Running with Pain

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A couple days ago, I hit the treadmill hard.  Two and a half miles at almost maximum effort.  It hurt.

There was only one other person in the gym.  A big guy.  Strong and tough.  He was hammering the weights.

Between strides and sets we shouted encouragement to one another.  “Good work,” and “keep it going.”

It was early in the morning.  Still dark and cold outside.  Classic rock boomed. He grunted while he lifted.  I fought to keep pace with the belt spinning below me. 

We were driven and we drove each other.

And we were distracted.  His family had recently been hit by a significant health crisis.  We weren’t talking about it in the gym.  But I bet his mind went there, even when lifting heavy weights.

My mind drifted too.  To a family I know that recently received devastating health news. 

My body hurt.  Not injury pain.  But the pain of significant effort.

When it hurt, I thought about something.  I thought that I could not outrun the pain.  Straining, tensing, groaning, tightening up, did nothing to make me run faster or smoother.  The pain was inherent to the speed – the equivalent of 10 laps of a track at the edge of what I capable of doing.

I thought that I could not outrun the pain.  Instead, I had to run with the pain.  Pain was my companion.  It wasn’t going anywhere.  I tried to breathe smooth.  I tried to run effortlessly.  I imagined that pain was an entity, as real as a person, running beside me.  My new running partner.  Sometimes I let pain sneak ahead, and I tucked in behind it, like pain was leading the peloton and I was letting pain do all the hard work, while I drafted along.

When I was running with pain, I thought, “does the analogy hold?”  When real life hurts – not some meaningless run on a weekday in Victoria – but real pain in real life, can we try and do the same thing?  Can we run with pain?  In real life, pain is rarely two and a half miles in sixteen minutes.  Pain is often days, weeks, months, and years. 

I don’t know if the analogy holds.  But I wonder if it does.  When things are bad, nothing is more prominent than pain.  It dominates.  It may be impossible to defeat.  But maybe we can run with it, beside it, knowing it’s not going anywhere, but also knowing that neither are we.  That when we give maximum effort, and have someone close to us, providing encouragement, that we can continue.  And that we can tuck in behind the pain, knowing it is strong and fast and will take the lead, but we can get behind it and it will pull us forward towards where we are going.  Wherever that might be.

I don’t know if the analogy holds.  When I think back to the hardest times in my life, I don’t know what I did, or how I approached it, other than day by day.  I didn’t name pain or think of it as my companion.  So, I don’t know.

We’re not far from 2023.  I hope to take on some significant physical challenges.  One race or event every quarter of the year that will test my fitness and force me to train to pain.  To push my body so it will grow.  Pushing my body will mean pain.  Fast runs, long runs, and heavy weights.  In that sense, I’ll be inviting pain into my life.  My choice, for events that I choose on dates when I want to do them.  Not real life at all.  But when I feel that voluntary pain, I will imagine that pain is my companion that will be with me for the duration.  I won’t outrun it.  But I’ll stick with it.  Until I get where I’m going.  We’ll get there together.  To those events.  Through those events.  And whatever will be will be. 

That morning in the gym reminded me that running and training and events on the calendar are both crucial and inconsequential.  For so many of us they are integral parts of our lives, yet they’re not really life. 

I emerged from this week with few answers and many questions.  Questions about fairness and good fortune and the unpredictability of it all.  And a question about pain.  Can we run beside it?  Does the analogy hold?

The Trails I Love

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It hasn’t rained for months and the trails I love are dust not dirt.  Steep inclines are virtually impossible to climb, because the ground falls away.  Downhills are treacherous because my trail shoes have nothing to grip.  It’s like sliding down a sand dune at the beach.  Every run is hot, with the sun beating down, and radiating back up.  I finish every workout filthy, covered in sweat and grime.  And I love it.  I love overheating, and being dirty, and dropping to the ground mid-run to crank out some push-ups, and then getting back up looking like Pigpen from Peanuts

The trails I love are so close to my home I can be there in minutes.  Hundreds of people live around them.  And I almost always have them to myself.  They feel like my special place.  My little secret.  I go there to train hard.  I lift rocks, and logs.  I run with them.  I carry them.  I squat them.  I don’t need to pay for a gym.  More weight than I could ever lift lies on, and around, the trails I love.

Last year I saw a bear.  It was only about fifty feet away.  I was scared, but I stayed calm.  I backed away slowly.  He, or she, took little interest in me, as it lumbered along its own trail, at its own pace.  I barely merited a sideways glance.  Every time I go out to the trails I love, I wonder if I’ll see a bear.  I don’t want to encounter one.  And yet, a part of me always hopes I will see one again.  From a distance of course, and a perfectly safe vantage point.  A bear that’s disinterested in me.  A bear that lets me revel in the majesty of one of Creation’s most incredible creatures.

I was home alone when the Queen died.  I was shocked, and a little numb. I had never known a world without the Queen.  So, I walked to the trails I love, and I sang “God Save the Queen,” to myself, and I was thankful for a woman who lived her life with grace and dignity.  I remembered that she was not perfect, which reminded me that none of us are.  Perfection is an impossible legacy.  Dedication, fortitude, service to something bigger than ourselves – those are obtainable – not easy, but obtainable.  The Queen showed that for over seven decades.  She gave us all something to try and emulate.

I’d give anything to do a hard workout on the trails that I love. It’s been a while.  But my body can’t.  I was part of a team of law enforcement officers that ran 129 kilometers in three days last week to honour peace officers killed in the line of duty.  It was a very special, very sacred, event.  It was also an event I started with a sore knee.  A mildly sore knee.  A doctor or physiotherapist probably would not have said, “the best thing for your knee is to run 80 miles, mostly on pavement, over three days.”  Now almost a week after the run concluded, my mildly sore knee, is constantly hurting.  I’m not in agony, I probably won’t need surgery, but something’s not right.  Doctor Daryl tells himself that rest and stretching will do the trick, and, in a week or so, all will be right with my left knee. 

Even if my knee wasn’t hurting, I still wouldn’t be running.  Thanks to Covid.  I tested positive a few days ago.  It hasn’t been awful, but it’s affected me.  A laundry list of mostly mild symptoms:  weariness, coughing, loss of taste, night sweats, something going on with my right eye.  I have nothing to complain about. I’ve  improved daily.  And my path to normal began yesterday when I left the house for the first time in three days to walk on the trails I love.

In a few weeks, November rain will arrive, and the same trails will be flooded.  The days will be grey, and I’ll return from runs sopping and caked in mud.  I will gripe about our wet winters and the lack of sunlight.  But the trails I love will remain beautiful.  Shine or rain, they exude stillness and peace, bring comfort, guide me towards stillness, and help me be my best self.

Scattered Thoughts

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I’d like to write more, but often I’m pressed for either time or ideas.  Sometimes a photo prompts my next piece. Usually something happens that I feel compelled to share.  When the ideas strike, the pieces often write themselves.  I’m just the conduit.  At least that’s how it feels. 

Today I have time but no ideas.  Photos but no stories behind them.  Many things on my mind, and none of them flowing through my fingers.  More like scattered thoughts colliding.

I’m fifty-one.  Maybe closer to death than high school.  I was thirty when I became a cop.  I remember driving home at the end of a nightshift, pulling into the driveway, and wondering: wondering when I’d feel like a grown-up, wondering when I’d feel comfortable in my own skin, wondering when the world would make sense.

The world still doesn’t make sense.  Yesterday in Buffalo, New York innocent people were slaughtered in a grocery store.  I grew up near the U.S. border.  My parents shopped at that grocery chain regularly.  The grocery store is called “Tops.”  I can still hear their jingle in my head “Tops Never Stops Saving You More.”

I’ve given up trying to make sense of the world. That’s not going to happen.  Which ironically, may be an important step in having a better understanding of myself.

I may not be there yet – understanding myself that is – but I feel like I’m on the right path. It’s only taken half a century.

Fatherhood has helped.  Not that it’s easy.  Every day I grapple with being a dad.  When to discipline?  How to teach life lessons?  What’s the best way to help an innocent child become a strong and confident girl?

Until very recently I listened to the Marathon Talk podcast.  The hosts embraced the notion of trusting the process.  It’s fine to have a goal, but the goal is secondary to the work you do along the way.  It’s the steps that matter, whether in marathon training, or raising a daughter.  Any goal is the product of the steps and moments that came before it.  Take your steps.  Live in the moment.  Keep your eyes on the horizon.  Never stop moving.

I became truer to myself when I stopped eating meat.  I eat a whole food plant-based diet because I believe it’s my best chance to live a long and healthy life.  There’s more to it than that – changing the way I ate showed me that, daily, my ideals and values could be in alignment with my actions.  That was a powerful lesson. 

Veganism led me to Rich Roll.   Rich chronicled his journey from addict to endurance athlete in his book ‘Finding Ultra.’  His podcast guests are leaders in their fields; health, neuroscience, athletics, and the arts.  Podcasts have reshaped the path I’ve taken in my life. They’ve changed the way I breathe, encouraged me to write, inspired me to wake up at 3:00 a.m. to run miles in the dark, and, conversely, prompted me turn my alarm clock off because sleeping may be the best thing any of us can do to promote physical and mental health. 

I used to have one or two books on the go at any one time.  Recently it’s been five or six.  Although the world doesn’t make sense, books help me navigate my way through it.  I’ve been reading about survival, hostages in Iran, a German general kidnapped in wartime Crete, the latest Reacher novel, a collection of essays from Jedidiah Jenkins, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.  I read with a pen in hand, underlying meaningful passages.  I read with my journal by my side, and I copy especially meaningful passages into it.  Great writing moves me.  Incredible stories inspire me.  They all help me focus on my process and my path ahead.

My wife and I have a close friend whose mother is terminally ill.  Words so often fail in those situations.  So we sought the answer in words more eloquent than any we could ever express.  We sent a copy of Susan Cain’s latest book, ‘Bittersweet’ which is about grief.  Cain wrote ‘Quiet,’ a book about introverts.  It helped me better understand myself.  Without having read it, I know ‘Bittersweet’ will be an eloquent, thoughtful work which will help people all over the world.

I have a friend who did something special yesterday.  He ran one hundred kilometers in fourteen hours.  That’s more than two marathons.  He suffered.  He endured.  He finished.  His achievement was even more remarkable because of his training.  His longest training run was 10 kilometers.  He’s in excellent shape.  Obviously that helped.  But, on paper, no coach would draw up a training program without incorporating much longer runs.  On paper he should have done 20-, 30- and 40-kilometer runs.  He didn’t.  He didn’t need to. His mental toughness is off the charts.  He ran sixty-two miles yesterday with his mind. 

The mind.  That’s another thing podcasts have helped me appreciate.  The power of the mind.  To heal.  To create.  To help us reshape ourselves through meditation, and by visualizing the lives we want to lead.

Two more scattered thoughts.

Yesterday we adopted a kitten.  Her name is Molly.  Our daughter’s name is Molly.  We’re going to have to rename our daughter.

The pictures of the fallen trees are from a cutblock not far from our home.  I walked through it, and although it was undeniably apocalyptic, it wasn’t awful.  There was beauty in the desolation, and in the rich green forest behind it. 

Bury Things Deep

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Sometimes the first time my wife learns about something in my life is reading about it on readerwriterrunner.com. 

When we first met, I told her that I liked to “bury things deep.”  Maybe I was exaggerating for effect.   There’s a difference between burying things, and not talking about them.  I’m very good at not talking.

But I don’t bury them.  To do so would mean hiding them away, somewhere within me – walled off from myself and unexamined.

I’ve seen a lot of death and misery in the last two decades.  Death and misery come with the uniform.  More and more over the last few years, I’ve seen colleagues suffering.  Sometimes one incident is the proverbial last straw and the weight of what my friends and colleagues have seen becomes too much to bear.  Sometimes the one incident is so awful it does it on its own.  For others, there is no one incident, just accumulated suffering.

I’ve learned that when this happens to my colleagues, they are injured – a physical injury as real as a broken leg. 

I’ve learned that this can happen to anyone, at anytime.  And not just first responders and veterans.  The pandemic has made things worse for everyone.

Last week I got a call from a close friend who was going through a tough time.  I don’t think I could have handled the things he has weathered.  He inspires me.  I think he would acknowledge that for many years he buried things deep.  And that part of coming to terms with those things is the opposite of burying them.

There are a lot of ways to shine a little light on dark places.  You’re probably already doing them. 

I read a lot.   I read with a pen in my hand and a journal by my side.  I underline passages that move me and copy some of them into my journal. 

I run.  Almost every day.  Sometimes listening to music that transports me a million miles away.  Sometimes in the stillness of a forest where all I hear is the stream that flows beside me.

I write.  Things I haven’t yet told my wife get posted online for anyone in the world to read. Anyone in the world, including my mom and my ex-wife and my ex-partner.  That’s a varied audience.

I talk.  Sometimes. One of the things I value more than anything in this world is going for coffee with my wife, at least once a week.  We have one or two favourite places.  We sip Americanos.  And I actually talk.  Things that have accumulated throughout the week come out.  And speaking those words, to her, over coffee, always feels good.

I’ve always known how important, reading, running, and writing are in my life.  I knew it instinctively.  I felt it in my marrow.  But I’ve increasingly also come to understand that it is when I read, run, write, and sometimes talk, that I shine light on darkness.  Far from burying things deep, I actually deal with them head on.

Postscript

I thought about some of these things last Sunday as I ran with good friends as part of the Wounded Warriors one day run from Sooke to Sidney on Vancouver Island.  This year’s team is gearing up for their 600-kilometer run from the north island to Victoria later this month.  (As a former member of the team, I was privileged to be able to join them for the one day run).  The funds they raise help first responders and veterans going through difficult times.  Those funds also help their spouses and children.  If you’re so inclined, you can visit Home – Wounded Warrior Run BC (akaraisin.com) to learn more, and perhaps even donate.

Thank you.

Daryl

Flat Miles

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Flat miles.

There’s no such thing on Vancouver Island.  Up and down, up and down.  Every run is a series of ascents and descents. 

Southern Ontario is gloriously flat.  I took advantage of that a couple weeks back, when I was home, alone, visiting my family.  I logged a lot of miles.  It was easy to do.  I had lots of time, and few responsibilities. 

I ran every day, except one.

Things happened in Ontario.  And I ran.

That’s the thing about running.  It’s with you always.  Wherever you are.  A runner can always run.  A runner can structure his day around a run.  Or a runner can squeeze in a run even when the day is busy and unyielding.  A runner finds time to run.

And think.

I had lots to think about when I ran in Ontario.

My mom.  Recovering from a stroke.  Working so hard on her rehab. Moving so well.  Speaking so well. I was very proud of her.

My dad. We ran together.  That was special.  He’s been doing it for five decades.  Part of the first great running boom of the 1970s.  He’s nearing eighty and still running.  Runners run.

My grandparents. I visited my grandfather’s grave. Born during the Great War, he and my grandmother started their family during World War II, in occupied Holland. My mother and her twin sister were born as the Battle of Arnhem was fought nearby. A famous battle – The Bridge Too Far battle. My mother’s twin died shortly after she was born, in a starving nation, torn by war. My grandmother’s name is not on the gravestone. Her ashes were scattered elsewhere. In my memory, they are always together.

My wife and daughter.  They did not make the trip.  My daughter is too young to be vaccinated.  There was an emptiness to this trip home, because my entire family was not together.

Guelph.  A small-town in Ontario.  I miss small-town Ontario.  I miss the brick buildings, Main Streets, and cenotaphs in town squares.  I miss walking in a small-town.  I miss feeling I’m part of a small-town.  I didn’t realize how important it was to me until I left it behind.

ACAB. An Acronym for ‘All Cops Are Bastards.’  Spray-painted on the wall of a cake  shop in Guelph.  I know a lot of cops.  All cops are not bastards.  I thought about how widespread anti-police sentiment has become.  I thought about the assaults my colleagues in Victoria have been subjected to recently.  Serious assaults.  I thought, if the ‘C’ in the acronym was replaced with a letter that stood for a different group, it would be a hate crime.

People.  I didn’t fly home to wander through small-towns.  I went for people.  Like my wife’s best friend and her husband.  They have become my friends.  A trip back home without seeing them is unimaginable.  People I only met a few years ago, are now important parts of my life. 

Life takes twists and turns.  I had dinner with my ex-wife. For the last 18  months, she has been on the frontlines of the battle against Covid.  Her efforts have kept vulnerable seniors alive. She has endured immeasurable stress.  She’s led her staff through difficult times.  I am proud of her.

In life’s twists and turns, there are constants.  Like my brother, and his wife and their children.  They are proverbial rocks in my life.  We don’t talk often and see each other rarely.  And yet we are there for one another, with a closeness and comfort level that transcends distance and time. 

I thought about the people I did not see.  My friend Stitch.  A man who has suffered, and endured, and come out the other side.  Strong and resilient.  If I called him and said I needed him, he’d drop everything and fly across the country in a heartbeat. No questions asked.

I thought about some people I have not seen in many years.  Once good friends who I let slip away. 

These are some of the things I thought about when I ran flat miles in Ontario.  It was hotter than I would have liked.  No crisp cool autumn days. And the colours of the leaves were muted, not vibrant.

Runners run.

And runners think.

And when this runner arrived home, in rainy, hilly, British Columbia, he was greeted by a daughter who shrieked, “daddy,” and he was a hugged by a wife he loves and missed, and he was thankful for everything he has, and everything that was.

What are the Chances?

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Yesterday I wanted to run for an hour.  Not 59 minutes. The difference is psychological but real.  There’s comfort and completeness in that extra minute.

Sixty minutes means thirty out and thirty back.

Our home is surrounded by forest and trails.  I have many options, but one favourite – a short jog down the street and I disappear into the woods, unlikely to encounter anyone in a world of silence.

I climb, and descend, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, usually somewhere in between.  Yesterday I checked my watch, once or twice, determined to turn around at the thirty-minute mark.

Twenty-four minutes into my run, on an isolated hilltop that overlooks our neighbourhood, I sensed where the run would end.  I have been running long enough, decades now, to have a feel for pace and distance.  It’s almost instinctual.   

The tree.  I would finish at the tree. 

There are tens of thousands of trees within miles of our home. 

There’s one that stands out. 

Pictures don’t do it justice.  My pictures at least.  But it is wide and thick and towers above everything around it.  It’s a special tree.  The kind of tree that protesters would chain themselves to, if a logging company ever threatened to cut it down.

What are the chances?  What are the chances that tree, my favourite tree, would be exactly thirty minutes from my home, along my favourite route.

It got me thinking.  About something that happened two weeks ago.  I ran a trail race, with a friend.  “Trail’ doesn’t do the event justice.  Almost twenty miles long, with 4400 feet of elevation, it’s a never-ending series of ascents and descents.  Nothing is flat.  Nothing is easy.  Everything burns.

About four hours in, my buddy was in pain – run stopping pain.  He moved to the side of the trail and stopped moving.  He’d been hurting for awhile but had never stopped.  He’s not the kind of guy to stop.  Ever.  So, I knew he was in agony.  And just then, at that very moment, another runner came by, her palm open, salt tablets in her hand.  She offered him a handful.  He swallowed them.  And almost instantly his pain lightened.  His legs loosened.  He was moving again.  What are the chances?  We’d been on the course for hours.  He’d been stopped for seconds.  At that very moment, in his time of need, another runner, carrying exactly what he needed, came by. 

He and I talked about that moment.  We talked about God and chance, about life’s profound moments and what lay behind them.

I work in a unit that investigates homicides.  Fortunately, on the island we live on, they are relatively rare.  Relatively is a relative term.  Because our plates are full.  There is no shortage of work.  Even though sometimes months pass between murders.  Months. 

Until a few weeks ago.  When there were two murders within hours.  Over a hundred miles separated them.  Only minutes separated them.  What are the chances?

I don’t know.  Perhaps there are answers.  Maybe none exist.

Sixty minutes.  Salt pills.  A hundred miles apart.

One tree.

Scattered Bones

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Evidence of a kill. 

At the end of a side trail, not heavily used.  I might have been the first person standing there in days, weeks – maybe even months or years.

Scattered bones – bleached white.  A deer ripped apart, the spinal cord severed, a piece of a jawbone, a smattering of teeth.

An awful death.  Perhaps, mercifully, a quick one. 

A vivid reminder that our forests and trails, so near to our homes, are a different world.

I’d hadn’t gone this deep into the woods for weeks.  Since I’d seen a bear just minutes from our home.  That was six weeks ago.  On a well used trail at the junction of two paths.  If I left my home right now, I could be there in five minutes.  Or less.  My bear encounter happened at midday.  A warm day.  The perfect day for a quick workout.  Hill repeats.  Up and down, up and down.  Strengthen the legs, stress the lungs, tune out the world.  Music blasting in my earbuds.  I stopped tuning out when, on the last downhill, I glanced to my right and saw a black bear ambling up towards me.  Maybe 30 or 40 feet away.  A scenario I’d imagined a thousand times. I stopped running, pivoted, walked backwards down the hill.  Slowly.   Yanked out my bear spray.  Pulled the cord on the noisemaker clipped to my chest.  Knew in my head that black bears rarely attacked people.  Feared in my gut that this one would.  Kept retreating.  Got to the bottom.  Saw the bear at the top.  It looked at me, curious and calm.  And kept on going, towards the woods, away from me.

A few days later, I ran again on the same hill.  Head on a swivel.  No music in my ears.  A little scared, but knowing the longer I waited to go back, the less likely I would be to do so.  Still, that was close to home.  Close meant comfort.  At the junction where I’d seen the bear, I could see dozens of houses and cars passing below.  It was practically my backyard.

The side trail with the dead deer was not my backyard.  I’d planned this run for days, and then talked myself out of it the night before.  Because I was scared.  Scared to venture far from home.  Far from houses and cars and a pretty subdivision.  Into the land of cougars and bears.  I talked myself into a safer run.  Along well traveled roads, to a public park filled with hikers and mountain bikers. 

Then I woke up.  And talked myself out of the talking out. 

Maybe it was because an article from a trail running magazine popped up on my Twitter feed with an article about the rarity of bear attacks and the effectiveness of bear spray.

Maybe because I thought of my daughter.  The fears of a five-year old can be overwhelming – unfamiliar situations, unexpected change, a bug on our trampoline – overwhelming and every bit as real and powerful as the primal fears of an adult.  When my daughter is scared, my wife and I encourage her to face those things that frighten her.  To gain strength, incrementally, by winning small battles against little terrors. 

Or maybe it was just because I love to run on hard packed dirt, baked dry by a month of heat, in the midst of towering, never-ending evergreens.

So, I went for that run.  I added a knife to my arsenal.  Razor sharp, encased in a multi-tool which I carried with me for the entire run.  The multi-tool in one hand, a rock in the other.  I banged them together frequently.  “Make noise,” the experts say.  Scare the bears off before they see you. 

I made noise all right.  No earbuds on this run.  Blue Rodeo blaring from my cell phone.  My rock smashing into my multi-tool whenever I approached a blind corner.

I made noise, and scared a lot of birds, who flew off as I approached. 

I don’t know if I scared any bears, or cougars.  I certainly didn’t see any.

But I smelled death.  The unmistakeable odour of decomposing flesh hit me hard.  Twice.  The rotting carcasses must have been just meters off the main path that took me further and further out. 

Further and further out to the side trail, which ended with scattered bones and an awful death.

An awful death and a necessary run.

A run that replaced fear with confidence.

A run that reminded me of why I was scared in the first place.

Top of the Hat

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Deadly car crashes.

Endless road work.

Traffic congestion.

Incredible views.

All synonymous with ‘the Malahat’ – both an 1100-foot mountain and a twisting highway on Vancouver Island.

When conditions aren’t ideal it’s awful to drive – no lights illuminate the road, few barriers separate speeding cars from massive trucks, and rain, fog, and snow slicken the pavement and obscure already obstructed views.

Oh, but the view from the summit is extraordinary. 

Just hundreds of meters away from the congested highway is a mostly deserted trail.  Last weekend I ran to the summit.  In two-hours I saw two dirt-bikers and no one else.  On an island of several hundred thousand people, I was alone.

The trail to the summit was mostly satisfying – hard-packed dirt and gradual elevation.  Closer to the top, a rocky pathway replaced the earthen trail.  Running slowed to a jog, every step a potential twisted ankle or inglorious fall.

Soon after, running ceased altogether when I chose the direct route to the top.  Straight up a gully that must be a continual stream of water from November through spring.  But last weekend, on a hot dry day with summer on the horizon it was dry and completely accessible.  I grabbed a broken branch and used it as a walking stick to help as I scrambled my way up.

The scramble was worth it.

Oh, that view.

Blue sky, bluer ocean, distant mountains, a forest canopy, and an international airport as small as a postage stamp.

Travellers from across the country and around the world drive up the Malahat highway, exit at the scenic viewpoints, and revel at the glorious view.  Thousands – tens of thousands – do it every year.

Far fewer take the trail to the top.  Dozens.  Hundreds.  Runners like me.  Hikers, mountain-bikers and quad-riders.

We are drawn by the same thing.  Beauty.  Magnificence.  Nature’s wonders.

The attraction is so understandable.  The destination is worth the journey.

Which makes the next part so hard for me to understand. 

Garbage at the top.  Beer cans.  Plastic.  Paper.

Lucky lager cans tucked into the base of a hydro tower. A fire pit filled with garbage.

Who does that?  Who makes the effort to get to the top precisely because it is beautiful and then purposely despoils that beauty?  The beer cans tucked into the hydro-tower.  More cans, paper, and plastic left almost lovingly behind in the pit.

I don’t have the answer.  My gut reaction is that anyone who does that is an asshole.  I hate using that language in my writing, but it’s hard to feel otherwise.

But maybe that’s not fair.  Maybe the person who makes the effort to get to the top and then discards their trash for others to clean is me on a bad day.  Maybe it’s you.  Those people are someone’s neighbours.  They’re the people we see at the grocery store.  People we hire, work with, or work for.  Maybe our friends.  Whoever they are, they walk among us.

I try and understand.  Try to be sympathetic.  Usually, my anger and disgust overpower empathy. 

How are we supposed to understand people who clearly appreciate beauty, yet are so reckless in making the very place they worked so hard to arrive at, less beautiful?

There may be a million answers to that question. Philosophical, spiritual, practical.  There may be no answers.

I’ve given up trying to understand.  I find great wisdom in the words of Lee Child.  Author of the massively best-selling Jack Reacher series, something he wrote several books back has stuck with me ever since – “People are complicated.”

I’m not sure truer words have ever been spoken, and I don’t think a philosopher, or a Nobel laureate could say it any better than that.

People are complicated.  

Even at the top of the Malahat.

Striving for Mediocrity

We live in a beautiful subdivision.  West coast style homes on large lots.  Perfectly manicured lawns and gardens abound.  Last weekend I watched someone vacuum their rock garden. (I once went 8 months without vacuuming the carpet in the basement apartment I shared with my Golden Retriever. … In my defense I did clean the bathroom weekly). 

I love our neighbourhood – a perfect mix of young families and vibrant retirees.  The park, the trails, the front porches, are all conducive to building friendships and creating a community.

There are rules though.  We’re governed by bylaws.  A long list of ‘though shall’ and ‘though shall not’ commandments dictate how our yards must look: our grass, our fences, what we park in our driveway.  Breaking the rules is a roll of the dice.  Maybe no one notices or cares.  Or maybe someone writes a letter to the council.  And they investigate.  And issue a warning letter.   Or a fine.  Maybe things get ugly.  It’s happened before.

Our home and grounds will never be the most attractive.  Our lawn is not perfectly manicured.  There’s moss, and dead spots from dog pee.  But we try.  We plant flowers, and hang baskets.  We grow vegetables.  We’ve trucked in yards of soil and mulch and spent thousands of dollars on cedars and shrubs.  In part we do it because we enjoy it.  It is satisfying and rewarding to beautify our home and our neighbourhood.  But there isn’t enough money, and definitely not enough time.  We’re treading water in the battle against weeds, erosion and decay.  We’re striving for mediocrity.  Trying to fit in, and not stand out for the wrong reasons.

I’m learning to accept that striving for mediocrity is okay.  It’s not the mediocrity that matters.  It’s the striving.

Before work I often run at Summit Park in Victoria.  This time of year, the sun rises as I run intervals on a dirt path around a reservoir in this hidden jewel of a park that overlooks the city.  This week the sunrise reminded me that our sun, and the universe, are billions of years old.  They will continue for billions of years after we are gone. 

In the time scale of the cosmos, you and I, and everything we do, are utterly insignificant.  We could not matter less.  Which, paradoxically, makes you and I, and everything we do, infinitely important.  Because our lives are miracles, precious and rare.  Every second matters.  Everything we do counts.

We cannot and should not strive to be mediocre in all we do.  Mediocre doesn’t cut it when it comes to being a husband or a father.  Our careers matter too – we have a responsibility to do our best when we go to work.  We owe it to our colleagues.  We owe it to each other.  We’re privileged to live in this country.  We all play a role in keeping it working – whatever work we do.

But life is too short to define it by our careers.  The universe is too big and too old not to pursue our passions.  Last month I went bouldering for the first time.  I’m scared of heights and I wanted to face that fear.  I’ve been three times now.  I love it.  Being sixteen feet off the ground, knowing a fall might mean serious injury focuses my mind and body more than almost anything I’ve ever done.  Talk about living in, and appreciating, the moment.  It’s impossible to think about work while lunging from one hold to another while dangling in the air.

Two weeks ago I bought a guitar.  I’ve never played an instrument in my life.  I have zero innate musical talent.  I can’t read a note.  I can’t hold a tune.  I’m starting from rock bottom.  I’ve played that guitar every day since.  I’m awful, as my neighbours will attest, because sometimes, when I get home from work, I play on the front porch or back patio.  If there isn’t a noise bylaw in our neighbourhood there should be.  They have every right to complain about my botched chords and terrible twanging.

If someone does complain, I’ll plead guilty and pay the fine.  I’ll never become a good guitar player, or even an average one, if I don’t strive for mediocrity first.

… Now, out to the garden.

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.