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.
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: