The Freakishness of the Long Distance Runner (Video)

So there I was, bouncing around in an Ontario classroom, talking about my novel Ultra, and sharing some of my craziest running stories. A brilliant documentary filmmaker happened to be there, and she made this little video about me:

 

Many thanks to Lisa Lightbourn-Lay for making that video. The still images were provided by my photog brother Andy.

The Ultra-Running Birthday Party

A young friend of mine recently celebrated her 7th birthday. Instead of going bowling or having dinner at Chuck E. Cheese’s, she asked her mom for a “spa” birthday party.

spa picture

A lady came over with her spa equipment and gave the girls (and two boys) manicures and pedicures. Then she gave the kids chocolate facial masks. “Most of us ate our faces,” my young friend told me.

The partiers enjoyed spa-licious smoothies, applied glitter tattoos, and sashayed about the house in fluffy bathrobes. They listened to spa music, read magazines, lit candles, and of course had a pillow fight. At the end of the afternoon, they put on a fashion show.

Sounds amazing, right? And it gave me an idea. If kids are having “spa” birthdays, shouldn’t there be an option for “ultra-running” parties too?

running cake

Say it’s your birthday. I could drop by your house in my running gear. To begin, I’d show you and your friends how to lace up your shoes properly. You’d be amazed how many different ways there are to lace up your shoes. It’s positively thrilling!

After that, I’d share stories about my craziest runs. Like the time I ran from Mississaugua to Brantford and drank eleven whole litres of water. Ot the time I jogged the rail trail from Dundalk to Owen Sound and counted every single railway tie along the route (14,157). Talk about a geyser of fun! This would be the best birthday EVER.

Soon enough, it would be time for the main event! We’d all go outside and run a few hundred laps around your yard. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too muddy. But even if it was, it would just add to the fun:

muddy kids

Since not everyone is super athletic, we’d keep the run short – just 3 or 4 hours. Along the way, I’d share tips on proper hydration and nutrition, and tell you and your friends how to avoid cramps and shinsplints.

Eventually, we’d stop to refuel. But you wouldn’t find any cake at this “ultra-running” party. Instead we’d feast on runner’s food: baked sweet potatoes, kale salad, dates and almonds, cauliflower and broccoli flowerets. If things got crazy we might open a bag of antioxidant-rich snow peas. It’ll be all fireworks and high-fives and hoverboards.

Am I crazy, or is this a BRILLIANT idea?! Let me know what you think – I’m still working out the kinks.

 

You’re a Rock Star! Yes You Are!

For the last few years I’ve been leading a double life. I work on my novel, then I head off to work. When I finish work I go back home, and dive back into my novel.

It may not sound all that crazy, I know. But occasionally, the contrasts can get extreme.

School-Kids-Running

Take last week. In addition to my regular job, and working on a new novel, I also went on a bunch of school visits. Oh my gosh, I had SOOOO much fun at those schools. It’s a real gift to be invited into classrooms, and to share my craziest running stories with hilarious and talented young people. I love their thoughtful and pointed questions. For example:

“Is Kneecap based on a real person?”

(Kneecap is a character in my novel, Ultra).

“Yes,” I answer. “She’s based on Jennifer Roy. Jennifer was my best friend in grade seven. She really did tell me to ‘throw away my weird pills.’

“Was there really a Urinal Hockey League?”

“You bet,” I explain. “At Dalewood Public School in St. Catharines. But you can’t play Urinal Hockey at this school. You’ve got the wrong kind of urinal. I already checked.”

The kids treat me like I’m a rock star. You’d think my head would swell with all that attention. But don’t worry. My day job keeps me humble.

Lou Reed

The same week I visited all those schools, I helped to produce a special tribute show to the late musician, Lou Reed. The concert was held at the Glenn Gould Theatre in Toronto, and all sorts of real rock stars came out to perform. Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip, Emily Haines of Metric, a bunch of Barenaked Ladies, Carole Pope of Rough Trade, opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, Commander Chris Hadfield, etc. Just when I felt faint from all the glitter, Kim Cattral walked in (she played Samantha on Sex and the City). Then Ron Sexsmith and Kevin Drew appeared. Then someone introduced me to Lou Reed’s actual band! 

It was all kinda dizzying. I mean, these weren’t just rock stars, these were rock icons. These were the people who wrote half the songs on my iPod; the people who wrote the songs that carried me through my toughest road races (Carole Pope’s All Touch, the Hip’s Courage, Metric’s Gimme Sympathy, Hawksley Workman’s Autumn’s Here).

Since I’d helped to write the script for the concert, it was my job to make sure the celebrities got on and off stage at the right moments. But as the show progressed things got emotional. Most of the performers had been friends with Lou Reed, and there were plenty of tears, and I had to run back and forth with Kleenex boxes. Nonetheless, the show rocked. Chantale Kreviazuk did a blistering performance of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”  Commander Hadfield (who, in case you were wondering, has the strongest handshake of anyone I’ve ever met) brought the house down with his version of “Satellite of Love.”

I enjoyed the music, and I loved hanging out backstage with those celebrities, but I kept thinking about the kids I’d met earlier in the week. Many of them had dreams of writing and singing songs too, and some had even shown me the lyrics they’d written. I thought about this as I watched the show, and I wondered if, one day, their songs would wind up on my iPod too.

As I mulled this over, Hawksley Workman appeared. His song was up next, and he was about to take the stage. But then he suddenly stopped and looked at me. He peeled off his sunglasses. He said: “You’re David, right?”

Hawksley

I looked up. I’d met Hawksley – very briefly – once before. I was shocked that he’d remember.

“Hi Hawksley,” I said.

“You wrote that book!” he said. “The one about the kid who runs that race. I heard you on Shelagh Rogers’ show. You were terrific!” 

We all have a little bit of rock star inside us. We just need to be reminded sometimes.

rock show

NOTE: You can watch a killer song from that concert (including a cameo by everyone’s favourite Canadian astronaut) HERE

The Perks of Being an Author

Being an author’s cool. You get to make up stories, you can wear a beret and no one complains, and from time to time people send you fan mail and tweets.

Best of all – you get invited into schools. Sometimes the students even give you stuff.

20140129_090301_1

That’s part of a huge banner featuring scenes and quotes from my novel, Ultra. It was drawn by a cast of thousands (okay, maybe hundreds) of students at Oakville’s New Central School. Those same kids also gave me a pair of awesome running “sleevies” – inscribed with the name of their school:

Sleevies alone

How awesome is that?! I’ve always wanted a pair of sleevies.  They’re perfect for those brisk spring runs.

Dave wearing sleevies

Here’s something else I was given – by the amazing students at St. Hillary Catholic school in Mississauga:

School letter

A school letter! This was particularly meaningful, since, when I was growing up, school letters only went to the football players and the track stars. Since I was completely un-athletic back then, I never had a shot at one of these…

Until now!  😉

It’s quite a thrill, going into schools. Some days I’ll speak to 500 kids. I tell stories about running into bears and having hallucinations on the trail. I talk about writing and being creative and never giving up! Sometimes I even get my nephew Quinn on the line via Skype, and ask him how it feels to have inspired a literary character.

Most of all, I try to have meaningful moments with as many students as I can. I keep my eye out for the arty kids – the ones who have something special inside them that needs to be expressed. Maybe it’s a graphic novel, or perhaps it’s a new computer language, or maybe it’s a cure for cancer. With luck, those kids will find the strength to pursue those dreams. If they have someone who believes in them, I believe their odds are improved.

Autograph - you are faster

I like to think that I’m inspiring these kids, but the truth is, they inspire me more. Almost every single one of them asks me: “When’s your next book coming out?” It’s the greatest gift. Almost better than those running sleevies.

This is What Keeps Me Awake At Night

Want to know the hardest thing about writing for kids? Coming up with fake curse words.

Let’s face it, most kids swear from time to time. You did it, I did it. It’s totally natural. It would be weird to write a kids’ story that didn’t have some kind of cursing. But to use an actual four letter word? Nah, I could never do that!

Instead, I come up with “fake” obscenities. Words that possess all the power and energy of real swear words, but that aren’t remotely offensive.

Coming up with a good fake curse is like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. You snatch it up and stuff it in your pocket, hoping no one else noticed your discovery.

Kara with the bubble gun

My neice Kara (above) is the master of the fake curse word. She gave me a couple of good ones last summer. BUTT KNUCKLE is my favourite. Don’t you just love the way that rolls off your tongue? Butt knuckle! There’s just something about those 3 syllables tied together. All those hard consonants: the B, T and K. Say it with me: Butt Knuckle!

(Question: what is a butt knuckle? Do we actually have such a thing, somewhere in our derrieres? I’ll ask Kara.)

Kara also gave me the classic phrase, POOP NUGGET.

What, you don’t like Poop Nugget? Blame Kara, not me!

I kinda like Poop Nugget, though it’s maybe a bit goofy. There’s nothing worse than a goofy fake swear word.  Kids’ll throw your book at the wall if the fake swear words are too goofy. Hmmm. I’ll admit I’m on the fence with this whole Poop Nugget thing. It skews a bit younger; toward kids with a more scatalogical sense of humour. Maybe I’ll let one of my younger characters use it. Minnow. Yeah, Minnow would say Poop Nugget for sure.

Speaking of characters, I’ve almost finalized the names of the characters in my next book. There’s Finn, Minnow, Brody, Skyler, Deena, Grac and Gwen. The villian, who’s plotting to cut down an old-growth forest, is the Tree Weasel.

I’m having trouble with one character though. She’s a fifteen year old girl with blue-green hair and scuffed-up knees and she likes to wear a Fidel Castro army cap and reflective aviator sunglasses. She started out as Sal, but that got problematic. Names starting with the letter ‘”s” are awkward in novels. In dialogue scenes, every other sentence ends with “Sal said.” 

So I changed her name to Dia. But that didn’t feel right either. So I changed it to Will, short for Willa. Then to Dal. And now Mel.

It’s getting frustrating. Butt Knuckle! Poop Nugget!  There, I feel much better now.

The Rewrite Blues

Did any of you have a good weekend? I hope so – because I didn’t.

Chapter 24, page 153, Rewrite #3

I spent the whole weekend re-writing the final chapter of my second novel. It was a grind. I didn’t go outside once. I considered hiking out to the drive shed to split some kindling for the fire but in the end I didn’t even do that. Stayed inside instead. Kept going back to chapter 24. Oh my Lord, it’s so uninspired. It’s the chapter that comes after the climax, so it’s all epilogue and tying up plot complications and trying to frog-march my main characters into a big group hug. They’re not having any of it, of course. Instead, they keep yapping at each other, venting their frustrations, squabbling, coming up with petty reasons why the book shouldn’t end.

ideas

Worse, the writing is completely uninspired. It doesn’t even feel like writing; it’s just a bunch of linguistic droppings.

Relax, Dave.  You’ve been here before. It’s just a part of the creative process.

True. I’ll re-write the chapter again today, and then again tomorrow, and probably the day after that as well. At some point (maybe a year from now) it’ll turn into real writing.

By the way, this novel, unlike my last one, doesn’t contain any running. Instead, it’s about a kid who loves mountain biking.

mountain biking rush

So I did have a little bit of fun this weekend, recalling my experiences as a cyclist, and writing phrases like this:

Flecks of mud thrown up by the tires; puddle-spray slishing against his legs and…

Finn thought of that bike frame as an extension of his own body, extra bones that…

Adrenaline blitzed his senses, sparks were detonating in his retinas…

He kicked harder, until his lungs were bursting. The pain in his legs began to spike…

His tires slipped in the gravel and he cranked the bike forward so hard the frame made cracking noises…

I also did some mountain bike research, like watching this:

Quinn and the 100-Mile Map

winnie

When I was a kid, I loved books that had maps. For instance: A. A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” (above). And Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons:”

ArthurRansomeMap

I loved being able to follow along with the characters; to know exactly where they were as they went about their adventures.

Those books inspired me to draw maps of my own. I spent a lot of time designing imaginary worlds; countries jam-packed with hidden tunnels and valleys. Mountains and caves were essential too. Secret getaway places. Strongholds. Forts.

I never lost my love of maps. So when I wrote my novel Ultra, of course I needed a map!

hand drawn map of race course

That’s a map of Hither Lake; the body of water Quinn circumnavigates in his 100-mile race. You might notice that the shape of the lake bears an uncanny resemblance to the lake where I spent a lot of summers as a kid:

Kennisis

Polishing the Turd

Which is harder: running a 100-mile race, or writing a novel about it?

A lof of people have asked me this question.  I wasn’t sure how to answer it at first.  “Both nearly killed me!” I blurted out.

Now I have a more thoughtful answer. Both the race, and the book, caused me a TON of pain. But the race only lasted 24 hours. The book, on the other hand, took years to write.

Let me put it another way. A week after I ran the race, my body had recovered and I was bounding around like a gazelle. A week after I wrote the book, I was weeping inconsolably while I plowed through the first of thirteen rewrites.

What to do, what to do... (1)

Funny thing about pain though. Once it’s gone, you forget how much it hurt.

I’m working on my second novel now, and ERMAGHERD – why am I doing this to myself?

Writing a first draft is more painful than sitting through an Optimist Club luncheon. You have to create worlds, map out settings, shape plotlines, and stuff your characters full of strengths and flaws and anxieties and senses of humour. HARD!

Worst of all, when you finish the first draft, you’ll read it over and discover that it’s an 80,000 word turd.

marble

Okay, maybe that’s a bad choice of words. Let’s call it a hunk of marble instead. Either way, it’s massive chunk of verbiage that you’ll be chipping away at for the next two years, or roughly 1/50th OF YOUR LIFE.

Relax, Dave. Breathe deep. With luck, that turd block of marble will one day look like this:

Venus_de_Milo_Louvre_Ma399_n3

I finished the second draft of this novel in July. It was 64,000 words back then. Now, 4 months later, I’ve whittled it down to 54,000 words, and I’m hoping to cut 9,000 more before I’m done. With every sentence I delete, the manuscript gets leaner and better. Nothing makes me happier than a page that looks like this.

rewriting clockwatcher

What Maurice Sendak Taught Me

What’s the best thing about being an author?  Signing books for kids.

It’s not enough to just sign your name. Not for me, anyway. I like to write special messages. If I’ve got time, I’ll write a personalized note for each individual reader.

I do this because, years ago, I interviewed Maurice Sendak for a radio show I was producing. After our chat, he was kind enough to sign a copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” for me. Only, he didn’t just sign his name.  He spent five minutes drawing three of his beloved monsters, waving to me from the title page.

I’m no Sendak, but I still believe in giving people more than just a lousy autograph. So I write little messages like this:

my autograph - you are faster 2

I’m a walking fortune cookie, I know.

Here’s my favourite.  I’ve only written this in one or two books so far:

my autograph - coupon 1

I have no idea who wound up getting that copy of the book. I hope he or she drops me a line sometime. I’d really love to go for that jog.

Last week, after speaking to a class of kids in grades 5 and 6 (my second favourite thing in the world is going into classrooms and telling kids about running 100 mile races and making their dreams come true), all the kids wanted my autograph. Huge thrill! Some of the kids had copies of my book, but quite a few didn’t. So I wound up signing not only copies of Ultra, but also math notebooks, agendas, even post-it notes.

In return, some of the kids gave me their autographs too!

Card from kids

Here are a couple of my favourites:

agatha's note

Noah's note

A Goal is a Dream with a Deadline

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 2012

48 hours until the Toronto marathon. I’m excited but…is that a hamstring pull I feel? And where’d that hangnail on my left toe come from?

Ah yes, the pre-race jitters. Nothing new there. But the stakes are different this time. I want to run 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours. If the stars align, and God looks down and blows a kiss at my legs, then I’ll succeed. If there’s a bad headwind, or if the temperature dips below 5 degrees, or if I eat too much spaghetti on Saturday night and wind up visiting the porta-potty during the race, I’ll fail.

I put my chances at 50-50. Still – I REALLY WANT IT! In the past, whenever someone has asked me my marathon finishing time, I’ve had to give them a number that started with a 3.  I finished my first marathon in 3:36. A year later I qualified for Boston with a 3:18. A couple of years after that I nailed a 3:04.

Just imagine, I tell myself, owning a finishing time that starts with a 2. I dream of a 2. My kingdom for a 2!

Flash

“Would you say you’re a goal oriented person?” a journalist asked me the other day.

I had to think about this. What is a goal, anyway?

A dream is a goal with a deadline. I didn’t write that. I saw it on the wall at my gym.

I think it’s true though. Dreams are basically useless until you put a clock on them; until you wrestle them to the ground and turn them into reality. If you fail in the attempt, then at least you’ve got a story. But if you succeed, Whoo hoo! Crack open the golden fudge creme Oreos!

So yeah, I suppose I’m a goal oriented person. But I’m not religious about it. I’m cool with failure.

Proof: I tried to break the three-hour barrier once before, and failed. And when I crossed the finish line, I did what I always do at the end of a race: I LAUGHED MY FACE OFF!

Seriously. I always start giggling when I cross a finish line. I’m so happy to not to be running anymore! I often do a pirouette as I sail through the finisher’s chute.

So regardless of my finishing time, I can tell you exactly what I’ll be doing this Sunday morning at 11:45 am. I’ll be cruising up Bay Street in downtown Toronto, with a big goofy grin on my face. I’ll be surrounded by thousands of cheering Torontonians – people kind enough to support loved ones (and some strangers) who are chasing a dream.

go-random-stranger-go-stwm-scotiabank-toronto-waterfront-marathon-bay-street-finish-line-sunday-october-14-2012

And afterward, I’ll go home and rake the leaves in the yard and clean the bathroom upstairs and then I’ll maybe make a borscht. I’ll put my finisher’s medal in the shoebox with all the others. And I’ll laugh about the importance and the folly of the number 2.