Saturday, 3 September 2016

We Got Older

Five years ago, I went to a VFAC workout on a sweaty May evening. I hadn’t been to workouts in a few months. There were some new girls out, around my age. After the workout, jogging back to the fading light, one of them mentioned a 21km trail race she was planning to do two days later. I had never done a trail race, was barely racing half marathons. 

I told this girl who I had just met, who had blew by me on the final interval, that yeah, I’d do the race with her, and would give her a ride to the start line. The other two girls also decided to sign up at the last minute.

And that’s how I did my first trail race with Katie, Tara and Alicia. Tara went out fast up Nancy Greene, stayed fast on the uphill to St. James’ bench, and, even then, disappeared on the downhill. I lumbered up next, trying to keep Tara in sight, losing her as soon as I needed to negotiate rocks and roots. Katie passing me easily on the final descent to Deep Cove. Alicia at the finish moments later. 

Five days later, back at VFAC, all of us still stiff and sore and slow. Our coach: “You guys shouldn’t do anymore trail races - especially Alicia."

We got older, and now Alicia races 100milers, has been on the national team for the world ultrarunning championships.  On another summer evening, biking to UBC to rock climb with Alicia. Us on the easiest climbs, wearing running shorts, Alicia’s shoes untied and loose to air out an infected toe. Me, moments before reaching for a hold, and failing, and swinging in the air. She told me: “It’s okay to assume a resting position!” 

Later, biking home to the crunch of gravel along Spanish Banks, a neon sunset reflecting off the North Shore mountains, we made plans for another week.

In a years’-ago September, Alicia had been ten minutes late for a run – I was impatient, exasperated, left without her, without apologizing. We didn’t talk for months after that, didn’t make plans for a even longer.

We got older, and Tara just raced 122miles through Manning Park. Our first hike together, she wore racing flats through knee deep mud, onto snow, didn’t pack a lunch.

At Fat Dog, she had labelled boxes, changes of shoes and clothing, food and water treatment and multiple flashlights and moved through the aid stations with so much toughness and grace and passion for running.   
There was a year when I’d see her race results, text her congratulations. She would reply, ask if I wanted  to get together, go for a run, a drink. I usually wouldn't answer.

We got older, and Katie ran the entire East Coast Trail – all 230 kilometers of it – in one go less, than a month after a 70-miler.

This week, visiting from Newfoundland, we met at Triple O’s and ran around False Creek together. As the sun rose behind clouds, the previous week’s heat giving way to muggy rain, Katie said: “Remember when we used to run fast?”

The way we ran harder, ran longer every week, like it was a new country that we were exploring, and would only go farther in. How we spent breaks at work reading about other ultrarunners, looking at their pictures, wanting their lives of mountain ridges wearing only a sports bra and shorts, sleeping in the back of vans. 

And for a while, we got up into different mountains every weekend, ran faster on the roads during the week. We started with False Creek on weekdays before work, and kept those easy Wednesdays as we built for marathons, ultras. 

Katie ran her way into a labrum tear that four years' ago winter. I waited another year, then fractured my navicular while running 100km weeks, convincing myself all I needed to do was breathe into the pain.  

This morning, I went running with an old coworker, greasy clouds and a very quiet final 5km. I told him, I’m trying to write about my friends, about how we’ve all grown up in the last five years.  He said, if you’re writing something, you need an ending, something you’ve learned, a kind of lesson.

I thought about it as we covered the last silent stretch. How it feels like there are two stories, two endings. 
The first one, the one that I’ve been writing, have been grateful for all summer. That a group of us girls did our first trail race. It was harder than we thought, and longer than we thought, and we could barely walk down stairs for a week after. None of us really knew what we were doing, but we knew enough to love the outdoors. And how we kept running, kept getting into mountains, and had experiences that none of us could have imagined when we started out.

That it was all worth it. Even with hard days, bad races, injuries, all those non-running setbacks that you wish were injuries because then you’d know the healing time, how long it would take to stop hurting, the times where we didn’t talk much, got into fights. How the runs I’ve done this past fall, spring, and summer, the gasping uphill, straggling downhill, stripping off into lakes -  have felt like coming home.

How I’d like to say, in all those years jumbled up against each other, if you squint hard enough, you can almost see a pattern, a meaning.  How you can say: “all of it happened for a reason.”  To say: “all these bad and painful things were part of something bigger.” Then add, because this is running, what the next race is, what the training plan is, to talk distances and times and all those adventures on a list somewhere. Because the reason is always to come back, or stay back, or get faster. To turn that pain into a fast finish, the next goal. 

I saw a photo on the internet, someone I follow on instagram who knows some of the same people I do, who when you see their pictures,  all those mountains you’ve never visited, it’s easy to feel that you know them when you completely don’t. 

This photo is beautiful until it’s not. There are mountains (because there are always mountains), grey and spiky and crammed with glaciers. A skinny cloud, then a sky so deep and blue you could dive into it. At the top, a helicopter. An impossibly thin line is holding something, wrapped up. That something is a person. A list of injuries that you look up, look up again. To say a prayer even though you don’t know them, aren’t even sure if you believe in anything enough to pray to. 

And after, saying; “everything that happened, happened for a reason” doesn’t come out right. It doesn’t come out at all. Realizing, actually, there’s nothing to say and no neat ending to tie this all up. That bad things happen and sometimes all you can do is wake up the next morning. Thinking back to my friends, to all the places we went and what we did, the only thing to say is: “We all got older, we grew up, and we’re all still here, together.” It’s not even an ending, but really, it’s enough, and it’s more than enough.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Ten Years

Ten years ago, it was evening. I was sitting in an old stone building, with the last of the day's light coming in golden through the windows. I was writing the last exam of my four years at University. After, in the warm dusk , I walked back to my old house, the last of the snow still cramped into melting corners on the piled-up ends of sidewalks.

The next day, Vancouver was a hard blink: cherry blossoms, this impossible ocean, the mountains immediate from everywhere.

When I left university, it seemed to me that four years was a very long time to spend in one place, doing one thing. I've blinked again, and here is ten years.

I would like to say I have changed. And, a various points, this would look to be true. The times when I was running, really fast. The times when I was in relationships, living with people, The times when my business cards looked really good.

These days, besides the daily application of eye cream and ownership of a melodramatic rescue cat, my life doesn't seem as different as it did when I was 21, living in a Yaletown apartment always covered by a thin layer of dust, my roommate sneaking cigarettes in our solarium and watching as the cranes slowly brought the construction workers higher and higher. I still get up earlier rather than later, still have coffee, still head out for a run, then to a job that still has to do with accounting (which is good, because I am still an accountant).

After ten years, the strip club outside my first apartment has long been torn down to make way for high end condos. The construction has moved south, towards Olympic Village. The seawall, however, is the same: sprinkled with a few joggers before dawn, empty on rain-slicked evenings, packed on warm summer nights, the bongos on Third Beach, the last hill up along Davie with the din of bass through open car windows. Running still feels the same; some days fast, some days stiff and sore, some days dreamy.

In life, as in running, you cover a lot of ground to ultimately return to the same place. With ten years it's the people and things that stay, that moved through the running miles, the life miles with me, and are all still here: sweaty and happy and with some or many unplanned stops, a few detours,  not entirely sure how we all got here, but grateful that we did, and did it together.

Running, these last ten years, has shaped how I live in Vancouver. The people I meet, the places I go, how I spend my days (and, realistically, how I don't spend anything later than 9pm). The best way I can explain it is "Love what you love." But, really, it goes deeper than love.

Last weekend, I had Lucy and her family over for dinner. I moved my kitchen table into the living room, where we could see the light fading golden through the cherry blossoms outside. As good a time as any to talk about what we did, or didn't, believe.

My desire for something to believe is inversely related to how I can handle uncertainty, ambiguity, the emptiness that stares back when I search too hard for answers. The feeling of 5pm on a grey November Sunday.  Reading the news and hearing myself say, over and over again, that everything happens for reason.

And I think this is called the human condition, And some people look to God, or to the ones they love, or to their art. Some drink too much or cry too hard or kiss the wrong people. And others, like me, when they feel that space in their chest where the world wants to crowd in, on days where the leaves are sharp and green and the softening of the air pricks tears - lace up their shoes and go out for a run.

In the end, most of what I've learned about running, about living in Vancouver, is about patience and persistence. A marathon doesn't happen at mile 6, or mile 20. What doesn't get told about running long distances regularly is how they make everything else recede. After hours upon hours outside, the rest of my life goes away: work and errands and plans and all the desires, all the wanting, slowly gone. After ten years, what persists with running are the people: meeting at weird intersections at awkward times in the morning, knowing where all the bathrooms are on a certain route.

A few weeks back, I was visiting Eastern Washington, The hike I originally planned out didn't work, because the access route was covered with snow for the last 5 miles. This type of scenario is not unusual when you hike with me. I remembered seeing parked cars, a sign that looked to be a map. A trail, almost immediately in snow, climbing up through sparse forest, looking onto granite mountains. Snow clouds moving grey through mountain passes. And the itch in my feet - to keep going, to see how far I could follow the trail.

What has persisted for years, through hard workouts and easy days, through stress fractures and aircasts and foam rollers and so many mornings around the seawall is the love of going to new places, wild and beautiful places, with my friends.

It's not a real answer to any of the questions that press on me at 2am. It doesn't make the things that hurt, hurt any less. But it means that, when I feel that emptiness, the answer isn't to shove it aside, to run it away. Instead, the only thing I can think of to do - clear more space, let in the light, see what will take root and grow.


Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Ankles are Stupid

Yes, the bruising is real, and it is spectacular.

This past Saturday, a group of us left from Lynn Suspension Park and made the slow, wet climb towards Norvan Falls. None of us were going particularly fast, and the trail was one of the easier ones we had done in the past few months. The trail went through a series of stream crossings just before the falls: slick rocks, uneven roots.

I didn't slip on any of those. Instead, I slipped on the wide, flat patch just after. I heard my ankle crack. I swore, and swore again. I tried to walk, and barely managed a hobble. I wailed: "I'm going to get so fat!", and then settled into a steady sob.

I had over 6km to go to get back to Lynn Headwaters. Running, this is a mellow half hour. Doing the hike of shame out takes considerably longer. Lucy and I told the guys to keep going on to Norvan falls. And, half-supporting me, as the rain increased and the wind picked up, we started the slow trip back.

I've rolled my ankles too many times. Some are a sharp twinge that is almost gone by the end of a slow run back to the car, needing nothing more than a tape job and a few days with an ice bucket while watching bad TV. This wasn't one of those times. The outside of my ankle started to look like it was growing another ankle, and I could barely stand on it. I refused Lucy's continued offer to support me, instead opting to lurch over the rocks. Wanting to both help me maintain walking independence and also make it back before hypothermia set in, Lucy went into the forest and found me a stick to help support my left side.

As we slowly crept down the trail, I was awash in self pity. Lucy listened for me, then nicely reminded me that, as far as injuries go, this was a pretty good one - diagnose-able, fixable, non-lethal. So that's how my mantra for the rest of the way out became: "At least I don't have MS."

The guys caught back up with us on their return trip from the falls. As Lucy was getting cold, she ran back to see if the park ranger could give pick me up and drive me out on the last 1.5km of the trail. Tony took over the task of hiking me out.

I should note that Tony is a fellow CPA, CA. This is important because, at this point, I was crying and swearing at every step because my ankle hurt so, so badly and it was still a long way back. In addition, one of the guys had given me his clear poncho with a hood. Oh - I was still using my walking stick. On several occasions, I would try and wipe the snot from my nose, forgetting I had this stick in my hand - resulting in re-performing the age-old game you play with a younger sibling of "Why Are You Hitting Yourself In the Face?". So what I am saying is that it is good that one of us could represent the professionalism and resilience of CPAs (as that person was clearly not me).

Just as we finally arrived at the last section of the hike out on easy, wide gravel road, the park ranger arrived with Lucy. Sitting in his little 4x4, covered in warm blankets, is still one of the biggest reliefs I have ever felt. Back at the ranger cabin, the plan was to wait for one of the guys to pick Lucy and I up, drive us to our cars at the other parking lot, then we would make our way over to Lion's Gate hospital for X-Rays. Somewhere in here, I should note that this was both Lucy's birthday weekend and also Valentine's Day weekend, so possibly not exactly how she had forseen things to go.

As we were waiting for Scott to pick us up we heard sirens. Lots of sirens. An ambulance and two fire truck's worth of sirens. Who had come....for me.

Sidenote: there are people who use this phrase "the way you do anything is the way you do anything." I enthusiastically disagree with this phrase, as somehow I am able to have a reasonably successful professional career despite having the kind of personal life that involves getting semi-naked in North Shore Parking lots, owning a cat whose main hobby is glaring, and somehow being 31 and still negotiating the old laundry machines in my apartment building's basement. And yet. Having multiple emergency vehicles show up for a rolled ankle does pretty much sum up my melodramatic attitude towards any and all injuries I sustain.

As tempting as the stretcher looked, Lucy and I headed over to the hospital under our own power. What this looked like was me, looking at my ever-swelling ankle and bursting into tears at random intervals, while Lucy ensured I got an X-Ray: "It doesn't matter that she walked on it. She walked on a broken bone for 3 weeks before". (This happened in the Great Metatarsal Hairline Fracture of October 2014).

The diagnosis? Not broken, 4 weeks off.

I definitely have been milking this injury. Barry and Amber came over with Indian Food and wine on Saturday night (Barry and I both hold the firm belief that ankles are stupid - me from rolling them, him from knowing enough about his predilection for rolling ankles that he actually has self-preservation skills in this area).  My friend Andrea messaged me Monday morning to ask how my weekend went. I replied with a request for her to bring me over some groceries that evening.

Andrea not only brought over the requested groceries (plus a bar of chocolate), she also had her boyfriend come by and drop off food for dinner. Andrea is a wonderful friend, although the two of us are very different, as she is a very practical engineer, while I couldn't even figure out how to do up my snowshoes on my own. The best way to sum this up is our Christmas presents to each other. I got Andrea a book about female friendships, along with a hand-written card detailing how much our friendship meant to me.  Andrea got me a (German) knife, as the knife I currently had was dull, and it was frustrating for her to use said knife when she was helping me to make dinner. When Andrea's boyfriend came over, we decided to give him "the cat test." By this, I mean that he approached my cat, and we were curious to see whether the cat would glare at him (my cat's normal state), or attempt to bite his hand.

As a sidenote, as the Rolling Stones say, I may not have the cat I want, but I appear to have the cat that I need. What this means is that, on the very few occasions I invite guys up to my apartment, I apologize in advance for my cat: I have no idea what he is going to do, but I know that it will likely be awkward. And, in my defense, my cat seems to have a talent for spectacularly curtailing any possible romantic prospects I have.

Anyways. The cat seemed to like Andrea's boyfriend, which I pointed out as a positive. Andrea's boyfriend countered: "Maybe the cat is evil, and game recognizes game." While I couldn't argue with this point, I did reflect that Andrea had previously injured her wrist from punching someone the wrong way in hockey, and seems to have have a life goal of getting the most penalties during hockey without getting ejected from the actual game.

I wish I could say that I am dealing with this injury in a graceful manner and am using the time off for self-reflection and personal growth. However, anyone that has been with me on a Sunday afternoon, stuck in traffic on the Lion's Gate Bridge, knows that this would be completely untrue. My coworkers, seeing me limp around in Birkenstocks and a tensor bandage, have all expressed sympathy. I tell them: "It's okay, it could be worse". Not  adding that, considering most of my self-inflicted injuries the past few years, it has, in fact, been worse because, on occasion, I run like an asshole and make reckless decisions.

When I am out running, and hiking, my world feels big: I draw my running routes over the North Shore Mountains, look at topographical maps, plan to be out for hours, pack jackets and hand warmers and and toques. Injured - everything gets small, draws in upon itself. My apartment, a yoga mat, watching the bruises change colour. It's bad, and it's not bad: to be quiet, so I can be loud in the future. And, with all things, there is a price to pay for loving what you love. Sometimes, for me, it is the slowing down, the limping walk to work, the sore throb at 2am through a swamp of bruises that reminds me that everything has a cost, and sometimes, there are months when you pay.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Safety in Speed

It is almost 8am in late October and the sun is starting to hit the summits across Howe Sound. The forecast is calling for rain, starting late in the evening. On the mountains, where Katie and I are headed, this means snow. It’s our last weekend to get up to the top of something big.

I can text Katie on Monday with “Black Tusk?”, and Saturday morning finds us driving over the Lion’s Gate Bridge, stars still out, the very faintest ribbon of horizon brightening on a sky so clear and deep you want to swim in it. We have known each other for four years, and have the kind of friendship where we don’t talk every day, or even every week.  We don’t go out for drinks much, and the closest we got to shopping together was when she came over to my apartment an hour before her Christmas party, shotgunned a beer, and borrowed my one dress that makes runners look like they have cleavage.

The route we are doing is in Garibaldi Park, near Whistler, BC, a two hour drive from Vancouver along a highway that weaves on the edge of mountains, looking onto the clear grey waters of Howe Sound.   We are going up a mountain called the Black Tusk. Depending on which hiking book you read, it is 25km, or 29km, and about 1750m of elevation gain. The hiking books tell us to plan for being out for 12hours, to bring lots of food and jackets and headlamps.

We are both sick.  I was too weak to walk to the office three days before. When I fill up the car, I also grabbed lozenges  and enough gas station coffee to make my veins feel fizzy, while Katie downed a diet Gatorade in one go. Even so, the hike will take us under five hours, including breaks. For this, we each take an extra layer and drugstore sunglasses. Most of our time spent getting ready in the parking lot involves trying to stuff two bananas into Katie’s tiny backpack.

Time and distance feel different on the trails. Uphill is never truly easy – starting out means working against the weight of a backpack and stiff legs, to find that tiny bit of momentum. We got into our rhythm as the light creeps through the trees, the getting up high enough that the streams start to freeze at the edges. We run what we can, walk what we couldn’t, strip off layer after layer as we switchback through fir trees.

At a wooden bench, Katie lays down and stretches while I blow my nose and unwrap lozenges. We both have the same piriformis issue (when you run, there’s always something): a dull, deep pain in the hip and lower back, sharp bursts down the entire leg when the tight muscle grates on a nerve. It’s something you can run through, if you really want to run. 

We break out of the trees into dead meadows, the remaining grass brown and yellow. The sun is behind frosted glass: all light and no heat. Up ahead was the Tusk. This park, covered under snow most of the year, is an old volcano, and we are climbing up what remains of one of the edges. All the water we pass – streams and ponds - is now frozen. The trail, covered in thick, spiky frost, is a thin line between stunted fir trees, the rocks growing bigger and looser. If we turn around, Garibaldi Lake is unfolding from the mountains. 

It should be noted that we do talk, a bit, but we mostly not-talk. The landscape feels bigger than conversation – it is beautiful, we know it is beautiful, and sometimes the best way to feel this is through aching calves and hard, silent climbs. I push the pace, not because I am the fitter one, but because I am more impatient. We climb past the treeline, past the low bones of bushes, past the last of the moss. We slide backwards through shale, red volcanic dust underneath. Despite the steadily rising sun, we are wearing all the clothes we brought.

To get to the very top involves picking our way across a ridge of loose rock, and then climbing up a narrow chimney. The trick to doing this is to do it quickly, as quickly as possible. There is safety in speed. It is even colder, but we take our gloves off, bare hands on the black stone. All it takes is one look back, one look down – to see the huge spread of lake, the emerging glaciers, the blank meadows – but also the steep ledges, and how, hearing pebbles drop, there is nothing beneath you. In this chimney, even the current footholds may give way, may fall themselves, so it is best to limit pauses to a breath.

The last scramble to the top is one long relief. Under a milky sky, the slowly gathering cloud, we can finally look out over all the mountains, down to an incredible slab of lake. We are standing in the middle of a forest of grey rock and glaciers. The barest glint of the ocean all the way down past Squamish.

We run into two guys at the top with big backpacks and rock climbing helmets (actually, one is using a bike helmet). After talking for about five minutes, it’s clear we know many of the same people. I swap my jujubes for their barbecue peanuts, and we take a few pictures. The conversation starts with our trips up: how long it took, our gear, other trips we have taken, plans for trips we want to take, dwindles down to what jobs we do, how we spend our days inside.

The way back down the chimney, holding my breath the whole time. And then – as the wind picks up, and my sweat starts to dry cold and salty, looking out at the far-off tops of the Tantalus range – we drop down the mountain. Maybe the correct word is running: we are, after all, wearing running shoes, we are going at a fast pace, breathing hard, and there is forward motion.  To say that we ran down doesn’t describe how to negotiate shale: how the ground gives away, each long step sideways, the grit that covers the inside of your shoes. It doesn’t include how your legs skim over roots, launch off rocks, each landing a silent celebration of the strength in your bones. It doesn’t come close to describing the final five miles of switchbacks through the forest. This is where what little talking we did stops, and our pace picks up.

It is one hard kick, looking ahead for the best lines through rocks, how to weave a switchback. Katie starts to move ahead, and I can still hear her breathing, hear my own jagged lungs. On this run, we have no watches; we aren’t chasing times or other runners. Through this late fall forest, we are chasing ghosts.

We are chasing ourselves, three years ago, skinnier and faster and a bit sadder. We are trying to catch up to those girls who ran mornings, ran evenings, ran in their dreams and woke up the next day, craving the faint taste of iron in the back of your mouth once your pace turns the world to stars. We want to stop those girls, who are speeding into labrum tears and broken feet, into months spent in the pool, drowning in chlorine while dreaming of the clear clean scent of fir trees. And as we chase down on that final stretch of the trails, it suddenly feels like no time has passed. It’s just the two of us, one pushing the other, on shot-through legs in the slanting afternoon sun, our lungs scraped open, whooping around the last corners before we finish in a long tight hug.

Katie is the kind of friend who, like I said, I may not go for drinks with every week. But she is the friend who helped me pack up my apartment one rainy January day after my marriage ended, neither of us talking, just the faint crackle of dishes getting wrapped with newspaper. She understands that life, like in running, has some moments that are too big for words.

We spend our weeks inside offices without windows, each day like a set of Russian Dolls climbing into itself, waiting for those days together outside  –glaciers behind our eyes, wind tinged with snow, downhills where our feet itch for wings. We don’t need words, because, out there in the mountains, we know each others’ hearts.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Wet December

This past week I was out in Surrey for work on a tight deadline. There is no way to make that sentence sound good.

5am felt like midnight felt like 7am - drops against my window, a thick dark as I tripped over my cat on the way to turn on my coffee maker. The half-submerged seawall to myself, the hazy lights of distant freighters muted by the rain.

The hour-long drive out to an office building, farmland on one side, looking out on a highway then a big-box store against a horizon that never really seemed to get light. 7:30am, leaving my place, 8am, my headlights still on, sloshing along the 91 at 60km behind a semi truck. The drive home with my windshield wipers drowning out the radio, pajamas, bed.

(Sidenote: I have a friend from Denver, a city that apparently gets over 300 days of sun a year. He told me, "you Vancouver people, you think you're all deep, but really, it's just the rain that makes you depressed and you mistake it for character.")

As for the work itself? Work has felt like mile 23 of a marathon - where the pace is hard, is supposed to be hard, and your legs are already tired. You've come a long way, but you don't think about that, because the finish is still far enough off. That's the point of a marathon: to keep you pushing when it's not easy.

It doesn't feel so much like Christmas as the dying of a year, like it is always dark, or getting dark.The deep inhale before the seasons start to change and the light creeps back in.  And even this week - the light crept back in. Heading along the 99 with a hard grey ocean on one side, there was a break between rainstorms and the sun slanted out, illuminating the underbellies of clouds into a bright yellow. Later that day, I looked over, past the highway, the stores, to see the sky breaking up blue over the skeletons of trees.

The thing is - we needed the weather, the rain, the cold. Down here, we feel like we are drowning. Up on the mountains, hidden by the clouds - the snow is growing. After a restless, too hot summer, watching the rivers shrink every weekend to naked boulders, it feels right to have the snowpacks building. The mountains look wilder, look like themselves again.

It's felt like that kind of year. Maybe I'm just that kind of person. I hobbled through August, did short runs through Indian summer in September. As the rains came, I went longer - chasing Lucy down slick roots through forests choked with mist, finally getting around the seawall again in the mornings. Starting to go fast feels like chasing the ghost of my old self through the trails - and I let her go on, ahead, hoping that one of these days she will stop to get her breath, and I will catch up.

The storms will keep rolling through. Still - there are rare perfect days with a clear sky, low buttery sun lighting up the new snow, the smell of it - cold and perfect.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015


A few weeks ago, Barry and Amber were discussing an evening activity with me. This activity - maybe a concert, maybe drinks - started at 9pm, which is typically past my bedtime. Why 9pm? Because I get up in the mornings to run. Barry was skeptical of this: "Why do you need to get up early to run? You haven't raced in over a year."

Fair point.

A year ago, I was out running on the seawall, chasing down Matt on intervals on a mild grey morning. Then my calf felt tight, and then my other foot had a sharp pain, so bad I stopped. That sharp pain was a hairline fracture in my metatarsal.

It has been a year trying to get back. Saying that sentence is like saying a word over and over again, until it loses meaning.

I am a 31 year old adult with a career, a needy cat and regular appointments to have needles put into areas that I normally don't show others until after dinner, several drinks, and a third date. While my friends are either winning races and setting PBs, or getting engaged and having babies (or both - my friends Allison and Ramsey are pretty amazing parents and just as amazing runners), I am rolling out in the dark before doing a run that I used to consider a warm-up. Maybe I should move on.

Here is why I don't.

Hornby Island
I crashed Lucy's family vacation on Hornby Island as this past August's heat cooled off into long evenings. Her family rents a beach house right on the water. Mornings came in hard and bright: waves and searchlight sun and seagulls. Afternoons were coffee or tea and reading on the balcony, with occasional trips to look at pottery, or spectating Lucy print-making, or wandering into the ocean to cool off. Evenings started at 5 with beer, then dinner, then gin, then Chris playing folk songs on the guitar as the water stilled and the first stars came out.

And mornings were spent running. We had coffee and more coffee and stretched then ran our way through the island. We ran through along the cliffs of Helliwell park, to the smell of dry grass and roasting pine needles. We ran on trails through the forest, along quiet roads. We ran down to the ferry terminal, stopping to examine a used book store. Nothing was hard, really. We didn't go too far or too fast. It was always the perfect temperature. There was always enough shade. There is something about always being in sight of water - the tinge of the air, the light through the trees. We finished our runs by skinny dipping: wading slowly into clear clean water on smooth sand, looking at blue sky, already feeling the heat of the day start to build.

Death hikes
I liked someone this past spring, and we spent some time together. A lot of the time was spent running around the seawall, and some more was spent going up mountains. I can say, to be casual, that I was so relaxed and in the moment and somehow found running Zen that I didn't even wear a watch. The not wearing a watch part is accurate (because I had lost my Garmin) - however, this doesn't mean that I wasn't on Strava.

But it does mean that we just ran - and hiked - because there were new places to discover, because there was usually a beer at the top, because downhill felt so good and the burgers after were even better. And as much as I'm a girl who likes to talk about feelings - five hours going somewhere high and quiet can be just as much of a conversation.

Easy miles
I do the damn needles so I can learn to push a stroller with Allison and Ramsey. So I can run around False Creek with Katie. So I can do two hours somewhere on the North Shore with Lucy. So I can see a hike, read about a mountain, and say yeah, okay, I'm going to go there and do that.

After a year, I miss running the same way I miss an ex-boyfriend who is not quite gone: an opening in my chest, the hope even though the leaving will keep leaving.

This is a really melodramatic way of saying that I can run for the right reasons, along with all the wrong ones. This easy love and give in my body is wrapped up on the days I feel fat, the days where all the deep breathing and positive thinking isn't a match for hard kilometers outside, the days where loneliness is a weight and each step makes me lighter. I run, too, for reasons that are easy to explain: my friendships, a community, rocks and roots and streams and a body that knows the way, health and all those things in life people assume running makes you better at (which is actually not true at all).

(There's a saying "the way you do one thing is the way you do everything." No. If I did everything the way I did running, I would fall in love every single day, get lost on my way to all the meetings, end every project with drinks and probably end up living out of my car.)

It's all in there - the races I did where I pushed hard, so hard, the days on the spin bike, the worrying and the laughing and just waking up, on an average day, in the dark, creaky, and going around the seawall, an hour, nothing amazing, but a punctuation to my life, a space, and all the room to breathe and keep going.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Getting Lost on Howe Sound Crest

somewhere around the Lions

This past Saturday, six of us started out to run the Howe Sound Crest trail from Porteau Cove to Cypress. The group included Katie, one of my longtime trail friends, Cam M, her lab-mate and sub-6hr Kneeknacker veteran, Tara, who was doing Squamush 50miler as one of her first trail races, Diedre, a Kona-qualifying triathlete who was doing Transrockies this year, and Cam, my running partner who I met at Transrockies last year. Two weeks ago, Diedre and I had been en route to Hanes  when I rolled my ankle and had to turn back. Diedre is still new to trail running, so I wanted to show her some of our awesome mountains, and this was to be one herfirst 'big' runs on the North Shore.

The route is 28km and 2,600m elevation gain on trails filled with roots, rocks and views. Well, just kidding on the views.

It had been a weird summer - early spring broke to a hot summer. The last week, our sky turned yellow with the smoke of fires burning across the spine of BC. That morning, the heatwave finally broke to grey skies. Here's the thing - we packed for the hike with the memory of the previous month's heat: two emergency blankets, three jackets, two buffs and a couple long sleeve shirts between six people. Before we set out, I texted my very patient friend with our trip plan and expected time back. I told her - 6pm, then call search and rescue. It was barely 8:30am.

We started the long climb towards Deeks lake through dark, muggy forest. After 45minutes, even my hair was sweating. At Deeks, the lake had disappeared into mist. We climbed, and kept climbing. The mist came in and out. At times, we had great views of the muted mountainside; clear blue lakes, stunted cedars, fields of purple nettles and grass growing next to boulders. Other time, the wind rushed over the mountain's spine, the rain picked up, and we struggled to see to the next trail marker.

Katie and I had done the trail before, almost three years earlier, on a clear late summer day, in a buzzing forest. The thing with Howe Sound - there are a lot of mountains around, and the ocean to one side. If you can keep track of those, it's more or less okay. Today, the ocean, the other mountains, were wrapped in cloud. We saw trail markers, noted lakes, kept going.

After 3 hours and 14km, we were all soaked by the steady rain. We had just finished a tight downhill, with sharp, angry bushes on either side. By this time, we had climbed over 1,800m. We were somewhere close to the Mt. Harvey pass - I know this, because that was one of the last Howe Sound Crest signs we were to see for a while.

I should note that it was raining steadily at this point, with cold winds. Dierdre was getting cold. When we set out, it was cloudy but muggy and hot, so Dierdre didn't bring a jacket. But she was still prepared with a gold emergency blanket. Which she opened up, wrapped around herself, then fastened her backpack over. This was helpful, as even in the increasingly limited visibility, we could hear the crinkling noise from the blanket as she approached.

I think that, if there was one point where the run became much more interesting (I think 'interesting' is a better word to use than 'daunting') is when we encountered a large boulder field. A large, wet boulder field where the markers seemed to peter out. With Cam's route-scouting, we happened along a smaller trail. The trail started to steeply descend. We couldn't see the ocean. We couldn't see any other mountains. Katie and I were pretty sure that we hadn't taken this route the time we had gone - but it was starting to look all the same, all the wet roots, yellow-green moss, pines and mist and rocky trail and the wind was colder so we wanted to keep moving.

The trail had flags, and kept dropping steeply. We kept going, although by now we were pretty certain that it wasn't the right trail. We thought - maybe we had accidentally taken the trail to Brunswick or Mt. Harvey? By this time, we were getting tired. It was four hours in. We gambled - we would follow the trail, and would hitch-hike back to our car from whatever trailhead we ended up at.

No such luck.

After an initial drop, the trail climbed back up, steeply. We went up another boulderfield, and couldn't tell if it was a new one, or if we were re-crossing our steps. Cam M and Katie bounded ahead, looking for the next trail sign. The rest of us lagged, wanting to conserve energy.

Most of the trail had no cell reception. However, at one point, I had a weak signal - not strong enough to check a map, but enough to let Renee know we were lost somewhere around Mt. Harvey (or, as I put it: "Hey! Guess where we are - because I have no clue."). The trail kept climbing, and we had no idea where it was going. Everything looked the same. By this point, it was 16k and 4hours in, and we were debating re-tracing all our steps to turn back, if we could remember them. At this point, I was wondering how long we'd need to wait until North Shore Search and Rescue would find us.

Just before we turned around, Katie caught sight of a solo hiker above us. We asked him - where were we? It turned out, we were just below the Howe Sound Crest trail. He had just come from the Lions, so he pointed us in the right direction. Just before we left him, I asked, again; "Are you sure this is the Howe Sound Crest Trail?, which prompted him to ask us if we would be okay, really.

So we weren't lost anymore. We had found the right trail, and to wind up at the Cypress Mountain parking lot, all we had to do was keep going.

Keeping going was really hard. We were all soaked. It was cold and windy. The trail covered wet rocks, slick roots, had chains and knife-edge rocks disappearing into clouds. As we didn't know how much off-course we had gone, we had no idea how much distance we had left. We kept moving to stay as warm as possible. Every turn, we climbed further towards summits hidden in the mist, hoping that we were still on the trail, hoping that we were going in the right direction. We started to get quiet.

the figure in gold is Dierdre wearing an emergency blanket

Actually, that isn't entirely true. For five of us, we were worried (Tara: "Will we be spending the night up here?" Katie: "I think we are going through something.", Me: "I wonder if I can keep going?' Dierdre; " WILL I EVER BE HAPPY AGAIN??!!"). Cam, however, after giving away all of his extra clothes and most of his food, was having a great time. I know this because, at regular intervals, he would tell us. These intervals, often coinciding with an especially treacherous downhill, or a sketchy section of the trail that needed rope.

Right before what ended up being the Lions we once again lost the trail going through a boulder field covered in cloud. Again, Katie heard voices, and we met up with another group of hikers. These ones showed us, on their map, where we had gone on a longer version of the trail with extra climbing. Being at the Lion's was good, but still meant we had a long, long way to Cypress.

No energy to fix my crazy hair

By this time, my feet felt bruised and my lungs scraped out. I couldn't think about going another five minutes, let alone three or four hours. I couldn't picture what it would look like to finish, get into my car, and drive home. I didn't really care much if I kept going, or if I stopped. I didn't care much about anything.

In the cold, eating food - taking off a backpack, unzipping compartments, opening packages - seemed like too much work. The thing is - I noticed the trail slipping away - Cam would catch me missing the orange spraypainted rocks, edging towards the wrong side of ridges.

Out of the mist, we saw a group of hikers wearing fresh, warm clothes and eating a snack. They saw us: "Where did you guys come from? It looks like you've been through the war." They generously shared all their food with us. And when I say all their food, I mean I stared at the piece of apple one of the hikers was eating like it was my soulmate, so much that he offered it to me. And I took that half-eaten piece of apple, and it was delicious. Katie had spied a bag of dried cereal, and was eatig handfuls. The hikers had even brought a clean, white flannel blanket. They offered it to us to use to mop off some of the mud and water from our faces.

The last couple hours brought us back into the forest, picking our way down roots. We spread out, re-grouped, spread out for the final drop from St. Mark's to the parking lot. Katie and Cam M had gone down ahead, with the car keys. Diedre and Cam were behind. It was me and Tara, edging our way down mud and along logs in a silent forest. After hours and hours of mostly silence, Tara turned to me: "So, what do you do for work? Are you training for any races?"

So, after nine hours, 31km and 2,860m of elevation gain, that's how Tara and I finished: running down the last couple kms of graded, clear trail until we saw the parking lot.

(Actually, in a manner representative of how the day went, I tried to "shortcut" to the parking lot by running directly down a ski run filled with brambles, shrubs, and loose rock.)

We changed into whatever warm, dry clothes were on hand, grabbed an after-run beer and chocolate pop tart, and piled into the car with the heat on full blast. All of us expressed that, at some point, we had had doubts about being able to finish. all of us, apparently, except Cam: "I can't wait to come back and do the trail again! Maybe in a week. Actually, maybe I need a few weeks." (additional feeback from Cam, after being out for 9hours: "I had to work overtime this week so I didn't get my Tuesday and Thursday runs in. So it was good to get in some extra time today!")

I finally got back to my apartment, ran a nuclear-hot shower, and cried until I wasn't quite sure what I was even crying about.

 And here's the thing about that run: even when we were on the right path,, we didn't know it was the right one.  Even when we knew where the end was, it didn't make it any less hard to get there. For the six of us, no matter how much anyone was struggling in their head: nobody cried, nobody lost it, nobody just stopped, nobody got injured.

The thing is - the last little bit, in my life, I'd been feeling a bit lost. Some days, it felt like it was already getting late, and I was going in the wrong direction. I think (or I hope, at least), that there can be the same achievement in the keeping going when things are uncertain, when the finish line or the path isn't clear. That same faith in persistence, the same trust in myself, the acceptance that it might be hard, really hard and things might not be easy or finished for a long while.

This doesn't sound very inspirational, really. It's easier to be inspired on days with bluebird skies, where my legs and my heart are both fresh and there's always something beautiful far, so far ahead. There is a balance to everything, and there is a darker beauty in starting on tired legs and running through uncertain forest right into the clouds.

I woke up the next day to sore legs, scraped ankles, and an itch to get back into the mountains again.