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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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

Aren’t We All Running 100 Mile Races?

“One heals suffering only by experiencing it to the full.”

-Marcel Proust.

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I’ve got a 100-mile race coming up in two weeks.  I’m excited about running it, but I’m psyching myself up for the pain I’ll suffer over 24+ hours.  It’s gonna hurt.

People tell me I’m crazy for running these races; for inviting such discomfort into my life.  But like the Proust quote above, I really do believe that pain teaches us things we can’t learn anywhere else.  Important things, like, how it feels to go hypothermic, and to have the blisters on your feet sliced open with a razor blade and then sealed glued back together with Krazy Glue.

I know that sounds unpleasant, but for some reason, I can’t wait!  I’m a glutton for punishment.  But aren’t we all?  Aren’t we all running our own 100 mile races?

If you’re a parent, you know what I mean.  Parenthood is endless worry and diaper-changing and housecleaning and chauffeuring and heartbreak and sleep deprivation, but whoa! – those moments of beauty…  And the stuff you learn!

Kids are running 100 mile races too.  School, for instance, starts in a week. That’s a 100 mile race.  And whether you’re passionate about gymnastics, or want to play for the NHL, or want to become a rock star, or write novels, or climb mountains, or write computer code, all those things take a huge amount of work and commitment.  All those things are like 100 mile races.

Life is a hundred mile race!  It can be painful but…it’s full of learning and beauty and people who love us and who are hopefully standing by with a cup of hot chocolate and a tube of Krazy Glue.

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Out-of-Body Experience

A friend says to me, “hey Dave, want to know the fast track to aging?

What’s that?” I say.

Running!” he says.

Sadly, there’s some truth in the joke.  For every mile you run, you burn 100 calories.  Once you’ve trimmed the fat off the usual places, it starts coming off your face and upper body.  Makes you look a little, er, grizzled.  

I don’t care, I’m addicted.  I’ve got a 100-miler coming up next month, so I’m cramming in as many long runs as possible. Twenty, thirty, forty miles at a time.

I love the long runs.  After a couple of hours of plodding down a trail, I generally slip into a trance.  The breath goes in, the breath goes out.  My feet smack the pavement 180 times a minute.  Running becomes a meditation.  I do not smile or wave at the people I pass.  Instead, I focus on keeping my body tilted slightly forward, and snapping my feet right back into the air the moment they hit the pavement.  (That’s the trick to being fast, by the way – let your feet touch the ground for as short a time as possible.)

I’ve got pictures of me running, and it always astonishes me to look at them. Usually, both of my feet are in midair.  Given that I’ve been running every day for the last 17 years, I have to wonder: how much of my life have I spent completely disconnected from the earth?
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Once, during a marathon, I had an out-of-body experience.  I was running up a nasty hill.  I’d covered 22 miles, and I was getting tired.  “Blinding wall of pain” is a little strong, but I was getting into that territory.

Suddenly, all pain vanished. I couldn’t feel my legs. It seemed to me that I was sitting inside my ribcage, peeking out between my bones at the scenery floating by. I wasn’t doing the running anymore. Someone else was. I was just sitting comfortably in that ribcage, like a kid in a grocery cart.

Then suddenly, I was looking down on myself from above. I saw a short-haired dude in Mizuno sneakers and Drifit shorts, struggling up a ten degree hill. I didn’t see this person as a runner though – I saw him as an extension of the earth. I thought to myself: what silly perseverance! What pointless ambition! And then I stared to laugh.

Of course, the moment I laughed, the vision disappeared. My normal consciousness – and the pain – returned.

Peterborough Half marathon finish - Dave

I finished that marathon in 3:04:25.  Did pretty well in my age category too. My age category, by the way, is 35-49. Of course, I don’t look a day over 60.

Writing is my AEIOU and Sometimes Y

Note to self: kids are really smart.

Case in point.  The other day I got interviewed by a grade 10 student.  He needed to dissect a living writer for a class project, and somehow, poor guy, he got saddled with me.  We went for a coffee, and then I dragged him into a radio studio  (the same studio, I should add, where the fabled literary broadcaster, Eleanor Wachtel, conducts all of her interviews).  The student pulled out his iPhone, pressed record, and placed it on the desk between us. He asked me some very good questions – about writing, working in the field of journalism, how much education is needed to get a job in broadcasting, and how to build a career as a fiction writer.

He gave me a real grilling.  And then, near the end of our discussion, he asked me this: “Knowing what you know now, if you had to go back and do it all over again, would you still set out to be a fiction writer?”

OMG.  He had me.  I froze.

As a seasoned interviewer, I usually love moments like this.  The moment when a question hits the bulls-eye, and you can see your guest squirming, because he or she has secretly been asking him or herself the exact same question – possibly for years.

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If I had to go back and do it again, would I still set out to become a fiction writer?  I had to hand it to the student – his random drilling had hit a geyser.

“Do you want me to be completely honest?” I asked.

The student grinned from ear to ear.  “Of course,” he said.

No way, I thought to myself, I’d avoid writing like the plague.  It’s nothing but an endless road of pain!  

Want proof?  I wrote my first novella more than 2 decades ago.  It never got published.  Neither did the two novels I wrote after that.   And of the 100+ short stories I composed after that, only a handful made it to print.

NO, DAVE.  BE HONEST.  3 GOT PUBLISHED.  ONLY 3.  And the money I earned from them didn’t even cover the cost of the printer ink and stamps!

If someone had sat me down back in 1990 and done the calculus; if they’d explained how hard I’d have to work, how many hours of sleep I’d lose, how much my arteries would harden, how awkward I’d feel each time a friend asked how my book was coming along…  If someone had told me all that two decades ago, would I still have gone into writing?  No, probably not.  You’d have to be crazy to embrace a career like that.

It’s one of the great mercies of the universe that I didn’t know the odds I was facing when I started out.  This isn’t limited to writing.  If any of us truly knew how much heartache was in store for us, we’d never do anything.  If we knew how hard it would be to maintain relationships, we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.  If my parents had warned me about the skinned knees I’d get while learning to ride a bike, I never would’ve let them take my training wheels off.

Signs of spring

I still hadn’t answered the student’s  question.  Sensing my difficulty, he shifted gears.  “How about this,” he said at last,  “what has writing given you?”

The question was a relief, and I was flooded with good memories.  I started rhyming off the list: writing gave me a purpose in life, it gave me the career I now enjoy, it helps pay my mortgage, it stills my mind during stressful times.

Writing is my sun and my moon.  It is my breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It is my AEIOU and sometimes Y.

And in spite of all those rejections I mentioned earlier, writing eventually did make my dream come true.

Ultra cover

DNF, or How Pain = Learning

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

But first, a very pleasant image:

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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 last September.  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.  The race took place last September 8, 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 soon-to-be-published novel (“ULTRA,” Scholastic, Fall 2013), 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.