A grade 8 student – the amazingly talented Abby – baked this cake based on my new book! That’s the magical land of Perpetuum on the right. She put the purple hills in there, and a little BMX bike, and Finn’s bike ramp, all made of sugar candy, and chocolate trees.
I love the attention to detail – especially the red bookmark that hangs down between the 2 pages. I bet that took HOURS.
I just about wept when I saw it. Who wants a book award when you can have a CAKE!
Abby couldn’t bear to slice into the cake when the other kids arrived for the “author mingle party,” and I couldn’t blame her, what with it being a work of art that deserves to be in the Louvre and all. Still, everyone was glaring at us with their paper plates and plastic forks scrunched up in their fists, so I turned to Abby and she nodded and then I took the knife and sliced into the cake. “Everything is impermanent,” I said.
The cake was delicious. Better even. It was a beacon of deliciousness.
A bit of a miracle really. Two years ago, after ‘Ultra’ was published, I didn’t have a single idea for a follow-up book.
But then I got a phone call. From this woman, Rhonda-Marie Avery:
Rhonda-Marie had read Ultra and liked it. But that wasn’t why she was calling. She’d looked up my bio and discovered that I run ultra-marathons. And she was hoping I could help her out…
Have you heard of the Bruce Trail? It’s a 900-kilometer footpath from Tobermory to Niagara Falls. It runs along the lip of the Niagara Escarpment, which is essentially a 450-million year old coral reef. It’s incredibly rugged. Home to rattlesnakes, bears, wolves and 100-metre cliffs.
Perfect place for a blind woman, right?
Rhonda-Marie was born with a rare genetic eye disorder called Achromatopsia, which means she has no cones in her retina.
She has only 8% vision. And she decided to run the length of the Bruce Trail – all 900 kilometers of it – to show the world what blind athletes are capable of.
To help her out, she found 50 volunteers from the ultra-running community to ‘guide’ her. I was one of those 50. And it was a fascinating experience. For twelve straight hours, I ran 5 feet in front of Rhonda-Marie, and ‘narrated’ the trail for her. The guide runners had developed this whole language – to help Rhonda-Marie ‘see’ the trail in her mind.
This is what we sounded like:
“Rock right. Root left. Rock salad. Toe grabber right. Ankle-grabber. Okay, take three steps up! We’re running through some scalloped potatoes now, Watch out for the cheese grater to the right. Thread the needle! Dinosaur steps!”
The most important phrase of all was “death to the left!”
We were travelling north to south on the trail, so the life-ending cliffs were always to our left.
Anyway, after 20 days of straight running, and 30,000 feet of elevation gain (basically the equivalent of Mount Everest), Rhonda-Marie reached the end of the trail.
The final 500 metres
She ran 900 kilometers on one of the world’s gnarliest trails – with only 8% vision!
I was so inspired by this!
But here’s the thing… I shouldn’t have been.
For the past 21 years I’ve been close friends…best friends… with this guy. His name is Kai Black. He’s an executive producer at CBC Radio. He and I created three national radio shows together.
Back when Kai was 15, he was diagnosed with a rare eye condition called Stargardt disease. By the time he turned 18, he’d lost virtually all of his central vision.
A healthy eyeball
A Stargardt eyeball
Kai is one of the most heroic and inspiring guys I’ve ever known. If you met him on the street, you wouldn’t notice anything unusual about him. Stargardt disease affects the central vision, but it leaves the peripheral vision intact. That means Kai has full mobility, doesn’t use a cane, gets around with little trouble, and sometimes even rides a bike. My brother and I have gone downhill skiing with Kai – zigzagging down black diamond runs at Whistler. My brother simply wore a brightly-coloured ski jacket, which was easy for Kai to see against the snow.
Kai and I have run races together too. This picture was taken moments after we crossed the finish line at the Boston marathon a few years back.
Anyway, I don’t know when it clicked. When I suddenly realized that I had a great idea for a second novel staring me in the face!
Finally I blurted out what I’d been thinking. I told Kai that I had an idea for a new book… And that it was inspired by…uh…him.
“It’s about a kid who gets diagnosed with Stargardt disease,” I told him. “And he’s worried about the future, and he keeps riding his bike even though it’s dangerous, because his bike is his life, and he can’t bear to give it up, because that bike represents his independence.”
Kai thought about it for a minute, and then he nodded and said, “Okay… But it sounds kinda boring. You’ll need some other plot devices to ratchet up the tension.”
So I went looking for a second bit of inspiration.
Do you remember this book? ‘Oranges and UFO’s’ by Muriel Leeson? I bought it out of the Scholastic catalogue in 1975. It’s about a group of kids who get abducted by aliens, and go off to Mars where they have crazy adventures. But here’s the thing: when the kids are on Mars, time stands still! They stay there for months, and when they finally come home, their parents don’t even know they’ve been away.
I loved that! So I merged that idea with my earlier idea – about the kid with the visual impairment. Now I had a main character who was losing his eyesight – only, I had him discover a magical place where time stands still.
I was so excited about this idea. I mentioned it to my editor, Sandy Bogart Johnston. Sandy got quiet for a moment. And then she said, “Are you absolutely sure you want to write magic?”
Early diagram of ‘Perpetuum’ – my land where time stands still.
It turns out writing magic isn’t easy. It’s like building a condo tower. You need architectural drawings, a solid foundation, lots of rebar that nobody ever sees but that holds everything together… Once you’ve got all that in place, then you can wave your magic wand and start having fun… But not before.
Lesson learned. We eventually got the time travel stuff figured out. And by we, I really mean my editor, Sandy.
And there’s the book! It’s in bookstores – and available online – now.
Of course, I never could’ve done it without my guides. Many thanks to Kai Black, Rhonda-Marie Avery, and especially my editor, Sandy Bogart Johnston.
This year’s Haliburton 50-miler shouldn’t have gone well. The previous two weeks had been insane, what with the launch of my new radio show, and the impending publication of my novel. I got 8 hours of sleep in the three days before the race. Also, I was being force-fed a bunch of life’s predictable crap sandwiches.
You know how it is: hidden icebergs of grief, bullet-holes in the drywall, gale-force winds.
Long story short: my head wasn’t in the game. Which is why, in the rush to catch my train, I forgot to pack my watch, salt pills and favourite shoes.
Doomed, I thought. I’m totally doomed.
Oh well. Might as well run the dang thing anyway.
Happily, Saturday morning, the conditions were perfect. Firm trails, and air so brisk you could see your breath. I went out waaaay too fast, but for some reason my body never crashed. Maybe because I ate a TON of food. Potatoes, bananas, gels, and uhhh Clif bars.
Now, I have a love-hate relationship with Clif bars. I hate it when I eat them, and I love puking them up.
Seriously – Clif bars are tougher to gag down than soggy woolen mittens. Sure, they have calories, but it’s like swallowing a Christmas sweater.
Luckily, at aid station 5, after trying to coax a third oatmeal-mohair bar down my throat, a fellow runner gifted me a packet of tangerine Gu chomps. Have you tried these chomps? OMG. It was like the Book of Genesis unfolding on my tongue.
The sugar flooded into my bloodstream and I started sproinging up the hills. Sproing! Sproing! Sproing! Sproing!
I bounded up hills I’d only walked before. I was a gazelle, a dik-dik, a Kangaroo Rat. The only hills I didn’t run were the diabolical three ‘sisters’ between Ben’s Trail and The Pass, and that 300-foot monster at the start of the King and James trail.
I had no right to be running this well. But sometimes runners get lucky, and wind up in Opposite Land. If you’ve been running for any length of time, you’ve probably been to Opposite Land. You train and plan meticulously for months, and yet, when race day comes, everything falls apart. Other times, even if you’ve been eating nothing but Pocky and crying your eyes out every night, you can still – for some inexplicable reason – exceed expectations.
Opposite land. That’s where I was. So I kept running hard. No part of my body complained.
I ran into old friends at aid stations and stopped for hugs. Those friends gave me more energy than a dozen boiled, salted potatoes.
“I miss you like whoa!”
“I miss you like whoa too!”
“I’d love to stay and chat, but-”
“Keep going! It’s a race!”
Shawna asked me what I thought about during this run. I told her I didn’t think about anything at all. Maybe my mind was too blasted from the radio show or the book or the drive-by shootings in my mind. Yes, it felt like the whole world was crashing down, but out here on this trail, I was in complete control. For nine hours, my whole existence was a dusty brown ribbon, two feet wide. It was that simple. Just keep running. Everything else will unfold as it should.
As usual, the trails were storybook pretty. Tree trunks as thick as elephant legs, and leaves that rattled in the breeze like twenty dollar bills. When I got to aid station 4, ten miles from the finish, I asked a volunteer for the time. I was delighted by her answer. I had a shot at breaking 9 hours. I ran on, and started to fantasize about the finish line. What would I do when I got there? Turn my usual pirouette? Do a couple of cartwheels? Or should I moonwalk? Hmmm.
In the end, I just leaned forward, and ran it in. My time was 9:02.
I know – pretty boring.
My parents were there, cheering wildly. And the moment I crossed the line, I realized my mistake.
Instead of racing straight across the fline, here’s what I should have done:
Abruptly stopped running – ten metres shy of the finish.
Walked over to the side of the road and hugged my parents.
Grabbed them by the hand.
Pulled them across the finish line beside me; all six of our hands raised high.
That’s what I should’ve done. Because all of my victories – deserved or not – are entirely thanks to them.
That’s what I learned from Opposite Land. Calories only push you so far. Heart pushes you further.
I ran the North Face Endurance Challenge the other day. A fifty mile race, up and down Blue Mountain, in 40 degree humidity.
It was a punishing course, on a punishingly hot day. 100 or so runners struggled up 800 feet of elevation gain in the very first kilometer. Stupidly, I forgot to take my salt pills, and by 2 p.m., after 9 hours of running, my mind had turned to oatmeal.
“May I please have a double ocean liner freeway paste?” I asked a volunteer at the aid station.
“I’m sorry?” he replied.
“I said, I want an ecclesiastical marzipan hope merchant on a tugboat—“
Inside my head, my little speech made sense. But for some reason, when it left my mouth, it came out mangled.
Suddenly I yanked in my breath. Someone was chopping away at my back with a pickaxe.
Wait a second – no. It was just cold water. The volunteer had poured a glass of ice-water down my shirt.
“That better?” he said, snapping his finger in front of my eyes.
My eyeballs narrowed into laser beams. Suddenly I was all-powerful and alert. I was the Millenium Falcon! I was a Kendrick Lamar song!
“Thank you very much,” I told the volunteer. “And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to run.”
I ran 11 more miles after that. The temperature spiked and the sun was unrelenting. Runners dropped all around me, from heat exhaustion, quad muscles torn to shreds, sneakers melted into gluey white puddles.
The entire time I kept asking myself, WHY? WHY do I do this stupid sport? Am I really so fond of the nausea and the knee pain and the medicinal taste you get in your mouth after sucking down 20-odd vanilla-flavoured gels and the sight of yet another 150 metre ski hill you must force your complaining kneecaps to ascend? For what possible purpose do I do this? Vanity? A trim belly? An uppity post on facebook?
Of course, my attitude changed when I got to the finish line. Shawna was there. She told me that she’d finished reading my new novel, and that it had made her cry, and that she loved it, just loved it.
Suddenly the race was forgotten. All the pain, all the nausea, all the self-loathing – GONE.
“Seriously,” she said. “It’s really good.”
It’s a weird feeling, when, after three long years, your book has finally been finished, and goes off to China to be printed. Your editor stops texting you hourly, and your agent moves on to the next in a long line of impatient writers, and you suddenly feel adrift. You can barely remember the anguish you felt, slugging through each of the book’s 240 pages. At times, it felt like the agony would never end.
Writing is a lot like running that way. It’s intensely painful while you’re out there, but once you cross the finish line, you just feel lost.
Sight Unseen comes out October 1st. You can pre-order your copy here.
(North Face Time-Exposure Photo credit: the awesome Kent Keeler.)
Instead, it’s about mountain biking. White-knuckle trail rides down vertical walls of rock. Stomach-twisting gap jumps and body-crushing endos.
Terrifying stuff. And guess who’s sitting in the saddle?
A kid named Finn. A kid who’s going blind.
Sound impossible? It’s actually not.
I know this because I have a friend who’s legally blind, and for many years he rode a bicycle through downtown Toronto’s busiest streets – even after he’d lost 90% of his vision.
Yes. A blind guy rode his bike through downtown Toronto. Not just once. He rode that bike for years.
I have another friend who ran the entire Bruce Trail – all 890 gnarly kilometers of it – in spite of having just 8% vision.
People with visual impairments have written hit records and climbed Mount Everest. One of them even served as President of the United States.
A healthy eyeball
I spared my protagonist a life in politics. instead, I made him passionate about mountain biking. And why not? I loved cycling when I was a kid. Of course, as I got older, I gave the sport up. I got more and more uh, what’s the word? Oh yeah – chicken.
The most common injuries among mountain bikers are (1) broken wrists, (2) broken collarbones and (3) broken ribs. For that reason, I have’t ridden a bike in years. I love running too much. Don’t want to risk getting injured.
Still, I love watching videos and reading about mountain biking. I’ll be keeping an eye on the goings-on at Crankworx next week. Speaking of which, here’s one of my all-time favourite videos. It centres around Brendan Semenuk; one of the best dirt jumpers in the world. As I was writing Sight Unseen, I watched this video over and over. My main character, Finn, dreams of landing some of the jumps Brandon does here. Finn is especially determined to do a ‘Superman No-Hander.’
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.
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.
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:
Did I mention that I’m notin Boston right now? That I’m not running the fabled marathon, on this, the most emotional of years?
I’m thinking of my friends who are running the race. Not least Rhonda-Marie Avery, who I’ve written about before, and who was on the course last year when the bombing happened.
My Boston experiences pale by comparison (thank goodness), but I do have some choice memories. I ran the 2008 race with my buddy Kai, who, like Rhonda-Marie, is blind. Kai had asked me to be his guide, but I don’t think I did a very good job. Thanks to me, he nearly did a face-plant on the infamous “Three Mile Island.”
“Buddy!” I shouted. “Veer left! Veer left!”
Three Mile Island is a cement protrusion in the middle of Route 135 near Ashland. If you’re running in the middle of the pack, or drafting behind another competitor, it’s easy to miss the warning signs and pilons. Half the runners go right and the other half go left. If you’re not careful, you’ll smack into the cement wall.
“Kai!” I screamed. “LOOK OUT!”
I grabbed his sleeve and yanked him out of harm’s way.
“What was that?” Kai asked.
“An early death,” I said.
When Kai was still a teenager, macular degeneration robbed him of ninety percent of his central vision. Mercifully, the disease (called Stargardt’s) left his peripheral vision intact. And it’s those twin curtains of sight that allow Kai to run with some degree of confidence – to deke left and right, and to find the gaps between other runners.
“I actually feel pretty comfortable running in a pack,” Kai told me. “I can see the contours of people ahead of me. So all I have to do is find my opening and keep up with the crowd.”
Although he chose me to be his guide, Kai had no particular interest in being tethered to me by a rope. Nor was he interested in pinning a bright yellow BLIND RUNNER sign to the back of his jersey. “Thousands of cute Wellesley girls, and you want me to advertise that I’ve got a disability?” he said.
So we ran side by side. Kai was worried about slowing me down, but I assured him that I wasn’t looking for a PR. “I’ve run lots of marathons for speed,” I told him. “I’m looking forward to actually seeing this race.”
So there we were, two best friends, clipping along at a 3:50 pace.
“Who’s that singing?” Kai asked me at the 10-mile mark. We could hear a karaoke version of Cracklin’ Rosie.
“There’s a Neil Diamond impersonator standing on the roof of his El Dorado,” I said.
Ten minutes later we heard intoxicated screaming.
“Who’s that?” said Kai.
“Hundreds of drunken dudes,” I said. “They’re lobbing beer cans to the runners.”
“Can you grab us some?”
As we ran, it occurred to me that this was my true role as Kai’s guide: to animate the lunacy of the race for him. After all, running Boston is only half the fun. Watching the crazy people on the sidelines is almost as good.
Before Boston, I’d run a hundred marathons for time, but in retrospect, I’d done those exclusively for myself. This was the first race where my eyes were fully open.
There is a photograph of Kai and I completing the race together. Our arms are raised, and we appear to be laughing.