fair to say she had problems with that section of the book. Basically, she was confused by the time-stopping business. She didn’t understand how it works. Admittedly, I’m not sure how it works either. I’m an artist, not a physicist. I’ve been putting off dealing with the mechanics of this issue.
Anyway, I read her email a few times, and then I threw a bunch of plates on the ground, and then I phoned Jian Ghomeshi and hung up on him (that’ll teach him!), and then I did some quick brainstorming, and came up with a handful of elegant solutions.
I called my trusted reader and told her that I agreed with everything in her note.
I need to make some hard decisions, I said.
I do not need those glimmer lines, I said.
Finn does not need to be parachuted into some alternate reality when he’s already in a perfectly good alternate reality, I said.
Why pile complication upon complication, I said?
Why give Finn X-Ray vision when normal vision will do?
I need to simplify, I said.
I’m going now, I said. I need to write.
30 November: Drove out to the Dundas Valley today. Ran 33k on trails under gorgeous blue skies. I should have spent the day writing, but I needed this, needed to drop a pain bomb on my quads and glutes and calves. One needs to live.
The valley was more beautiful than I’d remembered. I ran for nearly four hours, up and down zillions of hills. I barely even felt them. I can’t account for this. I haven’t done much training lately.
When I got home, I felt inspired, and hammered out 4000 words. A few of them were good words too. I figure that, for every page that gets published in a book, I need to write 20 pages of crap. It’s a 20: 1 ratio; like maple syrup. Therefore, a 200 page novel actually requires 4000 pages of writing.
Here’s a thought:
With running, success comes from mileage. That is to say, if you bank enough miles, you’ll run a fast race.
I think the same is true of writing. If you read enough good books, and write enough words, eventually you’ll compose something of value.
I’ve booked the week after next off work entirely. I’m going to run away to the cabin by myself and write for 9 days straight.
When people learn that I run 100-mile races, they sometimes say, “Whoa, extreme.”
It’s not that extreme, really. Yes, I lose toenails from time to time, and I once lost my ability to taste food (pizza, chocolate cake, even Coke all tasted as bland as sand). But that’s the weirdest side-effect I’ve experienced.
It’s not like I race down the side of a mountain on a bike:
This eye-popping urban bike race takes place on the ancient streets of Valparaiso, Chile. Riders have to deal with brain-melting jumps, flights of stairs, and even, as you’ll notice at the 37 second mark, stray dogs.
I’ve been watching tons of these videos lately, since I’m writing a novel about a kid who spends all his spare time mountain biking.
But recently I’ve been thinking about changing the plot of the book – thanks to this video I saw about wingsuit jumping. Did you know that there are people who jump off mountainsides wearing plastic wing-suits? They look a bit like flying squirrels. Except they fly at 125 mph.
For every foot they travel down, they also travel one foot out. A typical flight lasts 10 seconds, and ends with a parachute being deployed.
Then, 400 layoffs were announced. And there was much hyperventilating. And long lineups to cry in the disability washroom.
And then a trusted friend responded to the latest re-write of my manuscript with a weary and muffled “Well, it’s not all bad.”
Yeah, it was the worst week of ever. And me and Shawna ran away to the cabin in the woods and it snowed grey and heavy like a dirty old bath-towel. It was the first day of November, you understand. We still had 143 days left to go until Spring.
Now, we all experience bad weeks from time to time. And it’s perfectly natural to get bummed out. As Shawna reminds me, “It’s okay to feel sad. Honour that sadness. But then move on.”
That’s the tricky bit, isn’t it? The moving on. At a certain point, no matter how badly you’ve been clobbered, you need to peel yourself off the ground and head back out into the world.
Anyway, I’m happy to report that I did indeed manage to turn my frown upside down. Thanks to a young friend named Leonardo.
Leonardo is nine. He was reading my novel, Ultra. And he wrote me an e-mail because he was upset with me.
In my novel, there’s a character named Kneecap. Kneecap is the hero’s best friend. One day Kneecap tells the hero that he ought to have his own superhero catchphrase, since he’s a super fast runner. “All superheroes have catchphrases,” Kneecap says. “Buzz Lightyear says, To Infinity and Beyond! The Hulk says It’s Clobbering Time.”
That’s what I wrote in the book. But I was wrong – as Leonardo pointed out.
I don’t know how I could have made that mistake. The Hulk is green and wears ripped-up shorts. The Thing is orange and wears a diaper. Totally different.
Over the weekend, I did a lot of research on the subject, watching a bunch of Hulk and Fantastic Four movies. That pulled me out of my funk, alright.
So I would like to thank Leonardo not only for being so committed to the use of exclamation marks, which I find inspiring, but also for cheering me up when it was desperately needed. You might think his stinging rebuke would have brought me down. Instead, it did the opposite.
“Correct it, friend!”
I shall indeed. I hereby wish to offer Leonardo and all Ultra readers an unreserved apology for mixing up my superheroes, and I pledge that I will read one or maybe two books on superheroes so that, in future, I will get my facts straight.
Are you scared to let your friends read your writing? Do you live in fear of being told, ‘You’re no good?’
You’re not alone.
My first novel came out last year, but before that, I was constantly getting told that I sucked:
That rejection letter came in response to a very stinky novel I wrote in the early 1990’s. Nowadays it’s clear to me why it got rejected. It was more boring than following a bunch of rug-hookers on Pinterest.
All the same, I was DEVASTATED by that note. How could the Arsenal Pulp Press people be so cruel?
That one sentence: “Unfortunately we aren’t interested in seeing the rest.” Ouch!
I could have stopped writing right then. I sure wanted to. I wanted to lie down on the couch and inhale a bag of barbecue chips and never, ever pick up my laptop again.
But I didn’t. Instead, I kept writing. And when I finished my next short story or novel, I sent it out too, and got another rejection back.
I started to keep a collection of my rejections. The stack of letters grew until it was thicker than a phone book.
But here’s the thing. Rejection letters don’t make you a failure. They make you TOUGH. They make you stronger!
Rejection letters are like a dare. They’re daring you to work harder and become a kick-ass author.
Don’t let the rejections get you down. Yes, they sting, but they’re making you stronger. Hold them closely to your chest. Don’t give up. The finish line is out there – somewhere.
Sometimes I don’t know what to make of this crazy sport. Why we’re drawn to take part in such an extreme activity.
Blisters, fractures, torn ligaments, twisted ankles, dehydration, hypothermia, renal failure… Sounds like a fun weekend, right?
We could join a book club. Take tango lessons. Help out in a soup kitchen.
But no. We run through a forest for 24 hours. A forest crawling with bears and wolves and bone-grinding hills.
This year, I promised myself I’d run Haliburton for fun. Not to podium, Not to P.B., not to beat some random number on a clock. Of course, when I learned, after 35 miles, that I was running 4th, something primal went CLICK inside my brain.
Me, after 57 miles
Suddenly I HAD to maintain that position! It seemed the most important thing in the world.
Palestine/Israel? Don’t waste my time.
Melting ice caps? Sorry; can’t hear you!
4th place – now THAT’S worth fighting for!
It always shocks me, how self-absorbed I become on the trail. I turn into this weird creature. A strange animal.
Trail races can be frustrating because it’s impossible to see your closest competitor. They could be ten kilometers behind you, or they might be 100 paces back. There’s no way of knowing. The only thing you can do is run as fast as you can.
I ran hard through the afternoon and banked some good mileage. Sunshine slanted through the trees, and then it got dark and I pulled on my tights and jacket and headlamp. At a certain point, my stomach gave out. I couldn’t get any food into me. Finally I realized my problem. I needed salt! I gobbled a bunch of e-caps and drank gallons of e-load, and a few minutes later my appetite returned. Suddenly I was ravenous! I snorfed down bananas, sweet potatoes, pressure-treated lumber, Uniroyal snow tires…
At 9 p.m. a full moon rose into the sky. It was blood orange at first, and then it turned white. Every time I looked up, it was in a different place. Wind blew through the trees. The forest felt haunted.
My favourite moment occurred at Aid Station #6. After force-feeding me some of his world-famous burritos, Gary Black turned to me and said, “So Dave, how do you feel about bears?”
A bear had been spotted nearby on the trail. I put on my brave pants and jogged back into the night, singing Katy Perry tunes at the top of my lungs.
An hour later, I stopped to pee. I was happy to be peeing. It meant my kidneys were still working.
Eventually I got to the 75-mile aid station. The volunteers cheered and banged cowbells and plied me with food. I was mostly animal now, but I still remembered some English, so I thanked them and gave the luckier ones a sweaty hug.
As I stood there chatting, I was reminded what makes this sport so great. Ultra-running is probably the only sport in the world where the participants are constantly told that they are awesome. It doesn’t happen in bowling. Probably doesn’t happen in the NFL either. But in ultra-running you hear it all the time. You are awesome.The volunteers kept saying it to me, God knows why. I’d done nothing to earn their praise. Quite the opposite. They were the awesome ones! They could’ve spent the day relaxing on a verandah with a book, but instead they were out here in the middle of a forest, being abused by cranky runners, filling water bottles and swabbing blisters and picking paper cups and sticky gel wrappers off the ground!
And then there were the ultra volunteers; the ones who’d sacrificed their entire vacations to make this race happen; the ones who’d planted 100 miles worth of flags, couriered supplies, negotiated sponsorships, and dealt with the finances. I’m talking about the Helen Malmbers and Don Kuzenkos and Gary Blacks and Merle Tubmans of the world. The people who sweat this race into being year after year. There are others, of course, and you know who are. Please know that your tireless work does not go unnoticed. You are awesome.
After the 75 mile aid station, the trail doubles back on itself, which means you get to pass the people behind you. After running 2 kilometers I passed my closest competitor, who was still on his way out to the turn-around.
‘You are awesome!’ he shouted as he flashed by.
“No, YOU’RE awesome!” I called back. And he truly is. A lovely guy.
It was a shame that I was going to have to crush him.
I thought about him often as I ran, and the fact that he was a mere 4 kilometers behind. It didn’t seem like much of a cushion, considering I still had 40 kilometers left to run. Every time I slowed down to walk up a hill, I imagined him bounding over the hills behind me like a gazelle. He was steadily gaining ground, I felt sure. That’s why I did what I did.
What did I do? Something I’m not proud of. At 3 a.m., and with five kilometers left to run, the animal inside me took control. I doused my headlamp and ran in the dark. It wasn’t easy, but the full moon helped, and the logging road was fairly smooth and easy to follow.
Why did I do this? So my pursuer wouldn’t see my light. If he saw my light, he’d be filled with hope, and doubtless would try to pass me. I couldn’t let that happen. I needed to extinguish all his hope. That’s right – I’m the hope-killer.
See that face? Looks friendly, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled. It’s the face of a beast.
Even though I’d been determined to run this race just for fun, I couldn’t, in the end, allow my pursuer to claim fourth place. To that end, I became conniving, fox-like. I truly did become a strange animal.
That’s the thing about the 100 mile race. You think it’s going to be an adventure. You think you’re going to Hogwarts or something. But when you get there, you find you’re in Mordor instead.
It’s not Disneyland out there; it’s Lord of the Flies.
That’s what makes the sport so great. After 30 miles, and mountains of pain, something goes CLICK inside your mind. You’re still human, and you’re awesome, but the animal is off its leash. It’s not something we get to see very often.
Here I am again, two days out. The Haliburton Forest 100-Mile race is less than 48 hours away.
I went shopping last night. Bought E-tabs, Wet-Ones, Bag Balm, batteries for the headlamp, gels, Clif bars, Advil, yams, energy drinks, fig newtons, yogurt-covered raisins…
Drop bags all packed
When I got home I packed my gear. Sleevies, compression shirts, windbreaker, fleece, long tights, toque, gloves, two pair of shorts. Rain is expected, so I packed extra shoes and socks. Body glide to help with chafing.
The race starts at 6 a.m. Saturday. By the time you’re eating breakfast, I’ll have run 15 miles. By the time you sit down to dinner, I’ll likely have run 50. When you go to bed, I’ll hopefully be closing in on 75.
Last year I broke 22 hours and placed third. It’s unlikely I’ll do so well this year. Frankly, I’d be thrilled to break 24 hours. That’s the closest thing I have to a goal.
So why am I running; if I don’t have a goal?
I want to leap off the on-ramp to my normal life and float around in a parallel universe of pain. I want to be reminded what it feels like to hurt. To feel photon torpedoes of agony rip through my quadriceps and calves. I want that woe-is-me feeling you get from grinding up Poachers Trail at 3 in the morning, when it’s pouring rain and blacker than charcoal, and wolves are howling in the forest to your right.
Some people go clubbing, others leak state secrets. Some folks join terrorist groups for fun.
Me, I like to run until it hurts. Until my muscles feel like steaks sizzling on a Hibachi.
364 days a year, I lead a quiet, contented life. But one night a year, I need to dig deep.
127 stiles, 1437 cliffs, one bear, dozens of snakes, 30,000+ feet of elevation gain, one twisted ankle.
And then this:
Rhonda-Marie Avery completed her end-to-end run of the Bruce Trail on Saturday afternoon, capping off one of Canada’s more extraordinary endurance runs.
That’s Don Kuzenko; Rhonda-Marie’s tour manager. For twenty days he lived out of a van and served as Rhonda-Marie’s chief medical officer, driver, personal chef, personal shopper, life coach and head cheerleader. That dude deserves the Order of Canada. He probably got less than 100 hours of sleep over those twenty days. And yet he got Rhonda-Marie to the finish line right on schedule.
That’s Cody Gillies; who holds the world record for the fastest end-to-end run of the Bruce Trail. According to Rhonda-Marie, it’s his fault she undertook this whole odyssey in the first place. During some of her darker moments on the trail, she referred to Cody as a “jerk.” Cody wasn’t remotely offended. Proof: he guided the Batgirl for five full days.
The final 500 metres
Dozens came out to cheer for Rhonda-Marie at the finish. Some even joined her for the final sprint.
Afterwards, there were tears, speeches, cake. Rhonda-Marie grabbed her three kids and wouldn’t let them go.
A Bruce Trail representative presented Rhonda-Marie with an end-to-end badge. The crowd cheered. Ronda-Marie sat down on the grass.
“Having a disability means you need to be good with acceptance,” she’d told me on the trail, a couple of days earlier. “And acceptance isn’t an easy road. It’s a crap trail full of rocks and roots. It’s worse than the Bruce.”
The sun streamed through the trees and danced in blobs on the ground. Speckled sunlight. For Rhonda-Marie, that’s the worst possible kind.
“There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do on my own,” she explained. “If I want to go running, I need to ask somebody to run with me. If I want to run on the Bruce Trail, I need to find someone who can drive me to the Bruce Trail and then run with me.”
She ate an apricot and took a sip of water. “There are a lot of downsides to having a disability,” she concluded, “But one of the positives is I’ll always be surrounded by community.”
You can be a part of that community. You can volunteer to be a guide runner here. Or you can make a pledge of support to Achilles Canada here.