Finding Your Pace

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.

muddy run

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.

rotary-park-scenery1

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.

 

Running in London

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. 20140129_090301_1 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 ever picked first for a sports team!

And do you know what? I rocked at 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.

The Freakishness of the Long Distance Runner (Video)

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:

 

Many thanks to Lisa Lightbourn-Lay for making that video. The still images were provided by my photog brother Andy.

You’re a Rock Star! Yes You Are!

For the last few years I’ve been leading a double life. I work on my novel, then I head off to work. When I finish work I go back home, and dive back into my novel.

It may not sound all that crazy, I know. But occasionally, the contrasts can get extreme.

School-Kids-Running

Take last week. In addition to my regular job, and working on a new novel, I also went on a bunch of school visits. Oh my gosh, I had SOOOO much fun at those schools. It’s a real gift to be invited into classrooms, and to share my craziest running stories with hilarious and talented young people. I love their thoughtful and pointed questions. For example:

“Is Kneecap based on a real person?”

(Kneecap is a character in my novel, Ultra).

“Yes,” I answer. “She’s based on Jennifer Roy. Jennifer was my best friend in grade seven. She really did tell me to ‘throw away my weird pills.’

“Was there really a Urinal Hockey League?”

“You bet,” I explain. “At Dalewood Public School in St. Catharines. But you can’t play Urinal Hockey at this school. You’ve got the wrong kind of urinal. I already checked.”

The kids treat me like I’m a rock star. You’d think my head would swell with all that attention. But don’t worry. My day job keeps me humble.

Lou Reed

The same week I visited all those schools, I helped to produce a special tribute show to the late musician, Lou Reed. The concert was held at the Glenn Gould Theatre in Toronto, and all sorts of real rock stars came out to perform. Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip, Emily Haines of Metric, a bunch of Barenaked Ladies, Carole Pope of Rough Trade, opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, Commander Chris Hadfield, etc. Just when I felt faint from all the glitter, Kim Cattral walked in (she played Samantha on Sex and the City). Then Ron Sexsmith and Kevin Drew appeared. Then someone introduced me to Lou Reed’s actual band! 

It was all kinda dizzying. I mean, these weren’t just rock stars, these were rock icons. These were the people who wrote half the songs on my iPod; the people who wrote the songs that carried me through my toughest road races (Carole Pope’s All Touch, the Hip’s Courage, Metric’s Gimme Sympathy, Hawksley Workman’s Autumn’s Here).

Since I’d helped to write the script for the concert, it was my job to make sure the celebrities got on and off stage at the right moments. But as the show progressed things got emotional. Most of the performers had been friends with Lou Reed, and there were plenty of tears, and I had to run back and forth with Kleenex boxes. Nonetheless, the show rocked. Chantale Kreviazuk did a blistering performance of “All Tomorrow’s Parties.”  Commander Hadfield (who, in case you were wondering, has the strongest handshake of anyone I’ve ever met) brought the house down with his version of “Satellite of Love.”

I enjoyed the music, and I loved hanging out backstage with those celebrities, but I kept thinking about the kids I’d met earlier in the week. Many of them had dreams of writing and singing songs too, and some had even shown me the lyrics they’d written. I thought about this as I watched the show, and I wondered if, one day, their songs would wind up on my iPod too.

As I mulled this over, Hawksley Workman appeared. His song was up next, and he was about to take the stage. But then he suddenly stopped and looked at me. He peeled off his sunglasses. He said: “You’re David, right?”

Hawksley

I looked up. I’d met Hawksley – very briefly – once before. I was shocked that he’d remember.

“Hi Hawksley,” I said.

“You wrote that book!” he said. “The one about the kid who runs that race. I heard you on Shelagh Rogers’ show. You were terrific!” 

We all have a little bit of rock star inside us. We just need to be reminded sometimes.

rock show

NOTE: You can watch a killer song from that concert (including a cameo by everyone’s favourite Canadian astronaut) HERE

The Perks of Being an Author

Being an author’s cool. You get to make up stories, you can wear a beret and no one complains, and from time to time people send you fan mail and tweets.

Best of all – you get invited into schools. Sometimes the students even give you stuff.

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That’s part of a huge banner featuring scenes and quotes from my novel, Ultra. It was drawn by a cast of thousands (okay, maybe hundreds) of students at Oakville’s New Central School. Those same kids also gave me a pair of awesome running “sleevies” – inscribed with the name of their school:

Sleevies alone

How awesome is that?! I’ve always wanted a pair of sleevies.  They’re perfect for those brisk spring runs.

Dave wearing sleevies

Here’s something else I was given – by the amazing students at St. Hillary Catholic school in Mississauga:

School letter

A school letter! This was particularly meaningful, since, when I was growing up, school letters only went to the football players and the track stars. Since I was completely un-athletic back then, I never had a shot at one of these…

Until now!  😉

It’s quite a thrill, going into schools. Some days I’ll speak to 500 kids. I tell stories about running into bears and having hallucinations on the trail. I talk about writing and being creative and never giving up! Sometimes I even get my nephew Quinn on the line via Skype, and ask him how it feels to have inspired a literary character.

Most of all, I try to have meaningful moments with as many students as I can. I keep my eye out for the arty kids – the ones who have something special inside them that needs to be expressed. Maybe it’s a graphic novel, or perhaps it’s a new computer language, or maybe it’s a cure for cancer. With luck, those kids will find the strength to pursue those dreams. If they have someone who believes in them, I believe their odds are improved.

Autograph - you are faster

I like to think that I’m inspiring these kids, but the truth is, they inspire me more. Almost every single one of them asks me: “When’s your next book coming out?” It’s the greatest gift. Almost better than those running sleevies.

Pain in = Victory Out

A fellow blogger called me out on my last blog post; in which I mentioned that my recent book award was the first thing I’d won since a public speaking contest in grade 7. She kindly pointed out one of my earlier blog posts, in which I mentioned that I’d won a 10k race.

Fair point. But here’s what I was thinking.

That 10k victory and the book award feel completely different to me. One feels deserved and the other does not.

Let’s start with the deserved win – that 10k race. I have this belief that anyone can win a running race. Just put in enough training, and you’ll win. Run endless hills and intervals and ‘suicides,’ hammer your abs at the gym, go for long runs every Sunday, and I guarantee you will get faster. If you add some good nutrition and lots of sleep to the mix, you’ll start to win races. Again, this is a guarantee.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to running. If you put yourself through enough pain in training, you’ll be the first to break the tape. It’s a simple formula: pain in = victory out.

So when I won that 10k race, I felt like, yeah, of course I won. It wasn’t a surprise. I’d earned it.

The book award felt completely different. When I heard the news, my first thought was: somebody made a mistake.

With book awards, there are so many external variables. You have to pray that the jurors won’t come down with stomach flu while reading your book (thus colouring her or his reading experience). You have to hope that they won’t have been bullied by a kid with the same name as your protagonist. You have to hope that last year’s winning book wasn’t ALSO about running, and that you’re not up against Suzanne Collins’ latest bestseller.

And then of course, it’s all so subjective. I mean, how can you quantify the reading process? You can’t. Something as small as a Luna moth flapping its wings in the opposite direction might be enough to put someone else’s book on the podium instead of yours.

Authors have control over their writing. But they have no control over how it will be received. They can suffer all they want, they can put their bodies and minds through years of abuse, they can write an absolutely beautiful 70,000 word thing, and there’s still no guarantee that it will resonate with people.

So as thrilled as I am about this ‘win,’ I can’t lose sight of how idiosyncratic it all is. I don’t believe for a moment that the other shortlisted books are any less deserving of victory than mine (I’ve actually ordered them all, so I’m going to find out!).

Of course I’m very grateful that awards like the Cybils exist. Not just because they give much-needed exposure to authors, but also because they get people talking about books!

I know this must be true because I am writing it in the middle of the night.

All Writing and No Play…

How long has it been since you won something?

Been a long time for me, let me tell ya.

It was 1980. I was at the Royal Canadian Legion Hall in Port Dalhousie for the annual middle-school public speaking competition. On a clapboard stage for 7 long minutes I held forth on the fascinating topic of…radio!

It was a galvanizing moment, being handed that first place trophy. It gave a huge boost to my flagging teenage confidence; plus it helped launch a broadcasting career that has sustained me for 31 years.

That’s right – it’s been 31 years since I had a “win.” That’s more than 11,000 days. That’s a cool billion seconds! So you can imagine my delight this morning when I came across this:

The Cybil awards are handed out by a shadowy cadre of book bloggers in the United States and Canada. I don’t know who they are exactly, but I have some solid leads, and as soon as this cold weather breaks I’m going to head out on an extremely long run, and stuff a pair of dry-wick running sleevies into each of their mailboxes as a thank-you gift.
RyanHall
It’s the least I can do. Those judges have no idea how much I needed their vote of confidence today. I’ve been struggling to finish the manuscript of what I hope will be my 2nd novel. I’m at that tragic stage where I don’t know if my story or my characters or my writing is any good, in fact I’m pretty certain that it’s all a pile of dreck.
Remember that scene in The Shining when Shelley Duvall sneaks a peek at Jack Nicholson”s huge unfinished novel?
all-work-and-no-play
She discovers that he’s been writing the same sentence over and over; hundreds and hundreds of pages worth.
Sometimes I’m scared to open my writing, lest I come across pages like that.
It wouldn’t surprise me a whole lot, to be honest. Writing is a crazy-making act. Someone have likened it to “getting into a knife fight with yourself in a phone booth.”
So THANK YOU judges – for reminding me that I’m not crazy. I will now stop my crying. I can do this. I shall endure.

How Writing = Running (Part 17)

Number of seconds left until spring: 3,884,927.

Oops, make that 3,884,925. I mean 3,884,923.  

Of course, anybody who’s ever spent any time outside knows that there’s no such thing as four seasons. There are actually 365 of the things, each one a tiny bit different.

That said – oh my geesh! – winter is NEVER going to end! There’s four feet of snow outside my house. The concession looks like a white tunnel, with 12 foot windrows on either side.

The skiing is pretty good mind you —

Glenelg Forest

Photo credit: Shawna Watson

As for the running, I’m still logging my miles. Not as many as I’d like though.

A couple of months ago I made the painful decision to scale back my running so that I could finish writing my second novel. I’m still managing to squeeze in 60 kilometers a week, but it isn’t enough to keep me sane and balanced. Usually  I’m running closer to 100k. The shorfall is making me pretty, er, spazzy.

On the bright side, I’m nearly finished the book. I’m hoping to finish it by Valentines Day.

I should actually be working on it at this very moment. Instead, I’m writing on this blog. I’m procrastinating. You’d think that writing would get easier with experience, but it never does. There’s always that moment, each and every morning when I drag myself to the computer with that fresh cup of coffee, when I have to kick my own butt, and say: “It’s game time…you can do this! Now sit down and WRITE!

Those first few minutes are always painful – just like stepping outside for that morning run. Your muscles complain and your bones feel like they’re made of glass. You want to turn around and slide back into bed. But after a few minutes of jogging, your muscles loosen up, and you find a comfortable pace, and you remember why you love this crazy hobby.

It’s the same thing with writing. It usually takes me ten minutes to find my groove. After that, I stretch out with the words, roll around in the syllables, and luxuriate in the paragraphs.

I really regret that run

Writing and running aren’t the easiest of hobbies. But once you get going, there’s no stopping you!

This is What Keeps Me Awake At Night

Want to know the hardest thing about writing for kids? Coming up with fake curse words.

Let’s face it, most kids swear from time to time. You did it, I did it. It’s totally natural. It would be weird to write a kids’ story that didn’t have some kind of cursing. But to use an actual four letter word? Nah, I could never do that!

Instead, I come up with “fake” obscenities. Words that possess all the power and energy of real swear words, but that aren’t remotely offensive.

Coming up with a good fake curse is like finding a $20 bill on the sidewalk. You snatch it up and stuff it in your pocket, hoping no one else noticed your discovery.

Kara with the bubble gun

My neice Kara (above) is the master of the fake curse word. She gave me a couple of good ones last summer. BUTT KNUCKLE is my favourite. Don’t you just love the way that rolls off your tongue? Butt knuckle! There’s just something about those 3 syllables tied together. All those hard consonants: the B, T and K. Say it with me: Butt Knuckle!

(Question: what is a butt knuckle? Do we actually have such a thing, somewhere in our derrieres? I’ll ask Kara.)

Kara also gave me the classic phrase, POOP NUGGET.

What, you don’t like Poop Nugget? Blame Kara, not me!

I kinda like Poop Nugget, though it’s maybe a bit goofy. There’s nothing worse than a goofy fake swear word.  Kids’ll throw your book at the wall if the fake swear words are too goofy. Hmmm. I’ll admit I’m on the fence with this whole Poop Nugget thing. It skews a bit younger; toward kids with a more scatalogical sense of humour. Maybe I’ll let one of my younger characters use it. Minnow. Yeah, Minnow would say Poop Nugget for sure.

Speaking of characters, I’ve almost finalized the names of the characters in my next book. There’s Finn, Minnow, Brody, Skyler, Deena, Grac and Gwen. The villian, who’s plotting to cut down an old-growth forest, is the Tree Weasel.

I’m having trouble with one character though. She’s a fifteen year old girl with blue-green hair and scuffed-up knees and she likes to wear a Fidel Castro army cap and reflective aviator sunglasses. She started out as Sal, but that got problematic. Names starting with the letter ‘”s” are awkward in novels. In dialogue scenes, every other sentence ends with “Sal said.” 

So I changed her name to Dia. But that didn’t feel right either. So I changed it to Will, short for Willa. Then to Dal. And now Mel.

It’s getting frustrating. Butt Knuckle! Poop Nugget!  There, I feel much better now.

Real Life Superheroes, Part 38

I just discovered this. One of the best short films ever! And it’s built around the improv storytelling of 6 year-old boy.

Asa Baker-Rouse (age 6) wrote this. And his bubbly personality reminds me an awful lot of a certain character in my novel Ultra (okay…twist my arm…he reminds me of Quinn’s little brother, Ollie.)

Click the link. Be not scared!