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.
Sometimes I don’t know what to make of this crazy sport. Why we’re drawn to take part in such an extreme activity.
Blisters, fractures, torn ligaments, twisted ankles, dehydration, hypothermia, renal failure… Sounds like a fun weekend, right?
We could join a book club. Take tango lessons. Help out in a soup kitchen.
But no. We run through a forest for 24 hours. A forest crawling with bears and wolves and bone-grinding hills.
This year, I promised myself I’d run Haliburton for fun. Not to podium, Not to P.B., not to beat some random number on a clock. Of course, when I learned, after 35 miles, that I was running 4th, something primal went CLICK inside my brain.
Me, after 57 miles
Suddenly I HAD to maintain that position! It seemed the most important thing in the world.
Palestine/Israel? Don’t waste my time.
Melting ice caps? Sorry; can’t hear you!
4th place – now THAT’S worth fighting for!
It always shocks me, how self-absorbed I become on the trail. I turn into this weird creature. A strange animal.
Trail races can be frustrating because it’s impossible to see your closest competitor. They could be ten kilometers behind you, or they might be 100 paces back. There’s no way of knowing. The only thing you can do is run as fast as you can.
I ran hard through the afternoon and banked some good mileage. Sunshine slanted through the trees, and then it got dark and I pulled on my tights and jacket and headlamp. At a certain point, my stomach gave out. I couldn’t get any food into me. Finally I realized my problem. I needed salt! I gobbled a bunch of e-caps and drank gallons of e-load, and a few minutes later my appetite returned. Suddenly I was ravenous! I snorfed down bananas, sweet potatoes, pressure-treated lumber, Uniroyal snow tires…
At 9 p.m. a full moon rose into the sky. It was blood orange at first, and then it turned white. Every time I looked up, it was in a different place. Wind blew through the trees. The forest felt haunted.
My favourite moment occurred at Aid Station #6. After force-feeding me some of his world-famous burritos, Gary Black turned to me and said, “So Dave, how do you feel about bears?”
A bear had been spotted nearby on the trail. I put on my brave pants and jogged back into the night, singing Katy Perry tunes at the top of my lungs.
An hour later, I stopped to pee. I was happy to be peeing. It meant my kidneys were still working.
Eventually I got to the 75-mile aid station. The volunteers cheered and banged cowbells and plied me with food. I was mostly animal now, but I still remembered some English, so I thanked them and gave the luckier ones a sweaty hug.
As I stood there chatting, I was reminded what makes this sport so great. Ultra-running is probably the only sport in the world where the participants are constantly told that they are awesome. It doesn’t happen in bowling. Probably doesn’t happen in the NFL either. But in ultra-running you hear it all the time. You are awesome.The volunteers kept saying it to me, God knows why. I’d done nothing to earn their praise. Quite the opposite. They were the awesome ones! They could’ve spent the day relaxing on a verandah with a book, but instead they were out here in the middle of a forest, being abused by cranky runners, filling water bottles and swabbing blisters and picking paper cups and sticky gel wrappers off the ground!
And then there were the ultra volunteers; the ones who’d sacrificed their entire vacations to make this race happen; the ones who’d planted 100 miles worth of flags, couriered supplies, negotiated sponsorships, and dealt with the finances. I’m talking about the Helen Malmbers and Don Kuzenkos and Gary Blacks and Merle Tubmans of the world. The people who sweat this race into being year after year. There are others, of course, and you know who are. Please know that your tireless work does not go unnoticed. You are awesome.
After the 75 mile aid station, the trail doubles back on itself, which means you get to pass the people behind you. After running 2 kilometers I passed my closest competitor, who was still on his way out to the turn-around.
‘You are awesome!’ he shouted as he flashed by.
“No, YOU’RE awesome!” I called back. And he truly is. A lovely guy.
It was a shame that I was going to have to crush him.
I thought about him often as I ran, and the fact that he was a mere 4 kilometers behind. It didn’t seem like much of a cushion, considering I still had 40 kilometers left to run. Every time I slowed down to walk up a hill, I imagined him bounding over the hills behind me like a gazelle. He was steadily gaining ground, I felt sure. That’s why I did what I did.
What did I do? Something I’m not proud of. At 3 a.m., and with five kilometers left to run, the animal inside me took control. I doused my headlamp and ran in the dark. It wasn’t easy, but the full moon helped, and the logging road was fairly smooth and easy to follow.
Why did I do this? So my pursuer wouldn’t see my light. If he saw my light, he’d be filled with hope, and doubtless would try to pass me. I couldn’t let that happen. I needed to extinguish all his hope. That’s right – I’m the hope-killer.
See that face? Looks friendly, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled. It’s the face of a beast.
Even though I’d been determined to run this race just for fun, I couldn’t, in the end, allow my pursuer to claim fourth place. To that end, I became conniving, fox-like. I truly did become a strange animal.
That’s the thing about the 100 mile race. You think it’s going to be an adventure. You think you’re going to Hogwarts or something. But when you get there, you find you’re in Mordor instead.
It’s not Disneyland out there; it’s Lord of the Flies.
That’s what makes the sport so great. After 30 miles, and mountains of pain, something goes CLICK inside your mind. You’re still human, and you’re awesome, but the animal is off its leash. It’s not something we get to see very often.
Here I am again, two days out. The Haliburton Forest 100-Mile race is less than 48 hours away.
I went shopping last night. Bought E-tabs, Wet-Ones, Bag Balm, batteries for the headlamp, gels, Clif bars, Advil, yams, energy drinks, fig newtons, yogurt-covered raisins…
Drop bags all packed
When I got home I packed my gear. Sleevies, compression shirts, windbreaker, fleece, long tights, toque, gloves, two pair of shorts. Rain is expected, so I packed extra shoes and socks. Body glide to help with chafing.
The race starts at 6 a.m. Saturday. By the time you’re eating breakfast, I’ll have run 15 miles. By the time you sit down to dinner, I’ll likely have run 50. When you go to bed, I’ll hopefully be closing in on 75.
Last year I broke 22 hours and placed third. It’s unlikely I’ll do so well this year. Frankly, I’d be thrilled to break 24 hours. That’s the closest thing I have to a goal.
So why am I running; if I don’t have a goal?
I want to leap off the on-ramp to my normal life and float around in a parallel universe of pain. I want to be reminded what it feels like to hurt. To feel photon torpedoes of agony rip through my quadriceps and calves. I want that woe-is-me feeling you get from grinding up Poachers Trail at 3 in the morning, when it’s pouring rain and blacker than charcoal, and wolves are howling in the forest to your right.
Some people go clubbing, others leak state secrets. Some folks join terrorist groups for fun.
Me, I like to run until it hurts. Until my muscles feel like steaks sizzling on a Hibachi.
364 days a year, I lead a quiet, contented life. But one night a year, I need to dig deep.
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:
I have lots of running heroes. And almost all of them are women.
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.
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.
(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:
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!)
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.
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:
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 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!
Thanks to the brilliant artists at St. Bridget’s School in Brooklin, Ontario for these amazing pictures. You all deserve a belt buckle!
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.
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.
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.