Here I am again, two days out. The Haliburton Forest 100-Mile race is less than 48 hours away.
I went shopping last night. Bought E-tabs, Wet-Ones, Bag Balm, batteries for the headlamp, gels, Clif bars, Advil, yams, energy drinks, fig newtons, yogurt-covered raisins…
Drop bags all packed
When I got home I packed my gear. Sleevies, compression shirts, windbreaker, fleece, long tights, toque, gloves, two pair of shorts. Rain is expected, so I packed extra shoes and socks. Body glide to help with chafing.
The race starts at 6 a.m. Saturday. By the time you’re eating breakfast, I’ll have run 15 miles. By the time you sit down to dinner, I’ll likely have run 50. When you go to bed, I’ll hopefully be closing in on 75.
Last year I broke 22 hours and placed third. It’s unlikely I’ll do so well this year. Frankly, I’d be thrilled to break 24 hours. That’s the closest thing I have to a goal.
So why am I running; if I don’t have a goal?
I want to leap off the on-ramp to my normal life and float around in a parallel universe of pain. I want to be reminded what it feels like to hurt. To feel photon torpedoes of agony rip through my quadriceps and calves. I want that woe-is-me feeling you get from grinding up Poachers Trail at 3 in the morning, when it’s pouring rain and blacker than charcoal, and wolves are howling in the forest to your right.
Some people go clubbing, others leak state secrets. Some folks join terrorist groups for fun.
Me, I like to run until it hurts. Until my muscles feel like steaks sizzling on a Hibachi.
364 days a year, I lead a quiet, contented life. But one night a year, I need to dig deep.
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:
I have lots of running heroes. And almost all of them are women.
There’s one: Laura Perry, from Ottawa.
A couple of years ago, Laura was running a 100-mile race near Haliburton, Ontario. It was early in the race. She’d run maybe 20 miles, when she suddenly met a black bear on the trail.
This happens from time to time in these races. And Laura knew what she had to do. She yelled at the bear to scare it away. But instead of running away, the bear began walking towards her.
This was bizarre. Black bears are typically scared of humans. Usually they’ll bolt if you so much as sneeze.
Laura hollered at the bear, but it refused to back down. When it got too close for comfort, Laura lay down on the trail and played dead. The bear came right up to her and started sniffing her shoes. It walked around and around her curled-up body. It poked her back and arms with its snout.
Finally the animal got bored and walked away. It lumbered down the trail, and disappeared into the woods.
Terrifying, right? If that had been me, I would have dropped out of the race right then and there. But Laura didn’t drop out. Instead, she jumped to her feet and started running. And 16 hours later, she won the 100-mile race.
(By the way, Laura told me later that the bear smelled horrible: a combo of rotten cucumber and vomit and wet dog!)
Anyway, I love sharing this story with kids in schools. Some girls have found Laura’s bravery so inspiring, they’ve drawn pictures of her little encounter on the trail:
I should mention that Laura recently won another 100-mile race – setting a new course record at the Sulphur Springs Trail Run. Laura finished in a blistering time of 17 hours and 48 minutes. Happily, she didn’t run into any bears that time around.
Anyway, all this to say, if YOU are going hiking or running in bear country, be sure to go with a friend, and make lots of NOISE. Give those bears plenty of time to get out of your way. Better yet, check with the local park warden if the area is safe for runners and hikers. You don’t want this to happen to you: (WARNING: Language alert!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
A young friend of mine recently celebrated her 7th birthday. Instead of going bowling or having dinner at Chuck E. Cheese’s, she asked her mom for a “spa” birthday party.
A lady came over with her spa equipment and gave the girls (and two boys) manicures and pedicures. Then she gave the kids chocolate facial masks. “Most of us ate our faces,” my young friend told me.
The partiers enjoyed spa-licious smoothies, applied glitter tattoos, and sashayed about the house in fluffy bathrobes. They listened to spa music, read magazines, lit candles, and of course had a pillow fight. At the end of the afternoon, they put on a fashion show.
Sounds amazing, right? And it gave me an idea. If kids are having “spa” birthdays, shouldn’t there be an option for “ultra-running” parties too?
Say it’s your birthday. I could drop by your house in my running gear. To begin, I’d show you and your friends how to lace up your shoes properly. You’d be amazed how many different ways there are to lace up your shoes. It’s positively thrilling!
After that, I’d share stories about my craziest runs. Like the time I ran from Mississaugua to Brantford and drank eleven whole litres of water. Ot the time I jogged the rail trail from Dundalk to Owen Sound and counted every single railway tie along the route (14,157). Talk about a geyser of fun! This would be the best birthday EVER.
Soon enough, it would be time for the main event! We’d all go outside and run a few hundred laps around your yard. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too muddy. But even if it was, it would just add to the fun:
Since not everyone is super athletic, we’d keep the run short – just 3 or 4 hours. Along the way, I’d share tips on proper hydration and nutrition, and tell you and your friends how to avoid cramps and shinsplints.
Eventually, we’d stop to refuel. But you wouldn’t find any cake at this “ultra-running” party. Instead we’d feast on runner’s food: baked sweet potatoes, kale salad, dates and almonds, cauliflower and broccoli flowerets. If things got crazy we might open a bag of antioxidant-rich snow peas. It’ll be all fireworks and high-fives and hoverboards.
Am I crazy, or is this a BRILLIANT idea?! Let me know what you think – I’m still working out the kinks.
It’s always fun to share the weird world of ultra-running with a national audience. So just before Christmas, it was my pleasure to be interviewed by the brilliant Shelagh Rogers on her CBC Radio program, “The Next Chapter.”
In case you missed it, you can catch it here:
Friends tell me I spent too much time talking about the bears and hallucinations other trail demons, and not enough time promoting the book. Oh well. At least I got to repeat my mantra: “Once you’ve run 100 miles in a day, everything else you do seems a lot easier.”
Kids often ask me, what’s the weirdest thing you ever saw while running a 100-mile race?
Easy one! The 75 mile turnaround at the Haliburton Forest Trail Race.
I got there around midnight, after 18 hours of running. 2 women volunteers were there. They were cooking lasagna and chicken noodle soup over a Coleman stove. They’d hung a disco ball from a tree branch, and a lantern was burning right above it, and the fractured lights from the disco ball swirled across the backdrop of trees. It was freaky and beautiful.
I was about to sit down in a camp chair, but one of the women said “DON’T DO THAT! BEWARE THE CHAIR!”
Beware the chair?
‘If you sit down after running 75 miles you’ll never get up again.”
So I kept standing. One of the women asked to see my feet. I took off my shoes and it was a horror show down there. Seriously, it was like I had trenchfoot or something. Trenchfoot times ten. The woman was totally cool about it though. She cut my blisters open and drained them, then squirted krazy glue into the skin flaps to seal them up. After that she wrapped duct tape around and around my feet, and put my shoes back on.
“Good as new!” she said.
I started running again. I only had 25 miles left to go. That’s nothing, right? Just the distance from Toronto to Hamilton. It was a hard grind. I was tired, freaked out, my feet were killing me, and I was having trouble keeping food down. It felt like that race was NEVER going to end!
And then, at 2 am, my phone rang. It was my neice Caelan, calling from Edmonton.
There she is. She knew I was running the race, and she’d asked her dad (my brother) to wake her up, so she could call me to cheer me on. I don’t remember much of what she said. But I do know that she told me a knock knock joke. A knock-knock joke that she’d made up herself. It went like this:
Knock knock / Who’s there?
Banana / Banana who?
Banana had to go to the hospital…
I knew where this was going. I’d say “Why did banana have to go to the hospital?” And Caelan would say “Because he wasn’t peeling well!”
So I did my bit. I said, “Why did banana have to go to the hospital? And Caelan surprised me. She said: “Because he had puke in his lung.”
Yeah, I didn’t really get the joke either. But it was such a weird punchline, it made me laugh. Believe me, when you’ve run 84 miles in 20 hours, and you’ve had your feet sliced open and krazy-glued back together, you’ll laugh at anything. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard as I did in that moment. Caelan’s crazy joke got me to the finish line.
So as a thank-you present, I put Caelan in my novel. Except I changed the spelling of her name to “Kaylin.”
Here’s another character in my book:
Any guesses who she is?
Believe it or not, it’s Kara (the 40 year-old cop)!
The real-life Kara (above) is tough and fearless and deadly with a bubble gun. That’s how she came to inspire that tough-as-nails character.
I should mention that Kara is also my neice. And she’s not too shabby with the knock-knock jokes either.