Quinn and the 100-Mile Map


When I was a kid, I loved books that had maps. For instance: A. A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” (above). And Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons:”


I loved being able to follow along with the characters; to know exactly where they were as they went about their adventures.

Those books inspired me to draw maps of my own. I spent a lot of time designing imaginary worlds; countries jam-packed with hidden tunnels and valleys. Mountains and caves were essential too. Secret getaway places. Strongholds. Forts.

I never lost my love of maps. So when I wrote my novel Ultra, of course I needed a map!

hand drawn map of race course

That’s a map of Hither Lake; the body of water Quinn circumnavigates in his 100-mile race. You might notice that the shape of the lake bears an uncanny resemblance to the lake where I spent a lot of summers as a kid:


Here’s What Happens After a 100-mile Race

1) You collapse into a vinyl chair beside a campfire.  Think: I AM NEVER DOING THAT EVER AGAIN.

2) You attempt to stand up. Discover that you can’t. Wait for your legal guardian to arrive and pull you to your feet.

3) You hobble to the shower or bath. You groan as you step over the edge of the tub. You scream when the water hits your battered feet and, er, soffets. You watch your blackened toenails swirl down the drain.

4) You eat something and discover that you’re starving. Your appetite is on steroids.  You devour soups, stacks of pancakes, roofing shingles.

5) You go home, letting someone else drive. After all, you’ve been awake for 40+ hours. Also, a sudden charlie-horse in your braking leg wouldn’t be fun on the 401. WHOA – CHIP TRUCK! Pull this puppy over!

6) You try to sleep, but fail. Your muscles won’t stop twitching. And your brain is more hyperactive than a David Fincher film, flipping through millions of images from the trail.

Along Poacher's Trail

7) Still awake at 3 a.m., you check the internet for race results. You already know your time; it was announced at the post-race lunch. Still, it won’t feel real until you see it online.

8) You self-medicate. Robaxacet, A-535, Dalwhinnie.

9) Suddenly, without warning, you fall asleep. But it’s deeper than sleep. It’s more like enchantment.

10) 10,000 years later you awake and resume your life. You take the kids to school or walk down the street to buy coffee. At some point you hear a bad song by Phil Collins on the radio. You suddenly realize, it’s over.  You’re back in the real world.  It kinda sucks.

11) Far too soon, you attempt to run. You get a kilometer, maybe two, before giving up and limping home. Your hip flexors hurt, or your knees, or your feet. You worry that you’ll never run again.

12) After three days with no running, you begin to feel fat. You stare at your bloated self in the mirror and weep.

14) Once again, you turn to the world wide web. The race results are up now. Also: plenty of pictures. You stare at the faces of the people you ran with. You miss them more than you miss your mother’s womb. All those fascinating conversations about shoes, mileage, poop.

15) While downloading the latest Flash Player update, you suddenly think, HMMM I’D LIKE TO DO THAT RACE AGAIN. You mention this to your legal guardian, which may be a mistake. Mental health brochures start appearing all about the house.

Forest race course

20 Years of Ultra-Madness

Well, that was something!

The 20th edition of the Haliburton Forest Trail run was held this past weekend. For two decades and counting, race director Helen Malmberg and her crew of unimpeachable wits have put on the best trail race this side of the Rocky Mountains.

Here’s what the starting line looked like, Saturday 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.

We were about to burn 10,000 calories. Sweat 20 litres of water. Our hearts would beat 1.2 million times.

If you were to add up all the calories that runners have burned in this race over the last twenty years, it would be equivalent to a tower of butter that stretches all the way from here to, oh I don’t know, the moon.

Running, at the 8 mile mark

The weather held, despite the dire forecasts. A few brief showers fell throughout the day, but the raindrops stayed mostly in the canopy of trees, and the trails remained firm. Don did a brilliant job (as usual) of marking the route, and the aid stations were exploding with outrageously cheerful volunteers. You know, the kind of people who think nothing of baking a hundred dozen almond-rice bars, draining your blisters, and not even twitching at your repulsive Heed-breath.

David, at 8 miles

Can we talk about me for a second? Awesome. See, I couldn’t find my groove for the first thirty miles or so. The first fifty miles always get me down in this race. They strike me as a prelude; something you have to get out of the way before you can get on with the Real Race, which is miles 51-100. But something else felt off too. I was lonely. I barely saw anyone out there. Later, I’d learn this was because I was farther ahead of the pack than I thought. But at the time I thought it was just low enrollment.

Wrong, wrong, totally wrong.  Enrollment was UP. This race keeps getting more and more popular.

Anyway, back to me and my crappy mood. Every part of my body took its turn complaining, as usual. But then, at mile 46, something wonderful happened.  A volunteer at aid station 3 greeted me with a huge hug. “Oh my God!” she shouted. “You wrote a novel! And it’s about this race. When can I read it?”

This perked me up considerably. I stood there chatting awhile, basking in the adulation, until I suddenly remembered that I was running a race. I grabbed a couple of potatoes, and got on my way, promising to return with a copy of the book on my second lap. This little exchange turned my race around. Suddenly my legs were spinning like pinwheels. The knee pain I’d been feeling was GONE!


I finished the first 50 miles in nine and a half hours, and met my family at the turnaround, which boosted my spirits even more. I sent a copy of my book out to the volunteer at the third aid station, and by the time I ran back there, she’d already read the first two chapters. Crazy! At aid station 2, I met a young kid who had his nose in the book as well. Double crazy! I wanted to sign his copy, but nobody had a pen.

Oh well, just keep the legs moving!  Down Poachers Trail and then on to The Pass.  Everywhere I looked, I saw little details that I’d stolen and woven into the book. The Nanaimo bars at aid station 4. The disco ball at aid station 7. The hilarious goings-on at Margaritaville. Even Troutspawn Lane, a gravel road near the entrance to Normac Trail, became the name of my protagonist’s favourite band. It was a surreal experience – like I was running through the pages of my novel. Mind you, I didn’t have any hallucinations, of which there are A LOT in the book.


Of course I suffered the usual pain, and gobbled my fair share of Advil.  And I sank into the inevitable fits of depression whenever I foolishly contemplated the insane number of miles I had left to run. But I tried something new in this race. Excuse me if this sounds flaky. But whenever I felt that familiar depression coming on, I would say to myself, yes that’s true, you have a long way left to run, but how do you feel IN THIS EXACT MOMENT, RIGHT NOW? Every time I asked myself that question, I had to admit that I didn’t feel so bad. Once I stripped away my anxiety about the miles that remained, I was left with only the sensations in my body AT THAT MOMENT. My body hurt, of course. How could it not? But it never hurt enough to stop me from running. So I kept the legs moving. And the number on the odometer kept rising.

I crossed the finish line just before 3 a.m. The clouds blew away and the stars came out, and, later, the morning broke cold and clear.

Good morning

As usual, my favourite part of the race was hanging out at the finishing line campfire, eating Helen’s fried chicken and trading stories with the other runners. Stories about bear sightings and injuries and personal revelations on the trail.

A few people congratulated me on my run. I was thrilled with my time, but I felt awkward about claiming third place. I only got it because some better runners had bad days on the trail. But I guess that’s how it goes sometimes. And I must admit, it was a lark to squeeze onto the podium for once!

In the woods (2)

Many thanks to Helen, Don and Gary, and all the other volunteers, far too numerous to mention, who gave me and so many other runners such a precious gift. It’s a life-changing experience to run through a forest all night long, and it wouldn’t be possible without caring souls who are willing to watch out for us and cheer us on and put up with our B.O. and queasy stomachs and pain-induced crankiness. You all deserve a finisher’s medal!

Finally, a shout-out to my amazing parents, who gave me the genetic material that allows me to run these crazy races in the first place.  Let’s face it, it’s a privilege to have a body that can run for 100 miles straight. Yes, we train hard, and yes, we watch what we eat, and yes, we focus obsessively on our goals.  But we couldn’t do any of it if not for that duo who gave us the greatest gift of all.

This one’s for you, Mom and Dad!

Dad and Mom - winter

Photo hat tip: my brilliant brother, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/andys_camera/

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.


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.


An Ultra-Challenge for July

Of all the months, July is THE BEST.  July is like hitting a bunch of green lights in a row.  It’s better than the smell of crayons.  It’s the Justin Timberlake of months.

I usually take the whole month off, rent a cabin surrounded by hills and trails, and just run.  Last year, near Collingwood, I logged 347 miles on the Bruce Trail.  The July before that, I covered 316 miles in the Haliburton Forest. The July before that I managed, well, only 272 miles, but that’s because I was running up and down mountains in France.

Running up "The Canigou" - near Perpignan, France

Running up “The Canigou” – near Perpignan, France

This July, I’ve set an even BIGGER challenge.  In addition to running 12 miles per day, I’m determined to write my second novel.

WHAT???  In a month?  Who does he think he is – Stephen King?

Actually, I don’t have to write it from scratch.  I wrote a first draft a couple of years ago, but then I set it aside, so I could work on my other book, which is, you know, actually getting published.

This July is the first chance I’ve had to go back to work on that other writing project.  It’s a big, messy, 60,000-word turd right now, but I’m excited about polishing it into a diamond.

So every day this July, in addition to burning 1000 calories on the trail, I’m hoping to produce 2000 words.  Words that glitter like spun glass, words that gleam like dragonflies in sunshine, words that shimmer like cobwebbed trees in summery skies

Okay, I’ll stop now.

This July, I’m also planning to: eat 30 salads, drink 30 cups of coffee, watch 30 sunsets, take 30 naps, and watch zero television shows.

Wish me luck!