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.

 

Blindfolded in Boston

hopkinton

Did I mention that I’m not in 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.

Heartbreak Hill

Heartbreak Hill

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.

“Where’s the finish line?” Kai said.

“Right behind you,” I said.

Dave and Kai

Real-Life Superhero

Rhonda-Marie

The superhero runner

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.

bruceTrailMap

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.

Rugged Bruce Trail

The Bruce Trail features ankle-busting limestone outcrops, yawning crevasse caves and, uh, cliffs.

Bruce trail Cliffs

But the biggest danger RMA may face…is me. For two days in August, I’ll be her “guide.”

fear

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.”

limehouse

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.

 

The Freakishness of the Long Distance Runner (Video)

So there I was, bouncing around in an Ontario classroom, talking about my novel Ultra, and sharing some of my craziest running stories. A brilliant documentary filmmaker happened to be there, and she made this little video about me:

 

Many thanks to Lisa Lightbourn-Lay for making that video. The still images were provided by my photog brother Andy.

You’re a Rock Star! Yes You Are!

For the last few years I’ve been leading a double life. I work on my novel, then I head off to work. When I finish work I go back home, and dive back into my novel.

It may not sound all that crazy, I know. But occasionally, the contrasts can get extreme.

School-Kids-Running

Take last week. In addition to my regular job, and working on a new novel, I also went on a bunch of school visits. Oh my gosh, I had SOOOO much fun at those schools. It’s a real gift to be invited into classrooms, and to share my craziest running stories with hilarious and talented young people. I love their thoughtful and pointed questions. For example:

“Is Kneecap based on a real person?”

(Kneecap is a character in my novel, Ultra).

“Yes,” I answer. “She’s based on Jennifer Roy. Jennifer was my best friend in grade seven. She really did tell me to ‘throw away my weird pills.’

“Was there really a Urinal Hockey League?”

“You bet,” I explain. “At Dalewood Public School in St. Catharines. But you can’t play Urinal Hockey at this school. You’ve got the wrong kind of urinal. I already checked.”

The kids treat me like I’m a rock star. You’d think my head would swell with all that attention. But don’t worry. My day job keeps me humble.

Lou Reed

The same week I visited all those schools, I helped to produce a special tribute show to the late musician, Lou Reed. The concert was held at the Glenn Gould Theatre in Toronto, and all sorts of real rock stars came out to perform. Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip, Emily Haines of Metric, a bunch of Barenaked Ladies, Carole Pope of Rough Trade, opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, Commander Chris Hadfield, etc. Just when I felt faint from all the glitter, Kim Cattral walked in (she played Samantha on Sex and the City). Then Ron Sexsmith and Kevin Drew appeared. Then someone introduced me to Lou Reed’s actual band! 

It was all kinda dizzying. I mean, these weren’t just rock stars, these were rock icons. These were the people who wrote half the songs on my iPod; the people who wrote the songs that carried me through my toughest road races (Carole Pope’s All Touch, the Hip’s Courage, Metric’s Gimme Sympathy, Hawksley Workman’s Autumn’s Here).

Since I’d helped to write the script for the concert, it was my job to make sure the celebrities got on and off stage at the right moments. But as the show progressed things got emotional. Most of the performers had been friends with Lou Reed, and there were plenty of tears, and I had to run back and forth with Kleenex boxes. Nonetheless, the show rocked. Chantale Kreviazuk did a blistering performance of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”  Commander Hadfield (who, in case you were wondering, has the strongest handshake of anyone I’ve ever met) brought the house down with his version of “Satellite of Love.”

I enjoyed the music, and I loved hanging out backstage with those celebrities, but I kept thinking about the kids I’d met earlier in the week. Many of them had dreams of writing and singing songs too, and some had even shown me the lyrics they’d written. I thought about this as I watched the show, and I wondered if, one day, their songs would wind up on my iPod too.

As I mulled this over, Hawksley Workman appeared. His song was up next, and he was about to take the stage. But then he suddenly stopped and looked at me. He peeled off his sunglasses. He said: “You’re David, right?”

Hawksley

I looked up. I’d met Hawksley – very briefly – once before. I was shocked that he’d remember.

“Hi Hawksley,” I said.

“You wrote that book!” he said. “The one about the kid who runs that race. I heard you on Shelagh Rogers’ show. You were terrific!” 

We all have a little bit of rock star inside us. We just need to be reminded sometimes.

rock show

NOTE: You can watch a killer song from that concert (including a cameo by everyone’s favourite Canadian astronaut) HERE

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.

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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!)

Pain in = Victory Out

A fellow blogger called me out on my last blog post; in which I mentioned that my recent book award was the first thing I’d won since a public speaking contest in grade 7. She kindly pointed out one of my earlier blog posts, in which I mentioned that I’d won a 10k race.

Fair point. But here’s what I was thinking.

That 10k victory and the book award feel completely different to me. One feels deserved and the other does not.

Let’s start with the deserved win – that 10k race. I have this belief that anyone can win a running race. Just put in enough training, and you’ll win. Run endless hills and intervals and ‘suicides,’ hammer your abs at the gym, go for long runs every Sunday, and I guarantee you will get faster. If you add some good nutrition and lots of sleep to the mix, you’ll start to win races. Again, this is a guarantee.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to running. If you put yourself through enough pain in training, you’ll be the first to break the tape. It’s a simple formula: pain in = victory out.

So when I won that 10k race, I felt like, yeah, of course I won. It wasn’t a surprise. I’d earned it.

The book award felt completely different. When I heard the news, my first thought was: somebody made a mistake.

With book awards, there are so many external variables. You have to pray that the jurors won’t come down with stomach flu while reading your book (thus colouring her or his reading experience). You have to hope that they won’t have been bullied by a kid with the same name as your protagonist. You have to hope that last year’s winning book wasn’t ALSO about running, and that you’re not up against Suzanne Collins’ latest bestseller.

And then of course, it’s all so subjective. I mean, how can you quantify the reading process? You can’t. Something as small as a Luna moth flapping its wings in the opposite direction might be enough to put someone else’s book on the podium instead of yours.

Authors have control over their writing. But they have no control over how it will be received. They can suffer all they want, they can put their bodies and minds through years of abuse, they can write an absolutely beautiful 70,000 word thing, and there’s still no guarantee that it will resonate with people.

So as thrilled as I am about this ‘win,’ I can’t lose sight of how idiosyncratic it all is. I don’t believe for a moment that the other shortlisted books are any less deserving of victory than mine (I’ve actually ordered them all, so I’m going to find out!).

Of course I’m very grateful that awards like the Cybils exist. Not just because they give much-needed exposure to authors, but also because they get people talking about books!

I know this must be true because I am writing it in the middle of the night.

All Writing and No Play…

How long has it been since you won something?

Been a long time for me, let me tell ya.

It was 1980. I was at the Royal Canadian Legion Hall in Port Dalhousie for the annual middle-school public speaking competition. On a clapboard stage for 7 long minutes I held forth on the fascinating topic of…radio!

It was a galvanizing moment, being handed that first place trophy. It gave a huge boost to my flagging teenage confidence; plus it helped launch a broadcasting career that has sustained me for 31 years.

That’s right – it’s been 31 years since I had a “win.” That’s more than 11,000 days. That’s a cool billion seconds! So you can imagine my delight this morning when I came across this:

The Cybil awards are handed out by a shadowy cadre of book bloggers in the United States and Canada. I don’t know who they are exactly, but I have some solid leads, and as soon as this cold weather breaks I’m going to head out on an extremely long run, and stuff a pair of dry-wick running sleevies into each of their mailboxes as a thank-you gift.
RyanHall
It’s the least I can do. Those judges have no idea how much I needed their vote of confidence today. I’ve been struggling to finish the manuscript of what I hope will be my 2nd novel. I’m at that tragic stage where I don’t know if my story or my characters or my writing is any good, in fact I’m pretty certain that it’s all a pile of dreck.
Remember that scene in The Shining when Shelley Duvall sneaks a peek at Jack Nicholson”s huge unfinished novel?
all-work-and-no-play
She discovers that he’s been writing the same sentence over and over; hundreds and hundreds of pages worth.
Sometimes I’m scared to open my writing, lest I come across pages like that.
It wouldn’t surprise me a whole lot, to be honest. Writing is a crazy-making act. Someone have likened it to “getting into a knife fight with yourself in a phone booth.”
So THANK YOU judges – for reminding me that I’m not crazy. I will now stop my crying. I can do this. I shall endure.

Don’t Let the Path Beat You Down

“If you don’t get off the beaten path, then the path has beaten you.”

I didn’t write that line. My dear friend, and radio celebrity, Brent Bambury, wrote it for a radio show we created together many years ago. I remembered the sentiment this morning, after glancing at my lame-o running log:

Uninspired Training log page

Sigh. Between the polar vortexes and the icy sidewalks, my running routine has become as boring as the Oscars. Each day I take the same route to get to work. And then I take the same route home.

I call it the work-home axis. And lately it’s become a very deep trench.

Contrast it with the running I was doing last summer:

Inspired Training log page

Now, that was a fun week of running!

If you want to be a good runner (or a good writer for that matter), you need variety. Jogging on the same stretch of sidewalk every day isn’t only dull, it’s not all that great for your body. Sure, you’ll work a few muscles in your legs and core, but over time, other muscles will turn to Jell-o from disuse. We need to exercise all the parts of our bodies – abs, shoulders, chest, back, and especially our brains! I’m not saying we all need to join a gym. There are lots of easy ways of getting active. Help a friend move and lift some boxes, go to a yoga class, or spend a few hours hauling kids up your nearest tobogganing hill.

Here’s what I just did to shake up my routine:

Coss Country skiing

Photo credit: Shawna Watson

There aren’t a lot of things I like more than running, but strapping huge fiberglass planks to my feet, and throwing myself down icy slopes at wholly unimaginable speeds is right up there.  Totally yanked me out of my mid-winter funk! And afterwards, I got to write this in my log:

Training log - skiing