How “Sydney” and “Ollie” Came to Life

first copy of Ultra

“Ultra – the novel”

There it is. It’s 192 pages long. Weighs 396 grams. And it costs less than a fancy Starbucks coffee.

Talk about a bargain! You might enjoy your Starbucks coffee for 20 minutes. This book, on the other hand, will warm your heart forever.

Why? Because it’s fortified with ten essential characters. Including one who was inspired by this young woman:

Sydney Watson Walters

Sydney, aka “Sydney Watson Walters”

Say hello my niece Sydney. She was five years old when this picture was taken (she’s grown since then, and is now in grade nine). She plays basketball and volleyball, and sings and plays guitar. She’s also, believe it or not, one of the world’s coolest aunts.

How did someone so young inspire a literary character? A character who bears a strong resemblance to Oprah Winfrey?

A couple of years ago, when I was still struggling with the book, I called Syd and asked her for some advice. “I’m going to read you a couple of pages,” I warned her.  “Tell me if the dialogue sounds okay.”

I started reading.  I got halfway though one page when Syd said: “Kids don’t talk like that.”

“Really?” I said. “How do they talk?”

“Like kids,” she said.

Syd offered all sorts of good suggestions. She also asked me a LOT of questions. She said: “What are you trying to do with this scene?”  And, “Am I supposed to like Quinn now? Because I don’t. He’s being a dink. Kneecap needs to tell him to smarten up.”

Re-writing a book is kind of like running on the same stretch of trail over and over. If you’re not careful, you’ll wear the trail down so much that you’re running in a deep trench, and you can’t see over the sides anymore. Syd reached into the trench and pulled me out. Then she sent me down a more interesting path.

Those conversations I had with Syd helped the book A LOT. And I’ll never forget the tough questions Syd posed. She reminded me a bit of a TV journalist. Which is why I borrowed her name for the Sydney Watson Walters character.

SWW

Here’s another family member who inspired a character:

Oliver posing

In the book, Quinn has a little brother named Ollie. Ollie acts as Quinn’s “pacer” during the race. He calls Quinn at all hours of the day and night, and recites crazy jokes to cheer him up. Most importantly, on page 171, Ollie utters a six-word sentence that literally saves Quinn’s race.

I based this funny and wise character on my real-life nephew, Oliver. That’s him above, doing his best Usain Bolt.

Years ago, when I was running the Sulphur Springs 100-mile race, Oliver called me on the phone to wish me luck. It was close to midnight, and I’d run 84 miles.  The moon was out, and I was feeling shockwaves of pain, which isn’t unusual when you’re that far into a race. Still, it was a tough spell, and I felt like I was going to throw up.

I can still remember exactly what Oliver said. He said: “Seriously, Uncle Dave? You’ve run 84 miles already? But it’s not even midnight!  You’re doing great!”

Be careful when you use words of kindness like that. You might just find yourself in a book.

Holy Trailballs it’s Winter Already!

Running has given me so much over the years.  My health, lots of crazy adventures, a clusterbomb of crazy friends. But running gave me another life-changing gift – one I hadn’t thought much about until today.

cropped-david-half-marathon-peterborough-2008.jpg

Years ago, before I took up running, I was one of those people who hated winter.  I spent five months of every year feeling vaguely depressed, and waiting for April to roll around.

Today it’s minus fifteen outside the cabin. Six inches of hard-pack snow lie on the ground. A howling northerly whips ice pellets through the forest, so of course I think: Time for a run!

I pull my tights over my long-johns. Yank on two pairs of thermal socks, then my Nikes. Compression top, followed by 3 dry-wick jerseys. Running jacket with drawstring hoodie. Two hats, one neck-warmer, one MEC neoprene face-shield, lobster claw gloves.

I step outside into the howling gale. Run down the concession, straight into the wind. The snow rises up like sheets of vinyl siding, and pours through the woodlots in dry white rivers. Ice pellets hit my forehead like they’ve been fired from a staple gun and then they’re welded to my eyelashes like pebbled glass.

I run on a mountain bike trail named HolyFBalls. It’s a brute at the best of times, and the snow only makes it tougher. And yet – wrapped in my cocoon of synthetic fibres, I feel the bodychoke of winter, but not its cold bite. The world looks more beautiful than a brand new iPhone, and instead of feeling depressed, my heart explodes like a confetti cannon.

Around the bends

This is the greatest thing running gave me. It coated my heart with crystal water. It made me love winter.

You’re the Inspiration!

How do authors come up with their characters? We dream them up in our heads, right?

Sorta. But not exactly.

If you’ve read my novel “Ultra” then you already know that the main character is a 13 year-old kid named Quinn. But here’s something you may not know: I have a nephew who’s also named Quinn.

Quinn (age 4) and David

Quinn (age 4) and David

There he is. The boy who inspired the character. He’s just a tiny kidling in this picture, but he’s 12 now.

So – how did that adorable little kid inspire the tough-as-nails ultra-runner in the book?

Easy. He’s super-fit. He’s wickedly funny. And he’s determined as anything – just look at those clenched fists! Also, my nephew loves the outdoors, and is always chasing after animals. Which is why, in the book, Quinn is always running into frogs and turtles and, er, bears.

Illustration (by Shawna) from an early version of the book

Illustration (by Shawna) from an early version of the book

Unlike the character in the book, however, my nephew isn’t all that keen on running. (He’s far more interested in soccer and hockey.) And unlike his brooding namesake in the book, the real-life Quinn is most definitely NOT a fun vampire. He’s actually the opposite. More like a fun volcano.

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That’s an early version of the book. Back then it was titled “Quinn and the 100 Mile Race.” That’s Quinn on the right, and his big brother Kiernan on the left. And yes, Kiernan inspired a character too.

At the bottom of page 86, a tough old guy named Kern comes ambling down the trail. He’s what’s known in racing circles as a “bandit” – someone who runs the race illegally. But this bandit isn’t evil. Quite the contrary – he actually ends up saving Quinn’s race.

I wrote Kern into the story as a tribute to all big brothers and sisters. As annoying as they can be on occasion, elder siblings can be life-savers. My own big brother rescued me from near-death countless times. I don’t doubt that Kiernan has done the same for Quinn.

Also worth nothing – Kiernan is an awesome hockey player. So I decided to make the “Kern” character a former hockey great. Like my nephew, I made him a goalie. In my mind, he was a superstar with the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

The "Terry Fox" shoe

The “Terry Fox” shoe

This is the best thing about being an author. You get to put all the people you love in a book. I’m especially lucky, since I have 40 neices and nephews to write about.  Like the one below.  Any guesses which character she inspired?

Sydney Watson Walters

You Don’t Have to be Great to Start…

I’ve been spending so much time lately going BLAH BLAH BLAH about running, I thought I should say a word about writing. After all, if there’s one thing I do more than run, it’s write. True story: after spending 8 hours writing for work, and another two or three hours on my novel, how do you suppose I like to relax in the evenings?

No, I do not yarnbomb neighbourhood stop signs with leg warmers. Instead, I chill out by writing in my journal.

I caught the writing bug early. When I was nine, I started cranking out a weekly newspaper. It had a circulation of 5: my mom, my dad, my two brothers and me.  It looked like this:

weekend household paper 1

It was called The Weekend Household Paper. I wrote it because I was bored. And it’s a good thing too. If I hadn’t been bored enough to write that newspaper, I might never have started keeping a journal.

journals stacked

Just a few of the hundreds of journals I’ve filled over the years. Here are more, stuffed into a steamer trunk:

journals in trunk

I didn’t write anything brilliant in those journals.  Usually I just wrote about the weather, or what me and my friends were getting up to on our bikes. From time to time, I’d write a short story. And it’s a good thing I did. If I hadn’t written those short stories I wouldn’t have had anything to send out to highbrow literary magazines.

rejection letter 3

I have hundreds of rejection letters like that one. Each one of them stung, but they also taught me something important. They taught me that if I really wanted to get published, I’d have to work harder. Much harder.

So I bought a high-tech laptop computer –

Tandy computer

And set about writing 3 mediocre novels.

my 3 bad novels

There they are. They all got rejected too. And it’s a good thing they did. If they hadn’t, I never would have gotten depressed and applied to the CBC for a real job – a job writing comedy shows and game shows and dressing up in funny outfits.

Me in headset

I wasn’t a great writer when I started at CBC, but a half million people were tuning in to the show I was working on, so I had no choice – I had to get better. And it’s a good thing I did, because (A) I got to keep my job, and (B) when a good idea for a novel finally occurred to me, I had enough writing experience to write it half decently…

writing floating island story

That’s me, working on my second book, which I’m hoping will get published in another year or two. Some days I’m not so sure, though. Even though I’ve been writing for years, my first drafts always look like crap. Here’s a page I worked on last night:

Copy of rewrite - floating island

I rewrote my first novel 11 times. I expect my second will take at least as much work, if not more.

Happily, with every rewrite, the story gets better. And it’s always worth it when you cross the finish line. (YESSSSS! Managed to sneak in a running reference after all!)

first copy of Ultra

Remember: You don’t have to be great to start.  But you have to start to be great.

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.

Don’t Defer Your Dreams

Lord help me, I can’t believe I’m about to write this.

I never thought I’d become this kind of guy. The kind of guy who sets hard-core running goals. Who spends more time staring at his Garmin watch than at the passing scenery. Who pays attention to dreary things like splits, heart rate, lactate threshold.

Lord help me. Ten days from now, I’m going to try to run a marathon in less than 3 hours.

Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Fun fact: To complete a marathon in less than 3 hours you must run at an average speed of 8.9 miles per hour (14.3 km/h) for – you guessed it – three hours. Not one hour. Not two hours. Three hours. That’s longer than the movie Titanic.

How fast is 8.9 mph? Next time you’re at the gym, climb onto the treadmill and find out. Crank that puppy up to 6.0 mph. Brisk pace, ain’t it? Now dial it up to 7. Starting to sweat? Good! Now push that “up” button another 19 times, until the LED display reads 8.9. Hurts, don’t it? Feels like your heart is going to explode. Now keep running like that for 179 more minutes.

Waterfront1

Confession: I don’t actually think I’m capable of a 3-hour marathon.  I’ve run a 3:04 twice. That may sound close to 3:00, but it’s not even in the same ballpark. Those four minutes might as well be four hours, in terms of training. Realistically, I need to invest in six months of hill climbing in order to shave off that kind of time.

Still… If I don’t attempt this now…will I ever?

The odds aren’t in my favour. Physiologically speaking, I’m running out of time. I love going into classrooms and telling kids that Anything is possible! And while I’m not lying when I say these sorts of things, we need to remember, I’m talking to kids. Young people have plenty of time to develop and improve as athletes. For us seasoned runners, the reality is quite different. At a certain point, our bodies start breaking down. After age 39, they really start breaking down.

All this to say, don’t defer your dreams!  In the words of the old folktale: if you will not when you may, you may not when you will.

Still, there’s the little matter of the three stitches in my right shin. And did I mention that I have Shingles? Yeah, that won’t help my cause other.

I’ve got no shortage of excuses. Really, it’d be so easy to put this thing off. To relax until next year, when I’m convinced I’ll be better trained. Statistically speaking, of course, that’s unlikely. The odds suggest I’ll be slower a year from now.

So damn the torpedoes – it’s now or never.  

And if I fail? Well, that wouldn’t be so bad either. In my experience, failures are usually more interesting than successes.  As this attests.

And I figured that if I made my goal public, i.e. HERE ON THIS BLOG, then the threat of public disgrace would help push me to my limit.

So mark the date – Sunday October 20. The more of you who follow me, the greater the pressure I’ll feel to succeed! I don’t want your money; just your misplaced hopes. I’ll be bib #783, and I promise not to let you down. Unless of course I do. In which case, it’ll be a good story too.

Running Through the “Stupid Wall”

Ever heard the term bonehead?

Ever wondered what it really means?

A bonehead is a guy who puts a can of Diet Coke into his knapsack along with his beloved iPod Nano, and then runs home wearing the knapsack. Later, he is legitimately surprised when the tin of Diet Coke springs a leak, utterly destroying his Nano.

But wait! There’s another type of bonehead!

This second variety of bonehead will, two weeks before a marathon, in an effort to save money, attempt to chop up a pile of used bricks with a sledgehammer, hoping to re-use them as gravel in his driveway. He will do this without wearing any type of leg protection, will in fact wear nothing but running shorts. In spite of this obvious idiocy, the bonehead will still be surprised when a sharp chunk of brick flies with great velocity towards his bare shin, instantly releasing a tide of red.

At first, this turn of events will strike the bonehead as amusing: the blood splashed across the railway ties, the undignified staggering through the house towards the bathtub. But then his thoughts will take a more serious turn. Does he think of the fact that he hasn’t had a tetanus shot in years? Does he pause to consider the carpets that now need steam-cleaning? Of course not! Instead he thinks: How will this impact my marathon?  And: can I still run into work tomorrow? 

knee pain

To answer your first question, yes, I went to the doctor. She looked at the wound, cleaned it, and then peeled me off the ceiling. “The brick sliced through the layer of fat, but it didn’t hit muscle,” she said. “I’ll give you some stitches. You’re lucky, really.”

And my marathon in two weeks?

“You’ll run it, no problem.”

The doctor froze the tissue around the wound. While we waited for the freezing to set in, I decided to show her the weird bug bites on my chest.

“Those aren’t bug bites,” the doctor said. “That’s Shingles.”

Wha???

“Shingles. Did you have Chicken Pox as a kid? Thought so. Have you been stressed lately? Any reason your immune system might be down?”

Well, ah, there was that little 100-mile race I ran the other day.

“You can tell it’s Shingles because of the pattern,” the doctor said. “It’s only on the one side of your body. The virus travels down nerve axons. Does it hurt? Feel itchy?”

“It itches a bit,” I said. “But it doesn’t hurt.”

“You’re lucky. With older people, it can be quite painful. It’s probably not so bad for you because you’re youngish and healthy.”

Young-ish? Did she say young-ish?

“You can relax,” she said. “It’s on its way out. You’ll be okay. Now, put your leg up here.”

It is a testament to my boneheadedness that, when I heard this news; i.e. that I had a weird strain of the herpes virus, my first thought was not, Oh my God, what can I do to get rid of this foul disease? Instead, I thought: WOW – I ran a 10 k race 3 days ago AND WON… It was the fastest race of my life, and I ran it with a case of shingles! 

I mentioned this to the doctor. I suppose I bragged a little bit. “Just imagine if I’d run it when I was totally healthy,” I gushed. “I might have finished under 38 minutes!”

The doctor snapped on her rubber gloves. “Don’t get too proud of yourself,” she said. “You’re about to get stitches because you were chopping bricks with no protection.”

Right. Point taken.

“Lie back,” said the doctor. “You may not want to watch this part.”

Inch by Inch it’s a Cinch

A friend recently wrote this on her Facebook wall: Need advice on how to balance 9-5 job with creative projects. 

Trestle bridge

The comments rained down. Kill your TV, get a housekeeper, lose the social life, sleep less.

I thought this: Any self-respecting creative project won’t give you any choice. It’ll hijack your life all on its own.

I know this first-hand. My last creative project (a middle grade novel called “Ultra”) picked me up by the ankles and shook me upside down until 45,000 words came tumbling out.

It was exciting to be swallowed up by the project, but it left me feeling pretty queasy. My little “creative project” informed me, in no uncertain terms, what aspects of my life were priorities, and which aspects needed to be discarded.

There was only one priority. Namely, the novel. Absolutely everything else (family, friends, relationship, wardrobe, personal cleanliness, Game of Thrones) got jettisoned.

I wouldn’t recommend it. I’m still apologising to my wife for that 12-month stretch when I went AWOL.

I love you (again)

There is a better way, of course. If you want to lead a creative life and still keep your job and hang out with your friends and family and children from time to time, the best approach is to play the long game.  Don’t try to paint or write or dance or strum or quilt a masterpiece in a month or two. Instead, scratch out a few minutes, here and there, whenever you can. Every single day. And then – don’t stop.

If you’re a writer, try to write one page per day. That might not sound like a lot, but if you do it religiously, you’ll have an entire book by year’s end.

(True story: I know a writer who keeps a writing pad in the car, so she can jot down ideas in 15 second bursts, whenever she hits a red light.)

It’s like exercising. Experts recommend that we get 45 minutes of physical activity per day, a minimum of 3 days per week. That’s not a lot – barely 2% of the week. And yet if we do it religiously, it’s enough to dramatically transform our lives.

On the road

Photo hat tip: big brother Andy.

3 More Sleeps

Haliburton Forest race (5)

Pray for good weather. Three days out from a 100-mile race, that’s all you can do. At this stage, there’s no point doing any more training. Your body isn’t going to get any fitter over the next 72 hours. You might as well relax, eat well, sleep as much as you can, run to stay loose, but not so hard you deplete yourself. And above all, pray for clear skies.

rainy running

100 mile races are challenging enough when the sun is shining. Wet, muddy trails can make things hellish. Under those conditions, your goals have to change.  You’re not just trying to cross the finish line in one piece anymore.  You’re trying to keep your feet dry for as long as possible. Wet feet are susceptible to blisters, and blisters can end your race fast. Which is why runners usually bring 2 or three pair of runners and a half dozen pair of socks to each race. We store them in “drop bags” along the course.

The worst possible scenario?  Cold, pounding rain.  Last year I ran a 100-mile race in something close to a hurricane. All 50 runners were soaking wet from the very first mile. Blisters were the least of our problems. There was chafing and hypothermia to deal with too. Late at night, when the temperature dropped, I couldn’t stay warm enough.  Shivering uncontrollably, I dropped out at 3 am, after having run 92 miles.

20130902_214838

There’s my list.  You’ll notice Advil at the top.  A couple of years ago, after some exceedingly painful ultra marathons, I discovered the joy of ibuprufen.

I don’t take many. I’ll gobble a couple of those sweet little pills at mile 75, and another couple four hours later.

It’s not recommended, of course. Too much Ibuprufen could potentially damage your kidneys, which are already under serious strain, trying to keep your urine flowing despite a lack of available body fluids.

Still, they do such a good job of dulling the pain, especially when running downhill late in a race. You’d think that running uphill would be the hardest thing, but it’s not. Running downhill feels like your legs are being pressed through a cheese grater.

So hello Advil, old friend! I don’t care if you’re not recommended. Running 100 miles through a forest isn’t generally recommended either.

20130902_214810

The Next 100 Miler!

Next weekend I’m running the 100-Mile Haliburton Forest Trail Race. Yes, to answer your question, I’m excited. Also, pretty freaking scared.

My brother, The Photographer, will be there as usual. Here are some pictures he’s taken in past years.

The starting line

That’s the starting line. The race begins at 6 am. Many runners wear headlamps, and most of us will see the sun rise twice before we stop running.

Think of me when you get up on Saturday morning. By the time you eat breakfast, I’ll hopefully have run 15 miles.

Uphill

Think of me again at lunch, by which time, I’ll be somewhere around mile 32.

Haliburton Forest race (6)

By dinnertime, I’ll be closing in on 60 miles.

Running

By the time you go to bed, I might be at mile 72.

Haliburton Forest race (2)

When you get up early Sunday morning to take a pee, I’ll hopefully be close to the finish line.

100 miles (3)

Or maybe not.  You never know.  Running through a forest for 24 hours straight is kinda like running through a Grimm’s fairy tale. It’s incredibly beautiful, but there’s danger too.  And there’s no guarantee of a happy ending.

Photo hat tip: andyscamera