A Blinding Wall of Pain

I’ve said it before: in every race there is a surprise. Today, the surprise came early. Before the race even began.


Set the scene, Dave – set the scene!

Right! The Toronto marathon. I had this goal of running it in less than 3 hours. First thing this morning, that still seemed possible.

I was sitting on the streetcar, heading downtown to the starting line. It was a convivial ride, with dozens of runners all about me, and we were all chatting about running shoes and pace bunnies and goals. But then something awful happened. The streetcar stopped, then, unexpectedly, went south. It sat still on King Street for a while, then slowly crawled east.

Okay, no big deal – right? But five minutes later, the streetcar stopped again. This time, it stopped for good..

Dead streetcar. On marathon morning. And we were 4 kilometers from the starting line.

We had twenty-two minutes left until the starting gun. There wasn’t a taxi in sight. There was only one option: RUN.

This upset me. I’m a person who likes order. I have my pre-race rituals. I like to get to the starting chute early, burn incense and sweet grass, recite some poetry, do some sun salutations. Maybe do a bit of twerking.

All that was thrown out the window! I didn’t even have time to hit the porta-potty. I barely made it into my corral before the announcer said “THIRTY SECONDS!”

Fine, I thought.  I’m suing the Toronto Transit Commission. I was out of breath and I hadn’t even started the race!

On the bright side, race conditions were perfect. Sunshine, 8 degrees, no wind. Lots of records got broken on this day. Lanni Merchant set a new Canadian woman’s marathon record. Deressa Chimsa, a 26-year-old runner from Ethiopia, clocked the fastest marathon time ever on Canadian soil.

I ran fast too. Faster than I’d ever run before. Instead of feeling drained by my 4k warm-up, I actually felt full of juice. The kilometer markers and the aid stations whizzed by. I think I may have caused a sonic boom at the corner of Bathurst and College.

This is not to say, however, that I wasn’t in pain. It hurts to run fast. And this race hurt a lot.

Somehow, I wasn’t expecting this. I’ve run a half-dozen 100-mile races, but that pain was nothing compared to this. In a 100-mile race you run at a pace of maybe 7 km/h. In this marathon we averaged double that. This race hurt more than anything I can ever remember hurting. It hurt more than the escalator accident I had in university, when half my leg got grated off by those sharp, silver steps. It hurt more than the time I caught H1N1. Hurt more than when Jennifer Bent dumped me in grade 10.

It really was a blinding wall of pain. And I want to apologize to the thousands of spectators who cheered me on, and got absolutely nothing from me in return. I didn’t smile back, didn’t wave, didn’t high-five. I couldn’t focus on anything but KEEPING THE LEGS MOVING!

On the upside, I made my goal.  Oh yeah, that’s right – I broke the 3-hour barrier.


I only broke it by ninety seconds, but still.  I now own a finishing time that starts with the number two.

It’s funny though. Goals, when you reach them, have a way of surprising you.

There were 10 bands scattered along the course, but I can’t recall hearing a single note. Also – there were dancing Chinese dragons somewhere in the Beach, but I missed seeing them completely. How is that possible?

Worst of all – there were zillions of cute little kids, high-fiving everyone that passed by. I didn’t slap a single hand, and didn’t look a single one of those kidlings in the eye.

Why? Because I was obsessed with the number two.

Silly when you think of it. That we can bypass what truly matters in pursuit of a number that, let’s face it, no one really cares about anyway.

This was the second surprise of the race. And it was by far the better of the two.

Grab your Dream by the Throat and Don’t Let Go

Something lovely happened over the weekend.  Mary Ito, the host of CBC’s Fresh Air, gave a great plug for my book.


I didn’t hear it, but friends did. They told me that a woman who’d heard my interview with Mary a couple of weeks back sent an e-mail to the show. She’d given a copy of “Ultra” to her 11 year-old grand-daughter. The grand-daughter devoured it in, like, 2 days.

You have no idea how happy this makes me. Not that Mary read the e-mail (though that was nice too), but that an 11 year-old girl actually liked my book!!!  

I spent twenty years writing short stories and novels. They were awful. Then, suddenly, a couple of years ago, a different kind of story burst out of me; a story about the most unlikely of subjects – a 13 year-old boy who runs a 100-mile footrace. And it got published. And now kids are reading it. Not just boys; girls too. That’s thrilling. Better than thrilling. It’s a dream come true.

Which is funny, because that’s what the novel is about too. Dreams coming true. Oh, I know there’s a big, fat running shoe on the cover, and I know the novel is called “Ultra” – as in ULTRA MARATHON, but at its heart, the book isn’t really about running. It’s about something far more universal.

It’s about grabbing your dreams by the throat and never letting them go.

Cavan Hills 4/10 km Walk/Run, 2013

You probably won’t ever run a 100-mile race. That’s okay. Actually, that’s good! 100 mile races aren’t for everyone. It’s an extreme sport, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone – unless they’re into blisters and hallucinations and smacking into bears in the forest.

But here’s what I DO recommend. And here’s what I hope readers will take away from the book. Ready? Here goes. You too can achieve your dreams.

Simple isn’t it? Totally doable. Doesn’t matter what your dream is. Want to write the perfect pop song? You can do it. Want to study at the Cordon Bleu cooking school? You can do it. Want to save Blackberry from extinction? You can do it. Want to become a marine biologist and swim with the dolphins? You can do that too. You’ll get wet, but you can do it.

Figure out your dream, then HANG ON TIGHT. As tightly if you were riding the back of a whale.

Keep chasing your dreams. I know they move fast. But trust me: You are FASTER!!!!!

Who told Tyler Heggie about my book?

Truth is stranger than fiction. Younger too.

Recently I wrote a novel about a 13 year-old who runs a 100-mile ultra-marathon. I know what you’re thinking: No WAY could a kid do that!

Wrong! An 11 year-old just ran 273 km – all the way across Prince Edward island!

Tyler Heggie

Tyler Heggie

Prince Edward Islander, Tyler Heggie, spent seven days running the island from tip to tip.  He covered the equivalent of a marathon each day, running with family and friends along the Confederation Trail.

Heggie did it to raise money and awareness for Multiple Sclerosis research (his Mom was diagnosed with M.S. two years ago).

Heggie finishing his run with friends

Heggie finishing his run with friends

Heggie has run long distances before. At age 9, he successfully competed in the Charlottetown marathon. Later this fall, he’s scheduled to run the marathon in Toronto – where roughly 20,000 fans (including me!) will be lined up to meet him.

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.


Sweaty to Office Ready

A few Februaries ago, while standing on a streetcar, politely absorbing the cloud of germs radiating from the human flu cases all around me, I glanced out the window and had a revelation.

A happy-looking runner bounded up the sidewalk. A vapour trail of snow whorled behind her.

*Jan 19 - 00:05*Brilliant, I thought!  Why hadn’t I thought of it before?  Instead of suffering for hours on public transit, I could be running to work, and losing weight at the same time!

Ever since that revelation, I’ve been running to and from work every day.  I’m saving money on transit, I’m saving time, and my oxygen-rich blood has led to improved performance at work.

Still, I’ll be the first to admit that the running commute can be fraught with peril. Over the years I’ve been caught half-in and half-out of my spandex tights in the photocopy room.  I’ve been referred to as “Chicken Legs Carroll” at a staff meeting.  And I’ve been accused of “stinking up” workstations 2G208 through 2G212.

More on that latter item in a moment, but first, I’d like to address the most significant challenge facing the commuting runner: wardrobe planning.  Any casual runner is capable of keeping a spare shirt or two at the office.  But what about us addicts who run both to and from work, each and every day of the week?  To do this successfully, some planning is in order.

Once a week, I pack a duffel bag full of clean clothes and shlep it downtown. Three pairs of pants, three dress shirts, and four tee-shirts generally do the trick. I also leave a few items at work permanently – sports jacket, belts, a filing cabinet full of clean socks.

clothes pic

My filing cabinet holds all manner of fine toggery

It’s not a fail-safe plan.  Countless are the times I’ve grabbed a clean shirt, shoes, underwear and socks from my filing cabinet, and headed for the showers only to discover that I have no pants.


Ever sat through a board meeting in dri-fit shorts?

But maintaining a satellite wardrobe is only the half the battle.  It’s also critically important to be pre-emptive with one’s sweaty laundry.

cooler pic


For this, I look no further than my trusty Coleman cooler.  With its airtight seal, that baby can store up to 3 days worth of biological waste without emitting any foul smog.

Despite these precautions, I still get the occasional complaint from my neighbor at workstation 2G212.  I’m doing everything I can, but frankly, I think it’s time for our industry leaders to lend a hand.  If companies really want to attract health-conscious and carbon-neutral employees, they need to get ahead of the fitness curve.  I’m not talking about bike racks and shower rooms.  These days, those are the mere baseline.  I’m talking about lunch-hour massages, Gatorade and Clif shot energy gels in the vending machines, and most importantly, same-day dry cleaning service.

And would it really kill our bosses to keep an ironing board in the photocopy room?  I mean, c’mon!

The evidence beneath my desk

The evidence beneath my desk

You’ll find a good article with tips on how to run-commute here.

In Every Race There is a Surprise, Part 2

I love running 100 mile races.  And one of my favourites takes place this month.

The Sulphur Springs Trail Run is held in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area in Southern Ontario.  The race follows a series of hard-pack trails that weave in and out of steep gorges carved thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers. Over the course of the 20-kilometer loop (which you run 8 times), you pass through dense Carolinian forests and wildflower-strewn meadows.

Sulphur Springs 09


To answer your question, yes, there’s a bit of hill-climbing.  Over the course of the 100 miles, you have to gut your way up 4600 metres of elevation.  That’s like 8 CN towers stacked on top of each other.

Sadly, I won’t be running the race this year.  Instead, I’ll be working this mind-blowingly awesome music festival.  It’s a decent trade-off, but I’ll still be thinking about Sulphur Springs while I’m rocking out.  I’ve said before that every 100-mile race holds a surprise of some sort, and I’ve had more than my share in that particular race…

For instance.  Five years ago I was toeing the starting line with a hundred or so other runners.  It was late May, and it was six in the morning, and most of us were wearing headlamps.

Most – but not all.

“3…2…1…GO!” shouted the race director.

“Yaaaaaaaaa!” we runners yelled, charging heroically into the darkness.

We ran for maybe 30 seconds, down a gravel road toward the trailhead. Everyone jostled for position as the road got narrower, and soon we were funneling into a straight line.

Did I mention that it was dark?  That we were moving fast?

Soddenly, right in front of me, someone shouted: “Look out!  Look out!  Look out!”

The offending posts!

The offending posts

Four metal posts were sticking out of the ground.  They were two-and-a-half feet high.  Castration height.

“Look out! Look out! Look out!”

The crowd parted, and I slipped safely between the posts. The guy beside me wasn’t so lucky, and went down with a horror-movie scream.


Poor guy.  He’d run all of 200 metres.

Happily, the following year, the starting line was moved to a different area of the park.  I have no idea if that was coincidental or not.

* * *

Running a hundred miles is not like running shorter distances.  In the 100 mile race, you don’t compete with other people.  You compete against yourself.  More precisely, you compete against your own mind.  You would think that your mind would be on your side in an endurance event.  But it is not.  Your mind is your worst enemy.  Your mind is on the side of your body, and your body wants nothing more than to go home, lie down in a hammock, and eat a bag of barbecue chips.

Oh sure, every now and again, your mind will say something nice to you, like: “The bath you take after this race sure is going to feel good!”  Or, “It sure is nice, being outside in the fresh air!”  But most of the time your mind says nasty things like: “You’re stupid for trying this; you should drop out and go home.”

That’s what my mind was saying to me a couple of years ago, when I was once again running Sulphur Springs.  I’d been running for 80-odd miles and it was the middle of the night and my mind was saying: “You are a stupid bloody fool.  Why are you doing this to yourself?”


I’ll never forget finishing my 7th loop. At the turnaround, the volunteer lady gave me a high five and offered me a slice of pizza.  I declined, since I still had one final 20-kilometer loop to do.  “No you don’t,” she said.  “You’ve already done your 8.  Just look at the clipboard.”

I stared at the clipboard, and counted the laps.  She was right, I’d done 8, not 7 like I thought.

Which meant –


Believe me when I tell you – that was the happiest moment of my life.  

Of course, later that day, the pain really set in.  I had a burning Achilles tendon, and I lost all feeling in six of my toes.  My calves and left shin were…hmmm, let me see.  What were they exactly?  Ah yes, they were a blinding wall of pain.  That’s right, that’s what they were.

On the bright side, I was given permission to use the physical disability washroom at work.  That handle on the wall beside the toilet was a godsend. 


Going Long. Too Long.

We runners love to set goals.  Drop a few pounds; shave a few minutes off a PR, improve our finishing kick.  We set expectations, and then we go out and exceed them.  Except for those rare occasions when we don’t.

A couple of years ago,  I decided to run 4000 kilometres.  Why 4000?  I’m not sure.  It felt like a big, braggable number.  And it was just slightly beyond my comfort zone.  Previously, the most I’d ever run in a year was 3500 kilometres.

A few facts about running 4000 kilometres:

In order to cover 4000 kilometres in a year, you must run 11k each and every day.

If you take a day off, you’ll need to run 22k on some subsequent day to make it up.

If you get sick, and miss a week of running, you’re on the hook for eighty clicks.

It quickly became clear that my whimsical little goal would require some careful planning.  I’d need to pay attention to diet, sleep, hydration, injury prevention, stretching, recovery, supplements, etc.  In short, I would need to become the most BORING person on the face of the planet.

I’m sorry to report, that’s exactly what happened.

I suffered injuries, I got sick, and I spent the entire year obsessively totaling my mileage.  As the months went by, I became more and more depressed.  I didn’t understand what was happening to me at the time, but I do now.  I spent the whole year staring at the odometer instead of the gorgeous scenery I was running past.

“You used to be a peddler of joy,” Shawna said towards the end of the year. “But you’ve turned into a fun vacuum.”


On the last day of the year, December 31st, I was 6 kilometer shy of my goal. I’d run 3994 kilometers in 364 days.  In the month of December alone, I’d run 600 kilometers.

It was a sunny and dry day, and there was no physical reason why I shouldn’t have pulled on my gear and dashed off the final 6 km to meet my goal.

And yet, I didn’t.


Years before, at a marathon, I’d seen a man cross the finish line, check his watch, and then yell – at the top of his lungs – the raunchiest  swear word known to humankind.  You know the one.  I pledged then and there that I would never become that guy; I would never put goals and numbers ahead of my love of the sport.

It was a tough decision to make, and I felt conflicted about it.  But later that night I went to a New Year’s party.  10 p.m. came and went, and not only was I still conscious; I was laughing and telling stories, and actually having fun for a change!  I was so bubbly, so full of spunk; I didn’t know what to make of myself.

“I can’t believe I’m awake,” I said to Shawna.

“Welcome back to the world,” she replied.

Real-Life Superheroes, Part 5

7 year-old Jack Hoffman has had some bad luck lately.

Two years ago, he  suffered a seizure, and nearly died of respiratory failure.  Then he was diagnosed with cancer.   And then he had two brain tumor surgeries.

But Jack has had some good luck too.  Between operations, he met his hero Rex Burkhead – a running back for the University of Nebraska football team, the Cornhuskers.

Recently, during a break in his treatment, Rex invited Jack to the team’s annual spring scrimmage.  As you’ll see, the team had a surprise planned:

Jack took to the field in full gear, and ran a heroic 69 yards for the game’s final touchdown.  The crowd of 60,000 went nuts.

Jack is currently on a break from his 60-week chemotherapy treatment.  His tumor has shrunk substantially in the past year, and his father, Andy, says he’s “doing great.”

More on Jack’s heroism here.

Trading Diamonds for Stones

A few years ago, when I was stuck in an office job I didn’t like, I found myself staring out the window.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day, and I felt like a panther inside a cage.

A colleague came up beside me. “Today is a diamond,” he said.  “Workdays are stones.  You and me, we’re trading diamonds for stones.”

It was a depressing thought, and I determined to get out of that job and change my life for the better.  The trouble was, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.

A friend of mine came up with a good idea.  He sat me down with a piece of paper and a pen, and told me to write down the best experiences of my life.


In no particular order, here’s what I wrote:

  • Sailing with my brother on Lake Kennisis in the summer of 1986, when a hurricane blew in and we nearly shipwrecked.
  • Tobogganing in Edmonton, with my nieces and nephews, IN MINUS 50 DEGREE WEATHER!
  • Running my first 100 mile race.
  • Sitting on the dock with my mom one summer night, while the Northern Lights tarted up the skies.
  • Skiing down Whistler Mountain with my visually-impaired friend.
  • Hiking through a forest with Shawna and running into that big-ass BEAR.
  • Canoe tripping with my dad, in lakes so clean you could drink straight out of them.
  • Getting the phone call from my agent that my novel had sold.


I handed the list to my friend.  His face lit up instantly.  “Good job,” he said.  “Now what do all of those things share in common?”

It took me a while to figure it out.  But eventually I saw the common thread.  All of those events, with the exception of that last one, took place OUT OF DOORS.  It sounds obvious, but it was an incredible revelation to me at the time.  If I really wanted to be happy in the future, I needed to find a way of getting outside more often.  And ideally, I’d do it with the people I love.

Years have passed since then, and while I still have a job that keeps me chained to a desk a lot of the time, it’s extremely creative, and I’m surrounded by zillions of smart, spunky people.

More importantly, I know what I need to do to keep myself sane.  A week spent behind a computer screen can gut me like a fish, but an hour on the running trail puts me right.

So if  you feel as though you’re trading diamonds for stones, don’t worry.  Most of us have to spend some time in the mine-shaft before we achieve the career we want and deserve.  The trick is to figure out how to get more sunlight into our lives in the meantime.  Figure that out, and the bars of your cage may well evaporate.