Rhonda-Marie Avery Update

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.

RMA - stay back from trail's edge

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.

RMA's sprained ankle

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.

RMA - Blind Line

Death to the Left!

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?

RM being pensive

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-fighter) and Rhonda-Marie

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.

bruceTrailMap

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.

RM & guide

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.

death to the left 2

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!”

Death on the left

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.”

RM nutrition break

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

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.

RM ice cream

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.”

RM typical bruce trail

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.

You can follow Rhonda-Marie’s journey here.

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:

Writing is a Bloodletting

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!

Autograph - you are faster

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.

IMG_1357

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.

Rise and Shine!

Looking for some inspiration to get out and run this morning? This oughtta do the trick:

As Bill Bowerman, co-founder of Nike says: “If you have a body, you are an athlete.” And, at the risk of turning this blog into a giant billboard, here’s another of my favourite running shoe ads:

 

 

Pain in = Victory Out

A fellow blogger called me out on my last blog post; in which I mentioned that my recent book award was the first thing I’d won since a public speaking contest in grade 7. She kindly pointed out one of my earlier blog posts, in which I mentioned that I’d won a 10k race.

Fair point. But here’s what I was thinking.

That 10k victory and the book award feel completely different to me. One feels deserved and the other does not.

Let’s start with the deserved win – that 10k race. I have this belief that anyone can win a running race. Just put in enough training, and you’ll win. Run endless hills and intervals and ‘suicides,’ hammer your abs at the gym, go for long runs every Sunday, and I guarantee you will get faster. If you add some good nutrition and lots of sleep to the mix, you’ll start to win races. Again, this is a guarantee.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to running. If you put yourself through enough pain in training, you’ll be the first to break the tape. It’s a simple formula: pain in = victory out.

So when I won that 10k race, I felt like, yeah, of course I won. It wasn’t a surprise. I’d earned it.

The book award felt completely different. When I heard the news, my first thought was: somebody made a mistake.

With book awards, there are so many external variables. You have to pray that the jurors won’t come down with stomach flu while reading your book (thus colouring her or his reading experience). You have to hope that they won’t have been bullied by a kid with the same name as your protagonist. You have to hope that last year’s winning book wasn’t ALSO about running, and that you’re not up against Suzanne Collins’ latest bestseller.

And then of course, it’s all so subjective. I mean, how can you quantify the reading process? You can’t. Something as small as a Luna moth flapping its wings in the opposite direction might be enough to put someone else’s book on the podium instead of yours.

Authors have control over their writing. But they have no control over how it will be received. They can suffer all they want, they can put their bodies and minds through years of abuse, they can write an absolutely beautiful 70,000 word thing, and there’s still no guarantee that it will resonate with people.

So as thrilled as I am about this ‘win,’ I can’t lose sight of how idiosyncratic it all is. I don’t believe for a moment that the other shortlisted books are any less deserving of victory than mine (I’ve actually ordered them all, so I’m going to find out!).

Of course I’m very grateful that awards like the Cybils exist. Not just because they give much-needed exposure to authors, but also because they get people talking about books!

I know this must be true because I am writing it in the middle of the night.

All Writing and No Play…

How long has it been since you won something?

Been a long time for me, let me tell ya.

It was 1980. I was at the Royal Canadian Legion Hall in Port Dalhousie for the annual middle-school public speaking competition. On a clapboard stage for 7 long minutes I held forth on the fascinating topic of…radio!

It was a galvanizing moment, being handed that first place trophy. It gave a huge boost to my flagging teenage confidence; plus it helped launch a broadcasting career that has sustained me for 31 years.

That’s right – it’s been 31 years since I had a “win.” That’s more than 11,000 days. That’s a cool billion seconds! So you can imagine my delight this morning when I came across this:

The Cybil awards are handed out by a shadowy cadre of book bloggers in the United States and Canada. I don’t know who they are exactly, but I have some solid leads, and as soon as this cold weather breaks I’m going to head out on an extremely long run, and stuff a pair of dry-wick running sleevies into each of their mailboxes as a thank-you gift.
RyanHall
It’s the least I can do. Those judges have no idea how much I needed their vote of confidence today. I’ve been struggling to finish the manuscript of what I hope will be my 2nd novel. I’m at that tragic stage where I don’t know if my story or my characters or my writing is any good, in fact I’m pretty certain that it’s all a pile of dreck.
Remember that scene in The Shining when Shelley Duvall sneaks a peek at Jack Nicholson”s huge unfinished novel?
all-work-and-no-play
She discovers that he’s been writing the same sentence over and over; hundreds and hundreds of pages worth.
Sometimes I’m scared to open my writing, lest I come across pages like that.
It wouldn’t surprise me a whole lot, to be honest. Writing is a crazy-making act. Someone have likened it to “getting into a knife fight with yourself in a phone booth.”
So THANK YOU judges – for reminding me that I’m not crazy. I will now stop my crying. I can do this. I shall endure.

How Writing = Running (Part 17)

Number of seconds left until spring: 3,884,927.

Oops, make that 3,884,925. I mean 3,884,923.  

Of course, anybody who’s ever spent any time outside knows that there’s no such thing as four seasons. There are actually 365 of the things, each one a tiny bit different.

That said – oh my geesh! – winter is NEVER going to end! There’s four feet of snow outside my house. The concession looks like a white tunnel, with 12 foot windrows on either side.

The skiing is pretty good mind you —

Glenelg Forest

Photo credit: Shawna Watson

As for the running, I’m still logging my miles. Not as many as I’d like though.

A couple of months ago I made the painful decision to scale back my running so that I could finish writing my second novel. I’m still managing to squeeze in 60 kilometers a week, but it isn’t enough to keep me sane and balanced. Usually  I’m running closer to 100k. The shorfall is making me pretty, er, spazzy.

On the bright side, I’m nearly finished the book. I’m hoping to finish it by Valentines Day.

I should actually be working on it at this very moment. Instead, I’m writing on this blog. I’m procrastinating. You’d think that writing would get easier with experience, but it never does. There’s always that moment, each and every morning when I drag myself to the computer with that fresh cup of coffee, when I have to kick my own butt, and say: “It’s game time…you can do this! Now sit down and WRITE!

Those first few minutes are always painful – just like stepping outside for that morning run. Your muscles complain and your bones feel like they’re made of glass. You want to turn around and slide back into bed. But after a few minutes of jogging, your muscles loosen up, and you find a comfortable pace, and you remember why you love this crazy hobby.

It’s the same thing with writing. It usually takes me ten minutes to find my groove. After that, I stretch out with the words, roll around in the syllables, and luxuriate in the paragraphs.

I really regret that run

Writing and running aren’t the easiest of hobbies. But once you get going, there’s no stopping you!

Why Do I Write? Reason #231

Five months have passed since my little book was published, but I still haven’t gotten used to being an author. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, see the glowing orange letters on my bedside table, and pat the novel like it’s a dog.

first copy of Ultra

I really did it. I actually wrote a book!

I barely remember writing the thing. Most of those 45,000 words got scribbled down in a fevered dream. That first draft was followed by two years of re-writing, endless rejections and fits of depression that I countered with 30 mile training runs through the forest. I kept asking myself: WHY DO I BOTHER!?

Now I know why. Because of mornings like this, when I wake up and learn that it’s been shortlisted for an award. An award that’s been won by Neil Gaiman and Suzanne Collins. An award that’s largely decided by my favourite type of people – book bloggers!

You can click the image below to read about all 5 books that made the shortlist. Buy them all! Support the arts!

Cybils Logo Large

What a Year You’ve Had!

College and Bathurst, at night

You woke up so early, no one else in the world had been born. You ran so fast they put up new speed limit signs in your honour. You climbed so high, you were blinded by the bald spot on God’s head. You loved so well, France grew ashamed and fell into the sea.

Suddenly, it grew dark – so dark, the stars got lost. You cried so bitterly that your furniture floated away. You slept so deeply, owlings nestled close to you for warmth. When you awoke, you were so beautiful, you were asked to play Beyonce in a movie.

You ran some more. So fast, Einstein’s theories came into question. So fast, the large Hadron collider was deemed obsolete. You worked so hard, Mr. Barack Obama wrote you a doctor’s note and insisted you to take the next day off. You wrote so well, Alice Munro asked for your advice on a new short story.

Morning at the lake

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