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!)
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!
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!
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.
My novel Ultra doesn’t have any pictures. But that doesn’t stop readers from drawing their own.
Here are some illustrations, drawn by kids, based on scenes in the book.
As you may or may not know, Ultra is about a 13 year-old boy, named Quinn, who enters a 100-mile footrace. Quinn runs all day and all night through a rugged forest. His little brother Ollie cheers him on, mostly over the phone.
Quinn has all sorts of crazy adventures during his 24-hour run. He sees hallucinations, meets crazy people, runs up and down mountains, and encounters extreme weather. He even has a run-in with a bear:
As he runs, Quinn thinks about his family, who he misses. He begins to think that he’ll never see them again, and that he’ll never finish this crazy race.
At midnight, after running for 18 hours, he arrives at the magical 75-mile rest station. There’s a disco ball hanging from a tree.
The disco ball gives him power and strength. So does the Krazy Glue on his feet (don’t ask)!
Eventually Quinn reaches the finish line. But does he beat the evil Dirt Eater? Is his family there to cheer him on? And why did he run this crazy race in the first place?
You’ll have to read the book to find out!
Thanks to the brilliant artists at St. Bridget’s School in Brooklin, Ontario for these amazing pictures. You all deserve a belt buckle!
The best thing about writing a book is you get to meet all sorts of inspiring people.
You are looking at a real-life superhero.
I don’t mean me. I’m talking about the young man I’m hugging. His name is Nathan Duke, and he introduced me at the Silver Birch Book Awards ceremony a couple of weeks ago.
I don’t know how often you speak to an audience of 2000+ people, but I never do. Man, I was scared! My stomach felt like it was full of frogs.
Nathan, on the other hand, was totally calm. He breezed up to the microphone and started chatting with that audience as if he was Jimmy Fallon. He’d written a funny speech about how I wasn’t athletic when I was a kid, and how I’d never dreamed that I could write a book. As he spoke, I thought to myself, He’s the real writer, not me!
After Nathan said my name, I was so humbled and impressed, I jumped up and gave him a big hug. Let’s take another look at that picture, shall we?
That is probably my favourite picture in the world. Me hugging one of Canada’s most gifted young orators. One day, I hope to return Nathan’s favour. I can’t wait to introduce him when his book gets nominated for an award!
* * *
Here’s another inspirational person:
Her name is Paige Marchant. She came up to say hello to me after I gave a presentation at her school. Her last name sounded familiar, so I said, “Did you know there’s a famous marathoner named Marchant?”
“I know,” said Paige. “She’s my aunt.”
Lanni Marchant is Canada’s fastest female marathoner. Last October she set a new Canadian record, running the marathon in a blistering time of 2:28:00.
“Lanni Marchant is your aunt?” I gasped.
Paige nodded. I knelt down on the floor and shook her hand. It felt like I was touching royalty. I was.
I was standing on a stage, speaking to 5000 screaming kids. When I suddenly decided I needed to go for a run.
I should explain. I was at the Forest of Reading’s annual Festival of Trees. The Festival of Trees is a huge literary amusement park, where kids get to hang out with their favourite authors and illustrators, take part in workshops, and basically get jazzed about books. One of the highlights is the announcement of the highly-coveted Silver Birch Award. Kids get keyed up about this award because they’re the ones who choose the winner. Any student who has read five of the ten nominated books gets the honour of casting a vote.
My book was lucky enough to get nominated. That’s why I was standing on that stage. Major thrill. If you’re worried that reading is going the way of High School Musical, you can relax. Those kids screamed for us authors as if we were One Direction.
Each author was given 90 seconds to speak, and when my turn came, I began saying something super boring, about how reading is really good for your brain and you should really make friends with your local librarian because they’ll introduce you to new worlds of wonder and blah blah blah blah blah.
Seriously. I was more boring than watching your computer defrag. So I suddenly jumped off the stage and started running.
Here’s the thing. When I jumped off that stage, the aisles were completely clear. I figured I could do a quick lap around the audience, high-fiving kids all the way. Of course, the moment those kids figured out what I was up to, they swarmed into the aisles to say hello. This slowed my progress considerably.
There was another glitch. When I picked up speed on the return trip down the centre aisle, I noticed that the stage was surrounded by a fence. Good thing I’ve been doing lots of lunges lately. I vaulted over that fence, leapfrogged a stack of amplifiers, and made it back to the microphone in less than 30 seconds.
It was the shortest – and happiest – run of my life. When I sat back down, I barely even felt out of breath. And even though my book didn’t win (that honour went to the woman on my right – Robin Stevenson – for her soulful novel, Record Breaker), I spent the rest of the day walking two inches above the ground.
Hmmm. Maybe that’s how I got over that stage fence so easily. I wasn’t running at all. I was floating.
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.
My life changed on a Thursday. Last Thursday, actually.
I drove down to London and visited a bunch of schools. School visits are one of my favourite things to begin with, but it was a gorgeous day, all sunny and spring-like, and the kids I met were more beautiful than brand-new iPhones, and the energy in the classrooms was all hoverboards and high-fives. I had a total ball at all those schools. But that isn’t what changed my life. At the end of the day I visited St. Robert’s Catholic School, and did my usual “Ultra talk” for a class of sixth graders. The teacher had read almost all of my novel to the kids, and after my presentation was over, the kids asked me if the Urinal Hockey League actually existed in real life (it did!) and are there really bandits in running races (there are!) and have you really run into bears in the forest (many!). We took crazy group pictures while Katy Perry blasted from the boom-box, and then the kids asked, will you come outside and run with us?
The last period of the day was about to begin. It was their P.E. class.
Since it was so beautiful and I had my running shoes with me, of course I said YES!
I thought we’d maybe do a few easy laps around the schoolyard. But after we’d conga-lined out the back door and into the bright sunshine, the P.E. teacher said, “Okay, let’s play Manhunt. Caleb, you’re it! Who do you choose as a partner?”
Caleb glanced around, and then chose me.
ME! It was the FIRST TIME I’ve been everpicked first for a sports team!
And do you know what? I rockedat that game! As a kid I was terrible at soccer and basketball and volleyball and baseball and just about any other game with a ball, but when it came to Manhunt, I was THE MASTER!
Manhunt, by the way, is basically tag, except that two people start out being it, and slowly but surely tag everyone else. Once the other kids are tagged, they become “it” too, and join in the hunt, helping to chase down the last remaining players. Manhunt is basically nothing more than a 15-minute SPRINT. And I was sprinting after some extremely speedy sixth-graders!
It was the best possible way to end a long day. We laughed and screamed and bounded around that schoolyard like gazelles! I wasn’t a grownup anymore. I was eleven years old. Eventually I tagged someone, and Caleb tagged someone too and our little group of “it” people grew and grew.
When the game ended we pleaded with the teacher to let us play again. He said yes.
What that game ended we pleaded with him again.
When the third game ended we convinced him that daily physical activity is part of a healthy lifestyle, so of course he had to let us play one more game.
After the fourth game, the teacher gathered all of us kids in a quiet corner of the playground, and he had us sit down on a bunch of boulders. Then he handed me a beat-up copy of Ultra. “Would you mind?” he asked. “We’re only five pages from the end.”
He wanted me to read the end of the book to the kids! I was hesitant. That’s a very intense section of the book. In those final 5 pages, Quinn not only saves ——–, he also gets passed by ——— and nearly loses ———-, but then he thinks of ———, and sees ——— and ———, and there’s an intense final showdown with ——— at the finish line. And the whole time the clock is ticking…
The kids cheered and cheered until I agreed to read. I got a bit emotional as I turned the pages, and I actually choked up a couple of times. I often read from the novel in my school visits, but I’ve never read THE ACTUAL CLIMAX! The kids were RAPT. They were so totally into it, and we were outside in the sun, and we’d just spent an hour racing around the schoolyard.
When I finished the last few sentences the kids stared at me in silence. “Keep going,” someone said.
“I can’t,” I said. “That’s the end.”
I was shocked to find that the book was actually pretty good. I hadn’t really expected that.
“That can’t be the end!” said Caleb. “You have to write a sequel!”
On the two-hour drive home, I couldn’t stop singing.
Did I mention that I’m notin Boston right now? That I’m not running the fabled marathon, on this, the most emotional of years?
I’m thinking of my friends who are running the race. Not least Rhonda-Marie Avery, who I’ve written about before, and who was on the course last year when the bombing happened.
My Boston experiences pale by comparison (thank goodness), but I do have some choice memories. I ran the 2008 race with my buddy Kai, who, like Rhonda-Marie, is blind. Kai had asked me to be his guide, but I don’t think I did a very good job. Thanks to me, he nearly did a face-plant on the infamous “Three Mile Island.”
“Buddy!” I shouted. “Veer left! Veer left!”
Three Mile Island is a cement protrusion in the middle of Route 135 near Ashland. If you’re running in the middle of the pack, or drafting behind another competitor, it’s easy to miss the warning signs and pilons. Half the runners go right and the other half go left. If you’re not careful, you’ll smack into the cement wall.
“Kai!” I screamed. “LOOK OUT!”
I grabbed his sleeve and yanked him out of harm’s way.
“What was that?” Kai asked.
“An early death,” I said.
When Kai was still a teenager, macular degeneration robbed him of ninety percent of his central vision. Mercifully, the disease (called Stargardt’s) left his peripheral vision intact. And it’s those twin curtains of sight that allow Kai to run with some degree of confidence – to deke left and right, and to find the gaps between other runners.
“I actually feel pretty comfortable running in a pack,” Kai told me. “I can see the contours of people ahead of me. So all I have to do is find my opening and keep up with the crowd.”
Although he chose me to be his guide, Kai had no particular interest in being tethered to me by a rope. Nor was he interested in pinning a bright yellow BLIND RUNNER sign to the back of his jersey. “Thousands of cute Wellesley girls, and you want me to advertise that I’ve got a disability?” he said.
So we ran side by side. Kai was worried about slowing me down, but I assured him that I wasn’t looking for a PR. “I’ve run lots of marathons for speed,” I told him. “I’m looking forward to actually seeing this race.”
So there we were, two best friends, clipping along at a 3:50 pace.
“Who’s that singing?” Kai asked me at the 10-mile mark. We could hear a karaoke version of Cracklin’ Rosie.
“There’s a Neil Diamond impersonator standing on the roof of his El Dorado,” I said.
Ten minutes later we heard intoxicated screaming.
“Who’s that?” said Kai.
“Hundreds of drunken dudes,” I said. “They’re lobbing beer cans to the runners.”
“Can you grab us some?”
As we ran, it occurred to me that this was my true role as Kai’s guide: to animate the lunacy of the race for him. After all, running Boston is only half the fun. Watching the crazy people on the sidelines is almost as good.
Before Boston, I’d run a hundred marathons for time, but in retrospect, I’d done those exclusively for myself. This was the first race where my eyes were fully open.
There is a photograph of Kai and I completing the race together. Our arms are raised, and we appear to be laughing.
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.