I need to update you on Rhonda-Marie Avery, the legally blind runner who is attempting to run the length of the 889 km Bruce Trail. I recently wrote about her in another post.
As I write these words, Rhonda-Marie is 72 km from completing her incredible journey. She will run 50 of those kilometers today, and the rest tomorrow.
I was one of her guide-runners again yesterday. We were on the trail for 13 hours. We ran from Hamilton to Beamsville. Somewhere along the way, Rhonda-Marie sprained her ankle. She didn’t yelp or cry out. I didn’t even know it had happened.
There’s no stopping her though. After she’d had some food and a bit of rest, she started running again.
Here’s what she posted on Facebook this morning:
“Waking up in spasms of pain from a sprained ankle yesterday. Trying to be still. Today I will hobble, walk, shuffle towards the finish. But nevertheless, today I will move. Relentless forward movement. And a single hope of not disappointing the world, hangs in the air.”
Right now, at 8:30 a.m. Friday August 22, Rhonda-Marie is running somewhere in the hills above Beamsville. She will finish her day near Brock University, in St. Catharines.
If you can, go out to the trail and cheer her on. You will hear her coming. She will be singing 80’s rock songs, possibly off-key. REO Speedwagon’s ‘Take it on the Run.” “Blister in the Sun” by Violent Femmes. And of course, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
And guess what. YOU are invited to join Rhonda-Marie for the final 5 km of her odyssey tomorrow (Saturday August 23rd). Rhonda-Marie is hoping that all sorts of people – especially people with disabilities – will come out to walk the final stretch. REPEAT: This will be a celebratory walk,not a run. You’re invited to meet at Firemen’s Park in Niagara Falls at noon for the final hike to Queenston Heights.
There will be tears, Advil and a LOT of laughs. And when Rhonda-Marie finally reaches the end of the trail, she will kiss the final cairn, and peel off her shoes and socks for the delight of all.
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?
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-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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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:
Okay Dave, up and at ’em. You’ve got a novel to write. Stop checking Twitter, Instagram, your twelve e-mail accounts, the only good excuse not to write is to CALL YOUR PARENTS, and you connected with them yesterday so that excuse is gone too. WRITE!
Sure, you’ve laid down the beams and struts of your second novel, but it’s not done yet, so you’ve got to GET WRITING! You finished the last draft in March, which means you’ve had 3 months to clear your head. Now you’ve got four precious weeks of holiday and you’ve got to make it count. WRITE!
Still lacking motivation? Think about this. All that crap you spout when you’re signing books for kids? All those motivational messages you scribble on the inside flap? All that: Dig deep / Never give up / Keep chasing your dreams / You can do it! hyperbole... Listen: It’s all true. You can do it. But only if you WRITE!
Sure thing. Will do. But! Can I just say that, um, re-writing a novel in the first person, when it was previously in the 3rd person, is, um, HARD! It feels like I’m running a lawn mower over my feet again and again and again. Every time I sit down at the desktop I feel grenades of panic detonating in my spleen. Yes, I squeezed out a novel before, but that must have been a fluke, right? There’s NO POSSIBLE WAY I can do it again.
It feels like someone wove bicycle spokes into my veins. It feels like I’m on a crazy game show where I have to run through a medieval castle populated by ax-bearing zombies.
Dig deep, Dave. Count backwards from ten. Ten, nine, eight seven… Hey – how about a run?
As usual, running saves me. When I run, new ideas flash though my mind, funny lines of dialogue scorch themselves on my hippocampus.
I’ve logged 100 miles since I arrived here 5 days ago. I run for hours up and down 500-foot hills and I drink aggressively coloured carbonated drinks that dye my tongue appalling shades of turquoise.
I’ve been meaning to add in some night runs but, well, there are a lot more coyotes out here in these parts than usual. Every night we hear packs of them howling in our forest. They’re inevitably tearing apart some poor animal, and it sounds like a kindergarten class is being disemboweled.
Sometimes, when I’m writing, I feel like that animal being torn apart. But other times, when the writing is going well, I feel like the coyote, with delicious flesh between my teeth.
You’ve got to be fearless! Creating art is always a bloodletting. I think of this as I strap on my headlamp and step outside. Only two people in North America have ever been killed by coyotes. Unfortunately, one of them was a writer.
I have lots of running heroes. And almost all of them are women.
There’s one: Laura Perry, from Ottawa.
A couple of years ago, Laura was running a 100-mile race near Haliburton, Ontario. It was early in the race. She’d run maybe 20 miles, when she suddenly met a black bear on the trail.
This happens from time to time in these races. And Laura knew what she had to do. She yelled at the bear to scare it away. But instead of running away, the bear began walking towards her.
This was bizarre. Black bears are typically scared of humans. Usually they’ll bolt if you so much as sneeze.
Laura hollered at the bear, but it refused to back down. When it got too close for comfort, Laura lay down on the trail and played dead. The bear came right up to her and started sniffing her shoes. It walked around and around her curled-up body. It poked her back and arms with its snout.
Finally the animal got bored and walked away. It lumbered down the trail, and disappeared into the woods.
Terrifying, right? If that had been me, I would have dropped out of the race right then and there. But Laura didn’t drop out. Instead, she jumped to her feet and started running. And 16 hours later, she won the 100-mile race.
(By the way, Laura told me later that the bear smelled horrible: a combo of rotten cucumber and vomit and wet dog!)
Anyway, I love sharing this story with kids in schools. Some girls have found Laura’s bravery so inspiring, they’ve drawn pictures of her little encounter on the trail:
I should mention that Laura recently won another 100-mile race – setting a new course record at the Sulphur Springs Trail Run. Laura finished in a blistering time of 17 hours and 48 minutes. Happily, she didn’t run into any bears that time around.
Anyway, all this to say, if YOU are going hiking or running in bear country, be sure to go with a friend, and make lots of NOISE. Give those bears plenty of time to get out of your way. Better yet, check with the local park warden if the area is safe for runners and hikers. You don’t want this to happen to you: (WARNING: Language alert!)
The other day I drove down to Niagara. A local school had invited me to join them in a fun-run.
Actually, it was a charity run for cancer research. Which should have made it un-fun. Except it wasn’t.
More than 12,000 people laced up for the 5k course. I met my team in the field beside the Welland Canal. They gave me a T-shirt that said WESTMOUNT TEAM ULTRA on the back. Yes, there’s now a running team named after my novel!
Select members of Westmount School’s “Team Ultra”
Fifteen minutes before the race, the kids dragged me over to the stage for a Zoomba warm-up.
“What’s Zoomba?” I asked.
“It’s hard to explain,” said the girls.
I still don’t know what Zoomba is, but it’s LOUD and there’s DANCING, and it’s, like, THE BEST THING EVER! Somewhere out there in Internetland, there’s a video of me doing Zoomba. When you see it, you shall know that I AM THE ZOOMBA MASTER!
When the Zoomba ended, I assumed the race would start. But instead, a little girl in a wheelchair was given a microphone. She was maybe 7 years old. She told the crowd how, a couple of years ago, she started having headaches and dizzy spells. The doctors discovered cancer in her brain and quickly operated and gave her six months of chemotherapy. Then the doctors did another operation to remove more cancer and then there was another round of chemo.
I know this isn’t much fun to hear, and it wasn’t much fun to listen to either. Of course, as hard as it was to listen to, I’m sure it was much, much harder for her.
This brave little girl sat in her wheelchair and explained to 12,000 runners how she grew weak from the chemotherapy and had to use a wheelchair to get around. Then she took off her red hat and cried, “And I lost all my hair!”
I was crying now and everyone around me was crying too, and I was glad that we’d done that Zoomba business first, because we certainly weren’t in the mood for it now. And I thought, this is why we are running this race: to drop-kick this stupid! bloody! disease! into the filthy Welland Canal!
After the little girl finished her speech, everyone started moving toward the starting line. The teacher who’d invited me to run the race pulled an orange card out her pocket and wrote the word “Mom” on it.
“What’s that?” I said.
“It’s who you’re running for,” she said. She pinned the card to the shoulder of my t-shirt.
I smiled. My Mom had cancer more than a decade ago. She’s now 12+ years, cancer free.
The race began. I ran with a group of kids from Westmount School, many of whom had orange cards pinned to their t-shirts too. As we ran we talked about the people we were running for, and of course, we talked a lot about books.
“Why do some people have orange shirts?” I asked suddenly.
Most of the runners were wearing white t-shirts, but here and there, I saw people dressed in orange.
“They’re the cancer survivors,” a grade five student answered.
We ran out to lock 3 and then turned around and came back. We passed a 900-foot freighter along the way. Some of the sailors looked down from the bridge and waved.
We finished the race strong, with a time of 37:30.
Of course, I’m used to running 100-mile races, which are 32 times longer than a 5k race. So I said goodbye to that first group of kids and headed back onto the course. Eventually I caught up with more Team Ultra kids. These students were walking, and they were fans of my book, so we walked and chatted, and they gave me some excellent suggestions for my second novel.
This time, we finished the race in 1:26:36. It was the first time I’ve ever finished the same race twice!
* * *
After the barbecue and the goodbyes and the hugs I drove out to Short Hills Provincial Park. I was energised from all the conversations I’d had with the kids, and I still felt the need to do some running. So I pounded myself, running up and down those spiky hills, and splashing through thigh-deep mud-slicks. At the end of my run I was way too mucky to get in the car, so I jumped into a fast-moving river to rinse myself off. A huge water snake darted between my legs. I shrieked with terror, then started to laugh. I thought about how lucky I was to be standing there, in a healthy body, snakes and all. And I sent that little girl in the wheelchair a whispered prayer of support.
My novel Ultra doesn’t have any pictures. But that doesn’t stop readers from drawing their own.
Here are some illustrations, drawn by kids, based on scenes in the book.
As you may or may not know, Ultra is about a 13 year-old boy, named Quinn, who enters a 100-mile footrace. Quinn runs all day and all night through a rugged forest. His little brother Ollie cheers him on, mostly over the phone.
Quinn has all sorts of crazy adventures during his 24-hour run. He sees hallucinations, meets crazy people, runs up and down mountains, and encounters extreme weather. He even has a run-in with a bear:
As he runs, Quinn thinks about his family, who he misses. He begins to think that he’ll never see them again, and that he’ll never finish this crazy race.
At midnight, after running for 18 hours, he arrives at the magical 75-mile rest station. There’s a disco ball hanging from a tree.
The disco ball gives him power and strength. So does the Krazy Glue on his feet (don’t ask)!
Eventually Quinn reaches the finish line. But does he beat the evil Dirt Eater? Is his family there to cheer him on? And why did he run this crazy race in the first place?
You’ll have to read the book to find out!
Thanks to the brilliant artists at St. Bridget’s School in Brooklin, Ontario for these amazing pictures. You all deserve a belt buckle!
The best thing about writing a book is you get to meet all sorts of inspiring people.
You are looking at a real-life superhero.
I don’t mean me. I’m talking about the young man I’m hugging. His name is Nathan Duke, and he introduced me at the Silver Birch Book Awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago.
I don’t know how often you speak to an audience of 2000+ people, but I never do. Man, I was scared! My stomach felt like it was full of frogs.
Nathan, on the other hand, was totally calm. He breezed up to the microphone and started chatting with that audience as if he was Jimmy Fallon. He’d written a funny speech about how I wasn’t athletic when I was a kid, and how I’d never dreamed that I could write a book. As he spoke, I thought to myself, He’s the real writer, not me!
After Nathan said my name, I was so humbled and impressed, I jumped up and gave him a big hug. Let’s take another look at that picture, shall we?
That is probably my favourite picture in the world. Me hugging one of Canada’s most gifted young orators. One day, I hope to return Nathan’s favour. I can’t wait to introduce him when his book gets nominated for an award!
* * *
Here’s another inspirational person:
Her name is Paige Marchant. She came up to say hello to me after I gave a presentation at her school. Her last name sounded familiar, so I said, “Did you know there’s a famous marathoner named Marchant?”
“I know,” said Paige. “She’s my aunt.”
Lanni Marchant is Canada’s fastest female marathoner. Last October she set a new Canadian record, running the marathon in a blistering time of 2:28:00.
“Lanni Marchant is your aunt?” I gasped.
Paige nodded. I knelt down on the floor and shook her hand. It felt like I was touching royalty. I was.
I was standing on a stage, speaking to 5000 screaming kids. When I suddenly decided I needed to go for a run.
I should explain. I was at the Forest of Reading’s annual Festival of Trees. The Festival of Trees is a huge literary amusement park, where kids get to hang out with their favourite authors and illustrators, take part in workshops, and basically get jazzed about books. One of the highlights is the announcement of the highly-coveted Silver Birch Award. Kids get keyed up about this award because they’re the ones who choose the winner. Any student who has read five of the ten nominated books gets the honour of casting a vote.
My book was lucky enough to get nominated. That’s why I was standing on that stage. Major thrill. If you’re worried that reading is going the way of High School Musical, you can relax. Those kids screamed for us authors as if we were One Direction.
Each author was given 90 seconds to speak, and when my turn came, I began saying something super boring, about how reading is really good for your brain and you should really make friends with your local librarian because they’ll introduce you to new worlds of wonder and blah blah blah blah blah.
Seriously. I was more boring than watching your computer defrag. So I suddenly jumped off the stage and started running.
Here’s the thing. When I jumped off that stage, the aisles were completely clear. I figured I could do a quick lap around the audience, high-fiving kids all the way. Of course, the moment those kids figured out what I was up to, they swarmed into the aisles to say hello. This slowed my progress considerably.
There was another glitch. When I picked up speed on the return trip down the centre aisle, I noticed that the stage was surrounded by a fence. Good thing I’ve been doing lots of lunges lately. I vaulted over that fence, leapfrogged a stack of amplifiers, and made it back to the microphone in less than 30 seconds.
It was the shortest – and happiest – run of my life. When I sat back down, I barely even felt out of breath. And even though my book didn’t win (that honour went to the woman on my right – Robin Stevenson – for her soulful novel, Record Breaker), I spent the rest of the day walking two inches above the ground.
Hmmm. Maybe that’s how I got over that stage fence so easily. I wasn’t running at all. I was floating.