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.

 

 

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.