Back in August, I spent three days ‘guide running’ for Rhonda-Marie Avery; a legally blind runner who successfully ran Ontario’s 900 kilometer Bruce Trail, from end to end.
A documentary film crew followed Rhonda-Marie every step of the way – for twenty days. That documentary will be released later this year, but here’s a sneak peek of what happened on the trail. At this point in the story, Rhonda Marie has run 780 km.
You can see eleven other ‘previews’ of the film, capturing all sorts of hijinx and heartbreak and, yes, twisted ankles. Just go here.
127 stiles, 1437 cliffs, one bear, dozens of snakes, 30,000+ feet of elevation gain, one twisted ankle.
And then this:
Rhonda-Marie Avery completed her end-to-end run of the Bruce Trail on Saturday afternoon, capping off one of Canada’s more extraordinary endurance runs.
That’s Don Kuzenko; Rhonda-Marie’s tour manager. For twenty days he lived out of a van and served as Rhonda-Marie’s chief medical officer, driver, personal chef, personal shopper, life coach and head cheerleader. That dude deserves the Order of Canada. He probably got less than 100 hours of sleep over those twenty days. And yet he got Rhonda-Marie to the finish line right on schedule.
That’s Cody Gillies; who holds the world record for the fastest end-to-end run of the Bruce Trail. According to Rhonda-Marie, it’s his fault she undertook this whole odyssey in the first place. During some of her darker moments on the trail, she referred to Cody as a “jerk.” Cody wasn’t remotely offended. Proof: he guided the Batgirl for five full days.
The final 500 metres
Dozens came out to cheer for Rhonda-Marie at the finish. Some even joined her for the final sprint.
Afterwards, there were tears, speeches, cake. Rhonda-Marie grabbed her three kids and wouldn’t let them go.
A Bruce Trail representative presented Rhonda-Marie with an end-to-end badge. The crowd cheered. Ronda-Marie sat down on the grass.
“Having a disability means you need to be good with acceptance,” she’d told me on the trail, a couple of days earlier. “And acceptance isn’t an easy road. It’s a crap trail full of rocks and roots. It’s worse than the Bruce.”
The sun streamed through the trees and danced in blobs on the ground. Speckled sunlight. For Rhonda-Marie, that’s the worst possible kind.
“There’s a lot of stuff I can’t do on my own,” she explained. “If I want to go running, I need to ask somebody to run with me. If I want to run on the Bruce Trail, I need to find someone who can drive me to the Bruce Trail and then run with me.”
She ate an apricot and took a sip of water. “There are a lot of downsides to having a disability,” she concluded, “But one of the positives is I’ll always be surrounded by community.”
You can be a part of that community. You can volunteer to be a guide runner here. Or you can make a pledge of support to Achilles Canada here.
There are a lot of ways to die on the Bruce Trail. There are rattlesnakes and bears. There are yawning crevasses. There are a billion slabs of jagged limestone, all waiting to split a runner’s head wide open.
Perfect place for a blind woman, right?
Rhonda-Marie Avery claims she was completely sober when she decided to run the 885 km Bruce Trail from end to end.
She was minding her own business, drinking a cup of tea, when she heard a news story about a guy who’d set a new world record. Cody Gillies of Orangeville, Ontario, had run the trail in just twelve-and-a-half days.
And Rhonda thought, yeah so?
“I mean, he was twenty-nothing,” she says. “He was young and fit, no disabilities, a fire-fighter. Of course he’s going to set a new world record. What’s so impressive about that?”
As she drank that cup of orange pekoe tea, Rhonda-Marie decided to one-up the fire-fighter. Not only would she run the trail from end-to-end. She’d do it with only 8% vision.
Cody Gillies (the fire-fighting, BT world-record holder) and Rhonda-Marie
Rhonda-Marie was born with a rare genetic eye disorder called achromatopsia, which means she has no cones in her retina.
“She sees better in the dark than in the light,” says Don Kuzenko; captain of Rhonda-Marie’s support crew. “You know how well you can see in the dark? That’s what RMA can see, which obviously isn’t much. In the daylight it’s worse. Imaging a floodlight shining in your eyes on the morning of a bad hangover. All you can see are bleary blobs and shapes.”
Five years ago, when Rhonda-Marie was first getting into running, she met with a group called Achilles Canada. Achilles paired her up with guide runners, and taught her how to run safely. Now Rhonda-Marie is returning the favour. This summer’s run is all about raising funds and awareness for Achilles.
Rhonda-Marie began her run 12 days ago in Tobermory, Ontario. She’s running south to Niagara Falls. If all goes well, she’ll complete her run at noon on Saturday August 23rd. She’s right on track so far, having run more than 500 km.
Given her disability, RMA enlisted 50 volunteers (a minimum of 2 per day for each of 20 days) to help “guide” her on her run. I was a guide on days 6 and 7. This is what I sounded like:
“Rock. Root. Rock right. Rock salad. Toe grabber. Ankle-grabber. Limb-eater. Okay, take three steps up! Now two steps down onto flat soil. Thread the needle! Dinosaur steps!”
This language was developed collaboratively by Rhonda and her guides. It continues to grow and evolve. Recently, the term “gnocchi” was added to the lexicon. It means large, rounded, piles of rock. “Mashed potatoes” means muddy trail. “Scalloped potatoes” is mud with rocks and roots thrown in. A “chicken head” is a root sticking straight up. “Cheese Grater” is a pile of pitted limestone.
When the trail opens up and becomes smooth enough for running, that is called butterscotch pudding.
The most important phrase of all is “death to the left!” That gets used whenever oblivion comes within inches of the trail.
Rhonda-Marie’s crew spent three days at my cabin near the Beaver Valley. It was like a friendly army had invaded. Don Kuzenko and Rhonda-Marie were there, plus a documentary film crew, led by filmmaker Lisa Lightbourn-Lay. Two volunteer guides appeared each day. Plus, assorted friends and family popped in and out. Most importantly, Scott Garrett, Rhonda-Marie’s partner was there. Scott helped cook meals and kept Rhonda-Marie laughing.
“Day seven!” Rhonda-Marie cried. “I’ll take Crazy Person Goals for 600, Alex. What’s 900 km long and a foot and a half wide and can make a grown woman’s toenails bleed? Oh yeah, that’s right, the Bruce Trail!”
Day Seven was tough. The team covered 42 km in brutal heat and full sun. One section of the trail was closed for maintenance, so we had to make a 4 km detour. 4 km may not sound like much, but on some stretches of this rugged trail, fully-sighted people are lucky to average 2 km/h. That little 4 km detour added 2 hours to Rhonda-Marie’s day.
“Look at it this way,” said Cody Gillies, who was also guiding that day. “The Bruce Trail is now 889 km long, not 885 like it was back when I ran it. So thirteen days from now, when you finish this thing, you’ll own the new record for the fastest end-to-end trip, on the longer trail.”
It was a brilliant thing to say, given Rhonda-Marie’s ebbing spirits. Generous too, considering the record she’d be eclipsing was his own.
“You can keep your title,” Rhonda-Marie said. “I’d rather have two extra hours sleep.”
Sleep has been the biggest challenge so far. Rhonda-Marie’s daily runs are averaging 12-13 hours. When you add in meal breaks, travel time to and from the trail-heads, stretching, planning the next day’s route and meetings with the next day’s guides, she’s left with only 4 or 5 hours of sleep per night. And it’s a splintered sleep, since her muscles keep twitching after running all day long.
Then there’s the pain. Rhonda’s feet are getting battered. Her knees are swollen. She takes ice baths each evening and tapes her legs every morning. I try to imagine what the pain must feel like. My best guess: giving birth to triplets while simultaneously having a root canal while your kitchen is being renovated and is going way over budget.
Rhonda-Marie, me, Shawna
But then there are the great moments.
At the end of Saturday’s run, the crew headed back to the house. The shower was going non-stop. Rancid-smelling trail shoes littered the mudroom. The laundry room was a sea of toxic waste. For the first time on the tour, the whole crew ate together. Rhonda-Marie was in a good mood. Her partner Scott was there and so was Cody Gillies. There was a mountain of food: 10 pounds of vegetarian and non-vegetarian lasagna, veggie burgers, spring rolls, garlic bread, a colossal salad. For dessert, vanilla ice cream was scooped into bowls. Rhonda added Wow Butter and pumpkin and sunflower seeds to hers. Candy sprinkles too.
There were toasts and laughter and afterwards, hugs. Then, bit by bit, the house slipped into silence. Don was the last to go to bed, studying maps until the wee hours and making the next day’s bacon-and-cheese sandwiches.
At 3:30 am everyone was awake again, toasting bagels and filling hydration bladders. By 4:15 the motorcade was pulling onto dark country roads, and snaking its way back towards the trail-head. The moon was a huge red eyeball in the sky. I checked my phone and read Rhonda-Marie’s facebook status: “Never felt more loved,” she’d written. “Or more completely alone.”
As I write this, Rhonda-Marie is somewhere near Singhampton 30 km north of Mono Centre, Ontario. She has run more than 550 km.
I believe she will successfully complete this run. But she still has eight days to go. Eight days full of pain, sleep deprivation, and guide runners who Rhonda-Marie may or may not have run with before, and whom she must entrust with her life.
If you wish, you can make a pledge of support at GoFundMe. Money raised goes to support Achilles Canada, which connects disabled athletes with volunteers. Rhonda’s phone vibrates whenever someone makes a pledge. It totally boosts her spirits on the trail. I’ve seen it happen.
Finally, Rhonda did a trail-side interview with CBC’s Mary Ito on Day 7. I make a short appearance as well. You can listen to it here:
Did I mention that I’m notin Boston right now? That I’m not running the fabled marathon, on this, the most emotional of years?
I’m thinking of my friends who are running the race. Not least Rhonda-Marie Avery, who I’ve written about before, and who was on the course last year when the bombing happened.
My Boston experiences pale by comparison (thank goodness), but I do have some choice memories. I ran the 2008 race with my buddy Kai, who, like Rhonda-Marie, is blind. Kai had asked me to be his guide, but I don’t think I did a very good job. Thanks to me, he nearly did a face-plant on the infamous “Three Mile Island.”
“Buddy!” I shouted. “Veer left! Veer left!”
Three Mile Island is a cement protrusion in the middle of Route 135 near Ashland. If you’re running in the middle of the pack, or drafting behind another competitor, it’s easy to miss the warning signs and pilons. Half the runners go right and the other half go left. If you’re not careful, you’ll smack into the cement wall.
“Kai!” I screamed. “LOOK OUT!”
I grabbed his sleeve and yanked him out of harm’s way.
“What was that?” Kai asked.
“An early death,” I said.
When Kai was still a teenager, macular degeneration robbed him of ninety percent of his central vision. Mercifully, the disease (called Stargardt’s) left his peripheral vision intact. And it’s those twin curtains of sight that allow Kai to run with some degree of confidence – to deke left and right, and to find the gaps between other runners.
“I actually feel pretty comfortable running in a pack,” Kai told me. “I can see the contours of people ahead of me. So all I have to do is find my opening and keep up with the crowd.”
Although he chose me to be his guide, Kai had no particular interest in being tethered to me by a rope. Nor was he interested in pinning a bright yellow BLIND RUNNER sign to the back of his jersey. “Thousands of cute Wellesley girls, and you want me to advertise that I’ve got a disability?” he said.
So we ran side by side. Kai was worried about slowing me down, but I assured him that I wasn’t looking for a PR. “I’ve run lots of marathons for speed,” I told him. “I’m looking forward to actually seeing this race.”
So there we were, two best friends, clipping along at a 3:50 pace.
“Who’s that singing?” Kai asked me at the 10-mile mark. We could hear a karaoke version of Cracklin’ Rosie.
“There’s a Neil Diamond impersonator standing on the roof of his El Dorado,” I said.
Ten minutes later we heard intoxicated screaming.
“Who’s that?” said Kai.
“Hundreds of drunken dudes,” I said. “They’re lobbing beer cans to the runners.”
“Can you grab us some?”
As we ran, it occurred to me that this was my true role as Kai’s guide: to animate the lunacy of the race for him. After all, running Boston is only half the fun. Watching the crazy people on the sidelines is almost as good.
Before Boston, I’d run a hundred marathons for time, but in retrospect, I’d done those exclusively for myself. This was the first race where my eyes were fully open.
There is a photograph of Kai and I completing the race together. Our arms are raised, and we appear to be laughing.
There she is. Her name is Rhonda-Marie Avery. She’s got three kids, works as a RMT, and this summer she’s going to run the entire 885-kilometer Bruce Trail.
This winding footpath starts in a sleepy fishing village on the northeastern shore of Lake Huron, and follows the rugged Niagara Escarpment all the way south to Niagara Falls. Rhonda-Marie plans to cover that distance in 20 DAYS (!), which means she’ll have to run 45 kilometers each day. This would be a Herculean feat for the toughest of runners. But Rhonda-Marie has an extra challenge: she’s legally blind.
Rhonda-Marie was born with a rare genetic eye disorder called achromatopsia, which means she has no cones in her retina. She figures she has 8 per cent vision. But she hasn’t let this disability slow her down. Five years ago, when she was getting into running, she met with a group called Achilles Canada. Achilles paired her up with guide runners, and taught her how to run safely. Now Rhonda-Marie is returning the favour. This summer’s run is all about raising funds and awareness for Achilles.
It won’t be easy, of course.
The Bruce Trail features ankle-busting limestone outcrops, yawning crevasse caves and, uh, cliffs.
But the biggest danger RMA may face…is me. For two days in August, I’ll be her “guide.”
It’ll be my job to point out the rocks, roots, holes, streams and rivers along the trail. It’ll be Rhonda-Marie’s job (God help her) to trust my judgment.
I met Rhonda-Marie for the first time the other day. We got together with some friends at a remote section of trail near Ravenna, Ontario. It was below zero and the wind was howling. We ran for 4 1/2 hours through waist-high snow. I took a turn as Rhonda-Marie’s guide. I ran five feet ahead of her (about the length of a piano keyboard); close enough that she could make out the motion of my body. I pointed out the ice patches, and the tree branches at eye-level. At one point I ran down a little gulley.
“Whoa!” Rhonda-Marie cried out behind me. “You need to tell me when we’re going downhill!”
I asked Rhonda-Marie how she felt about this summer’s challenge; if she felt intimidated by the enormity of the distance. “Of course,” she said. “But I’ll be fine as long as my guides follow the rules.”
“What rules?” I asked.
“Rule number one,” Rhonda-Marie said, “is ALWAYS LIE!”
Of course, I thought. Ultra runners are in near-constant pain, and need a steady stream of inspiration in order to keep their legs moving. So when an ultra-runner asks: “How high is this hill?” the correct answer is always: “Not high at all!” And when they ask, “How much further until we eat?” the correct answer is always “We’re almost there!”
“Got it,” I said. “Anything else?”
“Rule number two…” Rhonda-Marie said, “is DON’T CODDLE! If I complain or slow down, kick my butt. Don’t ever feel sorry for me – unless I break my leg or something.”
And rule number three?
Rhonda-Marie smiled. “Rule number three is…there’s no such thing as snakes or bears.”
Rhonda-Marie’s epic adventure begins on August 4th. That means she’s got 3 1/2 months of training left. Every week she does two back-to-back long runs ranging from 20 to 50 km, two shorter runs (10 to 15 km), three swims (two to six km), and two bike rides (four hours or so).
You can follow her progress, and support the cause (and Achilles Canada), HERE.