Running in London

My life changed on a Thursday. Last Thursday, actually.

I drove down to London and visited a bunch of schools. School visits are one of my favourite things to begin with, but it was a gorgeous day, all sunny and spring-like, and the kids I met were more beautiful than brand-new iPhones, and the energy in the classrooms was all hoverboards and high-fives. 20140129_090301_1 I had a total ball at all those schools. But that isn’t what changed my life. At the end of the day I visited St. Robert’s Catholic School, and did my usual “Ultra talk” for a class of sixth graders. The teacher had read almost all of my novel to the kids, and after my presentation was over, the kids asked me if the Urinal Hockey League actually existed in real life (it did!) and are there really bandits in running races (there are!) and have you really run into bears in the forest (many!). We took crazy group pictures while Katy Perry blasted from the boom-box, and then the kids asked, will you come outside and run with us?

The last period of the day was about to begin. It was their P.E. class.

Since it was so beautiful and I had my running shoes with me, of course I said YES!

I thought we’d maybe do a few easy laps around the schoolyard.  But after we’d conga-lined out the back door and into the bright sunshine, the P.E. teacher said, “Okay, let’s play Manhunt. Caleb, you’re it!  Who do you choose as a partner?”

Caleb glanced around, and then chose me.

ME! It was the FIRST TIME I’ve been ever picked first for a sports team!

And do you know what? I rocked at that game! As a kid I was terrible at soccer and basketball and volleyball and baseball and just about any other game with a ball, but when it came to Manhunt, I was THE MASTER!

Manhunt, by the way, is basically tag, except that two people start out being it, and slowly but surely tag everyone else. Once the other kids are tagged, they become “it” too, and join in the hunt, helping to chase down the last remaining players. Manhunt is basically nothing more than a 15-minute SPRINT. And I was sprinting after some extremely speedy sixth-graders!

It was the best possible way to end a long day. We laughed and screamed and bounded around that schoolyard like gazelles!  I wasn’t a grownup anymore. I was eleven years old. Eventually I tagged someone, and Caleb tagged someone too and our little group of “it” people grew and grew.

When the game ended we pleaded with the teacher to let us play again. He said yes.

What that game ended we pleaded with him again.

When the third game ended we convinced him that daily physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle, so of course he had to let us play one more game.

After the fourth game, the teacher gathered all of us kids in a quiet corner of the playground, and he had us sit down on a bunch of boulders. Then he handed me a beat-up copy of Ultra. “Would you mind?” he asked. “We’re only five pages from the end.”

He wanted me to read the end of the book to the kids! I was hesitant. That’s a very intense section of the book. In those final 5 pages, Quinn not only saves ——–, he also gets passed by ——— and nearly loses ———-, but then he thinks of ———, and sees ——— and ———, and there’s an intense final showdown with ——— at the finish line. And the whole time the clock is ticking…

The kids cheered and cheered until I agreed to read. I got a bit emotional as I turned the pages, and I actually choked up a couple of times. I often read from the novel in my school visits, but I’ve never read THE ACTUAL CLIMAX!  The kids were RAPT. They were so totally into it, and we were outside in the sun, and we’d just spent an hour racing around the schoolyard.

When I finished the last few sentences the kids stared at me in silence. “Keep going,” someone said.

“I can’t,” I said. “That’s the end.”

I was shocked to find that the book was actually pretty good.  I hadn’t really expected that.

“That can’t be the end!” said Caleb. “You have to write a sequel!”

On the two-hour drive home, I couldn’t stop singing.

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.

 

The Freakishness of the Long Distance Runner (Video)

So there I was, bouncing around in an Ontario classroom, talking about my novel Ultra, and sharing some of my craziest running stories. A brilliant documentary filmmaker happened to be there, and she made this little video about me:

 

Many thanks to Lisa Lightbourn-Lay for making that video. The still images were provided by my photog brother Andy.

The Ultra-Running Birthday Party

A young friend of mine recently celebrated her 7th birthday. Instead of going bowling or having dinner at Chuck E. Cheese’s, she asked her mom for a “spa” birthday party.

spa picture

A lady came over with her spa equipment and gave the girls (and two boys) manicures and pedicures. Then she gave the kids chocolate facial masks. “Most of us ate our faces,” my young friend told me.

The partiers enjoyed spa-licious smoothies, applied glitter tattoos, and sashayed about the house in fluffy bathrobes. They listened to spa music, read magazines, lit candles, and of course had a pillow fight. At the end of the afternoon, they put on a fashion show.

Sounds amazing, right? And it gave me an idea. If kids are having “spa” birthdays, shouldn’t there be an option for “ultra-running” parties too?

running cake

Say it’s your birthday. I could drop by your house in my running gear. To begin, I’d show you and your friends how to lace up your shoes properly. You’d be amazed how many different ways there are to lace up your shoes. It’s positively thrilling!

After that, I’d share stories about my craziest runs. Like the time I ran from Mississaugua to Brantford and drank eleven whole litres of water. Ot the time I jogged the rail trail from Dundalk to Owen Sound and counted every single railway tie along the route (14,157). Talk about a geyser of fun! This would be the best birthday EVER.

Soon enough, it would be time for the main event! We’d all go outside and run a few hundred laps around your yard. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too muddy. But even if it was, it would just add to the fun:

muddy kids

Since not everyone is super athletic, we’d keep the run short – just 3 or 4 hours. Along the way, I’d share tips on proper hydration and nutrition, and tell you and your friends how to avoid cramps and shinsplints.

Eventually, we’d stop to refuel. But you wouldn’t find any cake at this “ultra-running” party. Instead we’d feast on runner’s food: baked sweet potatoes, kale salad, dates and almonds, cauliflower and broccoli flowerets. If things got crazy we might open a bag of antioxidant-rich snow peas. It’ll be all fireworks and high-fives and hoverboards.

Am I crazy, or is this a BRILLIANT idea?! Let me know what you think – I’m still working out the kinks.

 

Real Life Superhero #7: Garrett Bobowski

Last year I wrote a book about a 13 year-old kid who, for all sorts of personal reasons, runs 100 miles.

It was a complete and utter work of fiction. No part of that book actually happened.

But as you know, truth is often stranger than fiction. And this is one of those times.

garrett 1_0

See that crazy runner? His name is Garrett Bobowski. He’s 8 years old. And as you can see, he’s got textbook running form.

He’s also got amazing endurance. See, this young athlete from Johnstown, N.Y. is that close to having run 100 miles in 100 school days.

It’s a goal he set for himself back in September. He’s run 95 miles so far, with just 5 left to go.  He’s got exactly one week to finish the job. The 100th day of school is February 25th.

So why is Garrett doing this crazy thing? To raise money to help kids who are fighting leukemia and lymphoma.

Garrett and his Mom

Garrett and his Mom

You can read more about Garrett’s quest, and contribute to his fundraising goal, by going here and here.

(Click now! Superheroes need your support!)

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!

Don’t Let the Path Beat You Down

“If you don’t get off the beaten path, then the path has beaten you.”

I didn’t write that line. My dear friend, and radio celebrity, Brent Bambury, wrote it for a radio show we created together many years ago. I remembered the sentiment this morning, after glancing at my lame-o running log:

Uninspired Training log page

Sigh. Between the polar vortexes and the icy sidewalks, my running routine has become as boring as the Oscars. Each day I take the same route to get to work. And then I take the same route home.

I call it the work-home axis. And lately it’s become a very deep trench.

Contrast it with the running I was doing last summer:

Inspired Training log page

Now, that was a fun week of running!

If you want to be a good runner (or a good writer for that matter), you need variety. Jogging on the same stretch of sidewalk every day isn’t only dull, it’s not all that great for your body. Sure, you’ll work a few muscles in your legs and core, but over time, other muscles will turn to Jell-o from disuse. We need to exercise all the parts of our bodies – abs, shoulders, chest, back, and especially our brains! I’m not saying we all need to join a gym. There are lots of easy ways of getting active. Help a friend move and lift some boxes, go to a yoga class, or spend a few hours hauling kids up your nearest tobogganing hill.

Here’s what I just did to shake up my routine:

Coss Country skiing

Photo credit: Shawna Watson

There aren’t a lot of things I like more than running, but strapping huge fiberglass planks to my feet, and throwing myself down icy slopes at wholly unimaginable speeds is right up there.  Totally yanked me out of my mid-winter funk! And afterwards, I got to write this in my log:

Training log - skiing

The Rewrite Blues

Did any of you have a good weekend? I hope so – because I didn’t.

Chapter 24, page 153, Rewrite #3

I spent the whole weekend re-writing the final chapter of my second novel. It was a grind. I didn’t go outside once. I considered hiking out to the drive shed to split some kindling for the fire but in the end I didn’t even do that. Stayed inside instead. Kept going back to chapter 24. Oh my Lord, it’s so uninspired. It’s the chapter that comes after the climax, so it’s all epilogue and tying up plot complications and trying to frog-march my main characters into a big group hug. They’re not having any of it, of course. Instead, they keep yapping at each other, venting their frustrations, squabbling, coming up with petty reasons why the book shouldn’t end.

ideas

Worse, the writing is completely uninspired. It doesn’t even feel like writing; it’s just a bunch of linguistic droppings.

Relax, Dave.  You’ve been here before. It’s just a part of the creative process.

True. I’ll re-write the chapter again today, and then again tomorrow, and probably the day after that as well. At some point (maybe a year from now) it’ll turn into real writing.

By the way, this novel, unlike my last one, doesn’t contain any running. Instead, it’s about a kid who loves mountain biking.

mountain biking rush

So I did have a little bit of fun this weekend, recalling my experiences as a cyclist, and writing phrases like this:

Flecks of mud thrown up by the tires; puddle-spray slishing against his legs and…

Finn thought of that bike frame as an extension of his own body, extra bones that…

Adrenaline blitzed his senses, sparks were detonating in his retinas…

He kicked harder, until his lungs were bursting. The pain in his legs began to spike…

His tires slipped in the gravel and he cranked the bike forward so hard the frame made cracking noises…

I also did some mountain bike research, like watching this:

To DNF or Not to DNF?

Warning: a graphic picture of my feet appears in this post.

But first, a very pleasant image:

r-BABY-BATS-large570

A bunch of baby bats, wrapped up in little blankets.  I don’t know why they’re wrapped up like that.  Maybe they were cold and wet.  Just like me, last September…

***

I already mentioned that I run 100-mile races, right?  That once or twice a year I go to some remote forest, line up with a bunch of crazy people, and run without sleeping for 24+ hours.

It’s a weird sport called ultra-running.  I’ve run a dozen or so of these ultra-marathons in the last five years.

Every single time, I finished successfully.  Until September 2012.  When I ultra-failed.

The Haliburton Forest Trail Run is held at the Haliburton Wildlife Reserve; a sustainable forest tucked into the armpit of Algonquin Park.  You run 25 miles out into the heart of the forest, then you turn around and run 25 miles back.  And then you do the whole thing OVER AGAIN.

Here’s what the starting line looked like at 5:59 a.m.

At the starting line

This is how it looked 90 seconds later:

6 AM, and they're off

One hundred miles. 160 kilometers. Half a million strides. Starting NOW.

The race took place September 8, 2012 which, in case you’ve forgotten, was a rainy day. Very rainy, come to think of it.  It rained for eighteen hours before the race began, and then, for good measure, it rained another 12 hours while the race was happening.  This created a lot of mud.

Here I am at the 50 mile turnaround:

David Haliburton 2012

I look happy, don’t I?  Don’t be fooled.  I’d been running for ten hours, and I was far from happy.  I was…what’s the word….oh yeah – UNHAPPY.

Everyone was in pain out there.  At mile 54, I caught up with a young guy named Pablo.  Pablo was having trouble with his hip, and he squinted with every step he took.  He wasn’t giving up, though.   “Pain equals learning,” he told me.  “If you aren’t feeling any pain, then you’re not learning anything.”

The rain finally stopped, and darkness fell.  At the 68-mile checkpoint I pulled on my headlamp.  I ran for two miles, then noticed that the light was flickering.  Cheap Dollar Store batteries!  I ran two miles back to the aid station and picked up my spares.  These worked fine, but I’d had to run four miles out of my way.

(2nd warning – that picture of my feet is coming soon!)

I reached the 75-mile checkpoint by 11pm, which meant I still had a shot at finishing the race in 24 hours.  Shawna surprised me at the aid station.  She fed me yogurt-covered raisins and salted yams, and told me that I looked surprisingly good, considering the circumstances.

Luckily, she didn’t ask to see my feet.

Dave's gnarly feet 1

Those are the tops of my feet.  Believe me, you don’t want to see the bottoms.

Remember, I’d been running through muddy oil-slicks for 17 hours straight.  I probably should have changed shoes and socks and greased my feet with Vaseline, but that would have taken an extra twenty minutes (it takes a lot of time to perform these seemingly simple manoeuvres when you’re wet and cold from 17 hours of running).

I ran on.  I made it to the 85 mile checkpoint, but then things started to fall apart.  At the top of a hill, I saw a two-storey marble sculpture of a rabbit.  I ran closer and realized it wasn’t a marble sculpture at all, but a tree.  I became dizzy.  My feet were SCREAMING with pain.  So was the chafing on my, er, undercarriage.  I slowed down to a walk.  And then, without the heat generated from the running, my body temperature plummeted.

I was wearing three layers of clothes, plus a running jacket and tights, but it wasn’t enough.  The temperature dipped down to 5 degrees, and I began shivering uncontrollably.  I could barely hike the hills I’d pranced up earlier in the day.  A germ of an idea took root in my mind.  You don’t have to finish if you don’t want to, it said.

It’s called a DNF, and it stands for Did Not Finish.  I’d never DNF’d in my life.

But the pain in my feet was getting worse and it felt like my butt cheeks were being ripped to shreds with every step.  The germ solidified in my mind.

And so, at 3 a.m., after running 89 miles (which was actually 93 if you count the extra miles I ran to get my spare batteries), I did something truly crazy.  At the intersection of Ben’s Trail and Krista Trail, right near the makeshift Shrine which was the inspiration for a VERY IMPORTANT SCENE in my newly published novel (“ULTRA,” Scholastic), I intentionally walked off the trail.

“This is how it feels to DNF,” I told myself, stepping over the line of orange and pink flags.

And you know what?

It felt GREAT.

Mind you, after leaving the course, I still had to bushwhack two more miles through the forest before I stumbled upon a logging road.  And then I had to wait until a car came along and mercifully picked me up.  So in the end I figured I covered 95 miles.

Which wasn’t enough.

****

23 people finished that race.  31 DNF’d.

Pablo, that guy I’d chatted with during the race, was one of the successful ones.  I cheered as he crossed the finish line.  When he saw me, he beamed.

“How did you do?” he asked.

“I DNF’d,” I admitted.  “I couldn’t handle the mud.”

“What?  No!  You were looking so good out there!”

It took a while to convince him that this was good, that this was my decision, and I was comfortable with it.  I’ve had plenty of successful races before, and I wanted to see how failure played out.  There is a cult around winning, around success, completion.  But there is a wintry beauty in its opposite – in failure, chances lost.

“Pain equals learning,” I reminded Pablo.

He grinned, leaned down and rubbed his hip.  “Then we must be geniuses now,” he said.

* * *

One last thought on pain and learning.

rejection letter

This is a standard rejection letter, from one of those highbrow literary journals that almost all writers dream of getting published in, but that very few people actually read.  I’ve got millions of these forms lying around, from all the lousy short stories I sent out over the years.

Every one of those letters stung.   But as Pablo pointed out in the race, pain can be instructive.

If you’re going to be a writer, you’ll have to deal with rejection at some point.  But you can view these rejections in one of two ways:

1) You can see them as stop signs.  As brick walls.

2) Or you can see them as an invitation to keep pushing.

If you’re suffering from hypothermia, or excruciating chafing, by all means, take some time off to recover.  Otherwise, keep writing.  The finish line is out there – somewhere.