Long Live Bella

My training partner is ruthless. She laps me on every climb, cuts switchbacks to bolt in front of me on the descents and offers absolutely no sympathy when I wipe out on the trail and fall flat on my face. Not only that, but she runs barefoot, drinks puddle water and is only two years old. My training partner is my dog, Bella.

Lucy was a pregnant, single mom on death row who, like so many persecuted expats before her, made her escape to Canada in search of a better life. She was a tough little pitbull whose romantic liaison with a wayward Catahoula had produced Bella and her siblings. The little family was happily living amongst the broken down automobiles and urban decay of a generous and loving pothead hoarder when we first met. All the pups were named after weed. There was Kush and Juicy Jay and Pie-Eye and little Dimebag. We took home the one called Indica and quickly renamed her Bella.

Young Bella’s transition from the mean streets and life as an unwanted pup to that of a relentlessly forward moving mountain hound was swift. While she still had her milk teeth and a penchant for teething, she was busy joining me on local peak bagging missions. Our hikes got longer as Bella got stronger. Soon we upped the ante and began to run. We started with short runs that threw in lots of walking and sniffing breaks. We’d climb steep things and I’d boost Bella up if she couldn’t manage on her own. We’d cross raging rivers and I’d carry her past the rapids when she was too scared to go it alone. But it wasn’t long until she was utterly fearless and no longer required my measly human assistance with the scary bits.

Bella runs with no regard for time or distance. She doesn’t care about wicking fabrics, electrolytes or proper form. For her, success is measured in unbridled joy and the freedom of off leash bushwhacking. When we’re going up an endless climb, she doesn’t know or care where the summit is. When Bella is climbing, climbing is the only thing in the world. When she’s bombing down the side of a mountain at breakneck speed, nothing else exists. And when we get to a cool, clear tarn on a sweltering afternoon, she drinks, swims, eats a little doggie treat and sleeps.

I’ve learned a lot from that dog. I’ve learned about companionship, perseverance and loyalty. I’ve learned that sometimes the training plan calls for flopping down in the heather mid-run to watch clouds roll across the sky. I’ve learned that running is simple and that the beauty of it can sometimes get lost in the details.

On those days when life has got me down, stress from work is hovering over me like my own personal storm cloud, and left to my own devices, I’d just as soon stay in bed and wallow in the misery of it all, Bella gets me out the door. And when we get to the trail and she pushes me up that first climb, everything melts away. It’s just me and my dog. Nothing else matters, we run, we jump, we chase things and life is beautiful.

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I’ll leave you with a quote from the excellent biography, “John Clarke, Explorer of the Coast Mountains”…

“Have you ever taken a dog on a hike? Well, imagine yourself as the dog. As a dog you don’t worry about the weather or the route; the details of the hike are not concerns of yours; your only concern is to swim in every tarn, climb over every rock and experience every moment of this mysterious hike that you are being taken on. But who, you might ask, is taking you on the hike? The mountains! Who else lays the route? Who else decides when it is sunny and when it rains? And who else do you sidle up to panting, hot and exhausted?”

Be the dog.

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“The Day Everything Became Nothing.”

It was early morning on the second day of the 2015 Fat Dog 120 when I started seeing things.

 

I was slowly making my way along the trail between the Nicomen Lake and Cayuse Flats Aid Stations, when I started noticing all kinds of trash on the trail. One hopes not to see trash during a trail race, but the odd gel wrapper or in the case of this race the occasional shred of an emergency blanket is, unfortunately, almost inevitable. But beer bottles? Up ahead there was a beer bottle lying in the middle of the trail. Of course I’d have to pick it up, but how long would I have to have to carry it until I could dispose of it properly? Surely I can’t just leave it there. Once I got close enough to grab it, I looked down and right before my eyes, it morphed into a stick. Well… that was odd. I thought nothing of it and continued on my way. In no time I came across more trash. There was a maxi pad in the middle of the trail… whoosh! It changed back into a leaf. A smashed up toilet on top of a boulder… zing! It became a moss covered log right in front of me. I should note that these weren’t things that I was sort of catching glimpses of out of the corner of my eye, these things were real. Until they disappeared into the flora and fauna of the forest around me, all these mind games were 100% authentic chunks of my reality. The farther along I ambled, the more imaginary trash lined my route. Soon I began to play a game. Both to help keep myself awake and also to keep me sane, I started naming my hallucinations aloud. “Cheetos bag!” I’d say, followed quickly by, “Smashed car headlight!”, ” Rusty stop sign!” or, “Dirty pile of Tupperware!”. You get the idea.

 

Soon, the theme of the figments of my imagination changed to man made structures. This was a bit more confusing than the garbage. I’d be jogging along and see a nice little picnic area up ahead. A table nestled under a cozy looking rustic pavilion of sorts. As I got closer, the whole scene would fold into different layers of the forest. My depth perception was all screwy and leaves of one tree got mixed up with the bark of a stump or a carpet of lichen on a fallen log to form a brass bed or a complex, handcrafted Rube Goldberg machine. More often though, my sleep deprived and over taxed mind would give me cabins or outhouses or lean tos. All these things seemed somewhat plausible and when they’d disintegrate back into reality, I was thrown for a loop every time.

 

All this was fine and dandy, I could handle garbage and buildings. Things began getting bleak when I started seeing people. Random dudes were sitting on boulders watching me plod along the trail and they were all creeps. I started yelling at them, “Oh no you don’t!” I’d shout, “Nope, nope, nope!” Seeing people lurking around in a quiet forest as the sun is quickly setting isn’t good. I got jumpy when they started creeping up on me. Out of nowhere, a great big dude is standing right beside me! “Whoa! Shit! No! No! Nooo!” They were so real every time, I couldn’t get used to them. I was going a bit nuts. Of course not all my people were menacing. As I rounded a corner along a nice section of singletrack, I looked ahead and plopped down at the end of a fallen log was a baby. The little fella was furiously typing away on his laptop. Of course, why not? A baby on a laptop, perfectly normal. I needed coffee and an aid station like I’d never needed them before. This was new ground for me and I was ready for it to end.

 

I knew that the Skyline aid station had to be close. I was getting frustrated at my molasses like pace and around every corner I prayed that I’d see the loving, warm glow of the aid station lights. But no, every new corner gave me nothing but more creeps in the shadows. It was at this point that my hallucinations began to enter into the aural realm. Growling. Yes, indeed, I started hearing menacing, otherworldly growls right upside my head. If I thought the imaginary people were making me jumpy, this was ridiculous. I continued yelling at my spectors and I continued to wonder where the aid station was and I continued to think that maybe I was in some kind of mountainous Twilight Zone episode that I would never escape from, when suddenly the aid station was in front of me. Finally, cars and trucks and a boat on a trailer in a nice paved lot. But where were the people? The tables full of snacks? The cheerful crews and depleted runners? I walked through the parked cars and I saw no one. “Well, this is odd,” thought I, “What’s going on here?” I stopped and looked around and the whole scene got misty and then it vanished, leaving me right back where I started. Standing alone, utterly exhausted, in the middle of a dark and lonely forest. That was it, I’d had enough. This time it wasn’t just a lone bottle or an infant surfing the net, it was everything. Nothing was real, the world had become one big weird delusion with me in the midst of it. I started running like a madman, swearing out loud at the world and wishing I was asleep, curled up in a warm bed far, far away from here.

 

Needless to say, I survived. I got to the aid station, had some soup and a little nap in a friends car and the world started making sense once more.

An Injury to All.

“Pain is the toughest riddle.”  -Minutemen

 

 

Trail runners love to get hurt.

Now don’t get me wrong, none of us like injuries that incapacitate us or force us into an unwanted running hiatus or the physiotherapist’s office. You can keep your plantar fasciitis and your achilles tendonitis, I’m talking about good old fashioned gore. Dripping blood, skinned knees, cuts, abrasions, puncture wounds, contusions of any and all description. Nothing says commitment like crossing the finish line covered in your own personal crimson tide. While there’s no doubt that a nice trailside bloodletting is unequivocally badass, I wonder why that is?

Thinking back to the highlight reel of my life, most of my best days were spent as a victim of minor, self inflicted blunt force trauma. When I was a kid, a day out with friends wasn’t considered a success unless someone got gashed, cracked or otherwise mangled. It was all in a day’s work that various kids would fall out of trees or off rooftops, attempt ridiculous, death defying stunts on loose trucked skateboards or take one in the head from a wayward rock pitched from the bed of a railroad track. Of course the best destruction always came on two wheels.       

Devising ever more asinine ways to destroy ourselves on glorious Saturday afternoons, we would launch our BMX bikes off impossibly implausible ramps (…the old children’s board game “Mouse Trap” comes to mind) in attempts to become our neighbourhood’s next Evel Knievel. I remember one particular day during the summer before grade eight. It was the same year that I accidentally set a kid on fire, but still a year or two before things really got serious. Although I was still very much a kid, I definitely had aspirations of teenagerhood. While I was still into junk food and comic books, I was beginning to dabble in more sophisticated pursuits. I had my first real crush on a girl from the Catholic school and although nobody smoked, we all carried Zippos. We were a grubby little pack of scrubs and we were into having fun. On this day we had set up a makeshift ramp on the sidewalk in front of my house. We used some plywood with a couple cement blocks and were happily launching ourselves as far as we were able. With every successful landing, we were forced to up the ante. “It needs to be higher, stick another brick under there…” And so the ramp grew and grew as we added anything we could find to make it higher, less sturdy and more dangerous.

In no time the ramp took on a personality of it’s own, and it wasn’t a pleasant one. If the ramp were a kid, it would be the kind of kid that makes fun of everyone’s shortcomings and pulls chairs out from under them when they’re about to sit down. The ramp would be the kid who lit the tag of your jeans on fire while you were about to set your personal high score on Galaga. The ramp was a total jerk, but when you went into an early morning detention, you knew that the ramp would be there cracking jokes and making it a good time.   

The ramp, all scrap lumber, rusty pipes and cracked masonry, was a formidable adversary, but it could still be beaten. Once we mastered the take off and the landing, we started adding obstacles. In time you had to clear a couple garbage cans if you wanted to pull off the landing and if you really wanted to be impressive, you could attempt a tabletop or some other trick whilst midair. But the fun was just beginning. We had gone on a school trip to Ottawa that year and a bunch of us came back with fake switchblades. Soon we pulled out the knives and started throwing them at the bikes as they sailed through the air. If we were covered in blood and looking like the aftermath of some gory medieval battle already, things were about to get really interesting.

Alas, nothing lasts forever. Just like rosebuds in Springtime, the final strains of a Brandenburg concerto or the innocence of a newborn baby, our fun was destined to come to a sad, abrupt end. The bane of our existence in those days was a young, fresh faced police officer who lived at the end of the block. There we were, happily chucking knives at bruised and bloodied children on flying bicycles when this nosy do-gooder had to step in and ruin everything. As the cop rolled up, knowing that I’d probably have some explaining to do, I stashed my knife in my back pocket. He didn’t fall for my evasive action at all and made me cough up the blade. “You know what this is?” asked the cop. “A knife,” I answered. “No. It’s a switchblade!” he dramatically pressed the button on the side of the knife as he said this. Nothing happened. “A switchblade!” he repeated as he once again pressed the button to no avail. Perplexed, the cop looked at me and said, “How do you open this thing?” As much as I would have loved a real switchblade, on our trip to Ottawa, they only sold us fakes. I took back my knife, pulled open the blade and passed it back to the cop. He studied the knife, tried to close it, failed and asked, “How do you close this thing?” I took back my knife, pressed the lock at the back, safely closed it and passed it back to the cop. He told us that even though we were doing nothing illegal, he was confiscating the fake switchblade for our own good. As he put my knife in his jacket pocket, he motioned towards the ramp and said, “And tear that thing down before someone gets killed.” With that, our fun was over and we headed down to the river to go play in the rapids.

It wouldn’t be long before getting cuts and bruises took a backseat to other, more civilised forms of entertainment. And then in the blink of an eye there would be bills to pay and diapers to change and getting pummeled for fun was the last thing on my mind. Life was more or less safe. I would strap my kid into his carseat like he was an Apollo astronaut headed to the moon and I wore a bicycle helmet if I was riding three blocks for a loaf of bread at the corner store. Then came trail running.

The first time I bailed on a trail run, I probably wondered what I had gotten myself into. Picking rocks out of open wounds by the side of the trail wasn’t what I’d signed up for. I was supposed to be getting fit, I wasn’t supposed to be getting stitches. But soon those trail wounds morphed into something else. In time they became conduits back to the days of childhood freedom and skinned knees. The fun of pushing boundaries and testing abilities, that I had left behind to become an adult, was back. Those cuts and scrapes were there to tell me that I was living life, that the best years weren’t behind me, the best years are now. I look at my scarred and battered legs, the barely healed trail rash on an elbow, a nose bloodied as face meets rock, and I remember those carefree days on a BMX bike or a skateboard like they were yesterday. I remember those promises that I would make myself to never grow up, to never become boring or complacent, to never let myself be ruled by the fear of falling down and I can only hope that the grubby little banged up kid inside me is thinking that I’m not half bad after all.

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The Beginning.

I like to think that my running career spans forty-some years, dating back to the early 1970s. In the early days I mainly specialized in the three legged race at my mom’s company picnic or attempting to out sprint my older brother while being chased down after destroying, stealing or critically damaging one of his many prized childhood possessions. In time I advanced to elementary school track and field day, running home whilst being chased by neighbourhood bullies and busting my ass doing laps around the school in an attempt to earn one of those coveted Canada Fitness Award badges. By junior high I regularly found myself on the track team where I would spend leisurely days at regional meets as the fifth member of the 4×100 relay team. I was there to fill in if one of the other guys got injured or fell ill before their event. It was a pretty sweet gig, I got to skip school in order to lounge around drinking sodas, talking to girls and napping in the bleachers. I didn’t ever run a single step in those competitions. In the autumn I was on the cross country team, but my reasoning for joining had more to do with missing school than winning at all cost. It was a bit silly really, I had to show up extra early every day for weeks in order to get one or two days off for competitions at the end of it all. I was twelve, what did I know? Once I got to high school and our gym class jogs through the woods became an excuse to amble along out of the teacher’s sight and smoke weed, I decided to put my running career on hold. I shifted my athletic focus to more cosmopolitan pursuits like petty crime and random acts of senseless rebellion. After a twenty-five year hiatus, I decided to give running another shot.

Pushing forty, out of shape with a bad back and a beer gut, a coworker put it in my head to start running. I mocked her for a while but eventually relented and attempted to jog around the block. Everything hurt. I couldn’t believe how wrecked I was. I had been a bicycle messenger for ten years back in the nineties with strong legs and endless cardio, and in my head I was still that fit, twenty-something rebel on a track bike. In reality I was something very different. I had become a schlub.

I kept running around the block and soon my beer gut went away and my chronic bad back got better. In time I could run down to the ocean, past the amusement park and keep running to the top of the hill at the end of my street. One of the moms at my kid’s school told me I should sign up for a half marathon, so I did. I looked up training plans and got a proper pair of running shoes. When my plan called for a longer run, I found myself exploring places like the Trans Canada Trail out to Burnaby from my East Vancouver home. I loved the early morning runs through the dewy tree lined trails so much more than plodding along city streets. Eventually I ran a couple half marathons and even the Big Kahuna, a 42.2 km full marathon. Although I was proud of my accomplishments and the new direction my life was headed, I found the racing part of it gross. I couldn’t find common ground amongst all the a-type personalities with their shiny new gear and mountains of race course litter.

By the time I ran my marathon, I’d already been bitten by the ultramarathon bug. My brother had turned me on to a book about a guy who’s life was in the toilet before he found out about ultras and hundred mile races in particular. I was intrigued and wanted to see what laid beyond the marathon distance. On the morning of my marathon, I ran to the race and afterwards I ran home. After all was said and done, it was my first unofficial ultra and I was hooked. I trained for and ran a 50k race in Manning Park that summer, the Frosty Mountain Ultramarathon. Leading up to the race, I trained for hours on end in the local mountains. I had lived in Vancouver for twenty years but I had never ventured into those hills other than to go for a walk on the well groomed paths of Lynn Canyon or some other family friendly locale. Soon I could name a couple peaks and I knew my way around somewhat. I met a few folks who were also training for Frosty and added terms like “BCMC” and “Baden Powell Trail” to my lexicon. The race was great, it was the most physically demanding thing I’d ever done. Better than the sense of accomplishment and pride that I felt when I crossed the finish line, was the feeling that I had stumbled into something special. It was something brand new to me yet at the same time it was eerily familiar.

That first ultra was punk rock. Let me explain…

During my aforementioned hiatus from running, between my half hearted participation with the junior high cross country team and the beer gut, the punk scene had become my life. It was my family, my muse, my true love, my arch enemy and my inspiration. And although there was enough stupidity and negativity for a thousand lifetimes, there was also endless beauty in that scene. The things that kept me excited about the punk scene for so long were the same things that have drawn me to ultra running. The community, the culture of compassion, cooperation and sharing, the feeling of being accepted into a group that is completely over-the-top passionate about something that the vast majority of the world finds utterly ridiculous. The punk scene that I was a part of held the DIY ethos as it’s guiding principle. We did everything ourselves, from recording our albums, booking tours and printing t-shirts to running venues, bicycle libraries and food banks. Imagine my surprise when I signed up for my first ultra, and realised that the whole operation was run the same way. The race director, along with his friends, family and volunteers did it all themselves. Unlike the big, corporate sponsored road races that I’d gotten disillusioned with, this ultra thing seemed to be on a much more grassroots level. There wasn’t piles of cash laying around, this was all being done on the cheap for the love of the sport. Anyone could and did help out to make the event a success, from promotion to leading group training runs to marking the course on race day. I felt like I was back amongst the punks, only this time I was the only one covered in all those sad, blurry tattoos. The race day prizes for the winners of my first ultra were even bottles of homemade wine! What’s more punk rock than homebrew?!

The similarities between punk rock and ultrarunning don’t end with DIY ethics. There’s all the swearing and beer drinking, for example. Perhaps the ultra runner doesn’t go quite to the extremes as that of the foul mouthed, drunken punk but rare would it be to hear a “golly gee” instead of a more vulgar expletive uttered while suffering up a deathly climb or an “oopsie daisy” in place of a serious *#@%$!! when smashing one’s head on a low hanging branch. And although you’ll find the odd ultra runner whose first thought is reaching for a lemonade after a tough race, my non-scientific polling tells me that if there’s beer to be had, it won’t last long when there’s thirsty ultra runners afoot. And what about the filth? Punks and ultra runners both pride themselves on their filthiness. Ever since my days as a lowly high school punk, moping around in soot coloured rags, I was never exactly sure why we found the need to be so filthy. Perhaps washing was considered nothing but a trivial construct of The Man himself? The ultra runner’s filth tells the world that she has spent the day charging through trails and over mountaintops with little regard for her personal hygiene. Imagine the embarrassment if you crossed the finish line of your next hundred miler looking like you’d just emerged from a bubble bath. If you’re not covered in dirt, you’re doing it wrong.

Now don’t get me wrong, I realise that not all ultramarathons are warm fuzzy family affairs, there’s plenty of all-star studded, big money showdowns taking the spotlight. But just like the punks choosing between Green Day at the stadium or the unknown band from Moose Jaw playing in your friend’s basement, the beauty may lie in the diversity. You can go run some big time shindig like Western States or you can take part in a Fat Ass event in your local trails with a handful of friends… some days you just end up getting your new nose ring from the kiosk in the mall instead of making one from a rusty old coat hanger. Same difference. From what I’ve seen, there’s awesome folks at all levels of this ultra running game, and I for one am grateful everyday that I get to be a part of it.

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