Thunder Running

Reasons not to run on the Bruce Trail during a thunderstorm:

  1. A tree could fall on you and you could die.
  2. You could get swallowed by the mud and die.
  3. Lightning could strike you and you could die.
  4. You could slip off the 500-foot scarp face and die.

Reasons to run on the Bruce Trail during a thunderstorm:

  1. It’s super fun.

mud running

At a certain point, when you’re soaking wet and freezing cold and lathered in mud, and the forest is as dark as night, and the rain is lashing you like a blizzard of molars, and you’ve still got 15 kilometers left to go before you get back to the car, well, at a certain point, you’ve just got to throw up your hands and laugh, don’t you?  After all, you checked the weather online.  You saw the probability of precipitation (75%) and the expected accumulation (20 – 40 mm), and you saw those clouds amassing on the horizon like an army of unwashed hoodies.  You knew what you were in for and you just laughed, didn’t you?  Well, now it’s time to laugh again.

As for all that mud, well, that can’t be a surprise either.  You do you know what happens to dirt trails when you add water to them, don’t you?  You did play in a sandbox as a child, right?  When water is added to dirt, that dirt turns into mud.  You know this.  If you add enough water, you get something worse than mud.  You get a slippery, shoe-sucking, toffee-like substance called glop. 

But it’s not all bad, is it?  There’s nothing like hypothermia and mud inhalation and blood loss and the threat of plunging into a crevasse cave fathoms deep to fire up the old endorphins, is there?  Especially when you arrive back at your car after three hours of slogging through rushing creek-beds, and stare at yourself in the rear-view mirror only to see a hollow-eyed, scabby-elbowed, tick-bitten runner; hair singed from stray lightning bolts, face besmirched with mosquito guts, and you swear you’ve never seen anything quite so idiotic!

“We Can Always Do Anything”

It’s time for another INSPIRATIONAL THURSDAY!

And I’ll start it off with a question.  Is it really possible for a 13 year-old to run a 100-mile race?

Ultra coverI get that question all the time, since that’s what my book is about: a kid who runs the longest of ultra-marathons in an attempt to outrun a tragic family secret.

Is such a thing actually possible?

HECK YEAH!

Of course, I don’t actually know any 13 year-olds who have successfully completed a 100-mile race.   But it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they had.  Kids are capable of ANYTHING.  There are kids out there who’ve run multiple marathons, and kids who have swum across great lakes.

And then there’s Conner and Cayden Long, who take the word inspiration to a whole new level:

“We can always do anything.”  Love that.

Bad Sun, but not Badwater

Hot day for running today.  35 degrees in my neck of the woods.

Heat, as a rule, is a bad thing for runners.  Increase your core temperature by a mere 8 degrees, and you’ll likely die of multiple organ failure.

I thought about this while I ran today’s 20-kilometer loop, sweat pouring off of my body like I was Chris Farley’s masseur.

I also thought about the fact that the heat from the sun takes precisely 8 minutes and 16 seconds to travel from the surface of the sun to the surface of my face.  You probably already knew that.  But did you know that the energy that warms your face also had to spend between 10,000 and 1 million years traveling from the core of the sun through a soup of hydrogen 320,000 miles deep, before it reached the sun’s surface?

That means, that pesky sunshine that’s heating up your body to dangerous levels spent up to a million years (plus 8 minutes and 16 seconds) trying to get to you.  So be grateful.

Unless you’re running the 135-mile Badwater ultra-marathon in California’s Death Valley, where temperatures are likely to hit 50 degrees celcius.  Then you can complain all you want.

You’ll notice in that video that most people run on the white line at the edge of the highway.  That’s because it’s the coolest part of the road – and therefore the least likely to melt their shoes.

Looks like fun!

My First Book Interview

My novel is going to the printer TODAY.  Synchronize your watches – it’ll be hitting the bookstores in ten weeks.  

Ultra cover

I had my first book interview today.  Strange experience.  I work for the media, so for years, I’ve been the one asking the questions, not answering them.  Role reversal!

Still, it was fun to talk about these characters who’ve been making a racket inside my head for the last three years.

Here are the first five questions I was asked as an author:

Q: What is the best part of being an author?

I love that the gear is so cheap!  If I wanted to be a professional snowboarder, I’d have to spend hundreds of dollars on equipment.  The board, the boots, the bindings, the jacket…  Pricey!  But all an author needs is a pen and some paper.  What does that cost – maybe $5?

Also, I never get hurt, writing books.  That’s a definite plus for me.  If I was a hockey player in the NHL, I’d probably get hit a lot.  I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to getting hit, so that wouldn’t be much fun.  As an author, the worst thing that can happen is I get a paper cut.

The best thing about being an author, however, is that the job is dead easy.  The alphabet only has 26 letters.  So all I have to do is arrange those letters in such a way that they tell a good story.  How hard could that be?

Q: What inspired you to write Ultra?

Five years ago, I did an insane thing.  I entered a hundred-mile footrace.  For 24 hours – all day and all night – I ran through a forest.  Some runners saw bears along the route, and all through the night I heard wolves howling in the distance.  It was a terrifying and exhausting experience.  But when I crossed the finish line, my life had changed.  I’d always thought it was impossible to run 100 miles in a day, but now that I’d done it, the whole world seemed different.  I’d changed the goalposts of what I believed was possible.  So I decided to try something else that I’d always thought was impossible – writing and publishing a novel.  And voila!

Q: What was the hardest part of writing this book?

Deciding whether or not the main character, Quinn, should win the race.  For the longest time, I had him crossing the finish line first.  But then I decided that he shouldn’t win; that something else – something dramatic – should happen instead.  So I rewrote the ending.  But then I gave the book to family members to read, and they complained about the ending.  So I rewrote it again, and then again.

I went back and forth, rewriting that ending for a year.  I can’t even remember anymore whether Quinn wins or loses the race.  But I will say this.  Most 100-mile races don’t give prizes to the winners.  Usually the winner just gets a pat on the back, a warm blanket, and a bowl of vegetable soup.  Almost nobody runs a 100-mile race in order to win.  They do it for other, much stranger reasons.

Q: In what ways are you like Quinn, the protagonist in your book?

I share Quinn’s determination.  Once I get an idea into my head, I’ll stick with it, no matter how much it hurts.  That’s why I can run 100 miles in one go.  Also, I love being outside, and I’m okay with being alone sometimes.  I’m a bit of an introvert, and I think Quinn is too.

And finally, like Quinn, I have a really solid friend.  And an amazing family that supports me – even when I do crazy things.

Q: What was your favourite book growing up?

“Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome.  It’s about a group of kids who climb mountains and race sailboats and survive shipwrecks and explore the high English moors.  Their parents are nowhere in sight, and the kids are always outdoors, facing the elements.  My dad read that book aloud for my whole family when I was a kid.  He’d read one chapter each night before bedtime, and the next morning me and my brother would race for the book so we could read on ahead.

“Swallows and Amazons” was the first in a long series, and Dad read us every single one over the course of a long, magical summer.  And that’s saying something, since there are twelve books in the series, and each one is 350 pages long.  Looking back, I think that experience cemented my love of reading.  Dad reading those books out loud.

OK, So You’ve Run Into a Bear. Now What?

A few days ago I wrote about running into bears while on the trail.  It’s a daunting prospect, and there are lots of things you can do to prevent it from happening (like making lots of noise).

But suppose you do run into a bear.  What then?

No single strategy is guaranteed to work in all situations, but you can minimize your risk by doing the following:

First, keep your distance from the bear and remain calm.  Don’t run away.  In most cases, if you make some noise, the bear will leave.

Don’t be surprised if the bear rises up on its hind legs.  Bears are curious animals, and often stand up to get a better view, or to catch your scent.  Back away slowly and speak in a firm voice.

A bear that swats at the ground, swings its head from side to side, snorts or huffs, pops its jaw, or bares its teeth is likely stressed and is asking for more space.  Give it to him.  Bears may also bluff their way out of an encounter by charging, then turning away at the last second.  Stand your ground.

A bear that follows you, circles or cuts you off is likely displaying predatory behaviour.  This is more common in black bears.  Face the bear and act aggressively.  Throw rocks and sticks.

If a Bear Charges:

If it’s a Black Bear, stand and fight.  Grab the closest stick and bash him across the nose.  Throw things.  If you’re carrying bear spray, use it.  Any of these actions may convince the bear to leave you alone.

If it’s a Grizzly Bear, play dead.  Protect your face, and the back of your head and neck with your arms.  The typical grizzly attack happens as a result of surprise, so non-aggressive behavior generally works.

Here’s an easy way to remember: If it’s black, fight back.  If it’s brown, lie down.

Real Life Superheroes, Part 7

You’ve probably heard of exteme sports like base-jumping, free-running, and wake-boarding…

But have you heard of the greatest adrenaline rush of all?

Let me introduce you to…extreme ironing.

extreme ironing 1

Let’s face it. Everyone’s gotta iron. And ironing’s pretty boring.  So why not make ironing time more fun?

extreme-ironing-02

Welp!

I’m a bit OCD, so this sport really speaks to me. You can do extreme ironing anywhere. Atop a mountain, on board a roller coaster, even at the bottom of the ocean.  All it has to be is…extreme.

extreme ironing 3

Uh…dude…there’s a shark above your head.

If you love challenging outdoor activities and the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt, then extreme ironing is for you!

And guess what…  One of the stars of the sport is a 17 year-old kid.

Most teenagers aren’t too fond of housework, but Kevin Krupitzer is an exception.  He’s particularly interested in removing creases from his clothes on top of weird rock formations near his home in Arizona.

Extreme_Ironing_4

My hero, the young Kevin Krupitzer

That doesn’t look too extreme, does it?  Wait a second…let me show you a wide shot:

Extreme ironing 5

No matter how peculiar your passions may be, the world is waiting to see you succeed.

Another Burden to BEAR

Patricia Sommers was having a great race.  Until she ran into the bear.

Sommers was running her first 100-miler, in the Haliburton Forest, back in 2000.  She was keeping a good pace, the weather was good, and her husband was waiting for her at the 75-mile turnaround.

One mile shy of that aid station, Sommers heard a noise.  It was eleven at night, and she could hear a large animal crashing down a hill towards her, on the left hand side of the trail.  “I hoped it was a moose, but it wasn’t,” she explained. “It burst onto the path 100 meters ahead of me.”

Sommers shone her headlamp at the animal.  It was an adult black bear.  It rose up on its hind legs and roared.

Black bear

I’ve run into a number of bears on the trail.  It’s gets your heart pumping, that’s for sure.   Given that these animals are large, with claws the size of steak knives, I’ll found myself wondering: am I crazy to be running in a forest?

The answer, according to Bart Hillhorst, is no.  Hillhorst is a Forestry Technician with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.  He deals with a lot of problem bears.  “There’s always a danger with animals of this size,” he explains, “but in general, black bears are programmed to be scared of humans.  Ninety percent of the black bear’s diet is vegetation – grass, berries, nuts.  The other ten percent is meat, but that’s mostly larvae and ants.  The reality is, bears don’t like dealing with people.  It’s not in their personality.”

Statistics back this up.  Since the early 1900’s, fewer than 70 deaths in North America have been attributed to black bears.

“When you see a bear on the trail, your first reaction is to be scared,” Hillhorst says.  “That’s perfectly natural, but fear is the wrong thing to show a bear.  You want to be calm.  You want to look at the bear and figure out her situation.  What’s the bear doing?  Is it aware you’re there?  Is it feeding on something?  Are there cubs nearby?  Then you can figure out your best response.”

“Once you know what the conditions are, then it’s just a matter of risk tolerance,” explains Dr. Stephen Herrero, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary.  “There is risk associated with bears, so you have to decide if you’re comfortable with that.  I’m a runner myself, and I love running in nature.  But there are some places in North America where I wouldn’t dare run right now.”

If you do decide to lace up in bear country, you can take steps to increase your safety.

1) “Run at a more leisurely pace than you otherwise might.  Bears hate surprises, that’s a major cause of aggressive behaviour, especially with Grizzlies.

2) Keep an eye out for bear tracks, spoor, fresh diggings, torn up logs and scratched trees.  If you see any of those, find another place to run.

3) Above all, make lots of noise, particularly when you’re running in dense forest, or rounding blind corners.

Carrying a can of bear repellent doesn’t hurt either.  Just be sure you know how to use it.

“When you’re staring at that bear, and your heart is racing, and the wind is blowing, how good do you think your aim is going to be?” Hillhorst says.  “Bear spray is good because it gives you confidence, but practice using it a couple of times before you head out.”

Sweaty to Office Ready

A few Februaries ago, while standing on a streetcar, politely absorbing the cloud of germs radiating from the human flu cases all around me, I glanced out the window and had a revelation.

A happy-looking runner bounded up the sidewalk. A vapour trail of snow whorled behind her.

*Jan 19 - 00:05*Brilliant, I thought!  Why hadn’t I thought of it before?  Instead of suffering for hours on public transit, I could be running to work, and losing weight at the same time!

Ever since that revelation, I’ve been running to and from work every day.  I’m saving money on transit, I’m saving time, and my oxygen-rich blood has led to improved performance at work.

Still, I’ll be the first to admit that the running commute can be fraught with peril. Over the years I’ve been caught half-in and half-out of my spandex tights in the photocopy room.  I’ve been referred to as “Chicken Legs Carroll” at a staff meeting.  And I’ve been accused of “stinking up” workstations 2G208 through 2G212.

More on that latter item in a moment, but first, I’d like to address the most significant challenge facing the commuting runner: wardrobe planning.  Any casual runner is capable of keeping a spare shirt or two at the office.  But what about us addicts who run both to and from work, each and every day of the week?  To do this successfully, some planning is in order.

Once a week, I pack a duffel bag full of clean clothes and shlep it downtown. Three pairs of pants, three dress shirts, and four tee-shirts generally do the trick. I also leave a few items at work permanently – sports jacket, belts, a filing cabinet full of clean socks.

clothes pic

My filing cabinet holds all manner of fine toggery

It’s not a fail-safe plan.  Countless are the times I’ve grabbed a clean shirt, shoes, underwear and socks from my filing cabinet, and headed for the showers only to discover that I have no pants.

What the….WHERE ARE MY PANTS!?!

Ever sat through a board meeting in dri-fit shorts?

But maintaining a satellite wardrobe is only the half the battle.  It’s also critically important to be pre-emptive with one’s sweaty laundry.

cooler pic

Hide-a-stench

For this, I look no further than my trusty Coleman cooler.  With its airtight seal, that baby can store up to 3 days worth of biological waste without emitting any foul smog.

Despite these precautions, I still get the occasional complaint from my neighbor at workstation 2G212.  I’m doing everything I can, but frankly, I think it’s time for our industry leaders to lend a hand.  If companies really want to attract health-conscious and carbon-neutral employees, they need to get ahead of the fitness curve.  I’m not talking about bike racks and shower rooms.  These days, those are the mere baseline.  I’m talking about lunch-hour massages, Gatorade and Clif shot energy gels in the vending machines, and most importantly, same-day dry cleaning service.

And would it really kill our bosses to keep an ironing board in the photocopy room?  I mean, c’mon!

The evidence beneath my desk

The evidence beneath my desk

You’ll find a good article with tips on how to run-commute here.

A Puppy Off its Leash

This spring is giving me whiplash.

Three days ago I went running in a blizzard.  But one weekend before that, the hillsides were ablaze with blossoms.

Hogg's Falls

I took the opportunity to go hiking on the Bruce Trail with friends.  White and wine-coloured Trilliums opened as we walked.

trilliums

These flowers would perish of frostbite exactly one week later, but they looked very beautiful at the time.

My friends were in an easy-as-a-Sunday-mornin’ mood, and took lots of time to admire the scenery.

snake!

Look out, I’m a snake, you cultured peoples!

The trail wove up and down the scarp face.  Every so often, we’d come upon a delicious downhill section.  I’d leave my friends behind, and slalom down the trail, my legs twirling like pinwheels.  When I got to the bottom of the ravine I’d turn around and jog back up to meet my friends again.  I felt sheepish, like a puppy who’s escaped its leash but still wants to be loved by its masters.  My friends barely even noticed I’d gone.

After a couple of hours we came to a gurgling stream.  It meandered through the grassy meadow like lazy cursive, swooping around apple trees and ancient slabs of limestone.  The water glinted like diamonds in the sunlight, and when you looked down into it, you could see fat black tadpoles shooting back and forth.

It was an idyllic place, surrounded by hills on all sides.  It reminded me of an illustration from one of my all-time favourite children’s books, Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Bears Picnic.

It’s the book where Ma and Pa Bear set off with their son in search of the perfect picnic spot.  They pass through forests, over mountains, and through cozy glades in pursuit of the perfect picnic spot.  They endure bugs and monsoons and nearly get killed by a train and almost fall off a mountain.

Come to think of it, their adventure is eerily similar to my novel, Ultra.  Except, like, the main characters are cartoon bears.

When we got home after the hike we ate our own picnic of scones and salted pecans and Brie cheese and Oolong tea which raised our spirits nicely.  Six hours had passed since we’d set out on the trail.  It felt like ten minutes.  The best days always do.

Note – you can find that gorgeous creek and meadow at kilometer 58.8 of the Beaver Valley section of the Bruce Trail.  It’s on map 26 of the Trail guide; just a few clicks southeast of Eugenia Falls.

Or, if you’re feeling lazy, you can have almost the same experience just by reading this book:

bearspicnicchatkay11

In Every Race There is a Surprise, Part 2

I love running 100 mile races.  And one of my favourites takes place this month.

The Sulphur Springs Trail Run is held in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area in Southern Ontario.  The race follows a series of hard-pack trails that weave in and out of steep gorges carved thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers. Over the course of the 20-kilometer loop (which you run 8 times), you pass through dense Carolinian forests and wildflower-strewn meadows.

Sulphur Springs 09

Gorgeous

To answer your question, yes, there’s a bit of hill-climbing.  Over the course of the 100 miles, you have to gut your way up 4600 metres of elevation.  That’s like 8 CN towers stacked on top of each other.

Sadly, I won’t be running the race this year.  Instead, I’ll be working this mind-blowingly awesome music festival.  It’s a decent trade-off, but I’ll still be thinking about Sulphur Springs while I’m rocking out.  I’ve said before that every 100-mile race holds a surprise of some sort, and I’ve had more than my share in that particular race…

For instance.  Five years ago I was toeing the starting line with a hundred or so other runners.  It was late May, and it was six in the morning, and most of us were wearing headlamps.

Most – but not all.

“3…2…1…GO!” shouted the race director.

“Yaaaaaaaaa!” we runners yelled, charging heroically into the darkness.

We ran for maybe 30 seconds, down a gravel road toward the trailhead. Everyone jostled for position as the road got narrower, and soon we were funneling into a straight line.

Did I mention that it was dark?  That we were moving fast?

Soddenly, right in front of me, someone shouted: “Look out!  Look out!  Look out!”

The offending posts!

The offending posts

Four metal posts were sticking out of the ground.  They were two-and-a-half feet high.  Castration height.

“Look out! Look out! Look out!”

The crowd parted, and I slipped safely between the posts. The guy beside me wasn’t so lucky, and went down with a horror-movie scream.

IN EVERY RACE THERE IS A SURPRISE.

Poor guy.  He’d run all of 200 metres.

Happily, the following year, the starting line was moved to a different area of the park.  I have no idea if that was coincidental or not.

* * *

Running a hundred miles is not like running shorter distances.  In the 100 mile race, you don’t compete with other people.  You compete against yourself.  More precisely, you compete against your own mind.  You would think that your mind would be on your side in an endurance event.  But it is not.  Your mind is your worst enemy.  Your mind is on the side of your body, and your body wants nothing more than to go home, lie down in a hammock, and eat a bag of barbecue chips.

Oh sure, every now and again, your mind will say something nice to you, like: “The bath you take after this race sure is going to feel good!”  Or, “It sure is nice, being outside in the fresh air!”  But most of the time your mind says nasty things like: “You’re stupid for trying this; you should drop out and go home.”

That’s what my mind was saying to me a couple of years ago, when I was once again running Sulphur Springs.  I’d been running for 80-odd miles and it was the middle of the night and my mind was saying: “You are a stupid bloody fool.  Why are you doing this to yourself?”

HPIM3533

I’ll never forget finishing my 7th loop. At the turnaround, the volunteer lady gave me a high five and offered me a slice of pizza.  I declined, since I still had one final 20-kilometer loop to do.  “No you don’t,” she said.  “You’ve already done your 8.  Just look at the clipboard.”

I stared at the clipboard, and counted the laps.  She was right, I’d done 8, not 7 like I thought.

Which meant –

I WAS DONE!!!

Believe me when I tell you – that was the happiest moment of my life.  

Of course, later that day, the pain really set in.  I had a burning Achilles tendon, and I lost all feeling in six of my toes.  My calves and left shin were…hmmm, let me see.  What were they exactly?  Ah yes, they were a blinding wall of pain.  That’s right, that’s what they were.

On the bright side, I was given permission to use the physical disability washroom at work.  That handle on the wall beside the toilet was a godsend.