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.

A Goal is a Dream with a Deadline

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 2012

48 hours until the Toronto marathon. I’m excited but…is that a hamstring pull I feel? And where’d that hangnail on my left toe come from?

Ah yes, the pre-race jitters. Nothing new there. But the stakes are different this time. I want to run 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours. If the stars align, and God looks down and blows a kiss at my legs, then I’ll succeed. If there’s a bad headwind, or if the temperature dips below 5 degrees, or if I eat too much spaghetti on Saturday night and wind up visiting the porta-potty during the race, I’ll fail.

I put my chances at 50-50. Still – I REALLY WANT IT! In the past, whenever someone has asked me my marathon finishing time, I’ve had to give them a number that started with a 3.  I finished my first marathon in 3:36. A year later I qualified for Boston with a 3:18. A couple of years after that I nailed a 3:04.

Just imagine, I tell myself, owning a finishing time that starts with a 2. I dream of a 2. My kingdom for a 2!


“Would you say you’re a goal oriented person?” a journalist asked me the other day.

I had to think about this. What is a goal, anyway?

A dream is a goal with a deadline. I didn’t write that. I saw it on the wall at my gym.

I think it’s true though. Dreams are basically useless until you put a clock on them; until you wrestle them to the ground and turn them into reality. If you fail in the attempt, then at least you’ve got a story. But if you succeed, Whoo hoo! Crack open the golden fudge creme Oreos!

So yeah, I suppose I’m a goal oriented person. But I’m not religious about it. I’m cool with failure.

Proof: I tried to break the three-hour barrier once before, and failed. And when I crossed the finish line, I did what I always do at the end of a race: I LAUGHED MY FACE OFF!

Seriously. I always start giggling when I cross a finish line. I’m so happy to not to be running anymore! I often do a pirouette as I sail through the finisher’s chute.

So regardless of my finishing time, I can tell you exactly what I’ll be doing this Sunday morning at 11:45 am. I’ll be cruising up Bay Street in downtown Toronto, with a big goofy grin on my face. I’ll be surrounded by thousands of cheering Torontonians – people kind enough to support loved ones (and some strangers) who are chasing a dream.


And afterward, I’ll go home and rake the leaves in the yard and clean the bathroom upstairs and then I’ll maybe make a borscht. I’ll put my finisher’s medal in the shoebox with all the others. And I’ll laugh about the importance and the folly of the number 2.

Don’t Defer Your Dreams

Lord help me, I can’t believe I’m about to write this.

I never thought I’d become this kind of guy. The kind of guy who sets hard-core running goals. Who spends more time staring at his Garmin watch than at the passing scenery. Who pays attention to dreary things like splits, heart rate, lactate threshold.

Lord help me. Ten days from now, I’m going to try to run a marathon in less than 3 hours.

Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Toronto Waterfront Marathon

Fun fact: To complete a marathon in less than 3 hours you must run at an average speed of 8.9 miles per hour (14.3 km/h) for – you guessed it – three hours. Not one hour. Not two hours. Three hours. That’s longer than the movie Titanic.

How fast is 8.9 mph? Next time you’re at the gym, climb onto the treadmill and find out. Crank that puppy up to 6.0 mph. Brisk pace, ain’t it? Now dial it up to 7. Starting to sweat? Good! Now push that “up” button another 19 times, until the LED display reads 8.9. Hurts, don’t it? Feels like your heart is going to explode. Now keep running like that for 179 more minutes.


Confession: I don’t actually think I’m capable of a 3-hour marathon.  I’ve run a 3:04 twice. That may sound close to 3:00, but it’s not even in the same ballpark. Those four minutes might as well be four hours, in terms of training. Realistically, I need to invest in six months of hill climbing in order to shave off that kind of time.

Still… If I don’t attempt this now…will I ever?

The odds aren’t in my favour. Physiologically speaking, I’m running out of time. I love going into classrooms and telling kids that Anything is possible! And while I’m not lying when I say these sorts of things, we need to remember, I’m talking to kids. Young people have plenty of time to develop and improve as athletes. For us seasoned runners, the reality is quite different. At a certain point, our bodies start breaking down. After age 39, they really start breaking down.

All this to say, don’t defer your dreams!  In the words of the old folktale: if you will not when you may, you may not when you will.

Still, there’s the little matter of the three stitches in my right shin. And did I mention that I have Shingles? Yeah, that won’t help my cause other.

I’ve got no shortage of excuses. Really, it’d be so easy to put this thing off. To relax until next year, when I’m convinced I’ll be better trained. Statistically speaking, of course, that’s unlikely. The odds suggest I’ll be slower a year from now.

So damn the torpedoes – it’s now or never.  

And if I fail? Well, that wouldn’t be so bad either. In my experience, failures are usually more interesting than successes.  As this attests.

And I figured that if I made my goal public, i.e. HERE ON THIS BLOG, then the threat of public disgrace would help push me to my limit.

So mark the date – Sunday October 20. The more of you who follow me, the greater the pressure I’ll feel to succeed! I don’t want your money; just your misplaced hopes. I’ll be bib #783, and I promise not to let you down. Unless of course I do. In which case, it’ll be a good story too.

Running Through the “Stupid Wall”

Ever heard the term bonehead?

Ever wondered what it really means?

A bonehead is a guy who puts a can of Diet Coke into his knapsack along with his beloved iPod Nano, and then runs home wearing the knapsack. Later, he is legitimately surprised when the tin of Diet Coke springs a leak, utterly destroying his Nano.

But wait! There’s another type of bonehead!

This second variety of bonehead will, two weeks before a marathon, in an effort to save money, attempt to chop up a pile of used bricks with a sledgehammer, hoping to re-use them as gravel in his driveway. He will do this without wearing any type of leg protection, will in fact wear nothing but running shorts. In spite of this obvious idiocy, the bonehead will still be surprised when a sharp chunk of brick flies with great velocity towards his bare shin, instantly releasing a tide of red.

At first, this turn of events will strike the bonehead as amusing: the blood splashed across the railway ties, the undignified staggering through the house towards the bathtub. But then his thoughts will take a more serious turn. Does he think of the fact that he hasn’t had a tetanus shot in years? Does he pause to consider the carpets that now need steam-cleaning? Of course not! Instead he thinks: How will this impact my marathon?  And: can I still run into work tomorrow? 

knee pain

To answer your first question, yes, I went to the doctor. She looked at the wound, cleaned it, and then peeled me off the ceiling. “The brick sliced through the layer of fat, but it didn’t hit muscle,” she said. “I’ll give you some stitches. You’re lucky, really.”

And my marathon in two weeks?

“You’ll run it, no problem.”

The doctor froze the tissue around the wound. While we waited for the freezing to set in, I decided to show her the weird bug bites on my chest.

“Those aren’t bug bites,” the doctor said. “That’s Shingles.”


“Shingles. Did you have Chicken Pox as a kid? Thought so. Have you been stressed lately? Any reason your immune system might be down?”

Well, ah, there was that little 100-mile race I ran the other day.

“You can tell it’s Shingles because of the pattern,” the doctor said. “It’s only on the one side of your body. The virus travels down nerve axons. Does it hurt? Feel itchy?”

“It itches a bit,” I said. “But it doesn’t hurt.”

“You’re lucky. With older people, it can be quite painful. It’s probably not so bad for you because you’re youngish and healthy.”

Young-ish? Did she say young-ish?

“You can relax,” she said. “It’s on its way out. You’ll be okay. Now, put your leg up here.”

It is a testament to my boneheadedness that, when I heard this news; i.e. that I had a weird strain of the herpes virus, my first thought was not, Oh my God, what can I do to get rid of this foul disease? Instead, I thought: WOW – I ran a 10 k race 3 days ago AND WON… It was the fastest race of my life, and I ran it with a case of shingles! 

I mentioned this to the doctor. I suppose I bragged a little bit. “Just imagine if I’d run it when I was totally healthy,” I gushed. “I might have finished under 38 minutes!”

The doctor snapped on her rubber gloves. “Don’t get too proud of yourself,” she said. “You’re about to get stitches because you were chopping bricks with no protection.”

Right. Point taken.

“Lie back,” said the doctor. “You may not want to watch this part.”

What Winning Feels Like

A long time ago, when I was in grade seven, I won a public speaking contest. I wrote and performed a seven minute speech on the subject of…radio. I still remember my shock when the president of Port Dalhousie’s Royal Canadian Legion stood up and read out the lucky winner’s name: David Carroll.

public speaking trophy

I was sure he’d made a mistake. I’d never won anything in my life. No academic awards, no arts awards, and certainly nothing related to sports.  At track and field days, I always got the purple ribbon. The pathetic one that all the kids got. The one that said “participant.”

Surely I couldn’t have won that trophy.  Could I?

I felt the same way yesterday when, for the first time in my life, I finished FIRST in a sporting event.

cavan hills banner

It was a 10 kilometer run up and down the diabolical hills of Cavan-Monaghan county. Granted, it’s an out -of-the-way race. And more people were running with strollers or dogs or phalanxes of small children than were running competitively.

Cavan Hills 4/10 km Walk/Run, 2013

But still – I WON! Ask anyone in the greater Ida/Cavan/Pontypool business triangle. I was the talk of the town(s). That day belonged to ME!

David, with the shoes

All of the credit goes to my brand-new, Medusa-ugly running shoes. You can see them off in the distance there; slicing through the fog like two butt-ugly neon lasers.

The promise of butter tarts at the finish line probably didn’t hurt my finishing time either. And my finishing kick was ignited (as always) by my family, whose cheering is like an adrenaline shot to my legs.

Gotta tell you though: it was a weird feeling, leading the race. Usually I can relax and enjoy the scenery at these events, but once I found out I had the lead, I was determined to hang on to it.  So I didn’t relax. Instead, I PUSHED. Which wasn’t easy, given the villainous hills on the course. Hills more evil than…Dick Cheney? Yes, they were Dick Cheney hills.

Cavan Hills 4/10 km Walk/Run, 2013

Later, standing on the podium, I grinned and grinned. I wanted to stay up there forever, waving at my adoring fans. But for some reason, the volunteers, who’d been up baking butter tarts and hoisting tents since 5 a.m. wanted to tear things down and go home for a nap.

WAIT A SECOND, I thought, as they tried to sweep me off the podium. How dare you evict me from this hay-bale stage?! Don’t you know that this is my moment? The moment I’ve been dreaming of all my life? No more purple participant ribbons for me! From now on it’s all —

What’s that? You don’t care?

Okay then, FINE. I’ll take another butter tart, please.

first place ribbon

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.

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/

Facing Down a Tornado

There’s a scene in my novel (now available, by the way!), in which the main character runs into a tornado while running a 100-mile race.


IIlustration from an early version of the novel

That’s Quinn, the main character, running along the shore of Hither Lake. Hailstones were crashing down around him, “like rocks in a blender.”

I included this extreme weather in the story because I once experienced a tornado while hanging out at my family cottage in Ontario. Nobody got hurt, but our nerves sure got frayed. Trees broke in two. We lost power for weeks.

This past summer, we had another tornado warning. My brother, The Photographer, caught the threatening skies on film. Here’s what the lake actually looked like.

Tornado warning

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.