Why You Should Run an Un-Fun Run

The other day I drove down to Niagara. A local school had invited me to join them in a fun-run.

Rankin Run Logo

Actually, it was a charity run for cancer research. Which should have made it un-fun. Except it wasn’t.

Rankin Run start line

More than 12,000 people laced up for the 5k course. I met my team in the field beside the Welland Canal. They gave me a T-shirt that said WESTMOUNT TEAM ULTRA on the back. Yes, there’s now a running team named after my novel!

Westmount Team Ultra

Select members of Westmount School’s “Team Ultra”

Fifteen minutes before the race, the kids dragged me over to the stage for a Zoomba warm-up.

“What’s Zoomba?” I asked.

“It’s hard to explain,” said the girls.

I still don’t know what Zoomba is, but it’s LOUD and there’s DANCING, and it’s, like, THE BEST THING EVER! Somewhere out there in Internetland, there’s a video of me doing Zoomba. When you see it, you shall know that I AM THE ZOOMBA MASTER!

When the Zoomba ended, I assumed the race would start. But instead, a little girl in a wheelchair was given a microphone. She was maybe 7 years old. She told the crowd how, a couple of years ago, she started having headaches and dizzy spells. The doctors discovered cancer in her brain and quickly operated and gave her six months of chemotherapy. Then the doctors did another operation to remove more cancer and then there was another round of chemo.

I know this isn’t much fun to hear, and it wasn’t much fun to listen to either. Of course, as hard as it was to listen to, I’m sure it was much, much harder for her.

This brave little girl sat in her wheelchair and explained to 12,000 runners how she grew weak from the chemotherapy and had to use a wheelchair to get around. Then she took off her red hat and cried, “And I lost all my hair!”

I was crying now and everyone around me was crying too, and I was glad that we’d done that Zoomba business first, because we certainly weren’t in the mood for it now. And I thought, this is why we are running this race: to drop-kick this stupid! bloody! disease! into the filthy Welland Canal!

Rankin Run canal

After the little girl finished her speech, everyone started moving toward the starting line. The teacher who’d invited me to run the race pulled an orange card out her pocket and wrote the word “Mom” on it.

“What’s that?” I said.

“It’s who you’re running for,” she said. She pinned the card to the shoulder of my t-shirt.

I smiled. My Mom had cancer more than a decade ago. She’s now 12+ years, cancer free.

Rankin Run 2014

The race began. I ran with a group of kids from Westmount School, many of whom had orange cards pinned to their t-shirts too. As we ran we talked about the people we were running for, and of course, we talked a lot about books.

“Why do some people have orange shirts?” I asked suddenly.

Most of the runners were wearing white t-shirts, but here and there, I saw people dressed in orange.

“They’re the cancer survivors,” a grade five student answered.

Rankin Run canal 2

We ran out to lock 3 and then turned around and came back. We passed a 900-foot freighter along the way. Some of the sailors looked down from the bridge and waved.

We finished the race strong, with a time of 37:30.

Of course, I’m used to running 100-mile races, which are 32 times longer than a 5k race. So I said goodbye to that first group of kids and headed back onto the course. Eventually I caught up with more Team Ultra kids. These students were walking, and they were fans of my book, so we walked and chatted, and they gave me some excellent suggestions for my second novel.

This time, we finished the race in 1:26:36.  It was the first time I’ve ever finished the same race twice!

* * *

After the barbecue and the goodbyes and the hugs I drove out to Short Hills Provincial Park. I was energised from all the conversations I’d had with the kids, and I still felt the need to do some running. So I pounded myself, running up and down those spiky hills, and splashing through thigh-deep mud-slicks. At the end of my run I was way too mucky to get in the car, so I jumped into a fast-moving river to rinse myself off. A huge water snake darted between my legs. I shrieked with terror, then started to laugh. I thought about how lucky I was to be standing there, in a healthy body, snakes and all. And I sent that little girl in the wheelchair a whispered prayer of support.

Run hard. Be kind to others. You’ll feel ten feet tall.

 

 

If “Ultra” Were a Picture Book

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.

Ollie Cheers on Quinn

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:

Laura Meets the 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 at Mile 75

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!

Quinn`s Big Finish

Thanks to the brilliant artists at St. Bridget’s School in Brooklin, Ontario for these amazing pictures. You all deserve a belt buckle!

More Real-Life Superheroes!

The best thing about writing a book is you get to meet all sorts of inspiring people.

David and Nathan on stage

You are looking at a real-life superhero.

I don’t mean me. I’m talking about the young man I’m hugging. His name is Nathan Duke, and he introduced me at the Silver Birch Book Awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago.

OLA Forest of Reading festival

I don’t know how often you speak to an audience of 2000+ people, but I never do. Man, I was scared! My stomach felt like it was full of frogs.

Nathan, on the other hand, was totally calm. He breezed up to the microphone and started chatting with that audience as if he was Jimmy Fallon. He’d written a funny speech about how I wasn’t athletic when I was a kid, and how I’d never dreamed that I could write a book. As he spoke, I thought to myself, He’s the real writer, not me!

After Nathan said my name, I was so humbled and impressed, I jumped up and gave him a big hug. Let’s take another look at that picture, shall we?

David and Nathan on stage

That is probably my favourite picture in the world. Me hugging one of Canada’s most gifted young orators. One day, I hope to return Nathan’s favour. I can’t wait to introduce him when his book gets nominated for an award!

* * *

Here’s another inspirational person:

Dave and unnamed girl at St. Jude's

Her name is Paige Marchant. She came up to say hello to me after I gave a presentation at her school. Her last name sounded familiar, so I said, “Did you know there’s a famous marathoner named Marchant?”

“I know,” said Paige. “She’s my aunt.”

Lanni Marchant is Canada’s fastest female marathoner. Last October she set a new Canadian record, running the marathon in a blistering time of 2:28:00.

“Lanni Marchant is your aunt?” I gasped.

Paige nodded. I knelt down on the floor and shook her hand. It felt like I was touching royalty. I was.

lanni

 

 

Finding Your Pace

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.

muddy run

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.

rotary-park-scenery1

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.

 

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.

The Perks of Being an Author

Being an author’s cool. You get to make up stories, you can wear a beret and no one complains, and from time to time people send you fan mail and tweets.

Best of all – you get invited into schools. Sometimes the students even give you stuff.

20140129_090301_1

That’s part of a huge banner featuring scenes and quotes from my novel, Ultra. It was drawn by a cast of thousands (okay, maybe hundreds) of students at Oakville’s New Central School. Those same kids also gave me a pair of awesome running “sleevies” – inscribed with the name of their school:

Sleevies alone

How awesome is that?! I’ve always wanted a pair of sleevies.  They’re perfect for those brisk spring runs.

Dave wearing sleevies

Here’s something else I was given – by the amazing students at St. Hillary Catholic school in Mississauga:

School letter

A school letter! This was particularly meaningful, since, when I was growing up, school letters only went to the football players and the track stars. Since I was completely un-athletic back then, I never had a shot at one of these…

Until now!  😉

It’s quite a thrill, going into schools. Some days I’ll speak to 500 kids. I tell stories about running into bears and having hallucinations on the trail. I talk about writing and being creative and never giving up! Sometimes I even get my nephew Quinn on the line via Skype, and ask him how it feels to have inspired a literary character.

Most of all, I try to have meaningful moments with as many students as I can. I keep my eye out for the arty kids – the ones who have something special inside them that needs to be expressed. Maybe it’s a graphic novel, or perhaps it’s a new computer language, or maybe it’s a cure for cancer. With luck, those kids will find the strength to pursue those dreams. If they have someone who believes in them, I believe their odds are improved.

Autograph - you are faster

I like to think that I’m inspiring these kids, but the truth is, they inspire me more. Almost every single one of them asks me: “When’s your next book coming out?” It’s the greatest gift. Almost better than those running sleevies.

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!)

Real Life Superheroes, Part 38

I just discovered this. One of the best short films ever! And it’s built around the improv storytelling of 6 year-old boy.

Asa Baker-Rouse (age 6) wrote this. And his bubbly personality reminds me an awful lot of a certain character in my novel Ultra (okay…twist my arm…he reminds me of Quinn’s little brother, Ollie.)

Click the link. Be not scared!

 

How “Sydney” and “Ollie” Came to Life

first copy of Ultra

“Ultra – the novel”

There it is. It’s 192 pages long. Weighs 396 grams. And it costs less than a fancy Starbucks coffee.

Talk about a bargain! You might enjoy your Starbucks coffee for 20 minutes. This book, on the other hand, will warm your heart forever.

Why? Because it’s fortified with ten essential characters. Including one who was inspired by this young woman:

Sydney Watson Walters

Sydney, aka “Sydney Watson Walters”

Say hello my niece Sydney. She was five years old when this picture was taken (she’s grown since then, and is now in grade nine). She plays basketball and volleyball, and sings and plays guitar. She’s also, believe it or not, one of the world’s coolest aunts.

How did someone so young inspire a literary character? A character who bears a strong resemblance to Oprah Winfrey?

A couple of years ago, when I was still struggling with the book, I called Syd and asked her for some advice. “I’m going to read you a couple of pages,” I warned her.  “Tell me if the dialogue sounds okay.”

I started reading.  I got halfway though one page when Syd said: “Kids don’t talk like that.”

“Really?” I said. “How do they talk?”

“Like kids,” she said.

Syd offered all sorts of good suggestions. She also asked me a LOT of questions. She said: “What are you trying to do with this scene?”  And, “Am I supposed to like Quinn now? Because I don’t. He’s being a dink. Kneecap needs to tell him to smarten up.”

Re-writing a book is kind of like running on the same stretch of trail over and over. If you’re not careful, you’ll wear the trail down so much that you’re running in a deep trench, and you can’t see over the sides anymore. Syd reached into the trench and pulled me out. Then she sent me down a more interesting path.

Those conversations I had with Syd helped the book A LOT. And I’ll never forget the tough questions Syd posed. She reminded me a bit of a TV journalist. Which is why I borrowed her name for the Sydney Watson Walters character.

SWW

Here’s another family member who inspired a character:

Oliver posing

In the book, Quinn has a little brother named Ollie. Ollie acts as Quinn’s “pacer” during the race. He calls Quinn at all hours of the day and night, and recites crazy jokes to cheer him up. Most importantly, on page 171, Ollie utters a six-word sentence that literally saves Quinn’s race.

I based this funny and wise character on my real-life nephew, Oliver. That’s him above, doing his best Usain Bolt.

Years ago, when I was running the Sulphur Springs 100-mile race, Oliver called me on the phone to wish me luck. It was close to midnight, and I’d run 84 miles.  The moon was out, and I was feeling shockwaves of pain, which isn’t unusual when you’re that far into a race. Still, it was a tough spell, and I felt like I was going to throw up.

I can still remember exactly what Oliver said. He said: “Seriously, Uncle Dave? You’ve run 84 miles already? But it’s not even midnight!  You’re doing great!”

Be careful when you use words of kindness like that. You might just find yourself in a book.

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.

fresh-air-

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!!!!!