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.

Real Life Superhero #34

I have lots of running heroes. And almost all of them are women.

Laura Perry running

There’s one: Laura Perry, from Ottawa.

A couple of years ago, Laura was running a 100-mile race near Haliburton, Ontario. It was early in the race. She’d run maybe 20 miles, when she suddenly met a black bear on the trail.

bear on trail

This happens from time to time in these races. And Laura knew what she had to do. She yelled at the bear to scare it away. But instead of running away, the bear began walking towards her.

This was bizarre. Black bears are typically scared of humans. Usually they’ll bolt if you so much as sneeze.

Laura hollered at the bear, but it refused to back down. When it got too close for comfort, Laura lay down on the trail and played dead. The bear came right up to her and started sniffing her shoes. It walked around and around her curled-up body. It poked her back and arms with its snout.

Finally the animal got bored and walked away. It lumbered down the trail, and disappeared into the woods.

Terrifying, right? If that had been me, I would have dropped out of the race right then and there. But Laura didn’t drop out. Instead, she jumped to her feet and started running. And 16 hours later, she won the 100-mile race.

Laura Perry mountaintop

(By the way, Laura told me later that the bear smelled horrible: a combo of rotten cucumber and vomit and wet dog!)

Anyway, I love sharing this story with kids in schools. Some girls have found Laura’s bravery so inspiring, they’ve drawn pictures of her little encounter on the trail:

Laura Meets the Bear

I should mention that Laura recently won another 100-mile race – setting a new course record at the Sulphur Springs Trail Run. Laura finished in a blistering time of 17 hours and 48 minutes. Happily, she didn’t run into any bears that time around.

Anyway, all this to say, if YOU are going hiking or running in bear country, be sure to go with a friend, and make lots of NOISE. Give those bears plenty of time to get out of your way. Better yet, check with the local park warden if the area is safe for runners and hikers. You don’t want this to happen to you: (WARNING: Language alert!)

 

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:

 

 

Why You Should Run an Un-Fun Run

The other day I drove down to Niagara. A local school had invited me to join them in a fun-run.

Rankin Run Logo

Actually, it was a charity run for cancer research. Which should have made it un-fun. Except it wasn’t.

Rankin Run start line

More than 12,000 people laced up for the 5k course. I met my team in the field beside the Welland Canal. They gave me a T-shirt that said WESTMOUNT TEAM ULTRA on the back. Yes, there’s now a running team named after my novel!

Westmount Team Ultra

Select members of Westmount School’s “Team Ultra”

Fifteen minutes before the race, the kids dragged me over to the stage for a Zoomba warm-up.

“What’s Zoomba?” I asked.

“It’s hard to explain,” said the girls.

I still don’t know what Zoomba is, but it’s LOUD and there’s DANCING, and it’s, like, THE BEST THING EVER! Somewhere out there in Internetland, there’s a video of me doing Zoomba. When you see it, you shall know that I AM THE ZOOMBA MASTER!

When the Zoomba ended, I assumed the race would start. But instead, a little girl in a wheelchair was given a microphone. She was maybe 7 years old. She told the crowd how, a couple of years ago, she started having headaches and dizzy spells. The doctors discovered cancer in her brain and quickly operated and gave her six months of chemotherapy. Then the doctors did another operation to remove more cancer and then there was another round of chemo.

I know this isn’t much fun to hear, and it wasn’t much fun to listen to either. Of course, as hard as it was to listen to, I’m sure it was much, much harder for her.

This brave little girl sat in her wheelchair and explained to 12,000 runners how she grew weak from the chemotherapy and had to use a wheelchair to get around. Then she took off her red hat and cried, “And I lost all my hair!”

I was crying now and everyone around me was crying too, and I was glad that we’d done that Zoomba business first, because we certainly weren’t in the mood for it now. And I thought, this is why we are running this race: to drop-kick this stupid! bloody! disease! into the filthy Welland Canal!

Rankin Run canal

After the little girl finished her speech, everyone started moving toward the starting line. The teacher who’d invited me to run the race pulled an orange card out her pocket and wrote the word “Mom” on it.

“What’s that?” I said.

“It’s who you’re running for,” she said. She pinned the card to the shoulder of my t-shirt.

I smiled. My Mom had cancer more than a decade ago. She’s now 12+ years, cancer free.

Rankin Run 2014

The race began. I ran with a group of kids from Westmount School, many of whom had orange cards pinned to their t-shirts too. As we ran we talked about the people we were running for, and of course, we talked a lot about books.

“Why do some people have orange shirts?” I asked suddenly.

Most of the runners were wearing white t-shirts, but here and there, I saw people dressed in orange.

“They’re the cancer survivors,” a grade five student answered.

Rankin Run canal 2

We ran out to lock 3 and then turned around and came back. We passed a 900-foot freighter along the way. Some of the sailors looked down from the bridge and waved.

We finished the race strong, with a time of 37:30.

Of course, I’m used to running 100-mile races, which are 32 times longer than a 5k race. So I said goodbye to that first group of kids and headed back onto the course. Eventually I caught up with more Team Ultra kids. These students were walking, and they were fans of my book, so we walked and chatted, and they gave me some excellent suggestions for my second novel.

This time, we finished the race in 1:26:36.  It was the first time I’ve ever finished the same race twice!

* * *

After the barbecue and the goodbyes and the hugs I drove out to Short Hills Provincial Park. I was energised from all the conversations I’d had with the kids, and I still felt the need to do some running. So I pounded myself, running up and down those spiky hills, and splashing through thigh-deep mud-slicks. At the end of my run I was way too mucky to get in the car, so I jumped into a fast-moving river to rinse myself off. A huge water snake darted between my legs. I shrieked with terror, then started to laugh. I thought about how lucky I was to be standing there, in a healthy body, snakes and all. And I sent that little girl in the wheelchair a whispered prayer of support.

Run hard. Be kind to others. You’ll feel ten feet tall.

 

 

If “Ultra” Were a Picture Book

My novel Ultra doesn’t have any pictures. But that doesn’t stop readers from drawing their own.

Here are some illustrations, drawn by kids, based on scenes in the book.

Ollie Cheers on Quinn

As you may or may not know, Ultra is about a 13 year-old boy, named Quinn, who enters a 100-mile footrace. Quinn runs all day and all night through a rugged forest. His little brother Ollie cheers him on, mostly over the phone.

Quinn has all sorts of crazy adventures during his 24-hour run. He sees hallucinations, meets crazy people, runs up and down mountains, and encounters extreme weather. He even has a run-in with a bear:

Laura Meets the Bear

As he runs, Quinn thinks about his family, who he misses. He begins to think that he’ll never see them again, and that he’ll never finish this crazy race.

At midnight, after running for 18 hours, he arrives at the magical 75-mile rest station. There’s a disco ball hanging from a tree.

The Disco Ball at Mile 75

The disco ball gives him power and strength. So does the Krazy Glue on his feet (don’t ask)!

Eventually Quinn reaches the finish line. But does he beat the evil Dirt Eater? Is his family there to cheer him on? And why did he run this crazy race in the first place?

You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Quinn`s Big Finish

Thanks to the brilliant artists at St. Bridget’s School in Brooklin, Ontario for these amazing pictures. You all deserve a belt buckle!

More Real-Life Superheroes!

The best thing about writing a book is you get to meet all sorts of inspiring people.

David and Nathan on stage

You are looking at a real-life superhero.

I don’t mean me. I’m talking about the young man I’m hugging. His name is Nathan Duke, and he introduced me at the Silver Birch Book Awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago.

OLA Forest of Reading festival

I don’t know how often you speak to an audience of 2000+ people, but I never do. Man, I was scared! My stomach felt like it was full of frogs.

Nathan, on the other hand, was totally calm. He breezed up to the microphone and started chatting with that audience as if he was Jimmy Fallon. He’d written a funny speech about how I wasn’t athletic when I was a kid, and how I’d never dreamed that I could write a book. As he spoke, I thought to myself, He’s the real writer, not me!

After Nathan said my name, I was so humbled and impressed, I jumped up and gave him a big hug. Let’s take another look at that picture, shall we?

David and Nathan on stage

That is probably my favourite picture in the world. Me hugging one of Canada’s most gifted young orators. One day, I hope to return Nathan’s favour. I can’t wait to introduce him when his book gets nominated for an award!

* * *

Here’s another inspirational person:

Dave and unnamed girl at St. Jude's

Her name is Paige Marchant. She came up to say hello to me after I gave a presentation at her school. Her last name sounded familiar, so I said, “Did you know there’s a famous marathoner named Marchant?”

“I know,” said Paige. “She’s my aunt.”

Lanni Marchant is Canada’s fastest female marathoner. Last October she set a new Canadian record, running the marathon in a blistering time of 2:28:00.

“Lanni Marchant is your aunt?” I gasped.

Paige nodded. I knelt down on the floor and shook her hand. It felt like I was touching royalty. I was.

lanni

 

 

Finding Your Pace

It took a while, but I’ve finally figured it out. I know what I want to do when I grow up.

It came to me in a flash, last Friday. I was in St. Catharines, attending an all-day student conference. I’d been asked to deliver a keynote speech, about how reading is, Iike, the greatest thing ever. I gave the speech and none of the kids booed, and then I got to lead some running workshops.

I know: hilarious. The guy who flunked out of gym – teaching kids how to run!

I gave it my best shot. I taught the students about the fantastic four forces of ultra fitness: fuel, fearlessness, focus and fartlek. Yes, fartlek. It’s a Swedish word, meaning speed-play. I.e. Running at high speed in short, controlled bursts. Speed play is important if you want to teach your leg muscles to run faster. “You can do it on a treadmill,” I told the kids, “or you can race up and down a bunch of hills. But hill-running can be brutally boring. I prefer to play…Manhunt.”

Manhunt is the perfect fartlek workout. There`s a lot of hard sprinting, but it`s also easy to sneak in some recovery periods by looping away from the action. So for the next twenty minutes me and twenty surprisingly fast 6th graders sprinted back and forth through a muddy field.

muddy run

I discovered that there are two types of Manhunt players. Those (like me) who are afraid of mud, and those (much more prevalent) who are definitely not. After the workshop, I noticed that a few of the kids had brown stripes down their backs. Actually, more than a few. A lot. I went to the bathroom and surveyed myself. I resembled a brown skunk too.

Oh well, no point fighting it. I still had two more workshops left to lead. And somewhere along the line I thought to myself: this is what I want to do ALWAYS. I don’t want to be a gym teacher exactly. But I want to inspire kids to learn things I never learned at their age. I want them to know that a healthy body is a gift. That there’s virtually no limit to its powers. And they should know that pain isn`t always something to be avoided. It can also be a reminder that you’re alive.

rotary-park-scenery1

After the conference ended, I led a group of keeners on what was billed as an “ultra run.” Me and 30 kids, along with an intrepid group of parent volunteers, hit the trails along the banks of 12 Mile Creek. As we ran, I asked the kids about St. Catharines. They used phrases I hadn’t heard in decades: Martindale Pond, the Henley Regatta, the Welland Canal. These kids had been to the Grape and Wine Festival Parade, they understood the sadness of the carousel at Port Dalhousie. There’s a tiny thread between us, I thought, as we ran beneath the Niagara Escarpment; that brittle curtain of limestone that hinges me to this province.

I ran with the fast kids, then alongside the slower kids, then with the middle-of-the-packers. We were out there for an hour or so. When I eventually staggered back to the conference centre, an impish blonde kid was laughing at me.

“Beat you!” she cried.

“But it wasn’t a race,” I said.

She grinned. “It’s always a race.”

I laughed at that. She was right, of course. It is always a race. I loved that she’d figured that out.

Everyone cheered as the last of the runners cruised into the parking lot. We high-fived and fist-bumped and slowly but surely, all the kids climbed into their parents` cars and drove away. I felt a little bit like Wilbur the Pig, watching Charlotte’s baby spiders blow away on the wind. “Goodbye! Goodbye! Goodbye!” they cried. I stood there in the cold wind, all alone, wondering where all my new running buddies had gone.

I got in the car. Raindrops hit the wind-shield and the wipers slashed them away. I drove past my primary school but it wasn’t there anymore. It was just a cluster of townhomes.

For a few moments, I felt sad and gutted. But then I pulled onto the highway and cranked up some tunes. I thought about the kids I’d run with during the day, especially the ones who`d fearlessly charged straight through the puddles.

I massaged my shoulders as I drove. The post-workout burn was kicking in. I wanted a coffee but I didn’t want to stop. I was tired and happy and driving below the speed limit in the slow lane. Sometimes the slow lane is the absolute best – if you can allow yourself to be okay with driving slow.

 

Blindfolded in Boston

hopkinton

Did I mention that I’m not in Boston right now? That I’m not running the fabled marathon, on this, the most emotional of years?

I’m thinking of my friends who are running the race. Not least Rhonda-Marie Avery, who I’ve written about before, and who was on the course last year when the bombing happened.

My Boston experiences pale by comparison (thank goodness), but I do have some choice memories. I ran the 2008 race with my buddy Kai, who, like Rhonda-Marie, is blind. Kai had asked me to be his guide, but I don’t think I did a very good job. Thanks to me, he nearly did a face-plant on the infamous “Three Mile Island.”

“Buddy!” I shouted. “Veer left!  Veer left!”

Three Mile Island is a cement protrusion in the middle of Route 135 near Ashland. If you’re running in the middle of the pack, or drafting behind another competitor, it’s easy to miss the warning signs and pilons. Half the runners go right and the other half go left.  If you’re not careful, you’ll smack into the cement wall.

“Kai!” I screamed. “LOOK OUT!”

I grabbed his sleeve and yanked him out of harm’s way.

“What was that?” Kai asked.

“An early death,” I said.

When Kai was still a teenager, macular degeneration robbed him of ninety percent of his central vision. Mercifully, the disease (called Stargardt’s) left his peripheral vision intact.  And it’s those twin curtains of sight that allow Kai to run with some degree of confidence – to deke left and right, and to find the gaps between other runners.

“I actually feel pretty comfortable running in a pack,” Kai told me. “I can see the contours of people ahead of me. So all I have to do is find my opening and keep up with the crowd.”

Although he chose me to be his guide, Kai had no particular interest in being tethered to me by a rope. Nor was he interested in pinning a bright yellow BLIND RUNNER sign to the back of his jersey. “Thousands of cute Wellesley girls, and you want me to advertise that I’ve got a disability?” he said.

So we ran side by side. Kai was worried about slowing me down, but I assured him that I wasn’t looking for a PR. “I’ve run lots of marathons for speed,” I told him.  “I’m looking forward to actually seeing this race.”

So there we were, two best friends, clipping along at a 3:50 pace.

“Who’s that singing?” Kai asked me at the 10-mile mark. We could hear a karaoke version of Cracklin’ Rosie.

“There’s a Neil Diamond impersonator standing on the roof of his El Dorado,” I said.

Ten minutes later we heard intoxicated screaming.

“Who’s that?” said Kai.

“Hundreds of drunken dudes,” I said. “They’re lobbing beer cans to the runners.”

“Can you grab us some?”

As we ran, it occurred to me that this was my true role as Kai’s guide: to animate the lunacy of the race for him. After all, running Boston is only half the fun.  Watching the crazy people on the sidelines is almost as good.

Heartbreak Hill

Heartbreak Hill

Before Boston, I’d run a hundred marathons for time, but in retrospect, I’d done those exclusively for myself. This was the first race where my eyes were fully open.

There is a photograph of Kai and I completing the race together. Our arms are raised, and we appear to be laughing.

“Where’s the finish line?” Kai said.

“Right behind you,” I said.

Dave and Kai

Real-Life Superhero

Rhonda-Marie

The superhero runner

There she is. Her name is Rhonda-Marie Avery. She’s got three kids, works as a RMT, and this summer she’s going to run the entire 885-kilometer Bruce Trail.

bruceTrailMap

This winding footpath starts in a sleepy fishing village on the northeastern shore of Lake Huron, and follows the rugged Niagara Escarpment all the way south to Niagara Falls. Rhonda-Marie plans to cover that distance in 20 DAYS (!), which means she’ll have to run 45 kilometers each day. This would be a Herculean feat for the toughest of runners. But Rhonda-Marie has an extra challenge: she’s legally blind.

Rhonda-Marie was born with a rare genetic eye disorder called achromatopsia, which means she has no cones in her retina. She figures she has 8 per cent vision. But she hasn’t let this disability slow her down. Five years ago, when she was 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.

It won’t be easy, of course.

Rugged Bruce Trail

The Bruce Trail features ankle-busting limestone outcrops, yawning crevasse caves and, uh, cliffs.

Bruce trail Cliffs

But the biggest danger RMA may face…is me. For two days in August, I’ll be her “guide.”

fear

It’ll be my job to point out the rocks, roots, holes, streams and rivers along the trail. It’ll be Rhonda-Marie’s job (God help her) to trust my judgment.

I met Rhonda-Marie for the first time the other day. We got together with some friends at a remote section of trail near Ravenna, Ontario. It was below zero and the wind was howling. We ran for 4 1/2 hours through waist-high snow. I took a turn as Rhonda-Marie’s guide. I ran five feet ahead of her (about the length of a piano keyboard); close enough that she could make out the motion of my body. I pointed out the ice patches, and the tree branches at eye-level. At one point I ran down a little gulley.

“Whoa!” Rhonda-Marie cried out behind me. “You need to tell me when we’re going downhill!”

I asked Rhonda-Marie how she felt about this summer’s challenge; if she felt intimidated by the enormity of the distance. “Of course,” she said. “But I’ll be fine as long as my guides follow the rules.”

“What rules?” I asked.

“Rule number one,” Rhonda-Marie said, “is ALWAYS LIE!”

Of course, I thought. Ultra runners are in near-constant pain, and need a steady stream of inspiration in order to keep their legs moving. So when an ultra-runner asks: “How high is this hill?” the correct answer is always: “Not high at all!” And when they ask, “How much further until we eat?” the correct answer is always “We’re almost there!”

“Got it,” I said. “Anything else?”

“Rule number two…” Rhonda-Marie said, “is DON’T CODDLE! If I complain or slow down, kick my butt. Don’t ever feel sorry for me – unless I break my leg or something.”

And rule number three?

Rhonda-Marie smiled. “Rule number three is…there’s no such thing as snakes or bears.”

limehouse

Rhonda-Marie’s epic adventure begins on August 4th. That means she’s got 3 1/2 months of training left. Every week she does two back-to-back long runs ranging from 20 to 50 km, two shorter runs (10 to 15 km), three swims (two to six km), and two bike rides (four hours or so).

You can follow her progress, and support the cause (and Achilles Canada), HERE.