The Hard Miles

“The hardship of running somehow softens the hardship of life.  Running turns the madness into music.”

Those words, from the foreword to Phil Hewitt’s ‘Outrunning the Demons’ capture the essence of this book – Life is hard.  Running helps.  Hewitt himself was stabbed, beaten and left for dead alongside a South African highway.  He survived.  Running helped.

And inspired him to collect the stories of others who, in their darkest hours, found solace in running.  People shaken by grief, addiction, disease, injury, and mental illness – in the worst of their pain, running helped them survive.

As is often the case, I write this on the couch, my daughter beside me.  A mini-crisis has just passed.   Strawberry yogurt everywhere.  “Oh no, I got some on my pajamas,” she yelled.  A very big deal for her.  Less so for me.  I responded that if yogurt spilled all over the sofa, and covered her and painted the ceiling, it would be okay.  We would fix it.  We would survive a Yogurt Disaster

As the yogurt spill played out, I looked out our front window and saw a runner, in her bright yellow vest, racing along a path near our home.  I know her.  A little.  She runs every day.  I’ve seen her running in deep snow on days when I struggled for hours just to shovel our driveway.  In winter’s darkest days she is out there – in driving rain and howling winds.  I don’t know her story.  But I suspect she needs running.  Needs it just as much as food, and water and air. 

That’s how I feel too.

Not many years ago, someone very close to me was diagnosed with cancer.  I was terrified she would die.  It was a bad year.  Stress, worry, uncertainty and fear churned within.  So I ran.  Signed up for a marathon and trained for it not because I wanted to.  I had no time goal.  The distance was no great challenge.  I’d run marathons before.  I entered that marathon because I needed to.  A lot changed in my life that year.  But running was a constant that helped see me through the worst and emerge on the other side.   

The other side is a new life.  A life that might be very similar to yours.  A spouse, a child.  A career with constant stress, modulating daily, sometimes hourly, from moderate to severe.  Always present and always a roller-coaster ride. 

Yesterday was Easter.  My wife and I watched a day of joy unfold as our daughter hunted Easter eggs.  We watched as her grandparents and aunt showered her with love, and chocolate, and placed a pink Easter bonnet on her head.

And there was sadness too.  My parents are a long way away.  So is my youth.  I remembered Easter when I was a child.  Chocolate and church and sunshine.  Yesterday I wanted to hug my mom and dad and my brother and his family.  And be with them and tell them how much I love them.  And thank them for those wonderful memories.

One of those memories is music.  “Morning has Broken.”  A song for the ages.  A song that captures light and life and spring and sunshine.  An Easter song.  So yesterday, in the midst of it all, on a bright beautiful April day, I ran to the trails and listened to Cat Stevens sing that song.  I played it over and over again.  I found a valley and a lone daffodil.  Just the one, in a sea of grasses and weeds.  And I thought about it all.  And was thankful for everything.  Joy and youth, light and life, family and friends. Running and hard miles.

More Things Matter Less

Two people I didn’t know died recently.

I learned about them, their lives, and their deaths, from grieving friends.

Their deaths were unexpected.  One from a chronic health problem that deteriorated rapidly.  The second also “natural,” but without warning.  Both had young children.  Both left grieving families, friends, and colleagues

Natural causes.  A phrase we’ve all heard thousands of times.  Two words that don’t convey the pain death leaves in its wake.

I began to think of death a little differently not that long ago.  It was something I heard on a show that has become a big part of my life.  The Rich Roll Podcast.  Rich is an ultra-endurance athlete, a vegan and an inspiration.  He challenges himself and his listeners to be their best selves.  His guests share their lives with Rich because he’s authentic, curious, and humble.  He radiates warmth and trust.  He’s become a fixture in my life.  Like a friend I’ve never met.  Although I did meet him once.  Travelled across the country to hear him speak and met him briefly afterward.  Bought a t-shirt which I still have.  Very worn, and very torn, I still wear it proudly.

A year or so ago, one of Rich’s guests spoke about aging, and longevity – with a focus on people around my age – forty and fifty.  Not old, but not young.

The guest said something like ‘Nature doesn’t need you anymore.’

Thought provoking words.  Not spiritual, not healing, not sugar-coated.  Evolutionary.  We are all animals.   Dying is wired into our DNA.  And by our forties and fifties, most of us have had children, and aren’t going to have any more.  Nature – cruel, merciless – doesn’t need us.

A lot of things don’t need us.

Work doesn’t need us.  If we are lucky, we have careers in which we are fortunate enough to make contributions – to our co-workers, to our organizations, to the world at large.  But, at work, each of us is completely replaceable, regardless of what we do.  You and I might be missed.  But we’re not necessary.  Not essential.  We’d be replaced and the machine would grind on.

Things don’t need us.  We surround ourselves with so much that is non-essential.  So much plastic, so much made overseas, so much packaging.  Inert crap, that adds little value to our lives.

The news cycle doesn’t need us.  It gorges, spits out, and moves on.  Trump today – gone tomorrow. 

The planet doesn’t need us – alive, we drain it, suck out its exhaustible resources.  Every second we breathe, we’re part of the problem.  Dead, we return to the earth.  Giving a little bit back after all we’ve taken.

But if a lot of things don’t need us – a lot of people do.

Our communities.  Our friends.  Our families.  Our children.

Not knowing that I’m writing this – never knowing anything that I write about – my five-year old daughter just started talking about death. She said to me “I bet you die right now.”  I reassured her and told her that wasn’t going to happen.

I did not tell her that nature doesn’t need her father anymore.  She’s five.  She still needs her dad.  Needs to cover my face in shaving cream like she did a couple of hours ago.  Needs to paint my nails pink and spray me with perfume like she did right after that.

And I need her.  For as long as I can hang on. 

Which is another reason Rich Roll has become a mentor and inspiration.  Nature is merciless.  Accidents happen.   Diseases ravage.  Aging never stops, and always takes a toll.  But there are things we can do that increase our chances – increase our chances to live longer, be healthier, and find contentment in whatever path or paths we choose along the way. 

More things matter less than ever to me now.  Things I used to be passionate about like baseball and politics.  Not that long ago they were central to my life, now they exist on the periphery.

But if many things matter less, then a few things matter more.  My family.  My friends.  Seeking rewarding work – not working for rewards.  Reading. Writing. Running.

And living a life with pink nails, and a shaving cream head.

A Bear Out There

There’s a bear out there.  Not far from my home.  Somewhere.  Drinking from the creek that cuts through our neighbourhood.  Eating the berries along the trails that connect our community.  Foraging through bins on garbage day.

Signs at trailheads warn of recent sightings. It’s a black bear, not a grizzly.  While black bears are unlikely to attack humans there are no guarantees.  Google “Black Bear Attack – British Columbia” and you will get multiple hits – news stories that are weeks or months, but not years old.

It still feels very foreign to me, a relative newcomer to BC.  I grew up in Southern Ontario and the closest I came to a bear was at the Toronto Zoo.  A bear was as foreign and exotic as a hippo or elephant.

Not on Vancouver Island which has one of the densest populations of black bears in the world.  I step outside the house, scan the forests that surround our small town, and know that there is likely not one bear out there, but dozens.

That knowledge affects every trail run.  I do not obsess about it, but I am more than conscious that around every sharp corner, or in the deep brush beside me, a bear may lurk.  That invisible bear may not be poised to attack and is likely more scared of me, than I am of it.  However, more than once I have imagined rounding a bend and encountering a mother bear and her cubs.  Whenever that scenario plays out in my mind, it does not end well for me.

I take some precautions.  Or one precaution at least.  Jammed into the front pocket of my running vest is a large can of bear spray.  On most runs, I practice pulling it out so that doing so becomes as instinctive as a gunslinger sliding a pistol from his holster.  I visualize an encounter I hope never happens.  I startle a bear. We both freeze.  I hold my ground hoping it will just amble away.  It does not.  I yell, hoping to frighten it off. I fight my body’s instinct to turn and run.  I stare at the bear, continuing to yell.  The bear spray is in my hand now.  I back up slowly.  The bear is still.  Do I wait for it to pounce?  Or do I attack first, shooting a stream of thousands of distilled hot peppers into the bear’s face?  Causing it real agony to prevent my own potential agony?  What if I unload the cannister of spray at the bear – and miss – creating a very angry bear, and a very unarmed me?

Questions which I hope are never answered.  A scenario which I hope never plays out.

A chance I am willing to take every day I run in the woods.  Because of the beauty that surrounds me everywhere.  Mountains and forests.  Grueling inclines and distant vistas. Silence and serenity.

Something rustles in the underbrush.

Did I mention the cougars?

Cougar sign

In This Together

Wounded Rain PictureWe started in the rain. We finished in the rain.

Port Hardy to Victoria in eight days. Over 600 kilometers of running.

One cause. Support our Wounded Warriors. Honour the fallen. Support the living.

Eight intense days. Fast running. Slow jogging. Gruelling hills, treacherous declines, glorious flatness.

Eight humbling days. Meeting heroes in Legions up and down the island. Veterans of long ago wars. Veterans who still wake at night reliving those horrors.

Eight days of overwhelmingly gracious receptions. Men, women and children flooding those Legions, and community centers. Preparing meals for us, wrapping their arms around us, digging deep in their pockets and thrusting cash in our hands.

Money to support the injured – our veterans, first responders and their families. Injuries caused by the horrific things so many of them have had to see and do. Trauma after trauma, experienced over and over, and imprinted on their minds.

Our team barely knew one another at the start of the run. By the end we were a family. We loved one another. We watched each fight through tough miles. We shared stories, laughs, and bathrooms. No secrets. No egos. No attitudes.

We succeeded as runners because of the people around us. Warriors themselves. They organized this run, drove us, fed us, clothed us, housed us and cared for us. Unconditionally. One big family.

In This Together. That mantra inspired our run. We repeated it a hundred times that week.

In this together. Those words have taken on a new meaning these last few days.

Our world is experiencing a crisis unlike anything most of us have ever lived through.

Daily life continues, and grinds to a halt simultaneously.

Our run squeaked in under the wire. Before mass cancelations and social distancing. Before we had to stop hugging and high fiving. Before a gathering of hundreds became life-threatening.

Life. That’s all that matters. Life and everything that goes with it. Physical health. Mental health. Love. Family. Community.

For weeks, maybe months, all our lives will change.

We’ll get through it. As a team. In this together.

Cathedral Grove WW

Wounded

We are all wounded. Physically. Mentally. Suffering is part of being human. But so is being there for one another.

I felt that every minute of every hour yesterday. I’m part of the Wounded Warriors Run team. In a couple weeks we’ll start at the top of Vancouver Island and run as a team to Victoria. Eight days, 600 kilometers.

Yesterday we started smaller. One day, and 58 K. A min-version of what is to come.

Our day, and my tears started in Sooke, BC. This small town, not far from Victoria is still grieving three young men killed in a terrible accident just over a week ago. An unthinkable, unfair tragedy.

We started at the Legion.   9:00 a.m. on a Sunday. Neither the time nor the day stopped veterans from donning their uniforms and their medals and greeting us with smiles and sustenance. This Legion exudes history. Grainy black and white photos of men who died overseas line the walls. I saw a bell forged from the metal of an aircraft shot down over England. I listened as the co-founder of this run prepared us for the physical and mental challenges to come, encouraging us to “find our moment.”

It didn’t take long for the moments to come. My tears started when “JZ,” our run director spoke, thanking our hosts. JZ is courageous and passionate and sincere. Our team would run through walls for her. The tears kept flowing when the Legion’s padre spoke about having joined the Legion in 1962 and having seen it evolve. In a different time and era, veterans drank and smoked and shared stories. They were there for one another. And now, Legions are community hubs. Open to everyone. A different time, a different era. The Legion there for the community. The community there for the Legion. Then the mayor spoke, and my tears continued, as she thanked Wounded Warriors for supporting the veterans who live in her community. After we marched outside, where the Legion has its own cenotaph – both simple and glorious, it has a magnificence beyond words. The Legion presented a cheque, over a thousand dollars raised in just the last few days. It wasn’t just a cheque. It was a message. We are all in this together.

The run started relay fashion, our first runners hammering out fast miles on still slick roads, leading us to the Langford Fire Hall. The Fire Chief and Mayor greeted us. Both of them taking the time to be there, and speak, and tell their firefighters and our team that mental health matters. That the job can be very hard. That it takes a toll. And that Langford stands behind its first responders. And those first responders stood with our team. Inspiring us and feeding us. A hearty meal, cooked in a firehall kitchen. A meal to refuel our bodies. A meal with an unspoken message behind it. What’s ours is yours.

Our run continued, and an hour later our convoy pulled into the Saanich Police Department. The reception was extraordinary. An Honour Guard in full regalia lined the entranceway. An entranceway filled with Saanich cops – the Chief, Senior Officers, cops in uniforms, cops there on their day off. I saw a very dear friend who I had worked with for years. I hugged her and it felt great. We’d worked on very serious files together. Murder investigations. High pressure – high stakes. Intense files. We leaned on each other in the midst of those investigations. It was a great hug.

On the journey went, towards Sidney. Our team inspired by “Top Shape” an alumni member whose physical gifts and strength are matched only by his kindness and warm demeanour. Top Shape had run every leg so far, and just kept going. In total he ran over 50 k yesterday. Most of the rest of us did about 10. Pretty inspiring. So much so that “Top Shape” isn’t just his name. It’s a mantra the team uses for inspiration. “Top shape, top shape, top shape.”

My turn to run came with Top Shape and Maria. Maria is an RCMP member – the first Mountie in history to be part of the Wounded Warrior Run. Mounties do most of the policing in British Columbia. I have had the honour to work with many of them. Often, especially in the smaller detachments they are underfunded, understaffed, and overworked. Yet they push on, in the best tradition of that historical police force. They take care of their communities and they take care of each other. In it together.

The last two kilometers were the best. We ran in together as a team. Led by JZ. She wasn’t certain she’d be able to run yesterday. But she did. And lifted us all in the process.

We finished at the Sidney Fire Hall, stopping our run beneath a large Canadian flag which flew from the top of a towering ladder.

Inside the warmth and generosity continued. And the donations. Thousands of dollars from Serious Coffee and The Victoria Whiskey Festival. Multiples of thousands. From organizations that did not have to donate a cent. But did. Giving back to their communities. Humbling and sobering moments being part of a team which is a recipient of such generosity.

We are all wounded.

And we are all in this together.

Sidney Fire Hall

 

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.

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

 

The Still Centre

Most days work doesn’t bother me. I don’t bring it home. Literally or figuratively.  

This week was different. Darkness followed me home and burrowed inside me, its presence as real as my house and family.

I was sad but not grief stricken. Down, but not depressed. Angry, but not furious. A little bit of everything. Including sleep drunk. Long hours, short nights. Impaired by tiredness.

Toxic stew for the soul.

It can’t be a coincidence that I felt this way during a week in which I did not run. A few days before work exploded I tweaked my calf. Something less than a full rip, something more than a niggle. It was my own fault. I ignored the warning signs my leg sent to my brain. Tightness that I rationalized as dehydration. Soreness that I tried to run through. More than run through – sprint through. My muscle tore when I raced around a gravel track – interval training when I should have been resting.

I just finished Martin Dugard’s To Be A Runner. It is the best book about running I’ve ever read. Sometimes Dugard writes about “the still small voice” inside his head.

Before I got hurt, before work got busy, I went for a run from my office to the ocean. Along the way, I was thinking about Dugard’s book. And misremembering what he had written. Instead of “the still small voice” I started thinking about the still centre. I pictured the still centre as a ball of calm inside me. Relaxing me. Quieting me. Centring me through the little frustrations and aggravations that life throws at all of us daily. That morning I ran along the water at sunrise in Victoria. As beautiful and peaceful a setting as this world has to offer.

Dallas Road.jpeg

The still centre has quickly become a mantra for me. An ideal. An embodiment of what I want to be. Calm, relaxed, peaceful, content.

Exactly the opposite of how I felt this week. I lost the still centre. I didn’t run. Work was tough. I wasn’t my best self. I was not myself at all. Or at least the self I want to be.

It can’t be coincidental that a week in which I did not run was one of my toughest weeks in recent memory. Work would have been awful anyway. There was no getting around that. But movement and breathing, running fast and jogging slow would have taken the edge off. Cleaned out some of the thoughts that clogged my brain. Lightened some of the darkness that lived inside me.

Today was better. A lot better. No, I did not run. But the first run back is just days away. My calf feels good. Maybe even completely healed. I won’t know for sure until I try, but just knowing that a trial run is around the corner brings relief. As did a good sleep. And a day off. The first in a week and a half. It felt like a vacation. Dinner with my wife and her family and our daughter. Laughs, love and pizza on a warm night with a cool breeze and a blue sky.

And before that an afternoon with my daughter. Who I have barely seen lately – out the door before she is awake and home long after she has fallen asleep. More precious than any run could ever be.

Pure joy in her face, her eyes, and in her squeal of delight when I bought her bubble gum ice cream. Which, minutes later and melted, she painted on my nose to make us bubble gum twins. Then down to the ocean, where we saw a dozen seals sunning themselves on a pier. Even the babies barely moved. They just lay there, bellies exposed, at home and at peace. Being themselves. Relishing the scorching sun. Which we fled, finding shade under a magnificent tree. Alone, with an apple, a pillow and a blanket. I relished every millisecond.

Me and Molly under the tree

I need to run. It nurtures and heals. It breaks me down and builds me up. But, when I look back on a rough week that’s ended much better than it started, my abiding memory won’t be that I did not run. Instead I’ll remember today with my family. The people that I love, and that love me. The people that are there for me when my still centre is not.

 

 

 

 

 

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