Running Into Spring

I never know if I’ve found the right school…until I see the sign out front:

dave at St. Jude School

It’s been a busy week of school visits. In the past few days, I’ve met and hung out with (and in some cases, even sprinted against!!!) 1000 kids!

Other cool things have been happening too. The other day I got a tweet from a great songwriter named Scott Cooper. Scott wrote and recorded a song inspired by my book! It’s a total heart-breaker. You can listen to it here.

Also, I just learned that Ultra has been nominated for a SIXTH book award!

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The Red Cedar Book Award is British Columbia’s young readers’ choice award. It’s a huge honour to be nominated. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to travel to B.C. to visit some schools there. I’d love that. I’ve heard rumours that B.C. kids are super sporty. Also – I’m totally aching to run the Capilano trails in the mountains above North Vancouver!

 

 

The Ultra-Running Birthday Party

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.

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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?

running cake

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:

muddy kids

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.

 

A Goal is a Dream with a Deadline

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 2012

48 hours until the Toronto marathon. I’m excited but…is that a hamstring pull I feel? And where’d that hangnail on my left toe come from?

Ah yes, the pre-race jitters. Nothing new there. But the stakes are different this time. I want to run 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours. If the stars align, and God looks down and blows a kiss at my legs, then I’ll succeed. If there’s a bad headwind, or if the temperature dips below 5 degrees, or if I eat too much spaghetti on Saturday night and wind up visiting the porta-potty during the race, I’ll fail.

I put my chances at 50-50. Still – I REALLY WANT IT! In the past, whenever someone has asked me my marathon finishing time, I’ve had to give them a number that started with a 3.  I finished my first marathon in 3:36. A year later I qualified for Boston with a 3:18. A couple of years after that I nailed a 3:04.

Just imagine, I tell myself, owning a finishing time that starts with a 2. I dream of a 2. My kingdom for a 2!

Flash

“Would you say you’re a goal oriented person?” a journalist asked me the other day.

I had to think about this. What is a goal, anyway?

A dream is a goal with a deadline. I didn’t write that. I saw it on the wall at my gym.

I think it’s true though. Dreams are basically useless until you put a clock on them; until you wrestle them to the ground and turn them into reality. If you fail in the attempt, then at least you’ve got a story. But if you succeed, Whoo hoo! Crack open the golden fudge creme Oreos!

So yeah, I suppose I’m a goal oriented person. But I’m not religious about it. I’m cool with failure.

Proof: I tried to break the three-hour barrier once before, and failed. And when I crossed the finish line, I did what I always do at the end of a race: I LAUGHED MY FACE OFF!

Seriously. I always start giggling when I cross a finish line. I’m so happy to not to be running anymore! I often do a pirouette as I sail through the finisher’s chute.

So regardless of my finishing time, I can tell you exactly what I’ll be doing this Sunday morning at 11:45 am. I’ll be cruising up Bay Street in downtown Toronto, with a big goofy grin on my face. I’ll be surrounded by thousands of cheering Torontonians – people kind enough to support loved ones (and some strangers) who are chasing a dream.

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And afterward, I’ll go home and rake the leaves in the yard and clean the bathroom upstairs and then I’ll maybe make a borscht. I’ll put my finisher’s medal in the shoebox with all the others. And I’ll laugh about the importance and the folly of the number 2.

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.

Love Your Genes!

Say it with me…  I LOVE my genes!  

If not for those little critters turning pirouettes in our DNA, we wouldn’t be able to run, cycle or swim.  (Or, for that matter, compose heart-lancing prose.)

So the next time you tap-dance across a finish line, or drop-kick a gorgeous metaphor into a short story, be sure to send a shout-out to your genetic gifts!

Or better yet, thank the person directly responsible:

MOM!

It’s your Mom you’ve gotta thank that your bones are so strong.  If not for her microscopic legacy, you wouldn’t be able to suck 6 litres of air in and out of your lungs.  Mom’s the one you need to thank for that finisher’s medal around your neck. And I’ll bet she helped pay for your first word-processor too.

Promise me you’ll call her this weekend.  Or whisper a prayer in her name. Promise me, ‘kay?

This is a video of me and my mom.  (I’m the little one, fyi)

Yeah, but is it safe?

That’s Kaytlynn Welsch, age 12, center, and her little sister Heather, who is 10, just before they ran a half marathon in Utah last year.

Some people wonder how safe it is for kids to run that kind of distance.

Sometimes I even wonder if it’s safe for me!

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A couple of years ago, while running a 100-mile race, I asked the following question of an on-site medic: “Is it healthy, running 100 miles at a stretch?”

It was 3 a.m. and the Doctor had been patching up battered runners for the better part of 24 hours.  “On the whole, I would have to say NO,” she said, looking at me over the waxy light of a Coleman lantern.

It had been a tough race.  The thermometer had risen to thirty degrees, and a bunch of runners had been evacuated to the local hospital with heat-related illness.  I’d been lucky.  I had some blisters, a nasty cut on my knee from a fall, and a strange rash I never really figured out (lyme disease?).  But that was all.

“Seriously?” I said.  “You think running long distances is unsafe?”

“For some people,” said the Doctor. “Absolutely.”

* * *

Distance running is not risk-free.  But the same can be said of virtually any activity worth doing. Playing hockey can be risky.  Same thing with riding a bicycle.  And as much as we try to convince ourselves otherwise, strapping fiberglass boards to our feet and launching ourselves down icy mountain slopes may not be the safest thing in the world.

And yet we still do it.  Because it’s FUN.

The trick is to use our common sense.  Check out what the Dad in this story says about the importance of getting checked out by a doctor.

As long as you’ve trained properly, and understand the importance of proper nutrition and hydration, and have the approval of your family doctor, and the support of friends and family members, and most important, if you really want to be out there, then why not run?  After all, there’s not much difference between running a marathon in 5 hours, and spending an afternoon playing soccer or Capture The Flag with your friends.

DNF, or How Pain = Learning

Warning: a graphic picture of my feet appears in this post.

But first, a very pleasant image:

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A bunch of baby bats, wrapped up in little blankets.  I don’t know why they’re wrapped up like that.  Maybe they were cold and wet.  Just like me, last September…

***

I already mentioned that I run 100-mile races, right?  That once or twice a year I go to some remote forest, line up with a bunch of crazy people, and run without sleeping for 24+ hours.

It’s a weird sport called ultra-running.  I’ve run a dozen or so of these ultra-marathons in the last five years.

Every single time, I finished successfully.  Until last September.  When I ultra-failed.

The Haliburton Forest Trail Run is held at the Haliburton Wildlife Reserve; a sustainable forest tucked into the armpit of Algonquin Park.  You run 25 miles out into the heart of the forest, then you turn around and run 25 miles back.  And then you do the whole thing OVER AGAIN.  The race took place last September 8, which, in case you’ve forgotten, was a rainy day.

Very rainy, come to think of it.  It rained for eighteen hours before the race began, and then, for good measure, it rained another 12 hours while the race was happening.  This created a lot of mud.

Here I am at the 50 mile turnaround:

David Haliburton 2012

I look happy, don’t I?  Don’t be fooled.  I’d been running for ten hours, and I was far from happy.  I was…what’s the word….oh yeah – UNHAPPY!

Everyone was in pain out there.  At mile 54, I caught up with a young guy named Pablo.  Pablo was having trouble with his hip, and he squinted with every step he took.  He wasn’t giving up, though.   “Pain equals learning,” he told me.  “If you aren’t feeling any pain, then you’re not learning anything.”

The rain finally stopped, and darkness fell.  At the 68-mile checkpoint I pulled on my headlamp.  I ran for two miles, then noticed that the light was flickering.  Cheap Dollar Store batteries!  I ran two miles back to the aid station and picked up my spares.  These worked fine, but I’d had to run four miles out of my way.

(2nd warning – that picture of my feet is coming soon!)

I reached the 75-mile checkpoint by 11pm, which meant I still had a shot at finishing the race in 24 hours.  Shawna surprised me at the aid station.  She fed me yogurt-covered raisins and salted yams, and told me that I looked surprisingly good, considering the circumstances.

Luckily, she didn’t ask to see my feet.

Dave's gnarly feet 1

Those are the tops of my feet.  Believe me, you don’t want to see the bottoms.

Remember, I’d been running through muddy oil-slicks for 17 hours straight.  I probably should have changed shoes and socks and greased my feet with Vaseline, but that would have taken an extra twenty minutes (it takes a lot of time to perform these seemingly simple manoeuvres when you’re wet and cold from 17 hours of running).

I ran on.  I made it to the 85 mile checkpoint, but then things started to fall apart.  At the top of a hill, I saw a two-storey marble sculpture of a rabbit.  I ran closer and realized it wasn’t a marble sculpture at all, but a tree.  I became dizzy.  My feet were SCREAMING with pain.  So was the chafing on my, er, undercarriage.  I slowed down to a walk.  And then, without the heat generated from the running, my body temperature plummeted.

I was wearing three layers of clothes, plus a running jacket and tights, but it wasn’t enough.  The temperature dipped down to 5 degrees, and I began shivering uncontrollably.  I could barely hike the hills I’d pranced up earlier in the day.  A germ of an idea took root in my mind.  You don’t have to finish if you don’t want to, it said.

It’s called a DNF, and it stands for Did Not Finish.  I’d never DNF’d in my life.

But the pain in my feet was getting worse and it felt like my butt cheeks were being ripped to shreds with every step.  The germ solidified in my mind.

And so, at 3 a.m., after running 89 miles (which was actually 93 if you count the extra miles I ran to get my spare batteries), I did something truly crazy.  At the intersection of Ben’s Trail and Krista Trail, right near the makeshift Shrine which was the inspiration for a VERY IMPORTANT SCENE in my soon-to-be-published novel (“ULTRA,” Scholastic, Fall 2013), I intentionally walked off the trail.

“This is how it feels to DNF,” I told myself, stepping over the line of orange and pink flags.

And you know what?

It felt GREAT.

Mind you, after leaving the course, I still had to bushwhack two more miles through the forest before I stumbled upon a logging road.  And then I had to wait until a car came along and mercifully picked me up.  So in the end I figured I covered 95 miles.

Which wasn’t enough.

****

23 people finished that race.  31 DNF’d.

Pablo, that guy I’d chatted with during the race, was one of the successful ones.  I cheered as he crossed the finish line.  When he saw me, he beamed.

“How did you do?” he asked.

“I DNF’d,” I admitted.  “I couldn’t handle the mud.”

“What?  No!  You were looking so good out there!”

It took a while to convince him that this was good, that this was my decision, and I was comfortable with it.  I’ve had plenty of successful races before, and I wanted to see how failure played out.  There is a cult around winning, around success, completion.  But there is a wintry beauty in its opposite – in failure, chances lost.

“Pain equals learning,” I reminded Pablo.

He grinned, leaned down and rubbed his hip.  “Then we must be geniuses now,” he said.

* * *

One last thought on pain and learning.

rejection letter

This is a standard rejection letter, from one of those highbrow literary journals that almost all writers dream of getting published in, but that very few people actually read.  I’ve got millions of these forms lying around, from all the lousy short stories I sent out over the years.

Every one of those letters stung.   But as Pablo pointed out in the race, pain can be instructive.

If you’re going to be a writer, you’ll have to deal with rejection at some point.  But you can view these rejections in one of two ways:

1) You can see them as stop signs.  As brick walls.

2) Or you can see them as an invitation to keep pushing.

If you’re suffering from hypothermia, or excruciating chafing, by all means, take some time off to recover.  Otherwise, keep writing.  The finish line is out there – somewhere.

Re-Writing is Your Friend

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People often ask me how many times I re-wrote my first novel.  Trust me when I say, YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

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I wrote the first version in the summer of 2008.  It was 20,000 words long, and it swallowed two months of my life.

I finished the second draft a month later.  By Christmas I’d rewritten it a third time, and then I sent it out.

I sent it to an agent and also a publisher.  The publisher said some nice things about it.  She said the narration was lovely and warm; perhaps too lovely and warm.  She explained that the warm tone made it hard to believe that the central character was living on top of a calamity.  Which was why she was going to take a pass.

The agent didn’t bother to reply.

I wasn’t dejected.  I’ve written lots of stuff over the years that never got published.   That’s the writer’s life.  I stuffed the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it.

Two years later, I picked it up again.  I re-wrote it for…let’s see…the fourth time.

After 5 months of work, I pitched it 50 agents.  49 of them said, “Thanks but no thanks.”

The fiftieth agent (the brilliant Scott Waxman who represents some of the finest sports writers, including the legendary John L. Parker) called me on the phone.  When I saw the 212 area code on the display, I knew something was up.  Scott told me that he liked my story; that he’d read it to his kids and they liked it too.  He said, however, that he wasn’t quite ready to offer representation just yet.  There were a few things I ought to think about – if, that is, I was “willing to re-write the manuscript.”  

I thought about the improvements that Scott suggested.  I thought about them for all of ten seconds.

Once again, I started re-writing.  When I finished that re-write I did another.

And then another.

And then another.

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After six months of re-writing, Scott Waxman accepted my novel.  I received an “Offer to Represent” in the mail.

Cue the champagne corks!  Cue the s’mores!

A couple of months later, the novel sold to Scholastic Canada.

MORE champagne!  MORE s’mores!

IN the year or so since I signed with Scholastic, I’ve done three more rewrites.  The first took 3 months, the second took one month, the third took a week.

That makes eleven re-writes in all.

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but listen: with every single re-write the book got better!

Lesson learned:

Writing a book, and running 100 miles, are similar in two distinct ways.

(1) Both involve a TON of pain.

and (2) The finish line is incredibly sweet.