I am Third

My father is a mesmerizing preacher. The timber of his voice – the cadence, the pauses, the passion. Almost at will, he can bring his congregation to tears, or fill them with joy, with the power of his words.

I remember a sermon he delivered over thirty years ago when I was just a teenager. “I am Third” was the title. The message was this: God came first; his family came second; dad came third.

My dad has lived that message his entire life. A life of service. Always putting others ahead of himself.

I’m not sure I ever understood the sacrifices my mom and dad made until I became a parent myself. The mantra for the first 45 years of my life may well have been “I am First.”

I read when I wanted. I wrote when I wanted. I ran when I wanted.

In many ways we all create our own worlds. I created one that accommodated me. Christmas is a good example. Every December, without fail, I watched the movies that I wanted to watch: It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, the Sound of Music.

Our three-year old daughter doesn’t share my interest in Jimmy Stewart, Ebenezer Scrooge or Julie Andrews. I don’t think I’ve watched one of those movies, start to finish, since she was born.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss those movies, and a bit of the freedom they represented.

But I don’t ever want that freedom back. Because not one second of those movies – not a single frame, or a song, or a performance, can ever top the joy of sitting next to a little girl as she watches The Christmas Chronicles on Netflix. The happiness in her face matched only by that I feel within myself. Relishing the moment.

Every day I recognize my good fortune, how lucky I am to have all the blessings I have in my life.

That doesn’t mean I don’t miss running at will, reading dozens of books a year, and writing daily. I still read, write and run. But often that occurs between 3:00 a.m. and 5:00 a.m. Trading sleep for passions. Embracing the darkness of early mornings. Stillness. Introspection.

With Christmas over, and New Years looming, this is a time for introspection. To take stock of the year that is passing and set goals for the year yet to come.

Immediately, my I am First, mind takes over. It happened yesterday. I wrote down ambitious running goals. A sub-40 10k in the spring, a 50 miler in the summer, and a personal best and Boston Qualifier marathon in the fall. In my head, my I am First head, that is how the 2020 running year would play out. I crave those times and those distances.

I also recognize those times and distances don’t matter.

I want to be a better person. To be of service to others. To my family. To my wife Sonja, who never puts herself first, always working for us – for Molly, and for me. Sonja deserves some I am First time of her own.

I want to be calmer on the inside.

I want to be a better dad. Every day feels like a work in progress – a struggle between knowing when to discipline, how to discipline, and when to let a child be a child.

I want to be better at my job. To strive daily to work with the passion and commitment that led me to be a cop in the first place. More than twenty years ago.

It was well over twenty years ago when I heard my father’s sermon “I am Third.”

My dad has always lived his life in third place.

In 2020, I want to be more like my dad.

Easter 2017.JPG

… That’s my dad, Molly and my mom.  Easter 2017.  One of my favourite pictures ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pointless Acceleration

I wrote this earlier this year.  It came to mind today.  Christmas has been wonderful, yet often chaotic, and it often feels like there is no time to breath, much less read, write or run. ….  Merry Christmas everyone.  DB

POINTLESS ACCELERATION

I accelerated meters from the finish line. Pointless acceleration. I was already sprinting. This surge might buy me a few useless seconds. My goal was a sub 40 minute 10K. Twenty feet from the finish line my hamstring popped. My right hand clutched the back of my leg. I hobbled across the line, two minutes too slow.

It had been an ambitious target. Nine years earlier I’d run 39:55. Back then I was under forty, didn’t have a child, ran often, and had a coach.

This time around, I was close to fifty, had a young daughter, ran when I could, and followed a program I’d found online.

I trained hard. Many weekdays my alarm rang at 3:15 a.m. Cold runs, wet runs, dark runs. I ate a plant based whole food diet. Instead of two glasses of wine every night, I drank one glass weekly. I introduced intermittent fasting into my routine. By race day, I was twenty-five pounds lighter than I’d been at the start of training.

I didn’t train hard enough. I didn’t do enough speed work. Our neighbourhood is nothing but hills. Nothing is flat, nothing is fast. Instead I relied on a treadmill, where too much of the speed comes from the machine, and not enough from within.

Race day conditions were perfect. Cool, sunny, not too much wind. I went through 5K in 20:15. According to the clock, I had a chance. According to my body, it was already over. The last half of the race was a gigantic fade. Dozens of runners passed me. I did not pass anyone.

I trained too hard. I tore my hamstring at the finish line. The culmination of months of training, and a race run at maximum effort. I tried to squeeze out a tiny bit more speed. And a muscle rebelled and ripped. The next night, I woke up with a sore throat. Now, ten days later, I’m fighting a cold that will not go away. I slept thirteen hours last night, and still need to nap, while my nose and mouth compete to see which can expel the most phlegm.

One race, one injury, one cold. Blips in the life of a runner. But they feel like more than blips. They feel like a manifestation of inner turmoil and my inability to resolve the question, “Why do I run?”

I believe that hurting, suffering and sacrificing make me stronger. I believe that if I work hard enough, I can run faster in my fifties than I did in my thirties. The 10K was not a one-off. I envisioned it as the first of a series of challenges. A marathon or 50K in the fall. A 50 miler next year. And the year after that, months after turning 50, I’d try a 100 miler. Worthy goals.

And all of them taxing. On my time, on my family, and, increasingly I worry, on my health. I want to live a long and active life. I seek inner peace. Running can provide that on its own, without races, or personal bests, or ultra-distances. Without injuries and a compromised immune system. I could just run.

But I want it all. I want to show up, on the starting line, with the perfect balance of training and health. I want to cross the finish line experiencing both agony and accomplishment. I want to be ninety on my daughter’s 45th birthday. I want to run with her that day. I want to straddle the line of health and performance for a long, long time.

Born that Way

Maggie is 13 going on 14. Old for a golden retriever, with the failing hind legs to prove it. She is the only Golden Retriever ever that doesn’t smile.   She’s melancholy by nature, with a frown that rarely turns upside down.

But when she feels joy she feels it intensely. She leaps into the ocean to chase thrown stones. She devours dog shit like a gourmand treasures a fine meal. And she loves her family. A loyal, sad dog who wants nothing more than to be by our sides. That saddens me, because I have so little time for her, the demands of family, work and life, usually dropping Maggie to last place on my priority list. I know that when she is gone I will mourn her. But on most days, if I’m honest, she brings me more frustration than happiness. Writing that makes me sad. She’s a good old girl who has been by my side through some tough times, a faithful companion at a time in my life when I didn’t want to be around people and just needed my dog.

I’m pretty sure Maggie was born that way. Sad. I got her when she was two. Attracted by a picture on the breeder’s website of the most miserable looking dog that I had ever seen. A dog that clearly needed a home. A Golden Retriever that needed to smile.

Maybe it’s appropriate Maggie came to me. We’re a lot alike. I’m melancholy by nature. Not depressed, but not happy either. Always conscious of the fragility of life, and the cruelties of this world.

Unlike Maggie I don’t chase stones in frigid water. I chase experiences instead. A good book, an invigorating run, bring me happiness. Although happiness might not be the right word. Because I might not smile when I read or run. But inside I feel fulfilled.

And like Maggie, I want to be around my family. That doesn’t mean I want to talk (to my lovely wife Sonja’s exasperation!). But being with them, in the house together, in the living room together, on the couch together, is the most satisfying thing I know. The closest I come to inner peace.

Fortunately, my greatest pleasure in life isn’t eating dog shit. But there is something special about seeing Maggie eat crap. Because for her it is pure joy. And pure joy, sheer happiness, is not something any of us see, or feel, often in this world.

Since September, I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing pure joy every week. My daughter Molly started dance lessons. She loves every second of it. This three-year old girl has thrown herself into the world of First Position, Pirouettes, and Le Grand Jete. It’s her passion. Not one that we have thrust upon her, but one that she clearly and instinctively feels she must do. And on Saturday mornings, Sonja and I stand on the other side of a large pane of glass and watch her and her classmates dance. Two, three and four year-old children, jumping and spinning for no other reason than the sheer joy of it. Watching Molly, watching these kids, has become the highlight of my week. One of the highlights of my life.

Molly might not exist if it wasn’t for Maggie. I met Sonja on an online dating sight. I’d posted a picture of me and Maggie. Sonja messaged me saying that my dog was cute. I responded “That’s Maggie. She eats poo.

Maggie is asleep right now. In the corner, on her dog bed. Molly and Sonja are in the kitchen making pancakes. I’m on the couch. Smiling. Feeling very fortunate to have a sad dog. My Maggie. She and I have a lot in common.

And look … Maggie can smile.

Happy Maggie.JPG

A Different Kind of Marathon

I ran a marathon last week along an old railway track converted into a trail.  When I crossed the finish line I cried.  Which surprised me.  I’ve done a few marathons over the years.  After my fastest I vomited steps after stopping.  I barely remember any of the other finishes, other than being thankful that the pain was over.

Pain isn’t the right word for this marathon.  Thankfully.  There had been pain leading up to it.  A torn calf muscle which took weeks to rehab and put the race itself in doubt.  It got better and it held up to the rigors of the race.  As did the rest of my body.  No new injuries.  While the final ten miles of the marathon were uncomfortable, it was the expected discomfort of an endurance event.  It should hurt and it did. 

Maybe I cried because the hurt was over, and my body and mind could let go.  I’d run alone for the last few hours, mostly without music, mostly in the rain.  I saw a handful of other runners and hikers.  There were no spectators.  This was not a big city marathon. No funny signs.   No bands belting out music at the mile markers.  There were volunteers though.  Dozens of them at the aid stations.   Men, women and children who’d sacrificed their time to stand outside in the wind and the rain and hand out food and drink to lonely wet runners.  I should have cried at the aid stations, because that’s where I felt most thankful. 

Or maybe I should have cried in the first ten miles, much of which I ran with a new friend.  A talented runner who happens to have epilepsy.  A runner who could have a seizure at any time.  Who could be moving effortlessly along the trail one second, and crumpled beside it a moment later, head covered in blood from bashing it on a rock.  That could have happened.  But it didn’t.  She finished the race.  Courage and grit.

I got home a few hours after I finished, and it felt like a normal day.  Like I’d completed a long training running.  I ate a normal dinner, went to bed at a normal hour, woke up a little sore and a little tired and very ready to enjoy a week off work.

A couple days after the marathon I spent most of the day with my daughter Molly.  We skated and went to the park and played with her toys.  I battled a tantrum or two and spent about thirty minutes coaxing an exhausted and giddy child into her car seat.    We spent hours together that day.  I did exactly what my wife Sonja does every day I’m at work except I did less of it, because I didn’t have Molly for the entire day.  By dinnertime I was exhausted.  I ate early and crawled into bed.  Sonja told me I looked more tired than I did after running the marathon. 

She was right.  A marathon is a known entity.  26.2 miles.  A runner can train for it, set their own pace, and, especially with a little experience, know essentially what to expect.  Running a marathon, you can control your speed, and reign in your emotions.  You can evaluate your pain and respond accordingly.  That doesn’t make a marathon easy, but it makes it manageable and knowable, in a way that raising a child isn’t.

I have had moments of incredible frustration this week, emotionally and physically drained by a three-year old whose behaviour I can’t control.  Sonja and I search for ways to influence that behaviour.  When it works, like seeing Molly grow in confidence and independence, the feeling is better than any finish line I’ve ever crossed.  When it doesn’t, it feels like mile twenty of a marathon. Battered and bruised, you keep moving, knowing the finish line is still a long way away.

And I love every moment of it.  Both marathoning and parenting.  Maybe not in the moment.  It’s hard to be thankful for something that hurts when its hurting.  But pushing through the discomfort always pays off.

A week ago, I ran that marathon.  I’ve already forgotten the discomfort, and I can’t wait to do the next one. 

A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will not remember the specifics of any tantrum or angry word unleashed by my daughter who each day learns that this is a big world, and navigating it isn’t easy.  Imagine being three years old again and trying to find yourself as you’re bombarded by the cacophony of life.

A week from now, a month from now, a year from now, I will remember three things that happened this week. 

I skated with my daughter.  The first time I’ve been on skates in over thirty years.  I skated with my daughter.  A sentence I never thought I would write.

I watched my daughter dance.  In a class, at a studio with two other girls and two boys.  I watched my daughter dance.  For thirty minutes I stood with the other parents outside the window that separated us from our children, and I watched Molly dance.  She was graceful and confident and joyful.  She loved every second.  It was one of the best moments of my life.

A few days after the marathon Molly’s pre-school class went on a field trip.  I went with her.  The field trip was on an abandoned railway track.  A track that had been turned into a hiking trail.  The same trail I’d run the marathon on earlier in the week.  I watched my daughter and her friends sprint down the trail.  I saw the wonder in her eyes when she stood atop a refurbished wooden bridge and gazed at the river far below.  I sat beside her while she ate the teacher’s homemade zucchini loaf and asked me, over and over, why the railway had been “abandoned.”  She seized on that word, never tiring of hearing me tell her that the trains stopped running and the bridge fell apart, and then good people came together and worked hard and rebuilt it for all of us to use.  She asked about it dozens of times.  I never tired of answering.

A few days earlier I’d run a marathon along that trail.  Now I was with my daughter, running a different kind of marathon.  A marathon with an unknown finish line, a marathon that may be impossible to train for, a marathon that taxes the mind and body daily.  A marathon where crying is possible anytime along the trail, not just at the finish line.  A marathon where the joys and rewards of just participating are infinite.  A different kind of marathon.

Molly at the Trestle Rest Stop

 

 

 

 

The Horizon was Upside Down

I’ve been reading a lot about ultrarunners.  They push their bodies into agony and train their minds to overcome their pain.

They volunteer to suffer.  Seek it out.  Embrace it.

Hillary Allen did that.  A world class ultrarunner racing on a mountaintop she lost her footing, crashed to the ground, fractured both wrists, several ribs and sliced her head open.

Doctors told her she might never run again.

But she did.

Reading about Hillary sent me to YouTube, and a video called Redemption.  I was about 30 seconds in, when my daughter Molly scrambled up on the couch, insisting I turn off the “boring” show so she could watch her new favourite cartoon, PJ Masks.

Molly cut her knee earlier this week.  She bled and cried, while mom and dad cringed at the chunk of gravel embedded under the skin.

The gravel is out, the knee is healing, and Molly is back to tearing around the neighbourhood park and scaling the ropes of the jungle gym.

I didn’t turn on PJ Masks.  I told Molly that Hillary had fallen and hurt herself badly.  But she’d healed and was running again.  We watched Redemption together.  Over and over.  Molly kept asking me to go back to the part where Hillary Allen talked about her fall and said, “the ground was pulled out from under me” and “the horizon was upside down.”  As she fell Hillary thought she would die.  As I write this Molly is sprinting back and forth in our living room, holding my headlamp, pretending to be Hillary running in the dark.

This week the horizon turned upside down for some very close friends.  They weren’t running.  No wrists were fractured.  But their son received a life altering diagnosis.  A diagnosis that will affect his life, every minute of every day.  That will affect the lives of his parents every minute of every day.

They don’t deserve it.  As a family they have already sacrificed and struggled, pulling together, working to overcome another diagnosis.  Also life changing.  Also something that is always with them.  It is so unfair.

“The ground was pulled out from under me.”  A regular reader of this blog had the world pulled out from under her a few years ago.  Members of her family were murdered.   She is a writer.  I suspect that sustains her in her darkest hours.

None of these stories are mine to tell.  Not Hillary’s, not my friends, not the regular reader’s.

Not Terry’s either.  I worked with Terry ten years ago.  She was one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known.  She didn’t wear it on her sleeve.  Her profession, her career, her success required strength.  Steel.

But Terry melted around those who had nothing.  Addicts, sex-trade workers, the mentally ill. Those for whom every day was a struggle to survive.  Those who are so easy for us to drive by and ignore without giving a second thought.  I do it, all too often.

Terry used to remind me to treat everyone with respect and kindness.  Everyone.  Because you never know what they are going through.

Soon after she retired Terry was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer.  She fought hard.  Valiantly.  With dignity.  And passed away less than a year later.

There seems to be a consensus among ultrarunners, that the pain they experience is worth it.  Perhaps not in the moment.  But in the process, the preparation for the race.  And in the aftermath.  Real life lessons learned from voluntary suffering.

Suffering.  Utrarunners seek it out.

Suffering.  It seeks us out, throughout our lives.  Ground crumbles at our feet.  Horizons turn upside down.

I had no idea how to respond to our friends this week.  No words can heal what they’re going through.  I sent them my love.  I think about them.  They are strong and brave and they will need every ounce of that strength and bravery in the days, weeks and years ahead.

Their horizon is upside down.  I pray for healing in their lives.  For love and health and family to prevail.  For their horizon to right itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home

I didn’t see my daughter this week. I wasn’t working long hours or in some distant city that made getting home impossible. Instead I got off work on time, traffic wasn’t awful, I was home at a reasonable hour, and I still missed her by minutes – every single day. My heart sank each time I opened the front door to the silence of her asleep in her bed, or the faint chorus of my wife’s lullabies, as she lay on the floor beside our daughter, singing her to sleep.

Not seeing her, even for a day, hurts. But there is something special about it too. It reminds me of my parents and how lucky I am. In the mid-1970s my dad was a student minister in Bluevale, a tiny village in rural Ontario, hundreds of miles away from Toronto. Every Sunday night, dad drove to the city for a week of classes, and long nights of studying. Every Friday night he came back to Bluevale for a joyous reunion with his family before the chaos of the weekend began. Two young boys full of energy, a wife who’d born the burden of being a single mom all week, and the demands of his calling as a minister – two services in two rural churches. The physical and emotional toil of leading those congregations on Sunday mornings must have been overwhelming, knowing that come Sunday night he’d be driving back to Toronto, to do it all over again. Four years of that. Four years of not seeing his boys every night.

I have nothing but great memories of those years. My mom was ever present, caring for my brother and I, taking us to the general store where a glass bottle of Coke cost a dime and a bag of chips was twenty-five cents. She played with us, and planted gardens with us and was always there for us. In my memories my dad was ever present too. I don’t remember the weeklong absences. Instead I think of all the things we did together. Baseball, fishing, walks by the old mill near our home. It was idyllic.

As an adult, and a dad, I have a greater appreciation of the challenges my parents must have faced. My father’s sadness at not seeing his boys for such long stretches. The strains and stresses my mother must have endured all alone with two boys, the wife of a minister in a small town with all eyes upon her. To this day my mom speaks about Bluevale often, the friendships she formed, and the way the community supported her. But it could not have been easy for her.

Although I have lived in British Columbia for over ten years, Ontario still feels like home. It still is home. I miss small town Ontario. The brick buildings, main streets, century old homes, and farmers’ fields which surround every town. Bluevale was the epitome of rural Ontario and it became a part of me which I will never shake.

In late spring 2014 I went home again. The timing was perfect. A long relationship had just ended. I needed my family. And although we had talked about returning to Bluevale for years, we’d never made the trip. It took us a couple of hours to drive there along straight country roads. We visited both churches. The front door of the first we visited was open. We wandered around and found my dad’s picture hanging in the basement, forty years after he’d preached there.

Dad in the Belmore church

Visiting the second church was sadder. It wasn’t a church anymore. Instead the church had closed, the building sold and that sacred place had been turned into a home. It made the 1970s seem a long time ago, perhaps the last decade when a village of a few hundred people could sustain a church of its own.

Bluevale church (2).jpg

The closed church did not ruin our day. Far from it. Happiness and wonderful memories abounded. Walks around the old mill and through the quiet cemetery near our home we had once walked through regularly. And our old home was still there – “the manse” in church parlance. The center of my childhood years. When I was the same age as my daughter is now.

Bluevale Manse

I had a full day with my daughter yesterday. We picked blackberries along the side of the road revelling in a “secret spot” we had found. Then to our favourite coffee shop where buying her a treat is always a highlight of my week. Perhaps the most special moment was at the library, where they’d set out toys and masks for kids to play with. And one of the librarians had a Polaroid. A Polaroid! Who knew they existed anymore? My daughter, who talks to Siri and asks for shows on Netflix, knows nothing of Polaroids. So for her it was magic, real magic, when the librarian took a picture, and out of the camera slid a white piece of paper. Which Molly shook, and watched as it transformed into a picture of her and her dad. A Polaroid. It was like we’d been transported back into the 1970s. To a small town in rural Ontario. Home.

Polaroid

 

Side by Side – Stride for Stride

Ambitious goals and a torn muscle make for maximum frustration.

Two weeks after ripping a muscle in my lower leg, I tested it on the trails.

The first couple minutes brought a gnawing sensation that something wasn’t quite right. By twenty minutes in, my calf felt like it was in a vice grip being squeezed slowly and gently. Every step brought more pain. So I stopped. Angrily and reluctantly.

That was five days ago. Five more days without running. Five days of being hyperconscious of that injury every minute of every day. Grimacing when it causes pain. Rejoicing when I realize an hour has passed and I haven’t felt anything at all.

Days pass quickly. Weeks disappear. Months accumulate. Injuries take time. Goals loom. Training falters.

In September, I’m supposed to run my first marathon in six years. A trail race in the Cowichan Valley. I’ve targeted it. I want it. Not for a time goal. Not to be competitive. Just to complete it. To prove that I can get through the training injury free. To show myself, and my family, and the world that as I near 50, my body can still do what it did at 40, and at 30. And then a muscle tears, and mileage stops and race day nears quickly as I heal slowly.

But the marathon doesn’t matter. Not really. It’s a nice to do, not a must do.

Two weeks later there’s a must do. The Peace Officers Memorial Run from Abbotsford to Victoria. A marathon a day for 3 days straight. I’ve never done that. And I’m honoured to be part of a team that’s trying. We’ll run to honour colleagues and friends who died on the job. Adrenaline and emotion will fuel us. The run will be bigger than any of us. This one matters.

And as I write this, slouched in a chair, leg stretched out before me, I feel that calf muscle. Tight and sore. Reminding me to not even think about running for another week or two. So I won’t. I’ll ride the bike, and stretch and hit the weight room. I’ll yoga myself upside down and punish my core with crunches and leg lifts. I’ll use a heating pad, and ice, and three times a day I’ll choke my coworkers when I sit at my desk, roll up my pant leg and massage A535 into my body, convinced that the more I use and the harder I push, the quicker it will heal.

Maybe it will. Maybe it won’t. Time. Patience. Acceptance. I’ve had many running injuries. Sometimes they go away completely. Like they never happened at all. Others come and go, flaring up and subsiding with a will of their own. Some linger. Weave themselves into my body. Attain permanence. Forcing me to learn how to run around them or through them. To navigate the pain.

I walked this morning. With my daughter and our dog. While we played beside a stream my wife ran. Battling injuries of her own she relished a rare few minutes alone.

We hadn’t planned to meet up but we did, in the woods near our home. Our walk in the woods ended in tears for Molly when she banged her finger against a tree. There was no scratch. Not even a hint of blood. But she cried, desperate for a Band-Aid and for her dad to carry her home. Which I’d started doing, when Sonja turned the corner, mid-run. My daughter sprinted to Sonja and showed that uninjured thumb to her mother. And the tears subsided. And she didn’t need a Band-Aid anymore. And she asked to run with her mom.

So she did. In dancing shoes along a dirt path they ran away from me, side by side. Joyful strides both of them. And they were gone for a while. Because Molly kept running and running. Until they turned around and ran back to me. A happy dad taking picture after picture of his daughter and his wife trail running together.

Running. Family. Almost everything I write has those themes. I wish my range and imagination were broader. I wish my writing was funnier. I have taken to heart “write what you know” so I return again and again to those themes. I take inspiration from moments and from pictures. And most of those moments and pictures are running and family.

That’s how a post that started with a torn calf finished with a mom and daughter running together. My calf should heal with time. But it may hurt for a long time. Time will tell. And yet running brought me joy today. A mother and daughter, side by side, stride for stride.

… Although if you look closely at the picture, I’m pretty sure Molly won.

Sonja and Molly Running