The other day I drove down to Niagara. A local school had invited me to join them in a fun-run.
Actually, it was a charity run for cancer research. Which should have made it un-fun. Except it wasn’t.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.